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Dispatches From The Mainstream: “Real and True”

I’m afraid that the currents of pop music are too vast and weird for me to comprehend, dear reader, because this has to be the most random three artists I have ever seen assembled together on one song.

Let’s start with Miley, since she’s pretty much naked in this video and I’m afraid that’s all people are going to take away from it. Less than six months ago, having Miley turn up in a song like this, dressed the way she is, would have been unthinkable. Die-hards (and people with too much time on their hands) would have known from the ominous tone and caged-bird imagery of “Can’t Be Tamed” that a new Miley was on the way, but it was a huge jump from the pole-dancing hullabaloo of “Party in the U.S.A.” (“You guys don’t think that Hannah Montana might be a sexual being, do you? No, me neither, that would drastically undermine my understanding of the world”) to “We Can’t Stop” and the madness of the accompanying VMAs performance, from which we as a nation are just beginning to recover.

Mr. Hudson is a long-time favorite of mine, but since most people know him as “that guy from Jay-Z’s worst song,” I’ll do a quick recap: Mr. Hudson made a lovely and intelligent indie-pop record in 2007, got discovered by Kanye West, who helped Hudson make his shiny-but-uneven follow-up Straight No Chaser, which left him in the awkward position of a guy who desperately tried to be a big-name pop star and failed. Since then, he’s languished in the background of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label, formed the hyperactive BIGkids side-project with Rosie Bones and… now he’s singing about entropy on a song with Future.

Future is perpetually living 2008 by way Kanye West and Lil Wayne at the same time. He never steps away from Auto-Tune, even when he’s rapping, but he doesn’t just use it to express emotion—though he does plenty of that. His constant vocal modification is just part of the loveable and all-encompassing weirdness that brings to mind a time when Lil Wayne wasn’t a stand-in for everything wrong with Hip-Hop; he was actually the underdog. Future’s lyrical ability is nowhere near Wayne at his peak, but his melodic sensibility is the real draw, and even when he throws out a real clunker of a verse, there’s usually something endearing about it.

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They’ve really got their best guys on this mission, huh?

Despite his open embrace of tenderness and vulnerability, “Real and True” is the furthest Future has ventured into pure ballad territory. The beat is sparse and piano centric, but the main instrument is Future’s voice, which runs through the background of the entire song. You wouldn’t think that a highly processed series of moans could lend a song this sort of melancholy feel, but there it is.

His delivery in the first verse—where he pays himself and his beau a series of compliments in a second person perspective—is close to rapping, but his next verse is straight-up singing. And if Future has trouble writing coherent rap verses, his songwriting game is all over the place.

Still, as fun as it is to watch Future goofily grin in the video as he says things of himself that no one has ever said or ever will say, there’s something genuinely affecting about the final verse. You’ll rarely find a rapper being this nakedly emotional or spouting a full-fledged endorsement of commitment. And even if the three lines that follow sound like they came from three separate songs, well, they’re still nice.

I could never be scared of commitment

I can prevail through life without bein’ malicious

I can’t hold you full responsible for your mischief

I hope you are never huntin’ me with vengeance

I mean, that’s a cool sentiment, right? That you can succeed in life without actively harming others. And I don’t really know whom he’s addressing in that last line, but hey, I get it. I hope no one ever hunts me with vengeance either, Future.

Oh, Miley Cyrus is on this song, right? I guess we should talk about that some more. But do you really need someone else’s opinion on Ms. Cyrus? I don’t want to delve into the cultural discussion surrounding her new identity, but I would like to say that Halloween was three weeks ago, so it might be time to take off the Rihanna costume.

Mr. Hudson sounds great belting out the chorus, and I hope this song catches on, because I’d love a new album from him. Until then, I GUESS I’ll settle for this intergalactic sci-fi epic where he teams up with Future to rescue lost astronaut Miley Cyrus who has turned into a glitter person with the power of teleportation. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Dispatches from the Mainstream, 3/15/2013

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Justin Bieber – Beauty And A Beat (feat. Nicki Minaj)

Justin Bieber: human meme. YouTube comments punching bag. Fixation of ironic alt-lit poets. This enigmatic figure known as “the Biebs” has loomed large in our culture for years now, but I’d wager that most people who make jokes about Justin—ie, lazy comedians and jerks—probably never heard one of his songs. Now, the freedom to dismiss things with no basis in fact or personal experience is your right as an American, but maybe we shouldn’t make it a habit to disparage a sixteen-year-old boy just because he’s effeminate and has money.

Anyway, “Boyfriend” marked something of a turning point: people started actually listening to Bieber’s music, and it seems like we all collectively decided that yeah, he was alright. There are still a few troglodytes holding Bieber up as an example of “how modern music is terrible” but we need to ignore those people until they wither away and die or just until they find a new pop star to hate. Hey, have you guys heard of Austin Mahone?

