Dear Rob and Keith:
So, why not go to the island with “the highest per capita rate of musical output in the world,” according to Spin: Jamaica. It was a phenomenal year for dancehall reggae, not just because Sean Paul took the crown of “Dancehall Guy Everyone Knows” from Shaggy, though Paul is probably not going to outsell Shaggy. Riddims were being produced at, well, the remarkable pace riddims are usually produced. For anyone confused, “riddims” are what hip-hop artists call “beats” and what many people call “the music.” Jamaican artists have been re-voicing and recycling riddims since the ‘70s, trading instrumentals and establishing a series of internal references. Hip-hop is in many ways the child of this practice, and this year father and son got into the ring. Stephen “Lenky” Marsden’s “Diwali” beat showed up as a sample in songs by Lumidee and Dirt McGirt and hovered over songs like Missy’s “Pass That Dutch” and Kardinal Offishall’s “Belly Dancer.” It makes sense the circle is closing—producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland have been borrowing the decentered sex walk and polished surface of dancehall beats for years. Now dancehall and hip-hop are pushing each other to higher levels of cultural appropriation, oddness, and syncopation. It’s a beautiful race. Choose your favorite: “Fiesta,” “Amharic,” “Egyptian,” “Forensic.”
All of these producers have been ripping off the Asian musical blend bhangra for years, but Panjabi MC’s arrival (on Jay-Z’s wings) with “Beware of the Boys” returned some of the credit where it’s due. All this activity outside the U.S. made it clear there was no single king of the beats this year. Though, if it’s anyone, it would be Timbaland again. His production for Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance, Missy’s This Is Not A Test,and for his own album with Magoo, Under Construction Part II, made it seem once again as though nobody loves music more than Timothy Mosley: It ranged from Southern guitar funk, African driving test music, slow jams from Pluto, to poems made from car alarms. Tim’s competitors the Neptunes should have been ripping off dancehall or bhangra or something this year—their beats for Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes” and “Allure” were the weakest they’ve had in ages. Kelis’ “Milkshake” is great, but the Neptunes need a few more floor-shakers like NORE’s “Frontin’ ” or Justin’s “Like I Love You.” (I’ve heard some of Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, due in March, and its brutal, alien funk could put the Neptunes’ back in the lead.)
The dance crown goes to Lil Jon. His torqued, tweaked keyboards and drum machines cause minor riots on dance floors—see “Get Low.” The South’s “crunk” music has seeped into prime-time without being watered down. And the South, as always, owns slow, as heard in the continued growth of “screwed” music, which is basically hip-hop slowed down and rearranged. DJ Paul and Juicy J’s production for Three 6 Mafia’s “Rainbow Colors” is a bit like listening to Schubert with the flu. (Either Schubert or you can have the flu—it still works.) David Banner released a screwed version of his album, Mississippi, which sounds like a new breed of blues, or abstract art. It bears mentioning that as rich as all this sound is, Banner and his colleague Lil’ Flip are running some kind of Misogyny Workshop with their lyrics. There’s a reason people are flocking to OutKast.
OutKast had one of the biggest openings of the year by releasing an epic that no rookie artist could have gotten away with. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and The Black Album made me feel pretty great about hip-hop in the fourth quarter. And I still think Def Jux CEO El-P and his labelmate RJD2 are making some of the best iterations of hip-hop music out there, but I am increasingly uninterested in the hermetic, baffling lyrics on his and his friends’ records. (Cue theories involving my age.)
But I can’t always understand what Dizzee Rascal’s always saying either—how did it take this long to mention him?—and he made the most astonishing record of the year, Boy In Da Corner. Every song just explodes with discovery and unchecked emotion. “Omigod! I’ve never been this mad before! I’ve never been this hurt! I’ve never pressed this button! Ooouuagh!” It sounds nothing like the Clash’s first album (and everyone should be nervous when a rock critic pulls out the Clash’s first album) but there’s a similar sense in Dizzee’s music of a house being broken into, new tools going off every which way, just a surfeit of unapologetic OUTPUT. (And though the scene surrounding Dizzee doesn’t always hold my attention, watching the detailed discussion of the music in the blogosphere has been really fun.)
And we didn’t get to male R&B or microhouse. I’m telling you—it ain’t a bad day job, not by a long shot. But question of the year—country aside, why did so few musicians address the war or the administration? Explain that to me, Lucy.