When hip-hoppers go anywhere from Spandau Ballet to Annie to Diana Ross and David Bowie to Kenny Rogers for music—as Prince Be, Jay-Z, Puffy, and Wyclef Jean all have done to top-drawer effect—are they being perverse? Campy? Craven? Lazy? For any of those pejorative answers, you can thank the great ’60s-sired conclusions of rock, surely one of the more consistently religious sets of aesthetic attitudes of the 20th century. You know the disposition, all arrogance and superiority: It’s the one that prompts letter writers to decry the end of civilization and judgment when Rolling Stone anoints “Staying Alive” as a great single—or, right now, has Coldplay fans regarding you with alarm if you hear the pain in a Britney Spears hit.
The reason hip-hoppers turn to (warning: another loaded word) discredited styles like pure pop or pop-country or Broadway is that their field has always searched out self-styled waves of sound and freedom. Intense genre-hounds and unapologetic formalists, they are wired to hear and access the possibilities of other genres and forms in a way that rockers—who, like D’Angelo, often fear form in 2001 as deeply as some ’60s rockers worried that Doris Day hadn’t quite been extinguished—are not. But if the crazy nearly 40-year-old rock bias continues, the sane hip-hop counterpoints keep coming. Last year, Eminem proved himself the best aesthetic negotiator in this area, ever.
He went somewhere not so much discredited as ignored: to beat-facile yuppie England, to a 28-year-old singer and songwriter and former literary agent named Dido. In Dido’s voice, Dusty Springfield somehow still parties, right in the middle of an erotically unornamented flow. No Angel, Dido’s 1999 Arista debut and now a totally deserved top-10 hit, has the balls to believe that real stuff remains at stake in moody pop songs written with erudite yet unfussy details. “Thank You,” one of many stunners on No Angel and the song Eminem chose for “Stan,” begins with the line “My tea’s gone cold,” going on to mention clouded flat windows and “bills to pay.” We’re in Everything but the Girl territory here, where pop tunes are such a constant in people’s lives that they exist right alongside the papers and the weather forecasts and therefore, if arresting enough, can command attention. And make no mistake, Dido and Paulie Herman’s sharps-based melody for “Thank You” gracefully dips and darts as non-diva pop melodies rarely do these days; Eminem, he definitely liked Dido’s fifths.
So he yanked them, as they also carried narrative information about a picture on a wall that linked up super-brilliantly to his tale of a disturbed fan—to “Stan”—because he heard that in this relatively cushy London pop music, as in his brand of U.S. hip-hop, something was at stake. Last week, Elton John and his skanky rock-blues keyboards filled in for Dido (who was touring in Europe), closing out the Grammys with a memorable performance of “Stan.” Again, Eminem’s gut instincts seemed heroically reconfirmed: Here was a pop masterpiece, staged for TV with a rare gravity, an achievement way too unusually striking for a serious pophead like John to have camped up. Like Dido, whose characteristic lack of interest in shock theater didn’t prevent her from appearing as the possibly murdered girlfriend in the “Stan” video, John ignored simple politics, choosing instead to rise to the occasion of an astonishingly creative dare.
But listen to No Angel itself, where more subtle but significant affinities exist. Two of Dido’s best songs are on paper virtual genre pieces themselves: the cry of a wronged lover and the relief of a recently independent one. In the first, the ominously grand and symphonic “Don’t Think of Me,” she tells the guy who left her that she hopes he’s happy with his “homecoming queen,” that she understands her replacement “cooks delightfully.” But when Dido perfectly bites off that “don’t” in the title, she puts the listener into a particular world of romantic disarray far too specific and momentous for genre alone to contain.
In the second, “Hunter,” which revolves and percolates with acoustic guitar and electronic rhythms that she and producer Rich Nowels combine with major chewiness, she’s immediately off to the races: His nightly monitoring of her arrivals sets her off on a tirade so metaphorically articulate and authoritative that you have to feel sorry for the guy in the song. Flying off into the conditional-interrogative, her music gathering the speed and force of a mighty junk opera, Dido asks whether if he were in fact the king he fancies himself to be, with herself his adoring queen, would he be “wise enough” to free her. Anyway, she’s outta there, as enormous choruses that talk about wanting to see the world again without him hanging around clarify. It’s like he’s being dumped by Greta Van Susteren during a particularly heated cross.
Eminem might have heard Dido on Sunday 8PM, the kicking second Faithless album, on which she sang. She worked with her brother Rollo, who also coaxes six songs on No Angel into his friendly beat-savvy flow; you can hear more of that, accurately described by Rollo as “fantastic mellow music,” on Back to Mine, the new Faithless remix album, which begins with Dido singing “My Life.” On Sunday 8PM, Rollo spliced her folky “My Lover’s Gone” through the dubby reggae of “Postcards”—much like how “Thank You” comes and goes on “Stan.” “My Lover’s Gone” appears intact on No Angel. It’s a ghostly sad tune, wherein Dido mourns the loss of her boyfriend’s boots under her bed and vows never to look at the ocean. Maybe some hip-hopper will make it into a joyous dance number.