One thing that may have helped Bieber out is, well, puberty. He had the pleasant voice of a choirboy when he first showed up, and unfortunately, he had the charisma to match. These days, he’s at least learned to project a little personality, which helps him out a lot on “Beauty And A Beat”. The song is pretty generic modern-day R&B, dubstep breaks and all, enough that you might think any other singer would fit just as well. But you need someone with an air of innocence in order for these lyrics to work. “Body rock,” “party like it’s 3012”, even the titular line—a play on “Beauty & The Beast” that doesn’t make any sense—would be unforgivable clunkers on a Justin Timberlake record. Hell, they would even stick out on a Trey Songz record.

Nicki Minaj, who also lives on the razor’s edge between real person and living joke, does fine here, though her verse is most notable for the uncomfortable line about drugging Bieber and having sex with him when his girlfriend isn’t around. Just look at how awkward that moment is in the video. Oh, the video is fun, too. The found-footage conceit is silly, but the pseudo-handheld look really works. It’s almost like you’re actually there, partying with the Biebs himself! Gee, wouldn’t that be nice? Actually hanging out with Justin Bieber? Siiiiiiiigh.

Wait, what were talking about? 

Nicki Minaj – The Boys (feat. Cassie)

Speaking of Ms. Minaj, a few months ago she dropped her best song since  “Super Bass.” Minaj has a unique position in pop music, partially because she markets herself as a singer as much as she does a rapper. I don’t mind her actual singing—it’s the definition of serviceable—but I’m disappointed whenever she drops a single that neglects her rapping abilities. Minaj is wasted on slick dance numbers like “Starships” or “Pound The Alarm”. Give her something she can really sink her teeth into and she’ll usually impress. The beat on “The Boys” is perfectly suited to her aesthetic—booming, clacking, but with a bit of weirdness in the form of a bee-like synth squeaking around in the background.

The chorus is unique: Cassie’s dead-eyed and robotic delivery gives way to Nicki’s whining rap (and what appears to be a “Technologic” reference), until the whole beat drops out and is replaced by a gentle acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s from a whole different song—which it is—and Cassie gently croons one of the most sarcastic hooks in recent rap history. Then we’re right back at Nicki’s frantic rapping, which gets pitch-shifted for the double-time final verse but mostly stands on its own without even a single bit of hash-tag rap. A Nicki Minaj verse with punch lines that aren’t delivered after an awkward pause? Yep, believe it, it’s happening. She just came through with the Six, like her name was Blossom! What! I don’t even GET that reference!

But this is more than just a good rap song: this single holds the potential to revive Cassie’s career. I don’t know what happened to her after “Me & U,” but I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. I mean, how cool does she look in this video? Can she just be back now? Can we do that? Attention world: bring back Cassie. Specifically, bring back the deeply bitter, blazer-wearing Cassie with dyed, slicked-back hair. That would be just great.

Lil Wayne – Love Me (feat. Future & Drake)

Enough girl power–let’s move onto some really uncomfortable misogyny.

The video is required viewing for this discussion, because without it, all we’ve got is late-period Lil Wayne killing time between skateboarding sessions over a synth-based Mike WiLL made it beat. The only interesting part of this song is the all-too-brief appearance by Future, who still has the sort of “lovable oddball” energy that Wayne had years ago. Lyrically, we’ve got your typical anti-woman hip-hop tropes: we’ve got good bitches and bad bitches, and we only care about these women until we’re done having sex with them. Of course, it’s not our fault, no: we simply can’t treat these hoes like ladies; they’ve had way too much sex for that. I mean, what are they thinking?

But the video really elevates (lowers?) the experience to a higher level of objectification. Plenty of rap videos feature women as unspeaking symbols of success and sexual ability, but how many rap videos literally turn the women into animals and put them in cages? The whole theme of the video is vaguely occult—at least enough to bait some Illuminati conspiracy theorists—but it’s not coherent enough to even offer an explanation for why the women are all Dr. Moreau-esque abominations. But this is a rap video, so we don’t really need an explanation, and isn’t that sad? An artist in a different field could actually lose their career over something as tacky as this.

I usually deflect criticisms of violence and sexism in rap by comparing the genre to a good crime movie: you enjoy the abhorrent content not for its own sake, but because of the presentation. I don’t like Reservoir Dogs because a guy gets his ear chopped off, I like it because a guy get his ear chopped off while the villain dances around to a peppy Dylan-esque pop song. Lil Wayne used to be like those guys who make the Crank movies: distilling a whole genre down to a few bizarre images and spitting them out at a blinding speed. These days, Lil Wayne is more like Gerard Butler: appearing in a series of dull projects that present sex and violence in such a variety of bland and awful ways that you just feel gross when it’s all over.

