Posts Tagged ‘Prince’
I figured Bruno Mars had the goods ever since I saw him performing Barrett Strong’s “Money” on video a couple of years ago. But his earlier records, even the best of them, didn’t prepare me for how intense and beautifully crafted Unorthodox Jukebox is, and how far ranging Mars’s stylistic influences go. It’s not a perfect album—it’s stiff in places, shallow at times, and the production is too pristine for some of the ideas he’s trying to pull off—but it’s still one of the best pop albums of last year.
Among critics, the favorite track appears to be “Treasure”, a stunning Prince-style piece of pop funk that could have been released in the mid-eighties, or maybe even the seventies. For me, though, the most surprising track is “Gorilla”.
What makes “Gorilla” stand out is simple, yet rare: it’s dirty. That may not seem like anything special, but not many people make truly dirty records anymore. Not even Prince. Even at his most pornographic, Prince always layers his lustful fantasies with a sophisticated eroticism, the musical equivalent of soft focus and satin backdrops. Most of the time he kept a certain distance, hyping sex as a mystical and spiritual experience as much as a physical one.
But even records that avoid that sophisticated, lover-man vibe rarely dig deep into the idea of raunch. Rap records are noted for their pornographic attention to detail, but the sexual world of rap too often revolves around ideas of power and dominance, a defensive need to provide proof of masculinity, and, its worst, disgust. When it doesn’t, it works the loverman vibe as well, taking its cues from Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and, again, Prince.
But “Gorilla” is different. There’s no sense of domination or of a power struggle; the partners are equal in their gorilla-like lust and sexual energy (Mars brags about his prowess and pulls on her hair, but in the context of the song it sounds like part of their sexual back-and-forth, not an attempt to dominate). At the same time, even with its lack of graphic pornographic description, there are no romantic asides or sensual scene-setting in “Gorilla”. Mars and his partner meet, fuck, and as far as can be told from the song, don’t waste their time thinking about their past, their future, their relationship to each other, or anything else.
Aside from the music, which builds to successive waves of orgasm throughout the song, what’s most striking is Mars’s use of obscenity. The word “fuck” appears twice, and each time Mars sets it for maximum impact. At the end of the second verse he promises the woman she’ll be screaming “Give it to me motherfucker!”, and in one line in the final chorus changes “Making love like gorillas” to “fucking like gorillas.” Each moment comes as a shock, both in the context of the song and in terms of Mars’s persona.
It’s not that Mars hasn’t used obscenities before in his songs (think of the hook he wrote for Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”), and there are plenty on his Twitter feed, but it’s always been in a lighthearted, throwaway manner. At the same time, Mars’s voice, which at times echoes Smokey Robinson, at others Sam Cooke (and occasionally both at once), seems custom made for romance and sensuality. But Mars doesn’t show much interest in either one. If he is intentionally echoing those singers, it’s the Robinson of “Going to A Go-Go” or the Sam Cooke of Live at the Harlem Square Club that he’s trying to capture, not “”The Tracks of My Tears” or Live at the Copa.
The only apt comparison I can think of would be to the raunchy blues and r&b of the thirties through the fifties, even though “Gorilla” sounds nothing like them. Since Mars started his career as a very young Elvis impersonator, and as his cover of “Money” attests, he may be particularly attuned to that style of music and that era. Not just the music, though, but also the attitudes, the atmosphere, the smell.
Sex that is simply sex, as raunchy and dirty as it can be, is something that barely exists in the pop world anymore (Ke$ha may be the one exception, but she doesn’t seem as interested as she used to be). In its heyday it was hidden and shrouded in innuendo, in our more liberal era it’s a curiosity, overwhelmed by fetishizing and the boring everydayness of the explicit. When Mars says fuck he means it, and he wants you to feel it. Forget the sexy; he wants to bring the dirty back.
50 Cent featuring Dr. Dre & Alicia Keys—“New Day”
Another uplifting chorus from Alicia Keys (“Empire State of Mind” it ain’t), a familiar-sounding snare drum beat from her hubby, and 50 Cent at his most mush-mouthed, lying to us: “Nothing matters but the music/Music my first love”. It’s already the clarion call of second-raters around the world, but just a few years ago 50 Cent was saying music was just one element in his diversified portfolio, a way of making quick cash so he could do some real business. Guess that didn’t work out. Oh yeah, also featuring Dr. Dre as himself.
