Beck: The Black Album
For certain white pop music performers who owe a debt to black music, there comes a time when they decide to stop standing politely to the side and start getting down into the funk. This move comes with its own special ethical anxieties, but it often frees them up and allows them to do their best work. And so you have Dusty Springfield going to Tennessee and making the great Dusty in Memphis ; or David Bowie soaking up Philadelphia to record the Philly-soul-style Young Americans ; or Talking Heads jettisoning the strict four-piece lineup and practically merging themselves with funk music’s finest to make the polyrhythmic Remain in Light (which led to the more discreetly funky Speaking in Tongues ); or Blondie checking out Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to make the landmark pop-rap song “Rapture”; or the Clash studying New York of 1981 like musicologists in order to make the hot hip-hop-influenced single “This Is Radio Clash” and the beat-crazy album Combat Rock ; or Paul Simon immersing himself in South African sounds and hiring some of that nation’s star players for Graceland ; or the Beastie Boys’ entire career. In that long tradition of enthusiastic white persons trying to capture the true spirit of funk or soul in a respectful but aggressive manner comes Beck Hansen with Midnite Vultures (Geffen).
He has been in this territory before, but never with such commitment. On this album, his sixth, Beck serves up one delicious funk groove after another. Midnite Vultures shows off his keen musical intelligence, his gift for odd but catchy mel-odies, a good feel for rhythms that really move and swing, and a nice wit that goes a long way toward allowing you to forgive him for his various musical thieveries. Beck, 29, claims he wanted to make a big dumb party album with this one; thankfully, he didn’t quite succeed in that aim. Midnite Vultures is not dumb. If anything, it may be too clever in places, like in the closing cut, “Debra,” an attempt at a desperate, down-on-your-knees soul ballad that doesn’t really rise above the level of mere parody.
It may be too late in the game, here in 1999, to fret over the issues of race, minstrelsy and musical authenticity. After all, the Beastie Boys are now at the box-set stage of their career, and we’re almost 20 years into Madonna, and one could again mention that all of white rock-and-roll (not to mention country music) is built on forms that originated in Africa. And yet, songs like “Nicotine & Gravy,” “Hollywood Freaks” and “Mixed Bizness” from Midnite Vultures , with their choral singing, funk beats and goofball lyrics, strongly suggest that Mr. Hansen might consider sending a big fat royalty check to George Clinton, the genius ringmaster of Parliament, Funkadelic and such classic solo albums as You Sho’ ‘Nuf Bit Fish and Computer Games .
On the other hand, black rap artists have also drawn from Mr. Clinton’s well over the years. Does Beck owe a bigger debt because he is a white bohemian who stumbled into funk after early forays playing folk and punk? Is the whole issue of musical authenticity out of date? Should they really separate the black music from the white music in the CD department of Borders stores? Did Vanilla Ice really suck? Did Pat Boone? Should Korn play the Apollo? Can’t we all just get along?
I hereby submit to the jury a truth that Beck’s music is simply more interesting–as in the bastardized funk-rock of “Peaches & Cream,” perhaps this album’s masterpiece–when he puts more of his own strange sensibility into it, rather than just displaying how skillfully and, yeah, how funkily he can parrot the sounds he loves. Like the clever but uninspired “Debra” on Midnite Vultures , the Brazilian-style song “Tropicalia” from his last album, Mutations , is a snooze because it was imitative rather than inventive; the same goes for the old-school rap number, “Where It’s At,” from his 1996 hit album, Odelay . And when I saw Beck late in the Odelay tour, I just felt embarrassed when he and the (white) guys in his band started doing bits (preacherlike exhortations, choreographed dance steps, that damn song “Debra”) that mocked stuff from a soul revue.
Luckily, Beck is on fire for most of Midnite Vultures . With “Get Real Paid,” he rescues some 80’s synthesizer sounds from the pop music junkyard, using them as a backdrop for some easy P-Funk-style funk. That collision makes for a song that’s all the better for being musically dirty or impure. The country-flavored (but still beat-driven) “Beautiful Way” is simply a beautiful heartbreak song (nice backing vocal from Beth Orton) in the melancholy tradition of Beck’s “Jack-Ass” from Odelay and “Hollow Log” from his 1994 folkie album One Foot in the Grave .
Over all, this is a cool, smart party album. Beck owes a lot to George Clinton and Prince and James Brown and Flavor Flav, but Midnite Vultures give you a sense of his integrity, good taste and, mainly, his ability to get down.
Prince Is Back (As Producer)
Twenty years ago, we all fell in love with a little guy with big hair and a bigger talent named Prince Rogers Nelson (stage name: Prince). He was sexy. He was outrageous. He rode a white horse. He sang about getting head. But the best part was the music, all performed by Prince. It was greasy and dirty and it rocked the house.
Later on, he stopped singing so much about things like getting it on with lady cab drivers (“Lady Cab Driver”) and got deeper with the lyrics by taking on all kinds of subjects–family problems (“When Doves Cry”), childhood (“Starfish & Coffee”) and even God (“The Cross”). He also sang about some alter ego dude named Christopher Tracy (“Christopher Tracy’s Parade”), but that was O.K., because the music was still wild, inventive and rocking.
And then, weary of being a super-employee for the Warner Brothers record label in the 90’s, he cut the whiskers on his cheek so that they spelled out the word “slave” and dropped the name Prince and started releasing records on his own label. Those releases, Emancipation (three CD’s) and Crystal Ball (five CD’s), both a mix of old and new material, both badly in need of an editor, seemed like the ramblings of someone lost inside his own head. Prince was gone and in his place was the Artist.
It’s good news, then, that, with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Arista), Prince is back, sort of, credited as the album’s producer. The male-female glyph symbol that he now uses to denote his identity is credited as the album’s arranger, composer and performer. Anyway, Rave is a solid collection of 16 songs, with a few clunkers thrown in. It easily ranks with his better work– 1999 , Controversy –though it’s not so sublime as Purple Rain or Sign o’ the Times .
Listing Prince as the producer of the album is one of his trademark goofy touches, but it’s a sign that he’s willing to have some fun with the oh-so-serious issue of his name and concede some territory to his former audience-friendly persona.
In Rave , he returns to the pop genres that he made famous. For a good party jam, there’s the title track “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.” For a good old keyboard driven rock ‘n’ roll song, the kind of song that he patented and now owns, there’s not one, but two: “So Far, So Pleased” and “Baby Knows.” An infectiously funky screw tune, “Hot Wit U,” has a wonderful keyboard bass sound that hums in your ears. On “Man o’ War,” a slow bluesy groove, he gives us (as usual with his solos) an all-too-brief, tantalizing taste of what he can do with the guitar. Then comes “I Love U, but I Don’t Trust U Anymore,” a delicate ballad.
Within the songs themselves, he moves effortlessly between pop genres. The jazzy feel of “The Sun, the Moon and Stars” transforms seamlessly into a mild reggae groove. “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” slides easily between sitar-style guitar and keyboard lines and four-part harmonies worthy of the Delfonics (all sung by the man himself).
Let’s not get carried away. Rave has its faults. The remake of the Sheryl Crow tune “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” is a bit limp. “Undisputed,” his latest foray into rap, is abysmal, revealing yet again that, for whatever reason, the man from Minneapolis and rap simply do not go together. But after the solipsism of much of his 90’s output, the Prince-produced Rave gives us the symbol man at his best–when he stops doing it just for himself and makes sure it’s good for us, too.