Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nas - One Mic (2001)

***1/2 (of four)

I'll admit, my history with Nas isn't the most enlightened and tasteful. I heard nothing from his brilliant 1994 debut album Illmatic for the first six years after its release, then I didn't think much of it when a pair of alternachick friends played it for me at my megadrunk, college-town going-away party. Yet I did buy a used copy of the clean version of Nas' poppier 1996 follow-up It Was Written. Because of the huge fucking hit "If I Ruled the World" and the lesser fucking hit "Street Dreams." Listened to that album a handful of times, shelved it and didn't give Nas a fair chance until, oh, last summer.

Enter iTunes. Given a state of the art Mac laptop, a few idle nights on the Internet and a credit card with a few grand left on it, I went on a ridiculous song-shopping spree and garnered myself all kinds of new music for consideration. Among the binge, a half-dozen tracks spanning the Nas catalogue, and my favorite quickly became "One Mic," a haunting, mid-tempo, introspective rebuke of financial obsession and call to violent revolution.

Enter TiVo and the VH1 Soul channel. I taped a four-hour block of videos several months ago and have surfed through its contents at least a dozen times since. There are eight to ten gems buried among the filler, but the main reason I never deleted the VH1 Soul block was director Chris Robinson's video for "One Mic." Which completely nails the spirit and lyrical progression of the song, getting quiet when it needs to be quiet and manic when it needs to be manic and ultimately restaging the mid-'70s Soweto student riot in South Africa.

Music video trivia factoid - the Soweto scenes in "One Mic" were not actually filmed in Africa, as was widely believed at the time. As a 2002 pre-Video Music Awards fluff piece on reveals, Robinson and Nas were restricted by immediate post-9/11 security concerns and the rapper's promotion schedule and ended up staging the Soweto uprising in Los Angeles. But the attention to detail in the costumes and shantytown buildings could fool even the most ardent African Studies major at the liberal arts college of your choice.

Nas spends most of the video sullenly rapping the lyrics from a chair in a yellow/green-tinted desolate room lit with a single naked bulb whose color bleeds down into the frame - pulsating with the song's beat thanks to Robinson's instruction that the cameraman open and close the shutter in time with the snare drum. On the streets of an American ghetto, we see the police pull over and harass a group of young black folks for no apparent reason - the brothers run, the cops shoot, the population reacts, the tension rises. That's the first verse.

Contrast this with the second verse, the Soweto sequence, in which a street activist riles up the populace of the shantytown while military riot police close in. Rocks are thrown and sticks are swung while Nas wanders among the chaos in a white T-shirt depicting every revolutionary you could imagine.

Then, in the third verse, the only one to start loud and get quieter as it progresses (the others start soft and progessively build), we see the people who make up Nas' army. There are young girls studying in their bedrooms while wearing headphones and lip synching the song's lyrics. There are buff, cagey motherfuckers in prison cells. There are gang bangers who want a way out of the lifestyle. These are the people Nas wants to have grab up guns and fight for their rights and be prepared to "die with nines out." Or, in the radio version, "fly with mindpower."

MTV - for all its tolerance of pimping, promiscuity and mass-alcohol consumption - isn't about to let anyone advocate taking up a gun and taking back the power. Still, quizzically, Nas' lyric forbidding mothers-to-be to abort their babies because he wants more warriors is left intact. The message is out, and the results from fans are in: "Aye aye, Nas, no more safe sex. The condoms are hereby flushed. You hear that, baby? Nas wants me to come inside you, for the good of the people. Sounds like fun."

"One Mic" is one of the most extensively rewritten rap songs I've ever come across, when you compare the PG lyrics in the video with the R-rated ones from the album track. And, fuck, call me old-fashioned, but I like the resonance and thoughtfulness of the clean version better than the original. Here's an example:

"Writin names on my hollow tips, plottin shit /
Mad violence who I'm gon' body, this hood politics /
Ackowledge it, leave bodies chopped in garbages."

"See my name in the hieroglyphs /
Like Osiris and Isis, parables are written, it's not papyrus /
Acknowledge it, we been long tricked, time to come out of it."

