Is it just me or is Lyfe Jennings just a urine stain and a 40-bottle of backwash away from being a homeless guy? His voice sounds raw and shrill, the product of days of ranting to the sidewalk. His lyrics are would-be hallucinations -- the really poor man's poor man's vacation. On his recently released album The Phoenix, he sings, "I was born in a hurry, because my mom had to be back at work at 8:30" (from "The River"). Even more wild is "Biggie Nigga," in which he not only proclaims himself to be "Biggie, nigga, reincarnated as a skinny nigga," but also hints at even more fantastical origins ("Breast-fed by Gozilla / Mixed my Similac with Cognac"). It's amazing that someone who'd name their second album something so trite is capable of such singularity -- there is simply no one else on earth who could dream up something like, "Please don't be so naive to what your bra does when it's groping you / 'Cause they like to taste your nipples, too" (in "Stingy"). Yes, it's funny and probably a bit more than is intended, but it's also specific and fucking weird, which are two adjectives that don't apply to much of R&B today (and, as far as "specific" goes, in general). A lot of this stuff just uses a standard contemporary R&B template (sometimes wonderfully -- first single "S.E.X." is a baby-makin' jam a la R. Kelly's "Down Low" with contrasting subject matter that warns young girls not to give it up to lecherous men). When it's just Jennings solo, he gets the chance to show just how offbeat he is -- not everything can be confined to equally measured bars and, like any good homeless guy, he's a great wanderer. Check how the solo-acoustic "Down Here, Up There" meanders (and don't miss "Thank you, Lord, for making teflon").
There's definitely a trainwreck appeal at times ("Don't do it for the kids! Do it for me!" he wails on "Let's Stay Together" more histrionically than Fantasia's tampon ever could). But it's been a long time since it's been this easy to conflate "crazy" with "brilliant" in soul music -- if The Phoenix isn't the best R&B album of the year (and it really could be), it's at least the one most worthy of obsession. This is after all, an album on which Biggie reincarnated as a skinny nigga does a bang-up, sung cover of 2Pac's "Keep Ya Head Up," complete with a gaggle of kids singing along, like tangible hope that we aren't doomed to a race of babies that will hate the ladies that make the babies. Yep, crazy and brilliant. It's really nice to be confused sometimes.
And not for nothing, but Lyfe is a stone fox. He could totally get it, if only he'd shave.
And speaking of weird, here's Kelis who's very point since coming out has been to say, "I'm weird! Look at me! Weird!" Because of her eagerness to say that (and her lack of commitment to, you know, actually proving it), I've found her pretty easy to ignore. Still, Kelis Was Here isn't bad. It is, though, entirely too long. Kelis needs to learn that the more subtle something is, the weirder it comes off, and KWH is too long by almost a half. There's too much garbagey rock-esque bullshit ("Till the Wheels Fall Off," "I Don't Think So"), too much retorism for the sake of retroism (I love any sign of a freestyle comeback and even I have a hard time listening to the numb and half-hearted "Weekend") and waaay too much staccato whining masquerading as hooks ("Bossy," "Blindfold Me"). Still, the girl is capable of showing off her limitations and personality in incredibly flattering ways -- "Like You" finds her mumbling virtually monotone, a brilliant contrast to the opera singer imitating a piccolo in the background. The first line, "Your rough hands turn me on," is blunt and effortlessly bizarre and the chorus, "I don't just like you, I like you like you...You can fluff my feathers," is 100 percent personality. However cutesy it is, it's incredibly individual. Similarly, "Little Star" is like a first-act number in a musical about B-list celebrity ("There is nothing special about me / I am just a little star"). It's adorable. And really, any album that can pull out Funkadelic's "Not Just Knee Deep" again and make it sound fresh (by just zapping with the bass line and then allowing for a brief vocal flare-up during the breakdown), deserves a pat on its back.
And not for nothing, but did you read Sia Michel's New York profile of Kelis, aka the most barren 1500-or-so words published last week? Michel merely says that Kelis is smart and never once proves it (perhaps reflecting her subject's general tell-don't-show philosophy) So wait, Kelis's claim that, "I'm a gay guy's best accessory," isn't supposed to suggest mental deficiency? Even worse is this poor attempt at disguising vomit as a sentence: "While Jay-Z and Beyoncé are hip-hop's power couple, Nas and Kelis are its boho intellectuals." No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Has Nas ever done one thing once ever ever ever that suggested he was "boho?" And, you know, he's fairly sharp, but intellectual? (And if I have to say it: I don't think Kelis has ever showed any sign of notable intelligence. I don't think she has much of a point of view. I do think that she probably really believes that she's the first girl to scream on a track. I mean, have you ever heard her talk? I think she's actually proved herself to be pretty pretentious by claiming to be different than the rest and still ending up as this pop puppet and not even a totally effective one that can move units.). All of this is on top of the fact that the way that Michel's bullshit is phrased suggests that Nas and Kelis are hip-hop's only boho intellectuals. Because there are only two rhythmic black folks in the meager niche of pop music that is hip-hop who can fill that quota, right? Seriously, Michel: do you need Erykah Badu to stick lit incense up your ass to achieve enlightenment? Would Common stuffing a crocheted hat down your throat help you see the light?
