Dark summer pop: It's a sound of the times

Critical Eye

August 27, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,[Sun Pop Music Critic]

As the weather cools and the kids go back to school, memories of summer linger. The ubiquitous smashes blaring from radios, pumping in clubs and downloaded onto iPods helped define those months when we were on vacation -- chilling, wilding out, having a grand ol' time.

But overall, there was a starker, sometimes-darker quality to the standout hits of summer 2006. This sonic heaviness suggests that pop music, the window to that surreal, rainbow-colored place where our troubles go poof!, may be subconsciously absorbing the weight of such worldly woes as high prices at the gas pumps, new conflict in the Mideast and an old war in Iraq.

Granted, there were dance hits bordering on inanity that perfectly suited the blisteringly hot days and nights, namely "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira, "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado and "Temperature" by Sean Paul. All were Top 10 hits on Billboard's Top 100 for most of the summer.

But even the beats on those cuts boomed harder than the biggest hits of last summer: Mariah Carey's melodramatic ballad "We Belong Together" and Rihanna's dancehall-pop confection "Pon De Replay." Two smashes especially stood out in the last three months -- Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Rick Ross' "Hustlin'" were atypical summer hits.

The former, a slightly spooky international smash, bounces on a rubbery bass line backed by detached strings and harmonies. The cut rocketed to No. 2 on Billboard's Top 100 charts, staying there for nearly two months. Ross' song -- which propelled his debut, Port of Miami, to No. 1 on Billboard's pop album charts this month -- rolls on a beat that "has the force of a train," says Alex Wagner, executive editor of Fader magazine. "The song is like a vortex that sucks you in."

Lyrically, both songs seem to capture sentiments of today's turbulent socioeconomic climate. In his church-honed, classic-soul vocal style, Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo takes an unconventional look at mental distress: I remember when I lost my mind / There was something so pleasant about that place / Even your emotions have an echo in so much space ... Yeah I was out of touch / But it wasn't because I didn't know enough / I just knew too much. Danger Mouse, the producing half of Gnarls Barkley, perfectly backs Cee-Lo's vocals with the spare arrangement. The mid-tempo hit caught fire at pop, urban and alternative stations. " 'Crazy' had a really sad undertone to it," Wagner says. "It sounds more like a winter song. But that soul hook resonated with many people. It's a weird, sad time in the world. The sonically sad elements registered with people's heartstrings."

Although Ross' hit extols a life in the drug trade, the chorus ("Everyday I'm Hustlin'") is repeated like a mantra, strangely articulating the feelings of those working in a shaky job market.

" 'Crazy' and especially 'Hustlin" are like reflections of the fact that things aren't that great," says spoken-word artist Amanda Diva, host of Breakfast at Diva's, a hip-hop show on Sirius Satellite Radio. "Some moroseness is going to come through the music -- if not lyrically, then sonically."

Some consider such musical "heaviness" to be progressive for pop.

"We've seen a change in what the consumer wants to hear," says Jimmy Rosemond, CEO of Czar Entertainment, a New York-based management firm that represents rappers the Game and Too Short and the hip-hop vocalist Akon. "Every element of hip-hop was in the songs of this summer. Shakira had Wyclef Jean producing; Nelly Furtado had Timbaland, one of the best hip-hop producers out there; Gnarls Barkley has Cee-Lo, who was with ('90s Southern rap group) Goodie Mob. And half of Christina Aguilera's new album was produced by DJ Premier, another one of the best hip-hop producers out there. The basic element of all those hot songs of the summer was hip-hop, and that shows how much [the genre] has grown."

Hip-hop as pop is certainly nothing new. But it's interesting to note the new musical marriages between previously fluffy pop stars such as Furtado and Aguilera and gritty hip-hop beat-makers. "I see a better, less congested quality coming back to pop records," Rosemond says. "I'm hoping the summer hits is the start of some consistency. People want to hear some different records. It can be from Nelly Furtado, Gnarls Barkley, Rick Ross, whoever."

Maybe the lyrics will catch up with the pointedness of the beats.

"The tone of music this summer was harder, and that was a nice change," Diva says. "At some point, though, the lyrics will catch up with the essence of the tone and reflect even more of what we're going through. I hope."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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