For every action, a reaction. Chicago has its generation of knob twiddlers—the guys who strip rock down to its baser elements and beyond, whose mellow mood music swaps swagger for solemnity, cock for contemplation. They’re allowed to, though. White boys always plead intellect when it comes to experimentation. Making order out of chaos is a necessary step.
Rap’s next generation doesn’t have the luxury of minimalism—besides, how much more spare could you get than Miami’s skittish bass, or Oakland’s lethargic trunk funk? Or even dancefloor New York’s heritage of one-loop-one-sample, of taking a song of old, adding four tracks of percussion and a rapper or three and calling it a day? So crank it up, kick down the walls. The way to make hip-hop better is to basically ignore it. It’s in there—in the bones—so it’s OK if it’s out there too.
Call it post-rap. Check the backstory and you’ll find Hot 97 credentials, but up front is a whole different tale—MCs playing the guitar, producers sampling Bollywood riddims, rappers who can’t sing but do anyway. Hip-hop’s stagnation is making the iconoclasts antsy, but there’s no tradition of rebellion in the genre, at least not one that calls the sonics into question. Rap gets smarter. Rap gets dumber. But rap remains unequivocally rap.
Not anymore. With hip-hop finally out of its awkward teenage years, during which it had something to prove, it’s gently easing into its avant phase. Even the radio sounds weird—Timbaland’s horror bounce, those blaring, drunk trumpets on the new Wu single. No matter how trifling the subject matter, hip-hop’s producers have taken it upon themselves to render all that’s mundane abstract.
More than any of their peers, the Neptunes have steered the new-money yacht into uncharted waters. To hear Pharrell Williams, the more loquacious half of the duo, tell it, there’s subtext to everything they do, using some artists as stepping-stones and subverting others with double entendre. But the candy is sweet, and more and more artists are taking the bait—Noreaga and No Doubt, Babyface and Britney, Fabolous and Daft Punk. Nowadays, the Neptunes sound blings wordlessly off the hyper-platinum airwaves. Shit, they’re so ubiquitous, they even bite themselves.
But who knew that, underneath that shiny skin, lay indie souls with unusual muses? Dominating the radio got them an artist deal with Virgin, but what Virgin got was something else altogether. N.E.R.D.—an alias for the Neptunes and their occasional pal Shay—isn’t your average side project, which can sell strictly on the strength of its star power. Pharrell may be hip-hop’s most visible video ‘ho, but he’s still a cipher to most. Hypothetically, the sound is the star—a Neptunes production is practically identifiable by sonar—and within hip-hop confines, it certainly is. But In Search Of . . . , the N.E.R.D. debut, shows restless talents, musicians with so many good ideas that their hip-hop production seems like an exercise in cultural politics, like it’s become their burden to wise up the masses.
Nevertheless, the path of the N.E.R.D. album has been fraught with disaster almost from its inception. Advances have been floating for almost a year, and in its first incarnation, In Search Of . . . was fully digital, a synth-heavy affair that kept the group’s tools of production the same, but used them to blissfully different ends. It was a gust of madness through otherwise complacent, unmoving trees, daring anything in its path to calm it down. A couple of months ago, after three planned release dates had come and gone, that version of the album was shelved, and the group headed back to the lab to re-record the album from scratch, top to bottom, using live instruments.
The album so nice it had to be conceived twice, this new version, now scheduled for stateside release in January, lacks a little bit of the anger and urgency that made the original so incendiary. The live instruments—courtesy of Minneapolis funk outfit Spymob, a Neptunes discovery—are sprightly and free and feel like they were recorded in one hot box of a recording studio. But In Search Of . . . is a thoroughly modern record that feels more at home in the digital realm than the analog. (The highly recommended first version of the album was released in the U.K. without the group’s consent; pick it up at amazon.co.uk.)
