Hot on the Streets: Miguel’s Adorn, CTU Striking, and How the Internet Ain’t Shit

YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW BABAY

IN THESE TIMES of internet-induced cultural fracture, where one man’s kitsch is three other men’s kitsch but no one else knows or cares about it, daftpop holds dear those rare incidences of transcendent phenomena that happen OFF DA NET. I’ve been thinking deep about events which occur in what we once quaintly called “the real world,” mostly because of the CTU strike. Word up: I’m a first-year teacher, and I took part in the strike activities all week. The most astonishing thing to my 21st century brain was how word-of-mouth was the only instrument in gathering thousands of people together. No one emailed us about where to be or what to do. Our union reps just shouted at us through megaphones about where to be with often less than a day’s or a few hours’ notice; the details were often wrong or scrambled, and yet thousands of people showed up to downtown rallies, etc. Besides the strike, there are not terribly many things I can think of that occur without the aid of the Internets on some basic and crucial level.

AND YET (rough transition): there’s a song that is hot on the streets RIGHT NOW, and it did not need to the internet to become what it is. Like strikes in the days of yore, organized from a groundswell of the people’s will, this song found its telos, WIDESPREAD POPULARITY, by relatively primitive means. All around town, people are bumping this same jam. It arrived on the airwaves; radio djs astonished themselves by actually wanting to hear this particular song, introducing it by saying, “Wow, this is my JAM!” People called in requests; it frizzled on 15-year-old girl’s cell phone speakers; the kids danced to it out front of the Boys & Girls Club near my house. The song blew up. This song is Miguel’s “Adorn.”

A lot of white people I know don’t know about Miguel. He’s not an R&B institution like Ursher or Chris or The-Dream; he’s a minor player with caramel pipes who seems to find useful artistic constraint in making narrowly-themed songs, only really rising to popularity after last year’s “Sure Thing.” His song titles are indicative of what the song is actually about, and he does not deviate from the central idea, often resulting in tight, focused ditties. “Sure Thing” features a string of intricately linked things that are analogous to how Miguel and his lover are linked; for a song on the radio these days, it’s pretty clever, and it’s nicely phrased: “If you be the cash/I be the rubber band/ You be a match/ I will be a fuse, boom!” The other pairings go on to be a painter/muse, reporter/news, cigarette/smoker, raising bets/joker, etc. The beats are crisp, low-key mechanical pops backed by a timid altissimo-d out synth-line. It’s a little too precise to have the kind of organic fire one looks for in an R&B song, but its sound is distinct from both the old school Kelly-esque bump-n-grind and new-school synth-wall-of-sound of radio R&B. In other words, it was on to something.

ADORN is the next level, building on the unique clutch of sounds that made Miguel popular with “Sure Thing,” and expanding it into firmly adult-contemporary territory. And it is a fucking revelation. The first time I heard this song on the radio, I was just like, “Nuh-uh, did someone really do that?” Like a few other R&B adventurers out there, this song looks backwards to the much-maligned genre of SMOOTH. “Adorn” is so fucking smooth. Marvin Gaye-Curtis Mayfield-Fucking-Smooth. It starts with drum machine stutters, a fuzzed-out bass, and Miguel’s own organic vocal whoops, making for a “whispers in the dark”-kind of unassuming boogie. Like the analogies of “Sure Thing,” the lyrical content here is again organized in a clean, yet literary way, this time employing some low-key synecdoche: “Baby these lips can’t wait to taste your skin/ and these eyes can’t wait to see your grin.” Etc. But the loveliest, most elegant aspect of this song is the central concept, which is the imploring of the speaker to “let my love adorn you.” Adorn is such a good word for a slinky, out-of-time jam, like silk sliding effortlessly over smooth skin, or a similarly timeless concept of sexin/lovin. Most importantly, Miguel really SINGS as a come-on, teasing with vibrato when necessary, releasing the tension with a little belting, reeling you back in with whispers.

Isn’t it comforting to know that THE PEOPLE out in the REAL WORLD are still a force, a force whose will must be reckoned with, whose preferences and desires must be heard and acknowledged? The LOVE needs to be out there on the street, and not just stashed on a message board or…ahem… a blog, for all the world to partake of. Now, just le-le-le-let this love adorn you!

