OutKast, Hey Ya! (2003)

OutkastHeyYa

Artist: OutKast
Title: Hey Ya!
Description: single; track, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Label: LaFace/Arista
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

1, 2, 3, uh!

In his knockout book Uncommon People, the sage-like David Hepworth notes that “the age of the rock star” – his chosen subject – “was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands.” His introduction concludes, “The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

Cue:

My baby don’t mess around
Because she loves me so
And this I know for sho’

It is not with disdain or regret that David reports the death of rock, nor the ascension of hip hop, merely acknowledgement of fact. The subculture that grew exponentially into a culture, or arguably the culture, was founded on the art of rapping, the overhaul of the traditional modus of the vinyl turntable, pre-digital sampling and a deep base of African-American heritage that would drive what started at local block parties into the mainstream, international arena.

Don’t try to fight the feeling

The centre of gravity initially bounced from East coast to West, ricocheting between the South Bronx and South Central fairly constantly throughout the 80s, with gangsta rap eventually eclipsing New York and forging a new orthodoxy for the 90s based on questionable male sexual politics, the entrepreneurial and criminal accumulation of money, and fame and fortune for their own sake. As the industry craned for new sounds, new colours, new stars, the belated emergence of Southern hip-hop was inevitable, and two teens named André Benjamin (“Andre 3000”) and Antwan Patton (“Big Boi”) emerged from a nascent scene in Atlanta, Georgia, funkier and more free-wheeling than the West Coast shoot-’em-up style and with an attractive drawl. They went platinum before I’d ever heard of them, and I make no apology for that. I got them in the year 2000, like most people did.

Thank God for Mom and Dad
For sticking two together

Stankonia was neither OutKast’s debut album, nor their second, nor their third, but their fourth. Full marks if you were already following their origins story and could see it coming. I did not. I heard the backmasked, social-realist, Wagner’s Wedding March-sampling Ms Jackson in October 2000 when it lolloped to number one in the US and two in the UK. Having left Q magazine, I may well have paid good money for the parent LP and I was sold on all 73 minutes of its contents: melodic, meaningful, not always languid, packed with diversity, hard to tear your ears from, and quadruple-platinum, Grammy-trousering successful.

Having invested in their own studio after album #3, the heat was off and they’d allowed themselves a year to make Stankonia. They claim to have deliberately stopped listening to hip hop in lieu of listening to rock’n’roll, soul and funk. It shows. Shame about the blunts and the loose women (“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha we love deez hoez”), but enlightenment does not descend overnight.

And the pair hadn’t peaked. Three years later, they returned with a double album, and not just a double album but two solo albums, one each. Speakerboxx is Big Boi, whose modus operandi is to jam at home in LA for just under an hour; The Love Below is Benjamin and runs for 78 minutes. Both feature guest stars (Big Boi ropes in Killer Mike, Ludacris, Jay-Z and Cee-Lo; Benjamin has Norah Jones and Kelis) and – so much for the trial separation – each appears on the other’s disc. This is nothing new. Nary a single solo record by any ex-Beatle or member of the Stones comes without the casual appearance of a fellow ex-Beatle or member of the Stones, or both.

The commercial and creative crux of not just this album but the duo’s entire glittering career is Hey Ya! The ninth track on The Love Below, it thus by rights belongs to Benjamin. He recorded and self-produced it in Atlanta and Los Angeles, apparently free-forming the lyrics, which read like the schizophrenic breakdown of a man who cannot decide how to play the relationship he’s in. From one line to the next he flips between thinking he’s got it, then fearing that he hasn’t: “Oh, you think you’ve got it, but ‘got it’ just don’t get it at all.” He and his partner are “together … but separate’s always better.”

No wonder he gives up and gives in to a two-word assessment.

Hey ya! Hey ya!

Benjamin, fleet of tongue, gets this poem of faith and doubt across like the actor he always wanted to be. You can almost imagine his acting coach encouraging him to dig deep: “So why oh why oh, why oh why oh are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”

In case this is all sounding solipsistic, remember it’s laid across a thumping, hand-clapping, squelching-synth pop masterpiece that’s so confident in its authority it runs on a strummed acoustic guitar and sh-shakes it like a Polaroid picture. The author acknowledges this: “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” Correct. Hey Ya! is one of the greatest pop songs of the 21st century, borne of every bloodline and bassline that merged to put black history back at the front of the book. But Benjamin has to be playing it for parody when he claims he “don’t want to meet your daddy”, but wants you in his Caddy, and neither does he want to “meet your mama”, he just wants to “make you cumma,” a line about the female orgasm being played on a mainstream radio station as we speak somewhere in the world, right now.

