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Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Out of the 'hood

Hip-hop keeps growing and evolving


Special to The Japan Times

Pop music has become hip-hop, which dominates the charts in practically every country that has charts. It's become so ubiquitous that some American presidential candidates went out of their way to show they dig it. Dennis Kucinich employed a rap in his campaign song, Howard Dean used Wyclef Jean, and Wesley Clark quoted from "Hey Ya!"

News photo
Big Boi, half of Outkast, performing at Studio Coast on May 25.

Then again, those guys are out and John Kerry, who's in, identifies with Bruce Springsteen. For a lot of people, though, hip-hop will never have the legitimacy of rock. Jack White, the leader of The White Stripes, whose "Elephant" was touted as the most important rock album of 2003, dismisses rap music out of hand in interviews, as if he were representing a constituency. There's something elitist, maybe even racist, about the refusal to acknowledge popular taste simply because you don't share that taste.

Owing to its inherently defiant attitude, hip-hop still has an exclusionary reputation, but a lot of what offends naysayers about rap no longer applies. All art forms evolve and mutate. I still get a thrill out of "Amerikkka's Most Wanted," but I'm as happy as anyone that gangsta is now considered passe. Jay-Z retired because he exhausted the hard-knock-life ghetto philosopher thing and was too tired (and too rich) to come up with another. De La Soul producer Prince Paul once complained that hip-hop was self-limiting because too many rappers were afraid to wander outside the 'hood, but a lot of MCs are doing just that.

Like Outkast. They still live in the 'hood, but are curious enough to want to travel abroad. Andre Benjamin (Dre) and Antwan Patton (Big Boi) have been a gold mine since they graduated from high school in the early '90s and hooked up with Atlanta's Organized Noize production crew, but it was only with the double whammy of their last two albums -- multiplatinum sales and critical raves outside the rap enclave -- that they became pop avatars. You can explain it one of two ways. Either Outkast's use of early '70s soul and P-Funk space psychedelia makes their hip-hop more accessible, or the global record-buying public is homogenizing into a hip-hop-centric whole. Or look at it another way: "Elephant" is considered the most important rock album of 2003; Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" is considered the most important album of 2003, period.

If you belong to the camp that says hip-hop is being diluted by other types of music, then you probably also think that Dre has abandoned hip-hop. Dre's "The Love Below," one half of Outkast's magnum opus, is by no means rap-free, but compared with Big Boi's half it doesn't sound as if hip-hop was the main thing on his mind. Sex was on his mind, and funk and lover-man soul are more sexually engaged styles than rap is. Big Boi hangs on to the fundamentals of hip-hop more tenaciously in order to explore the perimeters of his experience. If Dre is Outkast's id then Big Boi is its superego.

This dichotomy was already evident on Outkast's first four albums, but by addressing it directly on their fifth, which is essentially two solo albums combined in one bargain package, they raised questions as to what they needed from each other besides permission to use the name Outkast. They're still officially a team, but Patton played a concert in Tokyo on May 25 with a full band, billing himself as "Big Boi of Outkast."

Considering the less-than-capacity crowd that showed up at Studio Coast, the Outkast imprimatur may not be enough, even if you factor in the late announcement and the remoteness of the Shinkiba venue, not to mention the hefty 8,500 yen ticket price. When the double-album came out last fall, there were arguments about whose record was better, and while the arguments quickly subsided as the CD took off, my guess is that most people prefer "The Love Below," or, given the choice, would rather see Dre in concert. "Hey Ya!," which appeared on his joint, was the party song of 2003.

Big Boi didn't perform "Hey Ya!," but he did do a few songs that I would identify with Dre, particularly "Ms. Jackson," the blowup single from their previous album, "Stankonia." Sleepy Brown, a tall cool drink of water in a white suit who handled many of the singing chores on "Speakerboxxx," took some of the vocal parts that might have fallen to Dre. Brown helped make "Speakerboxxx's" Earth Wind & Fire-like single, "The Way You Move," a hit, and yes, he is a better singer than Dre, but so what? Much of Dre's appeal is his outlandish vocal style, a heartfelt but cartoonish exaggeration of the Southern gospel-based soul singer that makes more sense given the racy subject matter of "The Love Below."

I prefer "Speakerboxxx" because it still offers surprises 10 months on. "The Rooster" may be the only song ever written about the special relationship between two single parents of the same child, and while no one cared about that at Studio Coast, the song's rave-on big band energy gave them plenty to appreciate.

