“Black music”: What a loaded term. And what a loaded year we’ve had. In a time when cultures blend and music cross-pollinates more quickly than ever — but racism proves resilient — what does “black music” mean? Shit’s still thorny because for all our successes in the pop realm, black folk — including artists — still struggle with what it means to be black in America. The struggles just get harder as the stakes get higher.
With that in mind, we offer a completely biased survey of the best, worst and strangest moments in black American music over the past 12 months.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY AT JAMES BROWN’S FUNERAL: After Michael Jackson exchanged dap and hair-care tips with Al Sharpton and baby-mama war tales with Jesse Jackson, he leaned over Mr. Brown’s coffin to pay giggly respect. At that point, you wished the Godfather would’ve thrust up an arm, horror-flick style, grabbed Michael by the throat and demanded, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”
VIDEO AND SINGLE OF THE YEAR: NYOIL’s “Y’all Should All Get Lynched.” This is what it sounds like when exasperated Negroes cry. Just a few weeks before Michael Richards’ lynching tirade, New York–based rapper NYOIL deployed strategic hyperbole to call for the lynching of rappers — specifically, the materialistic, violence-glamorizing, thug/pimp/playa types. His take-no-prisoners video named names and spliced unauthorized video clips (the ostensible reason YouTube banned the video). Juxtaposing Sambo imagery against photos of The Game, Lil Jon, Diddy and others, NYOIL painted many of rap’s biggest stars as Uncle Toms poisoning hip-hop and black American culture.
Controversial doesn’t begin to describe this video. “Y’All Should All Get Lynched” was a cultural bomb whose detonation reverberated across the blogosphere and beyond. Fallout is still ?falling out.
It’s true that the song and clip are incredibly flawed, as is some of NYOIL’s logic — including his use of the word “nigga” when railing against black self-degradation, and the misogyny and homophobia floating his thesis. Yet the unwavering passion and timeliness of his message are why “Y’all Should All Get Lynched” is song and video of the year: The pimps, thugs and hustlas swarming through rap today are doing massa’s bidding. (And props to him for giving props to Oprah. I’m not even a fan of hers, but the way MCs whined last year because she wouldn’t have them on her show was proof that rappers are the most sensitive, need-a-hug muhfuckas on the planet.)
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Ms. Peachez (“Fry That Chicken”). Shortly before NYOIL threw his grenade, YouTube saw fit to make a star of bow-legged, transgender Southern rapper Ms. Peachez. The video for her song “Fry That Chicken” looks like a low-budget short as directed by D.W. Griffith: a ghetto-country, she-male mammy plays chicken-frying pied piper to a troupe of pickaninnies. On paper? Brilliant. The possibility for scathing subversiveness is infinite.
Again, the Web was (and continues to be) a battleground for heated debate: Was it just good-natured fun or reheated cooning? Gender-fucking triumph? (Uh, no on that.)
Ms. Peachez’ shtick is almost performance art — a knowing embrace of stereotypes, a dead-on replication of rap’s state-of-2006 beats. It’s also an unabashed celebration of things many black folk still have shame around: Southern-ness, countriness, faggotry and ingenuity born of poverty. It’s also the embodiment of the galling simple-mindedness that defines current hip-hop. Ms. Peachez’ shit would easily fit in on most rap stations and video shows, because unconscious self-parody has become a building block of black pop culture.
As stupid as “Fry That Chicken” is, it’s complicated. This video, a hodgepodge of cultural pride and internalized racist stereotypes — all set to mama-said-make-you-dance beats — speaks volumes about how shit be right now. That’s how fucked up both hip-hop and black America are. (And, yes, NYOIL calls out Ms. Peachez in his video too, which is sublime synchronicity.)
Watching a passionate debate like this take place outside academia or music-critic circle jerks was like finding the faintest pulse in a body you’d assumed dead.
CD TITLE OF THE YEAR:Hip-Hop Is Dead, by Nas (Def Jam).
QUOTE OF THE YEAR NO. 1: “Of course hip-hop cannot be dead. Nas was warning us. One of the best ways to warn a culture is to shock it. I think Nas shocked hip-hop culture by declaring its death. By declaring its death, it means that it will live now.”
