Monday, May 24, 2004
Contra K-Punk, I love the Wiley album, undeniably a more consistently engaging album on a musical level than Dizzee's if weaker lyrically. What Wiley misses I suspect is Dizzee's gift of metaphor; if you break it down almost all his rhymes are statements, pronouncements, accusations, denials, requests, interjections, repetitions... I'd be surprised if he ever busted out a line like "I'm hot like a kettle!" ("Pies" is the exception that proves the rule, with Wiley being inordinately and amusingly proud of this all-purpose analogy where Dizzee would just use it and move on).

But this limitation is in the right light a strength as well; much more than with Dizzee, I get the sense that Wiley is speaking to and not at me, and his emphasis on conversation and communication rather than storytelling or wordplay makes him an incredibly likeable, sympathetic and genuine seeming character, for all his unreconstructed opinions about personal agency and the marketplace. My favourite example (perhaps only because it's so familiar by now) is his admonition in the now-very-old "Happens For a Reason", "come on blud, that's not true!", but there are similiar moments peppered throughout the album. I think it's in "Pies" that he graciously shrugs off "to the man who don't like me, to the women who don't like me, that's cool, I'm bigger now!" He's such a gentleman!

And yeah, musically I think this is just more consistently satisfying than Boy in da Corner: there's nothing as absolutely astonishing "I Luv U" of course, but nearly every track is simply delightful, bursting with surprises and effervescent energy - see the glorious quasi-ambient opening of "Special Girl" swooping into those lovely SWV exclamations of "that's what I need!", or the truculent computer bleeps of "Pies", or the gorgeously tumbling avalanche of strings in "Pick Yourself Up", or the snapcracklepops of the brilliant "Next Level" (esp. for Kano's verse; hearing Kano on this simply serves to remind you how urgent and key a Kano album is) or the eerie, bittersweet synth tones of "Treddin' on Thin Ice" (with its great cod-Jamaican chorus) and "I Was Lost", both shamelessly trying to outpace Dizzee's own patented emotional arrangements.

I was struck by Mark K-Punk's complaint that little on the album lives up to what he perceived to be the emotional force of the instrumental "Ground Zero" (which appears with vocals on the album as "Doorway"; hey presto I like it more!), perhaps because as an instrumental "Ground Zero" is not really a favourite of mine; maybe it's just too morose and moody and, well, subtle for me to really connect with it. I can't deny that, for me, the largest part of the appeal of grime/garage is its visceral effect. Grooves have to be joyous or punishing or neurotic or insane; choruses have to big whether they're sugary or spiteful; sonics have to be overblown whether they're pretty or abrasive. Stuff in the middle just doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid: dubstep started to lose its appeal for me at the moment where it lost 2-step's original friskiness and became to noir-ish and spaced-out, and as an instrumental "Ground Zero" may as well be another dubstep track for all its emphasis on chilling isolationism or whatever. (I agree though that, when it comes to this sort of track Dizzee's hostile paranoia would probably make more of it than Wiley can).

Was it the Guardian that claimed "Ground Zero" was some sort of scene anthem?!?! I can't help but suspect that the line of thinking which supports such a conclusion is one which assumes that sophistication - musical, emotional etc. - can only improve things. It's undeniable that a tune like "Ground Zero" seems to evoke something more subtle and accented than a tune like "Special Girl" which plugs straight into your pleasure centers. But, I dunno, at the end of the day I like feeling plugged in a hell of a lot more. It's not even necessarily a case of "give me something I can dance to", though I admit that that is still frequently a factor when it comes to me liking particular grime tracks. What I think distinguishes grime (and 2-step before it, and 'ardkore before that) is that it's music that is unafraid to be bold, to get across its point directly and enthusiastically at the same time as being creative, original, groundbreaking even. I want my grime to be painted with broad and expressive brush strokes on large canvases with plenty of contrast and drama.

It's not that the contrasting existential-crisis noir approach of "Ground Zero", dubstep etc. is across-the-board undesirable to me - I like a lot of techstep in this mould, for example - but I guess that, going right back to '99 when I first got into it, garage has always been for me about a surfeit of intensity, a climactic release that can take on any emotional characteristic it likes as long as it doesn't hold back. You could say that Wiley as an MC holds back, but his very tone of reasonableness and equipoise tends to actually highlight the urgency and vitality of most of the arrangements. By contrast, a tune like "Ground Zero" is all about holding back - the sense that there's something missing - and that very fact means that much of its value is wasted on me. I like Mark's description for it though: "depopulated carnage". It makes me want to like the track more than I do.

Friday, May 14, 2004
For the month long interval between the headphone portal in my discman finally completely dying and receiving an iPod for my birthday, all of my listening-while-commuting (which makes up the largest part of my music listening time) has been mediated by my discman's volume-fixed Line Out portal. As someone who prefers to listen to music at tinnitus-inducing levels, I found this immensely irritating, and mostly I just switched back to reading instead; the type of music I go for just doesn't translate well when it's struggling with the train engine for audibility.

