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5. Justin Timberlake: “Senorita” (4:54), from Justified (Jive, 2002).

I realize why people think he can’t sing. To signify his fit-to-burst anxiousness--at turning legal, at leaving his group, at being single again, at the ardor he feels for some lucky senorita--he pushes his voice so close to the breaking point it feels like it’s about teeter off the edge. Have you ever listened to little kids trying to sing like the people they hear on the radio, 90 percent of whom don’t actually sound like real people to begin with? Those kids sound strained and phony--outright weird--most of the time, don’t they? Justin, who undoubtedly grew up doing the same fucking thing (until the point when he actually became one of those people on the radio, thus passing the baton to whatever stage-kid will occupy teenpop’s center in five to ten years or so), still sounds like that. It’s the kind of voice that’s meant to be bathed in cannonading synths and rocketing echo and booming drums and 90-part harmony, in stuff bigger than it, in a thick bed of contrast in which it can provide the (quasi-) human value, the personality that sells the soap.

So there’s something totally arresting about the fact that Justified is so naked-sounding; it takes his thin, made-for-radio yelps and not-quite-notes and pushes them right up in front of mostly spare backdrops. It’s daring, because it’s one thing to transmit the kind of self-confidence you need to front the biggest teen group of your era (well, more or less) and another to use pretty much exactly the same tics’n’tricks as a statement of independence. On the album, that signal comes during the opening song, “Senorita,” when Justin gets to the fellas-sing-this-ladies-sing-that part. Even before the fellas’ mock-butch response pokes fun at his boy-band past and the ladies’ cool evokes a nonchalant lustiness, Justin sings the first few words of the ladies’ part with a falsetto so overstated it’s funny--and then slips back into his regular falsetto. When you hear his regular falsetto alone, it can seems somehow off, but next to the joke one you can spot the difference immediately. He charms you by making you laugh and then he slips you a kiss--whose impact is thereby doubled.

--9 February 2003

4. Basement Jaxx: “Romeo” (7:29), from Freaky 2001! Astralwerks Billboard Dance Summit Sampler (Astralwerks promo, 2001).

The time and album title above are indeed correct. About a month ago, I was back at my old workplace---a rather dodgy record shop in the Lower East Side that I started visiting semi-regularly again a few months after I quit---and saw this interesting little promo item in the discount bin. (How much was it? Let’s just say membership has its privileges, cough cough.) I remember reading Kurt B. Reighley mention in the now-departed Tower Pulse!’s Jaxx feature when Rooty came out that the vinyl version of the album came with longer intros and outros for DJ mixing (they’d almost have to since it’s a double-LP version of a 43-minute album). I mentioned this to a friend who loves the album almost as much as I do back in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago and his eyebrows shot in the air; I must admit I feel much the same way, though not having a turntable has meant that I’ve never had a chance to find out what kind of differences we’re talking about here.

Now, though, I have some idea. I’ve heard all the Basement Jaxx singles that Astralwerks has put out, and with Remedy the songs were already club-friendly lengths, so the dance mixes weren’t drastically different. Rooty’s a different animal, and this “Romeo” is in many ways a far more conventional club track than the LP version: opens with a minute or so of dry thunka kickdrum with the chord structure sketched on top and a ululating girl-vocal sample wafting above that; pretty standard stuff. The song comes in, sounds great as usual, but by the second chorus some tinkly keyboards sneak in that aren’t on the original, before a drier breakdown before the bridge, which is lengthened a bit, before the ending comes back, enhanced and with a few added fripperies, before the ending of the song is extended into a beat-driven coda. Which proves nothing, I guess, except that these guys love Prince so much they even emulated his “12-inch dance mix” approach.

--30 December 2002

3. Sicle Cell & Rhapazooty: “Rhapazooty in Blue” (5:43), from Super Rap: Original Rap & Hip Hop from Harlem’s P & P Records (Landspeed/P & P 2002; originally released 1980).

This compilation is the very definition of dodgy-as-cheap: the title of this song, for instance, is missing the “in” I found in Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, which names it the 37th-best hip-hop single of 1980, which must’ve been hard. The uncredited liner notes (picked up halfway through by Peter Brown, one of P & P’s namesakes---the other is disco producer Patrick Adams, most famous for Musique’s “Keep on Jumpin’” and “In the Bush”) are full of horrifying grammatical errors (“I have a good friend named Mr. Harvey Miller who own his own record label called Tyson Records and he also owns Harvey’s Barber Shop”), and the improper capitalization is so out of control--“His first Singer was a Blues Singer”--that I started wondering if the writer was from England. (Sorry, that was mean.) The music’s cheap, too: P & P appears to have been the very model of half-assed bootstraps capitalism, recycling the same backing tracks as everyone else (this song features a studio band recreating---gosh, what do you know---Chic’s “Good Times”) and putting them underneath rappers who often sound like they’d never been in front of a microphone before in their lives. The more obscure early hip-hop that gets reissued (i.e. non-Sugarhill or, in some cases, Enjoy), the more obvious it becomes just how many carpetbaggers there were out there trying to cash in and get out.

