Sharps & flats

Reviews of new releases from Nas, Matthew Shipp and a new Neil Young tribute.


Salon Staff
May 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

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Nas "I Am"

Columbia

By Jeff Stark |
In New York, right now, it's rattling crappy boombox speakers on a Brooklyn-bound train. It's buzzing an underground radio hip-hop show. It's bumping the back of an SUV in Soho.

Right now, it's Nas. Right now, it's "Hate Me Now."

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The song is an orchestral epic directed at the hardcore heads that dissed Nas, the 25-year-old rapper from Queens, after the success of his double-platinum second record. Already, "Hate Me Now" has helped "I Am" hit No. 1 on the Billboard 100 in its second week of release. And the cut hasn't yet been released as a commercial single to radio or MTV.

Structurally, "Hate Me Now" is an entire hip-hop album in miniature. It begins with an introduction announcing, "Escobar season has returned," and drops some nonsense about life or death and blah-blah-blah over the top of the sampled cheers of teeming millions. Then, at the mike, appears the cameo marker of almost every rap record released in the last three years: Puff Daddy. (Yeah, he's corny, but Puffy is still hip-hop shorthand for mega party single.) Puffy can't rap, which Nas seems to understand, casting him to sort of half sing the simple chorus: "You can hate me now/But I won't stop now/'Cause I can't stop now."

Nas, for his part, spits words like he's spraying bullets. "Niggas fear what they don't understand/Hate what they can't conquer," he raps. And then, "It ain't ever gonna stop niggas." Much of the song's force comes from the ultra-dramatic string samples slicing the simple snare-bass beats. The verses roll to short bridges, drop off and come back at chorus crescendos with blown-out screams. It's huge.

As for the rest of the album, "Hate Me Now" is an amazing single. A few of the tracks, like "New York State of Mind Pt. II" and "Nas Is Like," are solid cuts, but not one of them is better than a single measure of "Hate Me Now." Part of the problem is that Nas is obsessed with trying to paint a portrait of himself as a complicated thug. He develops distinct identities -- some of which recall personas used on his first two records -- for each song. Escobar is the money-making don, employer of "a million thugs," wearer of Italian threads, eater of "lobster and scallions." Dr. Knockboot is the street corner sex therapist, spender of dough, eater of pussy. And so on.

Thing is, the record doesn't sound coherent. Instead of separate thoughts and identities contained within the body of one person, the record sounds as if it belongs to a scattershot demographic of subway riders. Even the Wu-Tang Clan, with nine members, make more synchronous albums. Of course the Wu-Tang use one producer; Nas uses nine.

The worst part of "I Am" is that Nas is still consumed by rap's unsavory history, its endless posturing and its glorification of stupid violence. He takes digs at "faggots" and can't shake the whole hard-ballin' "real" bullshit. And it's a shame, because at times he's righteous, shouting out for more political representation for blacks ("I Want to Talk to You"), or telling street-based morality tales ("Small World"). But faults are faults, and screaming about "faggots" in 1999 is -- at best -- wrongheaded.

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Hip-hop, like rock 'n' roll in its glory days, is a singles medium. And part of what's still exciting about listening to rap is finding a song with real popular impact and watching it spread across the media landscape. With that in mind, "Hate Me Now" is a huge success: It's the first summertime song in the past couple of years that hasn't included a cringe-worthy gimmick (Puffy) or a banal retread sample (Puffy). But back in the day, you could go out and buy a 45 with one hit and not worry if the B-side was a toss-off. Today, you have to either buy the whole record, or wait until the record company gets around to releasing a single. Here's the verdict: Enjoy listening to "Hate Me Now" on the street, but wait for the record company to come around.

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Roots Manuva "Brand New Second Hand"

Ninjatune

By Amanda Nowinski |
The relationship between hip hop, with its roots in New York City's thriving West Indian population, and reggae is often overlooked, but it's obvious whenever one artist puts elements of both genres together.

Roots Manuva, aka Rodney Smith, is a South London-born and Jamaican-descended MC and producer who fuses left-field B-boy rhythms with reggae, dub and dance-hall sounds. On his debut full-length, "Brand New Second Hand," Roots Manuva drops dubbed-out, break-beat instrumentals behind his own abstract ragga-style chatting. Laced with a charged melange of minor chords and dissonant harmonics, the tracks possess an aching, melancholic vibe but all remain grounded in a dance-floor sensibility.

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The aesthetic is similar to the dubby, hip hop-inspired sound that permeated Massive Attack's "Blue Lines." Like that record, the genesis of what became called trip hop, the ominous, hissing vocal quality on "Second Hand" is as important as the instrumentation.

All the vocals are lyrical and relatively subdued, which gives the music a dense groove absent in the staccato rap of most hip hop. The first track, "Movements," introduces Roots Manuva's urgent, moody take on the classic dub style -- his rhymes intermittently transform into a reverb repetition of only two discernible words -- "left" and "right" -- and thereby evokes a hazily metronomic sense of reggae swing.

The dubby vocal echo continues on "Inna," a dark-edged track with a down-tempo rhythm bathed in poignant reggae guitar loops and wistful keyboard samples. "Juggle Tings Proper" launches into traditional ragga vocals and dance-hall meter, but sways in and out of lush, free-form instrumentation.