—KRS-One, in an interview with AllHipHop.com
COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: Beyoncé. No, seriously. With back-to-back shitty singles (“Déjà Vu,” “Ring the Alarm”), her album B-Day struggled against an army of pop vixens (Fergie, Gwen, Christina, Kelis, Rihanna, Nelly Furtado). In late ’06, though, Ms. B released not one but twoneck-swivel anthems (“Irreplaceable” from B-Day and “Listen” from the Dreamgirls soundtrack) that rallied her base, from hood rats to homos. B-Day shot up the charts, and also introduced the annoying phrase “To da lef, to da lef .?.?.” to the lexicon. Comeback Runners-Up: The Coup, Joi, Talib Kweli.
SONG WHITNEY HOUSTON SHOULD COVER FOR HER COMEBACK: Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” The aptly named Ms. Winehouse — also one of my picks for blue-eyed soulster of the year — poked fun at her much-reported love of booze with this girl-group-flavored ditty: “I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine/Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go go go .?.?.” A cover of this would be career salvation for Whitney. Of course, it would require a sense of humor and sly self-awareness, two qualities La Houston has never shown herself to possess.
SUBCULTURE YOU MIGHT WISH THE MEDIA HADN’T DISCOVERED (AND DEFLATED): Hyphy. This Bay Area hip-hop movement — centered on music, dance and cars — ain’t hardly new. But its signature tar-pit beats (they pull your ass in and don’t let go) and unapologetic call to move was given the new-kid treatment by the mainstream media this year. (Love that Wikipedia: “An individual is said to ‘get hyphy’ when they act or dance in an overstated and ridiculous manner.”)
BEST HIP-HOP LITERATURE: Saul Williams’ Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop (MTV/Pocket Books). In this collection of poetry and prose, Williams’ keen social observations, soulful introspection and masterful use of language reminded you what hip-hop is truly capable of. “Consider yourself: outcast, criminal, unseen, invisible .?.?. hardcore, dirt poor, hustler, BCH/whore, reverend, doctor, nigger/Now break it off.”
BLACK MUSIC ON CELLULOID: OutKast’s Idlewild looked amazing, and proved Big Boi was a better actor than the beautiful Andre 3000. It was still gruesomely leaden. Meanwhile, Dreamgirls’ transition from the stage to the screen only underscored the wafer-flimsiness of its characters — wigs, gowns and gut-busting vocals aside. (The one exception was, ironically, Eddie Murphy’s secondary character, James “Thunder” Early.)
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was horribly edited, but still had some of the funniest, coolest movie moments of the year: Common bounding across the stage with fanboy glee; Dead Prez dropping funky didactics; Erykah Badu and Jill Scott singing “You Got Me.” And a frail, sad-eyed Lauryn Hill killing on “Killing Me Softly.”
BLUE-EYED SOUL BRIGADE 2006: A new school ?of white soul singers released CDs this year — including Robin Thicke, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Amy Winehouse. All showed the influence of hip-hop on contemporary R&B, some reflecting the best of contemporary black music (Timbaland working with Justin Timberlake; Christina with DJ Premiere) — and some the worst (trite lyrics, vocal posturing). So, black people, stop whining about how wack Justin is. If he is, it’s partly because of what his black heroes showed his Mouseketeer ass about “black cool.” The boy only ate what y’all fed him.
SHOULDA-BEEN-A-COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: Jody Watley’s The Makeover (Avitone) — featuring soul reinterpretations of pop hits, including Madonna’s “Borderline” — was the CD that Janet and Madge wish they’d made.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR NO. 2: “I make black records. I write records like I speak, and I don’t try to change my songs so everyone else likes them.”
—Beyoncé to Blender magazine, marking her distinction from herDreamgirlscharacter
CHAT ROOM MOMENT OF THE YEAR: Questlove of the Roots posted a passionate, rambling, convincing treatise on black stereotypes a few weeks ago on his Okayplayer Web site — from coons to Mandingos to credits-to-their-race to mammies and thugs. He poignantly closed it:
there is no person of color who has ANY success without at least these elements.
“carlton” from fresh prince
problem is: is that these are limiting categories because they will forever make a person 2 dimensional at best — if you are judged SOLELY on these merits above and for NOTHING else? you are not considered what they call “normal” — or as i say
QUESTION OF THE YEAR:Who ordered the whores?