Which is one of the reasons I like this song so much: it’s completely shameless, and since early rap was, too---shamelessly entertaining, at the very least---the fit is fine. It’s a male-female duet: the man is Sicle Cell---lovely moniker, that--and the woman is Rhapazooty. (It wasn’t till I looked at the Ego Trip book to find out the actual release date that I realized what the pun was supposed to be; Gershwin would have groaned just as loudly as I did). Both of them sound totally fruity: they pronounce “ow” like “AHH-oooo-wuh,” and every word follows suit, like they’re trying to pop the vowels of every word like a pin pricking a balloon. This helps them bring off the song’s greatest moment (He: “Sex!” She: “Oh! And more sex!” He: “I said sex is the best, y’all!”) and it keeps things bubbling up and along in a way that the Chic riff deserves. “Good Times” itself crosscuts Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin’s stentorian vocals (not to mention the string section) over the groove; the Sugarhill Gang plod. These guys don’t make it more buoyant (even the Sugarhill Gang couldn’t undo that), but they keep up, which is all you can ask for, especially on a budget.

--4 November 2002

2. Brother D & the Collective Effort: “How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” (5:53), from True School: Lyrical Lessons from the Rap Legends Vol. 3 (Cold Front 1996; originally released 1981).

Over a recreation of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” that I somehow like more than the original (almost the same way I do the rearranged “GTBR” of Funky 4 + 1’s “That’s the Joint,” except this doesn’t have nearly that kind of thrust, not to mention the horn parts), this was one of the most militant early rap records: “While you’re partying on-on-on-on-and-on/The others may be hot by the break of dawn/Your party may end one day soon/While they’re rounding niggers up in the afternoon.” I count six voices here--half male and half female--and what I think I love most is their semianonymity: this has the feel of an idealized community organization meeting, the vocals less traded off than everyone speaking in turn, itching to make their points about America being built on genocide and not taking any shorts to get what the black nation needs. The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron are always invoked as crucial conscious hip-hop forerunners, and they are, but Public Enemy and the Coup are unimaginable without this.

--25 October 2002

1. Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five: "Saturday Night Fish Fry Pt. 1 & 2" (5:28), from Jivin' with Jordan (Proper UK 2002; originally released 1949).

Why here? For some reason, I've never been all that satisfied with Let the Good Times Roll, the two-disc anthology that MCA put out on Jordan a couple of years ago, and when an older critic who loves Jordan made fun of it in print, I asked him what to buy. The two Greatest Hits comps, he said, and while I knew I'd play them more than Let the Good Times Roll, I always put off doing it. Then I saw Jivin' with Jordan, a four-disc box containing 101 songs, and began wrestling with myself about it: concise discs with all my favorites that flow vs. um...all that stuff. Finally, I bit the bullet: the Proper set was about $5 less than picking up the other two would be. (Also, I'd bought Five Guys Named Moe: Original Decca Recordings Vol. 2 a few years before, before Let the Good Times Roll came out, and had burned copies of the songs on the former that weren't on the latter, and frankly didn't want to spend the money again.) Played it all in a row, figuring I'd get bored and I'd learn my lesson...except I didn't do either. Wow. What a fucking monument.

Why this song? "Saturday Night Fish Fry" was Jordan's biggest hit (number one R&B for three fucking months) and his best record. The lyric, about a police raid on a house party, keeps hurtling forward, never letting up for a minute; neither does the beat, which is less pronounced (and seemingly milder) than the rock that would succeed it but still plenty hot. Jordan wasn't a comedian, but he used comedy more effectively than most people who were funny for a living: there are plenty of great laugh lines here (TK), but there's a serious undercurrent of fury as well; it's one of the great pre-Civil Rights Movement songs about race. Louis Jordan was, take your pick, the greatest popular artist of his period or the most popular great artist of his period. In Steve Propes and Jim Dawson's 1992 book What Was the First Rock & Roll Record?, "Saturday Night Fish Fry" was the fifteenth (of fifty) choices; as good as some of its predecessors were--Joe Liggins's 1945 "The Honeydripper," Big Boy Crudup's 1946 "That's All Right," Wynonie Harris's 1948 "Good Rockin' Tonight," The Orioles' 1948 "It's Too Soon to Know," John Lee Hooker's 1948 "Boogie Chillen"--this is the best.

--17 September 2002

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