massive update written during an overseas trip: T.I., The Streets, Sparks, Morrissey, Dirty Pretty Things
T.I., King - - For a while I was aware of T.I. only as a purveyor of massive, perfect singles: "Rubber Band Man," with its taunting baseball organ hook and chorus of delinquent children, and "Bring 'Em Out," which manages to harness Jay-Z's bravado without seeming unequal to the occasion. I wanted to hear his albums, actually, but refused to pay for what I was sure would be stellar singles diluted by typically mixed filler.
And so, here's King, the first mainstream rap album I've heard in ages from which I haven't cut any tracks (and no, Kanye doesn't count). A monster collection of beats first, display of rap prowess second, and victory lap for Southern hip-hop at all times, this is massively entertaining stuff from the get-go. "King Back" starts with harsh pronouncements over ominous synths and crowd cheers: "And the prophecy read, that one day like the phoenix arose from the ashes, that a boy would be born unto a family in the slums," booms the announcer. "This boy would go on to use the knowledge he gained while fighting for survival in these streets, and in time this boy would grow to become... KING!" Couldn't ask for a better entrance than the Jesus comparison, and at just that right moment '70s funk horns, rhythm guitars and percussion all kick in. Then the trumpets squall, the drums boom, and the real beat kicks in: it's taken T.I. 50 seconds to show up on his own album, and it's worth the wait.
Next comes "Front Back," all drum machines and organs (also featuring the newly reunited UGK, now that Pimp C's out of jail); monster single "What You Know," a completely artificial synth creation, follows. And then comes "I'm Talkin' To You," a 5-minute plus swaggering beast of belligerent trombones, aggressive synth string stabs and skittering high-hats. After this, the inevitable cross-over song comes: it's the Ballad For Fallen Thugs, a staple of crack rap albums, laced with a Jamie Foxx chorus. And even that's good. At that point, you might as well stop doubting the album and enjoy the rest.
So what stands out besides the beats? T.I.'s flow is more about sounds than clever wordplay: the hilarious drawl he puts on "dude" on "What You Know" is alone worth the whole song. His vocals are multi-tracked like a hip-hop Freddie Mercury, reaching an apex on "Undertaker," with a swarm of "You know what it is: we bury niggas!" surrounding the listener. Not to say that he can't pull off bon mots (I'm particularly fond of his claim that "Niggas with dirty mouths, I got a lot of clean pistols to wash 'em out"), but it's more enunciation than diction. (Also, before I get deeper into this shit, let me mention that there's only 3 skits, and they're all hilarious and eminently quotable, provided you're in the right company. "And then you had the nerve to get your hair cut down low like a nigga. Bitch, your hair look like a dirty tennis ball!")
What's really weird and interesting about T.I. is that he manages to keep his persona not only coherent throughout the whole album (unlike a rapper like Lil' Flip, who chides white listeners for thinking all black people sell drugs on one song and boasts about his sales on the next track), but consistently anti-violence. Consider: "I'm Talkin' To You" is the obligatory battle track, in which T.I. accuses someone "so lame, you're a shame to the game" of being a "pussy nigga" etc. But instead of attacking specific attributes of this person, T.I. instead provides a long list of people he's friends with who he's specifically not calling out, basically naming everyone in the South besides Lil' Jon (David Banner, Young Dro, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Paul Wall, etc. ad infinitum). You might conclude that while the battle track is a convention too strong to ignore, T.I. doesn't really want to beef with anyone in particular, a suspicion confirmed by the rest of the album. (Incidentally, he mentions in passing that he had a beef with Ludacris that they settled; anyone know what that's about? Allhiphop's documentation is scattered at best.)
On the very first track, T.I. threatens to suit up and come gunning for any disrespectful niggas before adding "But I don't want to do that cuz I respect that shit y'all doin'! I started that shit!" T.I.' s more than happy to claim solidarity with the South rather than trying to claim himself as the sole royalty in presence, something hilariously confirmed by Pimp C's spoken word contribution at the end of "Undertaker," possibly the funniest 1:55 laid to CD this year. "Young nigga T.I. jumped out there, said he was the king of the South, he ruffled a whole lot of niggas' feathers, but niggas didn't really understand what the nigga was talking about. ... What the nigga was trying to put in these motherfuckin stupid-ass niggas' faces was the fact that it's a whole bunch of kings down here, and as long as you're takin' care of your business and doing king shit, you're a king." The anti-violence rhetoric is appended to the Southern solidarity feel, maybe as a kind of plea to not explode like the East and West so disastrously did in 1995/96. Or maybe it's his 7 felony convictions that have made T.I. more cautious and ambivalent about violence: on "Live In The Sky," speaking of a dead friend's baby daughter, he notes that "she smiles just like you so cute, even resorts to violence like you." So there it is: crack sales are in, violence is out. (In light of all that, it isn't perhaps as big a shock as it might be when Common, smug and self-righteous as ever, faces off with T.I. on "Good Life," but the Neptunes beat is too strong to ruin. Common and his claims of coming up with "a verse for the people" - even invoking that great figure of altruistic, positive rap Easy E [!], as if just being classic makes your ethos good - can go fuck themselves.) And this is the first mainstream rap album I haven't cut tracks from in, like, ever.
