Insanity and Other Mutations


Gnarls Barkley, #5 album; #1 single
photo: Matthew Donaldson


Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere, #5; “Crazy,” 1

Beck, The Information, #33

Nas, Hip Hop Is Dead, #97

Ghostface Killah, Fishscale, #3

Gnarls Barkley definitely raised more questions than they answered in 2006, and I loved them mostly for raising any questions at all. (Pharrell certainly didn’t.) For example, what the fuck is a hiphop album these days? Never mind an obvious fence-straddler like OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—does Mary J. Blige’s classic My Life qualify? Once and for all: Are rhymes essential to hiphop, or is appealing to a generational demographic, with our intracultural wink-wink references and post-soul swagger, enough? The other query raised by St. Elsewhere is that old standby on Nas’s mind in 2006: Is hiphop dead? And if so, does Gnarls take its place?

One rap debate we won’t hear raging in black college dorms right about now is, “Who’s the nicer white-boy MC: Paul Wall or Beck?” Nobody who holds hiphop near and dear—not even heads over at the Grammys—would ever consider The Information a contender for Best Rap Album, though Beck rocks the mic for longer (four songs) than Cee-Lo (only sporadically, including four lines on the possibly apt “Who Cares?”) does Elsewhere. Musically, the characteristic cut-and-paste funk pastiche of Beck and producer Nigel Godrich is an octoroon cousin once removed of the beats Danger Mouse assembles for Gorillaz and his new selling-like-“Crazy” “side project.” But The Information ain’t nobody’s hiphop, and in a lot of ciphers, neither is St. Elsewhere.

Cynical backlash against the dynamic duo (they dressed as Fatman and Robin already, right?) mounted the minute “Crazy” jumped the shark to become the indie hiphop track your mama could love. Nobody (at least not I) is saying that Gnarls reinvents the turntable of post-hiphop already codesigned by Mos Def, OutKast, etc. What makes some love the group is the very thing that makes others hate ’em: the perceived pop pandering. Covering the Violent Femmes’ bouncy “Gone Daddy Gone” wasn’t a groundbreaking move, just deliciously effective. When Wyclef Jean did Pink Floyd years back, he failed by blatantly drawing attention to his eclecticism, and that remake sucked besides. For anyone who remembers Cee-Lo belly-surfing audiences to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” at Goodie Mob concerts in the ’90s, love of the Violent Femmes doesn’t seem so calculated. Aesthetically, Cee-Lo is an Oreo, in addition to being one of the illest Southern MCs of all time—see Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections‘ “Big Ole Words (Damn).” If you’ve been paying attention, you’re not surprised or put off.

So Gnarls wanted (and got) Beck’s audience, but does Beck want Cee-Lo’s? And if not, why is he MC’ing? And why is Jon Brion generally considered more hiphop than Beck? Is Beck’s sensibility any more or less precious than that of Danger Mouse? OK, too many questions. The one we’ve really arrived at by this point is, “Is hiphop dead?” I’ve heard books have been written on the subject. Aside from any discussion of the culture itself, the music has long been staring down criticism of its waning creativity with an ice-grill gaze. Finding a connecting thread between Ghostface’s Fishscale and Elsewhere is like comparing apples and oranges (or crack and hydroponic). But rhymes from Ghostface, T.I., and Clipse bring out a heartfelt “MC’s MC” kind of love, while the Roots fall much further down in the poll for Game Theory‘s more obvious Clear Channel radio compromises.

Beck told MTV last summer that embarking on The Information, “Nigel said he wanted to do a hiphop record, and in a way it is . . . It has hiphop songs.” And as we speak, Timbaland is producing some of the next Björk disc, which he’s described to the BBC as “crazy. It’s hiphop.” Meanwhile, cultural purists following graf, B-boying, etc., are alive and well, just sharply diminished from the early-’80s glory days and far more narrow-minded. St. Elsewhere and The Information were as innovative in their ways as De La Soul Is Dead or Check Your Head, but staunch hiphop sticklers didn’t notice, too married to ideas of what the form is and ain’t allowed to be. They’ll let it die before they’ll let it evolve.

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