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Photograph by Michael Blackwell

HOWWWKAAAY!: It's easier to get crunk than vote. Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boys.

Riding the Storm Out

In 2004, pop music was a mess of contradictions

By Todd Inoue

MARKED BY elections, war, Sudan, Abu Ghraib, Kobe Bryant and Desperate Housewives—2004 was the year I expected more from music. I wanted bulletproof street anthems—soundtracks to blast while storming the voting booth, chucking tear gas canisters, incinerating faulty politicians and stomping a mud hole in Toby Keith's cornhole. But when record companies sent in the HoobaMaroon5ForFightingStank Cockblocking Division, the march detoured toward the veal locker. Pop music as tool for change? More like a pacifier.

The world's most influential cultural indicator—hip-hop—began with lofty ambitions. Usually apolitical rappers were motivating, aligning themselves with coalitions to bring in voters, or dissuade them to protest the whole shit-stem. The hip-hop generation was supposed to swing the election but all I got was this lousy "Vote or Die" T-shirt. Rap fans care about Phat Farm, not farming subsidies, and nobody wanted to hear P. Diddy rhyme "Darfur" with "Mink Fur." I wanted our appointed hip-hop representatives (the bloc from the block) to step up—not at the voting booth—at the microphone. Eminem released "Mosh," an indictment of Bush that coalesced into a GNN video encouraging people to, how quaint, register to vote. Not bad, but it would have been much more effective released months before when people could still register. As Jadakiss may have asked, "Why didn't Eminem burn the mutha down?"

Some hip-hop heads turned to Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Dead Prez for nuggets of wisdom. Dead Prez's Revolutionary But Gangsta was completely ignored, Kweli phoned in his take on The Beautiful Struggle, while Mos Def tripped over rather than striking a cord with controversial lyrics ("The Rape Over," which mentions "tall Israelis" and "quasi homosexuals" running the rap game, was deleted in future pressings). Mos Def's return to the rap game wasn't without potholes; The New Danger is up for Disappointment of the Year, next to the Beastie Boys' To the Five Boroughs. In the absence of true leadership, it took Immortal Technique and Jadakiss to remind us what elementary school teachers drilled from day one: the dumbest question is the one that doesn't get asked.

Those hip-hop fans unaffected by global ramifications, and there were many, went one of two directions. One road lead to crunk, which I'll discuss later, and the other went to MF Doom, who with his multiple aliases is either leaving a legacy of creativity, or entering the "Another album? Who cares?" territory inhabited by Kool Keith. Madvillainy had critics searching for superlatives while Mmm ... Food—an extended metaphor on gastronomy—was a lot to chew on. Breakout star of the year Kanye West ably maneuvered down both roads bridging the underground, party and mainstream aesthetics—the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack, he bragged. The College Dropout skewered perceptions of wealth, jiggyness, relationships, religion and the state of hip-hop and rightly deserved every Grammy nomination.

Take Me Out

With emo the template of 2004, Green Day wiped the floor with the Hot Topic set by getting political on American Idiot. They were a shining example of speaking from the heart on things that matter, up against emo's me-me and alternative rock's so-what attitude. Two other singles set the tone: Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" and Modest Mouse's major label sea chantey "Float On." Both commenced a steady march toward trucker hat bars with a detour toward a Gap commercial (just wait). I came to appreciate "Float On"'s casual cadence about things beyond control. Whether backing into a cop car or getting swindled—all were met with a shrug and a pat on the back. Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock channels Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool or is taking some strong antidepressant medication.

The biggest success was Usher and his Confessions. So let's get this straight. Usher fools around, gets a girl pregnant and makes a hit record about it? Hate the player and the game; a transgression that would have got his stuff thrown out on the curb made him a millionaire. It seemed so orchestrated. Get the club on your side with the crunk'n'B single "Yeah!"—easily the jam of the year—then hit them with the sentimental tunes about foolish adultery. How does he accept those awards with a smile on his face? I'm waiting for the Confessions answer record. Yo, Chili, get with Roxanne Shante and bury a foot up Usher's behind.

Speaking of ass, the posterior region was the must-have accessory of 2004. If it was round, flat or dimpled, it was backed up, smacked, popped, stroked, shook and dropped like it was hot. The explosive growth of crunk (Lil' Jon, Petey Pablo, T.I., Ying Yang Twins, etc.) and Reggaeton (Tego Calderon, "Culo" by Pitbull, "Turnin' Me On" by Nina Sky, "Oye Mi Canto" by Nore) had rear ends emulating the sound following an eagle putt at the Masters. This is not to say booty music or its inherent shaking is bad. Far from it. Americans craved distraction and lined up against the rail with a clutch of $20 bills. The Federation's "Hyphy"—with a vocal assist from Vallejo linguistics professor E-40—was custom built specifically for wildin' out. On a related note, I loved Juvenile's sublime New Orleans bounce double scoop "Nolia Clap" and "Slow Motion"—both irresistible with hooks that required bolt cutters to extract from the brain.

With a few exceptions, the most exciting new artists weren't popping up in New York, Television City or Monte Sereno—it was Rio de Janeiro, Philadelphia, Buckhead, Africa, Puerto Rico and Sri Lankan communities in Britain. The Streets and Dizzee Rascal embodied hip-hop's strengths better than New York's grittiest Bronx bombers. I'm still championing M.I.A.—the British Asian MC whose subterranean polyglot of electronic, outside and indigenous influences was on full display on the pre-Arular teaser Piracy Funds Terrorism. I was introduced to Brazilian baile funk and reconnected with Baltimore club. In the end, I craved headphone revolution but my On-the-Go playlists had songs that chanted in Portuguese, played bitches and encouraged counterintuitive behavior. In 2004, my iPod wasn't just a music carrier, it was a schizophrenic, multilingual bundle of contradictions. Just like America.

Todd Inoue's Top Picks of 2004

Kanye West, College Dropout
David Cross, It's Not Funny
M.I.A. and Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism
Lowbudget, Pawrty Music
The Federation, The Album
Dizzee Rascal, Showtime
Team America Soundtrack
Diplo, Favela on Blast
DJ Nuts, Cultura Copia
Keepintime DVD

"Galang," M.I.A.
"Float On," Modest Mouse
"Hyphy," The Federation
"Slow Motion," Juvenile and Soulja Slim
"99 Problems," Jay-Z
"America, Fuck Yeah!" Team America S/T
"Fire Fire," M.I.A.
"I'm Supposed to Be There Too," Mike Park
"Nolia Clap," Juvenile, Wacko and Skip
"We Don't Care," Kanye West
"Why?" Jadakiss w/ Anthony Hamilton
"Yeah!" Usher feat. Ludacris and Lil' Jon
"You Don't Know My Name" (Reggae Remix), Alicia Keys

Guilty Pleasures
"A Decade Under the Influence," Taking Back Sunday
"1985," Bowling for Soup
"Lean Back," Terror Squad
"Burn Rubber," Too Short
"Goodies," Ciara
"iGeneration," MC Lars
"Culo," Pitbull
"Triple Trouble," Beastie Boys
"So Sexy," Twista w/ R. Kelly

Local Albums
Goh Nakamura, Daylight Savings
Mike Park, For the Love of Music
Skrunchface Projects, Three-Headed Monster
Golden Chyld, Ear Infections
Fingerbangerz, VI-R-US
Encore, Layover
Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf, Big Shots
MC Lars Horris, Laptop EP
Prozack Turner, Death Taxes and Prozack

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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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