Wednesday, June 16, 2004
A slight detour...

Irony of ironies: thanks to (um) Fly or Die, the Australian rock media have finally caught onto the idea that the Neptunes are ubiquitous. Article after article appears profiling the duo’s stranglehold over the pop radio landscape. “Thankfully”, the subtext of each article goes, “they redeem themselves with their band outfit N.E.R.D., who make music that is promisingly close to rock!” Such subtexts are as inevitable as Australian articles on Outkast praising Andre 3000’s rejection of rap – he’s now bitten the Jay-Z “hip hop is corny” meme, and hey, aren’t Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, like, so amazing?? – and painting Big Boi as a selfish and desperate (not to mention talentless and worryingly playa-like) hanger-on who rides Andre’s coattails to success.

Funny thing is, far from being everywhere, it seems like The Neptunes are suddenly nowhere. I can’t think of a single hit they’ve had this year, unless you count “Milkshake”. Was “She Wants To Move” so colossal a mistake that it’s become their kiss of death? By this time last year they already had maybe ten hits for the year under the belt, a year before that maybe twenty! What’s going on?

Meanwhile Timbaland is getting around like nobody’s business. Which is a healthy sign, I think: right now any time spent away from Missy can only have a positive effect. With each new/newish Timbaland track I hear, my suspicions only go stronger: the man needs to dump this whole pseudo old-skool minimalism schtick. Yeah, it worked a charm on Under Construction, but by This Is Not A Test what had started off perfectly poised along that imaginative/goofy tripwire had fallen headlong into mulchy seriousness. The shift in Missy’s outfits from puffy pink jackets to black leather said it all really: the time for fun was over, and old-skool-the-party-trick was replaced by old-skool-the-really-wearying-by-now-lecture. I can even hear how a track like “I’m Reall Hot” has a good beat, but its oppressive plea (“TAKE ME SERIOUSLY”) just bores me.

Away from Missy, Timbaland’s moody minimalism tends to have mixed results: Jentina’s “Bad Ass Stripper” is certainly pretty strong in the slippery, sliding eastern beats department, but it’s hard not to compare its grimly lurching groove with the more extroverted pile driving of something like Bubba’s “Get Me Right” from ’01, which pulled off the same trick with considerably more enthusiasm and flair. Indeed a lot of current Timbo tracks remind me of Bubba’s first album: Lloyd Banks “I’m So Fly” and Shawnna’s “Shake That Shit” have the same mournful melodicism of that album’s more subdued Timbaland tracks (what's the melancholy guitar-driven one whose name I can't remember now?) - the former matches Lloyd’s slightly bluesy vocals with spectral synth clouds, smacking drums and some marvellously bouncy piano to create a groove that reeks of sepia – not so much old-skool as antique.

“Shake That Shit” rides a dirty, throbbing acoustic guitar line for some high noon in the Wild West tension – add some dry clicky beats and melodramatic strings straight outta Da Real World and it’s a compelling argument for the value of judicious self-cannibalisaton. Also check the persistent rustle in the background, like a horde of maracas hovering malevolently. I also like how its repetitious throb intentionally echoes “Stand Up” (being a duet with Ludacris, I guess the track is something of a sequel) while objectively sounding nothing like it. Neither of these tracks are classics, but they please me insofar as they suggest that Timbaland is (at least some of the time) back on the right track.

What they demonstrate more than adequately is that Timbaland’s power now largely (perhaps solely) resides in the allusive quality of his arrangements. Let’s face it, the rhythmic advances started to dry up at the end of ’01, and there’s not much that Timbaland can now do in that area that other producers in hip hop or dancehall (is Dreamweaver riddim gonna start invading hip hop clubs any time soon?) can’t. What he can do, and to some extent has been doing, is to hone in on the other components of his sonic equation – the instrumental, sampladelic and melodic components.

Here we must turn to Bubba’s second album, which late last year stood out like a sore thumb with its gloriously brazen use of country motifs (“Comin’ Round”), its heavy instrumentation (“Deliverance”), its formal loveliness and epic scope (“Nowhere”) and absolutely no old-skool biznizz to be seen. Jess suggested that many of these grooves could be by anyone but if you allow for the possibility of a Timbaland phenotype - existing in marked contrast, perhaps even opposition to his more celebrated work - then it’s easier to see this stuff as being part of a narrative that stretches all the way back to “One In A Million” with its birdsong and heavenly reversed guitar loop outro.

