Sharps & Flats

Hip-hop producers Prince Paul and the Automator recruit young multi-culti bohos for their Handsome Boy Modeling School.

Published December 22, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Hipster irony has become such an attitudinal clichi of contemporary music coverage that the mass critical fawning over "Midnight Vultures," Beck Hanson's ham-on-wry reformulation of retro soul, comes as no great surprise. But as my wretched brethren are busy deifying Beck as a kindred nerd-savant, it's galling to see the relatively little attention that's paid to Prince Paul, an artist who beats Mr. Hanson and his acolytes at their own game.

As effective as "Midnight Vultures" is at twiddling the stereotypes and conflating the musical, sexual and economic nuances of black and white culture, it can't match the heft and agility of the doubleheader Paul has pitched at consumers this year. In February, he dropped "A Prince Among Thieves," an acrid valentine to the chicanery of the hip-hop industry, conceived with the trenchant savvy of a longtime player who has fronted creatively adventurous, commercially sporadic crews such as Stetsasonic and De La Soul. Now, from out of left field, comes "So ... How's Your Girl," a black comedy of manners inspired by an old sitcom episode starring unctuous wiseacre Chris Elliott, the former Letterman sidekick who, at his best, was Beck's television equivalent.

Collaborating with Dan "the Automator" Nakamura (the mix-meister from Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon record) and a goulash of guest stars ranging from DJ Shadow and Sadat X to Sean Lennon and Father Guido Sarducci, all working under the name Handsome Boy Modeling School, Paul has loosely structured his latest project around the theme of narcissism and ersatz class mobility. Critics have charged that the conceit doesn't add up, as if, from "Sgt. Pepper's" on down, narrative integrity has ever been the point of concept albums. The yoke here is, amid pompously goofy interludes about bum-rushing the aristocracy by grooming oneself well, that Paul has turned loose a motley posse whose only commonality is they've never given a fig about fitting in.

Thus Moloko's Roisin croons, "You can't hide from the truth/Because the truth is all there is," over a lonely blues piano, followed by a electrifying turntablist rave-up from DJs Shadow and Quest titled "Holy Calamity," which yields to Biz Markie, prompted by Paul, singing a snippet of the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" over the phone, which yields in turn to a celebration of living in the projects from Dave of De La Soul and, in a blast from the early '90s past, Del tha Funkee Homosapien. In the end, Elliott is sampled declaring, "I'm a male model/Not a male prostitute!" and Alec Empire and Company Flow's EL-P weld the doors shut and detonate the control board on "Megaton B-Boy 2000."

Few things are more susceptible to the vagaries of one's taste than humorous social critique. Through my prism, Beck's "Midnight Vultures" is an R-rated version of "Good Times" with an all-white cast, a reverse race card played as a joker. By contrast, "So ... How's Your Girl?" is like "Fawlty Towers" populated by a squadron of multi-culti bohos. Sign me up for modeling school.

By Britt Robson

Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer who writes about music, sports and politics.

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