Williams and Chad Hugo successfully scavenge hip-hop’s secret dustbin—funk-metal, alt.country, melodic pop, prog rock, new wave—for their peculiar sound. Virginia Beach, their hometown, was festering with all these things in a stew of suburban malaise. On “Bobby James,” Pharrell moans, “I’m just one hit away from being passed out, young, and assed out.” On the hustler’s tale “Provider,” the most badass country this side of Cash (take that, Hank III!), he sings with (Charley) Pride, “So I’m driving this truck down 95/I pray to God I make it home alive/I don’t get pulled over by the man/I just wanna make it home to hold your hand.”
N.E.R.D. make a point of injecting grit into the unlikeliest of places. “Walk up in the club with a bunch of thugs,” Pharrell intones on the otherwise jaunty “Things Are Getting Better,” “Said I was a nerd but I ain’t a punk/If you talk shit, then prepare to thump.” Throughout, slippery keys do a delicate dance on and around the correct notes and patterns as worlds collide. “Run to the Sun” sounds like what might happen if the Time got pissy with the Beach Boys. In “Brain,” Williams hones his Jim Morrison—”I love how you think/You think oh so deep/And share your thoughts with me”—but still can’t emote much beyond a fey whisper.
On his likewise repeatedly postponed debut, Amethyst Rock Star, Saul Williams faces the opposite problem. New York’s spoken- word scenester has a natural propensity toward proclamation. His singing voice is naturally resonant, if not wide-ranging, and his songs sound delivered from high on the mount. Neither of the Williamses (related in style, but not blood) is a technically superlative singer, but their brand of rock is all attitude. Having the gumption to grab a microphone and just wail is all the credential they need.
Amethyst is produced by original genre-fucker Rick Rubin, and where In Search Of . . . feels like the product of intimate, almost offhand studio sessions, everything on Amethyst is carefully measured. Williams’s band aims for the psychedelic, and often beyond that—distorted guitars, melancholy strings, monster drums all working in furious concert. They’re unfamiliar sounds to the hip-hop massive, but Saul uses his vocals as a linchpin. When he raps, his cadence is wise and intricate. When he sings, he knows how to vary his tone to catch the untrained ear.
Like the Neptunes, Saul’s opposed to the current state of hip-hop as only a true fanatic can be, and wants to tease the folks in with familiar noise before unleashing the revolution on them. Amethyst is a genre answer-record, a good old-fashioned manifesto for the uplifting of the people trapped in the hip-hop muck. He opens “La La La” with bait: “Nigga you better drink half a gallon of Shaolin before you pluck the strings of my violin.” Then said violin kicks dirty dirges over angry scratches, an old-school battle.
Saul is old-school himself, though—the most straightforward hip-hop track on the album is titled “1987” and toasts acid-wash Guess. And furthermore, saving hip-hop seems so positively ancient an idea that we no longer have any idea what it should sound like. Saul felt the burn early: “I ain’t gonna lie it, be too hard to deny it/I ain’t from your block and never had to deal with your shit/Never had a Glock, never kept it real with no bid.”
Yet intuitively, a track like “Fearless” feels right. It’s an all-out rocker, in the early-’70s vein, frail and proud all at once. Midway, just as the emotional breakdown of the song is beginning to exact its toll, Saul pauses for a confessional: “I’m no musician, but the pain has been instrumental/My senses finely tuned instruments of being lonely, of being lost, of being loved, of being human/I could use someone to talk to, but most of my conversations with men seem to revolve around music.” There, in uncommonly plain language, is hip-hop’s melancholy.
It’s certainly a more succinct testament to it than anything else these days on Def Jam, the parent company that Saul’s landed at after Rubin split his American imprint from Columbia earlier this year. But can the company primarily responsible for hip-hop’s self-importance and subsequent stagnation deal with a style renegade who recently wrote of the hip-hop mainstream, “Your shit will not last. These are your last days. We are growing tired of you”? One hopes his message won’t be too lost in the noise. Capitalism makes strange bedfellows, sometimes even sowing the seeds of its own destruction. So who’s going to eat away at rap more quickly—the ones in it, or the ones coming afterwards? Like the Neptunes, Saul’s been set loose inside the master’s house. It’s only a matter of time before the dismantling process begins.