You could argue that Kiley Dean’s “Keep It Moving” is something of a “One In A Million” update (which makes its non-release even more outrageous) but it actually reminds me of the Ginuwine and Aaliyah duet “Final Warning” in its relaxed and elongated largesse. All the sound in this song is swirly and bleeding – a compressed and reversed blend of eastern motifs that cushion Kiley’s restrained performance in a palatial softness of such presence that the beats, though as nuanced and sophisticated as ever, are forced to take something of a back seat. And it’s nice to once more see beats that aren’t restricted to smashing clubs, are instead gentle or evocative. When the groove finally does reassert itself, for an eerie extended middle-eight that is the highpoint of the song, the rhythm veers close to the sort of profuse clapping used to such little effect on “Pass That Dutch” or “The Jump Off” – here, the soft wetness of the beats instead brings to mind a tango scene from a musical. It’s this perversity – subverting the beats for a purpose not originally envisioned – which lifts this use of the device above its previous incarnations.

It’s not that this eccentric approach is automatically superior to a mercantile facility for club bangers. It’s just that Timbaland has difficulty with the latter – they’re usually indifferent unless they’re also eccentric. Bubba’s “Twerk a Little” may be one of the most physically compulsive grooves I can think of, but a good deal of its compulsion arises from the body’s shock at what the beat is asking it to do. Indeed, at the height of his powers, Timbaland was crafting grooves whose brilliance had no apparent relation to eachother. How to explain the eerie, agoraphobic backwards funk of “Come & Get Me”, the coked up eastern stomp of “Big Pimpin”, the dehydrated rigor mortis spasms of “Is That Yo Bitch”, the hoover explosions of “Snoopy Track” and the high-noon handclap noir of “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot)” all rubbing shoulders on the same Jay-Z album?

The Timbaland phenotype finds its latest and most obviously exciting manifestation in Petey Pablo’s “Get On Dis Motorcycle”, a mildly astonishing mixture of bounce beats, tensely chiming sitar (reminiscent of the great Famine riddim), swooping strings and, most crucially, a starry-eyed loop of a group of kids’ tribal chant that oddly reminds me of Disco Inferno’s “Starbound: All Burnt Out & Nowhere To Go”, simultaneously anthemic and portentous. The result is quite magical, audaciously reaching for a sparkling majesty that it’s difficult to find a precedent for. This is what Timbaland’s real gift is: not any particular approach to a groove but rather his ability to confound his own methodology, to throw away his own rulebook and just confound you with something from out of total leftfield.

It’s a narrative that is undoubtedly more “pop” than it is “hip hop”, more about imaginative and irresistible arrangements than really good beats. One suspects that the critical over-emphasis on the genotype, and corresponding embrace of This Is Not A Test and similar production work, is born of a desire for Timbaland to be more of a hip hop producer and less of a pop producer, peddling a consistent and thus easily assimilatable aesthetic whose purpose is to establish some sort of accumulative greatness through sheer persistant reliability – a DJ Premier style crafter of “quality” beats like quality rinds of pork (a related discussion that might be worth having: “How many Madlib beats do you really need?”).

But for all that his stuttering beats almost single-handedly transformed R&B and hip hop at some point in the late nineties, Timbaland’s trump card has always been his willingness to efface and deface his own signature, happily dropping a forumale once he’s squeezed enough mileage out of it. I used to lament this habit of pre-emptive abandonment (think of all the potentially amazing tracks being denied an existence!), but as time goes on and his stylistic turnover slows, the approach seems eminently sensible. While the Neptunes can (or could?) successfully churn out endless reiterations of a few basic themes, Timbaland’s attempts to rework his own ideas usually result in diminishing returns – witness the decline of his old-skool aesthetic. Meanwhile, as time goes on, it is indeed those aborted narratives, inspired experiments and out-of-character one-offs that give Timbaland’s back-catalogue its lustrous shine. If that means that we won’t get any more tracks that sound like “Get On Dis Motorcycle”, so be it; as long as we get more tracks that feel like it.

Is something rotten in the state of Dancehall?

No, obviously not, but there has been a bit of rumbling on the usual ILX threads (from people who know more than me) about a possible tapering off from the outrageous highs of last year. I offered the following possible explanation there a while back:

From a riddimatic perspective, I think the biggest problem at the moment is that two many of the tunes are slotting into that vague patch between Egyptian and 20 Cent - Tunda Klap, Marmalade, French Vanilla, Worried etc. Such riddims are all variations around the same themes: fidgety bhangra beats, hypnotic woodwind melodies, a sort of soft endless flow that’s at once urgent and supremely relaxed. Such riddims are usually good or even great, but their interconnectness takes away something of the out-of-leftfield bizarroness of last year where stuff like Wanted, Mudslide, Coolie Dance, Fiesta, Ching Chong etc. would suddenly appear and take things in lots of different directions; certainly it was the radical inconsistency (in a positive sense) of dancehall which distinguished it from the other forward thinking groove scenes (crunk, grime). Whereas now I think the scene has almost settled into a post-Don Corleon quasi-Eastern consensus, and hearing these riddims back to back causes a sort of fading effect which is actually much stronger than in grime or crunk, where, although the grooves might share basic sonic components, everything is more bold and brashy and less fatally subtle.