Listening to Miguel’s trilogy of brief mixtapes from earlier this year, Art Dealer Chic, the obvious comparison was to Prince, but this, a reworked version of the song that opened the series, is more Al Green, especially when Miguel is demonstrating his falsettos near the end (yes, he has more than one, and they’re all great). The song itself, and the arrangement, are too busy at times, but that’s because Miguel has more ideas, and feelings, than he knows what to do with, not because he’s covering up any defects. He’s still learning how to deploy his gifts, but this is the best R&B record since “Climax”, and he’s only going to get better.
Rick Ross featuring Wale & Drake—“Diced Pineapples”
If the title, which is a metaphor for both diamonds and pussy, but mostly the latter, doesn’t give you the giggles, Wale’s Smoove B impersonation on the introduction will (“The better my effort, the wetter her treasure”). Rick Ross lowers the temperature a bit, if only by conjuring up images of Rick Ross having sex, while Drake deepens the chill by doing his sad-sack-who-feels-your-pain-and-gets-laid-in-the-process routine. Wale’s final verse is already forgotten. In other words, business as usual.
This is so heavy. Not only is it about the Apocalypse (it says so, right in the lyric: “This is it, the Apocalypse”), but it’s also about the coming of a new age (“Welcome to the new age”). The singer himself, it turns out, is the one who’s radioactive (“I’m radioactive! I’m radioactive!”), and it’s all so heavy he has to stop before the end of the first verse to catch his breath; his inhalation is mixed higher than even the lumbering drums and super-distorted pseudo-dubstep bass, so you know he’s really feeling it. Somebody must like these guys, because this is the second track off their EP to make the Hot 100 in the last month. Every generation has its Queensryche, I suppose.
Keyshia Cole featuring Lil Wayne—“Enough of No Love”
I’ve always liked Keyshia Cole, even though most of her records have been mediocre. This is one of the better ones, a soulful lament with a good string arrangement, perfectly sung with just the right balance of strength, defiance, and bitterness. The song doesn’t build the way it should, though, and the chorus lacks musical punch and drama. Then there’s Lil Wayne’s feature. He plays it just right, at first, sacrificing enough of his usual charm to come on like the jerk the guy in the song is supposed to be, but he loses most of his energy along with it, and his rap tails out with a dumb play on Cole’s name that doesn’t fit at all. It’s a shame; a little more work and this could have been a great one.
Ne-Yo—“Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)”
This isn’t a complete failure, but it feels wrong. Ne-Yo’s attempt to fit his subtle lover man croon to a Euro-disco backdrop sounds strained, not just vocally, but in terms of melody as well. Cutting his usual long, smooth lines into staccato bits strikes me as a mistaken compromise, a failed attempt to maintain his old musical personality in the face of commercial necessity. It’s more interesting in its way than the usual Ibiza outpouring, but not by much. And the title is a disaster. He needs the parenthetical, because he’s already written a song called “Let Me Love You” (a number one for Mario in 2005), but it sure leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. Is he going to dump her once she learns to love herself, or is he holding back the full force of his affection until then? Whatever the case, the title sounds as compromised as the song itself.
Kendrick Lamar—“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Despite putting out one of the best albums of last year (Section.80) and being officially anointed by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as the savior of LA rap, Lamar has been keeping a fairly low profile, at least compared to, say, Frank Ocean. But in his own way Lamar is as emotionally open as Ocean is, and in many ways he’s better. He lacks Ocean’s soulful voice and falsetto, but he’s a brilliant rapper, and his sense of humor cuts deeper. Here he deploys more funny voices than a Funkadelic album to shade a serious portrait of a binge drinking loser who just happens to be named Kendrick. The silliest voice, naturally, is the one that gives him the best advice, while the hippest one tells him to fill his pool with liquor and “diiiive in”. Easily the best rap record to hit the chart so far this year.
Love him or hate him, he was a force, and though his last years, especially after his stroke, turned him into something of a joke, he did more to make rock and roll the center of popular culture than anyone besides the performers themselves. Michaelangelo provides the perfect obituary, along with some great clips, including Clark trying to interview Prince (and doing far better than just about anyone else would under the circumstances).
