If you are someone who dislikes/loathes/hates the early ’90s, or if you hold one-hit wonders with some amount of contempt, then Lisa Loeb is a pretty easy target. Her lone #1 single “Stay (I Missed You)” has plenty of things to offer if you have particular irrational hatreds built up inside of you.
First, there’s that guitar riff at the beginning. That little wrist flick of a soft riff on an acoustic guitar that sounds like a thousand coffee shop performers’ go-to move and doesn’t it kind of sound like it borrows from R.E.M.’s “Find the River,” which is just obscure enough not to be recognized, anyway?
Second, there’s her voice. That kind of guileless voice that can sound like nails on a chalkboard to someone who skews a little more cynical.
Third, there’s her look (and the look of her video). Misguided people whose formidable years took place during the early ’90s will tell you that the Cobain/Vedder/alternative look defines the fashion aesthetic of the first half of that decade, and they’d be more wrong than right. They’d be right in the sense that it happened and was popular, but they’d be wrong in the sense that it had no wide scope, no far-reaching meaningful influence into other decades. It provides a very specific snapshot of the decade, not unlike Reebok Pumps. Loeb, with her black baby doll dress, black leggings, and leopard pattern glasses is far more indicative of not only the ’90s but of the last twenty years. Lisa Loeb in 1993 would be immediately hired by Warby Parker today. As for the music video, it was directed by Ethan Hawke and it finds Loeb inside one of the most comically overused tropes of the ’90s: a sprawling, spacious NYC apartment that an average person somehow lives in. This video may very well have inspired the show Friends.
Finally, there’s the movie from which this song originated from. Reality Bites was the directorial debut of Ben Stiller, which he also starred in alongside Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Loeb was friends with Hawke who in turn submitted “Stay” to Stiller for the film’s soundtrack. Released about 2 years after Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Reality Bites is viewed by some as the defining Generation X movie of the ’90s. This view is incorrect and you should never trust anyone who places the former above the latter. While Reality Bites has a few genuinely great things to offer (its critique of MTV and its aesthetic was spot on; the realization that “All I Want Is You” by U2 is, in fact, a perfect song to use in a movie), it ultimately deals with people who are unlikable, and this song became the big hit from the movie’s soundtrack so it’s not implausible for people to make a bad connection between the song and movie if they (rightfully) didn’t like the latter.
Any or all four of the things above could be used as reasons for not liking this song, but just as we oftentimes eat with our eyes we listen to music with our eyes too: image will always play a part in how we consume music. Even if you hold non-image as a virtue, you’re still attracted to image; the lack of one doesn’t absolve you from its marketing. Image, for better or worse, can make a song sound more satisfying. Image, for better or worse, can advance a back story or a narrative about a band’s rise to fame, its sophomore album effort, its unyielding desire to stay in the indie sphere, or its comeback story. So I get how the image of the artist(s) can affect a song. Image becomes a microcosm of eras, decades, and stretches of time inside of decades.
Lisa Loeb’s image is both a relic of twenty years ago and something commonplace today in a culture that values fashion nostalgia. As a song “Stay (I Missed You)” is both a great example of an adult contemporary hit single in general and specifically a totem of the mainstream diversity of the radio of the early ’90s, as this song bloomed out of an era in which nearly everyone, myself included, just assumed that bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails were going to unequivocally rule the entire decade.
That little wrist flick guitar riff that starts the song? It’s pretty great and perfect for a song about a relationship on thin ice set to mellow, folk-y music. Sure, it might remind you of previous songs or singers (which songs, by anyone, don’t do that?) but it’s kind of perfect, whether you’re talking about a standalone song, a #1 hit, or a part of a soundtrack (even if it’s from a movie that’s kind of maddening).
Her voice? I’m a sucker for guileless sometimes. Country mouse meets city mouse and all that.
About a month ago I posted on my Facebook page that Lisa Loeb was going to be the second post of the month here and it was met with a resounding shoulder-shrug. “Why are you including her on this site?” was the overall consensus. Call me crazy but I think this song is great. I love the feel of it; it’s a light song about a subject matter I’m familiar with and I’ve met no less than fifty woman who look and/or sound like Loeb. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as that—image or no. But if you need a historical reason to select this song for this site, here you go: “Stay (I Missed You)” is the first song to ever go #1 by an artist that didn’t have a recording contract when it was released.
 That Green Day look like jerk-offs fuels more of my dislike of them, I’m not gonna lie.
As a rule, I try to never get caught up in the narratives or biographies that surround an entertainer (and by entertainer I mean an actor, musician, or athlete). Obviously, there are some instances where someone’s life story is fascinating or quirky or heartbreaking, or some combination of all three, and it’s hard not to get sucked in to them from time to time (see: Olympics, The). I’m not a robot or anything—I root for an underdog as much as the next person.
The biggest fallacy of the narrative business, specifically with positive narratives, is that it oftentimes conflates ethics and/or morality with skill and talent. To be sure, work ethic is a good indicator of performance but how many times have you worked with someone with sub-par work ethic but still did their job well when it mattered, or someone who had great work ethic but was still fundamentally bad at their job? These are normal, human, everyday things. But we’re dissuaded from applying them to entertainers because the narrative business regularly overlaps with the echo chamber business, and the two, when combined, creates an abundance of nauseating ideas that mostly runs counter to how things actually work in real life. Believing that a musician, athlete, or actor is great because he or she works harder than everyone else is lazy thinking and overly simplistic. The world is filled with people who work hard and who are not great at their jobs, and people who don’t work very hard at all but are still extremely talented and successful; to believe otherwise is to be willfully ignorant of how life works. Some of the most immoral and unethical people have an abundance of natural talent while some of the nicest people in the world can’t keep a job for two years. Things like “grittiness” typically only become tangible with deadline writers and hagiographers.
Which brings me to Bill Withers.
I know very little about his personal life. Oh sure I could do the cursory online lookup thing. Here. He was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia on Independence Day in 1938. He is the youngest of six children. Something else: he served in the Navy for 9 years before beginning his music career. I can delve into the encyclopedia entry of his life with no problem. But what I mean here is that I don’t know any anecdotes about him or his music. I don’t think I’ve ever read a profile of him or an interview with him, or seen one either. I could search for it all but I kind of don’t want to.