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A Balancing Act: Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE

Image
Remembrances of Egypts Past

“No words.”

That phrase has been a pretty recurrent maxim in recent times for me, and easily applies to my music blogging (non)ambitions. Sometimes writing about music unleashes the best in my thought process, and at other times, it almost seems to disturb the process that music itself sets out to perform. That is, writing about music can kinda kill it, because the analytical process inherent in writing is kinda antithetical to the non-elucidated artfulness of music. Music is music, expressing itself by means musical.

Some music demands elucidation and unpacking though, and that’s the point of criticism. But what I’m sayin here is that sometimes the jams are so perfect, their clarity of meaning so sublime, that writing about them can be superfluous, or worse, tarnishes the musicalness of the music.

This is the danger of applying words to one of my favorite new musics, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE. I feel “no words” about this album, because it flawlessly says what it needs to say, by means of lyric, structure, and production. I ain’t sayin this album is perfect (gets off to a slow start, probably too many interludes, that song “Forrest Gump” sucks), but it does perfectly express its artistic goals as an album: it’s a balancing act of style and substance, disillusionment and hope, light and darkess.

The “speakers” of channel ORANGE are given voice in a variety of registers, inhabiting many bodies and attitudes. “Thinkin Bout You” has the bashful analogies of like some young John Donne sonnet (“got a fighter jet/I don’t get to fly it though” and the grizzled wisdom of a dying poet (“we’ll take this road till it changes from color to black and white”–[that shit makes me cry!]). On “Pink Matter” Frank lyrically performs a slow zoom out from the womb (pink matter) to the concept of self (gray matter) to the infinite, bewildering cosmos (aliens watching from the purple matter); the guest, Mr. Benjamin, gives his most emotionally honest verse maybe ever, aligning a present in which he cannot escape his heartbreak and a parallel universe where he and that-one-who-got-away are together.

In another deeper-than-rap balancing act, the universe of swag appears all over this album, but as a backdrop for personal disenchantment instead of the usual brags-about-riches. “Super Rich Kids” and “The Sweet Life” are a Salinger-style observation on the emotional emptiness of decadence and decadent people. The penthouse/Louboutin/Cuban cigar lifestyle so often inhabited by Rick Ross and the Watch the Throners is perversely twisted by Frank in the album showstopper “Pyramid.” I can’t help but picture the late/absurd Michael Jackson video for “Remember The Time,” every time I hear the first 5 minutes of this song, what with the dancing in a palace, the cheetahs, the jewels; the milieu is Egypt-cum-50’s Hollywood film, complete with a purple-eyed harlot as the object of the speaker’s desire, revealed completely before the camera, but remote. As the instrumentation transitions from its slinky, mysterious funk into a dreamier, slower mode, it’s like scales fall from our eyes, and all of a sudden the majestic Egypt is traded for a shitty motel, and Cleopatra is getting decked in stripper clothes before hitting the Strip. It’s a twist: Cleopatra is a stripper at a joint called “The Pyramid.” The unglamorous reality of hustling undoes the opulent fantasy of wealth.

We are taken to other places in channel ORANGE; sunny California, the back of a cab, a dream-like Sierra Leone, the crack house. The thing that allows Frank to balance his speakers’ personas and his settings is his miraculous, god-given gift of PHRASING. Often overlooked by people who don’t have any idea what it takes to sing, Ocean sounds like an old pro, with as much style as a crooner of yore, and charm for days like an R&Ber out to take your pants off. He knows how to sell a line with a droll laziness, earnest belting (one friend compared it to the somewhat embarrassing earnestness of Rufus Wainwright!), a flat directness, all in perfect tandem with the careful, cinematic scope and tone of each song.

So though the words I’ve chosen to use about channel ORANGE go too deep on some levels and don’t go there at all in other ways (have you noticed I haven’t mentioned his musical influences or, gasp, his sexuality???), I’m so deeply grateful that Frank pulled together this deeply personal, widely universal document of balance, of the minute and large, of desire and deprivation, of wealth and poverty. I hate to be all collegey and pullin out the dialectic, but the ole dialectic a constant of a lot of good art; it’s about navigating with our gray matter, not getting bludgeoned with big, bold strokes. I don’t have enough words for dudes like Frank, who paint with the subtleties of their craft and leave us with something as listenable and re-listenable as channel ORANGE.