The Streets, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living - Just so we all know where I stand, I firmly believe that Original Pirate Material is better than A Grand Don't Come For Free. Better beats, same depth of observational detail vs. lousy beats, same amazing depth of observational detail: no contest. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living has the best beats yet: "The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living" puts on "House Of The Rising Sun" via Ennio Morricone harpsichord arrangement, "Two Nations" is a brief but movingmeditation on the Anglo-American divide built over a poignant guitar, and lead single "When You Wasn't Famous" has a fantastic drum track. Skinner could charge American rappers for beats if he wanted to. But the raps...
Let's be clear: Mike Skinner has lost neither his technical awkwardness nor his sharp eye. It's just that some of these tracks aren't particularly enlightening or fun to listen to: "Pranging Out" tells us that being a cracked-out rock cliche isn't much fun and "Hotel Expressionism" is a smug kiss-off to trashing hotel rooms. Skinner's self-awareness about the stupid cliched lifestyle he's fallen into doesn't compensate for the boredom his descriptions induce. Better: the honest misogyny of "War Of The Sexes" expresses what 90% of all guys at bars are actually thinking with trashy glee. (Inevitable cheating remorse track "All Goes Out The Window" goes too far into the black-vocalist wailing for a minute-plus territory.) Best: "When You Wasn't Famous," his bemused, maybe-true-maybe-not (evidently a subject of great agitation in British tabloids) account of a dalliance with a British pop star ("You were so much fun I really got to like you more than you liked me" is a sentiment we can probably all relate to). All in all, not that bad of a mixed bag at all, but it's the first Streets album I've cut tracks from for the iPod. Try harder next time please.
Sparks, Hello Young Lovers - I honestly believe that Sparks are the most hateful band in pop music today. To begin with, they seem to hate the very medium they're working in, having been engaged this entire millennium in a project to actively annoy any remaining rockists by working pretty much solely without a drum kit or any of the conventional staples of a rock band, concentrating instead on tape loops, repetition, and operatic multi-tracked vocals. Their lyrics are almost uniformly snide and dismissive, particularly towards women, who the Mael brothers seem to regard solely as succubuses. And it's the fact that they're brothers who've worked together for 36 years now that's creepiest of all: they're siblings who seemingly turned their back on the world a long time ago, preferring to concentrate on their own insular jokes and obsessions.
I find those jokes pretty funny, and the music pretty compelling, though Hello Young Lovers isn't nearly as well-rounded or accomplished as 2002's criminally underrated Lil' Beethoven. The definite peaks here are 3: opener "Dick Around," mid-album "(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country," and closer "As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral." This last track is actually kind of serious and fascinating, assuming the voice of an organist at Notre Dame bothered by the fact that his craft is always overshadowed by the Creator he's meant to be glorifying, but who takes his revenge by sleeping with the stream of feckless young women travelers just passing through. The rest is accomplished and mostly interesting, but some of the tracks (notably "Perfume," "The Very Next Fight," and "There's No Such Thing As Aliens," the last of which I'm prepared to concede is genuinely annoying) don't really need repeated listens. But the Maels are still more relevant than most groups with half their lifespan.
Morrissey, Ringleader Of The Tormentors - Never was much of a Smiths fan actually (my favorite album of theirs is easily Strangeways, Here We Come, which puts me in a definite minority), but Douglas Coupland's fascinating interview/profile/review in the Guardian convinced me to check this out. (Well, that and the involvement of both Tony Visconti and Ennio Morricone.) The music is very pleasant and kind of background-y, in that kind of mid-90s Britrock way, and Morrissey is still a miserabilist, melodramatic bastard. What this wants to be is music of power and conviction, and if I was 17 I'd be convinced; as it is, it's comforting and nice, good background music, but not much more. The exception, of course, is "You Have Killed Me," which is devastating.
Dirty Pretty Things, Waterloo To Anywhere - I've listened to this a number of times hoping that something will pop out (I was a big fan of the first Libertines album), but despite my best efforts it still sounds like basic punk-derived UK-rock, of the kind constantly promoted by the NME and correctly ignored in America. Nicely rhythmic, with a good swing, a good single ("Bang Bang You're Dead") and a tight band trying to inject interesting guitar lines wherever possible; if anything it's too ambitiously messy, trying on all kinds of weird time changes ("Last Of The Small Town Playboys" descends into sudden waltz-time, and "Gentry Cove" goes back and forth between the rhythmic basics and reggae) but coming out all strained and tense. Carl Barat still has a lyrical obsession with the decline of the British Empire ("The rude boy's on the run") and loss of Joe Strummer-derived moral imperatives in general ("No one gives a fuck about the values I would die for"; "Do you remember like I do the lost pursuit of excellence?"), but that's about it. So the first round between Barat and Pete Doherty is awarded, incredibly enough, to Babyshambles, simply because "Fuck Forever" is a monster single. But are Barat's boys, at least, better than the woeful movie they're named after? Yes, thankfully.