News photo
Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. at Zepp Tokyo on May 26.

But as with any great musical duo, Dre complements Big Boi in ways that aren't readily apparent until you take him out of the picture. The bulletproof "Bombs Over Baghdad" didn't need Dre to lead the chorus, but it was easy to miss his sassy sing-song additions to "So Fresh, So Clean." Over five albums, Outkast enriched their hip-hop with ideas they had heard in their wanderings outside the 'hood, like electronic dance music (Dre is a big fan of the Warp label), but live Big Boi might as well have been using two turntables and a microphone. The marquee said he was representing Outkast, so he included material from the band's whole career ("How many of you remember the first song from the first album?"), but it didn't make as much of an impression as the songs from "Speakerboxxx." The concert wasn't as expansive as Outkast's records, even though it had the trappings of a big R&B show -- choreographed dancers, backup and guest singers, a band and a DJ. There were no costume or set changes, but production -- on record as well as on stage -- is as important to urban music as skills are; certainly more important than they are in rock. That's why Timbaland is as vital as Missy and Dr. Dre is Eminem's pal for life.

The Neptunes are arguably the most successful record production team in the world right now, but that isn't enough for Pharrell Williams, who also wants to be both the skilled rapper and the smoove singer. As half of The Neptunes, Williams has worked with enough top stars on both sides of the shifting hip-hop divide to recognize quality when he hears it, and he probably knows he's not much of a rapper and even less of a vocalist, but he's got confidence to burn, and he used it to set fire to the sold-out crowd at Zepp Tokyo on May 26.

Unlike Big Boi's, the concert was not billed as "Pharrell Williams of Neptunes." The crowd came to see the three young men -- Williams, his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, and their childhood pal Rob Walker -- who are collectively known as N.E.R.D. But as it turned out Hugo didn't even show up onstage, and Walker might as well have stayed off considering the negligible impact of his raps.

N.E.R.D. is a group but not a band. Williams and Hugo write the songs and Williams sings them while a hired rock quartet called Spymob plays the instruments. N.E.R.D. stands for No One Ever Really Dies, a term that seems to reflect less on some bona fide religion than on the members' fascination with sci-fi-centered spirituality. The acronym is not ironic -- the American cover of their first album, "In Search Of," shows Walker playing a video game. As The Neptunes, Williams and Hugo represent the dorkier side of hip-hop culture, the guys who like equipment and see beats as an end in themselves. On their own album, the platinum-selling "Clones," they get the biggest MCs in the world to adapt their raps to The Neptunes' sonic priorities, not the other way around.

Williams had a hit under his own name last year with the single "Frontin'," and as far as the audience was concerned he is N.E.R.D., which identifies with rock as much as it does with hip-hop and R&B. During their enthusiastically received 30-minute warmup gig, Spymob's own original songs sounded like Hall & Oates for a punkier era, and some of that rock-and-soul style carried over to their backup work for Williams and Walker.

So while many of the trappings -- the clothing, the between-song patter, the moves -- were identifiably hip-hop, it was a rock concert in every other sense. They even got people to hold up cigarette lighters and brought Joel and Benji Madden of the punk band Good Charlotte all the way from Maryland to sing on "Jump."

As he suggests in the song "Rock Star," Williams' motivation for coming out from behind the console is to experience the kind of rush only pop stars can experience. As a performer, he's unself-conscious as only a nerd could be. What he lacks in originality and sophistication he makes up for with teenage panache and sexual bravado that's communicated without a trace of cynicism. When Williams did his lover-boy routine on "Run to the Sun" he was R Kelly in his mind, breaking the heart of every girl leaning over the edge of the stage. During a different song he pulled a young woman out of the audience for a dance that was as real as it can be without getting into trouble with the police. He's a star who works for his adoration, and the audience responded in kind -- except, perhaps, the guy who brought that particular young lady to the show.

"Let's make so much noise they'll write about it in the newspapers," Williams said before the encore version of "Lapdance," and started pulling as many people onto the stage as he could. The song, which combines sex and politics, rock and hip-hop, is as much of a hybrid as Williams is -- the young producer-performer who is incapable of discriminating between all the different kinds of music he's ever loved. "What we want is total chaos," he said, and that's what the audience gave him. And you read it here, right in the newspaper.

N.E.R.D. will perform at Summer Sonic '04 in Makuhari and Osaka, Aug. 8 and 9.


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