One thing that you can say about hip-hop these days is that it’s full of drama queens.
It’s not just that Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter) wrangled ubiquitous hits out of Swizz Beatz–produced melodies from the Broadway productions of Annie and Oliver , it’s that he’s taken the Biggie Smalls method of tear-filled, mama-worshipping thuggery to operatic extremes.
Take “Where Have You Been,” the closing track of his new, chart-topping The Dynasty Roc La Familia (2000-) (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), in which Jay-Z blames his absent father for the criminal life that has taken him to the top. The catch in Jay-Z’s throat as he calls his father a “pussy” is positively Jolsonesque in its bathos-and that’s before his voice gets all teary and the children’s choir steps in for the chorus. One half expects a banjo-driven sample of “Old Man River” by track’s end.
Jay-Z’s hostility toward his father is a recurring theme on this album-”I ain’t mad at you, Dad / Holler at your lad” he raps in “Streets Is Talking”-but it comes wrapped in the kind of melodrama that’s more commonly found on the Lifetime cable network.
And it’s very effective. The Dynasty is a solid collection by mostly no-name producers, with plenty of space given to Jay-Z’s stable of rappers (mostly Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek; Ja Rule is absent, as is producer Swizz Beatz). When it comes to the melodies, Jay-Z has given up the bins at Footlight Records for tracks filled with simple piano, marimba and glockenspiel melodies reminiscent of Slick Rick (whose greatest fan, Snoop Dogg, appears on “Get Your Mind Right Mami”).
Like Snoop Dogg, the Roc-A-Fella rappers perform at a pace that sounds downright leisurely in a post–Wu Tang soundscape.
But it’s a pace that fits the message. Jay-Z expresses an economic fatalism that’s three parts Howard Hawks to one part Thomas Frank: He’s a hustler because he has no choice. He gets us to pity him for his riches-and if that isn’t a definition of celebrity, I don’t know what is.
While Jay-Z was transmuting his Oedipal pain, fellow monster-selling rappers OutKast were wrapping their funk forefather in a sloppy bear hug. In their case, Daddio is perpetual freaky beatnik George Clinton, whose P-Funk is appropriated, both methodically and philosophically, on Stankonia (LaFace/Arista) in a way we haven’t seen since everyone was doing the Humpty Dance. Like Mr. Clinton, OutKast-rappers Big Boi and Dré, now known as Andre 3000-approach funk more as a concept of piquant science-fiction sex-soul than a musical form (the title track takes this literally, asking “What does love smell like?”). Their previous album, Aquemini , was as widely praised as any hip-hop release in the last half of the 90′s but, to be honest, it wasn’t very good. Though I may be the only critic who thinks so, the bizarrely praised production team of Organized Noize is a bunch of rhythmical klutzes. And the occasionally virtuosic rapping suffered from flow problems and gangsta-versus-preacher schtick that was as hammy as Kid ‘n’ Play’s act.
But Stankonia is a small masterpiece of mimicry, though it tries too hard to snatch the father’s fright wig. With Organized Noize mostly banished and replaced with self-production, and the rapping much improved, OutKast plays Funkadelic to Digital Underground’s Parliament. They’ve really done their homework, too, mimicking everything from Mr. Clinton’s potty humor (“Toilet Tisha”), progressive politics (“Bombs Over Baghdad”) and sex talk (“I’ll Call Before I Come”) to his intricate vocal arrangements, marginal mutterings and even his use of 70′s synths, Hendrixian guitar and primitive rhythm boxes.
It’s a slavish devotion that prevents the album from breathing deeply, but also underlines the group’s previously expressed desires for a utopian past-desires that are no less Freudian than Jay-Z’s father-hatred. They don’t call it “the Mothership” for nothing.
Marilyn Manson isn’t so much a musician as a stylist. He gets his guitars and drums to sound like scary and monotonous weapons, but his singing’s all bark and no bite. In the end, he’s too bored with it all to risk the kind of performance that might leave a lasting impression.
But hormone-addled teens have always loved those kinds of superficial histrionics, and they were out in packs on Nov. 14 to toast Mr. Manson’s new album, Holy Wood , at Saci near Times Square.
It was rumored the ghoul-faced pop star was going to play his first-ever acoustic set, a move that propelled Kurt Cobain to the status of rock artiste in 1994. But Mr. Manson opened with a fairly plugged-in version of the plodding “GodEatGod,” Holy Wood ‘s first track. There was a droning bass courtesy of Twiggy Ramirez, and a kind of twangy guitar figure scattered around it, but the whole thing was a little flat. The lyrics to this song were difficult to pull off with a straight face, which may explain Mr. Manson’s need for so much makeup. He sort of mumbled the junior-high-poetry parts, like “Dear God, your sky’s as blue as a gunshot wound / Dear God, if you were alive you know we’d kill you,” and left me thinking, “Dear God, what I wouldn’t give for some pyrotechnics to take my mind off these lyrics.”
Then it was on to Mr. Manson’s “favorite John Lennon song,” “Working Class Hero,” the only truly acoustic number of the night, as it turned out. This is a gorgeous song-sad and earnest, and Mr. Manson deserves some commendation just for liking it, considering it no doubt offends the right-wing values he supposedly holds so dear. Then again, he may have just been being ironic.