Jessica Simpson's A Public Affair album is awful. Duh. What you might not have expected is how devious it is. The first single and title track garnered rightful comparisons to Madonna's "Holiday" and "Lucky Star" (and Sal Cinquemani draws a sound parallel to the spirit of a lot of Janet's stuff). "A Public Affair" unquestionably owes debt to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (and it knows it -- Ashford and Simpson are credited among its eight songwriters). Up after that is more recycling: a full-on cover of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" (by far the best track here, though). Beyond that, "B.O.Y." samples the Cars' "Just What I Needed" and "Walkin' 'Round in a Circle" takes Fleetwood Mack's "Dreams." I obviously have no problems with sampling, but here, it's folded in capriciously -- elements of these songs are used, but actual melodies are not. We're to be reminded only vaguely. The old songs, then, sort of slip in unconsciously and the whole thing seems Pavlovian -- you responded before with your wallet and/or interest before, you'll respond again. There's no sign of tribute or really respect to these tracks (which, you know, is a hallmark of effective sampling in hip-hop) -- it's just exploitation across the board (of the originals, of the results, of the listeners). It's like the difference between sampling DeBarge's "Stay With Me" (like Biggie's "One More Chance" did) and sampling "One More Chance" (like Ashanti's "Foolish" did). The air of sneakiness is so thick that I wonder if she cut "Swing With Me" after hearing of the concept of Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics. $10 says she did.
And not for nothing but the shit that isn't based on other musical sources is no better. "Push Your Tush" makes me pray for dysentery (no pushing for me, thanks!). It's a country-disco embarrassment ("Cock-a-doodle-doo!" for real). But mostly, it's the musical manifestation of an event in the Special Olympics of Simpson's brain.
I don't know exactly what it is, but for some reason, Janet Jackson is the one artist I have no ability to be objective about (it could have something to do with my heart that bleeds eternally for underdogs). I know that so far, the singles from 20 Y.O. have been underwhelming, but that hasn't stopped me from thoroughly enjoying them. I'm almost sorry to say that I really love "So Excited." I love Jermaine's chopping of Khia's vocals that make her actual input mercifully brief ("Is you hu, is you hu-, is you hungry? Hungry? Hungry?"). I love Janet's bottom pride ("Throw me up against whatever's close and get to bossing me around"). I love the nasty "Nasty" synth. I love the fairly sly use of the "Rockit" sample -- really, when I heard they'd be using Herbie Hancock's track, I expected something like this. I guess I just didn't have the capacity to be disappointed by "Excited," then.
And not for nothing, but I'm not so into "Enjoy," another recently leaked 20 Y.O. track. Everyone else seems to think this is the best of the three. I'm alone again. I just feel like she's trying to hurt us with those notes she's "hitting."
Have I told you lately how much I love the Knife's Silent Shout? I know I haven't, but it's true -- it's probably my favorite album of the year (at least, it's one of the few albums that's gotten better over time and not faded into some distant memory). It's been out for months and it's so widely praised that I adding to that in any great detail would just be like adding a boner to the line-up of one of those really ambitious gang bangs. Who cares, right? I will say, though, that the album fills a Kate Bush void for me. Aerial, Kate's album last year, was OK and all, but it really didn't showcase what I love most about her -- widard-like (or is that witchy?) production. It's probably wise that she didn't focus on that, though, as she might be horribly inept at navigating modern technology (the weirdness of Aerial is all in the songwriting and voice). The Knife, however, are techno-savvy, and like Kate, are also willing to tell bizarre stories and risk sounding stupid to be scary. Regardless, they're using modern dance-music conventions in a pop template and they don't end up sounding like, you know, Cascada, so kudos to them.
And not for nothing, but the Radio Slave "Secret Base" Remix of "We Share Our Mothers' Health" is totally kicking my ass right now.
The Throwback of the Week this time around is an exercise in subtlety -- Shirley Murdock's "As We Lay." This song is perfect. Kelis, are you paying attention?
And more than perfect, "As We Lay" is strange without any sense of bombardment. It's weird that a song about cheating should sound so sweet, and even more, it's weird that a song so sweet should have a creepy, flimsy synth as the outstanding instrumental component (though, to be fair, it was '86 and it was a Roger Troutman production). Since I'm gushing, I can't neglect Murdock's effort. She steps up and delivers the tour de force that the showy '80s demanded. Her interpretation totally realizes the song's shift in focus from the rational ("It's morning," is her matter-of-fact opening) to the hopelessly emotional. She eventually reaches a decidedly unsubtle intensity, but not before taking the entire song to build it -- before the climax of the final chorus, only certain words and phrases are emphasized ("separate ways," "pain we caused," "wife"). They swell with emotional subtext and are placed brilliantly -- because of them, we know that she cares more about this one-night stand than she thinks she should. I love the choice of mentioning her trick's wife, but not her own significant other -- is it too painful a subject to bring up, or has she just not gotten around to thinking of him yet? And if it's the latter, why isn't she thinking of him? We never know for sure and the song is better for it (contrast it with Kelly Price's over-the-top 2000 cover, in which she takes the initiative to wail "wife" once again during the song's climax, helping to quash most ambiguity). Murdock finally ends the song where she began literally, but not emotionally -- she repeats, in two different vocal modes, "It's morning." In the foreground, it's soothing and collected enough to be a practical wake-up call. Slightly, sadly in the background, it's an ad-libbed lament. The two co-exist, and it's strangely peaceful.
And not for nothing, but Shirley's hair in the shot above is every bit the masterpiece that the song is.