Thompson Square—”I Got You”
Another sign that the most powerful outside influence on country is no longer the Eagles, or even Fleetwood Mac, but Tom Petty. The Hammond organ is the giveaway, along with the occasional elegiac sustained chord sequence. The lyrics, however, are pure cliché (unlike Petty, who’s only banal), and, as usual for modern country, the guitars are way too loud.
Pistol Annies—”Heel On Heels”
The red dirt slide guitar intro is great, and on first hearing I couldn’t imagine any country artist who could rise to its promise. Even though this is far better than average, I still can’t. The lyrics are wonderful—the devil made them smart and they have your credit card to boot—and I like that Miranda Lambert makes no attempt to upstage her colleagues. But this is still a little stiff, and the clapping on the last chorus is a mistake: I think it’s intended to demonstrate feminine solidarity, even in the pursuit of evil, but all it does is soften the sound and atmosphere. They should have tried it with just that ghostly, menacing guitar.
The Wailers-style harmonies leading into the chorus is one of the funniest moments to grace a pop record this year, and overall this pulls off a canny mixture of hip-hop and dub that I find fascinating. The lyrics are pleasantly silly throughout, but the association of true love with near-violent sex is bothersome, even if it’s just part of the joke.
Daddy Yankee featuring Prince Royce—”Ven Commigo”
A Latin rap/dance record that really makes me wish I spoke, or at least understood, Spanish. There’s a stretch in the middle where the staccato rhymes, if the words are on a level to match, are something special, and the occasional moments of English are odd enough (“I’m so hood…like Tiger Woods”) that I wish I understood more. It gets repetitive near the end, but before that it changes up nicely, and has an excellent, scene-setting intro. Makes me wish someone would set up a Latin rap translation site (if there already is one, let me know).
Jerrod Nieman—”One More Drinkin’ Song”
Not to be picky, but shouldn’t the singer of a happy-go-lucky drinking song sound like he actually drinks every once in a while? It’s clever in spots, sometimes too clever, but there isn’t a single moment of spontaneity or recklessness in the entire song. It comes off as nothing more than a stiff genre experiment. Nieman’s a talent, but he may be too much of a perfectionist for his own good.
Blaire LeVoir—”Digital Kiss”
The idea for the intro is stolen from Prince (not from a song, but from a segue between songs), the sound from David Guetta or RedOne or some other garish electro producer, and the theme of technologically-assisted passion from, uh, Gary Numan, if not Lost In Space. I would say the lyrics sounded like the fantasies of a sci-fi obsessed twelve-year-old if most twelve-year-olds didn’t show far more understanding of technology than LeVoir ever does. Sex, too.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Lavigne making teenpop in her mid-twenties. She helped invent the current strain, after all, and many people before her have done the same, and many will after. All the same, this record is inexcusable. There have been lots of songs about women who love men who mistreat them, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one that sounded as slick as a laminated Hallmark card before, or as clueless. She thinks it’s cute when he slips her roofies. Unhealthy at, or for, any age.
Ledisi—”Pieces Of Me”
Ledisi is a respected jazz singer, but this is cocktail soul at best, and the theme song to a discussion show on the Oprah Winfrey Network at worst. If she were white, her phrasing of “Fo’ sho’” would be derided as minstrelsy. I’m not sure it isn’t.
Even when she was on American Idol I though Pickler had more talent than people gave her credit for, or that she even gave herself credit for, and I still do. Her phrasing, obviously modeled on Dolly Parton, is wonderful, and the song, though not great, isn’t bad either. But Pickler doesn’t seem interested in doing anything but entertain—maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of anything else—and her self-doubt show’s through even when she’s acting tough. The result is a record that sounds like it should be fun but never delivers, and that you never once believe.
This is fast, at least for adult-contemporary, and Nathanson’s sense of craft makes it bearable. But when I hear a guy who’s been in the business for nearly twenty years sing about his girl tasting like “sunshine and strawberry bubblegum”, I figure he’s a middling careerist who’s had a lucky fall into a decent hook. The blaring horn arrangement confirms it.
Scotty McCreery—”I Love You This Big”
Lauren Alaina—”Like My Mother Does”
At first listen it seems as if the latest American Idol survivors have been granted better material than previous winners. But even though these songs are more specific in detail and less generic in overall tone, they’re still terrible, with lyrics that make you gasp in awe at their utter inanity. McCreery and Alaina make the best of it and deliver what they think is expected of them, but McCreery’s voice lacks seasoning—he needs experience: alcohol, sex, even more religion—while Alaina’s attempts to bend her song to her will result in a lot of growling and screaming and only make things worse. They’ll both do better. Whether either of them has the talent or brains to do much better is still an open question.
