When news broke of Eminem and Royce Da 5’9” teaming up again for the first time in a decade, old rap nerds (like myself) were ecstatic. Here were two reigning masters of electric wordplay and demented imagery ready to recapture the playful battle raps they honed in the ’90s. First single “Fastlane” certainly didn’t disappoint. The pair slaps policemen, fantasizes about Nicki Minaj, digs up Jack Kevorkian’s bones and explores levels of pyrotechnic assonance that would make Earl Sweatshirt’s eyes water (“Graduated from master debater-slash-massive masturbator/to Michael Jackson’s activator, meaning I’m on fire”—wtf!). If you’re into syllable torture and toying with taboos, this is your jam of the year.
So you can imagine my disappointment in hearing second single “Lighters.” With its soaring Bruno Mars chorus, it’s less a rap song and more redolent of this new wave of histrionic pop where triumphant, melodramatic choruses are occasionally broken up by rapping: Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind,” B.o.B’s “Airplanes,” Lupe Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said,” Diddy’s “Coming Home” and Eminem’s own “Love The Way You Lie.” Usually Skylar Grey is involved. Naturally, the sappy “Lighters” debuted at 17 on Billboard this week, handily clearing “Fastlane”’s peak. Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston calls this stuff “Glee rap,” which is fairly accurate—turning modern rap music into this mushy wash of Hallmark-special emotion, treacly sentiment and soap opera woosh. It’s safe to say that this stuff is not my thing. But when I look at it more subjectively, it’s hard to make a solid argument that chart-rap is actually bad for the art form itself. In fact, I actually think I’m gonna have to come to terms with the stuff.
For starters, it’s impossible to complain about something that’s finally allowing some of hip-hop’s most talented people to write the biggest checks of their careers. After a solid 20 years of grinding, Jay-Z had his first Number One single with the syrupy “Empire.” The perennially slept-on Royce Da 5’9” had his first Number One album of his life. Even Dr. Dre had his second biggest hit as a solo artist with the rapper-to-rapper valentine “I Need A Doctor.” These guys already made Jaws, why should we be mad when they make E.T?
Tireless arena-funk heartbreakers Red Hot Chili Peppers have completed work on their 10th album according to drummer Chad Smith—“It’s finished, my friend, done,” he ecstatically tells MySpace. “In the can, as they say.” The album, titled I’m With You, which will be released on August 20, marks their 20th year and sixth album alongside iconic producer Rick Rubin, who recorded the album in Los Angeles’s East West Studios, the same room the band recorded their multiplatinum Californication and By The Way.
Smith describes the new album matter-of-factly—“It sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he says, “in 2011.” But their sound will have undoubtedly evolved since 2006’s Stadium Arcadium thanks to the addition of new guitarist Josh Kinghoffer, who replaces longtime stringsman John Frusciante after his departure in 2009. “We give him wedgies every other day. He carries my luggage on the road,” laughs Smith about breaking in the new guy. “Nah, it’s very normal. We knew him, he knew us, he knew our music. It didn’t take long at all.” The band has been friends with Klinghoffer for a decade; and the L.A. studio rat, who’s done work for Gnarls Barkley and PJ Harvey, even filled in for Frusciante during the latter legs of the Stadium Arcadium tour. I’m With You marks his first writing session with the band. “It’s like another new beginning for us after 27 years,” beams Smith. “He’s bringing all of his Joshness! He’s bringing him. He’s just a really creative artist. He plays guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, he sings—and he does all of it on the record.”
Adding to this mélange of sounds is bassist Flea’s newfound piano chops. During the band’s two-year break, the spasmodic slapper could be spotted taking music classes at the University of Southern California, boning up on his Bach. Laughs Smith, “You’re like a student at USC and Flea’s in your class with like blue hair, sitting in the back? I wonder if he had a backpack.” For the I’m With You writing sessions, Flea started composing melodic ideas on piano more than ever, though Smith adds, “Not that we’re all of a sudden going to sound like Elton John.”
Don’t Want To Go Home” continued its climb up the Billboard chart, hitting a new peak at Number 17. But exactly how much credit is DeRulo allowed to take? The success of “Home” is actually a recipe cooked from four different decades of proven pop success: The chorus is borrowed from Harry Belafonte’s timeless 1956 standard “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)“; the beat is jacked from Robin S.’s 1992 hit “Show Me Love“; the verse uses lines from Lil Jon’ 2003 crunk anthem “Get Low” and the way he hits those “aaay-ooohs” owes quite a bit to Taio Cruz’s 2010 hit “Dynamite.” Depending on where you stand, this could either be 2011’s most beautifully post-modern mash-up or the laziest song ever written.
