Casually browsing the music blogs not long ago, I read that the Roots are putting out a new album at the end of this month. Good news, I thought. I like almost all of their previous work and had recently watched them rage through a highly entertaining two-hour show full of new material, so as far as I knew, they still had the spark. To my chagrin, however, I saw that their new single, "Birthday Girl," was a collaboration with Patrick Stump, lead singer of the punk-pop band Fall Out Boy.
Now, I don't really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I'm expected not to like them. They wear hair gel, and one of the guys in the band dates Ashlee Simpson, so it's fair to assume that they suck and that their fans are vapid teeny-boppers whose heads would explode if they heard what real rock 'n' roll sounds like. What kind of lame middlebrow loser do the Roots take me for?
The Roots news was disappointing, but not surprising. Top-notch rappers have a history of puzzling collaborations with cheesy rock 'n' rollers. Off the top of my head, I could recall a number of otherwise-respectable rappers who'd worked with middle-of-the-road top-40 types: Kanye West ("Heard 'Em Say" with Maroon 5's Adam Levine, "Homecoming" with Coldplay's Chris Martin), Jay-Z (who released a version of his song "Encore" remixed with instrumentals and vocal tracks from Linkin Park's "Numb"), Dr. Dre (who brought in Gwen Stefani to sing the hook for Eve's "Let Me Blow Your Mind"), and even the Roots themselves, who employed Nelly Furtado on the track "Sacrifice" from their 2002 album Phrenology. (This was in Furtado's nonthreatening songstress days, before she started giving her albums titles like Loose.) Indeed, the release most frequently and hyperbolically cited as the moment hip-hop ascended to commercial viability is Run DMC's 1985 remake of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." While Aerosmith was cool then, they must be retroactively downgraded severely for releasing the love theme to Armageddon.
Why do rappers whose work I hold in such high regard have such terrible taste in rock? The answer started to become clear when I gave "Birthday Girl," the Roots-Patrick Stump song, a courtesy listen and was greatly disturbed to discover that I liked it. It's catchy; Stump has the right voice for the mellow hook, and the Roots' estimable rhythm section gives a sharp edge to what otherwise would have been a straightforward mid-tempo rock song:
Upon searching my soul, I realized that I had to admit that I in fact liked almost all the songs that I named earlier. "Let Me Blow Your Mind" is an unjustly forgotten club grinder; "Homecoming," "Heard 'Em Say," and "Sacrifice" all get stuck in my head from time to time; "Numb/Encore" is a staple of the various Workout Mega-Jam mixes that I've made over the years. I was a bit taken aback; cultural snobbery is such an integral part of my personality. I'd have to rethink a lot of things if it turned out I liked listening to Fall Out Boy, Maroon 5, and Linkin Park.
Fortunately, a quick zip through the iTunes store reassured me that I don't. Those bands have recorded some memorably hummable singles but don't have much musical range and seem to almost purposefully employ instrumentation and vocal effects indistinguishable from all the other bands working in their already well-trod genres. (Fall Out Boy seems the most promising—I could see them making an album I really liked—and while Linkin Park is never going to be my thing, they're not bad at what they do. Maroon 5 is elevator music from the depths of hell.) But these bands' songwriting and production tendencies, I realized, are beside the point. They're not in the studio to write and record a double album with a rapper; they're stopping by for a day to lay down vocals for a single.