Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’ll be here all week!
You know what shocked the shit out of me? The Chris Brown renaissance that occurred this year. After a series of interviews, in which he took very little responsibility for beating a beloved celebrity’s face in and tactlessly attempted to use the opportunity of major press to mend his image, his petulant whining climaxed with him begging fans via SayNow.com (whatever that is!) to help “bring me back.” You may already know this, but it bears reminding that he actually said these words: “My singing and my music is all great, but I do it for you guys and everything else but it won’t be possible if I’m not relevant on the radio and it won’t be possible for me to be an artist if I don’t have any support from people that give me an artists outlet. I can’t be an underground mixtape artist! I just want all my fans to help me.” (And, for the record, his singing is merely adequate and Graffiti was, hands down, the worst major r&b release of the last 20 years. Motherfucker is tasteless, through and through.)
And this pandering worked! Well, this and making a Michael Jackson tribute all about himself at the BET Awards by doing precisely what he did to turn the public against him in the first place: lacking control of his emotions. (He did, after all, have a job to do that night and he fucking failed.) Whatever! No matter! We won’t actually think about what this dipshit does and what re-cosigning on him means! We’ll just accept him back because he cried! After that, he was everywhere: his tuneless “Deuces” was a huge hit (a legit hit – like Top 20 pop – from a mixtape; that makes him a quintessential mixtape artist, no?), despite it showing off what Chris Brown does most: mediocrity. He’s popping up on Keri Hilson’s album and Twista’s and Nelly’s and, most despicably, T.I.’s unrelentingly abysmal No Mercy. The track on that one, “Get Back Up,” is an absurd pity party, in which two grown, famous men whine about people investing too much in their lives and judging them for their extremely public misdeeds, as if everyone should just shut up and buy their records. Well, guess what, assholes: nobody’s buying records, and we’re not gonna shut up, either! A woman-beater singing along to the lines, “And when they push you down / You got to get back up,” is a pathological thing to behold. It’s fucking scary what it means for the future, for quality control and for none of it seeming to matter much to anyone. You know what, general public? Have Chris Brown. You deserve the prick. I’ll just be over here bitching about it every step of the way. I’m fine with that. Gives me something to do.
There was simply too much Chris Brown up in my 2010 for it to be anything close to the best year in music. His career should be dead, certainly over that of Janet Jackson. Jermaine Dupri verbalized the palpable sense of doom hanging over the industry in general and Janet’s career in particular when he said that she was no longer interested in recording albums and has resolved to be a singles artist from now on. It’ll remain to be seen, but after three flop full-lengths and a few flop compilations, who could blame her? Shit’s embarrassing at this point (almost as much as limp output like Why Did I Get Married Too?‘s “Nothing”). The-Dream, similarly, predicted Basic Instinct would be Ciara’s last stand if it doesn’t hit big. Her opening-week numbers were more along the lines of Basic Instinct 2 than a blockbuster (a shame, because half of it’s brilliant). But even if she did move units or cross over to pop, it’s safe to say that Ciara is in the desperate-whore phase of her career (“I market it so good / They can’t wait to try-I-I-I-I me-e-e-ay-ay / I work it so good / Man these niggas tryin’ to buy-I-I-I-I me,” on a mechanical bull!?!). I say that with endearment – “Ride” is part of Basic Instinct‘s brilliant half. Mariah Carey famously canceled the release of her Angels Advocate remix album (a ridiculous idea in the first place, as it would have undermined the entire point of her steadfastly collaboration-free Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel). Brandy went on reality TV talking about the sad state of her career and disappointing sales of her 2008 release, Human, with an honesty I would think a pop star would shy away from listening to, much less speaking, herself. (Contrast that with all the talk on Fantasia’s Fantasia for Real VH1 show about the diva’s third album having crossover potential – the former American Idol contestant’s Back to Me is a sensational r&b album that’s ingeniously sung…which makes it about as far from Top 40-bound as anything in English with verses and choruses went in 2010). Roisin Murphy repeatedly said that she wasn’t recording a new album, but that she’d release a track here and there from now on. “Of course, once I’ve released 10 tracks, you can go off and download all 10 and make your own album,” she offered helpfully. That’s about as close as we’re gonna get to hope for the future.
But then, how much can we really trust our stars, anyway? Early on, The-Dream indicated that he would end his solo career with Love King (always leaves us on a high note!)…and then proceeded on that album to set a date for his next album, Love Affair (6/7/2011). Love King, by the way, is my second favorite Dream album (Electrik Red’s How To Be a Lady, Vol. 1 is my favorite, and I can’t see that ever changing – I still listen to that album like it came out last month). It sounds to me like the perfection of an aesthetic he’s been cultivating since Love vs. Money: his multi-song suites are longer and more complex, and he’s finally at peace with his persona (“I’ll never be a pop star, I’m too raw…”). You have to be pretty fucking comfortable with yourself as a dude to sing something as high and frothy as “Turnt Out” (bonus points for the woozy backing track that sounds like it’s hosting a melting jewelry box). A lot of guys want to be Prince, but few are as willing to do it down to the dandy. Clearly, Terius Nash is not.
(Oh, and incidentally, time has done nothing to diminish the gorgeousness of Thank Me Later‘s sound, and “Shut It Down” is, indeed, magic.)
To continue the thread of r&b and to get back to Maura’s question about time travel, my favorite micro-trend of the year was the return to pure, unadulterated, early-’90s style hip-hop soul (why is it that commercial r&b got back to boom bap before commercial hip-hop?). This was most evident in Jazmine Sullivan’s “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles),” which samples the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President.” That source track is so basic in the fabric of the genre, it’s like hip-hop’s denim. Miguel had a similarly neo-old school vibe with “All I Want Is You,” a song so stripped down, it’s practically a percapella. It’s a contender for my song of the year (its starkness is mesmerizing) and it’s such a simple formula (say it with me now: hip-hop + soul) that it makes me wonder why more shit doesn’t sound like this. Why did we decide that hip-hop and r&b had to always be more involved than just someone emoting over a simple drum machine that’s pounding and snapping? I can only hope that this trend continues and I become as tired of it in 2011 as I became with pop-house in 2010. And then it’s on to the next retro trend.
What do you think, Maura? Care to make any predictions of what you’ll be sick of in 12 months?
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