This isn’t necessarily indicative of a falling off though: a huge chunk of the big '01/early '02 tunes fell into a similar patch between Liquid and Martial Arts – rigid electronic beats, big melodramatic string riffs etc. Certainly, late '02 and '03 felt like a period where the scene was unusually fragmented in terms of knowing where to go next, and thus went everywhere, but while this feeling has receded somewhat, it feels more like a collective pause rather than a total ossification. And there are more than enough great, imaginative, what-the-fuck riddims floating around, and even some emergent interesting meta-trends, to suggest that the whole scene is about to move on, somewhere else, with inevitably exciting results. So I’m going to talk about my favourite riddims and voicings from the last six months or so, in the hope that by the end I’ll be able to say something about where I think dancehall is going, or should be going, next.

Vybz Kartel - Picture Me & You/Nicky B – It’s On (Blackout Riddim)
At first I was a bit conflicted as to which Blackout cut to choose as so many are great: Elephant Man's anthemic Staying Alive-biting "Doing It Right"? Sean Paul's poptastic "Bounce It Right There"? Even Vybz himself offered up another contender with his thrilling staccato flow on alternate take "Real Badman Never Afrad". Finally I had to pick two, which says something about the greatness of this riddim. "Picture Me & You" is the one I keep going back toI discovered first, but it’s also the one I keep going back too, stuffed as it is with great jokes, twists and allusions. Unlike Elephant Man, Vybz's pop culture references can be quite understated, and here he deftly strings together source material ranging from Coming To America to Chingy in a charming narrative (mostly) concerning the seduction of a maid. Throughout he sounds unusually sanguine and distinguished, an old hand at getting one over who plies his trade perhaps simply to polish his craftmanship.

It doesn't hurt that at this stage Blackout looks set to be the riddim of the year, for 04 what Coolie Dance was for 03 and Diwali for 02 (there's still time though!), its eastern-laced staccato stabs giving it a sense of urgent syncopated frenzy that most of the too-fluid post-Egyptian tabla rhythms can't match. If there's something which unites my favourite riddims this year, it's that, despite all the usual arrangement accoutrements, they rarely succumb to the diluting busyness that characterises many of the more generic eastern grooves. You can throw in all the counter-rhythms and strings and flutes and horns and rave riffs you like, but unless the riddim is particularly audacious and accomplished (for example, the shimmering synthcore of last year's Mudslide riddim) it's unlikely that a riddim will survive the absence of a central head-nodding, foot-stomping beat to ground and center it (my comments a while back wrt jungle grooves are relevant here). But the hyper-musical, ultra-embellished Blackout shows that this dichotomy is hardly irresolvable.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more melodic dancehall track than Nicky B’s utterly gorgeous voicing, whose link to the first track is tenuous at best. “It’s On” may share those irresistible staccato stabs, but otherwise the arrangement is dominated by floating, amorphous waterpad synths, a gorgeous launchpad for Nicky’s sweet R&B crooning, which positions him as a smoother Chico, a ruffer Wayne Wonder, flipping between long sustained phrases and hyperspeed Sean Paul-style singjay with a cool precision that never undermines the slightly yearning catch to his voice. As later entries will affirm, I’m finding myself particularly susceptible to R&B/dancehall fusions at the moment (did I ever mention that Wayne Wonder’s album from last year ended up a firm favourite of mine?), but it’s probably not just me; the gorgeous curlicues of melodosonic fluff that dancehall producers are so enamoured with right now is the perfect complement to the hyper-sensitive gentleness and girliness of the likes of Nicky B. Needless to say, riddims that don’t come with at least one slice of 21st century lover’s rock built-in risk seeming rather shortsighted.

T.O.K. - Sex On My Mind (Maybach Riddim)
Like last year's ace Barbershop Riddim (see Vybz's "Bandwagonist", Sizzla's "Making A Mistake"), Maybach keeps it simple, sparse and skanking: a groovy little electric guitar figure gets slammed home with the trademarked car-backfiring noise from Clipse's "Grindin", and looped to fuck till it achieves this palpable physical intensity that oddly reminds me of Roni Size at his old best (remember the way the grooves in tracks like "Share The Fall" or "New Forms (Remix)" seemed to only grow in stature each time they roll past you?). Dave Stelfox says it reminds him of the Charlston!

These sorts of riddims are a bit of a double or nothing game for DJs - an indistinctive rap on something like this is just unmemorable; a good one magically transforms the whole thing into a glorious pop stormer. And if we're talking pop then we're talking T.O.K., who, whether in quasi-soca mode or quasi-R&B mode almost always bring the hooks. Here its quasi-R&B, with a slinky falsetto chorus to die for (reminiscent of "Galang Gal") and gloriously lusty performances from everyone involved, not to mention a wonderful a capella intro – “This is for the girls who love fi have sex!” It’s hard to think of an ‘04 pop song more blazingly confident – Britney’s “Toxic” or Rachel Stevens’ “Some Girls” in the groove department maybe, but T.O.K. lick them when it comes to vocals.

