Dear Warner Brothers and the Recording Industry Association of America,
I recently received the latest release from Cowboy Troy, Black in the Saddle. When I listened to it, I was appalled by the content and shocked that the record industry does not warn listeners about such objectionable material.
No, this recording contained no obscenity. In fact, obscenity might have been welcomed. Black in the Saddle is so corporately contrived that any edginess has been suffocated out of it. I am writing to suggest a “Bland Content” label be created along the lines of the “Explicit Content” label. Just as the “Explicit Context” label warns albums “may contain strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse” unsuitable for children, the “Bland Content” label would caution listeners that albums may contain “references to minivans, grills, and strong images of suburbia that may numb office drones to the tedium of cubicle life.” This would allow listeners to keep a bottle of Tabasco sauce on hand to restore feeling to their heads when soul-crushing boredom makes them tempted to throw themselves in front of a train.
The songs on this album make it clear that Mr. Troy suffers from a persecution complex, so I can understand if Warner Brothers worries that such a warning might contribute to his psychological distress. I would suggest, however, that such a label might ameliorate Mr. Troy’s situation. Mr. Troy feels the need to inject a gangsta flavor to his rap-country pastiche with embarrassing references to guns and bling. Since Mr. Troy so clearly fails to meet the criteria that earn hip-hop stars explicit content warnings, his rapper ego might be boosted if a separate warning label were to be created that he so clearly deserves.
Cowboy Troy may very well have hoed a hard row before the country duo Big & Rich vaulted him into the mainstream with an appearance on the 2004 Country Music Awards. But songs like “How Can You Hate Me” and “Take Your Best Shot Now” make it hard to listen to his complaints with a straight face. These tunes sound heavily influenced by Eminem’s epics of persecution—“Without Me” or “White America” (The Eminem Show, 2002) for example—in which he takes on congressmen and parental decency groups. Mr. Troy sounds… well… silly when he borrows Eminem’s techniques (lyrics that return repeatedly to the same word on line after line, cartoonish dialogue with himself) to attack his less-clearly identified enemies. From “How Can You Hate Me”:
You know what, there’s no way you coulda planned it.
The Buffalo [aka, Troy] is still here, the haters can’t stand it.
Do fear me ‘cause I’m larger than you?
Or ‘cause I’m stronger or that I work harder than you?
Or that fact that I have the power to react and choose not to?
If my mouth is my tool, boom I got you.
People wanted to shut up Eminem because he sounds like a sociopath that threatens order and decency. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems Mr. Troy thinks he threatens other people because he’s too orderly:
Do you fear my understanding of economic policy or the fact that I vote?
Be careful now don’t choke.
Or the fact I can read in the first place?
Where Eminem gives the world the finger and keeps talking crazy, Mr. Troy wants to give everyone a hug. The sung chorus of “How Can You Hate Me”:
How can you hate someone you just don’t know
The more you hate the less love grows.
Mr. Warner and Mr. Warner (there are only two Warner Brothers, right?), please also tell Mr. Troy that his descriptions of bullet dodging don’t help his credibility. The lyrics to the chorus of “Take Your Best Shot Now” are completely subverted by its music, which sounds like warmed-over, feel-good Big & Rich. (This isn’t a surprise, since Big & Rich have been Cowboy Troy’s biggest boosters since the beginning.)
Take your best shot now, ‘cause I’m flying so high.
You’ll run out of ammo before you touch the sky.
You think you’re the first one to try and bring me down.
Buddy you don’t know how long I’ve been around.
Take your best shot now.
But the rapping also makes the gun references ridiculous:
I never lived in the hood but I used to work there.
“Ain’t you work at that shoe store?”
Yeah, I used to clerk there.
Rollin’ through Dallas now they go berserk there.
These awkward allusions to hood life may be symptoms of Mr. Troy’s much bigger musical disorder—he seems totally cut off from modern hip hop. His first album was shaped entirely by foursquare rhymes that went out of fashion in the early ‘90s. (Ok, the Beastie Boys still rap that way, but that proves the point.) Mr. Troy clearly has worked hard to become a stronger wrapper since his first release, but he hasn’t been studying his contemporaries. If Eminem is an inspiration, Cowboy Troy is only five years out of date, but his rapping style is overwhelmingly an awkward collage of different rapping styles from the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
This brings me to another complaint. There’s very little country-hip hop fusion on this record. While he raps throughout, his music is most firmly rooted in rap metal, not hip hop. And the country elements are so far on the pop side of the country spectrum that they might better be labeled AAA. Perhaps that’s why this album is billed as the “New Rock Yawlternative” rather than the “Hick-Hop” supposedly served up by Loco Motive. Country is represented by dobros and banjos on some rhythm tracks, but they’re buried beneath heavily distorted guitars à la Limp Bizkit.
The only time he truly succeeds at injecting rap into country, to my ears, is the feel-good hanging-out song, “Cruise Control”. In the spirit of carefree ditties like Keith Urban’s “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me”, Mr. Troy’s description of a “playground for adults [with] beertubs and grills” promising “clean fun… where topless mean[s] putting down your convertible” would sound perfectly at home on country radio:
Ice cold brews! Don’t want to hear no news!
Just my favorite songs when I’m listening to the radio!
Good friends and good times!
Ain’t worried about the reason or the rhymes!
After a week of work all I know!
I put my mind on cruise control!
Misters Warner, I will not be buying another Cowboy Troy record. This is not because the music is bad, exactly. In fact, the rhythm tracks on this album are much catchier than those on Loco Motive, and Mr. Troy’s rapping is also much improved. I want to like his music, and I applaud the record industry for attempting to bring together country and hip-hop. (The record industry, after all, has profited from the segregation of pop music for decades.)
Mr. Troy’s efforts to mix musical styles, however, are severely hampered by the musical influences upon which he draws. Cowboy Troy’s music is a dystopian nightmare of what pop music would sound like if we were only left with the music on the air following the 1996 deregulation of radio ownership: the slickest, most callow rap; the blandest, cloying country; and corporatized “alternative” rock. (I will also be complaining to the FCC about their contribution to Cowboy Troy’s mediocrity)
Though he doesn’t do a terrible job of combining different strains of music, the strains he picks leave me horribly depressed about how the music industry has warped the sounds of popular music. If Mr. Troy began as a musical rebel, you have turned him into the perfect corporate product (which may be the reason you won’t allow listeners to hear an entire track on his MySpace page without a purchase). You exploit the novelty of a musician who cites both Charlie Daniels and Lil John as inspiration while he makes music so dull that it offends no one (well, except me). If you insist on marketing such music, I would ask that you offer complimentary prescriptions for Prozac, because it leaves me deeply depressed.
In closing, I also recommend that you refrain from releasing any more Cowboy Troy albums in the month before or after June 10, the anniversary of Ray Charles’s death. The album that solidified Mr. Charles’s high esteem among white listeners included 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. This was an inspired critique of musical segregation by an R&B singer taking on the whites-only world of country. It is inevitable that Cowboy Troy’s nominal fusion of hip hop and country will be compared to Ray Charles’s revolutionary work. The comparison is not favorable. Where Ray Charles was taking on the record industry, Mr. Troy has been co-opted by it. And where Ray Charles was making outstanding music, Mr. Troy’s is abysmally mediocre.
There is still room for someone to interestingly combine country and hip-hop. I hope someone else steps up to the challenge. Otherwise, Mr. Troy will have a monopoly on that niche, reflecting poorly on both genres.
// Notes from the Road
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