n the one hand, it’s annoying when people try and sell indie kids on music outside their general (presumed) field of reference by comparing it to albums or sounds within their field of reference. Sure, OK, the Kelly Clarkson song sounds like “Maps.” But it sounds more like Avril, or that Liz Phair album you all hated, or a Janet Jackson single. Shouldn’t we take the music on its own terms?
More importantly, if we could figure out a way to talk about non-indie music that didn’t either exoticize it or present it in terms of the music we’re already familiar with, wouldn’t we have a better shot at broadening everyone’s tastes? Less charitably, shouldn’t indie kids be able to listen to music well-educated white people usually think is “beneath them” without requiring it to give off the patina of subversiveness?
Haven’t we had this argument already, and aren’t we all tired of it?
On the other hand, I know my audience, and I love my audience (lots of kisses to you, and you, and you) and when I like something, I want other people to like it too, because I think it will make them happy, maybe. And I can’t ignore the fact that this album is called Chain Letter, which, after all, is something that spreads exponentially from hand to hand, bringing happiness and good fortune in its wake. It seems to be commanding me to tell everyone about it.
So here’s what I’m going to tell you. First off, do not expect the album to sound anything like crunk-n-b lead single “Girlfight,” which, yes, does have Lil Jon, and, yes, does have a fantastic guest verse from Big Boi. (From Outkast! You kids like Outkast, right?) But it’s not that great. On the bright side, it lowers expectations, and that’s a good thing.
What’ll happen is, you’ll get past “Girlfight.” Then, as the album continues, you’ll be surprised at the sound. This is not what you were expecting. You will like it more and more. And then you will get to track 7, “Ghetto Superstarz.” It might not strike you at first, although it’s fantastically good. But at the end of it, all of a sudden Ms. Valentine launches into a monologue that I can only assumes makes Kathleen Hanna rilly rilly jealous. It’s riot grrl, dudes. It’s like “Valley Girl” if “Valley Girl” was mean and nasty and evil. It’s “female empowerment” that doesn’t get all mindlessly positivist and affirming because it’s about people bein’ stupid. And it just keeps going and going, funnier and funnier, snapping you on the earlobe and saying, “Hey, pay attention to this, fool! You are seriously missing out! Listen to the things I am shouting at you with my keyboards and my drums and my bass!”
Lemme go through and give you the indie-centric rundown. “Piece of Dis” is super-disco (disco! Retro! LCD Soundsystem!) and has all this great clapping, like some K Records 7”. “Long As You Come Home” is neo-soul with super-hard beats, because it’s for the ladies and the gentlemen, like Sleater-Kinney. (Note: not really.) “Blah Blah Blah” has a posthumous guest verse from Dirt McGirt, aka the ODB (totally cool! Played a Vice show! Rebellious and crazy, like Wesley Willis, who Chicago indie kids discovered!) and is pretty much exactly like Rachel Stevens’ “Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex” (UK mainstream pop is OK because the UK is like a little college town overseas!) but with different vocals. “Playa” is a lot like Michael Jackson, and we all like Thriller, right? Piano-based slammer “I Want You Dead” is a key touchstone here, a less-campy “Dracula’s Wedding” (Outkast again! Except the less hip-hoppy, i.e. better, side!) or a more violent Fiona Apple or a female version of “Prayer To God” (Steve Albini, can’t beat that guy!). And “American Girl” is sort of a protest song (yay protest songs!) and a Madonna dis (her new stuff sux!).
But here’s the thing. There are certain records that, if I so much as think about them, will make me start to tear up. These records are: the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Prince’s Purple Rain, PJ Harvey’s Four-Track Demos, Space Ghost Coast to Coast’s Musical Bar-B-Que, and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. And I think I’m going to have to add Brooke Valentine’s Chain Letter to that list.
The reason I love this record so much-and I love this record sooooo much-is that it does exactly what I’ve wanted R&B to do for a long time now. It’s the album I’ve been waiting for. It’s non-stop perfection. Instead of interjecting itself into the mainstream by placing its originals beside remixes of already-popular songs, like Piracy Funds Terrorism did, it just writes more originals that sound like they’re popular already, that they’ve been popular for years.
I love this record because it takes this whole “rave noises in hip-hop” idea that builds through “Bombs Over Baghdad” and explodes in “Yeah” to an actually interesting place, unlike Usher’s efforts. Instead of microhouse, it’s macrohouse-house made bigger and sexier, imbued with the kind of swagger it never seemed to leave room for; instead of shaffel, expanding and lightening, it amps everything up, deepens the bass, piles on more hooks, tightens it up, and in this way, tracks like “Taste of Dis” and “Ghetto Superstarz” are closer to Basement Jaxx than they are to anything in modern R&B, while also being resolutely R&B.
I love the line “Ima make you dance / This junk in da trunk will put a bump in ya pants.” I love the aforementioned slow jamz / hard beat combo in “Long As You Come Home,” like they were trying to make a hard club banger but didn’t realize the song was a ballad, because it’s these kind of failures of intention that make for great pop. I love that “Blah Blah Blah” is such an unabashed ripoff, and I love that it casts Brooke as Britney and ODB as Justin Timberlake, with all that entails, and I love the pleadings ODB overlays onto the final verse. I love that “Cover Girl” sounds like a Dolly Parton song-and it totally does, check the organ-because it makes sense (“I Will Always Love You” was a D-Part original, after all), and because it refuses to go default on the ballads. I love that they take the thing everyone always does sarcastically when a particularly ravey song comes on (“whoo whoo!”) in the raviest song, “Ghetto Superstarz,” and it totally, totally works. I love that “Playa” starts off with a line stolen from a reality show, and that there’s a whole series of reality show references in “American Girl” (which has a killer first verse and disappointing second verse, incidentally, but the chorus line of “this Disney World’s your underworld” always works), that she’s so relentlessly engaged with popular culture, and not as a series of popsong lyrical standards, but as something experienced by an individual.
I love that this album makes me want to dance more than almost anything else I can think of, I love that it makes me excited and happy and breathless, I love that it not only does exactly what I want it to but even more, that it introduces new desires that I can’t wait to have fulfilled. I love this album, and it’s there, for you, to buy and listen to and love, too.
Reviewed by: Michael Barthel
Reviewed on: 2005-04-04
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