I don’t want to because Bill Withers might be the only musician that I purely (and probably selfishly) want to enjoy only through his music. The thing is is that with him in particular I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of why he is great or what made him great because the simple reality is that he is a great musician who made great songs. This is what frustrates me about narrative when it comes to greatness—you can spend hours trying to figure out why someone is great, but sometimes the simple answer is that they are just great. Bill Withers, while frustratingly overlooked at times, is simply fucking great.
Withers in the ’70s recorded the following hits: “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Use Me,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” a murderer’s row of folk soul and R&B anthems. “Lean on Me” is one of only nine songs in the history of the US charts to go to #1 by two different artists. “Just the Two of Us” would be the go-to sex song reference if Barry White and “Let’s Get It On” didn’t exist. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is barely two minutes long and it has soul and feeling for days.
Oh, and he also recorded “Lovely Day,” which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
“Lovely Day” uses a smooth funk drum beat and bass, guitars, violins, horns, and a celesta to perfection. Withers’ vocals always registered as being a little heartier and earthier than his contemporaries who cast a shadow on him but this track gives him the canvas with which to unleash some impressive sustained vocals (he stretches out “day” at one point to about twenty seconds), and his all-around presence on the track, like that on his other hits, is indescribably warm and inviting. It’s probably corny as hell but his voice is befitting of the smiling guy in the picture above. Bill Withers just seems like a genuinely happy guy, and this is the kind of song that will be able to put you in a good mood every time you hear it.
I need to believe that Bill Withers is a genuinely happy guy because I can’t imagine a world in which a person who wrote the lyrics “Then I look at you/And the world’s alright with me” is an unhappy person. I can be a cynical person about a lot of things but this I need to believe in. Those lyrics (and its accompanying music) are soul-hugging. This song—and the aforementioned hits—are the work of a man who, in his prime, had talent that could rival anyone.
Narratives are based in reality, which should never be confused with actual reality. Actual reality can be muddy and disorienting. A narrative might suggest that Bill Withers was great because he wasn’t a groomed performer. That because he got a late start on his career and held the music industry at an arm’s length initially—he wouldn’t quit his day job after “Ain’t No Sunshine” was released for fear that the music industry couldn’t provide the stability he needed—this somehow explains why he is great. Bill Withers is great because he was immensely talented and he had brilliant songs swimming around in his head and he surrounded himself with great musicians. Sometimes it really is that simple, and we are all better for its simplicity.
The ’70s are defined in part by an array of funk and smooth soul anthems. “Lovely Day” is one of the best songs from that decade, standing out amongst a crowded house of classics that have never been replicated since.
 For obvious reasons sports plays into this underdog idea the most. It’s weird, though, for all of the teams and players that I’ve rooted for over the years I don’t think I’ve ever felt more deflated then when Tom Watson didn’t win the 2009 British Open. (Okay, that’s a lie. The 2003 Cubs made me feel an existential pain that I don’t think can ever be duplicated, but they exist on an entirely different level.) If Watson, a 59-year-old legend who suddenly started channeling the powers he had the year I was born, had won that tournament it probably would’ve been the greatest live sports event I would’ve ever witnessed this side of Ron Santo losing his shit on the radio as the Cubs won the World Series at Wrigley Field.
Anyone who knows me personally or has been following this site for a while knows that I am a big fan of Sun Records and Chess Records; the former’s contributions to rock, country, and rockabilly and the latter’s contributions to the blues were sweeping and culturally significant in profound ways.
Chess Records holds an enormous spot in my heart because of its roots in Chicago, a city I’ve lived near almost every day of my entire life. People outside of Chicago have defined the city with Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Ferris Bueller, and machine politics over the years and, recently, its staggering murder rate and shootings. But if you really want to know what the essence of Chicago is—the stuff that sits on the opposite end of the corruption and stomach-churning decades of systemic racism—it’s Studs Terkel, and Mike Royko, and Roger Ebert, and two Polish immigrants (Leonard and Phil Chess) who started a record label that forever altered the trajectory of blues music. You bring Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf to people’s attention and you are changing things culturally.
I love Sun Records for almost as many non-music reasons as music-related ones (though my soul melts every time I hear “Dixie Fried” by Carl Perkins). Sun Records brought a theatricality to music that forever changed the game. The Beatles and the Stones couldn’t have existed as they did without that early heathen roster of Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Johnny. Sun also, albeit temporarily, had the power to desegregate Memphis and West Memphis and those surrounding areas. California doesn’t start believing in the “music can change the world” stuff without black folks and white folks listening to the same music and watching the same broadcast performances on local TV in a deeply southern state.
Sun Records was founded by Sam Phillips, who died 11 years ago today. Phillips discovered Elvis and that event alone has defined his legacy (though by his own admission he declared the discovery of Howlin’ Wolf to be the greater achievement). He brought black music to white people in a wide, meaningful way—which was, even if a white face was put on the music more times than not, a pretty unthinkable thing mere years earlier. Phillips also launched the first all-woman radio station, WHER. In 1955. It’s 2014 and I would be shocked if such a station exists anywhere in the US right now as of this writing.
Sam Phillips also recorded “Rocket ’88′” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a song written by a 19-year-old Ike Turner. A song that is the first rock and roll record ever recorded.
You would be excused for thinking that “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets is the first rock and roll song ever recorded. It’s what I grew up hearing and reading and I imagine many other people around my age heard and read the same thing. “Rock Around the Clock” expanded rock and roll but it is not rock’s source. “Rocket ’88′” is the first rock record because of how it ends; the thirty or so seconds of it breathed life into a genre and a culture that up until that point had no name.
It might be weird to proclaim a song that does not have a traditional guitar solo in it to be the first rock and roll song. It might be weird to proclaim a song that relies heavily on the piano and a horn section to be the first rock and roll song. But then again this isn’t your average song. Right off the bat you have some weirdness with who did the performing: it’s credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but really Ike Turner wrote it and Brenston was a part of Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (Brenston, not Turner, is credited with writing it, possibly because he is lead vocals on it). More weirdness: “Rocket ’88′” is a straight-up R&B song.
So how is this song the first rock song if it’s an R&B song? Ike Turner himself does a pretty good job of explaining it many years after its release (emphasis not mine):
“[...]but the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88′ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88′ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88′ is the cause of rock and roll existing.”
