Friday, February 24, 2012

The Beatles and R&B

It's not news that the Beatles began their recording career heavily indebted to black American music. Early rock and roll, R&B and the blues were all important ingredients of their sound, as Anglicized as it was (the Beatles were probably less shameless in their appropriation of these genres than most of their peers). Anyways, a quick listen to their earlier recordings, or glance at the covers they recorded, reveals that R&B had made an impact in Liverpool.

However, as I've been immersing myself in R&B this past year, I've been surprised by the extent to which the influence was mutual--the Beatles' influence is clearly felt in R&B. Not in cover versions, although legends like Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all covered Lennon/McCartney tunes during the 1960s.

The Beatles weren't influencing R&B during the early 60's--when they themselves were aping the genre. It was only after the band left behind their early, more insistently rhythmic music that the influence filtered back. It was the studio-based, baroque and psychedelic Beatles--the Beatles of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"--whose music altered American R&B.

It was connecting a couple anecdotes that led me to recognize R&B's embrace of the Beatles. The first was about Otis Redding. In the months before his death, Redding became obsessed with Sgt. Pepper's. He had previously covered the Beatles,* but this was different. He channeled Pepper's psychedelic sounds in writing "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of A Bay"--a song whose pensive beauty resembles "Strawberry Fields Forever." "Dock Of A Bay" was drastically different from anything Redding had previously written. Different enough that Stax was reluctant to release it at all. Otis, of course, knew better: he predicted the song was a number one hit, although he didn't live long enough to see that come true himself.

A couple years later at Stax, Booker T found himself so inspired by Abbey Road that he and the MG's recorded an entire album of Abbey Road covers. They called it McLemore Avenue--where the Stax studio was--and that's the album cover, at the top of the post.

The second anecdote is about Richard Pegue, a Chicago DJ who ran the Nickel and Penny record labels. The wonderful work of Pegue's labels was recently excavated by the Numero Group. In that release's liner notes, it mentions that Pegue's record collection featured lots of British Pop, including several Beatles LPs. The influence is clear on some of the later cuts on the reissue, when Pegue began using colorful production techniques in his R&B.

This was more broadly true of R&B acts. Stevie Wonder--who hit number one with a cover of "We Can Work It Out" in 1970--took the studio-as-instrument and synthesizer to astounding places. These were sounds that the Beatles and producer George Martin helped introduce into the pop vocabulary. Stevie's Motown colleague  Norman Whitfield, in his work with the Temptations and the Undisputed Truth, was transforming R&B into something as psychedelic as anything from Magical Mystery Tour.

By the early 70's studio experimentation had taken firmly taken hold in R&B. So had the album format, as opposed to the barrage of singles. Credit to that goes to Isaac Hayes more than the Beatles. But it's clear that Hayes was listening to the Beatles--he does a ten-minute version of "Something" on the brilliant Isaac Hayes Movement, and his sophisticated arrangements and multipart songs recall Abbey Road's medley.

I don't want to overstate this case. Psychedelic ideas were in the air. The Beatles were a gateway to those sounds for music fans like Richard Pegue, others in the R&B world. But they weren't the only one (Sly & the Family Stone were another crucial gateway group). And the Beatles were hardly the main influence on late 60's and early 70's R&B. That'd be James Brown, who flipped the Fab Four's trajectory on its head and placed all his emphasis on the rhythm.

But it's a story with a nice circularity. That the Beatles, the world's biggest and most revered rock band, were able to inspire a few new sounds in a genre from which they took so much.

*The Beatles, for their part, had shown their admiration by sending limos to pick up Otis and other Stax performers from the airport during a British tour. And--though this seems ridiculous and it's hard to find documentation for this--Wikipedia and other sites report that the Beatles bowed and kissed the ring of Stax guitarist Steve Cropper.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Come Back Nicki, Come Back