2011: The Year Daftpop Stopped Writing But Learned to Love Drake

sometimes, i'm shallower than rap.

Another year has come and gone. I did very little writing. I did almost no listening to non-major label artists. Most people don’t even think that stuff is music, and sure, sometimes I think my mind is gradually atrophying from exposure to so much unchallenging trash; on the other hand, it is my belief that the respective talents of The-Dream, Kanye, Beyonce, and Jay-z are some of the best in any musical genre, and therefore worthy of my attentions. Maybe 2012 will offer itself as a new start for my musical collection and I will finally buy a record player and get into obscure soul and R&B from decades past (this is my musical dream). Or maybe I’ll just keep pumping up the volume when Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (seriously, have you heard this song? Drop everything and listen if you have not) comes on the radio and rapping along to the embarrassment of whoever is sitting in my passenger seat. Without further ado, here is a collection of my timely “bests and worsts” of hip hop, pop, and r&b in 2011.

Grossest sex jam of 2011 and definitely the grossest sex jam ever:
Chris Brown & Ludacris: “Wet the Bed.”
To quote my sister, “When I heard the song “Wet the Bed,” I almost pooped my pants.” Indeed, the extended metaphor of this song is so distasteful that one becomes bewildered enough to lose it. As though the song’s title and hook were not enough to drill home this mind-numbingly literal bedroom play-by-play, the beat consists of a synthesized DRIPPING SOUND, instead of, oh i dunno, an actual rhythmic instrument. Fuck you, Ludacris, and fuck you, Chris Brown, for thinking that a woman’s aroused state should ever be compared to pissing the sheets.

Sexiest Sex Jam of 2011:
Beyonce: “Dance For You”
Beyonce is too classy to make a sex jam in the “hey girl hey girl come back to my condo let me play yo booty like a congo” tradition of most contemporary sex jams. She is an artist of profound feeling and substance when it comes to the topic of love, and her album 4 was love’s showcase this year. “Dance For You,” on the deluxe edition of 4, is an epic, six-minute ode to her unending love, dedication and desire to one lucky individual (whom she decides to dance for). It was written by my man The-Dream (real name: Terius Nash), and like many of Nash’s weirdest and best songs, it does not follow any kind of traditional pop song structure. There are seven or eight distinct parts, which at times coalesce into a hook and other times not. A wailing, Purple Rain-era guitar underpins the end of the song, and then the album ends in a wash of sultry catharsis. This is obviously the best way to make an exit under any circumstances.

Best soundtrack to the next OWS protest:
Killer Mike: Pl3dge
Hey, you know how everyone thinks positive rappers are lame? But then those same people listen to politically-objectionable materialistic coke hustling rap because they prefer something “hard”? Well, H-town’s Killer Mike is political and yet not lame, hard and yet not rapping about counting his hundos. Pl3dge sounds pretty damn classic and could have come out any time between now and the past 15 years, but its raging pessimism regarding America’s economic plight is unmistakably of the now. Mike shatters illusions of what was once called “the American Dream” by applying X-Ray Marxist vision to the growing class and racial inequalities of our current ‘broke-as-shit’ capitalism. This is a particularly Richard Wright-esque insight on the track “That’s Life II”: “Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, how could you sell white America your insanity?/ You tell ’em that they’re different and manipulate their vanity/ when truthfully, financially their life is a calamity.” Like Wright, Killer Mike sees ruling class rhetoric dividing poor (white and black) people by creating racial resentment. He is not confident that “change” is going to happen any time soon. His solution?: “Burn this motherfucker down.” I don’t disagree.

Worst soundtrack for the next OWS protest:
Kanye & Jay-Z: Watch the Throne
Here Jay-Z is, again rapping about brands so expensive most of us have never heard of them. There Kanye is, lamenting, “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie?/ A black guy.” Watch the Throne is undeniably a lot of fun, but it further entrenches both of these guys in what I have long seen as the inevitable existential inertia of famous rappers. Let me explain. The narrative of a rapper’s life is traditionally a rags-to-riches story. But when the struggle is over, and the rapper finds himself sitting pretty atop a pile of rap-gotten-gains like Audemars, Mongolian furs, and $150 million LiveNation contracts, what is there left to rap about? Besides watches that cost 300k, furs, and LiveNation contracts, I mean? Yeah, they don’t know either.