And that cause lies mostly in Willie Kizart’s fuzzy distorted guitar, which gets louder and more noticeable as the song goes on. It also lies in the fact that this is a song about a car, cruising, and women, with enough innuendo (“oozin’ and cruisin’” and “long, hot run”) to be a co-author of the sophomoric humor of every guy that’s ever lived. Kizart’s guitar competes with the horn section and Turner’s killer piano for most of the track. It’s always there and present but the gravity of its existence probably doesn’t translate nowadays like it did back then. This song is one of the first ever recorded to have a guitar this fuzzy or distorted. Link Wray was essentially born the day this song hit the airwaves for the first time.
About two minutes and twenty five seconds into the track Kizart’s guitar becomes more pronounced and jabs and stabs itself free from the horn section and becomes the progenitor of rock, culminating in a little ending riff that would later morph itself into The Kinks and “Helter Skelter” and Alex Chilton and the New York Dolls and R.E.M. and basically everything. Willie Kizart’s guitar broke out of an R&B song and became the foundation of rock. This by itself makes it one of the most important and influential songs in all of modern music, but then when you factor in Sam Phillips recording it and Chess Records releasing it and that dovetailing makes it exponentially more special and unbelievable (as if such a thing even seems possible).
“Rocket ’88′” is so central to what rock is because, by definition, rock is the child of country and blues and yet by its first song being born out of an R&B sound it paved the way for rock to be expanded and broken down into myriad sub-genres and categories. One song, performed by a black band, recorded by a son of poor southern rural farmers, and released by two Polish immigrants, set all of that into motion.
“You know, it’s funny how wrong an artist can be about his own work. The one composition of Tchaikovsky’s that he really detested was his ‘Nutcracker Suite,’ which is probably the most popular thing he ever wrote.”
—Deems Taylor, Fantasia
“I wasn’t very happy with it and told my producer that he could release it over my dead body” is what Chrissie Hynde famously thought of “Brass in Pocket,” the song she co-wrote with lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. Hynde didn’t like her vocals on the track: “I was kind of a new singer, and listening to my voice made me kind of cringe.” We are our own worst critics most of the time but it is weird to hear Hynde criticize her voice, the primary thing that made this single a smash in the US and UK; her unique voice, with its punk-ish sassiness, set to a new wave pop sound.
The back story of the original Pretenders lineup is like a ready-made biopic script: equal parts once-in-a-lifetime chance encounters, and the inevitable drugs and pain. Hynde, the only constant in the band’s history, moved to England after high school and wound up writing for New Music Express and working in Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique. A couple of failed bands later she helped form the Pretenders in 1978 with Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers and Pete Farndon, all of whom were local Brits. They recorded a cover of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” and within 4 years Hynde and Davies would meet, fell in love, and have a child. Farndon was kicked out of the band due to drug problems in 1982. Two days afterward, Honeyman-Scott was found dead of an overdose. (Farndon would later die of an overdose a couple months after Hynde gave birth to Davies’ child in 1983.)
This is the Behind the Music summary of the band’s early years from a bird’s-eye view. If we drill down further you would find what the essence of the band was: a group that had punk sensibilities but were smart enough to embrace pop in ways that many weren’t. The term “new wave” in the US during the late ’70s and early ’80s started to become synonymous with “synth pop” but the Pretenders were a new wave band along the lines of Talking Heads and Blondie, even if they didn’t rely as heavily on the keyboards as the latter. In the UK, new wave had more of a punk association so that when you combine the two you get quite a range of music on the spectrum. Even the Pretenders’ debut eponymous album dabbles in both pools: Farndon and Hynde dressed more punk and mod, whereas Honeyman-Scott and Chambers have a more standard fare rock/pop look.
In critical circles, the common logic in assessing a band’s catalog or legacy is that their big single will somehow always pale in comparison to their vaunted quote unquote early stuff. I think the “early stuff” POV hit its stride in the ’80s, though I admittedly might be biased in thinking that because I grew up in the ’80s. But the reason I do think the ’80s kind of brought that mentality to a more expanded acceptability is A) the birth and growth of modern college radio stations (the obscure bands had more torch carriers), B) albums were still being churned out more frequently (the emphasis on national touring wasn’t as huge unless you were top tier, for the most part), and C) the growth of entertainment publishing and content, which meant more voices, which inevitably meant more contrarian opinions and ratings. I mean for Christ’s sake Fear and Whiskey by The Mekons is one of the very few albums of the ’80s that Robert Christgau gave an A+ to. Which means to some extent the prevailing logic should be that “Brass in Pocket” shouldn’t be considered the Pretenders’ best song. It’s too easy, too pop.
But here you have a song that, yes, drinks a lot from the pop well, but it does so in subtly different ways. First, there is no guitar solo, or solo of any sort. Like not even a whiff of one. If you haven’t heard this song in a while you would be excused for assuming there was one. Second, the dovetailing of British slang in the lyrics with an American brand of pop music is pulled off really damn well. It’s not too often you hear something like “Got new skank it’s so reet” in a song on FM radio followed by Van Halen. (It’s also not too often you hear the word ditalini used, an Italian word that can be used as slang for fingering.) Third, the small textures in the song: the way Hynde plays the guitar as if she’s kinda smacking it with her thumb and pinky quickly, more like it’s a drum than a guitar; Honeyman-Scott’s short loud guitar riffs that sound like they are going to signal a solo but stand up on their own; Chris Thomas’s keyboard effects that sound like electric xylophones.
Because the Pretenders were critical darlings and their original lineup was destroyed way too soon by drugs, there is a tendency to overvalue tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” or a deep cut off of one of the first two albums. “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid” and “Talk of the Town” and “I Go to Sleep” are all terrific tracks worthy of a lot of praise. It’s just that “Brass in Pocket” is better.
The producer and the record label knew it before Chrissie did.
 The Internet has exponentially increased the last point. I mean, even though it deals with a movie and not music, just try to read this headline with a straight face.
When I was working at a restaurant after high school I briefly worked with a guy a couple years older than me who lived somewhat close to Chicago (way closer to the city than I did anyway) and would routinely go to clubs, house parties, raves, whatever. He was a pretty down-to-earth guy actually, unlike many of the rave kid types I met during this time at parties or through friends of friends—the kids who went into the city once and came back a seasoned traveler that not even Kerouac could trade stories with. These kids like, saw things, man. You wouldn’t get it because you live in the suburbs. (Said the kid who lived four miles from my house. In the suburbs.)