The focus is off the means to the end and more on historical parallels in the rewrite, but the theme is the same. Nas wants to arm his people, look to the wisdom of the past for inspiration and exact justice for the centuries of wrong-doing from one people to another. Rewrites only go so far - when the song's ultimate moment of truth comes along, MTV chops the words into an unsolved "Wheel of Fortune" puzzle. The words in brackets in the following passage completely disappear:

"I let the [shit] slide for too many years, too many times
Now I'm [strapped] with a couple of [macs], too many [nines]
If y'all brothaz really wit me, get busy, [load up the semis]
Do more than just hold it, [explode the clip] until you empty
There's nothin' in our way - [they bust, we bust], they rust, we rust."

And remember, Nas is committed to this premise - he doesn't care about bling or economic status. All he needs is one mic, one pen, one girl, one gun, one blunt, one bottle of Bicardi 151 and one God to teach him how to be like Jesus. (GOD: Well, Nas, for starters, Jesus didn't carry guns or drink 151 or sample Sting ballads from the Ten Summoner's Tales album. Work on those, and I'll show you how to cast demons into a pig. It's a cool trick.)

It took a decade for me to admit this, but Nas, you're a fucking genius. I'll even understand if you don't spare me when the revolution comes.

Jamie Cullum - Get Your Way (2005)

**1/2 (of four)

On one hand, jazz singer Jamie Cullum's video for "Get Your Way" is innovative and fascinating. On the other, it peaks about two-thirds of the way in and wears out its welcome by the end. At about 150 seconds, this video would be perfect - at four minutes, it needs more. A song this distinct, paired with a video this distinct, could use a little more build and payoff. As is, though, the package is still a guilty-pleasure success and something VH1 can rally their troops behind.

Cullum - who I'd never heard of before tonight - has been a solo star on the jazz scene for awhile, pairing old standards with originals. Now he's going for broke in the adult album rock/pop market. "Get Your Way" is simultaneously traditional jazz, perky pop and R+B-infused, in a catchy but knowingly cheeky way. Cullum himself resembles teen movie C-list actor Shane West with a shag mullet and is simultaneously playful and respectable.

His job is to react to a blue screen for four minutes, and Cullum hits nearly every note. As the video opens, he's seen lip synching against a white background into an animated blue squiggle of a microphone that soon yanks itself out of his control and turns into a variety of abstractly drawn objects. From a sexy woman to a barking dog to a palm smacking the shit out of him.

Soon enough, the animated microphone abandons all laws of physics and suspends Cullum on strings, puppet-style, turns into a tightrope for him to walk and becomes a noose and gallows that suspend the singer upside down. Then comes the Daniel Greaves/Sharon Coleman video's best sequence, the song's bridge - Cullum is illuminated blue on a black background and gets completely mauled by the animated microphone rope. The camera then zooms inside the rope to a blood stream-type scene with cells sliding down the current and pulsing to the beat.

Then, after a piano solo that has Cullum plunking his fingers down on a skyscraper scene that resembles the "Frasier" logo, the video runs out of ideas and goes back to its original concept, praying for the song to end as soon as possible. If the songs of The Beatles and the videos of They Might Be Giants have taught us anything, it's to get in and get out and cater to our microscopic attention spans in poppy two-minute spurts.

Eminem - When I'm Gone (2005)

** (of four)

I was a Rolling Stone subscriber for seven years - read the shit cover to cover every time it appeared in my mailbox. Then I returned the little subscription postcard after checking the "Bill Me Later" box, they sent me a bill, I set it aside and forgot about it, and four months later I noticed my RS magazines stopped coming. This all went down about a year ago, and if my subcription had continued unabated, I would have known Eminem checked himself into rehab for a sleeping pill addiction.

Instead, Eminem himself has provided me with this tidbit of celebrity gossip, via his new video "When I'm Gone." This is the token single from his Curtain Call greatest hits album, which excludes "Just Don't Give a Fuck" and "Role Model" and thereby cannot be endorsed by yours truly. The thirtysomething, out-of-rehab Eminem is distancing himself from the fantasy violence of his Slim Shady alter-ego, focusing instead on his guilt about being a bad father. Which, as any record company demographic study can tell you, is an awesome way to make sure your rap album sales go way the fuck down.

The "When I'm Gone" video begins in a twelve-step group therapy session led by Rob Lowe or a Lowe doppelganger. After one grizzled addict finishes speaking, Marshall takes the podium to rap out the song's uber-sensitive lyrics, and you wonder why none of these recovering junkies are heckling him with cries of, "Come on! Do 'Guilty Conscience'!" or "Where's the fucking mushroom song?!"