About a week ago, I had an argument with some friends about Nicki Minaj and her relative quality as a musician. Most of them thought little of Ms. Minaj's work, particularly the type of self-consciously vacuous pop music she currently seems most interested in purveying, in the manner of 2010's Pink Friday and its upcoming sequel Roman Reloaded. I maintained that, despite Pink Friday's rather feeble attempts at inoffensive pop-rap ("pap") crossovers, Nicki Minaj was once a rapper of great promise. Scratch that: at one point a few years ago she was a rapper of insane promise, poised to become listed among the best emcees on popular radio. Of course much has already been said about Nicki's chameleonic rapping style, how it encompasses a range of different personality and sexuality types, what it says about gender in hip-hop, etc. I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing any of that material, but I did want to make the point that Ms. Minaj once possessed devastating rhyming skill, even if her MO had been compromised ever since she started releasing albums proper. A few days later, one of my friends emailed me, asking to recommend a specific Minaj mixtape, since I had evangelized her early mixtape appearances so stridently. I replied and sent: check out Beam Me Up Scotty. My friend, never predisposed toward liking Nicki before, loved it, and immediately asked for further suggestions. He had no idea, from what he had seen on TV and heard on the radio, that Nicki Minaj could actually rap.

Of course, there are legions of Nicki fans, hip-hop heads and music critics (especially those who self-describe as "poptimist") who disagree. Maura Johnston maintains that Pink Friday holds up better than Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The platinum success of Friday and its attendant "controversial" Grammy performance and multiple nominations prove that there are obviously a lot of people who love the modern Nicki of "Super Bass" and "Right Thru Me." In this year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, "Super Bass" was voted the third best single of 2011. Pink Friday was culturally significant to the point where non-music writers got on the Minaj train: check out this piece from The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, where he calls Pink Friday "catchy" and expresses his love of the song's "poppy hook, the pleasing cadence of the rap."* Of course there are things to admire about Nicki's persona, her relatively lucid (for hip-hop) stance against gay-bashing, her forthrightness in calling out her abusive father, etc. I wouldn't deny any of that. But this still doesn't change anything about her music post-Friday, which is the sound of compelling artistry and wordplay being focus-grouped to oblivion.

The love for "Super Bass" particularly rankles me. As someone with a deep, abiding love for awesome bass tones, "Super" fails to measure up. The song's chintzy synth claps and pretuned chorus register with no impact, like the opposite of bass. The song is pure air syrup, and has about as much content as that implies--to me, its sonic architecture is the opposite of what hip-hop is supposed to be about. Pink Friday is rife with tracks like that, though--some where Nicki opts to sing autotuned pop hooks, others where she opts to rap, but poorly, and always about the same vacuous nonsense in that stunted, self-conscious style that Kanye made very popular. Call me an old man, but I just wasn't onboard with all the artistics concessions major label Nicki seemed willing, even eager to make, and Roman Reloaded looks to be more of the same:

"Stupid Hoe" is getting the usual good-to-great reviews from pop critics, which puzzles me: how can anyone look at this and say that Nicki has grown at all, as an artist or a rapper? There are the bottom-feeding lyrics--celebrity-baiting fluff about how "I'm Angelina, you Jennifer," rhyming "Roman Zolanski" with "Roman Polanski," etc. The beat, meanwhile, is more or less a slight variation on "Itty Bitty Piggy"from Beam Me Up Scotty, except with extra bloops and more goofy voices. Everything in this song has been done a hundred times by better artists, including Nicki herself.

When Nicki Minaj first came on the scene, she sounded smart and vital. I likely first heard her on "Can't Stop Won't Stop," a track from Lil Wayne's 2007 mixtape-opus Da Drought 3. Her rapping is serviceable on that track--she must have been really, really young at that point--but I didn't pay much attention then. I hate to admit this, but she didn't seem like anything worth paying attention to, other than as one of Young Money's token female rappers (the other one at the time was Shanell). It wasn't until Wayne's 2009 mixtape No Ceilings that I was really taken with one of her verses, via Weezy's take on Beyonce's "Sweet Dreams." Everyone speaks highly of Minaj's mammoth verse in "Monster," a strong example of how her voice sort of mutates from a hard bark to coy, youthful innocence and back in a manner of seconds. But Nicki was already doing that sort of thing very well in 2009:

Nicki's verse in "Sweet Dreams" is arguably superior to "Monster." Or at least it is longer, heavier on actual content, more dense and allusive in its wordplay, etc. The "balloon boy" line might elicit a groan now but back then it seemed insanely well-placed--No Ceilings came out literally a week at most after that "balloon boy" incident happened.