This week Jason DeRulo’s “
Personally, I love a good pile-up of samples—my favorite album is by Public Enemy after all. And this hit-mashing style is certainly indicative of how this generation thinks, as I’ve detailed in a piece about Girl Talk. But I also think “Don’t Want To Go Home” is the one of the more egregious examples of an especially uninspired time for reappropriation. It seems that pop producers are increasingly going for the easiest reference or lowest common denominator melodies in their source material—essentially guaranteeing every single listener relates to the hook. Producers are slowly becoming glorified wedding DJs… and it’s been paying off. The Black Eyed Peas borrowed the climax of Dirty Dancing for “The Time (Dirty Bit)” (it hit Number Four) and Flo Rida copped ’90s novelty goof “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” for “Sugar” (it hit Number Five). And artists can take an easier way out: picking songs that have already proven to have new life beyond their original context—like Eminem rapping over “What Is Love?” after it became synonymous with a Saturday Night Live sketch (it hit 23) or T.I. using “The Numa Numa Song” after that dude lip-synching it became a wacky YouTube meme (that one hit Number One). I guess the worst example would be Derulo himself sampling Imogen Heap after her song was part of a a Saturday Night Live sketch AND a popular internet meme. I’m kind of shocked that no one found success doing a rap over Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”…. though I’m not exactly shocked to find out that people have tried.
It’s been 10 long years since the first modern “mash-up” sensation, the viral Strokes/Xtina clusterfuck “A Stroke Of Genie-us.” Unlike other casualties of the 2001 hype machine (two-step, glitch-pop, the trendy bluegrass revival, Afroman) the mash-up genre is still strong as ever, still treating copyright laws like your town hall treats laws about parking your horse. Last week it peaked with Girl Talk’s third show-stopping, stage-storming performance at Bonnaroo. Why has the genre that once launched a thousand trend-pieces endured?
Well, for starters it should go without saying that cramming together other people’s property is awesome, and as old as pop music itself: whether it’s the comical “Flying Saucer” “break-in” record from 1956 where aliens speak in snippets of Little Richard records; or the giddy pranks of Negativland that got them into legal hot water with U2; or practically any rap record that came out between 1987 and 1991. Stealing is generally fun, and it’s is obviously a good enough excuse for its continued popularity as any.
But the current breed of mash-up—from the festival sets of Girl Talk, to the cheeky remixes of the Hood Internet, to the rockcentric sample flurries of Super Mash Brothers—has one thing that those older artists never had: the internet. And its influence cuts deeper than just the obvious fact that slamming together two songs in GarageBand is way easier than hunching over an Ampex tape reel with a razor blade. This music lives and breathes on the accelerated heartbeat of the internet. It pulses with the ADD-addled spirit you use to read Twitter. Girl Talk doesn’t have four minutes for a song, he only has a couple seconds to bother with its best parts. In doing so, he manages to make art from those restless afternoons where you’re just listening to the first 30 seconds of everything in your iTunes
After a certain YouTube infomercial dropped this week, I’m going to type 10 words I thought I’d never type…
I’m thinking of going to the Gathering Of The Juggalos.
Seriously. Not for some “urbane Brooklyn hipster goes to Illinois” social anthropology experiment. Not for some Hunter Thompson-style gonzo antics where I buy a bunch of ecstasy on the “Drug Bridge” and fall asleep in Lake Hepatitis. Not to make the one thousandth hacky internet joke about the Insane Clown Posse. But genuinely, sincerely, as a fan. Because the lineup is awesome this year.
Sneer all you want about anything curated by the two members of ICP. To any rap geek, the list of names is enough to make your mouth water—Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Juvenile, Mystikal, Xzibit, DJ Quik, E-40, Paris, MC Hammer, Tech N9ne. If you spent your summer rap allowance on Bonnaroo tickets, you’d maybe get a third of the legends (Em, Wayne, Big Boi), a lot of what’s hot in 2011 (Wiz Khalifa, Donald Glover, J Cole) and a lot of stuff that major record labels would like you think are hot in 2011 (Chiddy Bang, The Knux). As someone pointed out to me after I noticed the disparity: Bonnaroo gets Bootsy Collins & The Funk University, the Gathering gets George Clinton himself alongside The P-Funk All-Stars. What gives?
For starters, festivals like Bonnaroo are trapped in a symbiotic relationship with the summer tour schedules of every band—working with existing schedules, steering the paths of underbooked ones. All of which is why the Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo lineups always end up so similar. Unless you’re a monster headliner like Arcade Fire, a band’s decision to play the summer festival circuit is tethered to whether they have the ability (or desire) to tour in the summer. The Insane Clown Posse do not care about your schedule. They routinely fly bands out—on their own dime. As Violent J told the Village Voicelast year, “I don’t think we’ve ever in our lives made money off the Gathering.” They were, in fact, “geeked” that last year’s fest only lost 15 grand, while Bonnaroo has been known to rake in $17 million per clip. Clearly, the Roo are better at making a festival profitable—but good business doesn’t always translate into daring, exciting, unexpected or human.
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