By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
To my ears, there's a deliberate disruptiveness in Destiny's Child's musicthat's their solution to the "problem": Let the top and the bottom disrupt each other a bit, pull the beats away from the groove, and have them follow the singers, or have the singing go chase the bottom beats. Or (e.g., in their follow-up hit, "Bug a Boo") place "orchestral" stabs in the background and have the voices run in front as if trying to outrace these stabs. What seems "challenging" is that the bottom and top aren't quite integrated, so you can marvel at the dexterity with which the singing dives after the rhythm or outruns the beats or fends off the accompaniment. Which makes this something of an upscale music (in my mind; I don't know how it plays out with its prime audience), like jazz: young black sophisticates putting forth pseudo-wisdom about male-female relationships, tied to sophisticated rhythms. I don't intend any of this as criticism, except that I hear fun but no warmth in Destiny's Child. In a way, these women play with the "problem" rather than trying to solve it, in that they don't put full funk and full song together but instead have each disarrange the other somewhat.
Unlike Destiny's Child, the performers who record for Ruff Ryders Records (such as DMX and Eve) seem more interested in presenting themselves as people who can fuck you or kill you than in showing off their musical dexterity. Fact is, though, that the music is some of the richest around, a lot of the richness due to frequent producer Swizz Beatz. The background music he createslong developing riffs, usually taking up several measuresreally is a foreground; the riffs arethe drama in the music. (Or maybe they're just more comforting for me to attend to; they help me avert my ears from the ugly sounds and thoughts coming out of the rappers' mouths. "I hope you ain't tongue-kissing your spouse, because I be fuckin' her in the mouth." I don't dismiss or necessarily dislike such lyrics, by the way. I'm just ambivalent about them.) Since he's working with rappers rather than singers, Swizz Beatz has extra leeway, because sometimes rapping can be the steadying element, can be the one-two-three-four or hit hard on the backbeat, freeing up the drums to play around with offbeats. But when Swizz Beatz goes to a melody song like "What Ya Want," using a rapper, Eve, who emphasizes offbeats, the music still sounds effortless and at ease, even while it refuses to honor the measure bars and the main beats. The background melody seems to be going off on its own dance, but then when the chorus comes around, the singers jump right on top of the melody and it becomes their dance too. And, as I said, this song has been all over the radio.
In my Spin review I mentioned the paradox of James Brown's being the out-front star of the show and his being radically dependent on his surrounding musicians. If they fluff their notes, the whole structure unravels. Of course, the way I've written this assumes a live performance, or at least a group situationwhereas, in fact, most music is heard prerecorded (over the radio, through a home stereo system, in a car, at a dance club, in a supermarket, etc.), and many beats these days are programmed, not played by a group. But I don't think that this is a problem for my argument. It just makes my argument frankly metaphoric, the live model being a metaphor for how (some) people take in the music psychologically, feel it at home, use it at a dance club, sing along with siblings in the car, wherever; for the way society takes in the music. Whatever.
About 50 years ago, Robert Warshow wrote an essay that I've found unendingly useful, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," about crime movies. "The initial contact between the film and its audience is an agreed conception of human life: that man is a being with the possibilities of success or failure. This principle, too, belongs to the city; one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing." I'll suggest by analogyreal tentativelythat the musical paradox in modern black music may be a social one as well. The music is one of group interaction, with no role inherently more central than another; yet it needs a star, an out-front center of attention to focus the music. But the emergence of a star, a dominant lead singer, potentially violates the form (and there are those pesky note clusters in the rhythm instruments to unmoor the star and pull him down, if he takes up too much space). James Brown bowled over these contradictions through the force of his personality, but his musical legacy is that a lot of people live in a world where the star has to adjust to his supporting players, the song has to adjust to the accompaniment.
In his essay, Warshow wrote, "Modern equalitarian societies . . . whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier." And so public displays of unhappiness and failure are seen as disloyal. (I'd say, that is, that public displays of unhappiness and failure that are not reducible to supposedly solvable social problems, to some category like "poverty" or "mental illness," are considered disloyalor at least incomprehensible.) The appeal of the gangster movie is that it allows the audience to experience failure vicariously, because in such movies success leads inevitablyto failure. To succeed is to be alonebut to be alone is to get shot, "for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in whom it automatically arouses hatred." I'll ask (and I doubt that there is a simple answer) whether any of this is relevant to hip-hopyou know, where rappers emerged as the stars in a form invented by DJs; where rappers and producers share or compete for credit (which is it? share? compete? both?). I'm thinking of the Eve album, where she's proclaimed Ruff Ryders' First Lady, but the rest of the posse comes along and supports her/drowns her out half the time. There is probably a lot to say here about the death and violence that permeate Ruff Ryders lyrics, but someone who feels the music more deeply than I should be the one to say it. I'll suggest the following: The lyrics don't just convey "I'm strong, I'm going to fuck you, I'm going to kill you," but also "We (the Ruff Ryders) need to stick together or we'll die." And rapper DMX adds, without negating the first part, that he's weak, he's sliding, he's going to die anyway. He's on the Ruff Ryders Ryde Or Die compilation; for him the title could be Ryde AND Die. I don't know if these personas correspond to the rappers' actual lives. In "The Convo," DMX says that he has the God-given ability to rhyme, he has the choice to rhyme or to shoot, and with God's help he'll rhyme not shoot. But his death is part of his persona in a way that death wasn't part of the pre-posthumous persona of, say, Johnny Ace or Sam Cooke or Frankie Lymon or Marvin Gaye. In decades past, death personasat least in popular music (jazz is another story)have been more a rock thing, a white thing.