None of that - instead we see plenty of shots of Eminem wandering his vast mansion and telling his daughter Hailie that he has to leave. She doesn't want him to go, of course. Even stacks up several dozen cardboard boxes to block the door, which elicits a quizzical, guilt-ridden look from the white rapper.

This part of the video actually grabbed me, as did the dream sequence in the third verse that had Hailie tracking down a suit-wearing Eminem at a concert in Sweden and giving him a heart-wrenching "Number One Dad" locket. And causing him to put a gun to the head of his Shady persona while, the next morning, the plane he was supposed to be on crashes into the ocean.

Most of the "When I'm Gone" video is filler, though, and the beat, delivery and lyrics of the song seem too familiar and warmed-over. Okay, Marshall, we get it - you love your daughter. That's terrific. You don't get along with Hailie's mother. That's too bad. Your references to killing Hailie's mother are only anger-venting machinations of the Shady character. That's completely obvious. And you're jumping on the "I'm retiring, I swear to God" bandwagon too. That's nothing anyone's going to swallow.

The chorus of the song could be interpreted three ways, too - either it's "Don't mourn me when I'm dead, everyone," "Don't miss me too much when I'm on tour, Hailie," or, "Fans and radio programmers, thanks for the memories, but I'm hanging it up."

If it seems like I'm being flip here, it's because no serious Eminem song has done much for me since the days of "Rock Bottom" and "The Way I Am." Everything since - "Mockingbird," "Like Toy Soldiers," even "Cleaning Out My Closet" - has seemed way too self-indulgent, one-sided and whiny to me. Especially for an artist who has built his following so solidly around being shocking for shocking's shake and going off on all the other sellouts around. But he's really quite sensitive. Of course.

I'm normally a huge sucker for emotional, bare-honesty songs from otherwise hard-assed rappers. But these continued retreads from Marshall Mathers make me wonder if he's going to permanently trade in the comic fantasy-gore niche he dominated for nonstop G-rated emotional confessions and twelve-step jargon. If so, it's only a matter of time before some new rapper steps in and lampoons Eminem the way Em used to rip Christina Aguilera, Fred Durst and *N Sync for their transparent image whoredom. That could be entertaining.

Korn - Twisted Transistor (2005)

*** (of four)

I guess Korn has a sense of humor - I should have known from the Pirate Ghosts "Scooby Doo"-parody episode of "South Park" a half-decade or so back. But their pop-goth/rap-death metal image has always been one they seem to take too seriously and I seem to laugh at. Now here's "Twisted Transistor," a video that replaces Jonathon, Fieldy and the boys with a dummy band featuring Snoop Dogg, Lil' Jon, David Banner and Xzhibit.

Veteran pop and hip-hop video director Dave Meyers manages to squeeze in a half-dozen predictable but reliable scenarios to let the hip-hop stars ham it up in true pop-goth/rap-metal style. There's the Reservoir Dogs establishing shot of the band walking down an auditorium hall in slow motion on their way to the stage, there's concert performance footage (the drummer actually looks convincing), there's a record store autograph session (groupie breasts get signed in black Sharpie, to be sure), there's the tour bus scenes with the rappers clashing personality-wise with the grizzled white roadies, and there's the requisite sequence with a pair of bumbling hayseed cops pulling over and searching the bus.

The video's three best scenes:

1) The three rappers' group reactions upon learning the fourth has gone behind their backs to model for a Sexy Beast Cologne billboard

2) The boardroom record execs - played by the real Korn band members) - calling for more bling and booty in the band's video. (SNOOP: This song ain't about booties, yo! It's about transistors!)

3) The crazy hotel party sequence, in which the rest of the band trashes a suite while Snoop destroys the housekeeping lady's toiletries cart in a self-conscious fit of rage.

Otherwise, though, Snoop is the weakest link of the four performers, which is odd considering how much mileage he's gotten out of toying with his public image. The other guys seem more comfortable with their duties here, and "Twisted Transistor" is solidly entertaining as a four-minute piece. But reportedly the four rappers, Korn and Dave Meyers want to expand the video into a feature-length comedy a la This is Spinal Tap and Fear of a Black Hat. The world's probably ready for another hip-hop mockumentary - what's it been, about twelve years? - but watch out, guys. Not even Chris Rock could save CB4 from sinking like the Titanic.

