Ladies and Gentlemen, Sir Busta Rhymes!
2004 YEAR-END BALLOT1. “99 Problems,” Jay-Z/“99 Problems,” DJ Danger Mouse: Jay-Z’s original was easily the song that most knocked me out this year, and after coming to DJ Danger Mouse’s version late and spending a couple of weeks with it, I’d have to say it’s every bit as good. (Just to make sure, I got out the Ouija board and consulted with retired Jay-Z scholar George Wallace: “Ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between them,” he concurred.) Of hip- hop’s two polarities, socially-minded versus novelty--Public Enemy vs. Tone-Loc, more or less (my points of reference are so up to date)--I’ve never thought one was inherently better than the other. There’s stuff I love and hate at both extremes, and anyway, Pub- lic Enemy had jokes, and Tone-Loc had some very philosophical--well, Public Enemy had jokes. Having said that, at a time when 97% of the hip-hop I hear is in-the-club-this and in-the-club-that, and every video I see has the same Bluto Blutarsky surrounded by the same six gyrating Pam Griers, “99 Problems” probably would have caught my attention just by virtue of having a narrative and some connection to the actual world the rest of us live in. But it’s so much more than just what-it’s-not--it has the authority and mas- tery of “Ohio,” and the Rick Rubin original is the hardest hip-hop I’ve ever heard on mainstream radio. (Almost too much so: past a certain volume that’s lower than what I usually like to play my favourite radio hits at, it simply becomes too distorted and I have to turn it down). Jay-Z’s complaints about radio stations not playing him are a little melodramatic--he’s all over Toronto's 93.5, and really, who cares anyway--but his confrontation with the MFL is brilliant, a highwire act pitched somewhere between mock-Stepin Fetchit and Johnnie Cochran, conjuring up the Coasters (the cop is pure “Charlie Brown”) and Sammy Hagar (bet he wouldn’t have been pulled over, and he’d have been clipping along at well over 60) along the way, with a spectacularly withering “uh- huh” from Jay-Z buried somewhere in the back-and-forth. The verse that sends him to jail, well, I’m still trying to negotiate my way through that one. I wore out “Helter Skelter” in high school, but DJ Danger Mouse jolts it back to life like he’s John Tra- volta resuscitating Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. If only he’d overdubbed one line, just to fuck with the head of one very old Beatles fan sitting in jail: “You crazy for this one, Charlie!” 2. “Hear My Name,” Armand Van Helden: I haven’t liked a dance hit this much since Madon- na’s “Beautiful Stranger,” maybe even since Mel & Kim’s “Respectable.” Naturally it’s hypnotic, most great songs in this vein are, and also beautifully elliptical--it takes place in some unnamed “here” where time is ending, where the singer’s mind is empty, where she’s going to stay. It’s about dancing, or sex, or something. The spoken inter- lude (“say my name now, baby, loud and clear”) sounds like it could be Kim Gordon, a striking juxtaposition. I can’t figure out the ongoing alternation between “say my name” and the “hear my name” that gives the song its title--she seems to be speaking to the same person throughout, so is she asking him to speak her name and then listen to the sound of his own voice? Or maybe she’s speaking to everybody: “Doesn’t anybody want to play?” The “she”, I’ve learned, is a pair of girls who go by the name of Spalding Rock- well, who I believe was also the American League’s rookie of the year in 1953. 3. “Compton,” Guerilla Black & Beenie Man: The best joke of the year has to be Guerilla Black’s assertion that “no one is like me--no, that’s unlikely.” Yes, yes, very unlike- ly, Guerilla, which explains why I spent a week trying every possible search permutation of “Notorious B.I.G. + Beenie Man” in trying to get the name of this, before “Biggie + Beenie” led me to a record review that cleared up the matter. (I used to complain that radio DJs didn’t identify songs with enough regularity. They’ve since evolved--they don’t identify anything anymore.) Four years in the making and worth the wait: “To usher in a new millennium/My mind process raps like a Pentium.” 