January 13, 2010

Essay Question: What Will Michael Jackson's Legacy Be?

Like many of you, I've done a lot of thinking and talking about Michael Jackson these last few days, and the question I keep returning to is, what will his legacy be? Of course, it's too early to know for sure, but it's never too early to start speculating, if speculating on the legacy of dead pop stars is the kind of thing you're into. It's certainly the kind of thing I think and talk about anyway.

So I'm tossing it out to you guys, and I hope some of you will answer: How will Michael Jackson be remembered, as a great artist or as a freak? Will future generations enjoy or even remember the man's amazing artwork -- the groundbreaking "Thriller" video, the wedding-reception staple "Billie Jean" (my vote for the best bass line of the '80s, if not all time) and, of course, the Moonwalk -- or focus instead on the man's bizarre personal life -- the changes in appearance, the financial problems, and, of course, the Peter Pan syndrome/sleepovers with kids/child-molestation allegations?

Now, in his time of dying, most of the fan and media attention seems to be on his artwork, as perhaps it should be, out of respect for his passing. But in the 18 years (!!!) between, let's be honest, his last relevant single, "Black or White," and his surprising death, the overwhelming majority of that attention was on everything BUT his music and performances, perhaps as it should have been, considering his incredible shrinking nose and his, ahem, suspicious behavior around other people's children, even if nothing criminal was ever proven.

Face it: The man spent the last THIRD of his life not as a thrilling entertainer, but as a tabloid journalist's wet dream. And what a dream he was! As big as he was as a pop star, I would argue he was even bigger as a supermarket headline. The biggest in the world, I would argue. Would anyone dare disagree?

Rhetorical questions (which I'm going to answer): If he were still alive, would we be buying or even listening to his music so voraciously? (Of course not.) If he were still alive, would we still be calling him "Wacko Jacko"? (Well...)

So, what will Michael Jackson's legacy be? In writing this, I guess I've found my answer. My prediction is this: Sadly (or not, depending on how strongly you believe in his innocence), what people will remember is the freakshow. After all, it's what we've done for that other deposed king, Elvis Presley. I never sat down and listened to Elvis' (surprisingly timeless) music till my late '20s, beyond a handful of hits, yet I thought I knew everything about it, or at least him: Skinny Elvis, Fat Elvis, bad beach movies, the comeback special, peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, shooting TVs, and dying on a toilet. The artwork didn't remain -- unless you're talking the black velvet variety -- but the trivia sure did. And Michael's is even weirder.

At the moment, we're playing "The Man in the Mirror." But will we still, in 18 years? Will our children play it? Hmm...

Surely, only time will tell. But until that time, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Seriously. Comment away!

Thanks for reading!

Worst Movie of 2009

A public service announcement from the desk of Matthew A. Webber, esq.:

Dear friends,

I implore, beseech, cajole (and etc.) you and everyone you hold dear to stay as far away as possible, if not farther, from "Year One," a so-called "comedic" motion picture currently in theaters and starring Jack Black and Michael Cera as themselves.

As the second feature of a Sunday evening double feature (i.e., the movie you walked into without paying for), this talking picture is a mindless, yet harmless, divertissement, practically guaranteed to keep your fun-seeking mind off any number of un-fun real-world concerns such as the economy, unrest in Iran, and the deaths of Michael Jackson and that one informercial dude, in addition to your own more personal disappointment at being a less successful author than Lauren Conrad.

But as an entertainment product on which to spend, waste, blow (and etc.) your hard-earned and rapidly devaluing currency, this movie is, frankly, a coil of cornfed crap. It is guaranteed by yours truly to keep your fun-seeking mind from having any fun at all for the duration of its 90-minute run time.

I'm giddy, delirious, enraptured (and etc.) I saw this movie for free, because all I wasted was time.

In conclusion, I hope this missive finds you well! I also hope -- nay, pray -- that my impassioned words can save at least one of you, my dear friends, from killing your brain with this particular poisonous mushroom.

Dance. Rush the speakers that boom. Do ANYTHING in this solar system other than see "Year One."

Thank you for your time.

The end.

April 18, 2009

Dear Axl

The latest in my series of never-ending essays (which always leave me feeling like I haven't said enough), this is sort of a review of "Chinese Democracy," but more of a review of my relationship to music.

In summary, Guns N' Roses rocks, even when the band is an Axl Rose solo project. And I only get wordier the older I get.

* * *

Dear Axl

Essay by Matthew Webber

Dear Axl,

Your music is so awesome I can taste it in the air. I love your tapes. I play them loud. When I’m angry, they help me. It’s like you understand. And even when I’m sad and lonely and pensive(?), I listen to your music, especially your ballads, and it’s like you’re inside of me, screaming out and listening. I need your music now, and I’ll need it forever. I like it, I love it, I want it, I need it. I can’t imagine life without you and your gift. When girls I like don’t like me back, the times when I’m ugly and stupid and young, when everything ahead of me will surely be a failure, since everything behind me has already failed, and everything else is unspeakable, ineffable(?) – your music speaks out and explains, on repeat. Consoled, understood, even exorcized, really – I play your songs over and over again. I’m just about to graduate and grow into the world, and I can’t wait to hear what you’ll think about that. What will you write, will you sing, will you scream? What will it sound like? Who will we be? Hurry up, Axl, and make some new music. Not just for me, but also for the world, since a world without you is a world without me. I’ll probably never send this, so you’ll probably never read this, but time, all at once, seems fleeting, yet infinite. I think I can hear your new album already. It sounds like an element, not yet discovered. It sounds like a mythical creature, but real. And then it’s gone. If it was ever there. So get in the studio! Crank out some tunes! Don’t make me wait till I’m 30 to know them.

Matthew Webber (1996)

*

Dear Axl,

Thank you so much for finally releasing the new Guns N’ Roses album, "Chinese Democracy," last year, seventeen years after your band’s last proper studio albums, "Use Your Illusion I" and "II," fifteen years after your band’s stopgap covers album, "The Spaghetti Incident," and nine years after your band’s stopgap live album, "Live Era ‘87-‘93." Thank you for letting me listen to it. Finally! It feels like I’ve waited my whole life to hear it! Anyway, I have some questions for you: How did those albums sell so many copies? Weren’t there, like, MySpace and iTunes back then? Is it true that your videos got played on MTV? Was Slash from Guitar Hero actually in your band? Have you seen my new movie, "The Secret Life of Bees" yet? My co-star Queen Latifah used to rap; I bet you knew that. Anyway, I hope you’re well. Thanks again for "Chinese Democracy"!