Dispatches From The Mainstream: 2/15/2013

Kelly Clarkson – Catch My Breath

Kelly Clarkson is weirdly likeable. We should be resistant to her, because her entire career is non-organic and extremely forced. But I guess we love her because we picked her. You might even say that Kelly Clarkson is the last thing our country agreed on. The very next season of American Idol was beset with controversy about homophobia and missing votes. And even when someone actually does win American Idol these days, do we give them a career? Sometimes we do, but sometimes we end up with Taylor Hicks. Yeah, I said it.

I like Kelly Clarkson so much that I’m disappointed in myself whenever I don’t enjoy her current single, but I couldn’t stand “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” I’m no minimalist, but that junk was too noisy. The chorus was like the inside of a car factory. That entire album was kind of wash for singles, really: “Mr. Know It All” was a slightly less annoying version of “Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars–but only slightly–and do you even remember “Dark Side?” I do, and I’m not too happy about it. I guess that was Kelly’s “unlistenable, non-catchy chorus” phase.

“Catchy My Breath” succeeds by dialing it back a little bit: “Stronger” was exhausting before the first verse even started, but this song uses a repetitive melody to great effect. The construction of the chorus is great, too: it’s simple and it gives Clarkson a chance to show off her fantastic voice. “Catch My Breath” also has that same life-affirming, in-your-face, no-screw-YOU power that “Stronger” had, but with a wider appeal—hey, people who aren’t escaping a toxic relationship need anthems, too! Just sayin’.

Rihanna feat. Future – Loveeeeeee Song

Rihanna’s music has always had a streak of unsentimental iciness. Maybe it’s because her voice doesn’t allow her to sound truly nurturing or emotional or any other stuff that codes as “feminine,” but there’s always been an air of hardness about her. Then in 2009 she went through some seriously bad stuff and put out Rated R, an album that channeled the darkness of her life into some of the most aggressive music ever to be put out by a pop diva. There aren’t a lot of MALE R&B stars that make music that aggressive.

Since then she’s gone back and forth between “dark” Rihanna and a more conventionally “feminine” role, ping-ponging between the two several times over the course of a single album. For example, “We Found Love” & “You da One” appeared on the same disc as “Talk That Talk,” “Cockiness” and—ugh—“Birthday Cake”. Unapologetic is no different, opening up with the aggressive and sonically unpleasant “Phresh Out The Runway,” switching back to love-struck-Rihanna for “Diamonds” then whipping around to “Pour It Up,” which sounds like it was pitched to about twenty different male artists before Rihanna snatched it up. Put it this way: when a female singer is talking about “strippers going up and down that pole,” you are dealing with some binary-breaking business.

“Loveeeeeee Song” is a more subtle inversion of gender norms than “Pour It Up,” but it’s more interesting because it pairs the a-typically aggressive Rihanna with Future, a rapper best known for his love of autotune and his unusual sensitivity. On the hook, Future pleads openly for “love and affection” without a hint of bravado or ego. In the verses, Rihanna plays a more guarded role, tossing out sexy come-ons and promising to “lay you down.” Not only is it one of the few listenable songs on Unapologetic, it’s a noteworthy pop song. Not because of how unusual it is, but because of how close it is to a normal Top-40 duet between a man and a woman. All Rihanna and Future did was trade places.

The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

I haven’t checked in with The Band Perry since “If I Die Young,” a song that was so poorly written I had trouble believing that the writer was almost 30 years old. Kimberly Perry is the first adult woman I’ve known whose death fantasies can rival those of a teenage LiveJournal user. Especially annoying was the winking bridge, with the lyrics, “maybe then you’ll hear the songs I’ve been singing/funny when you’re dead, how people start listening.” Not only is that a remarkably dull observation, it sounds like it belongs in a totally different song.

“Better Dig Two” wasn’t written by any of the band-members Perry, but it sure fits their lyrical style, right down to the fixation on white wedding dresses as a symbol of purity. The title and the music promise a much darker story than what we get–to me, it harkens back to that scene in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint Eastwood tells the guy how many coffins to build. So cool. Anyway, the chorus of “Better Dig Two” describes a woman who would rather die than go on living without her husband… but then the verses hint at a darker meaning to the titular phrase. She vaguely threatens to either kill herself or kill herself and her husband, which would be an interesting direction to go in if the song could just commit to it.

Other crimes include use of the contraction “I is”—as in, “I’s gonna love you till I’s dead”—and a jarring reference to meth in the middle of a song that otherwise sounds like it was written sixty years ago. The music is a step-up from “If I Die Young”, with handclaps and creepy banjo on the verses, and those electric guitars that take us right back into pop-country territory aren’t totally unwelcome. This is a muddled song that could be a fun little bit of darkness if the lyrics had gotten a second draft.