So anyway this guy would try to get me into house and electronic music from time to time during the short while we were co-workers and most of the stuff was just kind of over my head; too frenetic. To his credit he adjusted his recommendations for me once he realized I was, at the time, more of a standard fare guy when it came to electronic music. I never had a desire to go to a club so that kind of music wasn’t really going to speak to me on the whole. One day at work he just says to me, “Have you heard of Daft Punk yet? Listen to them. Trust me.” He told me to start with “Around the World,” a song he admitted might take a couple of listens for me to warm up to.
I thought I had successfully stored Daft Punk in my head but I had forgotten about them within a couple of days. As luck would have it, though, the Michel Gondry-directed video was generating a fair amount of buzz on MTV and I happened to catch it one night after work. At first glance, the video is theater of the absurd: four guys in tracksuits with comically oversized masks(?) running up and down stairs, four women with old school swimsuits and caps doing the same, four mummies dancing on a stage, four men in glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes, and four people in robot costumes walking around the circular vinyl-inspired set, all set against a background that kind of looks like a big Lite-Brite template. I loved it. It was so quirky and polished—like the song—that I was hopelessly mesmerized by it. And then after a couple more viewings once I realized that each group is initially moving to an individual sound in the song, well, that just melted my Fantasia loving soul. I bought the album Homework almost immediately.
What I discovered about Homework was that Daft Punk was able to take me into a world of music pretty far removed from my comfort zone, and do so with relative ease. On paper, a 7+ minute song in which “Around the world” is repeated over a hundred times would have seemed so ridiculous. And yet, Daft Punk made it work. The song begins with the beats muffled, as if you are walking into a room and the walls are absorbing the sound. Once everything clears up you have an infectious song that takes its time and knows exactly how to get you from point A to point B. I’ll always maintained that, be it a book or a movie or TV show or song, the best art are the ones that come to you naturally. You don’t overthink what’s to come (if you’re thinking about what’s to come, you’re probably already bored). You trust the artist(s). “Around the World” was put in the hands of very fun and very capable people.
A large part of me debated selecting “Da Funk” as the song for this entry as it was the first commercially successful single the duo had and it is one hell of a killer track too. But “Around the World” is not only my intro to the group—and, along with The Chemical Brothers, the intro to the electronic genre (never underestimate the power of nostalgia)—but the music and its accompanying video speak to a broader power of music that has always attracted me like a moth to a flame: this song moves and stimulates me, and the video opens up an entire new world of appreciation for the song.
Daft Punk are now a worldwide group, their album releases are events and their robot imagery is well known to just about everyone within the coveted age demographics. “Around the World” helped propel them into international pop consciousness. This is one of the best electronic songs of the last twenty five years.
 To be fair, high school kids who really latch onto a music culture can be unbearable regardless of the type of the music. Pity the person whose friend is the kid who’s gotten stoned 5 times and wants to do nothing but talk about Led Zeppelin all the time. “Dude, I mean seriously, just listen to this guitar riff at the beginning.” [plays "Custard Pie" for 9th time]
 It’s also worth noting here that “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” is another song I thought I’d never like. It’s nearly seven and a half minutes long and is basically psychotic. But it lets its psychosis breathe.
[Editor's note: this post is written by Matt Meenan, whom I went to high school with for two and a half years. During that time we won back-to-back Illinois state championship in doubles' tennis. Had he not moved away we would've no doubt won the state title all four years and one of us would be playing in our final U.S. Open later this summer. Actually, none of this is true at all. We were on a tennis team in high school but we rarely started and instead I think we talked about music and made fun of people. He was probably the first person I ever met who listened to Hüsker Dü. Matt knows a thing or two about a thing or two about Nas as well and I turned the site over to him for the post on the artist whose seminal work Illmatic turned 20 years old earlier this year.]
Hip hop is probably the most linear form of music in the world. Rock, country, and virtually all other genres move cyclically, where certain styles or methods enter, exit, then are rehashed or re-purposed sometime later (that’s why our parents were confused when Pearl Jam gained prominence—they were basically a ’70s band).
Not so for hip hop. Sure, rap music constantly samples itself but those old lines/songs/styles come back as a piece of something new. Rap music is a fleet of Abrams tanks moving toward the field of operations—the second you can no longer keep up, rap is taking the parts that still work and moving on. You are left behind with a story to tell.
This linear progression is great for responding to current events, technology, or the needs of a fan base that stays the same age. It is not, however, great for maintaining artists’ careers or developing timeless songs, much less albums that people mention years later.
Illmatic by Nas is twenty years old, and it remains the most mentioned title by rap fans when asked to name the best rap album ever. How? How did a 19 and 20-year-old Nasir Jones manage to make what’s widely heralded as the perfect hip hop record?
Part of it was probably the growing specter surrounding Nas in the early 90s. At the time, hip hop was beginning to lean away from New York City. N.W.A had already scared the shit out of parents, and Luke Campbell’s 2 Live Crew had begun offending humankind as a whole (to the point where he was actually charged with obscenity). While there were still a large number of relevant New York rap artists, NYC was not the ONLY place making noise in hip hop anymore. Hip hop, being a culture of both hierarchy and hyperbole, was undoubtedly furrowing its collective brow, attempting to find the next king.
Enter Nas. Discovered and signed by MC Serch, he was immediately hyped as the savior of New York rap. His verse on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ”—where he rapped that he’d “Kidnap the president’s wife without a plan” and he “Went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus”—was the most brazen introduction of an MC since “Straight outta Compton, a crazy mu’fucka named Ice Cube.” New York was hungry for “the next big thing” and thought they had it in 18-year-old Nas.
But it wasn’t all hype. After “Live at the BBQ,” Nas went to work on Illmatic (or maybe he had it written for years). While it was Nas’ debut, this was no demo. At this point, he was already seen as a wunderkind in the rap industry, which, along with his affiliation with MC Serch, earned him support from producers DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Obviously, history blurs things a bit, but I can’t help but wonder if these legendary beatmakers somehow knew they were contributing to the quintessential album of the modern era.
Illmatic is the perfect mix of technical mastery and street commentary. While hardcore rap fans had seen similar phenomena in artists like Kool G Rap, Nas managed to tell his tells with a degree of youth not seen in other artists (even though they were about the same age). This may be what made the album so brilliant: Nas moved seamlessly between spectator and participant in his subject matter.
If the story ever broke that Chaz Palmenteri harnessed Illmatic while writing A Bronx Tale, I would not be surprised at all. Both are examples of boys becoming men in a tumultuous urban environment, and witnessing some things along the way. Even in the early ’90s, rap music was flooded with stories of kingpins, arch-criminals and revolutionaries. With Illmatic, Nas was, for the most part, a kid on the stoop of his building writing about what he saw.