Dakota Fanning

*

Dear Axl,

I flew past Best Buy on November 23, shocked not to see an unruly mob of metalheads (I almost typed meatheads, and really, what’s the difference?), but rather just a smattering of early-morning shoppers, braving the cold for some holiday bargains: plasma TVs (whatever that means), DVDs (is that a band?), and this space-age-looking iPod thing (I think it plays cassettes). Other than a cluster(fuck) of pasty, paunchy soccer dads, most of these people were not in line for you, which rendered the scene, and the world, unrecognizable. Remember when the lines used to wrap around the stores? The parties at midnight to celebrate the albums? The women you (not I) abused because of such rabidity, with everyone frothing, crazed for our bands? Well, I can’t forget; it was everything I hated. Everything spiteful, if not xenophobic. Everything shitty, like life and death itself. But now, a new album, and nobody cares? Corporate rock sucks, and everyone knows this? What the hell happened to you and the world? I wish I was alive to enjoy my vindication.

Kurt Cobain

*

Dear Axl,

It’s cool that the record finally dropped. But yo, I’m dead, and I’m still making records. Plus, we elected a black man first?!?!?! What the fuck too you so long? Goddamn.

Tupac

*

Dear Axl,

It’s me. I’m just checking in. What’s it been, years, since you sent me a message? Hey, it’s cool. I just wanna chat. I miss you, you know? Or at least I miss your music, the things it said, it did, it meant. The things it represented. The way it felt. I still play your tapes. They’re perfect to jog to! They’re perfect for my anger at world all around me. Fear and confusion and, I don’t know, badness. In fact, I should tell you, I’m still the same person, despite my older age and the fact that I’m skinnier, a scared little boy in the body of a man, or at least in the body of junior in college. The world is too big and too scary; you know this. So why you’d have to go and forsake me, you jerk? Why’d you forsake us all, you big asshole? It’s not just me, man. We all wanna hear you. Sorry for the anger, but fuck, man, we need you. Yeah, the world sucks, but it’s like you understood this. You somehow expressed this and made it okay. How’s the new album? You’re working on it, right? I’d like to review it for my underground paper. Don’t make me make yet another bad joke, the one that compares it to democracy in China, wondering which one will happen in my lifetime, if either one happens at all, that is. Diss! Don’t make me hate you for letting me down. Don’t leave us hanging for longer than you have to. Don’t let us down. No, don’t let me down. And hey, write back, when you get a spare moment! After all, I’m still your biggest fan. I’ll never forget how you saved me in high school. I haven’t moved on. I can’t move on. It’s easier to mock you than to deal with myself.

Matthew Webber (2000)

*

Dear Axl,

It looked like a mirage to me, a dream, something fictional. Sitting on a shelf, in a store, to be purchased. My brain was like, what? And my mouth was like, holy! And now my dumb fingers are scribbling to the bone: “'Chinese Democracy?!' Really? No way!” Followed by a string of (expletives deleted). Even in my hands, when I took it to the counter, it didn’t feel real, but fake. Made-up. Heretical. It wasn’t until I got it home, and opened it up, and put it in... and played it once and twice and thrice... and came to know the lyrics and the melodies as memories... as songs my heart was awaiting, forever... exceeded hopes and realized dreams... better than mirages and fictions and fantasies... almost angelic, but no, that’s heretical. Hymns, I guess, you’d call them, right? My ears were like, wow! And my mouth was like (asterisks)! Two months later, I’m still... bemused? But mostly, I’ve accepted its reality as fact. The album exists. In truth. In actuality. There’s nothing to be nonplused about. Right? Nothing requiring magic, or prayer? Nothing requiring divine intervention? I wish I could say I always believed. I wish I could say it and mean it, I mean. And even though I doubted you, I’ve always doubted miracles. Anyway, Axl, your scream is... holy? Your range remains... canonical? The way you make music is... sacred and profane? I totally feel you; I hear your wounds. Please don’t doubt my flattery. Amen.

St. Thomas

*

Dear Axl,

So I copped the album. I had to, right? To hear for myself how badly you’d blown it, how much you overthought and overworked and overmurdered it: a great band’s chemistry, a fan base’s hunger, the whole world’s patience (pardon the pun) to tolerate your douche-itude and wait and wait and wait. (Douchebagosity? Douchebagination? Simple douchebaginess? You tell me.) You think you’re so special, so talented, so tortured. So damn unique in your overreaching brilliance. A self-proclaimed genius, a world-proclaimed recluse, challenging the notion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. What is a song: the performance, or the record? What is a band: the members, or the memory? And what the hell is this, this album you released? What the fuck is this "Chinese Democracy"? Where’s the blues-rock stuff that helped Duff feed his family? Where’s the dumb and easy stuff for crappy bands to imitate? Where are the buzz saws that cut you to the bone, the jet trails that linger as evidence of flight? Where’s that wildcat scream of yours, that feral growl, that snake dance? The panic, the danger, the terror, the guns? Actually, fuck, man, where are the roses? After one listen, I can’t say I hear it: you, Guns N’ Roses, rock ‘n’ roll, music. Noise, I hear. Production. Sterility. But melody? Beauty? Majesty? Greatness? Anything transcendent of short, sorry lives? What a waste of time and money. Not just yours, but mine, all mine. Who’s gonna play this album twice? Who’s gonna buy it, to play it once? Who’s gonna... shit. My iPod’s on repeat. What the fuck is happening? I’m starting to hum? Still no Snakepit, but wow, not bad. Way the fuck better than Velvet Revolver. But still, you shoulda had me play. I totally woulda rocked it. Wanna hit the Chinese buffet with me sometime?

Slash

*

Dear Axl,

The album’s what it is; it’s what it had to be. Your vision. Your truth. Your legacy. Fuck ‘em. It took too long? It’s overproduced? It doesn’t have Slash? What are you, an asshole? No, you’re a genius. They can’t understand. You’re Axl Rose, bitch. And don’t you forget it.

Axl Rose

*

Dear Axl,

I’ve started this letter a dozen different ways, as if you’ll ever read this when you’re Googling yourself, as if you’ll ever know me, or understand, or care. The thing is, Axl, I don’t know myself, and I don’t understand me, much less what I’m writing. But I do care, Axl, beyond all reason, about your music, about all music, about this thing so close to God it’s blasphemous to listen to, to try to sate my appetite for – no, for damnation. I can’t explain it, at least not in words, or else I would’ve done so either here or somewhere else. Lord knows, I’ve tried to. Lord knows, I’ve tried. Forgive me for failing. Father, forgive me. But here I am, trying my hardest. Believe me. I’m 30 years old, and I’m meeker than Jesus, and here I am writing a goddamn epistle, but not about faith or family or love, but no, about music, about Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses. For seventeen years, I waited and wondered – What will it sound like? What will I think? – and now that it’s here – The Album is here! – what can I say to encapsulate this lifetime? Nothing, that’s what. Or at least that’s what I’ve said. To say any more would, like, obfuscate the truth. (I still like my thesaurus, so that hasn’t changed.) A mere five months of listening is nothing but a blip. A dot on a timeline. A page in a biography. I’ve actually listened to Chinese Democracy. I actually own it. It’s sitting on my shelf. I woke up that morning and sped to Best Buy, infusing every moment with meaning and memory, bracing myself for the letdown – but hoping. Don’t be a disaster. Don’t be a disaster. Oh, Axl Rose, reward me, release me. Well? And? So, what do I think? Review it already! Describe it! Prescribe it! I like it, I think, and I might even love it – but what will I think in seventeen years? Will I still need your music, or music at all? I think I will, but of course, I don’t know. All I can do is take it on faith. But Jesus, I hope so, or my life has been a waste. Anyway, thanks? It’s far from a fiasco. And I haven’t even mentioned that voice of yours. Yowzas! Plus, there’s that ballad... those solos... that sheen... Your music is so awesome I can taste it in the air, even today, as ever before. I still play it loudly. It’s what we both want. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, now and forever. Your music is so awesome I can never finish writing...

