Dirty Projectors, Solange Knowles, and the Perils of Music-Racism

On "Stillness Is the Move" and the uselessness of genre

The construct of "musical genres" became both utterly worthless and slightly oppressive in 2009. Every time you import a new album or song into your iTunes library, the program suggests an often-worthless tag: "Rock," "Hip-Hop/Rap," "World." On MySpace, wisecracking bands ascribe LOLzy categories ("Religious," "Chinese Traditional") to themselves in hopes of being seen as both hilarious and unclassifiably original. Yet as far as actually consuming and discussing music went, barriers were erected—indie discourse went one place, hip-hop talk to another, pop chatter elsewhere—while digital-music stores sometimes organized their virtual holdings in frustratingly inexplicable ways.

In response, artists at the center of all this isolationism often asked fans to reach beyond their immediate biases. British drearists the xx flirted with soul via a rainy-day remake of Womack & Womack's 1988 single "Teardrops." Mica Levi, of the brutally brilliant art-pop trio Micachu & the Shapes, released mixtapes slotting grime MCs next to jazz outfits. Jay-Z showed up at a Grizzly Bear show on the Brooklyn waterfront and stopped decrying Auto-Tune long enough to suggest hip-hop should take some artistic cues from indie rock. And avant Brooklyn crew Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca drew as many critical comparisons to the ululations of Mariah Carey as it did to the wiriness of post-punk.

No less a leading light of indie than Ed Droste—he of Grizzly Bear, the fussy chorus endorsed by both critics and Yacht Rock father-figure Michael McDonald—explicitly referenced the Brooklyn cognoscenti's growing uneasiness with pigeonholing: "Someone was asking me about what I was listening to, and I was saying, 'Oh, Dirty Projectors, I love the new album,' and they were like, 'Well, what kind of music is it?' And I just stopped dead in my tracks and literally didn't know how to describe it . . . I find it hard lately to label things as indie or pop or folk or give it some sort of categorization." (Quaintly, iTunes suggests "Alternative.")

Dirty Projectors, merrily unclassifiable
Sarah Cass
Dirty Projectors, merrily unclassifiable

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Dirty Projectors
"Stillness Is the Move," #5 single

But what did all this heralded boundary-pushing mean? Bitte Orca, though hailed by no less an authority than New York magazine as a founding document of Brooklyn's hipster-rock uprising, shares DNA both with Animal Collective and the agitated late-'70s funk-pop of Scritti Politti. "Stillness Is the Move"—the record's nominal "single," complete with llama-assisted video—is fluttery and pitched-up, bringing to mind both early-2000's r&b queen Aaliyah's breakup rumination "We Need a Resolution" and dance-punk trio the Gossip's spare cover of "Are You That Somebody?," another Aaliyah track. (It's probably worth noting that the lyrics to "Stillness" confront the existential self, not a straying lover.) DPs mastermind Dave Longstreth cedes vocal duties on the song primarily to bandmate Amber Coffman, whose multi-tracked chorale of high-pitched moans speaks to her love-borne invincibility.

A few months after Bitte Orca's June release, Solange Knowles stepped in to bring "Stillness" to the audience many a critic had dreamed for it. Known to gossip-blog readers as "Beyoncé's sister" or "the woman who shaved her head a few months ago and went on Oprah to talk about it," Solange's slept-on 2008 album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams was steeped in first-person-confessional r&b. (It even had its own "Ode to Marvin.") In the wake of that album's unjustifiably soft landing, an unfazed Solange took to Twitter and fanatically promoted her favorite artists, including quite a few staples of Brooklyn Vegan's indie-centric tag cloud. (Solange was, in fact, responsible for her boldfaced sister and brother-in-law showing up at that Grizzly Bear show in the first place.) In mid-November, shortly after the news broke that her major-label deal with Universal Music Group's Geffen Records was kaput, she leaked her own version of "Stillness Is the Move," along with a request that "if you have not heard the original . . . go listen, and discover."

Solange's "Stillness" was part-cover, part-mashup, switching out the Projectors' insistently looping guitar lick for a sultry sample from the Shaft soundtrack staple "Bumpy's Lament," famously deployed on Dr. Dre's 1999 track "Xxplosive" and Erykah Badu's 2000 single "Bag Lady." (Perhaps that sample is what caused Universal—home to Badu, Dre, and formerly Knowles—to forcibly scour the rogue MP3 from every server it could find.) Solange's voice is far smoother—when she soars into falsetto ("There is! Nothing! We can't! Do!"), the effect is less grating and, by extension, less urgent. Paired with Longstreth's obtuse lyrics, her relative slickness made the song feel more like a particularly poetry-quote-heavy blog post; the song is at its best when Solange is just vamping wordlessly.

Still, Solange's experiment made explicit the inescapable fact that "Stillness" was the highest-regarded r&b-informed song of the year, at least among those disinclined to trifle themselves with Maxwell's electric comeback album BLACKsummers'night (which nearly went platinum) or The-Dream's sometimes jaw-dropping Love vs. Money, both packing songs that wiped the floor with "Stillness." (Try "Bad Habits," Maxwell's slow-burning ode to sexual addiction, for starters.) How did such a stylistically fluid and wildly praised crossover move emerge from a band whose last major project was an elaborate homage to hardcore pioneers Black Flag? Was hailing the Projectors as r&b innovators a way to break free of the Dirty Grizzly Collective of Girls indie-rock hegemony that seemed to dominate 2009, which apparently had its Album of the Year debate settled on Christmas Day of 2008, when Merriweather Post Pavilion leaked? And did Solange's plea to her fans to check out the Dirty Projectors' other work, well, work?

To that last question: not really, as far as needle-moving or mind-changing went. "As if Dirty Projectors didn't sound enough like Mariah Carey to begin with," sniffed a Stereogum commenter, while devotees of the more r&b-friendly blog ConcreteLoop.com were more inclined to reminisce about Erykah Badu's use of that "Bumpy's Lament" sample instead ("ALL-TIME CLASSIC! Too bad she crazy now").

So perhaps we should just cede the next part of the conversation Solange started to none other than Jay-Z. "All these ways we classify things as r&b and hip-hop and rock . . . It's bullshit," he recently told Elvis Mitchell in Interview. "It's all music. If you put yourself in that box, then you won't be able to hear that it's all music at its soul. When people say stuff like, 'Oh, that's soft rock. I don't listen to that,' I find that elitist. It's music-racist." Just another made-up tag to avoid.

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