Nine Inch Nails - Only (2005)

*** (of four)

I've got friends - multiple friends, including some who have never met each other and therefore could not have gotten together beforehand to concoct some massive, collective lie to pull the wool over my eyes - who swear the current Nine Inch Nails tour is one of the biggest and best concert spectacles they've ever witnessed. And I asked all of them how this was possible. Nine Inch Nails, when you break it down, is one antisocial guy with no stage presence who makes all the music on his albums via synthesizer. And they say, yeah, but Trent's got good songs and a kickass touring band and there's always some clever, trippy multimedia visual on a giant screen.

If the video for "Only" is any indication, my multiple friends who haven't all met each other could be dead on the money. Trent still has the ability to crank out a single that's partially edgy, thoroughly selfish ("There is no you, there is only me," repeated ad nauseum), yet catchy enough for ten thousand people to sing along to at an arena show. And the video, which Trent does not officially appear in, holds my attention the entire way through - and the entire thing is set at an unmanned office desk, which officially makes it VH1-worthy.

In the empty office cubicle, a laptop screen saver pulses in time with the song's beat, the computer speakers thump, the coffee ripples in its mug, and the silver balls on the Newton's Cradle clack. (I honest to God can't believe I remember that the swinging, suspended novelty balls on the desk are referred to as a Newton's Cradle. I haven't heard that term since ninth grade science class. And I'm a little bit proud of myself for not having killed that particular trivial brain cell yet.)

The centerpiece of Trent's office desk, though - one of those novelty nailbeds stood on its side, like you'd find at the Magic House (here in St. Louis) or at Wonderworks in Orlando. You know the ones I'm talking about, made out of hundreds of dull silver nails that conform to whatever shape your hand or face shoves into it. I was always the type of raunchy little cuss who would leave a fist with an extended middle finger for the next exploring soul to find.

The camera spins around the nailbed while a computer-animated Trent sings into the camera and in profile and eventually tries to break out of his stainless steel prison. The 3-D effect is uncanny, and you don't have to be drunk or stoned or rolling or tripping or huffing to appreciate the way your eyes focus on each individual nail in the nailbed. I'm not entirely sure Trent and his trippy-visual minions could keep it up for the duration of what my friends told me was an almost-three-hour show, but for four minutes on VH1 at 6:30 in the morning, it's definitely a welcome diversion.

Fiona Apple - O' Sailor (2005)

** (of four)

Like Mr. Smithers once noted on a Halloween episode of "The Simpsons," "Women and seamen don't mix." But here's Fiona Apple, six years after her last coming, trying to prove Ol' Waylon wrong. She is unsuccessful at an almost embarrassing level, and I'm used to giving Fiona the benefit of the doubt. I thought her 1999 When the Pawn album was an improvement over the first, and over the years I've expended at least a full pint of drool over her video for "Criminal."

Thirty seconds into "O' Sailor," though, my internal monologue went from, Oh cool, Fiona's back, to, Wait, this song sounds like an uninspired combination of "Shadowboxer" and "Limp", to, Geez, I used to love this girl, what the hell happened? Apparently nine years of suicide attempts and Tic-Tacs for dinner take their toll on a girl. She's pale, she's sickly, she's 93 pounds soaking wet, and she probably still thinks she's a fatass. No, gentlemen and ladies who fancy ladies, Fiona's not looking too good these days.

She's just as flighty and pretentious as ever, though. Fiona spends four minutes wandering the halls of luxury ocean liner Queen Mary, lying on her stateroom bed, looking out her rainy porthole and stalking the anonymous sailor from the song's title. Then she spends the second verse trapped in a chandelier at the bottom of a drained indoor pool while interpretive dance couples writhe around her, with the dry-ice machine on overload.

Eventually Fiona gets out of her well-lit cage and crowd surfs on top of the coed dancers while director Floria Sigismondi intercuts footage of Village People fetishists in white and red horizontal stripes and face makeup fisting the throttle on the ship's bridge. I think I just spotted an enormous iceberg, and Fiona Apple is headed straight for it.

Courtesy of anonymous Fiona Apple fan site:

"The ballroom seems at once infinite and claustrophobic;
much like purgatory must feel...
There is an uneasy contradiction at play throughout the video -
it is very brightly lit and yet it seems so very dark."