Matthew Webber (2009)

*

December 08, 2008

"I Love You": The Worst Song Ever

or, Vanilla Ice Sells Out

Essay by Matthew Webber

The lounge is filled with VIPs: producers, managers, label execs... DJs, dancers, eyebrow stylists... and finally, the dream, the great white hope, the rapper/dancer/entertainer/star to whom a nation of eyes will turn, at least those eyes in junior high, and maybe the eyes of concerned mothers everywhere. The star, the white boy, plays his funky music: fourteen deadly, ice-cold tracks, an album of songs that bum rush the speakers. The DJs say, “Damn!” The girlies go crazy. One of the homeboys eats spaghetti with a spoon. Over the pasta, the lounge smells like happiness – fame, money, world domination – as each dope melody flows into the next. Mics get rocked. Chumps get waxed. Juice gets kicked. It’s colder than ever.

The album ends. It sounds like a hit. The V.I.P. posse congratulates itself.

“If rhyme was a drug, we’d sell it by the gram!”

“We’re cooking MCs like a pound of bacon!”

“It flows like a harpoon daily and nightly!”

Vanilla Ice responds with a simple, “Yup, yup.” Then he rises, starts to leave. “Yo, man, let’s get outta here. Word to your–”

“Stop.” A voice, a stranger, emerges from the ether. “Collaborate and listen.” His suit commands the posse’s attention; otherwise, the jackers would’ve jacked him, and how. “The album’s not done. You need one more song.”

The DJ, Deshay, puts his gauge away, but Vanilla keeps his hand on his nine, just in case. The stranger could be full of eight balls, or worse. He might be a chump; he might act ill. “If the situation in which I’ve just found myself does indeed become a problem,” Vanilla thinks, “then, yo, I’ll solve it.” He’s worked too hard at fabricating his past to let some stranger ruin his future. He’ll keep his composure; it’s time to get loose. For now, though, he’ll listen, and that’s all he’ll do. Collaboration seems out of the question.

“All right,” says the Ice Man. “But this better be a hell of a concept. Conducted and formed. Feasible. At least as much as a chemical spill. Basically, will I wanna step with this?”

“What you need is a song called ‘I Love You,’” says the stranger. “For the ladies.”

“I’m poppin’ it the most,” says Vanilla. “You know what I’m sayin’?”

“Um,” says the stranger. The posse laughs.

“I’m hittin’ hard and the girlies goin’ crazy. Vanilla’s on the mic, man, I’m not lazy.”

“Oh, I wasn’t saying that, Mr. Ice. I know you’re not hooked on that ‘S-S-S-Y’! I’m just saying – I’m just suggesting – that instead of rapping about these girlies – I mean, ladies – you sing a song directly to them. A love song. A ballad. You know, like LL Cool J does. And the ladies love that guy! After all, grown women buy albums, too. It’s not just prepubescent boys, even though there are literally millions of them in the Midwest who are gonna buy your album this year and throw it away next year while subsequently denying they’ve ever heard of you, St. Peter-style.”

“Go on, white boy,” says the Ice Man, suddenly all ears, instead of all cheekbones. He stores away the reference to the Gospels for possible inclusion in the liner notes of his sophomore album. “Go.”

“As you surely must know – you can’t be that dumb – you’re gonna get sold as a product, not an artist. You’re gonna fill a niche for millions of kids who want to like songs with rhythmic speaking, but aren’t quite ready for actual, honest-to-goodness rapping. Something about polysyllables scares them. Or maybe it’s the blackness of every other rapper. Not to play the race card, but come on? Vanilla Ice? Wearing the American flag as a jacket? Middle America will devour you like ice cream! The kids are gonna eat you up!

“They’re gonna shit you out, but still. White boys and white girls will enjoy you going down. The kids who don’t know that you jacked ‘Under Pressure’? They’ll just think the beat is dope, because, lets face it, the beat is dope. Queen and David Bowie? Damn. That’s a beat that can’t be ruined, not even by a flow as simple as yours. If anything, your simplicity helps to sell the song, since the kids can more easily memorize the lyrics – and even bust ‘em out at their weddings! You’ll see.”

“What?” says Vanilla, honored, yet skeptical. His fabricated past should’ve rendered him more dangerous.

“No, really. Trust me on this. It’s you and Sir Mix-A-Lot and the Rednex. You’ll see. And Tiffany’s gonna do Playboy. You’ll love it!”

The Ice Man leans back and imagines the future. He’s blinded by the sweat that rolls into his eyes, one of the perils of shaving his eyebrows. All he can see is Debbie Gibson, naked. And Paula Abdul, strung out on drugs. Tiffany? Drowned, and choking on coins, with a mall cop diving in after her body.

The shadowy ghosts of... reality TV? The specter of something called... YouTube? The fear! Marky Mark at the Oscars? A nightmare! Ice-cold night sweats! Holy fuck! At least his friend Hammer will never go away. One more dance-off, for old time’s sake...

Is this what havin’ a roni is like?

The man in the suit continues his pitch, ignoring the terror, the dying star. “So ‘Ice Ice Baby’ – we know that’s a hit. ‘Conducted and formed?’ It’s quite the high concept. It’s the best ‘brand new invention’ in pop culture since the Ninja Turtles. We really oughta hook you up.

“But that’s just the kids. So, what about their parents? More specifically, what about their mothers? What about their grandmothers?

“Vanilla – if I can call you that – a smart businessman diversifies. You need to expand your portfolio of fans. If you want to last – or at least last longer than Another Bad Creation – you need to appeal to everyone, everywhere. Or at least you need to try. So, try it! Hell, you’ve already got your beatboxing track, as if any hip-hop head could ever take you seriously. You’ve already got your reggae jam, as if you’ve ever a) listened to, enjoyed, or been inspired by reggae; b) seen, talked to, or even, before looking it up in the encyclopedia, had foreknowledge of a ‘Rosta Man’; or c) made friends with black people who aren’t on your payroll.

