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Return of Session/Producer Weirdos!

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A couple random pop music snapshots from the past few years: Timbaland beefing with the guy who used help him make beats on a lumpy victory lap kinda hit. Kanye parlaying soul-beat success into backpacker pop into icy auto-tune warble hits. Mariah Carey singing goofball lines about “bathing in windex” so clearly from the pen of the The-Dream.

Though the ascent of producers and songwriters to all-out artists isn’t anything new, this often awkward advancement dominates hip-hop and R & B in “the ‘aughts”. Timbaland. Kanye West. The-Dream. Ne-Yo. Keri Hilson. Even the explosion of DJ culture and the cult of Dilla and indie label careers of Alchemist or Black Milk owe to this trend gone a little crazy. It’s the reason why a lot of music is so strange and form-stretching and it’s why it’s so weird and messy too. Sometimes, the radio sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. Because they kinda are.

The behind-the-scenes to the stage trend speaks to a bunch of shifts this decade, but namely the everybody’s-a-star, post-reality show blah blah blah and the still confusing way that rap and R & B’s increased mainstreaming runs parallel to it’s idiosyncracies, porous borders, experimentation, etc. No doubt, this personalization of any and everything and the rarefication of a pop sound slam into one another in a ton of interesting ways, but like so many of the bizarro mergers and odd alliances of the decade, the “little guy”, the actual weirdo, is pushed to the side. Not entirely pushed to the side and indeed, the internet and indie labels have adjusted expectations in some really cool ways, but well, there’s a couple of interesting people that get to do everything and a lot of dudes that get lost in the mix.

For every, 808s & Heartbreak, there’s a whole bunch of Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin’ type records: Rolled out onto iTunes, eventually comes out on CD, and has no promotion. Something like 88 Keys’ Death of Adam at one time, could’ve been “that weird record by the guy who produced “Thieves in the Night” but instead it was a three-years in-the-making, hyped-on-mixtapes, had a pre-mixtape-teaser-even record that was too weird and not poppy enough. There’d be more things like Cody Chesnutt’s Headphone Masterpiece if the stakes were just a lower.

Yeah, this is dipped in nostalgia but there’s something exciting about stuff like Eddie Hazel’s Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs or the records from Lee Hazlewood producer Billy Strange sitting in a bin of 25 Cent records. Or a Memphis Horns record. Or the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. These one-off things a label conceded to putting-out or handed over some studio time for because hey, the people behind the hits deserved that much. Now, a label gives dudes a real budget, a P.R push, and facilitates some hit records which yeah, is surely preferable to the chance of making a weird, “personal” record but isn’t so good for longevity or anything like that.

What stirred this all up though, is a few recent releases: Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown, Ryan Leslie’s Transition, and Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin, out now on iTunes, 11/17 physical). All three of these records are excellent and all of them give off the same feeling as some random-ass Billy Strange LP: A little too weird, a little too disinterested in catching a lot of listeners…jumbled, slabs of indulgence. And they gain their strength from this sensibility, they aren’t weary listens and they don’t fall back on the crutch of mega-popular artist’s “experimental” album–there’s something more being worked-out here.

You hear it in the all-over-the-place emotions of Ryan Leslie’s new one–really, if you listen to the lyrics, the guy’s a mess, obviously “a love addict” maybe a Co-Dependant–and you hear it in the underlying sadness of Fresh’s “Like a Boss” or that coat of tinny vocoder on “Go Girl” and just pick up Dam’s Toeachizown–it’s over two hours of wash-over-you synth work. Steeped in the past but not aggressively “vintage” or anything, it’s just Dam, free of the SOLAR Records studio or a Westside Connection sample-avoiding recording session. I could go on, highlighting a dozen more tiny details that make these records so fascinating, but the appeal here is how each of these will touch a listener totally differently; every song’s a “hit” and none of them are. They’re full of frayed edges and bubbling over with personality and shit just doesn’t sound like this all that much anymore. Records that sound like the inside of the musician’s mind.

This isn’t to bemoan the current music landscape, though it’s spitting out talents left and right all the time–like the economy, the free-market-ism hitting a critical mass to where only the super-successful have the right to do much of anything–it’s just to point out that how music works right now (not enough pop stars, all the behind the scenes people want to and will get a chance to be pop stars and’ll fail) doesn’t allow for the kind of organic, slow-rolling weirdo creativity music behind-the-scenes-ers could once indulge in from time to time–and sometimes, they’d still make a hit.

further reading/viewing:

-”Rising: Dam-Funk” from Pitchfork
-Al Shipley talking about the new Mariah
-Billy Strange Conducts Sinatra
-Richard Rorty on “the free market” from Take Care of Freedom…

Written by Brandon

November 9th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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