December 9, 2003

Keys Strikes Again
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

When a British magazine recently asked Alicia Keys how her life had changed since her last album, she replied, "I'm definitely older." Fortunately, Keys proves herself more adept at songwriting than interviews on her impressive, soulful sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys.

Alicia Keys has quite a bit to live up to following her critically acclaimed debut, Songs in A Minor, which earned the 21-year-old singer more Grammys than she could carry. Not to be outdone by fellow mellow diva and reigning Grammy empress Norah Jones, Keys once again combines her amazing (though often self-referenced) talent as a classical pianist with her passionate voice and romantic lyrics to produce another beautiful album.

The first single on the album is the Kanye West-produced "You Don't Know My Name," which samples the Main Ingredient track "Let Me Prove My Love To You." The song's lush Motown sound explores the moment before speaking to someone that attracts your attention. The song features Keys as a waitress interested in one of her customers, played in the video by (former) rapper Mos Def, who has apparently abandoned hip-hop altogether in deference to his thespian career.

Keys takes it back to 1971 for a remake of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "If I Were Your Woman" and Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" for the creatively titled "If I Was Your Woman (Walk on By)." The song, along with "Samsonite Man" and "Diary," allow Keys' rolling piano to compliment her soaring voice, which she at times exaggerates until it borders ridiculously orgiastic levels.

Keys deviates from her usual romantic R&B ballads on "Wake Up," an unexpected criticism of the War on Terror. Two days after September 11, Keys told a reporter that she "saw lies" in the American flag, yet she posed for a magazine in front of a large flag three months later. "Wake Up" is sung from the perspective of a soldier's wife, pleading, "Bring my baby back home."

Timbaland brings more old school flavor to the album on "Heartburn," which sounds like a theme song to a 1970s blaxpoitation film. By working with more hip-hop producers, Keys' album lacks the consistency of her previous pure neo-soul album, yet she demonstrates greater versatility as an artist. She will hopefully never turn into just another R&B/hip-hop cross-over singer such as Ashanti or Mariah Carey, but her undeniable musical talent seems to indicate this will not occur in the near future.

So far, her collaborations with hip-hop artists have produced wonderful results, such as "Streets of New York." Unfortunately, the song, which is currently exploding on the mixtape circuit, was inexplicably left off the album at the last second, though it might be included as a bonus track on a reissue. The song samples the DJ Premier-produced hip hop classic "NY State Of Mind" from Nas' 1994 debut Illmatic and features new verses from Rakim and Nas.

Keys takes a few limited risks with her music and succeeds in producing another listenable album that, at times, borders on the beautiful. She better bring a backpack with her to the Grammys this year, and Norah better be practicing.
Stone stumbles over top 500
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

I would love to say that Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," featured in the current issue, reflects the extreme musical bias of the magazine and mainstream media in general. Yet, the sneaky editors managed to absolve themselves of any responsibility by assembling the list through the votes of musicians, producers, critics, and record executives. As a result, my only conclusion is that even musically knowledgeable individuals have bad taste. Rolling Stone admits, "If you don't like some of the choices, blame Britney." Spears was one of the voters.

Most disappointingly, the list offers very few surprises. Once again, it's obvious that by relying exclusively on popular opinion, one inevitably arrives at insipid results that do not offend nor inspire (does anyone remember the last presidential election?).

The Top 10 is dominated by four Beatles albums (including Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at No. 1), which is very difficult to argue against, yet I still would have been impressed to see a bit more creativity. As expected, the Beatles top the list with 11 albums, followed by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. I was surprised and impressed to see Rolling Stone recognize The Clash at No. 8 with London Calling and The Velvet Underground's self-titled debut at No. 13.

Many of my gripes with the list are based on personal taste and nothing more than sarcastic comments from the peanut gallery: Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut deserves to be much higher than #29 and much, much higher than John Lennon's first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, which is overrated at #22. Modern music was ignored in general, yet U2 gets the credit they deserve with The Joshua Tree at #26 and Achtung Baby at #62. Nonetheless, the three additional U2 albums on the list are superfluous and take up space that could be otherwise put to better use.

Still, these are entirely subjective personal preferences over which I entertain discussion and remain conscious of the fact that the polled voters very possibly understand more about the history of music than I do. These are disagreements of nuance; whether The Doors' eponymous debut or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is the better album is entirely up for debate, with either side capable of making a passionate and compelling case.

