O.J. Da Juiceman- “Penis”
From his O.R.A.N.G.E. mixtape
Whether or not you’ll like this completely depends upon how you respond to the line, “Your girl just ate my penis, and I let her drink the children.” If this doesn’t seem like something that would interest you, you’re probably right.,
John Lennon- “Watching the Wheels (Acoustic)”
From Anthology, Disc 4
John Lennon’s solo career is that rarest of things in music: it’s neither underrated nor overrated. While few would choose it over the Beatles’ output, no one understates the importance of his ten years away from the fab four. He left us with a few straight-ahead classics and a few avant-garde classics. The Beatles were able to do both at the same time but, you know. I personally skip past the Yoko shrieky stuff.
Lennon’s solo songs always fall into one of a few categories. They can be experimental indulgences, reverent revivals of songs he heard in his youth, hippie noodlings, or answers to haters. It’s this last group that fascinates me.
Lennon was unfairly blamed for breaking up the Beatles, and the American press was against him for the bulk of the ’70s. We hated him for using his celebrity for causes that were important to him, like the bed-in for peace at the Amsterdam Hotel, but we also hated him when he tried to retreat from public life and become a family man. God forbid the guy doesn’t want to be one of the most famous people in the world if it doesn’t do anything for him.
He was painted as a weirdo for this all-or-nothing behavior, and he was only considered within the context of what he used to be. Strangely enough, Ben Affleck did the same exact thing in the mid-aughts—living a more modest lifestyle and occasionally stooping for Democrats—and the media praised him for it. Then again, immigration problems and heroin addiction versus Gigli? Apples and oranges.
Anyway, if you replace guitars and pianos with samplers and turntables, many of Lennon’s solo songs are New York rap records. Whereas rappers try to defiantly prove their own bulletproof power and flaunt their extravagance, however, he tried to prove that he was human. Rappers celebrate that they did not follow the path set out for them; he tried to justify it. (I doubt any of the rappers from the era I’m talking about have any references to the allegory of the cave, but I could be wrong. Mobb Deep have probably read Plato.) The tone of the songs is the same though, and the best example of this is Lennon’s gorgeous “Watching the Wheels.”
While the original version of “Watching the Wheels” is on 1980’s Double Fantasy, the one I’ve chosen is the acoustic take collected on Anthology. It’s less plodding and more meditative.
Musically, the song reminds us that Lennon still had a facility for crafting perfect melodies, especially in the assonant chorus. It’s in the lyrics that Lennon proves his real growth as a songwriter though. The verses are statements of what the average person tells him about his lifestyle. The chorus, more or less an answer to them, goes:
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
How I love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the Merry-Go-Round
I just had to let it go
It’s as concise an answer he could give for why he lived the way he did. This was the same guy who co-wrote “All You Need Is Love,” but in a more mature adulthood, he understood how incomplete that statement was. Maybe he wasn’t the same guy. If that was the perfect song to summarize the ’60s, this was the perfect song to summarize the ’70s.
The only “love” Lennon had at this point came from disengagement. It’s only in the detachment from and observance of life moving around him that he felt any influence. “Letting it go” is, perversely, the same agency that holding someone’s hand was twenty years earlier. But if nothing else, he was going to own that disengagement. The “people say” of the verses might as well be “motherfuckers better know.”
To us, that notion sounds depressing, but we’re also not John Lennon. The cues we get from the propulsive music, the way the chords kind of soar, tell us that this isn’t something to lament or to revel in. It’s just the way things are. It’s a comedown from a trip of uppers and downers. It proves once and for all that John Lennon didn’t believe in the Beatles. He just believed in himself.,
From the upcoming Battle of the Sexes
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo has confirmed that, in his reclusive era following the release of Pinkerton, he filled notebooks with data in an attempt to crack the code of writing a great song. He would put Nirvana and Green Day songs on repeat and figure out how many seconds it took to reach the chorus, how many chord changes were in the second verse, anything he could to scientifically improve songwriting that he believed was not an art, but a craft. With “Sexting” and its forerunner “How Low,” Ludacris is doing the exact same thing, only he’s studying the Black Eyed Peas.