The greatest advantage of T.O.K.'s group set-up is how their voices cover almost the whole spectrum of male dancehall vocals, from ominous waves of bass to uncomfortable androgyny - and I reckon they understand this asset and its possibilities more intimately than Ward 21 by a wide margin. Each time a different voice takes the lead, or a harmony comes in, or there’s a charming call-and-response moment, I feel a thrilling little jolt of recognition of the indisputable rightness of their strategy. Anyway, in an alternate universe this is a massive chart hit.

Tanya Stephens - To The Top Top (Guala Guala Riddim)
Guala Guala hits all my pleasure centers simultaneously. Perhaps taking its cues from Sean Paul's "Get Busy", the riddim combines a Diwali-style syncopated handclap groove with intense and dramatic keyboard flourishes, hinting at but (in many ways to its credit) not adopting wholesale the Oriental vibes that underpin so much dancehall at the moment. I love the denseness of this stuff: there's certain riddims that are so jam-packed with goodness that you want to play them as loud as possible as if your ears could drown in their voluptuous detail.

Guala Guala also uses its own density to perform the neat trick of being all things to all people: it doesn't stop short of merely varying the superficial melodic arrangements across different voicings, but rather sounds radically different according to which part of the mix has been emphasised. Sometimes it's a rollicking rhythmic number whose Diwali-derived beats propulsively charge the tune (see Anthony B's wonderful “Salt Ting”), at others it sounds utterly swamped in keyboards and strings such that the rhythm is reduced to little more than an ominous and hegemonic pulse, the whole construction shuddering under its own weight (see Vybz Kartel's similarly awesome “Ride In”).

Tanya's operates in something of a middle ground, wherein the tune takes on a certain bouncy optimism that provides the perfect backing for what is one of Tanya's most anthemic recent releases, up there with the marvellous "Soft Inside". What always distinguishes Tanya’s cuts however is an ability to balance such celebratory melodicism with a deeply rhythmic chatting style that cuts across the riddim brilliantly.

Sizzla - That's OK (Chrome Riddim)
It says something about dancehall's turnover that this charmer from the beginning of the year is already beginning to feel like a "classic"; but then, I do tend to develop an odd emotional attachment to the Sizzla tunes I like, such that they don't resemble "hot voicings" so much as old favourites. He's an inconsistent fucker, to be sure, but I warrant that a compilation of his best work over the past year (including at the least "Love & Affection", "These R the Days", "All Is Well", "I Always Think About You", “Obstacles”, “Step Pan Dem”, "Come On", “Live Up”, “Making a Mistake” and, of course, this) would be pretty astonishing. "That's OK" doesn't make it easier to understand why the Sizzla tunes that work work really well, but it's enough to know that somehow, despite the man's garbled warblings, frankly shocking singing voice and occasional difficulty making or following a tune, it comes together beautifully.

I wonder if anyone else can pack such a surfeit of emotional content into their performances as Sizzla does. Of course you could dismiss Sizzla as a chronic overperformer, but it strikes me that Sizzla wields such overstatement as effectively as other artists use understatement. He feels all these things so powerfully – drunken desire, murderous obsession, unquenchable sexual addiction, bottomless love – so that we don’t have to, and in the process productively confusing the signifiers of pop for their alleged signifieds. I mean, if Sizzla ever sang “I would die for you”, you’d start removing all the knives in his general vicinity.

Almost all the Chrome tracks are great (although its own sugary R&B voicing – Chico’s “If We Try” – reveals some inherent limits to the practice), which is largely down to the suggestive power of its sonics (those rusty and rudimentary bottletop melodies, sharp string riffs and big booming drums), evocative of a sort of ruddy-faced and menacing gentility, like it’s the personal soundtrack for some Jamaican Heathcliff figure, dressed in nice (if torn and dirty) clothes but possessed of a violent animal energy. No wonder the best cuts – “That’s OK”, Capleton’s “In Her Heart” –combine the groove with a crazed insistence upon love’s inevitability, the unstoppable arc of two forces coming together, like boulders smashing in a shower of sparks.

More to come soon!

Thursday, June 10, 2004
(once again) I apologise for the quietness round these parts. A mixture of exam hell and a very large post I'm preparing. In the mean time, be sure to read ethan and minna (and mark sinker?!) over at gel&weave and simon at silverdollarcircle - both blogs are on fire at the moment - frontline sonic shocktroops! Some of the grime tracks simon talks about sound mouthwateringly good!


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