Some issues, on the other hand, are not up for debate. There are some mistakes and omissions that are so glaringly apparent that I can fathom no explanation other than drug-induced confusion or internal corruption (based on the sketchy polling method of tabulating votes "according to a weighted point system developed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young"). Here, Rolling Stone, you reveal your fundamental misunderstanding of the last century of music:

Bruce Springsteen: The Boss undeniably commands a passionate following of devoted fans, and his music speaks profoundly to everyone raised in the fine state of New Jersey. Nevertheless, most of America is not from the Garden State and as a result does not suffer from the delusion that Springsteen deserves to be compared to actual musical geniuses such as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Like other musicians with inexplicable cult followings, such as KISS and Jimmy Buffett, Springsteen brings undeniable energy to his live sets in order to compensate for his equally undeniable lack of substance. From the cheesy love ballads of Tunnel of Love to the easy-to-sell patriotism of Born in the USA, the eight Springsteen albums on the list prove that much of the self-described "eclectic and stellar panel of experts" must have allowed their 16-year-old daughters to answer the poll instead of bothering to do it themselves.

Rolling Stone's single worst decision was to allow Greatest Hits CDs to be considered on the list as albums. An album is an artistic creation with a specific identity, which ideally should result in an experience greater than the sum of its songs, and it deserves to devoured in its original form. Greatest Hits compilations, such as Bob Marley's Legend (No. 46), are for lazy fans who lack the energy and passion to listen to true albums such as Marley's Catch a Fire (No. 123) and Natty Dread (No. 182). From Buddy Holly's 20 Golden Hits (No. 92) to Hank Williams' 40 Greatest Hits, "Best Of" compilations are conceived in the boardroom of the record label, not the bedroom of the musician.

I expected hip-hop to remain disrespected and underrepresented on this list, which of course, it was. Despite 25 years of vibrant hip-hop culture, it remains largely misunderstood by mainstream media (as evident in Bill O'Reilly's absurd condemnation of rappers, rather than poverty or poor education, for causing violence in inner cities). Public Enemy earns the top hip-hop ranking at No. 48 with its their groundbreaking diatribe against the racist power structure in America, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Hip-hop subsequently disappears from the list again until No. 120: Run-DMC's Raising Hell. It was Run-DMC's collaboration with rock superstars Aerosmith for "Walk This Way" that established hip-hop's mainstream influence. The confluence of rock and rap ushered a large white fan base into hip-hop, as demonstrated by the two Beastie Boys albums and all three Eminem albums on the list. It's tempting to attribute the apparent preference for white emcees as an indication of America's racism, yet it is truly despite their race, and not because of it, that Eminem and the Beastie Boys have proven themselves deserving of their recognition.

And yet, the most deserving rapper in the history of hip-hop, recognized among his peers as one of the greatest of all time and respected as both a poet and revolutionary figure comparable to John Lennon, remains unrecognized. The absence of Tupac Shakur is not only conspicuous but bewildering. Both All Eyez on Me and Me Against the World deserve to replace any of the following insipid albums that inexplicable made the list:

No Doubt - No. 316 Rock Steady. Why would this made-for-TRL album rank higher than Tragic Kingdom? And why would No Doubt make the list instead of Sublime? Because Gwen is hot.

Madonna - No. 363 Ray of Light and No. 452 Music. At 40 years old, the Material Girl has better abs and a worse voice than she did at 20.

TLC - No. 377 CrazySexyCool. Just because "Waterfalls" will forever retain a place in your heart because it was playing at your favorite dance in junior high, it does not mean that TLC deserves to be anywhere near this list.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - No. 399 Californication. The band with the funkiest bassist in town gets dressed, sells out, and plays a few poppy radio hits for MTV.

November 18, 2003

Tupac Shakur narrates thug life from the grave
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

Las Vegas. Sept. 7, 1996. One dead. No suspects.

While the rest of the world argues over Tupac Shakur's life and death, a new film by director Lauren Lazin allows Tupac himself to explain the tragedy. Uncharacteristically, he apparently has little to say.

"I got shot."

Tupac's unsettling tendency to speak about himself in the past tense, along with his disposition towards self-prophesy, allowed Lazin to use the deceased artist as the narrator in her film Tupac: Resurrection. "This is my story, a story about ambition, violence, redemption, and love," Tupac explains.

Viewed as a documentary, the film has many flaws. The cut and paste method of putting together audio snippets in an effort to make a cohesive narration fails at certain points and begs serious questions about journalistic integrity. The film should instead be enjoyed as another opportunity to appreciate firsthand Tupac's charismatic presence and surprising humor.

The movie follows the chronological path of Tupac's surreal development from a dorky teenager enrolled in the Baltimore School of the Performing Arts, where he studied acting and ballet, to a homeless street hustler with a mother addicted to crack, to the best selling rap artist of all time involved in a deadly feud with another hip-hop legend, to getting shot five times and then convicted of sexual abuse the next day.

Both socially conscious and unabashedly irreverent, Tupac's legacy will forever be defined by contradiction. Nowhere is his hypocrisy more acute than in his depiction of women; he defines himself as a feminist yet demonstrates himself as a misogynist, often in the same breath. The film affords Tupac the opportunity to explain himself, often first admitting his own weaknesses and then going on to prove himself not a contradiction, but a paradox.