“You’ve got your dance tracks, your sex jams, your skits. You’ve got a bit of everything, or everything that sucks. Clearly, you’re cool with looking like a sellout. So why not sell out one more time? Why not go the sellout distance – like Costner in the sellout corn! – and add this one more, one last, track?

“Add ‘I Love You.’ For the ladies. And also for the kids who’ll laugh at you later, mocking not you, but themselves for ever listening. Give their lives meaning, in contrast to yours. Your songs are bad, Ice, but this song is bad. Don’t just jump the shark...”

“What?”

“...but catch the shark, mount it on a goalpost, and set the new world record in pole vaulting over that shark.”

“What?”

Poof! He’s gone, in a sulfurous flash.

Vanilla Ice grins. He smells collaboration.

Before the posse knows what hurt ‘em (hint: it wasn’t the aforementioned Hammer), Vanilla Ice enlists other sellouts in project: The songwriter looking for her first big break. The saxophone soloist with hungry mouths to feed. The recording engineer whose lifelong dream is to splice a G-rated phone-sex conversation into the breakdown of a pop song. And every other enabler who hears this track, surely knows how rancid it is, but places it on the To the Extreme album anyway in perhaps the most futile bid for crossover appeal – or appealingness in any form – in the history of recorded sound.

And finally – finally! – the Iceman cometh: cooing, whispering, coughing up a hairball... less like a rapper than a non-native-English speaker, less like a loverman than a heavy breather, less like LL Cool J in the bedroom than Heavy D at the top of a flight of stairs.

Record it. Mix it. Slap it on the album. Sell it to millions of kids... like me.

Burn out, die, and fall to earth.

Vanilla Ice’s “I Love You” is a song bereft: of melody, sincerity, virtuosity, or anything else that makes music musical. Crass, unlistenable, unintentionally hilarious, “I Love You” is, simply, a song bereft. Calling it cheesy insults America’s dairy industry. Calling it schmaltzy demeans yourself, for lacking a stronger, more memorable word. Really, it isn’t a song at all, except when you’re proclaiming it the worst song ever.

I hate you, “I Love You,” and your saxophonist, too.

April 07, 2008

Goodwill Hunting: MC Hammer

Uh-oh! Here Comes the Hammer Apologia

Essay by Matthew Webber

Best. Album. Ever. (The 1990 Version)

Although I had crushes on several cute classmates, in 1990, I loved three people: MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Paula Abdul. (Sure, I loved my family, too, but what kid in middle school listens to his family?) I only regret this last obsession. The Hammer and the Iceman, they’re still at least listenable, as they never dueted with a scatting cartoon cat. They also had nothing to do with Clay Aiken. Admittedly, however, to the Idol judge’s credit, she never shaved designs in her sideburns or eyebrows. (What boy in middle school didn’t want that hairstyle?) But I definitely don’t want to marry her anymore. I’m also over Elizabeth Berkley.

Of the three, the Hammer was probably my favorite. Not only was Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em one of the first albums I ever bought with my own money, but a poster of MC Hammer was one of the first non-baseball posters I ever hung in my room. Keep in mind, at the time, I was only eleven, and I had to ask permission first. (Also keep in mind, I still have that poster.)

But MC Hammer was worth the risk. Of what? I’m not sure, but I feared my mom’s response, since any rap at all back then was rumored to be dangerous. Even a clean rap like “U Can’t Touch This” – which could’ve been a reference to his penis, I suppose – was thought to incite bad behavior in the youth, behavior like dancing and thinking of London.

I was still naive enough to hope for such corruption, for anything badder than skipping my homework, for something as illicit as playing music loudly. Thus, I admired my tape and my poster, taking tiptoed baby steps towards juvenile delinquency, or at least towards a life filled with music that was mine, music my parents simply didn’t get.

MC Hammer spoke to me, and what he said was, “We got to pray.” Clearly, this was a dangerous message. You better believe I followed it nightly. After all, what would he want me to do?

Today, I know the gospel truth: The guy’s about as scary as Neil Patrick Harris, especially in contrast to the rappers who eclipsed him, rappers who rapped about killing each other, rappers who (allegedly) lived out their lyrics. I learned this fact about two years later. Snoop and Dre – now those guys were scary!

All throughout high school, I mocked my former favorite – now known as “Hammer,” without the “MC” – for rapping like a dude in parachute pants, instead of like a dude in pajama pants and shackles. Basically, I thought his music was wack, mostly because of his lyrical content. Plus, he danced, which made him not worth listening to. Why was he dancing – to distract us from his lameness? You didn’t see Tupac doing the Running Man! (Not that I liked Tupac either yet, but still.)

To Hammer’s credit, you didn’t see him dying. I guess that makes them even.

The Hammer Apologia

The time for a Hammer reappraisal is due. Actually, I feel it’s long overdue. Thus, here comes the Hammer apologia. Sure, nostalgia plays a part, as well as the cachet I’ll earn for being a contrarian – for going against the critical grain, for swimming against the critical tide, for spitting into the critical wind, etc., etc, etc. – but no, I’m serious: He’s worth another listen.

Has anyone taken him seriously recently? If they did it in print, I can’t recall. Again, he danced. His raps were clean. His beats seem quaint, if not outdated. Basically, the man’s a joke. The same things I said back in 1993, when I was a freshman who thought he knew everything, are still being said by people who should know better.

This critical consensus belittles MC Hammer, which frankly, I think he doesn’t deserve, and I think this more strongly than simple nostalgia (which, I admit, afflicts me quite acutely).

Now, I’m not saying the man’s a genius. I’m just saying he’s not that bad.

Compare him to his peers from the era, for starters. The great Sir Mix-A-Lot? Wreckx-N-Effect? It’s not that I’ve forgotten the words to their hits, or that I won’t dance when I hear them at a wedding, it’s just that, come on, they’re all about ass!

Mix-A-Lot claims that his song is empowering, and true, there’s some merit in his praise of black women, especially in contrast to the bimbos on Cosmo. It’s worth an exploration in a cultural studies thesis. And true, good ol’ “Rump Shaker” can teach the kids geography, at least it terms of body parts that roughly equal Delaware.

But no one would dare to proclaim these songs as timeless, on par with other wedding songs like “At Last” and “Unchained Melody,” and every other wedding song that you don't mind hearing elsewhere.

Hammer’s positivity remains slightly corny, but twenty years later, it isn’t so embarrassing. (His deep album cut “She’s Soft and Wet,” however, is.) When I hear him at a wedding, he doesn’t make me cringe, beneath my ironic, guilty-pleasure mask.

His two biggest hits, “U Can’t Touch This” and “Pray,” remain more respectable, if not more danceable, than anything out of the Kris Kross katalog.