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Traversing hip hop and reggae music, Roots Manuva locates a new meeting point between two closely related cultures. But instead of merely layering two styles, he emerges with a hybrid that possesses compositional sophistication and what could be called emotional authenticity.

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Matthew Shipp Duo with William Parker "DNA"

Thirsty Ear

By Andy Battaglia |
Matthew Shipp's piano style reworks the clinical self-examination and spiritual flailing of all the best jazz into a perfect balance between science and seance. As a key member of downtown New York's free jazz improv scene, Shipp has sketched a deconstructionist blueprint that draws on the frantic note clusters of Cecil Taylor and the weighted grace of McCoy Tyner. While it's easy to get wrapped up in the academics of his music, it's easier just to get lost in his playing. His records are proof that your tongue can't wag when your jaw is on the ground.

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"DNA" opens with a retelling of the old standard "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Shipp and downtown bassist William Parker darken the battlefield celebration into a plodding dirge. The song's context becomes the subject of their playing as they rumble and scrape through its implications, just as its melodies become mere reference points for their exploration of how those melodies are structured. Wandering along the composition's edges, they find a space between haunted revisionism and the giddy natural response to such a time-tested song.

On the series of tunes that follows, Parker falls in and out of tender bowing and muscle-bound bass walks as Shipp runs disjointedly all over his keys. Together, they pause to contemplate certain passages in locked-groove loops, then move on, reflecting and refracting each other's gestures. Occasionally they connect like proteins binding to their receptors, echoing the genetic subtext announced by song titles like "Cell Sequence" and "Mr. Chromosome."

Shipp is calling "DNA" his last recording as a leader. He will continue as a sideman in free jazz groups like the David S. Ware Quartet and Other Dimensions in Music, but his opus, he says, is complete. To mark the occasion, "DNA" closes with a straightforward reading of "Amazing Grace." The song acts as a reprise of sorts, not of the music that precedes it on the record, but of the beauty and soul in the musical history Shipp acknowledges by so mindfully passing it by.

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Various Artists "This Note's for You, Too!: A Tribute to Neil Young"

Innerstate

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By Dawn Eden |
Ten years ago, before tribute albums were de rigeur, alternative rockers feted Neil Young with a dozen covers of his songs on "The Bridge." Boasting tracks by the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and other buzz bands of the time, it demonstrated the timelessness and malleability of Young's songs.

Although "The Bridge" enjoyed only modest commercial success, it had a major impact on critics, who were forced to acknowledge Young's continued influence on modern rock. Soon, Pearl Jam and many other acts were jumping on Young's bandwagon, transforming his public image from that of an aging hippie -- albeit one with a penchant for loud guitars -- into the godfather of grunge.

"The Bridge" also had another, less pleasant effect on the rock world. In the rush of tribute albums that followed, some unworthy artists received deluxe treatment, while greats like the Bee Gees were treated cavalierly. At this point, a tribute moratorium wouldn't be out of order. Nonetheless, if anyone deserves a second tribute, Young is the man.

The problem with most tributes is that producers often choose artists for their marquee value instead of picking reverent bands. "This Note's for You, Too!" -- a new double disc compiled by members of Young's unofficial Dutch fan club -- takes the opposite approach. Its 37 contributors may not have big reputations, but they clearly have a deep-rooted love for Young's music.

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The songs on "This Note's for You Too!" are arranged in roughly chronological order, which doesn't really make sense, since Young constantly revisits and reworks his older work. That said, the discs flow surprisingly well. Several of the artists made their names as part of the mid-1980s Los Angeles paisley underground, the first alternative rock scene whose participants openly admired Young. Judging by their contributions, their admiration has increased over the years. Some of them stretch it almost to the point of slavishness, like ex-Long Ryder Sid Griffin's Coal Porters ("Ohio") and former True West members Russ Tolman & Richard McGrath ("Old Man"). Two other survivors from the same scene, Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Chris Cacavas (Green on Red) have an easier time breaking free of Young's style. Wynn brings his characteristic darkness and intensity to "Time Fades Away," and Cacavas' "Tonight's the Night" is haunting and enigmatic.

The few big names -- that is, big names to a relatively small cabal of critics and obsessive music fans -- don't disappoint. Tom Rapp (from lost psychedelic folk band Pearls Before Swine) does an intricately-arranged "After the Gold Rush," and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo (the only holdover from "The Bridge") contributes an excellent version of "Winterland," its exquisite construction belying its low-fi sound. Richard Lloyd, the former Television ax man, provides the album's biggest highlight, a powerfully intense "Heart of Gold" containing all the sensitivity and guitar fury that characterize his best records. It is a stellar performance, almost enough to make one forget that one is listening to a tribute album. For a second, you forget that Lloyd hasn't recorded a strong original song in several years.

And that's the paradox of tribute albums. The very structure can prop up an older performer at the same time it blows apart an artist with weak songs of his own.

If there's fault with "This Note," it's that several of its artists are at their best here -- playing someone else's songs. Young, on the other hand, is still writing new material, imbuing his work with the same care and respect he's shown for over 30 years. I suppose that if the collection inspires even one listener to write a new, original song, then this tribute, and the genre as a whole, is redeemed. At least until the next one comes along.

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