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Thursday, May 13, 2004
In the apparent contest between Kanye West and Ghostface for the best hip-hop album of the year (or, probably, the best hip-hop album of the first half of the year, let's be honest here), right now I guess I'm going to have to go with Kanye, although I'm not even going to pretend this is an objective statement: I've always liked Kanye's production style over what Ghostface is using, which is to say (gulp) that I'm not the biggest soul fan in the world.

But that said--and with, maybe, more on Kanye later--I'm really big on two[1] particular songs on The Pretty Toney Album (a title I love, incidentally--it's a great bit of the kind of vague terminology): "It's Over" and "Tooken Back."

"It's Over" is one of the saddest hip-hop songs I've heard, starting at a familiar places (bitches and fame and so forth) but taking it to a new endpoint--giving it an endpoint at all, really--and while that certainly goes along with soul (as pointed out by Ms. Berry in the Voice), something here feels different. There's the beat, of course, harder than in soul, but the lyrics feel different. There's nothing to penetrate. As I said about the slow-jam mechanics of "Fuck It," what would normally be hidden under levels of referents familiar to enthusiasts but banal to outsiders is here brought to the surface. At the most basic level, I like "It's Over" because, unlike half the songs on the album, there's specificity in the situation, and each verse is an actual narrative. Not just a generic narrative like what I tend to hear in soul music[2], but something couched in very particular details. It's cinematic in the way that a lot of hip-hop tries to play with merely using production; there's no question that G-Unit's "Stunt 101," for instance, sounds like a Mafia movie, but the lyrics don't really bear any relation. Here, they do. You don't just hear the woman walking out of the hotel in slow-motion; you see it, too.

And the whole position of the song is one of regret. There's always an element of power dynamics in hip-hop, but I think here it's mixing it with the soul position of showy confession; he's not only admitting that he cheated, he's going into sorta lavicious detail about what exactly the cheating involved. Sort of like "White Lines," he's trying to make the case that he was wrong, but he's not denying how much fun the partying was. There's some anger at the second verse about the possibly disproportionate punishment for his infidelity ("There goes the car, house, rhyme boats or jewelry / Court date judges, my shorty tried to screw me"), but there's also honest about the reaction: when he sees his wife, he's speechless, immobile, unable to do or say anything while it all falls apart. Obviously that's the whole position of the song, but he doesn't shirk from it, even as he puts a twist on it that separates it from soul. It's about that moment, that sinking feeling, when you know you fucked up and nothing's going to fix it, and it portrays that really well.

Musically, I like how the verses do a nice variation on the sample-from-an-old-soul-song chorus, taking the nice two-chord fall and mixing it up a bit, taking out the backup vocals (obviously, as is common) and toning down the piano to a few little tinkles, while letting the tambourine define the chorus (always a good idea) and breaking up the bassline. It does a simultaneous thing with orchestra hits that alternate melodically with the piano bits, by and large. A few mid-range string trills mark the end of the loop, and a few "overs" make their way in, low, but the focus is mainly on the chord change, not the chords themselves, and that's nice.

In contrast, the backing track for "Tooken Back" basically takes an old Emotions song, loops a line over the verse, and takes the whole accompaniment for the progression. All they really have to do for the chorus is slide in the vocals, and while that works, obviously the great thing is the line they choose to loop, which slides easily into the call-and-response we hear between Ghostface and Jackie-O. The main differentiation with the chorus is actually a slowing of the vocal pattern, from sixteenths to sung quarters, and it's sweet; given the male-female-male arrangement of the three verses, it feels like a break in the argument, a declination between rants. But the whole thing is of a piece; there aren't any clear breaks in the arrangement of the backing.

It would seem like "Tooken Back" should contrast with "It's Over" lyrically, too, seeing as how it seems to be a plea from the female for the man to take her back, whereas if that attitude was present in "It's Over," it would certainly be the other way around. But while the first verse is angry, starting off with a few funny, cartoony lines ("You brought me on Jerry just to take you back / After that bullshit you put me through a couple months back / That wasn't right, call the cops on me, and told them I had it...Once I heard that, I fell out the cop car, real hard") but then proceeding to, again, the kind of very particular details that separate it from what we'd expect to hear, complaining about the price of steak. Still, the ball's in the woman's court.

And she takes it and runs with it in the second verse. Not begging, but being very straight with it, making the case that for everything that was good, there was shit to deal with ("And your sex wasn't wild....but I dealt with it / I always felt shitted, you should of take me back") and she did without complaint. But now that she's being called on, now that she's having to defend her defense, she's saying that he didn't know how good he had it, and no matter what she did, if he knows what's best, he'll take her back. The sample turns into an assertion, and then into a taunt.

So the third verse resolves, nicely, to the Soul Position, almost hilariously so ("Take me please, take me with ease / Take me back, God damn, and scrape marks on my knees"), but also touchingly. He's not gonna lie, either, and he knows what he likes, but he also knows she's got it and he could lose it--see "It's Over." He uses the kind of personal, romantic details you'd expect to see in an indie romantic comedy or something ("'Member the first time you made my key / You was drunk, you went behind a tree and peed") and it's really kind of winning. Winning in a different way from the Temptations saying "Ain't too proud to beg"--but not that different.

[1] There's also one track with this fantastic verse about being in a party and horny and trying to find someone to fuck but his ex has converted to Islam so he has to find his current. What song is that? Admittedly some of the album is a blur, as I was zoning on the A train at the time, so maybe my opinion of the two will reverse over time.
[2] Just to be open about my ignorance of soul here, the counter-example that immediately sprung to mind was "Under the Boardwalk," whose site-specific images are a big draw.