Destiny’s Child: Above & Beyoncé
It’s a strange but true phenomenon that some of the most progressive and downright weird music these days is sitting at the top of the charts. Thanks to the competitive nature of both hip-hop and R&B, the Billboard Hot 100 can read like a who’s who of futuristic experimentalism and composerly sophistication. If you’re not convinced, listen–really listen –to the spacey Eastern minimalism of Timbaland’s production on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” or the Neptunes’ use of negative space on smashes for such rappers as Jay-Z and Mystikal. Granted, a song called “Shake Ya Ass” is bound to leave some of us wanting. But it’s pretty clear that something’s going on.
Destiny’s Child is a big part of that something. They shot up as one of the biggest acts in pop with 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall , thanks in part to the novel coupling of their “Bills, Bills, Bills” single with TLC’s bitches-with-bankrolls hit “No Scrubs.” But it was the herky-jerky rhythms and diamond-cut production of songs such as “Bugaboo,” “Jumpin’ Jumpin'” and “Say My Name” that made Houston’s hottest harmonizers something more than just hitmakers.
The Writing’s on the Wall gained Destiny’s Child an audience far outside the MTV faithful. In a memorable piece in The Village Voice , critic Frank Kogan compared the group’s attempt to sing with, not just over, the fractured rhythms of contemporary R&B to James Brown’s funk free-for-alls of the 60’s and 70’s. A trip to the East Village record store Mondo Kim’s at the time produced an equally memorable picture of a hipster clerk pleading with a coworker as he blared “Bugaboo” and tried to convince his sneering peer that the song was amazing, “if you really listen to it.” He lost his argument, but still …
Part of the draw is that there is an emotional component to Destiny’s Child that’s as sophisticated as anything they cook up at the production board. And God knows they had plenty of emotional tools to work with on their new album, Survivor (Columbia). The group spent the last year ditching original members and adding new ones, while leader Beyoncé Knowles entertained her every control-freak fantasy by the side of her even-more-controlling father, Mathew Knowles. It’s a web of intrigue that would require a subscription to Vibe and lots of spare time to understand fully. But it’s enough to know that, in true diva fashion, it’s become Destiny’s Child vs. the world these days.
However, the macro-level conflicts are a lot less interesting than the micro-level ones that play out in their songs. Take the first single, which gives the album both its name and its shameless tie-in with a certain TV show. If you can push aside the countless times you’ve heard it standing in line at Duane Reade, “Survivor” is an awfully enticing song. The backing track is a crystalline mix of eerily cutting strings, over-caffeinated breakbeats and a liquid bass line that does a wondrously melting thing under the chorus’ soaring call-and-response.
Lyrically, the song is pretty dumb (“I’m not gonna dis you on the Internet, cuz my momma taught me better than that,” etc.). But the group’s singing saves the day. Destiny’s Child is that rare outfit whose melismatic gymnastics rarely fail to service what they’re singing about. There’s an ambiguous undercurrent to their muscular harmonizing that makes it sound hurt, or at least scarred. For all its chest-pounding, independent-woman theatrics, the chorus (“I’m a survivor, I’m not gonna give up”) sounds as much like fragile self-affirmation as any truly believable conviction.
It’s dangerous to read too much into a Destiny’s Child song, but this kind of push-and-pull happens too consistently to ignore. On “Dangerously in Love,” they dig into the tension between love and infatuation with melodies that rise and fall in line with the throb of their moody instability. They’re wide-eyed in love in one moment; three words later, they’re fearful of falling in too deep.
As good as it is in certain moments, Survivor is nowhere near as consistent as The Writing’s on the Wall , which held up unusually well as a real, capital-A album. This time out, Ms. Knowles took the writing and production reins from the superstar confab–Kevin (She’kspere) Briggs and Rodney Jerkins, among them–that gave the last album its sparkle. She shines in some moments (the choral interlude in “Independent Women Part 1″; the impossibly busy mix of “Happy Face”; the sheer sonic insanity of “Independent Women Part 2″). But she also falls flat on her face, often in the space of those same songs.
The album’s slapped-together feel isn’t exactly helped by the preposterous “Gospel Medley,” the album-ending “Outro”‘s almost comical self-celebration, or the opening track’s shout-out to “Lucy Liu, Drew and Cameron D.,” who commissioned the song for use in Charlie’s Angels .
Survivor is most decidedly a mixed bag. Depending on how much you want to listen , it holds out plenty of moments worth trolling for. Just keep the bag close by so you can throw the bad ones back.