In any case, he couldn’t cover the song convincingly. He belted. He yelped. He gesticulated. And when he got really worked up, he added the word “fucking.” Poor John Lennon.
When he’d finished, Mr. Manson said, “This next song is far more depressing and offensive than anything I could have written.” Now that’s high praise. But the number turned out to be “Suicide Is Painless,” by Johnny Mandel-the theme to M*A*S*H. As Mr. Manson whined tunelessly, images of Radar being drawn and quartered, teddy bear in hand, came to mind. But that would have been too funny for Mr. Manson, who sang it like one of those Japanese lounge acts that memorize the words to American songs but don’t understand them.
Mr. Manson ended with one of the tracks off Holy Wood , “Count to Six and Die.” It was the high point of the show, actually. He finally showed some restraint as he poured out a lugubrious melody over a skeletal guitar drone. Nothing fancy-no drums, even. Just the Satanically effete Mr. Manson singing diffidently.
And that was it. Four songs, no encores and Mr. Manson was off drinking in a private room. On the way out, a Goth boy was grinning. “What a rip!” he said. “Four songs? I waited in line for eight hours yesterday to get into this show!” So what was he so happy about? “I got the words to ‘Working Class Hero,’” he said, holding up Mr. Manson’s cheat-sheet. The word “fucking” was nowhere to be found.
On his HBO series, Chris Rock recently lampooned the black-comedian concert film Kings of Comedy with a bit called “Chiefs of Comedy.” In it, a succession of Native American warriors performed schtick for nightclub audiences, each ending with the identical punch line-something like, “And then the motherfuckers stole our land!” His point seemed to be that black rage can turn just as generic as any other stand-up routine.
Mr. Rock is among the few black superstars ballsy enough to aim such truth-telling at his peers. He’s the closest thing we have these days to Richard Pryor-but he’s not that close. Mr. Pryor dished it out equally to men, women, whites, blacks, preachers, junkies, animals and, most of all, himself. And he plumbed the dark side that few dare broach. As Morgan Freeman puts it in his booklet testimonial, listening to Mr. Pryor, “You laugh until you cry, and finally you’re just crying.”
Debilitated by multiple sclerosis, Mr. Pryor has been unable to perform for a decade, but his shadow still looms large, for reasons not readily apparent from listening to the new nine-CD boxed set of his work, … And It’s Deep Too! The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings 1968-1992 (Warner Archives/Rhino). Half of Mr. Pryor’s genius was in his physicality: his lithe body, his expressive face, his ability to embody anything-even a car engine. The box’s co-producers, Reggie Collins and Steve Pokorny, apologize in their introductory note: “These recordings only tell half the story. As his concert films attest, Richard was one of the most visual comedians ever to grace a stage.”
That four of these nine discs are merely soundtracks from those concert movies begs a question that has grown exponentially since the advent of cable TV: What is the point of a comedy album in this day and age?
In the days before HBO and Comedy Central, albums were the only way to broadcast a nightclub comedian to a broader audience. Certain acts-like Cheech and Chong and the Firesign Theatre-used them as a unique art form for radio-like material that couldn’t be performed live.
For Mr. Pryor, who first rose to stardom as a jacket-and-tie-clad Bill Cosby wannabe, records were a way to disseminate the raunchy, personal material he couldn’t do on national TV: the exploration of his troubled past (growing up in a Peoria brothel) and present (drugs, court battles, multiple wives). But time has rendered him less inflammatory, partly because the words by themselves-especially in character routines like Mudbone, his ancient wino-don’t suffice. It’s hard to imagine today’s visually bred, rap-wise generation sitting still to savor them.
Certainly Mr. Pryor deserves to have his work preserved, and the box marks the first appearance of most of this material on CD. There are some amazing moments, too, even without the visuals. But this set could have been so much more than it is, especially considering Rhino’s strong track record as an archivist.
There must be a legal reason that …And It’s Deep Too! collects only Warner Brothers recordings; this means that, among others, his classic album Craps (After Hours) -currently available on CD from PGD/Polygram-is not here. There’s only one disc of previously unissued material, mostly unsatisfying snippets pieced together from the 70′s and early 80′s, plus an October 1992 routine about living with multiple sclerosis in which Mr. Pryor is pathetically reduced to joking about his incontinence.
I would have preferred a real Museum of Television and Radio approach: early Ed Sullivan appearances, the classic Saturday Night Live “word association” sketch with Chevy Chase, plus whatever would have worked as audio tracks from Pryor’s own TV series, specials and work with Lily Tomlin.
The packaging, too, leaves something to be desired. There’s a clumsy cardboard folding rack that holds the boxed set’s uninspired miniature sleeves. The booklet looks designed by a high-school yearbook staff; the testimonials from celebrities (and ex-wife and current manager, Jennifer Lee) are frequently self-serving; and the timeline goes into more detail about Mr. Pryor’s personal life than his work. It’s frustrating to read that on the Mike Douglas show in 1974, there was “an angry exchange of words between the young comedian and Milton Berle” without learning what it was. (Or better yet, hearing it.)
On the disc of new material, Mr. Pryor muses that he doesn’t want to go to heaven with “eight billion motherfuckers practicing” on harps, while “everybody in hell be listening to Miles [Davis] and shit.” Wherever he ends up, his singular genius has earned him immortality here on earth.
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