Monthly Archives: May 2011
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Depending on who you ask, Lady Gaga is either the epitome of art or everything that’s wrong with the music industry. Neither are true, of course, but the important part is that you have to be a damn phenomenon to evoke opinions like that. Certainly no other pop star in recent memory has commanded so much attention or cultural influence (you aren’t voted 2011’s most powerful celebrity in Forbes Magazine for nothing). But at some point, Gaga decided to exert that influence in two different ways. On one hand, she became an activist, rallying for gay rights and defending the disenfranchised. On the other, not-so-good hand, she started pawning off half-assed ideas—wearing a dress made of meat, “hatching” from a prop egg at the Grammys—as major statements. The problem with Born This Way, Gaga’s second full-length, is that the former provides the motivation for the record but the latter provides the execution.
The Fame and The Fame Monster dabbled in the concept album idea, but the songs on Born This Way wear their meanings like badges on a glitter-drenched leather jacket. Essentially, the record is a series of anthems about self-love, liberation and religion—in other words, an album written specifically for her Little Monsters, her rabid fanbase of supposed misfits and outcasts. There’s nothing wrong with this, but her statements feel like rough sketches. She means well but there is zero wit or grace to her words, never developing her thoughts enough to say anything new or clever. For instance, nearly every line on the title track sounds like it was stripped from an inspirational poster or public service announcement, and all her many, many references to Christian figures throughout the record never amount to anything substantial. (Remember: just mentioning Jesus doesn’t automatically equal profundity.) Unsurprisingly, her words work the best when Gaga avoids trying too hard, such as on the sweet, nostalgic “Yoü and I,” the rebel anthem “Bad Kids,” and the dancefloor bangers like “Scheiβe” and “Marry The Night.”
Luckily, the music is just as extravagant, able to make even her most questionable lyrics easier to swallow. While Gaga doesn’t try anything astonishingly new, she definitely tries more here than ever before. “Americano” pulses with Latin flavor; “Yoü and I” flirts with country-rock, and “Bad Kids,” arguably the album’s best track, successfully merges metal and disco. She even gets veteran E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons to play on a couple of tracks, perhaps in the hopes of creating her own “Born To Run,” to which the album closer “The Edge Of Glory” clearly pays debt. And though it may be too easy to compare her to Madonna, Gaga is certainly asking for it: she uses Like A Prayer as a template for her record, right down to the religious themes and the way she lifts the melody from “Express Yourself” for the title track. The difference is while Like A Prayer coupled an artistic statement with some of Madonna’s greatest songs, Born This Way‘s songs simply just aren’t as strong as what we expect from Gaga. Gaga’s great gift is that she’s been able to shape her rhythms and hooks into full-blown pop songs, but here too often she’s content to let them be, thinking that the new elements of her sound are enough to carry the songs, rather than the compositions themselves. As a result, there’s nothing here on the level of “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face,” even if much of this music is quite entertaining in its own right. There was no way Born This Way was going to live up to the enormous expectations placed on it—expectations that Lady Gaga herself helped foster, touting the album as the best of the decade—but it still can’t help but feel disappointing. She’s already proven herself savvy enough to pull something like this off, but next time if she has something to say, she needs to find a better way to say it.