Worst Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Rick Ross feat. Nicki Minaj: “You the Boss.”
Nicki Minaj was the great female hope of 2010, until her major label debut turned out to be a middling, money-grabbing…major label debut. But, the cynical downplay of Minaj’s freak image worked, and Pink Friday, the generally triflin’ collection of club hits and crossover R&B love songs, has officially gone platinum. “You the Boss,” from Ross’s forthcoming God Forgives, I Don’t album, is not only triflin, but also an undoing and betrayal of Minaj’s own bossness. Whereas back in the good old days, Minaj and Ross appeared on the Ye track “Monster” as equals, and Minaj’s verse obviously bested Ross and every other MC on it, this song features Minaj comely whispering, “I’ll do anything that you say/anything that you want/ cuz you da boss/ you you you da boss.” I know Rick Ross is the boss, and his name conveniently rhymes with boss, but this 2011 single absolutely offended me, and made me wonder where the fuck Minaj is taking her career. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but whatever happened to the MOTHERFUCKING MONSTER? This woman was born to be a star, not a background singer cooing about obeying another rapper’s whims!!!

Best Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Drake feat. Rick Ross: “Lord Knows”
Ross, all drug-dealing braggadocio, husky vocals and heavy gold chains, is a strange bedfellow for the pretty-boy, emo-rapping, navel-gazing of young Drake. But as far as I’m concerned, Drake fucking turned his musical fortune around with the release of the sprawling, dextrous, thoughtful Take Care, the album on which the epic “Lord Knows” appears. Rick Ross should always be backed by such larger-than-life Just Blaze production, and Drake should always have this much feeling when regaling us with tales of his fame-induced malaise.

There was more to talk about this year, and I tried to write long-form reviews of Take Care, DJ Quik’s Book of David, and my other favorite releases from this year, but the words were not forthcoming. Here’s to 2012 and a renewed loquaciousness about music and culture.

Several Songs Daftpop Enjoys Right Now: The Series, Part II

Young Jeezy: Only like Malcolm X if his motto was "buy any jeans necessary"

Well gee, it’s been a minute since I wrote on this blog. I’ve been sitting, thumbs a-twiddle, waiting for bloggerly inspiration to come for weeks now. Finally I realized that I of all people should know that blogs need not be the medium for deep thoughts (for instance, my last post was about Clash of the Titans).

In accordance with my lack of inspiration, and perhaps my recent lack of sophistication, I will discuss some notable songs of the moment… Ahem.

Welcome to Several Songs Daftpop Enjoys Right Now, The Series! (It needs a better title, but I’m working on it. Woman can only do so much in between work deadlines, smoke breaks and caring for needy dogs.)

1. Jeezy feat. Clipse: “Illin

Jeezy’s got a new mixtape out, for anyone who cares. I don’t, but I stumbled upon this track, and was taken aback by its sonic otherness. “Illin” features an insanely warbled, gnarly violin sample; it’s something from your nightmares, or maybe a zombie debutante ball in Baton Rouge, 1914. Jeezy’s husky, lumbering flow rarely conveys much of anything; the content of his rhymes is often self-aggrandizing bullshit, sometimes heart attacks, and one time about black presidents and blue Italian sports cars. But here, Jeezy is forced to hustle a little due to the presence of his guests, the every-day-they’re-hustlin’ rappers of Clipse. Jeezy + Clipse makes for a visceral clash of personalities; Jeezy’s verse is essentially about how effortless being him/being rich is, while Malice and Pusha sound anguished and paranoid, per usual. If only Clipse could learn a little something from the dumb self-assuredness of Jeezy, and Jeezy could maybe get a little writerly ambition from Clipse… then everyone would win.

2. Freddie Gibbs: “Crushin’ Feelins

To some, Freddie Gibbs is some 2009 hype; to others, he is the future of hip hop. To make a long story short: Gibbs is from Gary, but currently lives in LA. He is something of a classicist gangsta rapper. His beats aren’t all that dope, but he can double-time it like Twista and spins the most eloquent of street elegies. And oh yeah, he’s performing at P4k this summer. Weird!!! It can be hard to know where to start with 3.0 rappers like Gibbs–dude has no proper studio album or radio singles, just some mixtapes, all of which are epic in length–so where to begin? Start here, with “Crushin’ Feelins.” In less than four minutes of breathless, glorious raps over the fucking smoothest guitar ever, Gibbs tells you everywhere he’s lived, states his life goals, talks up his skills, and most importantly, explains everything you need to know about him: that he can “easily bring you defeat with [his] vernacular” and is “too deep in the streets to be beefin’ with other rappers.”