From a timing standpoint, Illmatic was Nevermind for the rap audience. Stripped down. Real. And just unlike anything that was dominating the mainstream. Like Nevermind, fans of the underground had seen similar works released, but these records changed the game in their respective genres. While Nevermind was far more commercially successful, it’s almost never mentioned as the top record of its genre. Illmatic is widely seen as the holy grail of hip hop albums, and the album by which other works have been measured for most of its 20 year existence.
After Illmatic things went a different direction for Nas. His second album, It Was Written, achieved commercial and critical success… but, to his core audience, something was missing. He had no production by DJ Premier, opting instead to work with the more commercially viable Trackmasters. While the result was another great album, it simply was not Illmatic.
Nas’ other albums (from 1998’s I Am all the way to his latest, Life is Good) suffered the same fate to varying degrees. Some were lauded as classics (such as 2001’s Stillmatic, an obvious nod to his debut), if only because they came out (seemingly) in response to something shunned as contrived or overly commercial. Whether or not Nas has spent his career trying to recapture whatever it was that made Illmatic the perfect hip hop album, hip hop purists and critics have CERTAINLY spent countless hours comparing everything Nas has ever done to his debut album.
Nas’ career has been a handball match between authenticity and commercial stardom—sometimes on the same album, and even within the same song (“Hate Me Now”). This has long been impossible territory for a rapper to reside, but Nas has managed to continue this struggle for 20 years and 13 albums (including 2 collaborative efforts). It hasn’t been perfect, which is why, aside from his debut, Nas’ career has had a polarizing affect on rap fans and critics. Tupac has been the only rap artist to maintain the delicate balance between reality and accessibility. It’s clear the hip hop community expected the same out of Nas, and that’s the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise elite career.
After two decades of dominance in the forever-fickle world of rap, Nas owes no critic or fan any explanation for the path(s) he has chosen. But, even though he’s regarded as among the greatest of all time (if not THE best) at his craft, Nas remains one of the greatest what-if stories in rap history.
What if he kept looking out his project window and reporting what he saw?
What if he was better able to balance authenticity and accessibility?
What if the industry or fans weren’t constantly pulling him in different directions?
I’d be curious to find out if Nas himself has found Illmatic to be the albatross around the neck of his career. Like a pitcher throwing a perfect game in his MLB debut, and dealing with fans constantly hoping he’ll recreate that magic every time he leaves the clubhouse, there must be a degree of pressure to replicate rap perfection.
It’s fitting that the track that best exemplifies Nas’ career was the first full track on his debut (second track, if you count the intro, which I don’t). “N.Y. State of Mind” is equal parts technical mastery (“Rappers I monkey flip ‘em with the funky rhythm I be kickin”), cinematic storytelling and socially-conscious street talk. If, as Chuck D said, rap is “the Black CNN,” then “N.Y. State of Mind” is Nas strapping a camera to his Yankee cap and moving through Queensbridge Housing Projects in the early ’90s (with some obvious exaggerations, which harken back to his “Live at the BBQ” verse: “Whenever frustrated, I’ma hijack Delta”). Sonically, DJ Premier provided a slow, stripped-down track which allowed Nas’ lyics to remain the track’s focus, a stark contrast from the funk samples or 120-bpm dance tracks that dominated early ’90s hip hop. The message was clear – this music wasn’t for dancing; the artists want you to listen to the words. While I’m not certain “N.Y. State of Mind” is the best song on Illmatic, I would put it up against about any other song in hip hop. It’s essentially a perfect song on a perfect album, which is part of Nas’ not-quite-perfect career in hip hop.
Two things I have personally noticed in my thirty six years of living on this earth that I find kind of fascinating with regards to rap/hip hop and white people:
1) A majority of the white people that I’ve ever heard say “I like all kinds of music… except rap or hip hop” fall anywhere between Uncomfortable Drunk Relative to Lectures About Gadsden Flags And Blood Purity on the racist scale
2) The rest of the white people that I’ve ever heard say “I like all kinds of music… except rap or hip hop” are usually trying to say “I really only like old school rap and hip hop”
Even if you were to remove the racism element from #1 (which I guess we can do now in America as Chief Justice Roberts declared that racism doesn’t exist, and that is why the Voting Rights Act could be gutted), that opinion would originate from roughly the same sentiment as #2: the generational lament that today’s music can’t stack up to the past. The people in the first observation above, when they’re not being bluntly racist, typically find fault with hip hop as being an inscrutable expression. They will typically point out that the lyrics are impossible to understand, that the music is too loud/shallow/nonsensical, and that the images associated with the music is cause for concern. You know—the same stuff these people’s parents said about The Beatles post drug experimentation. The people in the first observation typically didn’t like disco in their youth so there’s really no frame of reference to help them get hip hop. It is a foreign language. (And these people typically don’t like foreigners either.)
The people in the second observation usually find fault in modern hip hop with regards to message. Today’s hip hop doesn’t speak to them, whereas early hip hop did—either out of straight-up nostalgia or because early hip hop was seen as more fun. I fully admit that I am in this group. The analogous mindset here with rock would be preferring the ’62-’65 catalog of The Beatles over their later work, or Rumours over Tusk, or anything danceable (’80s) over anything remotely aggressive (’90s). There is a demarcation point somewhere in all of us, usually tethered to our formative years, that prefers the simple over the complex when push comes to shove.
An example: the same year that saw “It Takes Two” released by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock also found N.W.A releasing Straight Outta Compton. Chances are you were attracted to one over the other if you were in your formative years at this point. If you were attracted to fun songs you probably liked the former; if you wanted something a little more real or aggressive, the latter. “I like the Whopper, fuck the Big Mac” or “I’m knocking niggas out the box daily”: you can love both, but one probably gets a little more love.
“It Takes Two” is the opening track on the debut album of the same name and it’s sampling of Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It)” instantly put it into the canon of American music. The song is hopelessly infectious and awesomely addictive. It is fun personified in audio form. There were more influential artists and songs before and since “It Takes Two” but there truly might not be a more perfect hip hop song than this. I was 10 years old when this song came out and it greatly affected my purview of hip hop, probably to the detriment of nearly everything else that has been released after it. It’s not that I hate or am bothered by more modern hip hop, it’s just that this song wound up hitting me at the exact right moment and I have loved it—and other songs from this era, admittedly—ever since. It is such a fun fucking track.