Lady Gaga – The Fame Monster [EP]
Released as Gaga Fever was beginning to peak, The Fame Monster (sold as its own EP but also packaged with a re-release of The Fame) is darker, weirder and better than her debut. Expanding on the more sinister songs in her catalog like “Paparazzi,” Gaga meant for this EP to complement The Fame, exploring the negative side of celebrity. Oddly enough though, there is hardly a mention of the material culture displayed on its predecessor. Instead, The Fame Monster is full of songs about dysfunctional relationships and hook-ups that should never have happened, a sort of regretful come-down after a hard night clubbing. As such, the lyrics here are a step up from The Fame because she sounds both more provocative (“Bad Romance,” “Teeth”) and personal (“Speechless,” “Dance In The Dark”). But of course, as it is with the dance genre, it’s the music that draws the most attention.While The Fame Monster doesn’t deviate much from Gaga’s previous formula, it’s a little richer and more unexpected this time out. This isn’t to say it is unpredictable exactly—it all follows the same sort of pattern: seductive verses, flamboyant choruses, a ballad thrown in for good measure—but the EP takes a few more left turns, such as how “Teeth” touches on gospel and “Alejandro” is prefaced by faux-French film dialogue. Plus, song for song, The Fame Monster is stronger and fresher than its sister record. “Bad Romance” may just be the best song of her career so far: a mess of nonsense chants, aggressive come-ons and a glorious hook set to a pulsing four-on-the-floor beat. Elsewhere, the updated synth-pop of “Dance In The Dark” and the glitchy rush of “Telephone” also rank with Gaga’s finest. The Fame Monster is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the pop star, but her fans aren’t listening to her detractors anyway—they’re too busy dancing.
Lady Gaga – The Fame
Lady Gaga has been so omnipresent in the years following the release of The Fame, it’s easy to overlook that the album only made a modest, though relatively formidable, impact upon its release (debuting at #17 in the U.S., peaking at #4), only gradually turning Gaga into a commercial juggernaut. Back then, it wasn’t immediately apparent she would be any different from the other flash-in-the-pan pop artists of the late 2000s, releasing a couple of songs before disappearing from the public eye. Of course, as The Fame stayed on the charts month after month, churning out single after single, it became clear what made Gaga unique. Rooted in musical theater as much as the underground clubs, Gaga (whose real name Stefani Germanotta doesn’t roll off the tongue as well) crafted herself as a postmodern Madonna, positioning herself as a performer as much as a musician, complete with over-the-top stage shows and costumes. Moreover, she conceived The Fame as a collection of songs both celebrating and mocking celebrity culture, all the while infusing it with an assertive sexuality that’s slick, if sometimes forced. (“Got my ass squeezed by sexy Cupid”? Really?)
While the album is, on one level, a concept album, it certainly doesn’t play like one, particularly since lyrics about a party-hardy lifestyle lend themselves well to dance music anyway. But as many references as there are to clubbing and taking rides on disco sticks, there are also images of instability (“Just Dance”), obsession (“Paparazzi”), deception (“Poker Face”), and superficiality (the title track, “Money Honey,” “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”). While these themes grant The Fame some focus that it otherwise wouldn’t have, Gaga unfortunately never offers any biting commentary, leaving many songs (especially in the latter half) disappointingly lightweight. This isn’t a huge issue, though, because the emphasis isn’t on the words—it’s on the thick, club-ready beats and dance rhythms.
This is where the comparisons to Madonna start to overshoot. The Queen of Pop ushered in a new sound during the post-disco era—the dance-pop that has existed in some form or another in the decades since her debut. The thing about The Fame is that it offers no such revolution, not sounding incredibly different from the legions of other pop albums of the 2000s. (It also doesn’t help that, while an able singer, Gaga shares similar vocal tics with Gwen Stafani and Christina Aguilera.) Gaga and her producers use the same sort of template as other recent pop records, borrowing from electro, house, disco, glam and hip-hop, so synths, pulses, beats and vocal manipulations all predictably make their appearance throughout the album. Of course, this doesn’t discount the record since albums don’t necessarily need to be innovative to be worthwhile, especially when pop music is concerned. And The Fame does have its share of fine songs, particularly in the first, single-heavy half, where the music is edgier and the hooks cut deeper. There are a few missteps here and there though—the dated Euro-pop redux “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” for example—which causes the record to lose some steam in the second half. The Fame is far from essential, but it does establish Lady Gaga’s sensibilities, the same sensibilities that would come to shape the face of dance-pop in the late 2000s. And though the album isn’t hugely inventive, half of pop is having the style and charisma to sell the music, and with this record, Gaga showed she had style for miles and miles.