4. “One Call Away,” Chingy & Jason Weaver: I’m debating whether or not to put this on the mix-CD I plan to give my grade 7 students at the end of the year (meaning I’m worried about parents, not kids). Let’s see... “sex,” “thong,” a little basketball, “ho”--oops. Sex and thongs and basketball are OK, and if that’s all there were, this would practical- ly pass for Bobby Vee at the moment, but hos (hoes? ho’s?) are red-flag all the way; as the old saying goes, better stay away from those/who carry on about the hos. Too bad, because “One Call Away” is exceptionally evocative puppy love, Mini-Pops Snoop Doggy Dogg to Guerilla Black’s Mini-Pops Notorious B.I.G., even if, from what I’ve seen, Guerilla’s not all that mini-anything. Chingy’s “Balla Baby” was just about the dumbest song I heard in 2004, but, uh, welcome aboard, Chingy! 5. “1980,” Est’elle: One day I’ll make an effort to listen closely to all the biography Est’elle meticulously details, but for now I just love the sound of this, as urgent as it is serene. It’s a song that’s part of an evolving story: Liliput’s “1978” is great, “1979” is as great as the Smashing Pumpkins ever got, and now “1980” moves the genre ahead another year. Next up: Eddie Rabbitt’s “1981.” 6. “Dip It Low,” Christina Milian: She comes on like your mom for the first six or seven lines, counseling caution and deliberation and all-in-due-time, but that’s not gonna fly, it’s all a ruse, so she starts going nuts posthaste--dipping, poking, rolling, popping, even a line dance celebrating anal sex. Amazing. 7. “Was a Time,” Whigfield: All the melancholy white people, where do they all come from? All the melancholy white people, where do they all belong? Not on--well, I guess I can’t say “radio,” since radio barely exists anymore (my Jay-Z comment notwithstanding, even I’ve started to burn my own music, and I always figured I was one of the last people participating in these polls who got his new music from the car radio), so I’ll call it the “pop consciousness” instead, which is just a pretentious way of saying what-people- pay-attention-to. Whigfield had a big hit 10 years ago with “Saturday Night,” but now they’re relegated to the fastest-growing genre in pop music, That Which Is Insufficient- ly Hip-Hop. They must still be newsworthy somewhere if this managed (via a friend) to reach me, but Saturday Night for music like this, for the time being at least, seems to have given way to a sombre, very uncelebratory Sunday Morning. Watch out, Whigfield, the world’s behind you. 8. “Move Ya Body,” Nina Sky: I don’t really know what to say about this one. 1) It’s better than Nina Hagen. 2) It can be thoroughly enjoyed while sitting still at a desk. 9. “What’s Happenin’,” Method Man & Busta Rhymes: Ghostface’s “Run” is good too, but I’m glad “What’s Happenin’” is the better and weirder-sounding of the two, because I have a hard time processing Ghostface’s bizarrely empathetic “If you sell drugs by the school zone, RUN!” line, and that would be a lame reason in and of itself not to vote for it. Busta Rhymes used to drive me up the wall pre-“Woo-Hah!!!”, but on this and Joe Budden’s “Fire,” he gets the Danny Kortchmar Session-Guy-for-Hire Award for 2004. (Bud- den prefaces his entrance with a nicely placed “Guess who’s coming?”) I like “What’s Happenin’”’s Boyz N Tha Hood allusion, too, one of my favourite films of the past 15 years. Police sirens are prominent on both “What’s Happenin’” and “Run”--taking their cue from Jay-Z, records like these ought to append “Featuring the Motherfuckin’ Law” to their artist credit. 10. “Naughty Girl,” Beyonce: Hysterical. An abstraction of an abstraction, single black female addicted to retail, madly in heat, wants me to say her name, wants me real bad. If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son--it’s so obvious from “Naughty Girl” and “Dip It Low” that there’s this whole universe of voracious Jayne Mansfields out there just dying to have wild sex 24/7. Run! Run!