“Light Up the World”, #33
“For Good”, #58
“I Love New York/New York, New York”, #81
“As Long As You’re There”, #93
“You and I”, #36
“Marry the Night”, #79
The pleasure I take in Born This Way is largely a matter of sonics and structure. That’s not a putdown. When you create something that for the most part is collage and pastiche, both musically and lyrically, sonics and structure are what make the difference between bland imitation and creating something new, and GaGa gets them right every single time. And then she boosts them. The drums and guitar on “You and I” may owe their inspiration to Queen, but they outstrip and outboom anything that band ever did, and the fact that they’re tied to a song that borrows from highway rock and roll and even country and western puts it in a league of its own. “Marry The Night”, meanwhile, is more Springsteen-inspired disco, with a coda beamed in from a mid-90s rave. I still have my doubts about her lyrics, which are often blander than they need to be, and I don’t think she’s making anything truly new out of her sources, but her merger of hard rock with disco diva anthems (which is what that ridiculous cover photo is all about, in case you were wondering) is wondrous, even if it ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. Don’t think of it as something new, but as a well-earned celebration of a greatness we may have missed at the time.
I have my doubts about Beyonce’s soul moves, especially her high notes and the dynamics that accompany them, but thematically this is a breakthrough, the first Beyonce song about a relationship I’ve heard in which she isn’t either asserting her iron-willed dominance or making like a supplicant to her godlike man. That see-sawing from one extreme to another was getting tiresome, and this is a welcome relief. I bet it’s a relief to Jay-Z, too.
Lil Wayne—”How To Love”
I don’t think it’s the softness of sound that has caused so many people to write this song off. Sentimentality is as much a part of rap as any other kind of music, and if anyone has earned the right to a little mellow down time it’s Lil Wayne. What probably bothers hardcore rap fans more is the sense of empathy the song is based on. It isn’t really a love song, and it certainly isn’t a sex song. Instead, it’s a real attempt to understand where this woman is coming from and what she’s feeling, something more along the lines of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (even though the situation appears to be completely different) than your standard lover man rap. In other words, thematically it’s as far from the mainstream of rap as Wayne’s phrasing and twisting trains of thought have always been. Like the pre-prison “I’m Single”, it’s a record by someone who’s trying to sort out the world in all it’s aspects, not just as it relates to his place, position, and pleasure. Musically, Wayne still isn’t sure what to make of these ideas, so he falls too readily into cliche, but if he should ever figure it out, or find a collaborator who has, then watch out: he may well remake rap yet again.
Reeve Carney featuring Bono & The Edge—”Rise Above 1″
Not sure exactly what I expected a Broadway soundtrack written by Bono and The Edge to sound like, but I wasn’t expecting standard-issue U2, that’s for sure. Way to stretch your stylistic limits, guys. As for Reeve Carney, his Bono imitation is so exact I can only assume he thinks of Spiderman as a warm-up for that more lucrative U2 biopic that’s bound to appear sooner or later. Either that or he has a great future in tribute bands.
Mac Miller—”Donald Trump”
The white version of Wiz Khalifa, or Waka Flocka Flame, or maybe even Big Sean. How did we stand the wait?
Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter—”You and Tequila”
Strong, steady, and never overdone, this is as good as Chesney is ever going to get. With Grace Potter playing Emmylou Harris, he almost sounds human. There’s still something that doesn’t come across, though, and the stiff perfectionism of this record keeps it from classic territory. Damn close, though.
Reviewed in Bubbling Under, 6/4/11
Lupe Fiasco featuring Trey Songz—”Out Of My Head”
Reviewed in Bubbling Under, 5/21/11
“Teenage Dream”, #8
“Start Me Up/Living On a Prayer”, #31
“Stop! In the Name of Love/Free Your Mind”, #38
“One Love (People Get Ready)”, #41
The Black Eyed Peas—“The Time (Dirty Bit)”
Since I didn’t listen to radio much in the late ’80s, the use of one of the more irritating hits of that period doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others (besides, will.i.am, with far less of a voice, still sings it better than Bill Medley did), but there’s no doubt that this record represents the group running in place, if not retreating a bit. This is nearly as good as anything on The E.N.D., but it doesn’t break any new ground (unless you consider letting Fergie play diva over minimalist dance grooves a step forward). The E.N.D., whatever you think about the music, was undoubtedly one of the more daring albums of the last few years in terms of a band remaking it’s sound and image, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Peas spin their wheels a bit this time out.