3. Drake: “Over

I never thought I’d cop to liking a Drake song, but here I am. While I don’t relish the concept of “Over,” (which is yet another navel-gazing extravaganza and features several of his fucking imbecilic non sequitur couplets) the scuttle-shuttle of the beat that drops at 30 seconds is as beautiful a thang I’ve heard on the radio in a while.

4. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: “Beverly Kills

Pop bliss! “Beverly Kills” is a scatterbrained but marvelously melodic ditty recalling psychedelic Californian summers, like an acid trip at someone’s 60’s hippie party in L.A. Or something. Anyway, AP’sHG might be poster-children of lofi-ness, but a friend recently commented to me that there is something very deliberate in their aesthetic; lofi for them is not tossed off or motivated by a sort of punk recklessness: it’s a production choice , a wonderful mindfulness of what is being evoked by certain sounds. This song is yet another good example of this phenom; plus, it’s just good, silly fun.

5. M.I.A.: “XXXO

I love M.I.A. so much that I get sort of befuddled when I have to talk about her. Ever a monitor of the postmodern condition, M.I.A. here comments on the identity-eroding properties of modern telecommunications. I am glad I received this warning from M.I.A.,  because I almost wrote this entire post in internet lingo and emoticons. JK! She sings in a lifeless monotone against a backdrop of menacing (if somewhat conventional) electropop. “XXXO,” both the song title and the clutch of letters meant to represent a kiss, are M.I.A.’s shorthand for the ways in which we are dehumanized by technology. The lyrics aren’t very cohesive, but the whole is suggestive: “you want me be someone who I’m really not,” “cuz everytime we try to get close/there’s always something I’m  thinking about,” “if you like what you see/you can download and store.” Seduction and the possibility of love have been reduced to a mechanization, a screen touch, a tapping away on T9.

6. Robyn “Dancing On My Own

Apart from being Swedish, looking sorta gay, and having hot shit producers, there is yet one other element that separates Robyn from the baser spectrum of pop. This is the vulnerable and self-aware emotional center of her lyrics. I suppose this center does not always hold, especially when you consider the embarrassing lyrical content and rapping affectations of “Konichiwa Bitches,” which would have benefited from some self-awareness. But in her best songs–“With Every Heartbeat,” “The Girl and The Robot,” and now “Dancing on My Own”–Robyn acknowledges, in uncomfortable detail, the desperation and various humiliations involved in being a lover scorned. She dances on her own in this ditty, whose narrative concerns going to the club in order to see her recent ex get busy with his new woman: “yeah, i know it’s stupid/but i just got to see it for myself.” She then gets shit faced and, after stumbling over some broken bottles in stilettos, the world starts spinning off its axis. By song end, it ain’t hard to imagine our song’s heroine falling flat on her lovely YET STILL REJECTED face. My suggestion is that Robyn get with also-frequently-embarrassedly-in-love/fellow Swede Jens Lekman, and then they can make sweet music together until they die.

The Rise and Fall of Timbaland

A contemplative Timbaland, wondering how he will spend all that dirtee cash he got from shitee trax.

If you are an artist and you happen to name your album Shock Value, well, then you have to be reasonably confident that your album is not so shockingly bad that its title becomes ironically applicable. If you are an artist and you happen to name your follow-up to the previously mentioned album Shock Value II, well, then you are just dumb. It’s not so shocking anymore if it’s the second in a series, is it? Tell that to Timbaland, who, with every passing year, loses his ability to shock us in both good and bad ways.

Like, say, former bandmate and fellow Virginian Pharrell, Timbaland was so ubiquitous for such a long time that his beats lost their astonishing weirdness.  Unlike Pharrell, Timbaland’s ubiquity didn’t always seem like it was going to be a bad thing. Timbaland’s signature–samples from exotic musics (see: the 50s Egyptian track “Khosara” on “Big Pimpin'”), poly-rhythmic shuffle shuffle (see: “Cry Me A River”), manipulation of negative space (see: “Get Ur Freak On”)–was bound to yield more interesting bounty than Pharrell’s somewhat single-minded future fetish.