He doesn’t bear the stigma of misappropriation, of putting on a culture like a star-spangled suit, of faking a background of inner-city poverty. In other words, he’s more credible than my boy Vanilla Ice.

He makes me dance, without the baggage. Without the uncomfortable glances towards grandma.

This was the start of the nineties, people. This was what he was competing against, at least in the realm of top-forty radio. You’ve got to keep these things in context.

Further, if rappers are supposed to keep it real, then Hammer seems as real to me as hip-hop ever gets. The man, after all, was not a gangster; to rap like a gangster would’ve been disingenuous. (Not that this stops other rappers from trying. Not that this stopped him from doing it later.)

The man was a churchgoing, suit-wearing gentleman; thus, he rapped about legal pursuits: praying, dancing, the kids, etc. When he did mention crime, it was always to condemn it, as well as to encourage us to do our best to stop it.

Except for the one time I stole a pack of gum, I tried to follow the Hammer’s advice. “Help the Children.” Sure. Why not? I thought I was helping by rapping along.

So did millions of other kids. And that’s the real problem, the reason he’s a joke: Most of his fans weren’t old enough to drive. He shared a target audience with Paula Abdul.

And even though he gave us all that first sweet taste of rap, long before Biggie and other rap giants, he never got credit for blowing our minds. Sure, we’d hear hip-hop eventually, inevitably, but the simple fact remains that we discovered it through him, we dumb, suburban, mall-shopping kids, me and my friends and gazillions of others.

He might not have inspired the rappers who came after him – I’ve never heard him cited as an influence anyway – but I know he inspired at least one little kid. He inspired me to open my ears, to give his genre, hip-hop, a chance – and maybe even just to give music a chance. I bought his album, I bought his poster, and I’ve identified myself as a music fan ever since.

He did what his rapping peers didn’t do (at least not until I discovered them much later): He let me relate to him. He made me care. He became an artist I could idolize – and love.

My musical obsession started with him.

But even if yours began with someone else, the Hammer, I believe, remains too legit to quit.

My first favorite album deserves another chance. It’s soulful, introspective, and danceable at weddings. It has that rare mix of intelligence and fun. (The fact that it reminds me of my youth doesn’t hurt.) Listening to it again bears this out. If you’ve got a copy lying around, you really ought to try it.

MC Hammer is a true pioneer, and that is a beat, uh, you can’t touch.

Bonus Track: The Song Title Sentence Game

In a bit of serendipity that’s amazed me for two decades, the following three consecutive song titles on Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em form a complete sentence:

Yo!! Sweetness
Help the Children
On Your Face

It doesn’t get any better than that. It just doesn’t.

March 30, 2008

Goodwill Hunting: Empire Records

The Unified Theory of Empire Records

Review by Matthew Webber

One can suspect that a movie’s gonna suck if the soundtrack gets mentioned more often than the story – especially when that soundtrack is a showcase for the Ape Hangers.

Empire Records kinda sucks.

I saw it once and promptly forgot it, other than a vague recollection of boredom, and a lingering confusion over Joey Lauren Adams, who sounded less squeaky than she did in Chasing Amy, probably because she was now Renee Zellweger. Clearly, I didn’t see it again, or else I would’ve made this realization sooner. But back when I saw it, in 1995, the future Oscar winner was another token blonde, the poor grunge-rock fan’s Joey Lauren Adams. Otherwise, the film was utterly unmemorable. Kinda like the Ape Hangers’ music. And existence.

I couldn’t even recall the soundtrack.

But that’s what they’re selling you, unabashedly, on the box, whose unintended comedy was well worth my two dollars. (Eh, why not? I love the nineties.) “They’re selling music but not selling out,” says the Empire Records tagline on the front. “A killer soundtrack,” says the illustrious Skip Sheffield of the heralded Boca Raton News on the back. “Woof! I’m wearing headphones! Woof!” says the dog on the front.

Even the characters join in the fun, as their dialogue gets turned into advertising copy. To wit:

The director of Pump Up the Volume cranks it up another notch with this comedy about an eventful day in the lives of the young slackers, doers and dreams who work at a bustling store called Empire Records.

“This music is the glue of the world,” one of Empire’s clerks says. “It holds it all together.” Gin Blossoms, the Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Evan Dando, Better Than Ezra and more hot alternative rock underscores virtually every scene.


It’s not just a movie, it’s the Lollapalooza side stage!

When I took it home and watched it, I didn’t find it horrible. I simply found it hackneyed and shoddily constructed. It’s more like the dried-up glue stick of the world.

Basically, the characters – these slacking, dreaming clerks – reenact their favorite songs. Everyone comes to work as they are, to kind of do work but mostly just to talk. They’re losers, baby, so why don’t you support them? Also, Liv Tyler pouts a lot. Hot!

But then – oh no! – the boss hatches a bogus scheme to sell the store – thus, selling out – to the MegaCorporateDoucheBag record-store chain, I think. A wrist-cutting punk girl shaves her pretty head. A washed-up pop star has sex on a copy machine. A dude in a black turtleneck has to rob the store in order to save it. Or something. It’s not really that important, yo. Not when you’ve got Edwyn Collins on the soundtrack!

So they slack and they dream and they finally, like, do, to keep their store independent (and pricy). They fight the power of an evil corporation! They rage against the consolidation machine! It’s one small step for readers of Spin, one giant leap for future readers of Pitchfork!

Good thing they didn’t have file sharing yet. That would’ve been just a little too ironic.

God, this film is totally nineties. So am I – and I’m totally underwhelmed, now that I’ve seen it too recently to forget it. Everything about it belabors the point. Music: good. Money: bad. Moneyed music: the evil empire. Talk amongst yourselves.

It’s just like Clerks, but with crappier cinematography. Reality Bites, but made for the kids! A Sonic Youth B-side, as covered by Bush!

Plus, it’s little more than an ad for its soundtrack – available now on A&M Records! – thereby undermining its heavy-handed premise.

Again, it's not horrible, just a faded flannel flashback.

* * *

“But, Matt,” you say, when you’re feeling nostalgic, all of you guys who remember Sponge. “What nineties classics would you recommend instead?” Well, that depends on what you miss.

So-so films with dynamite soundtracks? Singles. (Both of which annihilate Empire Records.)

Liv Tyler’s navel? Aerosmith videos. (As mentioned on the back of the Empire Records box.)

Ethan Embry’s cutesy mugging? Can’t Hardly Wait.

Bald chicks? Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” video.

Ape Hangers? Man, I can’t even tell you.

March 27, 2008

Goodwill Hunting: Snoop Doggy Dogg

Better Living Through Snoop Doggy Dogg:
A Symphony in Four Movements

Essay by Matthew Webber

I. G Funk Intro

"I listen to Snoop for vicarious living. I’m never gonna slap a ho."