You or someone you know might not like rap music. Reason One people get turned off to rap is its vulgarity. I don’t know what to tell you about that. If anything, hip-hop is probably getting dirtier.
Reason Two is that rappers are “not real musicians.” This reason is perpetuated by Boston and Styx-loving baby boomers who place musical virtuosity over everything, especially the conviction and authenticity that are rap’s hallmarks.
Reason Three is that it “all sounds the same.” The breaks and loops that hip-hop evolved from are too repetitive and uninspired for them. People who side with Reason Three listen, above all, for dynamics. They don’t want the song to sound the same way at the beginning as it does at the end. Reason Three, along with one other secret ingredient, is the reason why White people love Black Eyed Peas.
Say what you want about B.E.P.—Lord knows I have—but they take you on quite a ride with their songs. “Boom Boom Pow” switches tempos wantonly; “I Got a Feeling” throws a change-up at the exact moment you expect it to end; “My Humps” never stops building, and it has a bridge that comes out of nowhere. The structures of these songs have way more to do with dance and pop than they do with hip-hop.
Ludacris, looking to expand his audience in the same way they did, is now infusing his own songs with that point A to point B unpredictability. “How Low” pitch-shifts and winds up and down like a trance song. The drum fills that the Neptunes litter “Sexting” with draw attention to the transitions, and no two verses follow the same pattern of dial tone scales.
I mentioned a secret ingredient though, and that weapon is a hook. By that, I don’t mean an earworm of a chorus. I mean ideological currency. Each of B.E.P.’s hits has an idea that can be distilled, carried away, and discussed. This idea doesn’t have to be original or meaningful. It just has to be distinctive. For example, the thing most people take away from “My Humps” is that a woman’s zaftig figure can be referred to as “humps” and/or “lady lumps.” That’s it. It’s ridiculous, but it’s memorably ridiculous. If the song comes on, it lends itself to a joke. For better or worse, it gets people talking, which anything less absurd would not.
Instead of conflating the word “funk” with the word “fuck” or comparing the years 3008 and 2000-late, Ludacris makes a song about sexting. At the gym, when asked what she’s listening to, Katie tells Brittany, “That song that makes fun of Tiger Woods.” Unlike all of those rap songs that are built upon tone and atmosphere but conceptually are still variations on the same theme, this song is about something, no matter how clumsily. And in 2010, it’s that easy. And bonus points if you take an idea done better by someone else (“LOL :)”). Why was Ludacris so worried about lyrical prowess and delivery? He could have just yelled “mazel tov.”
By the end of the year, everyone will be aping The E.N.D. Good thing Lil’ Wayne’s in jail.
M83- “Run Into Flowers”
From Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
During my senior year of college, there was a three month period when I didn’t own a computer. Since I liked to write at night, my only option was to go to my tiny liberal arts school’s only 24-hour public computer lab. In this sweaty room in a forgotten building that had, the semester before, been used as a Hurricane Katrina evacuation center, I stayed up all night drinking caffeine, taking micro-breaks, and typing papers. Papers about Greek Myth, Modern Philosophy, French, Postmodern Literary Theory, The Victorian Imagination, or whatever other bullshit I happened to be taking.* While the people around me navigated MySpace, I plugged away with books surrounding my feet, using all of the techniques the procrastinators before me had taught. I would start in a 10 point font, single-spaced with no margins and no heading. Whenever I got frustrated, I would change one of those fields to encourage myself. “Look, with one-inch margins, I have an extra half page!” Eventually, I would finish with what I needed, and I would exit into the cold blast of a dewy, starless night (or sometimes a lazy sunrise) with an unforgettable sense of relief and accomplishment. I would usually play this song on my iPod on the walk home.
It sounds like the moment when you reach the gum of a Blow-Pop.
*Yes, I’m showing off. Let that stuff be worth something, okay?
Young Dro- “Take Off (Michna Remix)”
From Adult Swim’s ATL RMX mixtape
This mixtape was underwhelming overall, but this track is a monster. The best rap remixes are the ones that don’t really respect the vocals enough to make them any less than another ingredient in the mix, and that’s how this song works. Sometimes, when the bass seems slightly behind the synth pattern, the beat even sounds dangerously close to slipping ahead of Dro, but it never quite does. And the breakdown at 3:22 is breathtaking.