The Nicki Minaj of No Ceilings and Beam Me Up Scotty was thoughtful, inventive and quick-witted. She wasn't concerned with pandering to a global audience or prettying up her message with autotune pop hooks. No, she wasn't a perfect rapper: even then, she fell in the unfortunate trap that is constant beefing with female emcees (as if there can only be one, like Highlander), and like David Bowie she falsely claimed to be bisexual as a way of generating attention. And some of her other mixtapes, like Playtime Is Over, are obviously highly-influenced by the likes of Biggie, but of course that is a path many great rappers start on. The point is, or was rather, that Nicki's personality was once incidental to her skill as a performer. Nowadays, things are quite different. Nicki has less in common with Weezy and more in common with Lady Gaga, who pioneered her own brand of innocuously familiar goo-goo synth music that merely backgrounds the main parts of her show, which are, in descending order of importance, the absurd outfits and creepy, slightly refracted takes on celebrity diva behavior. By that same token, Nicki Minaj is now enough of a marquee player to merit her own brightly-colored Hype Williams videos with absurd costumes, and the focus is now Nicki's mugging for the camera, all those bleeps and bloops, and the epic amounts of cash that are generated thereof. Call this as un-poptimist as you want, but that's not hip-hop to me, and it doesn't yield interesting music, only focused-group commodity bundles disguised under the banner of a "musical experience." The whole enterprise stinks of a business culture superimposed on our own that cares nothing for music qua music.

Unfortunately, this issue is larger than Nicki Minaj, and it speaks to larger trends in sanitized pop radio. Nicki's Young Money-mate Drake is another example of an artist who shows promise at first, puts out a few pretty-good mixtapes, then becomes simultaneously famous, signed to a major label, and no longer interesting musically. Drake's rapping gets a bad rep in some places, but I find it hard to deny a mixtape like So Far Gone, which has a really dynamic, warm sound courtesy his collaborator Boi-1da. But his two major label releases, Thank Me Later and Take Care, are somehow two of the most boring hip-hop albums ever released. Something happened when he made the switch. All over the pop radio board, rappers are choosing to go in this direction. These type of sonic concessions to a broad, unnecessary standard of pablum extend all the way to, if you will, the top--count me as among those perplexed and disheartened by Watch the Throne's unchallenged success.

This is why, as is often the case, the best hip-hop being made these days seems to be coming from everywhere except the pop radio spectrum, broad as that is. There isn't anything wrong with making music that sounds big and universal and popular, but this is music made without the courage of its convictions--it hopes to be popular through bland familiarity, through repetition of the same dumb phrases. People rag on the likes of Odd Future for violating basic decency and proper rap decorum, in part of course because there's no subjects music critics like rehashing every few years more than the propriety of certain hip-hop (and always hip-hop) lyrics. But I would honestly listen to Odd Future at their worst (Goblin, say) than sit through the large majority of Watch the Throne, which is an album that seems possessed by little more than the empty moneymaking qua moneymaking ambitions of its two kingmakers. At least I will be liable to hear something new, a snatch of unexpected gnarly noise, maybe, or a motif that weaves in unexpected directions. A skillful flow means nothing when it is wedded to the same tired words and an overfamiliar beat. There are a lot of rappers right now on the fringes of stardom who are making music in their bedrooms that sounds nothing like what came before. The question is, when they in turn become popular celebrities, will they be subordinated into the system as well? I'd rather have a heinous, rape-n-murder obsessed Tyler, the Creator than a Tyler, the Creator motivated by radio dictates. No matter how unkind it might sometimes sound to our ears, it's better than not noticing we are listening at all.

I worry about the insurgent rappers and their impending success, and wonder if yet another possibly transformative moment in popular music will be co-opted by MTV and robbed of its capacity for political change, like punk and grunge. I wonder, for instance, about A$AP Rocky, whose mixtape was on my Top 10 last year, and who has lately been the subject of an insane $3 million bidding war, which landed him at Sony/RCA. Hopefully his major label debut won't sound like Pink Friday, a repurposed set of already overfamiliar autotuned dross, but like a continuation of the expansive cosmic beats and laconic delivery that made LiveLoveA$AP so enjoyable. Honestly, though, the odds aren't looking amazingly good. Is there any way for alternative rap cultures to make their way into the mainstream without sacrificing at least part of what made their music interesting in the first place? In theory, they should be able to do this easily. So what, or who, is stopping them? And what must we do in turn to stop them?

*Usually I am an admirer of Conor's lucid, rational reporting, but he lost me at that point.

UPDATE: This recently unearthed early video is a good example of how different (and better) Nicki Minaj used to be, pre-fame and goofy voices: