Tag Archives: Club Music

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

 “[Artpop is] a celebration and a poetic musical journey [that displays a] lack of maturity and responsibility” 

No kidding.

So here we are again, it’s always such a pleasure. Remember when we tried to turn to bikes? It’s 2013 and we’re all back in Gaga-town, USA. It’s been a long while, hasn’t it? Years have passed since Lady Gaga pleasantly surprised me with her wackiness and secret identity as an Autobot. I’m not kidding! Born This Way was a cool couple of discs, stretching Gaga’s obsession with leather studs, Meatloaf and Queen into 17 whole tracks of vocal acrobatics, at least one LGBTQ anthem, and incredible bizarrity (“Highway Unicorn“). But of course, it’s Gaga, and so we can’t expect her to do the same thing twice, and she left herself with two clear options: play it safe, or lose her damn mind. It’s a stretch to suggest she’s done both. This is Gaga, though, and she’s getting older, so there are things we get to expect by now: her voice is more distinct than ever, as is her style, and she’s improved as a singer again. Less fortunately, Artpop presents the worrying argument that Born This Way and Fame Monster weren’t her personal touchstones; The Fame was. And that ought to be sort of disappointing, for anyone hoping Freddy Mercury and Meatloaf could be her key muses; The weirder Steph gets the better, the music critic has to say. Fortunately we’re beholden to no such beliefs in the club, but a critical cruise down Artpop‘s logical continuity won’t take us anywhere particularly exciting, despite her artistic aspirations. My Artpop could mean anything, she croons on “Artpop”, ironically one of the album’s weakest cuts. But could it, really? Primarily it seems to mean: 1. I’m cool. 2. I’m secretly not cool (and I know it). 3. I have sex like a wildcat, possibly too often, and 4. I’ve done some drugs in my time. I refuse to interface with Lady Gaga’s claims that Artpop represents a post-Warholian aesthetic, because no one knows what that means. Her grandiose speech is, though, a clue as to what she’s up to here: Artpop, so frequently, is all pomp and no deep statement. This is a shame, if only because Gaga’s quickly becoming the Peter Molyneux of pop music, talking everything up to a ludicrous level to which her products don’t necessarily rise. So when someone like me approaches Artpop, they hope desperately for that flurry of insane artistic activity that Lady Gaga promises every single time she produces an album – and that lyrical ambition simply doesn’t materialize here, however often she intimates it. Oh well. We sigh, that’s fine. It’s synthpop, it’s club-pop, a genre where a lyrical message is often more of a fun bonus than a necessity. Approached on that level, its own level, Artpop is pretty solid! It has to be – this is Lady Gaga, she’s the millennial Queen of this Stuff. So let’s all pay attention like we have to: court is in session.

For everything that’s going to come after, Artpop gets off to a roaring start. Maybe you haven’t seen “Aura”‘s Robert Rodriguez-directed music video yet, or heard Gaga’s Faster-Pussycat whine on track, but it rocks. The flamenco guitars stir up dust, the beat drops like a ton of bricks, Gaga’s hitting peak-weirdo – but of course all of this would happen; Infected Mushroom produced the track. Oh, my bad, INFECTED MUSHROOM: Israeli psytrance pioneers and general symphonic-dance gods. That’s cool and unexpected and ambitious, it’s everything I want from Lady Gaga and none of the filler. That is, until we hit the inevitable ‘Gaga Breakdown’ about 75% in. This part’s important, because it’s going to happen on almost every track here. It’s the bridge, of course: the point that the beat drops out, rises slowly, Lady Gaga stands up from her Salvador Dalí piano and serenades the crowd with her crazy pipes. She can do this! She will do this, but it kills the flow of the track – and it happens on almost every track. To the point that I had to name it, and start pointing it out like a glitch. It’s a nod to pop convention, certainly, but Lady Gaga seems so absurdly past the point of needing to throw back the curtains and wail that it seems unnecessary; not to mention utterly sabotaging the flow of the Mushroom guitarscape she’s coiling across for the rest of the song. (It’s a promo video but whatever; Rodriguez.)

From there, the album’s off at a run and Gaga’s playing bumper-cars with a variety of genres and influences. “Venus” is runway-pop with an obsession with Greek myth (and to her credit, some clever wordplay and Bowie-esque space-travel). “G.U.Y.” Gaga putting her “Poker Face” gender-twist hat back on and having some fun with acronyms and gender dynamics. “Sexxx Dreams” is masturbatory both stylistically and lyrically, and sounds like Justice. “Jewels n’ Drugs” has T.I. in killer shape, Too Short present and, uh, Twista of all people – and the star herself cleanly showing up the rich-bitch competition in the female club-hop department. “Donatella” does this too, so we can ask, fairly, if she’s been listening to The Millionaires at this point (ugh). In fact, as we go on the touchstones become even more obvious: “Manicure” is worryingly similar to a lot of Chantal Claret’s work, specifically “Pop Pop Bang Bang“. “Do What U Want” runs like “Stylo” and features Gaga emphasizing the primacy of her mind and voice over her body… a message that R. Kelly’s slithering feature manages to immediately undercut. Whoops. They come faster from there: “Dope” – Meatloaf, “Fashion” – Bowie, “Mary Jane Holland” and “Artpop” – Gaga, actually, in a fun turn. Her career’s finally reached a length where she can reference her own material and voice, which works to her credit as an evolving artist. “Swine” is an odd moment and her most deprecating, coming off a touch like Depeche Mode might have written the lyrics in a fit of synthy, gothic melancholy. It’s by far her most self-deprecating track and a shockingly cruel one, which also means it comes as a pleasant surprise on an often-innocuous album. “Applause”, of course, is the hit, and largely impervious to the rest of the album’s art direction. It’s also the last track, and hits as a surprise; intentional or otherwise, putting your hit single as the album’s final track always speaks to a certain confidence. Or hubris. Or insecurity.

Is it good? Well yes: like I said, it has to be. “Dope” features Rick Rubin production and a straight-faced acknowledgment of Lady Gaga’s now-renowned drug habits. “Jewels ‘n Drugs”, for all its club-girl goofiness, has a beat like a bejewelled trap hit. “Venus” is a grower, and weird enough to be compelling after “Aura”‘s initial shock wears off. The melodies are strong and the 4-on-the-floor is firmly in check. It’s all danceable, all the production is stellar, Gaga isn’t known for missing notes or wasting an opportunity to stretch her voice. Stretching her voice, specifically, happens a lot here, and it’s Artpop’s only real innovation: anyone looking for Lady Gaga kicking and screaming, laughing and chatting and doing her best Milla Jovovich impression – well all of that happens in the first few tracks here. Born This Way played around with the notion as well, but on Artpop it’s so much more exaggerated. Listen to “Swine” to see what I mean: she growls, squeals and screams throughout the album as well (albeit more subtly) and those moments stand out when placed alongside the calmer slant of “Dope” and much of “Gypsy” toward the end.

Artpop‘s greatest talking-point, though, has been its supposed self-awareness and deprecation. Of course this occurs, it’s all over the place and done to great effect. Should that be surprising, though? Most of those lauded “introspective” tracks fall in the last half, and yes there’s a lot of self-acknowledgment and winking and deprecation going on, and word is all of this is new for Gaga. Um, guys? The Fame. The Fame Monster. Born This Way’s motorcycle-hybrid-sexpot, constant winking humour and religious imagery play. Highway Unicorn. Self-awareness is and has always been Gaga’s major virtue – of course she’s absurdly talented, and her performance capability is beyond criticism at this point. But to suggest she’s only now breaching the topic of her own egoism is absurd. Gaga’s self-awareness is the reason she still has a career, and likely the reason she’s given so much control over her appearance and stage-presence. That’s great! But it certainly isn’t new, and better – even laugh-inducing – examples exist all over the place on Born This Way (“I don’t speak German but I wish I could”).

The problem with a person like me reviewing a girl like Gaga is this: no one’s buying a Gaga album for thematic variety or compelling lyrical structure, let’s face it. Or even if they do, the sequencing is designed to minimize distinction between tracks. No one wants to let the beat drop, and she isn’t writing songs necessarily; she’s crafting house opuses, synthpop jams, Meatloaf-meets-disco hits. And that’s just fine! It also means that for her to do anything but that specific BPM she’s addicted to is often mistaken for experimentation; that’s not what it is. That’s… songwriting. No one can blame Gaga for playing it safe, but the novelty of her physical appearance so often overshadows the fact that she has yet to produce a remarkable album – because she isn’t necessarily producing albums yet, with Born This Way her only (bloated) exception. They’re selling on the strength of the singles, but the sequencing has yet to mean anything distinct, and she’s still rewriting Bad Romance roughly once a disk. Now is it cool? Oh yeah, of course it is, you can wander through and point out the bangers left and right, the production is gorgeous and lush and colourful. But it’s all on that aesthetic Rick Ross level of cool, that innocuous level where you’re really only paying attention to the riffs and the production values because you’re afraid to criticize the lyricism or analyze the record for themes and sequencing and so on, the things we properly (reasonably) expect from albums. Is that what Anti-Warholian means? Maybe it’s just Skrillex syndrome (or let’s generalize – marketing), but Gaga has yet to release anything whose track diversity, lyrical chops or sequencing has rendered me anything but dulled by the 5th Judas re-up. I just listened to Born This Way now; I got to track 10 before I moved on to another task. Can you name Born This Way‘s remaining 8 tracks? So we’re left with this – a familiar product, a firmly in-the-pocket update to everything we already knew about Lady Gaga.  She’s not lyrically ambitious (seeeex), I’m not her target audience, and I’ll just keep on quickly checking in until we get something out of her that’s as substantial as the time she puts into her live shows and her artistic aspiration. That said, we know it can happen because her talent demands it, and I think we’re about 3 years away from Gaga’s Bat Out Of Hell (or more excitingly, her Ziggy Stardust) – so if you need me, I’ll be outside the club keeping tabs until then.

B

Originally reviewed right here, November 2013.

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Die Antwoord – Ten$Ion

Ninja’s got a new tattoo: “TEN$ION” right across his stomach to celebrate their new album, matching the colossal “$0$” down his back and the crude lyrics scrawled all down his neck and arms. If it were anyone else I’d be dumbfounded and nonplussed – but I’ve reviewed Die Antwoord before. You can’t question Ninja’s audacity or confidence; this is the man that rapped about scoring a record deal “in the overseas” long before he had one, after all. As a matter of fact, that deal fell through: Interscope Records apparently couldn’t handle the South African duo’s (trio’s?) radical and offensive sense of humour, so Ninja did what any responsible recording artist would do: he dumped one of the largest recording companies on earth and founded his own Zef Recordz. What results is a natural sequel to their debut album, musically updated and gleefully unhinged as ever.

First, a tangential history lesson: I once called Die Antwoord the worst rap-thing I’d ever heard, and there’s a part of me that won’t back away from that assessment. The price of entry to the Zef Side is high as ever, and an exposure to – and lyrical exploration of – $0$ is a must if you’re hoping to find Ten$Ion anything more than goofy, self-indulgent nonsense. Die Antwoord is very very weird (and fun!), yes, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Watkin Tudor Jones has premised his career on radical self-invention (go look up MaxNormal.TV, who once proclaimed himself “Die fokken antwoord”), and his cohort/wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er is no small accessory to his success. Their dedication is nothing to scoff at – name another rapper whose alter-ego is tatted as heavily as Ninja – and the artistic result is a group whose laugh-track is buried just deeply enough to mystify first-time listeners. Die Antwoord’s tri-lingual gangster rap never breaks character, keeping a straight face even when Ninja’s measure of success is being “all up on the interwebs… WORLDWIDE” (and Yo-Landi’s “Rich Bitch” certification is her ability to choose when and when not to answer her phone). In an interior sense they’re completely absurd, and outwardly dead serious – crystallizing their Zef aesthetic into a buffoonish South African kaleidoscope of Western rap imagery, ghetto-fabulous with zero interest in reflecting on how often their machismo ‘accidentally’ undercuts itself. There’s nothing like it out there.

So they’re a satire, and a very dedicated one. That shock value carried their first album to surprising success, and like any shock-group they’ve got to one-up themselves now that we’re used to their antics. Incredibly, they’re up to the task. DJ Hi-Tek might not exist, but his production has sure as heck improved. $0$ was rave-influenced hip-hop, with more than a touch of house (and even rock) – Tens$Ion drops straight into the club, with Ninja smashing through opener “Never Le Nkemise 1” over a dubstep/rave beat (ravestep?), that in turn drops right out of what sounds like a folk choir. He’s completely comfortable as Ninja now, and you can hear it: he shouts and whines, he mimes EMF and name-drops Neill Blomkamp, he’s “gangster #1” and can afford a gun now (or claims to). As a group that subsists entirely on musical energy, it’s their ideal opener; if nothing else, dubstep whips up a crowd real nicely (and is just played out enough to merit Die Antwoord’s attention). It’s more or less rave beats from there on, and Die Antwoord profits greatly from the narrowed musical direction. For those worried that fan-favourite Yo-Landi would be downplayed, she dominates single “I Fink U Freeky” with a rap style that’s enormously improved in the two years since $0$: like Ninja, she’s noticeably more confident, alternately shouting and cooing and meowing(?) her way through the track – whenever she isn’t deadpanning the chorus. Rest assured, she’s still got a voice like a demented care-bear or a clubbing chipmunk (yes it’s real, and she ownsFatty Boom Boom”), and it’s still the perfect accompaniment to Ninja’s nasal, staccato flow. Yo-landi’s successfully gone from seeming like an accessory on $0$ to co-conspirator on Ten$Ion, and it couldn’t be a more entertaining effort for it. They’re both still rapping in a head-spinning combo of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, and they still sound like nothing you’ve heard before – only now the effort’s more balanced. Remarkably, Die Antwoord’s matured.

That said, we know Die Antwoord by now, and any band driven by the cult of personality needs to develop those personalities in order to succeed. Their trademark humour is still in check (check their videos), though downplayed from the days of Ninja bragging about (failing at) scoring with girls and “Beat Boy”’s 8-minute odyssey into supremely hallucinogenic, hermaphroditic sex (lyrics here). Lyrically, Ten$Ion’s more focused, and only suffers slightly for it; a lot of this album actually is gangster rap, inevitably tempered by Die Antwoord’s general absurdity (which never fails to disarm their imagery). New for Ten$Ion is an increased interest in pop-culture references that really sets it apart from its predecessor: everyone from Ludacris to Mike Tyson to Die Hard’s John McClane gets a chance at the wheel here, and it’s hilarious to hear Ninja and Yo-Landi turn western rap culture on its head, time after time. Of course they’re playing around when Ninja says he only likes girls that “let [him] stick [his] penis in their bum” or his wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er tells you she’s “so famous that the cops won’t touch [her]” – though he’s totally not lying when he tells of getting caught watching porn on his phone (by his mom). Even the three straightforward hype-tracks manage to keep things interesting with “Hey Sexys”’s brief political angle and heavy percussive beat, “Baby’s On Fire”’s references to Mr. T and Apocalypse Now, and “U Make A Ninja Wanna Fuck”’s general sarcasm (and thematic response to “She Makes Me A Killer”). Sure, at least one of the two skits is intensely annoying and DJ Hi-Tek’s solo track is violently homophobic (and constructed entirely out of Mike Tyson quotations), but when you hit “So What?” and hear Die Antwoord rap about their collective kid, Sixteen Jones, it’s hard not to feel a little emotional twinge – and that’s an impressive feat for the band that once taunted you with “Jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar” (you don’t want to know).

So what can we make of sophomore Die Antwoord? Ten$Ion’s a lot more straightforward than its predecessor, the humour is less overt, and at 38 minutes it flirts with over-brevity. That said, it’s more focused musically: the production is as tight as their manic aesthetic will allow, Ninja and Yo-Landi have noticeably progressed as rappers (and actors), and they’ve finally come to the realization that no one wants two 8-minute Zef ballads in a row. For all that, they’ve retained their utterly unique stage presence, and channelled their newfound artistic independence into capping the album with the aggressive “Fok Julle Naaiers” and the absurdly offensive “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”. Is this a sign that Die Antwoord’s going to stretch their weirdness to an even darker, tenuously-acceptable extent on their next album? I sure hope so. For now we have the thoroughly comfortable and technically improved sugar-rush of Ten$Ion to tide us over.

Waddy Jones and Yolandi Visser are committed to this project, and that takes an incredible amount of nerve. I don’t know if they’ve pushed Die Antwoord as far as it can go, but I can’t help but root for their queer, underdog sort of success. This stuff is as novel as they come, so as they say on “Fatty Boom Boom”:

“If you haven’t got it by now…” “Then you nevah gonna get it”

8.0

Published right here, January 2012

A moment with Transylvanilla:

That video up there, ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’, has some pretty nasty language in it. It’s got some pretty homophobic, rape-culture proliferating language in it. DJ Hi-Tek’s shocking monologue at the end of that video (isolated on Ten$Ion as the eminently skippable “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”) is taken, almost verbatim, from a very famous Mike Tyson outburst you can view here. Absolutely there’s an artistic statement being made, likely there is also a comedic statement being made regarding masculinity; I’m not here to critique or resolve those artistic issues – I’m here to tell you how I think the album sounds. Die Antwoord, artistically, has every right to make these sorts of statements, and I’m not under the impression that they’re in malicious bad taste (actively promoting bigotry). I’m also not under the impression that Hi-Tek actually exists. But that’s neither here nor there.

The point is, Transylvanilla (that is, Me) unequivocally supports Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, and other generally Common Sense Good Things. The art I inspect here won’t always support those same aims, and I’ll try to let you know when I catch a particularly egregious example (thankfully, bigotry has a way of dragging quality down with it). That said, I won’t stop looking into it, or anything else – that’s what I’m here for.

Just thought you should know.

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