Hip Hop’s Reaching Ambition: Janelle Monae and Elvis Costello

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It’s funny how things go in cycles.  Hip Hop first emerged as a genre that appropriated other music, sampling older records to create new meanings for a new generation.  Kraftwerk, James Brown, George Clinton, Miles Davis were all smashed apart and fused together again.  The instruments were records and turntables, using history to write the future.  But a generation later, music is being rewritten again and this time Hip Hop is the preexisting framework.  The genre’s fingerprints are everywhere.  It has invaded Pop to the point where the two are practically indistinguishable, for good or for bad, with Disney stars trading in cuteness for a harder, urban look and a rap verse prerequisite for any hit song.  European Electronic DJ’s channel Atlanta’s Trap stomp.  Jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD reinterprets popular hip hop beats and bass player Thundercat has teamed up with L.A. producer extraordinaire Flying Lotus to fuse funk with hip hop with jazz in exciting ways.  But the most pervasive form of hip hop influence has been post millennial R&B (often called hipster R&B or PBR&B).  This new form of R&B has traded in soul traditions for modern technology, live bands for samples, vocal theatrics for understated singing.  What I find most Hip Hop about the new R&B is the lyricality of it all.  These singers have BARS and could be great rappers.  Not that they can’t sing; Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd, and others have all won over fans by the sheer beauty of their falsettos, but it never sounds like they’re trying to win American Idol.  This had led to some truly beautiful music but also led to records that are all atmosphere and no lightning.  That can be boring.  And that’s where Janelle Monae comes in.

There have been attempts to lump Monae in with this new wave of R&B and she is certainly influenced by Hip Hop.  She was discovered by Big Boi of Outkast and her independent label Wondaland is signed to Bad Boy Records.  And she can rap (Remember when she outrapped Lupe Fiasco, not that that’s hard to do).  But with her new album Electric Lady, there’s absolutely nothing soft or understated about her music.  This is a loud, proud, concept album and it’s wonderful.  Electric Lady is the fourth and fifth part of her 7 chapter story, inspired by the old German sci-fi classic Metropolis.  Robot protagonists using music to takeover Orwellian overlords, or something like that.  If that sounds ambitious then you should hear the music.  It opens with an orchestral flourish and transitions into a grungy blues riff which is actually a duet with Prince!  The music is as sprawling as the story, as Monae fluctuates between light 70’s pop, stadium rock, Titanic like ballads, and beautiful soul.  It’s refreshing to hear an artist go all out, vocally, musically, conceptually, in an era where there is so much mood music.  Whereas other R&B stars seductively invite you in, Monae demands your attention.  There’s a song called “We Were Rock ‘n’ Roll” where she sings, without a hint of irony, “we were unbreakable, we were like Rock ‘n’ Roll.”  It has all the wide eyed ambition and heartwarming faith in music that used to belong to Classic Rock elitists like Pete Townshend, only he never wrote such shuffling disco beats.

Even though much of Janelle Monae’s success has to do with her singular vision, some of the best moments come when she invites guests to play along.  One thing that Monae borrowed from Hip Hop is the genre’s predilection for collaboration and competition.  When Prince comes on for “Given Em What They Love,” it feels like an R&B anointment and allows Prince to flex his guitar muscle all over the track.  Erykah Badu (who’s neo-soul is an obvious touchstone for the new R&B) provides a cooing contrast to Monae’s operatic singing on lead single “Q.U.E.E.N.”  And maybe my favorite song on the album, “Primetime,” is a duet with R&B/Pop star Miguel.  Miguel can toe the line between the pop charts and classical soul more than anyone, and he sounds absolutely incredible opposite Monae, justifying the existence of a new genre that Monae is threatening to eliminate.  This is slow dance at Prom and then go make a baby music.  This could transform a grocery store into a wedding chapel.  Just gorgeous.  And there are still the blueprints of rap all over the album, marking Monae’s different vocal styles and deliveries.  Plus she got Big Boi and Cee Lo Green to actually rap on a remix!  That alone justifies the whole experiment.

It’s almost cliche.  The album starts with some crunchy synth, the sound of a car rushing by, and the sparsest drums you’ll hear all year.  I can see the image; a white guy walking through Harlem, gleefully looking at all the urban sights.  I half expected someone to say “hey daddio.”  That’s the danger when you embark on any creative cross-pollination.  Luckily for us, Elvis Costello and ?uestlove Thompson are scholars and professionals.  Wise Up Ghost is another Hip Hop inspired experiment, a collaboration between first ballot hall of famer Elvis Costello and the greatest hip hop band in the world, the legendary Roots crew.  This just makes sense.  Costello’s career has been defined by his explorations into other styles and his musical fearlessness, and the Roots know how to vibe with other artists as the house band for Jimmy Fallon.  But I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard this one.  There hasn’t been a rock/rap collaboration the size of this one.  Aging rock stars have embraced the synths of the 80’s and the alternative vibes of the 90’s, but rap has been mainly left alone (We’ll give Bruce Springsteen credit for having a rap verse on his latest album Wrecking Ball).  Would the Angry Young Man be rapping or dueting with Black Thought?  Would there be scratches over guitar solos a la Rick Rubin and Eminem?  It turns out there’s no rapping, and Roots MC Black Thought is not involved with the record.  But that leaves Wise Up Ghost as one of the best albums Costello’s made since his prime.   Even though there isn’t rapping, Costello is singing over the funkiest, tightest beats of his career.  The snares hit hard, Stax horns stab in, and it gives Costello’s wizened rasp proper room to breath.  Dinosaur rock acts almost never have this muscle behind them.  Even if they have some songwriting left in them, they never have the means to carry it out well.  They usually fall into two categories: acoustic musings on their own mortality or bloated overproduced rock records to prove they’re still hip (Oh, hi Paul McCartney and Nirvana).  But The Roots are the best backing band Elvis Costello has had since his original Attractions.  There’s some great music here, pedigree be damned.  After 40 years, it turns out Hip Hop is still music’s fountain of youth, making the old young again.

 

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