One major exception was Ricardo Villalobos's Alcachofa. Like many I suspect, I found much of Alcachofa difficult to get into at first - too dry and desiccated, clicky and whispery but with nothing that you could call an assault or a caress to accomadate my preferences for sadism and/or sensuality in dance music. His queasy textures and intricate but limp rhythms seem purpose-built to induce sensations of ambivalence and uncertainty - am I enjoying this? am I not enjoying this? Even the with the lusher moments like "Theogenese" we're hardly talking verdant green jungles or moist warm cavities; it's closer to an oddly affecting mechanical absence, like watching sprinklers go off at timed intervals over an empty and freshly cut football field.

Villalobos's "trick" is essentially a reversal of the move made by many microhouse producers who have thickened up the physical core of their sound; Villalobos, by contrast, has de-emphasised any core even further, diminishing any residual trace of the house tug, and pushing into front and center all the sound dust and sonic debris that are traditionally employed by microhouse producers to elegantly frame the groove. In doing so he asks us to consider whether such debris can stand on its own, can be a legitimate source of physical compulsion.

One would think that such music would be particularly ill-suited to low volumes, all its buzzing and scraping fading into a general melee of background noise. And yet somehow, the opposite occurs: at a level of barely-there audibility, Alcachofa's assortment of buzzes and whirs take on the essentiality of every day life: sounds without purpose in and of themselves except that they signify a quietly furious organic busyness. Ants scurrying across your floorboards with sugar grains in tow; a distant train crunching a soft drink can strewn across the track. It's almost as if Alcachofa's most loveable quality is ignorability. Which seems counter-intuitive to me on a personal if not theoretical level, yet it's the only rationale I can offer for why I'm constantly listening to it right now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Thing is, despite my defence of Chingy, I'm unlikely to buy his album unless I find it super-cheap. That's partly because I have received all three singles for review purposes, but also because, well, Chingy really feels like a singles artist. And I don't mean that he only makes a handful of good tracks, but rather that his tracks probably only work as singles, individual songs which have been given a little prominence and contextual distinction by being released individually.

My friends Simon and Guy (who long-term readers may remember as the custodians of this blog while I languished in hospital) have (had?) this conviction that a song being made a single was cause to re-examine its worth and get excited about it, even if you were already familiar with said song by listening to the album from which it came. At the time I thought this approach was too prepared to be guided by marketing and release schedules - surely, even on pop albums, a song's qualities as a hypothetical single are usually evident prior to their actual individual release? But I'm coming around to this way of thinking.

If I'd actually bought Jackpot when it was released, there's a good chance that I would have enjoyed "Right Thurr" and found the rest a bit of a blur. Something like "One Call Away", which is gentle and above all kinda humble, might have seemed especially neglible, a paltry and half-hearted attempt to diversify into the thug-luv market from a rapper whose range seemed markedly limited. As a single, graced with radio play and an attendant video, "One Call Away" takes on a certain prominence. I can't help but hear it as more than just the inevitable third-single quasi-ballad release; it appears, rather, as a moment of narrativistic significance in my understanding of Chingy through time (ha ha does that sound pretentious).

It's one of the curious aspects of pop consumption that the focus on singles (cf. non-pop's privileging of albums) allows for a much more piecemeal construction of a performer's identity. Whereas with the non-pop artists the release of an album roughly every two years allows for a monolithic and unified presentation of identity with a relatively long use-by date, with pop the staggered consumption of, say, four songs over the course of 12 months invites a certain level of indeterminabiltiy. You might feel that you "know" a performer from their first song alone, only to be thrown off course, and forced to revise your assessment, when subsequent releases offer a totally different picture (of course on the other side of pop are those genres where the importance of the album is radically reduced - hip hop for one, but especially dancehall and many "grass roots" dance scenes, wherein artists are only ever as good as their last few tracks on the radio or dancefloor).

Grinches will say, "Oh yes, but there isn't any real space for diversity or variation within the pop world." It's true that certain juxtapositions - dance tracks and ballads, say - are in some areas practically mandatory for market purposes, but nonetheless I feel that such dictates can never finally determine the specific nature of the songs released. The singles released from Christina's Stripped may follow an unsurprising pattern of R&B-anthemic ballad-rock track-R&B-weepie ballad, but only someone with cloth ears would argue that the specific results are largely indistinguishable (in fact I'd go so far as to say that Christina's frenzied costume-changing is perhaps her most winning attribute). Whether it's Christina or Britney or whoeever, experiencing each contrasting release one by one can be more satisfying than consuming the album as a whole because, without the glut of worthy mid-tempo tracks holding things together, each individual facet of the performer's ouvre demands to be considered as identical to the persona of the performer him or herself, no matter how extreme or unusual it might be.

