These ain’t no one-hit wonders
I really, really, really wanted to hate Justin Timberlake’s new record. “SexyBack,” the record’s first single, is club-friendly, but really had nothing going for it: dull backbeat, depressingly artificial synthesizers, trite distorted vocals, and, of course, the hair-pulling-out-inspiring “Take ’em to the briiiidge!” and “Take ’em to the chooorus!” interspersed between different sections of the song. It didn’t leave a good first impression to a music snob like me. But as I played through the record, “SexyBack” ’s atrocity seemed to fade away as other tracks proved themselves more worthy and musically engaged. On “Pose,” Timberlake and guest Snoop Dogg pelvic-thrust their way through the ’80s glam-funk, singing, “Let me take your picture/Pose for my camera/Lookin’ like a model, lookin’ like a superstar/You’re out of sight/So pose, pose, pose.” Sure, maybe Timberlake’s music isn’t for the ages, but he sure is having fun.
On “Chop Me Up,” Timberlake finds himself (somehow) together with FutureSex’s primary producer Timbaland and rap group Three 6 Mafia. And, although you think he’ll never make it through the track alive, he holds his ground and gels with his seemingly intimidating song-mates. On the Motown-influenced “Damn Girl,” Timberlake and producer/vocalist of the Black Eyed Peas will.i.am combine a funky rhythm section with gospel and soul-influenced vocals. On “Summer Love/The Mood Prelude,” Timberlake makes his mandatory hip-pop track, with “Hollaback Girl”-influenced drumming and “London Bridge”-influenced synthesizers. But, in true Timberlake fashion, there’s always a complication. Despite the shameless proclamations of “Tell me how they got that pretty little face on that pretty little frame…. I can’t wait to fall in love with you/You can’t wait to fall in love with me” at the beginning of the track, Timberlake, now past his naive teen-bop years, shifts the tune into a power ballad, wisely singing, “We gotta set the mood right/To make you feel all right … I’m gonna make you feel good tonight.”
I guess Timberlake once again defied my expectations. I’m not going to rave about the record, but I will let my defenses down, and, for once in my life, believe in Timberlake’s contagious personality; always happy, always romantic.
Bob Dylan’s new record is, by all means, a safe record. In his success and old age, he has lost his innovation and firebrand mentality that defined a generation, some 40 years ago. In his new record, Dylan settles on love songs and blues numbers, leaving his days of rebellion behind, allowing for the youngsters of today to pick up the slack. The result, therefore, is a record that hints at Dylan’s magnificent past, but more importantly illuminates Dylan not just as a generational icon, but a good musician.
Fans of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Positively 4th Street” will be happy to hear new Dylan’s record. Backed by a blues-rock group, Dylan’s approach is low-key, romantic, and sentimental. In the opening number, “Thunder On The Mountain,” Dylan’s backing band lays down an old country-blues shuffle beat as Dylan ponders, “I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love/I think it will fit me like a glove/I want some real good woman to do just what I say/Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today.”
It is this somewhat awkward collision between romance and pontification that makes up Dylan’s new record. In “Spirit On The Water,” Dylan sings in isolation to his lost lover, all the while still self-conscious about the old age he rejects, singing, “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime/Let me see what you got/We can have a whoppin’ good time.” And amid all the long songs and stories that Dylan offers up on Modern Times, he clearly shies away from reflection, nostalgia, or songs about growing old. Dylan’s peppy, feel-good band and his new arsenal of songs reveal a youthful, energetic Dylan that hasn’t emerged in years. Well Bob, it’s good to have you back. Have a drug of your choice on us.
With an illustrious 15-year career under their belt, it’s about time The Roots put out a record like Game Theory. Recently signed to rap icon Jay-Z’s (a.k.a. Sean Carter) Island/Def Jam Records, The Roots have made an uncannily abrupt shift from the jazz and neo-soul influenced hip-hop that sprung them into the mainstream in the early ’90s to edgy, contemporary rap.
In Game Theory, The Roots finally assert themselves as a group proud of their sophisticated arsenal of influences, including the likes of the late legendary producer J. Dillah (to whom the record is dedicated) and Sly and the Family Stone, while adding the grit, ’tude, and swagger that their boss, Jay-Z, so magnificently mastered in his own records. If Things Fall Apart was The Roots’ attempt to get street cred in the pop world, Phrenology an attempt to shed more sophisticated, prog-rock/concept material, and The Tipping Point a somewhat failed attempt to balance everything together, then Game Theory is The Roots’ proclamation that it is time to take them seriously as a hip-hop/rap group. And although on “Don’t Feel Right” the featured singer Maimouna Youssef sings “It seems as though nowadays things have changed, I don’t know if I feel the same,” The Roots are quite comfortable moving on. On the record’s first single, “Here I Come,” the group’s confidence pounds with heavy synth patterns, a snapping snare drum from master drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, and a vocal hook from Roots MC Black Thought that’s sure to scare away the doubters: “You better come out with your hands up/We got you surrounded.... You boys get ready, ’cuz here I come.”
With such a rich history, a savvy group like The Roots will never forget its, well, roots. On “Long Time,” ?uestlove rips through a Clyde Stubblefield-influenced breakbeat, with guitar strumming sure to bring the days of James Brown and Parliament. And while the live band element of The Roots that defined their ever-jazzy Do You Want More?!!!??! debut is completely lost (bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard is completely denied any breathing room on Game Theory), you can’t help but appreciate the risk and vanguard behind this record. And although part of me misses Scott Storch on the fender Rhodes, “Hub” on the upright bass, and newly reunited MC Malik B on the mic full-time beside the rapidly declining Black Thought, the other part of me knows that as long as The Roots are still playing with passion and energy — which, as undeniably seen in this record, they are — they’re heading in the right direction.