Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Two Weak Men
The authors will refer to the object of study, for now, as a recentish popular music memelet: WEAK MEN fronting like womanizers. And they may well be womanizers, as these categories are hardly mutually exclusive (indeed, much could be speculated as to the inherent weakness of a tendency to womanize) but these men are bruised, too, and either make a big show of it (Kanye, half of The-Dream's new album) or make a big show to distract from it (Ryan Leslie, the other half of The-Dream's new album).
Common characteristics of the Weak Man:
1. Focus on a long-term relationship, possibility or failure of.
2. Lack of demonstrable charisma or talent as performer.
3. Self-directed rage and/or projected casual misogyny/demeaning behavior as transparent compensation for own performative inadequacies (see 2).
4. Incongruous sunglasses, often worn indoors.
5. Production background preceding misguidedly messianic emergence in spotlight.
These don't all apply to all Weak Men -- all apply, give or take, to Kanye and The-Dream, most apply to Ryan Leslie and Christimbornelland, a few apply, perhaps, to Ne-Yo. One might argue that several of these apply to R. Kelly, though this is an admittedly hesitant categorization that the authors wish to avoid at this point in time.
(We will except Kanye from this discussion because he doesn't need the ink and, frankly, is a little overblown in "ahead of the curve"-type talk.)
The underlying weakness of the Weak Man can be exhibited in many forms: brazen minimalist spotlighting (R-Les), subtle maximalist hedging (T-Dream), incompatible mindfuckery (Timbanell), unsuspecting balladry requiring somewhat close listening for Weakness Impact (Ne-Yo).
Evaluatively speaking, the maximalist hedge seems to be the most successful strategy for disguising weakness, provided the performer's participation is cloaked, not highlighted, in the technique; the sound creates crevices for the canny but deficient performer to occasionally hide, deter attention to sonic elements, transform weak "raw" vocals, etc.
Ryan Leslie's minimalist approach is problematic: Leslie provides an effective blueprint of his productions in the work itself, a sort of oil/water (damn you CORNELL I've used this metaphor like three times in the past few days!!!!!) separation of elements. Note the methodical introduction of elements into an exemplary production (for our current purposes), like Cassie's "Is It You," in which, quite literally, instruments are foregrounded separately before cohering fully in the chorus. This, of course, presents a danger to the (lacking) performer -- competence is absolutely non-negotiable, and charisma is more important, too. There's nowhere to hide.
R-Les's approach itself betrays his misplaced sense of confidence and underlying weakness: though the production is unquestionably signature, one can arguably imagine flattering versions of many of these songs that don't provide quite as spare a stage for Ryan to flail on; yet, to embellish the set dressing would be to fundamentally alter Ryan's M.O. as a producer. He struggles between two distinct auteurist impulses, one as the string-puller and one as the stringed-performer, and has difficulty pulling it off, though he's wise enough to keep his sights low enough, save a few audacious exceptions ("Diamond Girl," "Gibberish," which uses Autotune semi-sarcastically in a rare glimpse of gratuitous ornamentation) to consistently clear the competence hurdle. But the further obstacle of genuine charisma is clearly insurmountable.
In this metaphor, The-Dream provides a mass of compensatory strings that, in effect, become their own aesthetic -- his getting tangled on and in them is a non-issue; it's part of the act. Where Ryan multitracks precisely, Dream seems to enjoy the sheer gratuity of the production gimmicks at his and his co-producers' disposal. Crucially though, and unlike Timbanell, The-Dream also has a notable sense of economy in the fundamental structures and melodies driving his work -- where R-Les's work is reminiscent of precise, single-stroke Japanese art (recalled, for instance, by Bill Evans in the Kind of Blue liner notes), The-Dream incessantly spirographs, creating meaning not in the economy of his lines (though some perception of a "line" or hook emerges from the whole), but in the general mosaic of webs and gaps -- this aesthetic may also help a cogent conceptual unity, exemplified in the narrative unity of the album's latter half, emerge from the work as a whole, while with Ryan we are figuratively left grasping at straws, lines, spare little sketches that refuse to congeal. Both are fussy and perhaps overly controlling, but The-Dream, at least, knows how to filibuster in fascinating, and often revelatory, ways.
Posted by Dave at 11:55 AM
Saturday, March 07, 2009
To say that the Chris Cornell/Timbaland collaboration is a clusterfuck is too obvious, and to say it's genius would be an enormous overstatement. It's interesting. There's something going on here.