“Scott Mescudi Vs. the World”, #92
These are good records—moody, reflective, self-absorbed but intelligent and with little evidence of self-pity. They’re only on the chart, though, because of 1) the tile; and 2) the presence of Cee-Lo Green. In other words, curiosity. Whether or not the audience is paying attention to what these songs, with their honest consideration of substance dependence, actually mean, is open to question. But Cudi deserves respect for putting the message out there.
Lupe Fiasco—“The Show Goes On”
I like the sound of this, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. And I liked the sound a lot more when T.I. did it five years ago.
Jeremih featuring 50 Cent—“Down On Me”
I like the music: a catchy pop mix of dancehall, dubstep, and hip-hop. But 50 Cent’s presence is a waste in more ways than one—even when he isn’t mumbling he utters nothing but cliches. Jeremih himself starts off shaky, but evens out once he gets to the hook. An interesting change of pace, but an uncertain one.
Lady Antebellum—“Hello World”
When they sing about love, Lady Antebellum play it subdued and classy; they’re not great, but it’s a welcome change from the usual over-arranged country blather. Here, though, they’re delivering a message to the world, and they pull out all the stops and pump all the pedals at once. To compound their sins, their obvious inspiration is R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”, both the song and the video, an exemplar of emotional intensity and restraint they warp and curdle for the purposes of their own soft-headed sentimentality before the end of the first verse. If this is how country music is going to move into the ‘90s, I prefer they stay where they are.
Jason Derulo—“What If”
A power ballad written and produced by J.R. Rotem. Think about that for a minute.
Tastelessness can be a virtue in pop music, but only if you’re funny, or if you’re being tasteless about subjects people are (secretly) attracted to. This isn’t funny, and the cannibal demographic is, as I understand it, somewhat limited. It’s like a big budget version of a zombie movie–the effects are more expensive but somehow less impressive, and all the insane amateurism has been taken out and replaced with studio gloss, resulting in something that’s not only gross but boring.
Twista featuring Chris Brown—“Make A Movie”
Fresh from his bunker, where it’s always 2003, Twista does his best to revive his video-porn fantasies, just like the good old days. Someone should take him aside and explain the difference between being retro and being in a rut.
“Maybe I’m a dreamer/Maybe I’m misunderstood…” What else do you expect from a band that rose to fame via the “Free Hugs” movement? Yuck.
Having softened up the AC demographic with two kinda cute, uptempo ditties, Train goes in for the sentimental kill. Chances are, this will be in the AC top ten for the next year. I’ve only listened to it once and I’m already sick of it.
Don Omar & Lucenzo—“Danza Kurduro”
Since I can’t understand the words (and even with a translation would probably miss subtleties that only native speakers would pick up), I’m not a good judge of this record. The music, though, sounds ordinary—the arrangement too busy, the production too harsh. Until I know better, I think I’ll stick with Pitbull.
Eric Benet—“Sometimes I Cry”
This retro-soul number has it’s attributes: it’s not a bad song, and the arrangement has a nice, mid-’90s Prince feel to it. But Benet’s falsetto gets old fast, and when he strains it near the end that’s all you hear: no emotion, just strain.
My favorite Grammy category, as far as this year’s nominees go, is Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’—Bob Dylan
Change In The Weather—John Fogerty
Working On A Dream—Bruce Springsteen
Fork In The Road—Neil Young
Apparently no one under the age of fifty is allowed to take part in this category—and if it wasn’t for Prince, that number would be sixty. Or is it just that no one under fifty would be caught dead as a rock solo act? As it happens, except for the members of Kings of Leon, all the nominees in the rock categories are over thirty, and most are closer to forty and beyond. And do you really think Kings of Leon would be nominated if they hadn’t sold a couple of million records this year? Not that there aren’t good songs on that list—and the two best are by the two oldest nominees—but, geez, even the Traditional Pop category shows a wider age range.