The film does not shy away from Tupac's many flaws and offers a relatively balanced portrayal that avoids the expected hagiography. Surprisingly, Tupac seems to be the only one who managed to avoid exaggerating his own importance. He accepted his own limitations and admitted his weakness, yet also realized his profound influence. "I may not change the world," he said, "but I will set the spark off in the mind that does."

At its best, the movie offers Tupac the chance to speak uninterruptedly to the audience. His greatest gift was his profound insight into the plight of the poor in America. He narrates, "I did not create thug life; I diagnosed it ... I don't understand why America doesn't understand thug life. What makes my freedom less worth fighting for than Bosnians or whoever [America] wants to fight for this year?"

Tupac carried the torch of the Black Panthers into the new century, teaching young black men to be proud and proactive after being frustrated with begging for an illusionary equality that white America, from Tupac's perspective, never intended to grant.

October 21, 2003

Ludacris serves soggy Chicken, warm Beer
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

Ludacris is known to get freaky from time to time with his lady friends, drink inordinate amounts of expensive alcohol, and even partake in some smoking of marijuana, but he has never allowed his rapper lifestyle to distract him from his true priorities, which he explains on "Hip Hop Quotables" from his new album: "It's the chicken and the beer that makes Luda keep rappin'." In homage to the loves of his life, Ludacris has named the new album Chicken and Beer, which says quite a bit about the quality of his new effort.

On his first two albums, Ludacris remained faithful to a simple, though thoroughly enjoyable, recipe of party songs with surprisingly witty and often hilarious lyrics. His music was never inspiring, but it bounced with enough frivolity that it convinced the listener to just enjoy it. Music does not always need to be a dissertation on contemporary social conditions or a profound musing of artistic expression. Luda is about simple fun and he admirably doesn't pretend to be anything else. Sure, chicken can cause heart disease and beer is full of empty calories, but they are oh-so-good. Unfortunately, the musical production on this project is so poor that listening to it is like eating soggy fried chicken with bitter, cheap beer.

The first problem is that Ludacris chose too many producers to work with, and as a result, the album lacks any semblance of cohesion. Kanye West, DJ Nasty, and Medicine Men all share producing responsibility, and the collage of each artist's unique sound creates a choppy effect. Unfortunately, Ludacris' album not only lacks a consistent vibe, it's an assortment of songs that have nothing in common other than the fact that they are really bad. Lots of hip-hop albums suffer from musical schizophrenia as a result of rappers' apparent lack of interest in creating full albums instead of mixtape compilations of hit singles. At least those albums have some good songs, even if they lack a soul. Ludacris has gotten away with his musical immaturity in the past partly because it was oddly endearing, but mostly because his songs were undeniably hot. Like beer left out of the fridge, Ludacris' music doesn't taste as good as it did.

Following Pepsi's decision to terminate Ludacris' endorsement contract, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly voiced his opinion of support, arguing that a rapper such as Ludacris is an inappropriate role model for young kids. Instead, Pepsi hired the Osbournes, without any resulting criticism from O'Reilly. Ludacris and many others were infuriated about the apparent double standard and called Pepsi's decision hypocritical and O'Reilly a racist. Some of the more eloquent/serious members of the hip-hop community (such as Russell Simmons) came onto the O'Reilly Factor to defend Ludacris' lyrics as a legitimate form of self-expression and also to attack O'Reilly's prejudice against black musicians.

On the album, Ludacris throws in his two cents, clearly unbothered with his own immaturity, by calling O'Reilly some unsavory names. O'Reilly proves entirely ignorant of hip hop every time he opens his mouth on the subject, and it's unfortunate that Ludacris is vindicating O'Reilly's narrow-minded position by embracing negative stereotypes. Nevertheless, Ludacris' job isn't to justify hip-hop to the world, but he needs to make good albums. If this album was as good as his last one, no one would be complaining.

October 7, 2003

Def Jux rappers grab mic
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

What if Salvador Dali gave up painting and fell in love with two turntables and a microphone? Why weren't there any Dada rappers? Aesop Rock, with his stream of unconscious flow and abstract, almost incomprehensible lyrics, answered questions that have been nagging mankind for years on Wednesday at the Paradise Rock Club for the release party for his new album Bazooka Tooth.

The concert was a gathering of independent record label Def Jux musicians and a homecoming for some of Boston's most talented emcees. Locals Mr. Lif and Akrobatik, who opened along with DJ Fakts One, have dominated the local hip-hop scene for almost a decade. Their set was the most inspired of the night, even upstaging headliners Aesop Rock and El-P.

Akrobatik commanded quite a presence onstage with his linebacker physique and heavy bass voice, while Mr. Lif is famous for his intellectually stimulating, politically conscious content and faux-nerdy delivery.

