What happens when a white guy from downtown L.A. starts hanging with kitschy Caucasians in Silver Lake? Does he lose his sense of hippity-hop? Does his swagger turn to slack? Does he even know who he is at the end of the day?
When the white guy happens to be Beck Hansen, the answers don't come easy.
Hints are scattered throughout Beck's latest album, Odelay, a rhythmic mishmash of street beats and coffee-house sing-alongs. It's an inventive and initially arresting brew, with Beck's hip-hop a kind of stumbled stagger that somehow keeps its feet. But for all its charm, Odelay ultimately feels shallow, lacking the heft and soul of an appreciable identity.
These aren't the first cracks to show up in Beck's persona. He became a reluctant 23-year-old spokesman for a generation when his single "Loser" topped alternative playlists in 1994. Bemused parents and aging baby boomers interpreted the song's infamous chorus as an ode to apathy, further proof that aimless 20-nothings deserve to be stuck at the back of the alphabet.
He never intended "Loser" to be anything more than a knockoff single, a one-take quickie groove. Who knew radio would pick it up and redefine Beck's image as the crowned King of Slackers?
Truth is, Beck's hardly an underachiever. He started making music as a teenager obsessed with folk songs and Delta blues. He moved to New York and was further inspired by the aggressive, acoustic antifolk scene that took hold in the East Village in the late 1980s. He returned to L.A. in 1991, staking out a spot amid the coffee shops and used-clothing stores in Silver Lake. He hooked up with hip-hop producer Karl Stephenson, who gave Beck's punk take on folk a boom-box beat. The results, including "Loser," which initially was released as an indie single, allowed Beck to plant his hybrid aesthetic in major-label land, first with 1994's Mellow Gold and now with Odelay.
The new disc's 13 songs are a shotgun marriage of blues, rap, country and pop, and Beck almost always hits what he's aiming for. He's big on samples--lots of samples--ranging from cheeseball lounge music and classical strings to the kind of snapping snare drum found on every rap song ever recorded. Co-producers John King and Michael Simpson (a.k.a. "The Dust Brothers") make their presence immediately felt, accenting the infectious melody on the opening cut, "Devil's Haircut," with the same sonic punch they gave the Beastie Boys on Paul's Boutique. Other standouts on Odelay include the swayback funk of "Hotwax," which features snippets of Espanol (à la "Loser"), and "Sissyneck," a loopy slab of cow-chip funk with some nice, nonsampled pedal steel guitar beneath the chorus.
Even better is "Lord Only Knows," in which Beck shoves his crooked cowboy hat on even tighter and becomes a Muswell Hillbilly, sounding like Ray Davies backed by slide guitar on a lazy, sunny afternoon. It's an ingratiating song strengthened by the way Beck lets his slack-singing take the spotlight instead of yet another sampled soundscape.
Indeed, it's Beck's preoccupation with making a persistent wall of noise that limits Odelay's reach. At times the album seems like all show and no tell, with Beck more concerned with technology than songs. "Where It's At," for example, is a celebration of deejay artistry replete with the sound of needle on vinyl and the requisite samples amid an aural collage. All of which is cool to a point, but there's nary an empty space left unattended. Beck's got everything but the sound of a kitchen sink in the spaces between the snares.
Those techno trappings wouldn't seem like such a crutch if Beck wrote lyrics to back them up. But he doesn't. The most coherent words on Odelay are lines like, "When I wake up, someone will sweep up my lazy bones," and "Take off your coat/Put a song in your throat/Let the dead beats pound all around." The rest of the album's verbiage is simply a mob of non sequiturs done in slack-jawed slur.
It can be argued that Beck, who in one song anoints himself the "Enchanted Wizard of Rhythm," makes his statements with a different language--through samples, aggressive production and soundscapes. And Beck does seem to use lyrics in the same way he uses noise, putting snippets of sentences together just because the words sound good that way. Still, there's an uneasy sense that Beck's songs don't say much because the guy just doesn't have that much to say.