Janet Jackson featuring Q-Tip - Got Til It's Gone (1997)

***1/2 (of four)

It's not the proudest chapter of my music history, but in my early teen years I cultivated quite the obsession with the pop and R+B divas of the time - Whitney, Mariah, Vanessa, Madonna and most certainly Miss Janet, whose Rhythm Nation and Janet albums logged entire weeks of airtime in my CD player. By the time 1997's Velvet Rope album came out, I had moved on to bigger and better things - actually, I think I purchased two dozen Prince albums that year, but let's not dwell on that.

I wasn't too impressed with Janet's batch of singles at the time. I was a true sucker for "Go Deep," yeah, but I thought "Together Again" was trite and sappy, "I Get Lonely" just plain sucked and "Got Til It's Gone" relied too heavily on its Joni Mitchell easy-listening sample from "Big Yellow Taxi." Which had already been remade by Amy Grant and rotated to death three years prior. And had yet to be remade by Counting Crows and rotated to death.

I figured Janet should be singing her own choruses on her singles and had a hard time believing Q-Tip legitimately meant it when he rapped and re-rapped, "Joni Mitchell never lies" at various points in the song. Now I truly enjoy the smooth-ass beat and interplay between Janet and Q-Tip. The Joni Mitchell parts I've learned to live with - besides which, in the eight years since GTIG came out, hip-hop singles have become a downright collaborative affair. I'm almost conditioned to get bored and change the channel now if they give any artist more than one consecutive minute of airtime in his or her own song.

All that aside, the Mark Romanek video for "Got Til It's Gone" is one of his staples and a solid entry in the Janet Jackson canon. The camera wanders a massive house party, mostly lit in muted greens (almost tan-colored, really) and blues, with attendees of all ages and backgrounds. Well, they're all black, and Romanek seems to smugly feature "Europeans Only" signs above all the doorways, but we meet such luminaries as the midget cocktail waiter, the one-eyed homeless oracle, the Hanes briefs model, the guy pissing in the urinal and the barber who spends the entire video shaving heads.

Janet, Sideshow Bob locks on prominent display, could actually use a visit to the barber's chair. Instead, she lip synchs from the music stage and from the corner of a room, where she chills out while resting her elbows on a giant clock. Q-Tip wanders the party in a suit and thick, phony glasses. And animals appear randomly - a bird on top of some dude's Shriners' fez, a marmet weaving in and out of the bar liquor bottles, et al.

Oh, and keep an eye out for a cameo appearance by Joni Mitchell herself, who suffers a major case of wardrobe malfunction, inadvertently showing off her folksy muffin.

De La Soul - Ego Trippin' Pt. 2 (1993)

*** (of four)

In 1993, on their way off the pop/hip-hop radar, De La Soul released what I consider to be their best album, Buhloone Mindstate. Their lyrical goofiness was a little more subdued, the psychedelic samples moved into experimental jazz territories, a sharp female rapper guest starred on several tracks, and the singles all seemed to satirize the state of the current rap scene. Downloadable gems include "Eye Patch," "Patti Dooke," "In Da Woods" and, the best of the bunch, "Ego Trippin' Pt. 2."

The album is barely even a cult favorite, usually overlooked in favor of Three Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead, but occasionally the pop culture universe throws me a bone. I was pleasantly surprised a few months ago to find the Buhloone Mindstate album buried in the jukebox of a neighborhood hoosier bar typically known for its David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings background music picks. And when I set my TiVo box to tape a four-hour block of VH1 Soul late one night, "Ego Trippin' Pt. 2" was the first video to pop up.

Director Frank Sacramento brings to life De La's traded-off, tongue-in-cheek lyrics bragging about their excess as hip-hop stars. One rapper rides around in a drop-top while a subtitle notes, "It's a rental," then climbs the stairs to a palatial mansion while the subtitle sells him out again with, "He don't really live here." Mostly, though, the De La guys stand around outside the high walls of the mansion while you wonder if they underbid the location and were locked out. Because even when blinged out in a phony way, these guys look like down to earth hippies.

There's also a posh backyard pool party with rented models licking their lips at the camera lens from inside the hot tub, but I'm not gonna lie - the video is merely a modest, halfway-clever rendering of a classic song. But the interplay with the girl rapper, the charming and mesmerizing synth line and the frenzied shouted climax to the song are enough to carry the clip, which is widely available in MPEG form on the Internet. Search around if you'd rather not stay glued to the VH1 Soul channel for a glimpse of it.