My coworkers thought this quote was hilarious. They looked at me sitting there – bespectacled, be-sweatered, my skin as white as Snow (the rapper) – and lost their shit over what I’d just said. One of the reporters jotted it down; it later was printed in a book of random newsroom quotes. Thus, if they remember me at all, it’s for this. ("Webber? Oh yeah. The whitest kid ever.") I’m sure this was the moment when they all stopped laughing with me.

"Webber wants to slap a ho?"

My cheeks turned the color of blood. And Bloods. My eyes were already the color of Crips. "Well, not really..." I started.

They finished. "Webber wants to slap a ho?"

My protest was futile. The damage was done. My quote was removed from its context, forever. I’d branded myself as a wannabe pimp, or at least as a wannabe pimp/rapper/actor, no matter how much or how little I’d meant it. Everyone there in the office knew the truth: I envied Snoop’s facility with ho-slapping rhymes. Hell, we all knew it: I even envied Snoop. Sure, he’s rich, with a harem of groupies, but guys my age and temperament should worship better heroes. Like, say, Chris Kirkpatrick, for bringing obscurity back. Or maybe the Edge, because he’s named the Edge. And don’t forget Jesus, the leader of the Carpenters, the reason for the season of contract-fulfilling Christmas albums.

But no, I said it. And yes, I meant it: "I listen to Snoop for vicarious living."

Wistfully, mournfully, and most of all tragically: "I’m never gonna slap a ho."

And also this, which is probably worse, the sentence that preceded the aforementioned couplet:

"I liked Snoop better when he rapped about killing people."

Which means, via Snoop, I’m a pimp/accused murderer. Gleefully dangerous, armed and preposterous, I am the surprise in your cereal box. A children’s toy with lead-based paint. A choking hazard for kids without teeth.

Or at least I pretend, as I drive to my new office job, rapping along to Snoop Doggy Dogg. It wakes me up, like a cup of black coffee. It also makes me look like a dork. Especially when I gesticulate wildly. Or really, just when I breathe. Ya heard?

Deep inside, I know the truth. Despite how dope I’d like to be, my former coworkers think I’m a dope. And it’s 1-8-7 on their misreported slop. Despite my bravado, I know they’re right. I know I’m too ensconced in my bland, suburban lifestyle. I know I’m too timid to ever escape. I know I’m as lame as lameness itself, as wack as the author of To The Extreme. White, unoppressed, and respectful of authority, I’m pretty much Death Row’s target consumer. I know this. I accept this. I’ll never live it down. I’m about as scary as the nightlight in your bathroom.

And yet, this music still amuses me. Plainly and simply, this music entertains me. Despite or because of who I am. Despite or because of what I look like. Despite my lack of guns, and chronic, and any other entries from the gangsta-rap index, as found in the back of my gangsta-rap book, one of many projects on my to-be-written shelf.

Gangsta rap? I love that shit.

I realize it’s all just a silly, childish fantasy. Much of Snoop’s genre is nothing more than fiction, except for the songs that predicted Tupac’s death – except that Tupac remains alive, so all of his music thus remains fictional. Otherwise, the music is just a big show. At least that’s how I chose to listen to the stuff, the aural equivalent of The Godfather II, straight outta film and into my headphones.

Gangsta rap is harder than life.

My age and my background have surely played a part, as Doggystyle dropped in my freshman year of high school, and I heard it every day on the bus and in the hallways, from other people’s headphones and the mouths that rapped along. This music was the soundtrack to 1993, along with grunge rock and the massive Garth Brooks. All of these sounds, I love them today, whether or not I loved them then, especially when I’m feeling nostalgic. Impending reunions will do that to a guy. (Eleven years? We’re kinda slow.)

I listen to Snoop for vicarious living.

And just for the record, I’ll never slap a ho.

There’s no such drama in the MKE.

And funnily enough, when I dropped my witty gem, I didn’t even listen to Snoop Doggy Dogg.

What follows is the story of when I started listening.

II. Doggy Dogg World

People forget this, but Snoop Dogg was huge. Not as big as Garth Brooks’ hat, but much more engorged than Chris Cornell’s pipes. Sure, he’s still famous for coaching peewee football, and dropping lame verses on R&B remixes, and smoking weed, quitting weed, smoking weed, etc., but Doggystyle-era Snoop Dogg was everywhere. His verses on The Chronic were still blowing minds. His own hit videos, "Who Am I (What’s My Name)?" and "Gin and Juice," were looped on MTV and the backs of my eyelids. Like Elvis, he appeared to me in donut shops and burger joints, and anywhere else where kids my age wore headphones.

Wherever aspiring rappers were gathered, Snoop Dogg was there in voice and personality – or at least in the halls of McCluer Senior High School. The seniors wore shirts that read, "Comets in the Hizzouse!" a decade before "fo shizzle, my nizzle." Black kids and white kids were quoting "Deez Nuuuts." Ferguson, Missouri, was a suburb of Los Angeles, instead of St. Louis, the Gateway to the West Side. Or rather, the "West Siiide!!!" which we shouted as a greeting, complete with the accompanying "W" hand sign.

Snoop was unavoidable, like skin on nacho cheese. Like a whisper of a rumor at a table full of girls. Like a flying box of orange drink in a fistfight in the lunchroom. Seriously, kids, The Dogg was a superstar, the 50 Cent or Eminem of 1993, a rapper so hot he’d inevitably burn out, the rookie of the year in the prime of his potential. Back then, as he sang, "it’s a doggy dogg world."

See, ol’ Snoopy was bigger than Jesus. Bigger, even, than Kurt Cobain, whose lyrical gunplay inspired ugly T-shirts, instead of rap battles in chronic-scented bathrooms. He certainly was bigger than Beck or Billy Corgan, or name your favorite nineties icon. He even was bigger than Courtney Love’s body, before her grungy doll parts got faked beyond fake.

At least in my eyes, he was bigger, yes, than Biggie, at least at my school in suburban St. Louis.

The former Calvin Broadus, see, was even in the news, wanted in connection to a homicide. Golly!

My parents probably knew who he was!

Thus, to know him, I didn’t have to buy him. I only had to be alive.

And try as I might, I couldn’t block him out.

But that didn't mean I had to listen.

III. Serial Killa

People forget this intoxicating fact: Snoop Dogg was big because he was scary. In a genre of music that prizes being real, or at least seeming real enough in journalistic profiles, Snoop was a real-life gangsta, fo shizzle. His resume included time behind bars. His blue bandana promoted his gang. The most famous Crip in all of America, Snoop was a hero to wannabes everywhere.

And then he got entangled in an actual, real-life murder case.

Number one with a bullet, indeed.