Having placed this mighty oak of a single into context – and the single’s genre-bending appearance on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts tells us all we need to know about its crossover appeal – I have to say I never really followed up with OutKast. OutKast did, with an equivalent hit from Speakerboxx, The Way You Move, which also went to number one and in fact neatly replaced Hey Ya!, and Roses, which I never liked (“roses really smell like boo boo”), but united the pair as it’s the only track on The Love Below that also features Big Boi. I know, sweet. Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour!

OutKast split after a failed period gangster movie and soundtrack proved unable to generate any sugar (and was, ironically, set in the era of ragtime and big bands), although Benjamin does seem to be carving out an acting career after valiantly playing Hendrix in a biopic with no rights to his music.

In a hip-hop world, the pre-hip-hop artists are played by hip-hop artists.

 

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The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

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Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for lute by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?

Manic Street Preachers, Motorcycle Emptiness (1992)

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Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Title: Motorcycle Emptiness
Description: single; album track, Generation Terrorists
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us …

Sometimes it’s a Moment. The kind that can no more be repeated ever after than instigated in the first instance. Let me take you back to the Reading Festival 1992, Saturday August 29 …

The Manic Street Preachers, who’ve been touring their debut Generation Terrorists around the world all year, are set to play to their biggest UK audience, third on the bill on the main stage. It is a beautifully sunny afternoon, crowning my last summer at the NME. I’m walking with close music industry pals upfield, away from the backstage paddock – retreat of all media hangers-on – in order to catch their teatime set (Ride have the “Magic Hour” slot, before hotly-anticipated headliners Public Enemy). I’m still walking back, in order to take in the full impact of this ascendant foursome finding their mark, when Motorcycle Emptiness roars into life, and that urgent guitar hook just does something to me, inside. It rises up through my entire body like an annual service. A perfect storm of good mood, optimum refreshment level, perfect light, clement weather, expectant time of day, proficiency of playing, timelessness of riff and all my feelings about the Manics rolled into one Festival Moment. I shall never forget it. I haven’t looked, but I hope it’s not available on YouTube. (Even if it is, it will be sucked of magic.)

I am blessed to have made one or two friendships with musicians I admire in the 28 years since I began trading as a music journalist. (It’s been a while since I thought of myself as primarily that, of course.) Those solid bonds aside, some meaningful relationships I maintain are more like connections that endure and which mean a kinship is perpetually felt. Perhaps the most interesting and eventful of these has been with the Manic Street Preachers. Too many events to tell here, in any case. I was at the NME when they burst forth onto the scene, initially skeptical (mainly because their first champion was Steven Wells) but rapidly swept up by the breakneck narcissism of You Love Us and the raucous, squalling iconoclasm of Motown Junk. What really won me over was their thirst for knowledge – Nicky and Richey, in particular, the band’s thematic architects and footnote compilers, were walking sponges. They didn’t need anyone in the future to invent Wikipedia.

I was at the lightbox in the art room the morning Ed Sirrs’ shots of Richey’s “4 REAL” carving came in. I witnessed James and Sean painstakingly constructing what we in the biz call “the music” for Generation Terrorists at Black Barn studios in Guildford while Nicky and Richey waxed controversial in their Joe Orton bedrooms about Slowdive and Hitler. They played privately for me when I had moved to Select in a Putney rehearsal room. I sat interviewing Richey on his bed at Hookend studios in Oxfordshire for Gold Against The Soul while he drifted off to sleep, murmuring about Steve Lamacq, after which I wandered down to the studio where James was laying down the vocals for Symphony Of Tourette. As revenge for drinking Richey to sleep, all four of them plied me with whiskey at a Soho rock club so that I later threw up in the fireplace of the flat they were billeted in. I cleared it up myself.

Events slowed down after that, as so did I. But every time I saw them, we greeted each other fondly. I’ve cheered their continual rise to Radio 2 house band, stadium staple and Welsh national team, and never lost interest in the music they make, and the impossible lyrics Nicky now writes solo for poor James to wrap his tonsils around.

Motorcycle Emptiness reigns supreme. It captures not just the Icarus-like folly of the Manics’ overnight bid for Guns N’Roses excess, but the incredible skill with which James and Sean were even at that early stage able to build whistleable rock’n’roll majesty while the other two goofed off with their books and their blouses. It was heartbreaking when Richey signed off in 1995 and I’ve spoken to the others about it in the ensuring years of healing. They are now candid, thoughtful, big-hearted, witty, self-aware middle-aged men, always one step ahead of what the sell-out police have deemed cool and uncool. But the work that they continue to do, when it’s good, is only as good as Motorcycle Emptiness. This would be the case even if my Festival Moment had never happened. I’m glad it did, though.

I will leave you with a classic Richey/Nicky stanza that would take an actual ubermensch to transform into song. It doesn’t scan, it doesn’t rhyme, it has no rhythm. And yet. And yet …

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power