How is it possible? It's been two months since the last Dan Gibson Pop Culture Minute! I know that so many of you have been flooding Jordan with cards and letters demanding the return of the DGPCM, and I appreciate every single one. Somehow, like Ringo Starr, I will reply to each and every one of you someday. For some reason, it seems like people have something else on their mind lately other than the world of music, film and television, but as the holiday season approaches, the most exciting time of the year for nerds approaches as well. Every other Thursday, you should be able to expect another vaguely useful recap of what's going on in the world of irrelevancy.
When music fans talk about R&B (rhythm and blues, in case you were wondering, although these days, the term basically means urban music with singing, not rapping), inevitably someone will say that the genre hasn't been the same since the glory days of the 1960's and the early 1970's. Between the Motown sound from Detroit and the southern influence of the Stax label, undoubtedly some of America's best music was made during that era. Unfortunately, living up to the music of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding is a standard slightly too high. While the music business has moved on, portions of the white audience find themselves perplexed by the more urban leanings of the Akons and R. Kellys of the R&B world. I personally still find myself excited for every heavily vocodered T-Pain song (Thr33 Ringz, in stores November 11th!), but understandably, that sort of thing might not be for everyone. This year, however, if you choose to ignore contemporary R&B, you're missing out on at least two of the year's best albums.
Erykah Badu barely fits within any genre, including R&B, but where else would you file her music? The producers are ostensibly from the hip-hop world, although mostly staying on the fringes, and while Badu's voice most immediately recalls Billie Holiday, she's distinctively singing soul. I mean, what else would you call it? New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War from earlier this year is nearly as an album is nearly as difficult to decipher as its title, but the struggle to work your way as a listener through Badu's nearly unlimited ambition is worth it, especially considering she, unlike most, actually has something to say. Over the course of the album itself, there's nothing that resembles a single, and occasionally there are moments that barely resemble songs, but someone at her label must have been a convincing beggar, so Badu threw in “Honey” as a bonus track.
Be forewarned: if you're expecting the rest of the album to sound like the above track, you'll be disappointed, but if you want to hear an album – an actual album, more Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer than a string on tracks only related by their singer -- that reflects the chaos and beauty of our times, you need to get yourself a copy of New Amerykah Part One.
Sometimes, however, it feels good not to have to work so hard listening to music. Part of the appeal of early Motown is that it sounds so effortless, as if these musicians and songwriters were working off the top of the collective heads. Clearly that wasn't the case, but a track like the Temptations' “My Girl” sounds like summertime and America, floating along without a real care, crushing on some girl talking about sunshine and flowers while time passes by. Later, as life and the world became more complicated by the minute, Motown's music changed (for good reason), but the sort of R&B that's instantly enjoyable to listen to without feeling like you might need to take a bath in Purell afterwards has returned with Ne-Yo's third album, Year of the Gentleman.
The album is clearly, especially in the case of the single “Miss Independent”, directed towards the ladies, but there's something special about this disc that should appeal to nearly anyone. The music itself is a model of modern production, but in this case, the beats and luscious synths are a frame for the lyrics while move from seduction with style, seduction with longing, and post-seduction heartache. The 70's soul tribute act that plays weekly at a bar here in Phoenix describes their music as being for “the grown and sexy”, and unlike some of his peers who end up being just boring and/or vulgar (I'm looking at you, Chris Brown and Usher), Ne-Yo pulls it off with a Michael Jackson like (I'm thinking Off the Wall or Thriller here, despite how difficult it is to remember those days now) ear for melody. If you or anyone you know has ever expressed an interest in R&B, you should just buy a stack of Ne-Yo discs for Christmas and use them as stocking stuffers. Whether the disc will hold up over time is impossible to say, but for months, it might end up being the only thing you want to hear coming out of your stereo.
In two weeks, a look at the upcoming winter film release schedule, a discussion of the release of Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy as harbinger of the apocalypse and possibly a story about the Jonas Brothers and their flatulent dog.