White Hinterland- “Icarus”
From their album Kairos
The hype machine is starting to chug for this Massachusetts outfit, led by singer-songwriter Casey Dienel. Her wandering and child-like voice recalls someone like St. Vincent, but the music around her is a bit more focused and tense. Whereas St. Vincent’s 2009 album sounded like a Disney score, the bass throb and hard snare of “Icarus” make it sound more dangerously conflicted while still capitalizing on Dienel’s airy, dreamy vocals. I’ve listened to it for two weeks, and I’m still finding new things to like about it.
Fat Joe feat. Young Jeezy- “Ha Ha (Slow Down, Son)”
From the upcoming album The Darkside, Vol. 1
I genuinely love this song, but it’s also really stupid. Every Fat Joe album has one great single, and every great Fat Joe single has a few lines that are totes hilars in their puffed up absurdity. For instance, in “Lean Back,” he explains:
Can’t keep tellin’ me to speak about the Rucker,
Matter ‘fact, I don’t wanna speak about the Rucker,
Not even Pee-Wee Kirkland could imagine this,
My niggas didn’t have to play to win the championship.
Okay, so Fat Joe coaches a rec league team at Rucker Park. It’s probably the most famous rec league in the country, but it’s still a rec league. And I’m not sure how much he actually coaches. Maybe I just don’t know, and Joey Crack is a real X’s and O’s guy, but I have trouble picturing him timing suicide drills and gradually installing a zone press break. Anyway, I still want to know more about these people who are begging him to talk about his experience at the Rucker. Apparently they’re convincing. He refuses to elaborate until his defenses are broken down in the very next line. And if the team didn’t have to play to win a championship, I guess the other team forfeited? 2-0: like a motherfucking boss.
"Ha Ha" samples an effervescent Soul II Soul loop and has a low end that recalls golden era hip-hop while still sounding fresh. Large Joseph does not disappoint on his end, pulling out a bag of tricks that sets the tone for all major label rap in 2010. He says he’ll beat you uglier than Precious. He mispronounces (on purpose?) "ambidextrous." He mentions a boxer, keeping his streak alive.
Young Jeezy, Joe’s partner on the song, describes his Phantom as “Avatar blue” in what’s one of the easiest layups in recent rap history, and he’s also responsible for the song’s chorus, which, though ridiculous, really works. “I said we came in this bitch tonight to murder things/We gonna leave this bitch tonight a murder scene/In black from head to toe, we murder clean/Do you know the name of the clique that murders teams? What’s up?”
I can’t help but picture two huge dudes standing in front of the velvet rope of a club. A guy with a clipboard approaches them and asks, “What are you guys here for?”
"Oh us? We came tonight to murder things."
"To mu—I’m not sure that’s going to be okay. I’m afraid I can’t let you in."
"What my friend means to say is that we murder clean. As you can see, we’re in black from head to toe."
"Ah yes. Of course. Well as long as you’re doing it clean. Come on in. Two drink minimum tonight."
As if that excuses things, you know?
(It reminds me of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.” Everybody was kung fu fighting fast as lightning—okay, I’m with you. Scary scene. “But they did it with expert timing.” That’s totally the wrong conjunction. The expert timing makes the kung fu that much more deadly. It would make the situation more dangerous, not excuse it. There was a lot long with disco, but few people mention the grammar and usage.)
I can ridicule Fat Joe as much as I want, but every once in a while he cuts through all of my snark and delivers something that approaches poignancy. Here he tosses off, “Recession got the hood pushin’ more than time clocks/So I dropped a hundred in the streets—I don’t buy stocks.” It’s couplets like that that remind you how he can sneak up on you. After all, there’s a reason he’s been around for fifteen years, and it’s not all unintentional comedy.
