‘Hey, look at me,’ they rap and sing
Of all people, it was an over-the-top rapper named Riff Raff who recently shared an insight that typified the state of music halfway through 2012, a year that has already seen revelation after revelation from many corners of the pop music spectrum.
The tattooed white rapper with gold teeth, many crooked tattoos and an obviously concocted street patois (the rapper is originally from Minnesota), would have been considered a black-face performer a century ago, but today he explains that his outlandish approach to music is really all about branding. He told LA Weekly: “People are desensitized to the point where nothing is special,” he said. “People are getting bored. It’s so saturated that if you’re not in your own lane, you aren’t needed.”
Where even a decade ago, musicians were mostly defined by the music they made in professional studios, their live shows and the occasional video, full-frontal creation now involves random video teasers, witty and/or provocative tweets, a steady stream of mix tape releases and whatever other quirky attention-getting device an artist can concoct to rise above the noise.
Granted, Adele doesn’t need to dress like Lady Gaga to gain attention -- she has a voice and presence that do the trick. And as Riff Raff’s output has confirmed, just because you dress big doesn’t mean you’ve got rhymes to match.
But standing out from the crowd helps, as many strands of pop music in 2012 attest. It’s in Deadmau5, who performs in a giant helmet shaped like a mouse head and offers equally as big opinions on Twitter about electronic dance music; it’s in Nicki Minaj’s turning herself into a cartoon nymphet onstage and in her videos and influencing a new generation of female rappers. It’s in Tyler, the Creator’s knee-high white tube socks and cartoonish antics as part of Odd Future (his “Jackass"-style Comedy Central series, “Loiter Squad,” was just renewed for a second season). Even Lana Del Rey, derided by many as a poser, was a runaway success, not by being the most magnetic or as a proponent of any particular movement but by creating a distinctive aesthetic brand. Though the year is only half over, a mountain of data has already accrued, and sifting through it reveals many transformative highlights.
Death Grips. In times of musical chaos, major labels often sign baffling uncommercial acts. After Nirvana broke, for example, Warner Bros. landed Japanese skronk rock band the Boredoms. For some mysterious and wonderful reason, Sacramento three-piece Death Grips this year released its second album, “The Money Store,” via Sony Music, but don’t expect it to compete for airplay with labelmate Future. It’s too far gone. One of the breakout acts of Coachella, the group makes abrasive, hard experimental rap -- a place where punk rock and hip-hop collide and burn. Reporting on the wreckage is vocalist Stefan Burnett (a.k.a. MC Ride), a lithe, mohawked black version of Iggy Pop or Darby Crash.
Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. A swirling whirlwind of sound, British singer Beth Jeans Houghton and her band the Hooves of Destiny’s recent single “Sweet Tooth Bird” is one of the most beguiling pop pastiches this year, a mixture of sounds and styles ranging from 1940s and ‘50s cowboy music, Fairport Convention folk, British pop rock and Houghton’s young voice (she sounds like a heartier, less precious Kate Bush). And as a character, Houghton is impossible to ignore; her style is as oddly alluring as her music. Witness her performance of “Sweet Tooth” on the British TV show “Later With Jools Holland,” in which she wore her hair in a platinum pompadour, with her bangs curled like a rolling wave above massive fake eyelashes.
Azealia Banks. Last week, the talented New York rapper Azealia Banks released her debut EP, “1991.” An inheritor to a rap throne that Nicki Minaj seems to have already abandoned while chasing dance pop, Banks, 21, draws on a more experimental, minimal brand of beat music to provide support for her rhymes. This four-song teaser, which features her breakout hit “212,” displays her wit and smarts on the microphone, but it’s how she picks her beats that stuns. On a recent teaser “Jumanji,” she mixes harp, synth bursts and a hard tribal rhythm to fuel her fire.
El-P. When this rapper, producer and former label head announced he was shuttering Def Jux, the influential label he co-founded in 1999, a generation of fans, many of them producers and rappers, declared it the end of an era. But it seems that said end marked a beginning. The rapper’s new album, “Cancer for Cure,” is one of the best of his career, a grimly catchy collection that begins with a cranky William Burroughs sample, then proceeds to thrill with fast rhythms, urgent hooks, and an absolute confidence on the microphone. The record is one of nearly a dozen great hip-hop moments that have already made this a landmark year for rap, many of them seemingly influenced by Def Jux’s innovations. Action Bronson’s new “Blue Chips” is as smart and informed as they come; Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” proves that’s it’s possible to break out as a rapper even if you’re older than 35. And the recent work of L.A.-based Black Hippy members Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q -- as well as the many projects of Odd Future -- suggests a West Coast renaissance, one confirmed by the Schoolboy Q’s thick protest anthem with ASAP Rocky, “Hands on the Wheel.”
Usher. Taken from his forthcoming “Looking 4 Myself,” the burning first single off his new album, “Climax,” is one of the best of the year and a high point of Usher’s already impressive career. It’s also a surprising marriage of three kinds of visionaries. Singer Usher, with a sweet falsetto on the track about the end of an affair, has never sounded better; the respected and innovative producer Diplo, whose worldwide beat-digging has informed his borderless rhythms (and whose label just signed Riff Raff), offers impressive restraint. Woven at key places throughout are the string arrangements of New York composer and former Philip Glass apprentice Nico Muhly, best known in the pop world for his work for idiosyncratic artists such as Bjork, Will Oldham, and Antony and the Johnsons. Taken as a whole, it’s an instant classic.
Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The most played song in the history of the world? It seems like it. The ditty by this Australian singer and costarring charismatic New Zealand chanteuse Kimbra has become so ubiquitous that it’s already produced a tribute album featuring 26 avant artists trying as hard as they can to murder the damn thing. But the effort seems to have barely made a dent; the song is again at the top of the pop chart, and Kimbra, whose charisma was obvious at a recent gig at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, has a record forthcoming. Gotye’s hit, though, isn’t the most forward thinking of the bunch. In fact, it could be a lost outtake from the Police’s “Synchronicity.” But the way in which the song spread via social networks, YouTube, cover versions and (of course), an undeniably catchy melody, proves that regardless of what corner of the digital world you land on, a path to millions of ears can lay itself out before you in ways unimaginable even a decade ago.
I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings -- though I could do without hearing “Somebody That I Used to Know” again until 2014, at least.