By Kevin John
In the information age, the music of choice is the music uploaded with the most information, natch, like Ginuwine’s number-one R & B single “Pony.” In the space of just a measure and a half you get car skids, “Atomic Dog” panting, that bleep you hear after you swallow the strawberry in Pac-Man, and a mad funny bass line that sounds like Zapp’s Roger Troutman after a mighty swig of bicarb. “Pony” was easily the quirkiest, trashiest, silliest, most instantly recognizable song on R & B radio at the beginning of this year.
But alas, another feature of the information age is that information can disappear as quickly as a click-and-drag of the mouse. Now that “Pony” is dropping down Billboard’s Hot 100, Ginuwine (aka 22-year-old D.C. native Elgin Lumpkin, ouch) is in danger of being lost forever in the trash can of history. No big deal, you might think; part of the charm of current R & B is its disposability. But what his surprising debut album, The Bachelor, makes clear is that Ginuwine wants to be remembered. He’s reaching out to audiences that for the most part have little use for quirky, silly, trashy, recognizable singles: trip-hopsters, east-coast b-boys, album-as-art aesthetes, etc. And if said music fans would only reach back, they’d find that The Bachelor is as impressive in its own way as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Tricky’s Maxinquaye.
Aside from the occasional aberration, like Marvin Gaye’s funky space reincarnation or D’Angelo’s discovery of a sonic wallpaper color somewhere between Green Onions and Another Green World, soundscapes historically have no place in R & B. But that’s just what The Bachelor is. The cuts blend together in one messy collage with almost no interruptions, and even the interruptions are conceptual: there are three four-second and two five-second tracks of silence before the last number, and the track listing includes as many interludes as proper songs. Clearly, Ginuwine has crafted The Bachelor to be apprehended as a piece–and he’s succeeded, in that it’s easier to recall the grand sweep of the thing than the individual songs.
Which is not to say that individual songs aren’t memorable. “Hello,” for instance, is a chaotic matrix of busy signals, recordings, dial tones, push-button dialing, and Ginuwine mutterings looped in a telephonic fantasia that surpasses such previous telephonic fantasias as File 13’s “Taste So Good” and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Telephone and Rubber Band” in density alone. Lyrically it’s a dumb variation on the I-can’t-reach-my-baby-on-the-telephone theme, but rhythmically there’s such a creepy meticulousness to the placement of the loops that the overall effect is more Richard Kern than Lionel Richie.
As with the Tricky and Raekwon albums, it would take as long as the O.J. Simpson trial to sort out The Bachelor’s sound effects; and as with those albums, there’s an emphasis on creating and sustaining a mood. In keeping with such titles as “Lonely Daze,” “Only When Ur Lonely,”
“I’ll Do Anything/I’m Sorry,” and “World Is So Cold,” the first sounds on the record are gloomy thunder and rain; cold wind blows between cuts; the operator disconnects Ginuwine’s reconciliation attempt at the end of “Hello.”
Now and then, the clutter will dissipate and the resultant sound is so c’est si bon dry it pushes the sound of R & B male vocal-harmony groups like Shai, Silk, or Intro past “Sex Me” spare into sheer despair. But for the most part, the rich surface detail of the songs and the schizophrenic interludes–an amazing array of dub instrumentals, kung fu movie atmospherics, radio announcers, disorienting braggadocio, and a host of anonymous raps–does what most rich surface detail does in the age of electronica: it chips away at the primacy of voice, an especially bold move within R & B, where the voice is such a major distinguishing characteristic.
The intro to The Bachelor blatantly acknowledges this effect, using samples from The Usual Suspects. It alternates “Who’s Keyser Soze?” with an anonymous voice asking “Who’s this Ginuwine?” and lifts practically the same line from the movie that Ghostface Killah bit a few months later: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” For someone who wants to be remembered, persuading the listener to ignore you might seem counterintuitive. But more precisely, Ginuwine aims to insert himself into a very particular artistic tradition.
The act of sheathing or toying with identity is a trick that artists have been pulling for years, a defense against the ravages of media exposure–against being written off, against being understood too quickly, against being driven crazy by the spotlight. It’s an impulse that’s fueled some of the greatest pop music ever. Take Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh and the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, for example.
Both acts were in danger of being eaten alive by the trademarks they’d established in previous work–“Everyday People” peace and love in Sly’s case and depression as a way of life in Morrissey’s. For these albums, both artists clouded their messages with ambiguous wordplay and implosive silliness to prevent the audience from taking them too much at their word. Keep ’em guessing and they’ll have to work harder to dismiss you–and in the process, you may prevent the Mark David Chapmans of the world from hanging on your every lyric. Other bands started out from this premise: Pavement, Raekwon, the well-named DJ Shadow and Tricky. This Boyz II Men album in Tricky drag may be just the personality crisis R & B needs to shock it out of the realm of easy commercial predictability and back into artistic relevance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover, Ginuwine, “The Bachelor”.