“I wanna rock right now
I’m Rob Base and I came to get down
I’m not internationally known
But I’m known to rock the microphone
Because I get stupid, I mean outrageous
Stay away from me if you’re contagious
Cause I’m the winner, no, I’m not a loser
To be an M.C. is what I choose-a
Ladies love me, girls adore me
I mean even the ones who never saw me
Like the way that I rhyme at a show
The reason why, man, I don’t know
So let’s go”
Lyrics like this aren’t capital-I Important or heavy, but you know what: it doesn’t matter. They are fun to say in unison during an era in which hip hop was more interested in sophomoric humor and egotism, and an exploration of words and the expansion of slang. This is what I grew up with. It’s so hard to not overlove it. Stephen Erlewine once wrote, “There are many critics and listeners who claim that Rob Base & DJ-EZ Rock’s ‘It Takes Two’ is the greatest hip-hop single ever cut. It’s hard to disagree with them.” I can’t sum it up any better than that.
I will gladly admit my membership to observation #2 above while always thinking that the people who subscribe to #1 are damn idiots. If you can’t enjoy this song you are probably bad at life.
 Note: this is not to be confused with someone who says “I don’t like rap or hip hop.” I’m specifically talking about people who make it a point to say that they literally like everything but that genre. Like I’m supposed to believe you’d rather listen to opera music before ever listening to a song by Kanye or Common. You are full of shit. (For the record, I also have a problem with people—mostly urban white people in my experiences—who “like all kinds of music… except for country.” Heaven forbid a Brenda Lee track touch your ears. It might make you vote Tea Party in the next election.)
tourist /ˈtu̇r-ist/ noun 1 a person who travels to a place for pleasure 2 a member of a sports team that is playing a series of official games in a foreign country
We are all tourists.
Physically because we all have places that we love to revisit, and places that we desire to visit. Unsurprisingly, these places for most people are islands or tropical locales—I’ve been to Mexico twice, it’s amazing or I definitely want to go to St. Croix next year are things that aren’t terribly uncommon to hear. The second definition doesn’t really apply to anyone, unless you’re involved in international sports (or the rare times an MLB or NFL team plays outside the US). In which case, hi Yasiel Puig, if you’re reading this.
There is also a social form of tourism in our lives too, and I use the word social here in a general sense and not one born out of the mandatory Internet industryspeak that infiltrated any use of the word for most of this century. (The Onion perfectly skewered its nonsensical overuse.) I believe that social tourism has been around since long before the ARPANET. It’s almost as old as art itself I think.
Social tourism in art exists primarily in two ways: in a very general way (i.e.-you seek out art that entertains you in a broad sense), or in a more specific, commentary-like way (i.e.-art that has a more specific message that impacts you on deeper levels). Obviously, both facets involve the act of being entertained. To use the vacation analogy: the general way would be like going to an all-in-one resort; the specific way would be venturing out to destinations farther removed from where you’re lodging. You have the music that you love, and the stations and concerts and venues that help you find more artists that make music similar to the style that you already love. Think of this as your Mexico or St. Croix. This is our default mode when it comes to art—I found the places I like to revisit and I know exactly how to get there. It starts to get different once new people and locales are introduced: the music that your boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, children, friend or co-worker listen to. Their music might sound like the Yukon Territory to you, some place many people have no desire to go to.
If we drill down further as to what social tourism means in art, I think Lorde represents a strong example of its deeper context. Lorde is a teenager whose music primarily attracts a teenage fan base, which is most certainly not St. Croix for most adults, and Lorde is from New Zealand. Regarding the former, oftentimes too many adults write off music by teenagers as being vapid, ephemeral, soulless, whatever, just as kids will write off the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ as ridiculous, stodgy, tragic, uncool, whatever. There is probably no remedy for this but it’s culturally ingrained and worth pointing out because music at these age gaps is an either/or proposition: it’s either great or it’s shit, and no in between. We need to re-think that. Regarding the latter, her home country is worth pointing out especially if you are reading this and are American.
We Americans live in an entertainment bubble. Hollywood is a huge commodity we export around the world, to the point that I think it becomes nearly impossible to fully grasp how other countries digest (or reject) our culture. We sit behind a gigantic projector that faces the rest of the world and all we really see is a lot of colors, but what are the colors making? What is it selling? What subtle cultural mutations are being made before its packaged to different countries?
I was talking to someone a few months ago about Lorde and they said that, after the success of “Royals” had made it an inescapable hit, that people on Black Twitter and Black Facebook were irritated by Lorde’s rejection of hip hop culture. Truth be told, I never once thought of the song in these terms especially with regards to how the video was shot with its almost Calvin Klein-ish feel instead of ironically playing on racial stereotypes. But there was a feeling that she was calling out black hip hop culture out by her laundry list chorus of excess (Maybachs, gold teeth, Cristal)–excess that, let’s be honest, is often also referenced by (usually older white male) racists who believe that reverse racism is a real thing because black people get to say nigger and they cannot. Taken at face value, yeah, I guess it could look like Lorde is hitting the stereotype targets of perceived black male excess, but here’s where her tourist status comes into play. She’s an Kiwi commenting on and rejecting a very American set of pop culture tropes. It is not far-fetched to assume that our entertainment exports took some root down there; Hollywood is nothing if not colonial in nature. It makes sense for a kid (she was 15 when she wrote the song) to reject some of the progenitor’s projections.
“My friends and I we’ve cracked the code
We count our dollars on the train to the party
And everyone who knows us knows
That we’re fine with this, we didn’t come from money”
You can read this set of lyrics from “Royals” as either being the normal thought process of a teenager put to paper or a winking embellishment to make Lorde seem “more real” (celebrities: they’re just like us!). You might not even like “Royals” anyway. To me, “Royals” is everything that is right about what pop music is and what it can be. The music is simple and yet so so catchy. Her voice is terrific, the kind that certainly sounds older than her age but also the kind that when you first hear it you have no idea what the singer looks like. There’s something to be said about a voice that can elicit a diverse range of potential images in your mind. I love this song. I love that she wants to be a ruler and a queen bee. I love that the inspiration for the song title was her stumbling upon a National Geographic picture of George Brett. I love that finger snapping accents the beat.