I can’t call to mind the specifics of the case, only that Snoop and a member of his entourage were charged with the murder of one of their rivals. Eventually, the rapper was found not guilty, or free enough anyway to reclaim his life of rhyme. Sometime during the course of his trial, he rapped on MTV in a casket, I think – or was it a wheelchair? a hospital bed? – to better convey his murderous realness. (My memory now seems more vital than the truth, considering I’m dealing with fantasy here. But I fear Wikipedia will render me unreliable.) The negative publicity was priceless and awesome, as Snoop snarled his way into little kids’ living rooms, behind the backs of little kids’ parents, blurring the line between rapper and subject.

The name of this song was "Murder Was The Case." Most of my classmates devoured it up.

But I was too grungy to do anything but scoff. "Snoop Doggy Dogg needs to get a jobby job," I joked, quoting a line from one of his videos. I wasn’t impressed by this unrepentant criminal, turning a profit from his gangsterrific crimes. Maybe if he sang, or played the guitar... Maybe if he sang about suicide instead of homicide... Maybe if he was, I don’t know, white...

Or maybe if I’d been a lot less close-minded. Maybe if I hadn’t been faking my own realness. Explaining my prejudice would take another essay, but back in the day, I hated gangsta rap, its sound, its fury, its seeming insignificance. The fact that it wasn’t grunge or classic rock, the only two genres I ever deigned to listen to. The fact that it was darker than the rap I’d liked in middle school, those songs about butts and busting a move.

See, Young MC was rap to me, not these so-called gangsta rappers. And even that guy with his clean raps, I hated, beyond all reason and rational debate. I hated those guys and their genre with a passion – in fact, with the passion with which I praise it now. As shocking as it is to the friends who know me now (props to the two of you visiting my website!), the friends who knew me then know the truth: In gangsta rap’s heyday, I didn’t want to hear it. The poppier stuff, I avoided more easily, considering it stopped getting played on the radio. But gangsta or pop or whatever kind of rap... Tupac, Coolio, it didn’t matter who... I despised all forms of rap. I hated, hated, hated the stuff – as much as I love, love, love it today (or at least its potential for wordplay and narrative, despite its reality often falling short). Rap wasn’t even music to me!

At least that what I told all the haters in my crew, equally pale-faced and pumpkin-smashing dangerous. Instead, we adored our suicidal singers, who’d shoot (up) themselves before shooting other people. We found Nirvana; we jammed with Eddie Vedder. All that shit, we devoured it instead. We played it on (air) guitar and transcribed it in our notebooks. We proudly rocked out like patriots and lumberjacks. When Dr. Dre came on, we quickly changed the channel. At least when our "band mates" were there to cheer us on. (My sophomore-year "band" featured seven guitarists, none of whom sang or wrote songs or could play.)

Only in retrospect were my friends and I copycats. Then, we were strangers in our strange St. Louis suburb. Then, we were fans of the Stone Temple Pilots. (I’ve never outgrown my favorite nineties band.) Then, we didn’t know any better. Then, we didn’t really know anything. We weren’t quite brainwashed, just susceptible to hype. Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Sponge, and other S bands? That was the shit we swallowed up whole.

Sure, these bands were equally manufactured, and equally marketed to children our age, a fact I didn’t realize till I’d aged a few more years, and gained the required critical distance. (Actually listening to rap also helped, in terms of my seeing it as something more than product, or at least as a product equivalent to grunge.) And sure, we shouted "West Siiide!!!" with everybody else. But that didn’t matter; we didn’t really mean it. Rap sounded fake to us; we didn’t really get it.

But songs about the death of the self or whatever? Songs called "Zero" and "Heart-Shaped Box"? God gave rock ‘n’ roll to us.

With grunge, we breathed its authenticity. With grunge, we bought the idea being sold. The fact that its lyrics were generally unintelligible? Well, that just gave us something to contemplate, and something to treasure in this one Nirvana single – "Lithium," I think – which actually came with a set of printed lyrics.

Kurt was way better than Snoop. We just knew it. There we were; he entertained us. He also inspired us to look up "mulatto." Before he even died, we admired his misanthropy. After he shot himself, we still thought he was cool. Can someone please tell me what stage of grief this is?

But we – or just me, as they’re not around to ask (I don’t mean they’re dead; they’re just back in St. Louis) – were actually scared of Snoop Doggy Dogg, or at least of the things his ascendance represented. His menacing voice. His violent perspective. The fact that his music was louder than ours, and much more effective at pissing off our parents. Someone our classmates aspired to be, dissing each other before and after school – and possibly, probably, dissing us nerds.

I hated this man, whom I didn’t understand. I feared the unknown, the world beyond grunge.

I’m getting to the part where these tidbits made me love him.

I realize my feelings seem goofy and ridiculous, as ludicrous as someone who’d sample Austin Powers. Really? I was scared of Snoop Doggy Dogg? A rapper named after the beagle in Peanuts? A rapper who’d later trade lines with Ben Stiller? A rapper whose hit songs now involve... tongue clicks? (The lip-smackin’, cheek-poppin’ "Drop It Like It’s Hot.") I wasn’t amused, or enthralled, or in denial, or at least not enough to be identified as such, at least not, again, until my collegiate reappraisal.

Yes, I was actually scared of The Dogg.

His casket-match performance unnerved me, disturbed me, as if he were the equally fictional The Undertaker, and I were the scrub in the monochromed underpants. (Monday Night Raw was a father/son ritual.) He gaffled me as no one had gaffled me before, gaffled to the point of, um, what’s it called, aphasia? Snoop was a dog in a yard without a fence, a barking, foaming Doberman whose chain could reach the sidewalk. Snoop was a killer straight outta "Jeremy," speaking in class in his hypnotic flow. Snoop was the goddamn "Man in the Box," coming to save us from a world without dick jokes.

Which is why I couldn’t fathom ever buying, or listening, to Doggystyle, suspecting I would scare myself by secretly, guiltily loving it.

And that’s what I did when I finally found it used, minus the secretive, guilty part. I first bought this album in 2007, fourteen long years after thinking it would scare me. And once I had it, I knew it: I loved it. It’s silly and dope and totally nineties. It’s far from being something to fear. Instead, it’s something to laugh at in private.

I love this album, and I don’t need to hide it, unless I’m around any ladies, I guess. No one is shocked by Snoop anymore, or by twenty-something office drones who revel in the fantasy. Amused, perhaps, but never shocked, once they get over laughing at me.

Doggystyle, see, is completely ridiculous.

As a work of art, nope, the album hasn’t aged well, or become less repulsive in the last decade-plus. If anything, it’s probably gotten worse. From the artwork on the cover to the skits throughout the album, gardening implements and female dogs abound. It’s way more offensive than scary or dangerous, more misogynistic than menacing or murderous. I’m old enough now to know I should hate it, and also to know that’s the reason why I love it. Explaining it further would only ruin the joke. Plus, I’m scared you’d all stop reading.