But, I daresay, I didn’t know the meaning of “phoned in” until I heard Timbo’s recent singles from Shock Value II. It’s as though dude didn’t even have the decency to phone in from a fucking iPhone, but instead used like a 2002 Razr. Not so cutting edge anymore.

Take the single “Carry Out.” JT is on it for good measure, but the song has no trace of melody or memorable hook, therefore he could not save the day. The beat track is a clattering mess of bells, recalling the busy hustle of “Promiscuous,” but lacking the snaky, desire-fueled focus of the latter song’s verses. Furthermore, the song is in identity crisis: it’s a little too slow for the dance floor, but it’s a little too up-tempo to be a sex jam. The song sighs to a start like an old Honda–not loud, not startling, just sorta rusty and tired–then meanders around for a few minutes, a passionless, middling tune that should interest no one.

And I haven’t even gotten to the lyrics. There are more half-baked food/sex analogies in this song than there are in the whole of, say, the books Julie & Julie and Like Water for Chocolate COMBINED. But the food/sex theme isn’t even cohesive; advertising slogans (“have it your way”!!!) mingle with restaurant references (“i’ll keep you open all night like ihop” gross!!!), cooking terminology (“pretty sure you got your own recipe”) is spliced with fast food cliches (“i can tell that way you like, baby, super-size”), making for an overall unsavory song.

Then there’s “Say Something,” the other SVII single. It features Drake, whose practiced, plastic swag and suave-i-tude make him one of the vilest billboard artists out there.

So, unambitious beats, crappy guest artists, recycling of ideas: is Timbo getting ready to exit stage left for a hiatus? He has laid low previously, notably between 2002 and 2006. Or is he just milking this old cow until its teat is totally dried out?

Probably milking the teat. After I started writing this blog post, I heard a Timbo-produced track off The Game’s forthcoming album, called “Krazy.” Blarey guitar and carnivalesque organ make for a dizzying track. The Game seems a little out of place, while Gucci seems typically at home with himself. I keep imagining the three of these dudes hanging out at the county fair playing carnival games; Gucci effortlessly shoots the little race horse each round, winning a new styrofoam-stuffed teddy bear at every attempt, while The Game stares wanly in the background and Timbo stuffs his face with fried concoctions such as elephant ears. In other words, this track is Krazy.

“Krazy” doesn’t contain any of the signatures of Timbaland’s most recent production or artisting work: no lush Euro-techno, no dry-as-bone drums, no layered, stuttering drum track. In fact, it reminds me a good deal of the less listenable songs on the most recent Clipse record–choppy, trebbly guitar riffage that tries really hard to come off as “bad-ass,” and unexpected but annoying instruments buzzing around in circles–all forces combining to make you realize you just need to click forward to the next track. So while “Krazy” is a departure, it’s no revelation.

But the difference is enough to give pause: it’s easy to dismiss Timbo by saying “he’s past his prime.” But what if he’s just gearing up for round-three of his massive career?

All in all, though, Timbo’s narrative should serve as a cautionary tale of overexposure. If you’ve got something good, be measured in your output, don’t burn out for every last dollar. At the end of the day, you will respect yourself, and you’ll make better music. Timbo still might do this yet.

Rihanna Crosses to Dark Side, But Not Far Enough

i stole this glove from beyonce, but it's cool, it looks way more convincing on me anyway

So, Rated R. I still have a hard time knowing what criteria to use when considering the strengths of a pop album, because pop stars are not made by their full length albums, but by the strength of their singles and their image/aesthetic. I love pop music these days, but there are very few albums from this decade’s Billboard artists that I still find engaging or good.

Good Girl Gone Bad had a few excellent singles (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia”), while the rest (“Take a Bow,” “Rehab”) were conservative ballads that were timeless in a bad way: totally generic and characterless. There were a couple of “Watch out! I’m Rihanna and I’m really mad” songs, but those fell flat due to the flakiness of the production; sirens hesitantly blared and should have been more urgent, electric guitars were not nearly abrasive enough, etc. The “bad girl” was barely present; when she was, she was doing stupid stuff like throwing around some nice china and driving fast. Rihanna could have handled tough sounds and a tougher, more avant-garde image, but I suspect her production team was trying to preserve some femininity for the somewhat robotic and aloof star. Verdict: Good Girl Gone Bad was a transitional album, with tween-pleasing characterless ballads and sparingly few jolts of truly forward-looking shit.

