The Music Club
Dear Ann, Jody, and Carl, Time flies. Was 2010 only three weeks ago? Like in-store Christmas displays, year-end culture roundups seem to pop up earlier and earlier each year—when you adjust for that fact, plus the dizzyingly rapid timeframes of the "1440/7 news cycle," it turns out that the four of us are actually having this discussion sometime in the spring of 2013. That's sort of how it feels, at least. One advantage to doing this late, though, is that we've all had time to breathe deep, correct for possible early rushes-to-judgment, and let the heated passions of the micro-moment either dissipate into bygone fancy or mature into full-blown love.
Jody, on the subject of taking a sober remove from the year's passions, I was irritated by that Jon Caramanica piece on Kanye's critical cult: It mixed nicely observed points about the way hype can function with some surprisingly nasty condescension from Jon toward his fellow critics. Jon is a pal of mine and a very smart writer who was in top form last year, but I soured on his piece when I read the phrase "unimaginative group-think" in the second paragraph. Yes, a consensus built up around My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy(my pick, along with Jody's, for album of the year), and yes, Kanye love spilled into hyperbolic territory more than once. (Responding to Pitchfork's 10.0 score, someone I follow on Twitter wrote, in a clever play on Pitchfork's Best New Music mantle, "Kanye's new album got BEST POSSIBLE MUSIC.") But even if you sensed some group-think lurking within the consensus, its most dominant strain was anything but unimaginative: Writer after writer (including Ryan Dombal, author of Pitchfork's infamous tenner) brought his or her A-game to the Kanye table, delivering some of the most engaged and lively criticism I've seen devoted to an album in some time. Regarding several high-profile Twisted Fantasy raves, Jon sniped that "such reviews are bones dropped for approval by tail-wagging puppies." I agree that hype screams out to be interrogated, and I agree with Jon's underlying Dudes, chill premise. But—in the spirit of that puppy metaphor—his essay seemed an awful lot like a cat pissing on other people's enthusiasms, marking its territory.
I adored Kanye's album when I reviewed it here after approximately 40 listens, and I still adore it today, after some 40-odd more. I also found a lot to enjoy in 2010 closer to the margins. My top albums and singles went live in December, but here's a quick rundown of recommendations that, with the exception of Actress, didn't make my lists:
- Salem's King Night and These New Puritans' Hidden: Two engrossing examples of "indie" artists incorporating, in fascinating, messy ways, the sort of operatic swells and booming drums that wouldn't sound entirely out of place in DJ Toomp or Lex Luger's Dirty South beats.
- Actress' Splazsh, James Blake's Klavierwerke EP, and Girl Unit's "Wut": Gorgeous releases by three British musicians with cerebral relationships to dance music, each building poignant, desolate but sonically enveloping electronic beats that gesture faintly toward the dance floor while playing even better on headphones.
- Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africaand Bangs and Works, Vol. 1: A Chicago Footwork Compilation: Two compilations of ecstatic, hyperactive dance music from, respectively, Limpopo and Chicago's south and west sides. There are several Shangaan Electro videos on YouTube, in which dancers flail and bend their limbs at hyperspeed to radiantly dinky synthesizer spasms, often while wearing padded orange jumpsuits, bright wigs, and creepy clown masks. The footwork compilation features that scene's young stars, DJ Rashad and DJ Nate, who both work trebly drums, frenetic tempos, and chopped-up vocal samples into their off-kilter compositions. (On his 2010 album, Da Trak Genious, DJ Nate makes delirious use of samples of Evanescence's Amy Lee and Lil Wayne.) There are tons of footwork videos on YouTube, too, and it's well worth spending a few hypnotized minutes in front of them to see this music killing in its intended context.
One 2010 trend that united pop's margins and its center was the triumph of the weirdo rapper. Toward the margins, there's Lil B, a brilliantly warped, post-Lil-Wayne deconstructionist from the Bay Area. He freestyles prolifically and deftly (or, when he feels like it, gloriously ineptly), dabbles in ambient music, extends metaphors so far that they break down and lose any metaphorical component, calls himself a faggot but says he's not gay, calls himself a bitch, calls himself Hannah Montana, says "fuck Justin Bieber" then says he's friends with Justin Bieber, compares himself to Aretha Franklin, Matlock, Jesus, Mel Gibson, and even your father. His Blue Flame mixtape is a good place to start exploring his unwieldy catalog. There's also L.A.'s virtuosic, horror-core-reviving Odd Future crew. Its two best MCs are Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, whose daffy, intricate lyrics about murder and rape reopened debates that have sat dormant since the first coming of Eminem (an avowed influence).
Weirdo rap's mainstream wing includes Kanye and Nicki Minaj, an artist I've written about at length and suspect I will write about more as this conversation progresses: She was one of the year's most exciting rookie talents. Nicki routinely outguns the old pros she shares tracks with, but her debut album, Pink Friday, disappointed me: Not because it makes big, fat, pop-crossover attempts, but because it doesn't play heavily enough to her strengths, which have plenty crossover appeal as is: head-spinning wordplay that revolves around an electric sense of identity slippage. (In this regard, she might take a look at the example of her label boss and weirdo-mentor Lil Wayne, who got to No. 9 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart with "Six Foot Seven Foot," his triumphantly logorrheic, chorus-free return to radio after a year spent in prison.)
Perhaps the weirdest weirdo rapper, though, is the one who seems so resolutely normal upon first inspection: Rick Ross. Over the years, this Miami MC has gotten better and better, his gruffly declarative rhymes growing both more rigorous and loopier without sacrificing their blunt power. His excellent album Teflon Don boasted some of the year's most indelible pop moments, foremost among them the churning, Lex Luger-produced double-header of "MC Hammer" and "B.M.F." At first, Ross seems like a familiar rap triumphalist, exulting in tales well told of drug-kingpinning and woman-"penetrating" over lush, expensive-sounding beats—except, that is, for the unavoidable sense that Ross, revealed to have worked as a corrections officer years ago, is all but certainly lying through his teeth. The performative tissue separating who a rapper says he is from who he actually is, with Ross, as thin as he is fat—something he nods obliquely toward when he calls himself MC Hammer, Big Meech, the Notorious B.I.G., or, on a new mixtape song, Bo Diddley. (Lil B, a.k.a. Hannah Montana, a.k.a. Mel Gibson, would approve.) Elsewhere, Ross raps about a duplicitous girl he's involved with, praising her acting ability. Unreal recognize unreal.
Speaking of gifted weirdos, Jody, I actually liked R. Kelly's soul-throwback album, Love Letter. As much as I love his hornball eccentricities, it's nice to see him tuck them away and put his singing and songwriting genius (both of which are sometimes obscured in discussions of the eccentricities) on such straightforward display. As much as I tried to like the Janelle Monae album, though, I never found a way in. I'm eager for Ann, who is an Archacolyte, to tell me what I've been missing.
Yours as ever,
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.