I guess I'm stuck using metaphors as painfully cliched as the man himself does -- Cornell and Timbaland are oil and water, respectively, Cornell an oily misanthropic asshole insecure about some Unnamed Lady through the whole thing, strangling out a condescending "girrrrrl!" like a backhand across the face whenever he can and otherwise vicariously verbally abusing us with various fits of chest-puffing and cartoon-codpiecing. The conceit is brutally transparent: "THAT BITCH AIN'T A PART OF ME."
But here's where the water comes in, and the way I see it it's something more like watercolor, splashes and splotches of largely recycled musical tropes from Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake Timbaland 2.0, cod-Middle-Eastern and bouncing synth-buzz and canned-choirs and something like neon reggaeton (from, e.g., Rihanna's "Lemme Get That"). Like the abstract backdrops behind a grotesque contortion or close-up detail in an old "Ren and Stimpy" cartoon. There's humor, a party even, in the background, and Cornell's up front, all thick neck veins ("she" grabs his neck in the first song -- I bet that was kinda gross) and bloodshot eyes and foamy spittle. Timbaland does the same with Cornell's voice -- multi-tracking and harmonizing strangulations and making them almost synth-like, turning a tonal grunt into a major-seventh chord.
Thing is, this isn't a producer-auteur outing, exactly. Cornell is absolutely not interchangeable here -- in fact, Justin Timberlake's album is far more ciphery, despite the auteur nonsense that accompanied it. If JT is an auteur, so is Cornell, whether you like him or not -- there's an indelible stamp of his own authorship in this one, in a voice that struggles against its glossy sonic cage and lyrics that are...y'know, awful. But the lyrics and the voice are forceful, and resist a Timbaland production in a way that Timberlake couldn't even imagine, create a dissonance that keeps my brow furrowed.
Conceptual dissonance, too -- Cornell's not singing "Get up, get on the floor, get up, do something more" -- a standard steady-flying Timbaland dance track, with dainty little synth arpeggios and string stabs and Timbaland's processed voice going "mah mah mah mee mah mah mah." He's saying "GET OFF THE FLOOR," trying to turn the whole thing into a fucking snuff film. And at the end of the song, Timbaland kind of tries to meet him half way, throwing him what he thinks are the sound of chugging electric guitars, but ends up sounding more like "Prom Queen" in the outro.
That goes into "Ground Zero," probably my favorite track, sounds like Blake Lewis could have done the beat (though it isn't actually beatboxed), we see that when Timbaland uses HIS guitar, it sounds more like Dick Dale with all the low-end taken out. Cornell gets his pretensions out without personifying Bad Things into female form and unloading, and instead just tells us that after the world ends we're going to hang on to Ground Zero and our blood will run in the streets or something. I dunno, I can't really get a tack on what the hell he's talking about. Ahem...right...uh, let's do a scratch solo! Next track!
...Is a pretty transparent rip of "What Goes Around," and provides best evidence yet that Cornell is no Timberlake (I mean, obviously), and yes, I know this guy is a dealbreaker for 90% of the population. Rightfully so.
Anyway, don't really want to do the track-by-track thing. Chris Cornell tells us a lot about Timbaland 2.0. For one, T2.0 is a Max Martin, unable to find collaborators that can tear down his Oz curtain. Chris basically tries to rip the curtain down -- WITH HIS BIG FUCKING DICK -- and just utterly, utterly fails. So what we get is a more meta experience, we watch Chris strain those ugly neck muscles of his knowing full well what's going on behind the curtain but never actually seeing it. But we've seen the other movie, the one where they do go behind the curtain, so it kind of works that he never really brings Timbaland out; we've been there. This is more interesting.
It should go without saying that there's some indebtedness to Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak here, and sure it's a break-up album of sorts. But where Kanye coated himself in his gimmicks, put himself out there by immersing himself in something (or something), Cornell isn't immersed at all. He's arguably more vulnerable for it -- the guy has absolutely no recourse to appropriating something cool. Kanye's dorkiness peeks out now and again (and again) on Heartbreak, but Chris's general unpleasantness is omnipresent. It doesn't go anywhere. You just watch it, a gasping fish in a fun house, for an hour. And then it's over. And, in part morbid fascination and part honest amusement, you keep returning to it. At least I do, for some reason.
Posted by Dave at 5:39 AM