Rated R has nothing as good as “Umbrella,” but the sad-sack songs have vastly improved, and, aesthetically, the album is a slightly more cohesive statement than Good Girl Gone Bad. Visually, Rihanna has finally given in to the darkness that she has always courted. The album cover features Rihanna as Siouxsie Sioux in 1982, or something, instead of the curvaceous Barbados babe she was on her last cover. Musically, the album is not as dark as it purported. The album opener is a strange little ditty inviting the listener into the “Mad House.” The organs and narration are straight outta “Thriller,” MJ’s compelling and enduringly spooky musical testament to the weird.

But it all gets lighter from there. In “Hard,” Rihanna’s newest single, she reminds us that she’s a hard mofo; unfortunately, it features Mr. Young Jeezy, who rhymes about heart attacks… again. Remember this, from Kanye’s “Amazing”?: “Standin’ at the podium/tryin’ to watch my sodium/die of high blood pressure/that or let the feds getcha.” What the fuck? What does a podium have to do with anything? Pfork gave “Hard” a 7 out of 10 as a single rating, but I am not convinced that this song is even that good. Even though Rihanna’s diction conveys her robotic strength as an elemental, necessary force, the song is a little silly; for example, none of the instruments sound good, and nothing sounds particularly hard. They should have put some chainsaws (or something) in the song to make it sound more convincingly badass.

“Hard” is followed by songs falling into one or other of these categories: conservative ballad, a la her old days, but with a darker lyrical bent, or stupid, stupid lite rock song. How come R&B and pop people can’t figure out how to make a guitar sound cool? Also, the pianos in “Firebomb” are cut from the Disney-single playbook. You know those Disney singles? Like Christina Aguilera’s version of that Mulan song? Ugh, those sparkly pianos. What I am trying to say is that all the guitars and pianos and everything sound like muzak in many Rihanna songs. This is especially true of the song “Firebomb,” which, again, doesn’t have enough power to sound like it could have things to do with real firebombs. Which are powerful!

Producers on Rated R include the-Dream, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and other cool people; so how come this album sounds bad so much of the time? I hate to bring her up, but let’s talk about Lady Gaga for a second. This woman took an aesthetic and ran with it. She collected all the 90s euro synths she could, and hoarded them onto her album. If she was going to fail, she would fail miserably, as all her eggs were in one musical basket that sounded a bit like 90s Cher. But, hey, guess what, it worked! Congrats, Lady Gaga, you milked 6 singles off of one cd, and they pretty much all sound the same! Rihanna would do well to take a similar chance.

Sometimes, when Rihanna tries to go all classic, it works. “Te Amo” and “Cold Case Love” are both pretty beautiful, touching songs, and they will both age well. (Nevermind that “Cold Case Love,” JT’s contribution, sounds a lot like the gospel choir part of “Losing My Way.”)

Sometimes, songs sound eerily familiar. The dreaded will.i.am makes an appearance on “Photography,” a song whose parts are pretty much jacked from the verses of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” and Burial’s love-lorned warbles on “Archangel.” I guess will.i.am is finally running out of ideas; thank god, maybe he will leave us soon.

Sometimes, the songs are just right. Take “Rude Boy.” This could be Rihanna’s thing: it’s a fast-paced dance/sex jam replete with synthesized steel drums reminiscent of the Caribbean. The song is a shout out to a rude boy, who Rihanna dares not to get it up for her. Clearly ‘rude boy,’ just sorta means gangsta in this song, and has no specifically place/time rooted identity; too bad–Rihanna and some dude in suspenders, a fedora and skinny black tie dancing in a sultry club surrounded by Jamaican palm trees and 14 kinds of rum would have made for a hot video.

In conclusion, Rihanna needs to come up with a production team that can create all the power she is singing about. She needs to take some chances on an aesthetic, and I think her next move could easily be a sort of goth Caribbean musical hybrid. She’s a big enough star that we’ll all still be with her for her next move.