A teenager from New Zealand has written one of the best pop songs so far in this early decade. This is a great thing as it’s not often that kids can infiltrate adults’ music tastes in meaningful ways. This kind of tourism is a good thing: listen to things you might not otherwise listen to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised every once in a while, especially music from other cultures. Some of them might reject American tropes or ideas and that’s a good thing, as sometimes it’s good to get out from behind the projector and see what other cultures are seeing.
Be a tourist more often. It beats the alternative: a reactionary, angry xenophobe shackled to bad categorical thoughts.
 Some clarification: I’m not saying you can’t hate/despise/loathe Justin Bieber’s music, or that you have to listen to all of Selena Gomez’s Stars Dance in order to have an opinion of “Come & Get It,” but a hatred of Bieber or Gomez shouldn’t cloud judgment on every teenage artist. I hate Scorpions but I’d never say I hated an entire genre or age range of musicians simply because they exist.
[Correction: this post initially referred to Lorde's home country as Australia instead of New Zealand.]
Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.
‘Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.’
Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.
Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.
— Thomas Haweis
In 1977 NASA launched the Voyager program which consisted of the probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The initial goal of these probes was to study Jupiter and Saturn but because of favorable alignments they were allowed to keep going. In 2012 Voyager 1 reached interstellar space; the furthest point any man-made object has ever reached. Aboard both of these probes is a gold record with instructions on how to play it should an alien or alien colony discover it. The record consists of four sections: Scenes from Earth, Greetings from Earth, Music from Earth, and Sounds from Earth.
The Scenes are comprised of random images—both black and white, and color—ranging from pictures of planets and nature to pictures of buildings and people. The Greetings are comprised of fifty five audio salutations which include twelve Asian and five ancient languages. The Sounds include volcanoes, thunder, dogs, footsteps, a tractor, Morse Code. The Music includes, like the other sections, a wide array meant to show the diversity of our planet. An interstellar alien would hear everything from “Puspawarna,” the musical representative of Indonesia, to “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. There is a Pygmy girl’s initiation song (Zaire), a night chant by the Navajo Tribe, a Peruvian wedding song, three Bach pieces, two Beethoven pieces, and a Mozart piece. The sacrificial dance from Stravinksy’s “Rite of Spring” and the traditional Azerbaijani song “Mugam” too. There are four songs representing the US on this record: the aforementioned “Johnny B. Goode” and Navajo night chant, and “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. The other song, which is the penultimate song on the record, is “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson. For a project which had a mission of representing the diversity of Earth, “Dark Was the Night” was chosen because it was “the human expression of loneliness.”
Beauty and loneliness rarely go hand-in-hand, rarer still does perfection with words like solitary and depressing. “Dark Was the Night” is rooted in its earthly pain—you can practically feel the hard ground Johnson moans—but its penultimate use on a track list destined for an unimaginable interstellar void is also fitting too. If one were to find themselves in a situation of having to sleep on cold, dark ground alone it would be natural to look at the stars, the vastness of it all, and wonder what cosmic fates are in play here. Or conversely, like Michael Hall wrote in his excellent 2010 piece about Johnson, maybe the aliens will hear it and wonder “What kind of creature made that music?” as they gaze toward their own instellar void from which it arrived from.
“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is more hymn than song, which makes sense as its inspiration is rooted in the hymn above written by Haweis a couple of centuries ago, but whereas the source material has lyrics Johnson’s version consists of moaning and abstract vocals. If Johnson is singing words here, they are indecipherable to me and I’ve never bothered to check. I prefer to listen to this song hearing only the abstract vocalizations; a three minute stream-of-consciousness by a blind man that paints a picture of sadness more vividly than most who have vision. It evokes imagery like few pieces of American music do. If you are a cinephile, this is a song that would be right at home in a Coen brothers film set against a wide shot of desolate land.
As the aforementioned Michael Hall piece points out there are very few concrete things we know about Blind Willie Johnson’s life. Many of the word-of-mouth stories about him were either exaggerated or apocryphal, most of it unable to be verified. What we do know is that on December 3, 1927 he recorded for Columbia Records “Dark Was the Night” and five other songs—”If I Had My Way,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” and “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” We know that three years later he went to Atlanta and recorded ten more songs for Columbia and then he never recorded anything after that. He went back to Texas and apparently continued to sing on the street into the ’40s.
Johnson is still viewed to this day as one of the best bottleneck slide guitarists that ever lived. This is all but confirmed in this song as he unleashes an array of otherworldly riffs as jagged and sweet as a rose. He ditches his normally gruff and bass-heavy voice for a constellation of soft, mournful notes that marries itself to the music in a transcendent way. Blind Willie Johnson was one of the greatest sanctified blues singers of the pre-war era, and possibly ever. His biography is filled with holes and unanswered questions, which is a fitting of a man who created a song like “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a song that really has no equal or rival in terms of stark desolation and pain; a song that just seems to have arrived from somewhere else, an unknown thing that speaks in universality. Sadness and pain and loneliness has never sounded more powerful than with this song, and the fact that there are no decipherable words to it makes it that much more stunning and profound.
Taking a cue from Sam Cooke, whom he revered, Marvin Gaye added an e to the end of his last name. Born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr., Gaye and Cooke helped shape and form modern soul music; Cooke by being a pioneer and laying the groundwork for just about everyone else (including Aretha—try to top that), and Gaye with his neo-soul contributions which has influenced countless hip hop artists. That both men were murdered—Cooke, 33, by a hotel manager; Gaye, 44, by his father—also binds them together. But it’s more complicated than that. Both Cooke and Gaye were gifted singers with perfect vocals who were eventually pigeonholed by their abilities: both were put through recording sessions involving unrealistic expectations of high notes hit in the name of songs about love, though Cooke had some gospel in his catalog. Cooke never got the chance to break free of those artistic limits because of Bertha Franklin’s gun but Marvin Gaye did. Listening to Gaye’s post 1970 music is a manifold experience involving the fates and what-ifs of his contemporaries as well as the totality of the present separate from them. What I mean is: 1) it’s hard to listen to What’s Going On and not wonder what Sam Cooke (or Otis Redding for that matter) would have produced in the ’70s too, and 2) it’s hard to think of many artists just flat-out cooler than Marvin Gaye, especially from a socially conscious and musically atmospheric perspective. I mean, if you’re an artist that wants to make an album that matters and you’ve listened to What’s Going On, which solo artist are you placing above Marvin Gaye?