The Lonely Island – Turtleneck & Chain
From their lowly beginnings making low-budget viral videos to their rise as Saturday Night Live musical parody stars, The Lonely Island have achieved the sort of success few comedians have, let alone comedians who get their start on the Internet. But though their sophomore album, Turtleneck & Chain, isn’t the first release since they’ve become famous, something else has changed. Their 2009 debut, Incredibad, had the luxury of time, compiling many of their best and most popular songs from over the course of many years with only a few tracks written exclusively for the album. Their follow-up, conversely, was crafted in little over two years, so if the material feels a little less polished, it’s to be expected. At the same time, though, Turtleneck & Chain isn’t a disappointment since it simply offers more of what Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone do best: loving send-ups of hip-hop and pop culture. And guess what? It’s still funny. One of the reasons it still works is that the trio utilize their high-profile guests to great effect: Akon gives “I Just Had Sex” a ridiculous, joyous hook; Nicki Minaj infuses “The Creep” with an unhinged sexuality, and Michael Bolton plays up his (in)famous bellow on “Jack Sparrow.” Another reason is that many songs are just flat-out funny. Justin Timberlake returns for the uproarious “Dick In The Box” sequel, “Motherlover,” and “Threw It On The Ground” is a brilliant send-up of non-conformist, conspiracy rap. Meanwhile, “No Homo” satirizes some of the thinly veiled homoerotic undertones in hip-hop culture. Expectedly, Turtleneck & Chain suffers the same problems as its predecessor. To a certain extent, compared to Incredibad, many more jokes here lose some of their potency without their video counterparts, a problem that actually completely sinks “Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde.” (It should be noted, though, the album’s accompanying DVD helps to alleviate this.) Elsewhere, a few one-joke tracks like the Fresh Prince/DJ Jazzy Jeff-inspired “Rocky” and the scatological “Trouble On Dookie Island” don’t hold up to repeat listens. However, the strength of the music here even makes the album listenable when some of the laughs dry up—songs like “Attracted To Us” and “After Party” almost actually work better as music numbers than as comedy bits. Despite its flaws, Turtleneck & Chain delivers exactly what you want from a big-budget sequel, and the best songs here will please any fan of the group, though chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve already YouTube’d the hell out of these songs anyway.
Tyler, The Creator – Goblin
The snowballing success of Tyler, The Creator (along with the rest of his underground rap collective OFWGKTA) is both baffling and unsurprising. On one hand, Tyler’s material is so confrontational and vulgar, it would seem to limit its audience. On the other hand, Tyler’s material is so confrontational and vulgar that it’s bound to appeal to the thousands who want to revel in the shock value like kids sneaking into an R-rated movie. (How do you think Eminem initially broke through?) But since his first album, Bastard, dropped in 2009, buzz slowly grew, and then all of the sudden countless magazines, newspapers and blogs capitalized on the new sensation, fascinated by the controversial teenager. The only one who seemed openly ambivalent about his success was Tyler himself, and his long-awaited second album, Goblin, is rife with anxiety over his growing fame and hype.
