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Do U Know Us? 

Armand Van Helden, Mos Def: A masculine equation

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
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The cover art for Armand Van Helden’s single “U Don‘t Know Me” makes for a powerful marriage of image and music. It’s a reminder that albumCDsingle packaging can carry a statement beyond “worship this pop star,” that it can actually accent the message in the music. The artwork is a portrait that evokes the Statue of Liberty, but with distinctly masculine, Negro features (broad nose, thick lips); his eyes are downcast. What makes the image especially potent, though, is its rendering of Lady Liberty‘s famous head ornament. Shadow and optical illusion create the effect of the crown having slipped, coming to rest on the brow. It’s now a crown of thorns.

“U Don‘t Know Me,” an angry, artfully raw house track that purposefully rekindles old-school disco flourishes (insistent strings and even more insistent bass; slightly off but achingly heartfelt vocals), is an easy candidate for best-of-year status. With its pissed attitude and layers of infectious hooks, it’s the holy grail of lanced-wound-as-artistic-achievement that eludes the likes of Korn and the dazzlingly dull-witted Limp Bizkit. The song opens with sampled dialogue, and a male voice bitterly inquiring, “What is my problem with man, you ask? No. I ask you, what was man‘s problem with me?” (When contacted, Van Helden’s production office wouldn‘t identify the source, only admit that I was “on track” in recognizing it as being from a film.) The song’s real achievement, though, is a bit of genre blending that‘s far more radical than the currently celebrated union of rock & roll and hip-hop. Van Helden has once again found that undermapped but deeply mined terrain where house faggots and hardcore b-boys speak the same language, strike the same poses and view the world through similarly dark-tinted glasses. A rude boy who proclaims his heterosexuality in nearly every interview, Van Helden has always seemed profoundly uncomfortable with both the gay connotations of house and his own natural affinity for the music. (In the current issue of the British magazine The Face, he proclaims, “All we have in house is a bunch of bitch-ass, faggot-type personalities . . .”) So it’s laughably ironic that the best tracks on his most recent album, 2 Future 4 U, are either incredibly gay in vibe (“U Don‘t Know Me,” “Flowerz”) or feature a female vocalist who comes off like a drag queen (“Entra Mi Casa”).

It has to be unnerving for Van Helden to realize that the voice that most perfectly suits his grooves is that of the “punk” -- even if it’s one who refuses to be punked. Check out his early-‘90s ghetto-fag anthem “Love Thang” (released under the moniker Banji Boys), a direct ancestor of “U Don’t Know Me.” The newer title, however, drips with freshly minted bitterness and well-earned rage. It‘s the sissy from the ’hood reading his oppressors within an exuberant, irresistible musical setting. It‘s a reclaiming of the fury and resistance -- the grown-up stuff -- that were always the undercurrent of house but were largely shoved out once the music became the soundtrack for raves and the nouveau-hippie children who swarmed them. Van Helden’s b-boy roots allow him to home in on the rougher elements of house music, and though he‘s too much a fan of mindless ruffneck posturing, he brings ethnicity, sexuality and humor back to the house genre. He also brings race consciousness back to the grooves with a vigor that gleefully flies in the face of the Benetton bullshit that now passes for progressive cultural discourse.

2 Future 4 U is a deeply flawed album (absolutely brilliant in parts, deadly dull in others), but its layered, often contradictory takes on sexuality, race and masculinity are what pull it into the conversation around hip-hop and rock & roll, and what that merger really means. The divide between house and hip-hop is contrived, false. The two genres spring from the same cultural well, share a vocabulary of dance-floor movement (vogueing is the hardcore flipside of breakdancing), and are both voices of the racially, sexually and culturally disenfranchised. Reflexive homophobia and ignorance have kept them apart, and that rift mirrors the larger, crippling schisms within the African-American community.

One of the reasons the hip-hoprock marriage is so undeserving of praise is that it symbolizes the ill-advised consummation of the great, tense, unspoken courtship in American culture -- the one arguably at the core of so many of our ills. Hip-hop has finally cleared a place for little straight white boys and little straight black boys to come together and try on the trinkets of one another’s masculinity. (This is far from a new phenomenon, of course, but today‘s grayboys make the White Negro of yesteryear seem like a suburban shut-in.) Black boys get to try on the fluidity of option, get to see what it’s like to be mediocre and still be allowed to fall up in life, with the spotlight and ample financial compensation as their due. (Take a bow, Puffy, Will Smith.) White boys get to pull on a maleness that is savage, inarguable. With the streetthe ghetto as its kiln, this is a facade of insatiable sexuality and impenetrable cool. (Step forward, Fred Durst, Kid Rock.) The ebony and the ivory of this equation come together around a notion of maleness that is determined by what they own, who they own, and vulgar displays of power. But it‘s the angry white boy glazed in hip-hop blackness that’s being lauded in the media.

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