clap clap blog: we have moved

Saturday, October 04, 2003
I listened to Big Boi's "Rooster" back when Fluxblog first posted it, and I liked it--it helped convince me to buy the album--but I didn't really grasp how goddamn good it is until I listened to the CD-quality track on headphones yesterday.

The thing about pop music is that while it does feed on the minor miracle of continuous reinvention, sometimes a little bit of actual innovation can be very useful. Because that one little new bit can be much more useful than simple discord in focusing a listener's attention and getting them to pay attention to all the other little non-obvious things that are going on, at least in a pop song. And in "Rooster," I think that bit appeared first to me (although it's not the first time it appears in the song) at the 3:00 mark. Just after the break and as it launches into chorus A, I got a little peek at the beat, and what I noticed was that there was a backbeat being provided by this sample which was, well, kind of industrial. It's that sheet-metal clang that melds with the scratching but comes through clearly at certain points. And it's just so weird--just totally unconnected to anything else in the song, unless you group it with the chicken noises as vaguely music concrete, and so unlike Andre's genre combo pastiches (and I can totally hear him doing a half-industrial track), it's just this totally incongruous element that's hidden among all these other elements. I'd submit that this trick in particular is what Outkast was so great at before, and it's this switch from collage to pastiche that makes Andre's disc seem so different. Big Boi largely stays the course in this regard (except for the jarring-but-great "Ghettomusick," which prompted Miss Clap to exclaim "What the hell did you just put on? Euro-house?" upon hearing it coming through the stereo here at HQ--she's got a good ear), but it's the little bits that are kin to the synth intro or IDM snare rolls in "Bombs Over Baghdad" that make Outkast a haven for genre-spotters instead of sample-spotters, and that's why I like 'em: they speak a language besides hip-hop, in addition to speaking hip-hop really well.

And the great thing about those little bits is that when they present themselves, when they catch your attention and go "where the hell did that come from?" it seems to bring everything else in the song along with it to the forefront. You become aware of the industrial clang or the weird little synth part and all of a sudden you're backtracking through a formerly only catchy song, noticing al the brilliant little ideas that have popped up throughout. For instance: chorus B. ("Tapes CDs...") Absolutely beautiful bit, that well deserves to be repeated, but the sequencing in particular is what makes it really work. Because--and you'd think this would happen in more songs, but it doesn't--it actually flows logically from the narrative of the verses, and it functions effectively as a chorus by revealing and repeating a theme that lay latent the whole time. In this way, it has a superficial resemblance to the folk music model of a chorus, where instead of a lengthy refrain there's simply a two-line turn that comes at the end of every stanza. (For a modern equivalent, see Nick Cave's "The Curse of Millhaven.") The switch to a more simply, nursery rhymey AAA-BBB rhyme scheme and a slower rhythm, when contrasted with Big Boi's machine-gun patter during the verse, serves as a sort of lyrical breakdown, regardless of what's behind it. And the lyrics themselves are actually kind of affecting, at least to a musician like me: while my troubles don't seem as bad as Antwan seems to be having, the life of a musician, while attractive and filled with promise, undeniably causes a lot of problems in a long-term relationship. Not the least of which is the problem demonstrated here: while theoretically a career or a job, it's unlike a job in that you actually have a great affection for music; you're "committed" to it because you love it, and while it might be weird to think of someone being jealous of an abstract concept, it's actually pretty understandable. BB King once said something to the effect of, "I may sleep with my woman, but she knows that sometimes my guitar comes first." And that's maybe sad, but definitely true.

And so backtracking from the narrative flow of the chorus, you suddenly notice that the rest of the song actually has fucking great lyrics too. More than just a collection of good one-liners or traded verses or battle raps, there's actually a story there, albeit a slightly cartoonish, Fresh-Princy one. But since when has that mattered to me? What matters is that the story is good, and that it manages to sustain a real narrative arc throughout its verses, and into the choruses. This, maybe, is another reason to buy the actual disc: all the lyrics are printed. Of course, you can always get 'em online, too. Lemme quote the first verse:

Ok, I start out all alone / `Cause my baby mama left me / Now there's nobody at home
Beginning to feel like Ms. Jackson done got cloned! / Well it's some real shit and I'm living it through this song!
A moving vehicle took my family / As I slept out on the sofa in the Boom Boom Room / I woke up very upset! / I throw the covers back and peek out of the draperies / My daughter, my baby, my baby mama all escaping me!
In the wind, she was my friend / Like Princess Di before she died / Therefore we tried and tried again
But in the end you pay attention to the pluses / But the minuses behind make it seem like you can't win!

So this is just great, and then when it crashes into the chorus after the third verse (and how fucking cool is it that he can wait until after the third verse!), it's a nice little revelation: instead of having familial problems because he's a pimp/hustler/gansta/what-have-you, it's all flowing from the simple reality (which, in its evocation of road-weariness, gives Big Boi an odd, presumably unintended, kinship with Jackson Browne and Bob Seger) of his life as a musician. Which works, because the rest of the song has already been upfront about the difficulties of separation and single-parenthood and all those kind of good things. And it's all very specific: not throwing a party, PTA meetings, his son pissing on him. And then back into the chorus: the female overlay all of a sudden becomes pertinent, logical, narrative; the cycling and repetition take on the tenor of a never-ending argument. Which, of course, it what it's supposed to be. It's a lovely take on maturity and the difficulties therein, way better than, say, a 400-page novel about the same thing. But I'm kinda biased. (This would be an interesting comparison sometime, though.) This is all to say nothing of the beautiful, ever-rising backing that threads through the song; present in the verse, when the horns come in full-force on the offbeats to second it in Chorus B, it just drives it home that much better.

Oh, and then there's the Chorus A / Hook bit ("Throw your neck out! Throw your back out!") which resolves, in the end, to "My neck and my neck and my back..." And I don't know what else this could possibly be besides a Khia reference. But I don't have a clue what it means, either in the standalone hook or interspersed with the clear meaning of Chorus B at the end. Maybe, given that the title of the track is "The Rooster," it's a reference to the act of cutting a chicken's head off? Or maybe I've just been too influenced by Alice in Chains. The best I can come up with for the Khia connection is that it's a further evocation of female independence and power; Big Boi is, after all, never redeemed in the song, never reconciled or comforted. As the third verse ends, he's covered in urine and his family's mad at him, and the only thing he can come up with is settling a good example via music. And that's the only place he gets that power back: "through this song." It's oddly upfront and mature. And it's a great song.