Update: Kanye West in 2009

Shiny orbs reveal a contemplative Kanye

Last year this time I was sullenly nodding along to Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak.” This year this time I am marveling at Kanye’s 2009 brand expansion. He didn’t put out an album, but he was all over everybody else’s, guesting, producing, sputtering, chuckling, but mostly, as some might say, spittin’ raw game.

Probably because everyone was so mad at him for making a depressing cd, Kanye made up for all that 2008 autotuning with some witty, sad, self-reflective, angry and haughty rhymes on his various guest appearances.

A playlist of Kanye’s 12–COUNT EM’–12 singles is available for your listening pleasure (or displeasure, depending on the song) here. The best of this crop is “Walkin’ on the Moon,” with the-Dream. I LOVE THAT SONG! But other artists with whom Kanye worked successfully include Rick Ross, Keri Hilson and Clipse. Least successful collabs were with the Teriyaki Boyz, as well as with everyone and their mom on “Forever,” which is an EPIC FAIL (to use internet speak) featuring the megastars Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem. (I think it’s because I HATE DRAKE.)

Many of these songs feature similar themes and references to products. Below is a sort of index for Kanye’s songs of this last year. I was inspired by the index Slate compiled for Sarah Palin’s new book; the index topics revealed a lot about the book, so if you don’t have time to listen to Kanye, this list will fill you in on what you missed.

Brands (cars):

Mercedes Benz (Maybach Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want)

Maybach (Maybach Music 2, obviously), also known as “May-what?” (Run This Town)

Lexus (Maybach Music 2, Whatever U Want)

Ferrari (Walkin’ On the Moon)

Volvo, did not buy for family a (Run This Town)

Rav 4, did not become a rapper to drive a (Run This Town)

Brands (not cars):

-Reebok, implying it is okay to wear a pair of (Knock You Down), scoffing that you still own pair of (Run This Town)

-Louis Vuitton, implying it is higher class to wear (Knock You Down),

-Dolce & Gabbana, in your closet, Kanye finds (The Big Screen)

-Grey Poupon, rhymes with poop (Mayback Music 2)

Women:

-dykes, at the club, men who are not Kanye get (Maybach Music 2)

-breasts, for women who want them, Kanye will purchase new (Whatever U Want)

-nipples, aka bee stings (Run This Town)

-Michelle Obama, just cuz (Forever)

-sororities, Kanye has seniority at (Poke Her Face)

Movies:

-Good Will Hunting, in a sea of ill-will, Kanye goes (Run This Town)

-Karate Kid, because Kanye is rhyming with Asians, he mentions (Teriyaking)

-Return of the Jedi, when Kanye returns from out of town, it is similar to (The Big Screen)

-Hollywood (The Big Screen, Forever)

Wine Varietals:

riesling, drank too much (Run This Town)

Champagne, drank a little (Poke Her Face)

Affecting Foreign Accents:

‘chahnce, ‘ British pronunciation of the word “chance” (Supernova)

‘ting,’ Jamaican pronunciation of the word “thing” (The Big Screen)

Technology:

Macbook Air, Digitial Girl in question watched on(Digital Girl)

Blackberry, please stop using your (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-Macberry, horrible pun referring to iPhone (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-OMG, Internet lingo (Knock You Down)

texting, drunk (Walkin’ on the Moon)

Biology/biological functions:

gonads, someone grabbed him by the (Teriyaking)

poop, used in extended metaphor about world as his commode (Maybach Music 2, Teriyaking)

dick,  to prove point to women, Kanye uses (all songs)

-Medulla Oblongata (Poke Her Face)

-scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

comatosis, rhymes with scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

-sex, in library (Poke Her Face), with mentally challenged girls (Kinda Like a Big Deal)

Musical References:

-Slick Rick, Kanye is the new (Knock You Down)

-Hey Young World, [Slick Rick reference] (Knock You Down)

-Michael Jackson, this is bad, real bad, similar to the album by (Knock You Down)

Joe Jackson, Kanye is mad, real mad, similar to the mood of (Knock You Down)

Emotional Themes:

-palpable regret (all songs, especially Kinda Like a Big Deal, Run This Town, Walkin on the Moon, Knock You Down)

-haughtiness (all songs, especially Mayback Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want, Forever)

-combination regret & haughtiness (all songs)

But shiny bags can't take away the pain