Black music, that most American of art forms, engages in those most American of questions: Who am I? How do I sell myself? How do I reconcile my soul with the outside world? It’s the classic black dilemma. The eternal American conundrum. The modern pop-star marketing crisis.
Dreamgirls addresses these dynamics through its Berry Gordy–esque character (played by Jamie Foxx) and his plan to claim the spoils of crossover success. But when it comes to “selling out,” Gordy’s got nothing on the kids today.
Since James Brown’s death, it’s become obvious that despite his accolades, it was possible for a whole generation to stroll and head-nod through a cultural landscape defined by his genius — and not actually own any of his music. It’s possible for a generation to know the breakbeats, but not the songs from which they came — or to hear the originals but not really like them or get what the big deal is. That’s what happens when an artist’s influence is immeasurable. It outstrips him.
The same thing has happened with the boardroom legacies of Berry Gordy, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and even the Godfather himself. These men were all incomparable artists (yes, including Gordy), but they also broke new ground in establishing black ownership, stressing business acumen. (And larceny, as many of their band members might argue.)
One can only stand in awe of their ability to hone their craft into art, and their art into hits, wrestling with how to make the work go “pop” while staying true to their own voices — and claiming their monetary due.
All that’s over. Their legacy has, again, outstripped them: In January 2007 we have a situation where getting paid has become the first and dominant impulse, and all else is shaped around it. And it’s no longer a matter of selling out or compromising one’s “true” self. We’re dealing with natural-born whores, shaped from first consciousness with the plantation belief that the value of blackness is determined by the marketplace. From the “hardest” thug rapper to Beyoncé, they can genuinely claim to “keep it real,” because the terms of that have become synonymous with being pure product. Black Americans’ imaginations have become infected by the dictates of folk — and let’s not be simple, it ain’t just white folk — who see blackness merely as a landscape to be exploited and ravaged. They’re so owned they don’t even see the chains, and call the auction block home.
THEN AGAIN, IT AIN’T ALL BAD NEWS: Lots of artists are fighting to fuck with racial boundaries, and this past year saw the well-deserved breakthrough of TV on the Radio, and works by Amos Lee, Lupe Fiasco, Gnarls Barkley, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Alice Smith stretched far beyond the rote boundaries of Top 40 black roleplay. Some of it even crash-landed on the charts. Crazy. (The Afro-punk movement also saw its profile rise with the long-awaited DVD release of James Spooner’s flawed but mandatory Afro Punk documentary.)
STARBUCKSY MUSIC WE CAN BACK: You didn’t need to be hipper-than-thou to find the good shit, though. Two artists nudged convention from the inside out, creating music just as rewarding and, in its own way, eccentric as those listed above.
L.A.’s own Aloe Blacc repped for the modern Afro-Latino experience with his debut CD, Shine Through (Stones Throw), a mélange of R&B, hip-hop, Latin rhythms and Blacc’s own idiosyncrasies. It reminded you how multitiered and soulful real R&B can be. Playful. Sexy. Funny. Smart and witty. Drawing from a wealth of influences and making them a seamless whole. It’s wonderful.
The other was the self-titled, Grammy-nominated disc by biracial British rose Corinne Bailey Rae, dubbed Snorin’ Bailey Rae by her detractors. The diss is understandable, but I liked the CD — and Rae’s grainy-sweet voice — the first time I heard it. Let yourself be pulled into the music, and it subtly yields its DNA — the gospel choir Rae sang in as a child, the indie-rock band she was in as a Zeppelin-obsessed teen, and the degree in English lit that peers through her lyrics.
But it was seeing the singer-songwriter live that made me a hardcore fan. At one point in her L.A. debut last year, she sat on the edge of a stool, accompanied by just a guitar as she sang “Like a Star.” Near the song’s end she closed her eyes, leaned her head back and stretched out her arms as she dug deep into the song’s words. You could see her thigh muscle flex through the thin material of her dress as she pumped her foot to keep time. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara .?.?. never in their lives have any of them been that organically sexy.
But beyond that, this was soul music: the kind of art that was once synonymous with “black music” and is now almost its antithesis. It moved me.
FINAL QUOTE OF THE YEAR: “He had that combination, you know, of that soul and that deep sophistication. Oh, man. You know, they say that soul is when you have the ability to make other people feel better about being alive, regardless of their condition.”
—Wynton Marsalis, on 60 Minutes’ tribute to Ed Bradley