[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
HOW WILL THE last five, momentous years look to America's future cultural historians? (I'm assuming here that America will have culture, and historians, and a future.) If they require a snapshot series of their country under ever lowering skies, they could do worse than play Eminem's four albums, concluding with the sardonically titled Encore.
Eminem has a talent not only for grasping the spirit of the times, but also - and perhaps not always intentionally - for holding up a mirror to the national body politic. With the body so misshapen, the reflection is bound to be none too pretty.
When Eminem first popped up on the impudent My Name Is, the accompanying video gleefully parodied Bill Clinton's orgiastic tenancy of the Oval Office, then hurtling to an uproarious finale. In the Stateside circus, Eminem took upon himself the role of ringmaster, his Slim Shady persona simultaneously celebrating and mocking the emblems of white-trash America as they paraded around him in all their red-nosed, slapstick glory.
Now he finds himself out of step with that same white-trash America, which has just returned to office a different president, one he bitterly opposed. Although recorded before the election, Encore's mood is the mood of America's defeated half: the city-dwellers, minorities and dissenters who backed the other guy. Each Eminem album, chiming with the atmosphere in which it was created, has been darker and more acerbic than the last. This one verges on bleakness. The old jokes aren't funny any more; and the new jokes come imbued with the sour desperation of those once told behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1999, it would have been impossible to imagine rap's own Puck recording anything like Mosh - an impassioned, inflammatory piece of anti Bush agit-prop, with a gripping animated video that vainly entreated unregistered voters to sign up and oust the incumbent. It may not bear comparison with such outstanding yet doomed propaganda as John Heartfield's anti-Nazi collages, or the Republican slogans of the Spanish Civil War. But it comes much closer than you'd expect.
Eminem's work has never been short on rage and spite, unstintingly dished out to all comers, himself included. But for the first time, it's short on levity. As Encore is, typically, overlong, that can make it hard going. It has the splenetic, overwrought feel of one of those tantrum-metal albums targeted at self-pitying teens. Paradoxically, amid the obligatory slew of petulance and scatology, some excellent lyrics suggest the increasing maturity of a man who once seemed an emotionally stunted genius, a bit like Peter Shaffer's Mozart in a hoodie.
Where better to turn for relief than Beyoncé Knowles and her well upholstered chums? Destiny's Child have proved themselves the only current band fit to join En Vogue and TLC on Parnassus (section: pop, subsection: modern female soul.) Alas, Destiny Fulfilled is a gruelling listen in its own right.
If Destiny Fulfilled were a movie, it would be directed by Roland Emmerich, creator of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. It's big, histrionic, predictable, professional, leavened only fitfully by lightness, and unmistakably the product more of perspiration than inspiration.
In common with many current R&B acts, Destiny's have never been an albums band - although when you look at the consistency achieved by Estelle (see below) or Kelis, there's no excuse for filler. But until now, each LP has featured some breathtaking moments. T-Shirt and Free slip by smoothly enough, but nothing here approaches the heights of Destiny's own superb singles (Bootylicious, Jumpin' Jumpin', Say My Name), nor of Beyoncé's blinding Crazy In Love.
Rather, the strident huffing and puffing of Survivor's title track seems to be the reference point. The ballads are overcooked and dull; but then, in this field, everyone's ballads are overcooked and dull, so it's hardly fair to point the finger. It's the upbeat stuff that really disappoints.
Lose My Breath is the best thing on here, and even that is little more than an exhausting recap of Janet Jackson's drill sergeant routine on Rhythm Nation. These, I suspect, will be the songs people skip through on the Greatest Hits.
HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL
PRINCE Paul, formerly of Stetsasonic and semi-comic rap ghouls Gravediggaz, is one of hip hop's hidden treasures. I can guarantee that White People, his second album with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, will be the only release this year, and perhaps ever, to feature John Oates (as in “Hall &. . .”) alongside The Neptunes' Pharell Williams and David Lynch muse Julee Cruise. It's far superior to the usual “me and my mates” rap LP - funny, broad-ranging and often inventive. That said, fans of De La Soul's classic Prince Paul-produced debut, or Nakamura's work with Gorillaz, will hear plenty that sounds pleasantly familiar.
IT'S curious how, of all the bands now plundering the post-punk era, Franz Ferdinand have risen so far, so fast. They've been acclaimed both as good (they are) and original (they certainly aren't.) Credit is due to their brilliant visual packaging. However old Modernism gets, it still looks. . . modern. FF's sound is a convincing early 80s pastiche, strongly evoking the Postcard Records art-funk roster of their hometown, Glasgow. With a new version of This Fire, they've also perfected an impression of Talking Heads circa Fear of Music. Which, I grant you, is well worth a quid of anyone's money.
THE 18TH DAY
SLOWLY, British R&B is emerging from the American brand's long shadow. Yet it still produces few distinctive class acts. Versatile singer/MC Estelle is one of them. Her first album is fresh (in both the “urban” and the everyday senses), invigorating and pretty much a joy in every way. The deftly idiosyncratic production, the rare groove and clubland influences, and Estelle's glottal stops mark this out as music that could only have come from London. But its appeal is universal; or at least, it deserves to be.
THIS lot are one step away from a novelty covers act (Dread Zeppelin, Hayseed Dixie, etc.), but what a vital step it is. Their garage rock versions of R&B stompers from the early 60s are fired by a genuine devotion to and understanding of their source material. The exhilarating take on Gary “US” Bonds's I Wanna Holler (But The Town's Too Small) stands out from a raucous half-hour. One of the most enjoyable things of its type since soul-rock virtuosi Afghan Whigs defined this mini-genre with the Uptown Avondale EP.
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