Marvin Gaye, the person and the musician, was born out of deeply conflicting forces. Musically, he was a naturally gifted singer who preferred the studio rather than performing live—this at a time when the latter was considerably more important than the former as far as the music industry was concerned; he was blessed with good looks and a voice but could not dance; he rejected the sex appeal foisted upon him in the ’60s (in the form of his duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell) only to embrace it in spades a few years later with Let’s Get It On.
Personally, he was raised by a father who not only beat him, and who not only was a devoutly rigid and religious man (Marvin Sr. was a Pentecostal minister), but was also a cross-dresser. The effect of this was profound on Gaye his whole life (long before his father killed him): Marvin was closer to his mother because of it, obviously, but also as Gaye became older he began to become terrified that he might have whatever cross-dressing gene his father had, to the point that wanted to try out for the Detroit Lions and other manly things such as running in the snow-covered dead of winter. Seen through this light, the motive power behind by Let’s Get It On becomes more obvious—I am a man, I love women; I love sex.
Gaye joined the air force after high school but was discharged shortly after. He joined a local D.C. group called The Rainbows, cut a single (“Wyatt Earp”) on the Okeh label with the help of Bo Diddley, and was noticed by Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua convinced him to move to Chicago as part of The Moonglows where they recorded a few singles for Chess Records, notable among them “Mama Loocie” in 1959. While performing on tour in Detroit in 1961 he drew attention by a guy named Berry Gordy who was desperately looking for talent for his new Motown Records label. Initially, Gaye was a session drummer at Motown typically with Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. It was during this time that he met Gordy’s sister Anna and by the end of the year she and Gaye were married.
Gaye’s initial singles with Motown didn’t chart very well. In 1963 he finally produced a top ten hit with “Pride and Joy” but behind the scenes he was allergic to its success, and the Gordy system of music-making which emphasized producing hit singles as though they were Fords or Chevys. Gaye wanted to be a crooner, like a black Sinatra, and make his own music at his own pace (his marriage to Anna added a level of complication with Berry throughout most of his life). Luckily, Gaye was an intensely competitive person and he brought himself back into the Motown fold once he saw his colleagues becoming successful.
In 1964 Gaye had his first charting album, Together, a collection of duets with Mary Wells, who was the first star Motown had produced. Subsequent top ten singles included “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I’ll Be Doggone,” and three duets with Tammi Terrell which, remarkably, did not include “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” His duets with Terrell were far and away his most successful in that format and in late October of 1967 she collapsed into his arms onstage and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, which would kill her in less than three years. The musical aftermath of her collapse found Gaye producing his only international #1 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; the aftermath of her death found Gaye going into a depression-filled seclusion and returning from it with the outline of What’s Going On in tow.
Berry Gordy refused to release “What’s Going On.” Refused. Said it didn’t make sense; that some of the music sounded old. It couldn’t possibly chart high. Marvin Gaye threatened to never record anything for Motown again if Gordy couldn’t be brought on board with this song and the accompanying concept album. “What’s Going On” was released behind Gordy’s back by a Motown’s sales executive and the song quickly went to #2. It was the fastest-selling single at that time for Motown. Gordy was shocked by the move, and the success of the single, and subsequently told Gaye he could do whatever he wanted to with his next album provided it was completed within a month and a half.
Though Gordy was still initially perplexed by Gaye’s finished album, he released it like he said he would and it not only spawned 3 top ten singles but the album itself went #1 on the R&B chart and #6 on the pop chart. Chart success aside, What’s Going On is a landmark album—to this day it casts a huge shadow on R&B, soul, hip hop, and of the idea of concept albums in general. This album, told from the perspective of a Vietnam vet returning home, tackles racism, heroin, injustice, hatred, God, disadvantaged children, the environment, divided souls, and poverty—all in just under thirty six minutes, spread out amongst only nine tracks.
For me, even though Gaye had other songs that were technically better, his music career is defined by What’s Going On, this one perfect album that tackles huge things and does so set to beautiful music. This is an album made by a guy who started questioning the limits of his music. The first thing that is noticeable about this album is that Gaye’s session drumming career heavily influenced the sound: every track has a drum beat that produces an atmosphere that was pretty uncommon for its time, and there are barely any guitars to be heard on the album (they are almost always tucked away behind everything else). Nowadays, this percussion style is very common but Gaye was ahead of the game here and it reinforces his status as a progenitor of the neo-soul and quiet storm genre.
Throw a dart at the track listing of this album and it could be represented here but personally I’ve always had a soft spot for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” the track that closes out side one of the album. It has a gorgeous beat matched up with a piano and a barely-there rhythm guitar and when the sax arrives it starts off kind of a free-flowing melody that uses beautiful sets of layered vocals. And all throughout you have Gaye calmly and coolly singing to you; a glimpse of how he might have envisioned his crooning days years prior. That Gaye is singing about the deterioration of our environment is never off-putting or uncomfortable, as here you have a perfect example of an artist in full control of his creative and social faculties. This song is perfect; its message, its execution, everything.
After What’s Going On Gaye eventually embraced his sex appeal with Let’s Get It On and with his relationship with Janis Hunter (while still married to Anna) during the recording of the album. “Sex is awesome and fun, until it’s not” is probably how you could bookend the rest of the ’70s for Gaye as drugs drained his money to the point that he agreed to make an album—Here, My Dear—for which all sales would go to Anna as a way to pay her alimony.
Gaye’s relationship with Janis began to deteriorate and his drug problem grew and so did his thoughts of suicide. Gaye tried to kill himself a few days before his father did. Marvin Gaye was killed by his father on April 1, 1984 using the gun Marvin got him for Christmas a few months earlier. His dad was irate with his mom over an insurance policy, and Marvin wound up hitting him and telling him to stop. His dad then shot him twice later on.
Maybe, on second thought, Marvin Gaye proves the fallacy of trying to imagine artists in different eras or trying to imagine if they had lived longer. While there is a part of me that will always wonder what Sam Cooke would’ve done had he lived longer, I only want to think of it in the cleanest, non-messiest musical terms. Would he have made something comparable to What’s Going On, I ask myself, because that’s all there is to ask at the end of the day. If Cooke had been around in the ’70s he most certainly would’ve gotten caught up in drugs. To think of Cooke in the ’70s is to think of what happened to Gaye in the ’70s and up until his death: addicted to drugs, depressed, suicidal, and broke. This is also why it’s sometimes easier to love music more than the musician. Marvin Gaye had to deal with ugly complications and forces beyond his control, and he didn’t always win in his dealings. But he did produce What’s Going On and sometimes that is all that needs to be said, or heard.