The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, November 11, 2002

When exalting Finisterre a few Mondays ago I mentioned that generally I was in favour of narration on albums. I should have made one exception; where narration is used to hector and/or lecture the listener. This happens particularly on hip hop and R&B albums. Why is this? Is it because, despite all the shootings, all the dodgy deals, hip hop/R&B are the last remaining mainstream music genres with any real sense of community? Certainly, listening as I have done to the new Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and TLC albums over the weekend, there is a distinct connectivity which you wouldn't get with, say, Richard Ashcroft, the Coral and Doves. The latter exist in their own universes, self-sufficient apart from a common over-reverence of the Camden Town Good Music Society.

But, like Daniel Bedingfield says, you can sometimes have too much information. The new Miss E album Under Construction befuddles me, insofar as its tracks are punctuated (studiumised?) by long, rambling discourses from Elliott about the State of Things, the need for hip hop/R&B to "reconstruct" itself, to jettison gun culture, playaz/hataz culture, after not just 9/11 but also the deaths of Aaliyah, Left-Eye, Big Pun, BIG, etc. I don't know. If I had sufficient confidence in my music I wouldn't have dragged an otherwise eminently listenable record down with aural footnotes. Imagine the Beatles interrupting Sgt Pepper with earnest two-minute lectures on how radical this record was ("and look out for the weird orchestral noises on A Day In The Life - it's supposed to resemble an acid trip! No one's ever done this before, eh Paul?" "Oh no John, we're right radical, like..."). Not to mention ruining the introduction to every track with the Chinese water torture motif of "This is a Missy Elliott exclusive." Really, Missy? Am I the only mug who bought this "special" edition of the album? Am I blind or illterate? Uh, wouldn't the name "Missy Elliott" emblazoned across the cover tell me that this was a Missy Elliott record? Or do you have such a low opinion of the intelligence of your assumed listener demographic? Missy, shut da fuck up and let the music speak for itself.

And how is the music? Like her three previous albums, it's no classic. A Missy Greatest Hits compilation will be an awesome pop thing indeed, but too much of this record simply reaffirms what we already know. Despite all the talk of an old school vibe to this record - and despite El-P having already nailed the aesthetic and mental impossibility of going back to '86 on "Squeegee Man Shooting" - there is nothing here which could have been made in '86. It is deceptive in its revivalism. Timbaland has a semi-new trick, the menacing fuzzy bass synth line (well it was Altern-8's trick a decade ago, but enough about that), which he uses here on "Go To The Floor" and "Ain't That Funny" - although it works to much better effect on Jay-Z's "Nigga Please." His other motif is the undulating undertow, like Moby on valium - the dessicated blues wail on "Bring The Pain," the similarly pitched guitar on "Slide." All very entertaining, of course, but unlike the Neptunes there is no sense either of new or old here.

By old school, one assumes that we need to refer to things like "Gossip Folks" and "Back In The Day." The former has some especially entertaining Elliott invective ("squat chested cow stumps") while the latter's thoroughly amiable faux-nostalgia about the good old peaceful fun-loving days of da '80z (tell that to Scott La Rock. Or Schoolly-D, for that matter) has punctum blasted into it by Jay-Z, whose rap pointedly ignores the '80s full stop ("nineteen ninety ought three!") and fires the track up with a real passion. Even the go-go-esque rhythms seem to double in intensity (full review of "Blueprint 2" later this week). But listen to early Salt 'n' Pepa cuts like "I'll Take Your Man" and remember that this sort of perspective was not even possible "back in the day," unless you count Sugarhill '79 as back in the day. "Funky Fresh Dressed" reverts to the Beasties' "Paul Revere" backwards track halfway through, but this is three-dimensional, as impossible in 1986 as the Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring" would have been in 1973. "Play That Beat" and "Hot" do, I suppose, attempt to rekindle some kind of '80s feeling, but neither is sufficiently remarkable to kindle any such interest.

"Pussyfoot" and "Nothing Out There For Me" are fairly straightforward R&B; the former in particular is a luscious lubricant of a song, worthy of TLC at their most sweetly dirtiest ("Diggin' On You"). The latter plays po-mo games with guest singer Beyonce Where's My Career Gone God Only Knowles, the latter desperately trying to convince Elliott of the worthiness of her man and her life, as Elliott on the telephone unsuccessfully tries to persuade her to come to the club, that her happiness is a fake, a construct to mask incipient misery. But it's Miss E who sounds like the really desperate one here. Nothing out THERE. Nothing at all.

"Work It" has unfortunately been so worked to death by over-analysis elsewhere that even at this early stage it would not especially bother me if I never heard it again in my life. If it hadn't been so hyped I could enthuse about the total dispersion of sense and continuity in Missy as a person and as a lyricist. It is as if unrestricted passion and intensity have removed the need for interpretation or meaning; it is a Baudrillardian fascination with the signifiers. The delivery is ecstatically nonsensical; passion cannot be sculpted into words to fit an arbitrary metre - listen to those quivering vibratos at the end of each line. It's about the fuck superseding the function. It is displaced delirium. It is Grace Jones with the central heating on. And the most SUBTLE references to "the old school" on the whole album come here - not just in the naggingly familiar '80s drum sample which begins the track, but the turntable FX which help bring it to a close.

The TLC/Aaliyah/etc tribute "Can You Hear Me" (with the two surviving members of TLC on backing vocals) is doubtless heartfelt and even more doubtlessly serves "the community" but to me it's greater evidence that you really shouldn't make records when you're gutted. See my TLC overview tomorrow for further confirmation of the latter.

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