Like his previous record, Goblin is framed as a self-therapy session, but this time around, Tyler takes it to heart and is much more introspective and confessional. On the revealing title track, for instance, he’s disillusioned with his success, feeling the pressure of expectations and backlash (“Can’t they just be happy for me? Like, a kid with nothing living out his dreams?”). More importantly, though, is how he approaches his darker subject matter. On Bastard, he was rarely ambiguous about what stories of his were true, but on Goblin he sets the record completely straight, even explicitly saying “it’s fucking fiction” on a “disclaimer” that precedes “Radicals.” Elsewhere, Tyler makes sure to let the listener know when he is playing a character, be it Dracula on “Transylvania” or one of his evil alter egos on “Tron Cat.” Listening to him spell everything out has the effect of rendering these stories much sillier since they lack the bite of a matter-of-fact narrative. This wouldn’t be a problem if his writing was still as sharp, but his forays into dark fantasy—”Tron Cat,” “Fish,” especially the tedious “Bitch Suck Dick”—are rather uninspired with only a few memorable lines emerging from what otherwise sound like leftovers from Bastard. Only the over-the-top black humor of “Transylvania” and the transgressive anthem “Radicals” break through the mold since Tyler embraces the ridiculous on the former and provides some insight on the latter. Interestingly, Goblin is at its best when Tyler strays away from his bread and butter. The demented breakthrough single “Yonkers” is still the most instantly memorable thing here, full of clever turns of phrase, while the surprisingly sweet “Analog” and the honest love story “Her” show signs of maturity. The ambitious final tracks stretch the therapist concept to something resembling a rap opera, leading up to the frightening conclusion “Golden,” where his disillusionment turns into nihilistic anger.
Musically, he’s also more diverse than on Bastard, which helps to move things along when the album begins to sag. Tyler still creates seductive Neptunes-inspired productions, but just like his lyrics, his music shines when he reaches further, whether it be the spooky title track or the grinding “Yonkers.” Meanwhile, “She” and “Fish” dip into R&B, and the great “Nightmare” provides some pensive glockenspiel over the chorus. Tyler even saves time for an synth-string instrumental towards the end (“AU79”). There’s a lot to listen to here, both in the music and words, and Goblin takes at least a handful of listens to crack. Regardless, the album simply doesn’t hold together as well as Bastard since many of the mediocre tracks fall in the middle, sucking out the momentum. The flashes of brilliance here, however, suggest that if Tyler steps out of his comfort zone a bit more, he will be able to create the towering statement of purpose he yearns to make.
Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two
It’s difficult to discuss the Beastie Boys’ eighth album Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two without explaining its title and the circumstances surrounding its recording. Though originally planning to release the first part of the Hot Sauce Committee series, Adam “MCA” Yauch discovered he had cancer in 2009, and the group postponed the recording sessions until after he went into remission. When the Beasties started back up again the following year, they decided to instead focus on the music for their second installment, releasing Part Two in May of 2011. All this confusion gives the impression that Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two is a mess, made up of fragments of recording sessions and songs carefully considered over the course of many years when in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the surprising thing about the record is how tight and colorful it is, how it’s actually their best effort in over a decade.
Touching on the thick grooves of Check Your Head and Ill Communication and the electro workouts that ran though Hello Nasty, Hot Sauce Committee definitely sounds familiar (especially with the 80s references in the lyrics), but it’s not a step backward. Rather, it sounds fresh and vibrant, blending samples in with their own music, deliberately avoiding the simple back-to-basics approach of 2004’s To The 5 Boroughs. Just about every song clicks: “Make Some Noise” rides a wave of funky clavinet; “OK” mutates vocals à la “Intergalactic;” the roaring “Say It” recalls “Sabotage;” Nas and Santigold even drop by for the excellent “Too Many Rappers” and “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” respectively. And if you still aren’t convinced of its energy, the second half of the record almost runs as one long suite (sort of like Paul‘s Boutique‘s epic closer “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”), a burst of quick songs, including the hardcore “Lee Majors Come Again.” But as impressive as the beats and production are, a lot of the energy has to do with the Beastie Boys themselves, who ditch any pretense of concept or commentary here in favor of cracking jokes and ridiculous boasts (“I’m running wild like rats in the Taco Bell!”) with an infectious joy. It all adds up to a non-stop party and some of the Beasties’ most playful and inventive music in years, even if they aren’t necessarily setting any trends in the rap world. The lack of a clear single also furthers the idea that the group is simply enjoying what they do without worrying about commercial success. When many of their golden age peers have since become reality TV stars or family movie actors, that the Beastie Boys are still churning out music this satisfying after over 25 years is a testament to their greatness.