Afrika Bambaataa: The Body Electro
It’s impossible to examine the oeuvre of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa without running smack into the sweaty Sansabelt slacks of James Brown. The Godfather of Soul’s name is repeated mantra-like near the end of the “Bronx Version” of Mr. Bambaataa’s landmark 1980 single, “Zulu Nation Throwdown,” a chant that was used by Tom Tom Club for “Genius of Love.” And he collaborated with Mr. Bambaataa to record the memorably silly single, “Unity Part 1 (The Third Coming),” which had Mr. Brown shouting, “Punk rock! New Wave! Peace!”
And as Looking for the Perfect Beat 1980-1985 (Tommy Boy)–a new and necessary collection of those and other 12-inch singles–reveals, Mr. Bambaataa has earned himself a place near Mr. Brown in the pantheon of urban-culture kingpins, a trailblazer who has done for rap culture what Margaret Sanger did for contraception.
Yet, for all of their collaboration and mutual admiration (as much as Mr. Brown mutually admires anybody), Mr. Bambaataa’s and Mr. Brown’s respective constructs of funk have little in common. Indeed, perhaps more than any other African-American in music history, Mr. Bambaataa has steered the genre away from the polyrhythmic intensity exemplified by Mr. Brown’s music and toward something more Germanic and stiff-kneed.
Which is why Mr. Bambaataa has recently found a greater embrace among the house and techno fields. He collaborated with the electronic acts Leftfield and Uberzone, and appeared in a video for U.N.K.L.E., an ensemble which, despite the presence of D.J. Shadow, has as much to do with hip-hop as George Lincoln Rockwell did with Nietzsche.
Not that Mr. Bambaataa didn’t play a key role in the creation of hip-hop. As one of the most influential D.J.’s on radio at the turn of the 80’s, he would follow Mr. Brown with Giorgio Moroder and the art-school no-wave of Liquid Liquid. It was on WHBI’s Zulu Beats , which Mr. Bambaataa shared with a number of other D.J.’s, where hip-hop forefather Grandmaster Flash first heard Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” bass line, which became the basis for his 12-inch single “White Lines”–and a massive lawsuit. (This period has been documented on the live Death Mix: First Mix Recordings on the Japanese import-only P-Vine label.)
When it came time for Mr. Bambaataa to release his own 12-inch, it was, at least initially, funkier than a lot of the music he was spinning. “Zulu Nation Throwdown” and both versions of “Jazzy Sensation” (with Soul Sonic Force and the Jazzy 5, respectively), which all can be found on Perfect Beat , featured a crew of rappers who exuded the kind of casual camaraderie that went a long way toward helping rap cross over to the mainstream. The music is deep, off-the-cuff funk, utterly removed from the disco of the time, and the rhymes already show a social consciousness more sophisticated than the “Hotel Motel Holiday Inn” stylings that were prevalent then.
But classic as those singles are, they were not where Mr. Bambaataa would make his mark. With 1982’s “Planet Rock” and the Tommy Boy compilation’s title track, “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” Mr. Bambaataa forged the electro sound–with its Linn drum fills and dinka-dinka beatbox–that, for better or worse, became the bedrock of an endless stream of 80’s music (at least that which wasn’t connected to Jon Bon Jovi).
The riffs were essentially ripped from Kraftwerk, but the message was very different. “When we say life you know that life has meaning”–from “Planet Rock”–is not a lesson normally associated with the Robo-Teutons who imagined a dystopia of Man Machines. To the contrary, Mr. Bambaataa was planting the seeds for the sort of socially edged uplift that would become more strident as the 80’s–that most strident of decades–wore on.
“Renegades of Funk,” built on a synthesized filch from Mr. Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” connected African-American cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. to a larger concept of “the funk” back before such ideas were cynically played to death.
These tracks are not masterpieces, and are often a little crass (“Perfect Beat” contains an entire section of Fairlight riffs on national anthems). But in 1980, before the money started flooding hip-hop, ghetto optimism was still an ideal untainted by the poses of the world’s P. Diddys.
But after its initial ubiquity (especially with early L.A. gangsta rappers), electro has had considerably more effect on house, techno, ghetto-tech, 2Step, booty bass–practically every new music to come down the pike except hip-hop. With his Kraft-werkian eclecticism, it’s difficult not to see Mr. Bambaataa’s fingerprints all over a techno visionary such as Carl Craig, while his influence on the current rap scene, except as a symbolic elder, is practically nil.
Mr. Bambaataa seemed to sense that he was a man out of time by 1984’s “Who Do You Think You’re Funkin’ With,” one of the first it-was-better-back-in-the-old-days raps. There also aren’t too many D.J.’s who would brag about spinning Falco, but Mr. Bambaataa continues to do so–and, strangely, this curious continental approach has kept him current. Mr. Bambaataa continues to travel the world circuit, D.J.’ing for ridiculous sums (you can hear a recent set on the so-so Mixer magazine CD Electro Funk Breakdown ). He remains turntablism’s great eclectic. Whether this is such a great thing is open to debate, but who would deny the sentiment?