And even when each release is largely predictable, there are usually scintillas of individual nuance that make the puzzle assembly satisfying. I can't think of a more cliched run of singles than the first three off Blue's debut album, but that didn't prevent me from feeling (however wrongheadedly!) that they charted a charming narrative arc regarding the tussle between desire and masculinity. Crucially though, had I heard these first in the context of an album, they would never have impressed me like they did, and most likely would have struck me as the officiated and policed acts of niche marketing that sceptics will insist they are. In fact if anything the whole experience was retrospective - I didn't think that much of "All Rise" or "Too Close" until "If You Come Back" reached back in time retrospectively justified them for me.

"One Call Away" has a similar effect on me - having only heard "Right Thurr" and "Holidae In", my understanding of Chingy had ossified into an expectation that all of his songs would call to mind images of thirteen year olds in strip clubs; "One Call Away" doesn't break that perception, but it expands it into something altogether more pleasant, and while I wouldn't want to go out with the guy personally, I'm glad he's found somebody to love.

Thursday, May 06, 2004
Socially, Structurally, Politically...

Cheers to Kode-9 for the heads-up on this!

Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Jess in typically fine form. Great point: "I guess masculinity just recognizes masculinity".

On a slightly related note, I had been hoping that now that Chingy has plainly and unashamedly produced three great singles people would stop saying he's a one hit wonder, but it's hard to find anyone acknowleging the brilliance of "One Call Away". For shame: this could be the best thug-luv pop track since "I'm Real (Remix)"!* That beautiful fluttery guitar'n'bounce beat groove! If the Trackboyz are slavish Neptunes understudies this is definitely their "Frontin", but where "Frontin" sometimes seems a bit too smug about its angular prettiness there's something so breezy and unselfconscious about "One All Away".

* Don't hold me to that.

My appreciation of it got me thinking about the pleasures and pitfalls of thug-luv as a mini-genre. Theoretically I'm all for this stuff, and it seems to be a sure fire winner chartwise, but the results are often less than I might hope for. Problem is, I suspect, most rappers still don't know how to be comfortable about being a pussy. Ja Rule had what seemed like a magical run where his thuggishness and his sentimentality were more perfectly counterbalanced on each release (from "Between Me & You" through to "I'm Real (Remix)"), plateaued for a while, and then lost it, most tellingly on "Mesmerise", the gentle growl transformed into a hideous whine and Ashanti's sweetness "thugged up" in the most disturbing manner - it's hard to hear this tune as anything other than a paean to dirty and unsatisfactory sex (I still check for "The Pledge (Remix)" and "Reign" though!). And he seems to have abandoned the genre entirely now (a shame; I I secretly believe Chink Santana is responsible for most of Murder Inc's recent bad fortune). Other pretenders just haven't convinced me: despite a nice plushy arrangement Fabolous is too wooden and stilted on "Into You", while the sentimentality of "Can't Let You Go" is entirely carried by the chorus. And while "Dilemma" is undeniably sweet, Nelly sounds like he's holding himself back the entire time, as if his personality (let loose to such unbeatable effect on "Hot In Herre") is toxic to the song's saccharine if not kept in check. Jay-Z can manage it, but Jay-Z (although indisputably a pop icon) could never be a pop pin-up boy; and can't speak to youth-as-youth like the aforementioned three rappers can. His thug-luv ballads are too grown up, too sophisticated; "Girls Girls Girls" and "Song Cry", for example, are both loaded with intimations of romantic history, with little of the freshness or novelty of love and love troubles which pop necessarily emphasises and promotes.

Chingy's advantage lies in his age and size and demeanour of course, but also, perhaps unsurprisingly, in that which has otherwise been his shortfalling: the plausible dismissability of his high-pitched, nasal voice. I remember being disappointed when I finally heard "Right Thurr" because the deep growl of "thurrrr!" (imagine Bonecrusher or Lil' Jon) that I had imagined couldn't be further from the truth. On "One Call Away" though his voice is eminently suited: the inevitable vision of feckless youth that it evokes brings with it all sorts of associations of high school crushes and puppy love, locker room flirtations and class room distractions (being gay and having attended a single-sex school, all such associations are solely derived from popular culture, but you know what I mean). And Chingy sounds like such a gentleman here! Or, rather (and much better) a wannabe gentleman, putting on airs of suave assurance that are delightfully awkward in one who seems such a secret geek (he's like Seth Green in Can't Hardly Wait, isn't he?). I can identify, somehow, with his quest to present himself as being up to the task at hand, his fruitless desire to appear in control. It's a shame that this is being released for a particularly cold autumn over here; if it were October this would be a total spring anthem for me, perfect for cruising around with the top down in the car I don't have and can't drive.

Monday, May 03, 2004
Sorry for the lack of updates. I'm feeling particularly demotivated at the moment, at least for blogging purposes. Hopefully the rut will end soon though!


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