Big Star- “September Gurls”
From the album Radio City
Alex Chilton, lead singer and mastermind behind Big Star, died today at the age of 59. It’s impossible to list all of the bands that Big Star influenced with their sugary but substantial brand of power-pop, and Chilton himself was a legendary enough figure for The Replacements to write a song about him. In an era when what was popular was usually acknowledged as what was best, Big Star, critical darlings who always underachieved in sales, presaged some of the big brother flag-bearing that indie rock hangs its hat on today.
When you listen to a song as perfect as “September Gurls” though, all that information becomes less important. The dude could write a perfect song, and that’s what we should focus on. On one hand, if you try to analyze what a September “gurl” is versus what a December boy is, you won’t really get anywhere. It’s lust disguised as love, riding in cars with boys, and other half-remembered snapshots. It’s sweet, but it also bites with lines like, “I loved you, well, nevermind.” And it’s packaged in something that demands you tap your foot and ends just as quickly as it started, a sort of jangly Beatles, only more nostalgic, jaded, and rough. Each movement of the song—and it goes a lot of places in less than three minutes—is wound as tightly as possible, and the harmonies bake everything with a gorgeous glaze.
Finally, one moment in the song that is unforgettable to me is when Chilton coos, “And when she makes love to me—oooooohhhhh…” and trails off, replacing the ineffable with a chimey, sun-soaked solo. Perhaps Chilton’s biggest strength was knowing when he didn’t have to say anything at all. It’s just hard to imagine a world of music in which his voice has been silenced permanently.
Rivers Cuomo and The Cathy Santonies- “In the Garage/Heartsongs (Live on ‘Sound Opinions’)”
"Sound Opinions" is the public radio show and podcast hosted by Chicago rock critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. Their commentary on current music trends is honest and sometimes righteously angry. Their reviews—which sometimes skew a bit too old—are thoughtful and objective. The best part of the show, however, is the interviews, which, because of Kot’s and DeRogatis’ O.G. statuses, are often high-profile. A few weeks ago, they welcomed Rivers Cuomo of Weezer into the studio, and they didn’t pull any punches with their questions.
They stood in for many fans of Weezer by halfway accusing Cuomo of pandering with his more recent records. While the first two albums came from a place of unique underdog affirmations—“Teenage Victory Songs” as a better-known B-side put it—it doesn’t make sense to try to recreate that stance when a songwriter is in his forties. Or, I guess more accurately, it would make sense if he Cuomo still did it well. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to hear about what his life is like now instead of hearing him pretend to be fifteen?
Cuomo, although he had heard these questions before, sounded baffled by the suggestions. He even went to the extent of explaining that the idea for “Beverly Hills”—kind of the last in the row of nails in the coffin for the band’s credibility—came from reading the playbill of a Wilson-Phillips show at the Hollywood Bowl and envying how glitzy the bios were. He was genuine, and it’s interesting how uncalculating he seems to be, even though the music sounds like the opposite of that. He’s so genuine that people read it as irony, and he’s so earnest that he doesn’t even understand how people would do that.
At different points in the Q&A, he performed songs with Chicago punk group The Cathy Santonies (yes, named after the oft-referenced but never-seen Full House character). The performances are rough and reveal the lack of rehearsal, but the medley of “In the Garage” from The Blue Album and “Heartsongs” from The Red Album kind of forces us to consider Cuomo’s songwriting as a whole. The lyrics are almost interchangeable. At the very least, it makes you admit that Cuomo’s approach hasn’t developed much in fifteen years. The tones are different: “In the Garage” is stifled and intimate, “Heartsongs” is admiring and reflective. But the voice in both is clearly the singer himself, outside looking in, at peace with music. It’s interesting to hear how Cuomo’s career has gone, in every conceivable way, full circle.
Elliott Smith- “Bottle Up and Explode”
I’ve been on an Elliott Smith kick lately, and it sort of worries me.
My mom is in a book club, and they chose The Catcher in the Rye for this month. (He just died y’all!) She asked me to come up with some discussion questions they could use—when you’re an English teacher, people do things like this—and I gave her stuff like: “Does Holden care about his appearance? He mentions that he doesn’t several times—wearing his hat backwards, for example—but is that a sign of actual indifference or an even bigger form of self-consciousness?” I should have just said, “Play this song.”