Believe me, friends, I’m laughing at myself.

But also believe me, I’m being deathly serious.

IV. Murder Was The Case

I’m writing three thousand words about Doggystyle, and yet they're not enough.

I actually started to write that essay, the one about me overcoming my prejudice, not against a race but against a style of music, my impassioned defense of a much-maligned genre, a "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hip-Hop" kind of thing, which mentioned C.S. Lewis even more than Eazy-E... My rap apologia, my academic diss track... The works cited page was perhaps my favorite part, seeing rappers’ real names followed by "et al." Plus, I used the word "nutz" a lot. Sorry.

Both of these projects have taken me a month. Maybe I’ll finish the other one... later. If so, you can read it for vicarious living, since you’re never gonna write about slapping a ho. You also can read about less cartoonish rappers. (Sadly, some of my friends think all rap sounds the same – violent, misogynistic, and otherwise offensive – and essays like this one won’t convince them otherwise. Unfortunately, my recent playing of "The $20 Sack Pyramid" from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic as a representative sample of rap skits further belabored the gunpoint.)

So why do I listen to Snoop Dogg again?

Comedy? Nostalgia? Atonement? Yes.

For capturing the zeitgeist in 1993? For scaring me then and entertaining me now? For giving my enemies fodder to mock me? For selling the drama of the LBC? For making the zenith of ho-slapping thug rap?

All of the above. But wait – there’s more!

The album cover and liner notes: The most vile piece of comic artwork since the original "alien-style" album cover of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction!

Nancy Fletcher: The R&B hook girl with the least gangsta name of all time!!

RBX’s so-stupid-it’s-clever "pic-a-nic basket"/"pic-a-nic casket" couplet: What Yogi Bear would say before popping a cap in your scoutmaster’s ass!!!

And then there’s, stunningly, a work of real genius, Snoop Dogg’s masterpiece, "Murder Was The Case," the only song on Doggystyle that actually surprised me. Instead of cartoonish, it’s downright cinematic, a song with a plot and a tangible mise en scène. A song that mourns as much as it boasts. A song that may or may not be real – but sounds authentic, which is probably more important.

In short, this song is crazy good.

The rest of this album is by-the-book gangsta rap: Songs about murder, chronic, and dogs. Skits about ballz – and yes, slapping hoes. Stuff I heard so often in high school, I didn’t really need to hear it again. Shit I’ve heard on infinite albums, so I didn’t need another one to flaunt – or feign – my street cred. All of the tracks but this one are predictable, which makes my decade-plus boycott seem sensible.

If you’ve heard one Snoop song, you’ve truly heard them all. If you’ve heard one album by a better gangsta rapper, you never need to hear, much less buy, one by Snoop.

But "Murder Was The Case" deserves to be heard, by any devotees of rap, or just music. The beat is so sick it’s a deadly epidemic – especially that bell, that funereal bell, the one that tolls for thee and thine, an enemy rapper’s death knell, etc., as heard in Tupac’s "Hail Mary" et al. And don’t forget those high-pitched squeals, those squiggly synths or whatever they are, as heard in a million Death Row productions, possibly theremins, but who the hell knows?

Of course, there’s also that patented flow – before it became an out-of-tune instrument, a lazy reminder of battle-rap glories. This was when Snoop only rapped like he was singing, instead of actually singing for real. This was when his rapping voice still dripped with honey, equal parts menace and malice and cool. This was when he was still taken seriously, mostly for sounding so effortlessly gangsta. He wasn’t America’s Pimp just yet. At the time, he was more like America’s Dogg, equal parts lovable and foaming at the mouth. For just this one song, his voice was essential: necessary, yes, but also inherent, the very essence of gangsta rapping. So let’s just forget the raps that came later.

And Snoop’s best lyrics, concise and insightful... A song with three verses, a play in three acts... Snoop’s confession, Snoop’s remorse... Words of vengeance, but also of fear; words of defiance, but also of sorrow... Once they’re said, they can’t be retracted; once they’re heard, they can’t be forgotten. These lyrics are the crest of the rapper’s career; the "artwork" that followed is a shark-jumping parody. (See his careers as a professional pornographer, amateur linguist, and minor-league punchline: "Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?" "The drizzle, my nizzle!" Sampled drumroll, please!) These lyrics are the last time this artist had depth. The laughter that followed is something to mourn.

Act One: The song begins with Snoop left for dead, lying on his back and looking at the sky, as paramedics pump his chest. He cries, he prays, he starts to see demons, one of which offers to save him, for a price. If Snoop gives up his soul, he’ll live – in fact, with more money and power than before. Of course, our hero accepts these terms, closing his eyes and passing out. It’s not like there’s time to haggle or anything. The bell tolls on, the synths do their thing, and the hospital curtain parts for act two. We know ol’ Snoopy’s gonna be fine.

Act Two: Everything the demon promised came true. The doctors weren’t sure if Snoop would walk again, but Snoop more than walks – he Crip-walks! (It’s implied.) Back on his feet and back on the street, he sells more drugs and buys more cars and generally lives more gangsta than ever. It’s all pretty glamourous, especially to kids. But at what price? We start to wonder. Where’s the murder? Where’s the case? That’s how the narrator ratchets up the tension. He’s shown us mo’ money – so where’s mo’ problems? Somewhere, we know, the demon is laughing.

Act Three: Here’s where this rap song becomes a bitter tragedy. Here’s where this song by Snoop Doggy Dogg approaches a play by Shakespeare. No, really. As Shakespeare withholds a key murder in Macbeth, Snoop withholds the murder here. He also withholds the titular case. Law & Order: Long Beach this is not. Instead, he lets us imagine what happened – the murder and the case that they gave him, and so on. The action picks up with Snoop on a bus – not a Greyhound, not a crosstown, but one whose riders are wearing red jumpsuits. In other words, Snoop is going to jail, finally paying the price for his crimes. His good pal the demon is nowhere to be found; even his baby-mama has forsaken him. He’s taken to a high-security yard, where convicts get stabbed with pencils and toothbrushes. His deal with the demon has finally come due, as that’s where he’ll stay for twenty-five years. The story ends with a friend of Snoop’s dying, leaving us to wonder what will happen to The Dogg. We grip our pencils in rapt anticipation.

It’s scary and clever and worth buying once, especially for recession-proof, bargain-bin prices. That’s the Snoop Doggy Dogg I like, the only work of art of his I wish I'd bought much earlier. That’s the surprise in my cereal box, the masterpiece I wish I’d discovered in my youth, back in the day when I was dumbly anti-rap, those years I’m revising as much as I’m revisiting, whenever I bump this shit in my car. Despite or because of my inherent white dorkiness, I play it more often than I should, I know.

Today, I listen for vicarious living. I’m still not gonna slap a ho.

Absurdity was the case that they gave me.