Fakts One cut the beat during "Home of the Brave" and let Lif spit his most famous verse a cappella: "This further demonizes Afghanis/ So Americans cheer while we kill their innocent families/ And what better place to start a war/ To build a pipeline to get the oil that they had wanted before."

The crowd roared with support for the post-9/11 tirade against the Bush Administration, which says a lot about the performers' demographic: liberal, educated, and politically aware with a priority on lyricism and non-commercial production. It became unmistakably clear that this was not a typical Jammin' 94.5 rap concert when the loudest crowd response came after one of El-P's raps about domestic repression of free speech and dissent. He yelled, "Who's read their Orwell?" and the crowd went wild with affirmation.

Officially, the night belonged to Aesop Rock, the poetically erratic rapper known for his complicated, abstract lyrical content. It's not that he fails to enunciate his words or rhymes too fast; he is actually speaking gibberish at times and yet it sounds brilliant. Aesop's high-energy delivery borders on psychosis and, on stage, his eyes scream with schizophrenic energy that complements his spastic rhyme style (like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Aesop looks as though he should be locked up somewhere).

Of course, the very nature of underground hip-hop is responsible for the crowd's enthusiasm: unlike at mainstream performances, a show like this draws a small group of very dedicated, knowledgeable fans who eat, drink, and breathe hip-hop. The energy level mounted all night and exploded in climax during Aesop's last song "Daylight." Aesop is a very talented rapper, yet by no means one of the best. Yet, he has produced one of the most captivating songs in hip-hop history. Melodically tantalizing and lyrically bewitching, the song floats, flutters, and disappears.

Aesop's purely abstract lyrical aesthicism can be frustrating and a bit draining, yet during his performance he led the delighted crowd in dizzying circles, leaving it bewitched and bewildered by the eccentric emcee. The crowd screamed along with every nonsensical bit of Aesop's jabberwocky as he finished, "Stomach full of halo kibbles/ Wingsspan cast black of porn visuals hear the duck hunt ticker tape/ Vision and pick apart the pixels."

September 23, 2003

OutKast divides and conquers on new album
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

After three years of studio experimentation, one of the world's most-anticipated album quickly became one of the world's most difficult to grasp. Overflowing with groundbreaking music, the double album could not entirely hold itself together and nearly burst at its seams. Divergent artistic visions and individual aspirations were pulling the band apart, and the resulting music, hitherto augmented by the juxtaposition of different styles, could now no longer survive the tension.

The year is 1968 and the album is the Beatles' White Album, yet the story might as well refer to OutKast and its new release Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. Coming off the overwhelming success of 2000's Stankonia, which sent critics fleeing to their thesauruses to find more hyperbolic ways to express admiration, the Atlanta duo ran into difficulty producing their follow-up. What do you do when everyone is expecting the unexpected?

The interaction between OutKast members Big Boi and Andre 3000 has always distinguished the group by exploiting their unique skills and creating something greater than the sum of their parts. Dre, the quixotic Gemini, propelled them into the funkiest layers of the stratosphere, while Big Boi, the gritty Aquarius, kept their feet firmly planted in the hood.

The apparent contradiction finally revealed itself as unsustainable when OutKast confirmed rumors that they were working on solo efforts to be packed as a double album. Rumors fluttered about that Andre instigated the separation and that he was tired of being limited by rapping and wanted to pursue other genres of music.

"OutKast, cell therapy, to cell division/ We just split it down the middle so you see both the visions," promises Big Boi. The two albums offer each artist the opportunity to explore his own personal agenda and result in two diametrically different sounds. As expected, Big Boi's half, Speakerboxxx, embraces the deep-fried, Deep South sound of classic OutKast. The album deserves praise for its consistent strength and would be considered progressive if it hadn't been packaged in the same case as Andre 3000's The Love Below.

Andre eschews rapping altogether and prefers to croon his way through an 80-minute meditation on the nature of love and relationships. The infectious joie de vivre with which he sings justifies his imperfect falsetto (though still superior to Pharrell Williams' high-pitched whine), yet his lyrical abilities are so impressive that it's truly a shame to lose such a great emcee.

But this album isn't about hip-hop; it's about mesmerizing music without boundaries. It's full of dizzying, incandescent explosions of brilliance that lead the enthralled listener in every unexpected direction. At times Dre seems over-ambitious and distracted by what amounts to musical masturbation, such as his obnoxious techno cover of "My Favorite Things." Andre flutters without hesitation from each of his creative impulses, apparently apathetic to the listener.

In one of the least likely and most successful collaboration in recent music, Andre and Norah Jones come together for a beautiful, simple duet in which Jones sings, "Baby, take off your cool/ I want to get to know you." Perhaps Dre should heed her advice and abandon his "too cool for rap" attitude so that OutKast can reachieve its yin-yang balance.