Another Fine Mess
It was five years go that Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, two of the most inventive DJs since DJs were recognized as musicians, formed Handsome Boy Modeling School and gave the world So, How’s Your Girl?, possibly the last great album of the ‘90s. The long gap between albums is less surprising than the fact that there is a second album. Handsome Boy Modeling School, as great as its debut album was, seemed almost the epitome of a one-off project. Who expected anything new from a “band” named after an episode of Chris Elliot’s Get a Life which was populated with a motley crew of guest musicians from every possible genre?
Here it is 2004, and Paul and Dan (as their insufferable alter-egos Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Meriwether) have found a whole new eclectic cast of vocalists and musicians willing to explore the boundaries between genres. The mere existence of a follow-up to So, How’s Your Girl? raises considerable skepticism. Prince Paul and Dan the Automator were never ones to return to old ground. Even Dan’s work with the Gorillaz, which included several key Handsome Boy alumni, was a radically different enterprise. So, How’s Your Girl? hopped from genre to genre, mixing and matching styles and artists while still maintaining an indefinable signature sound that was not beholden to the concept of “genre”. It seemed less of an album than a powerful manifesto predicting a world where all music was both universal and, somehow, uniquely individual. Since when does a manifesto need a sequel?
White People, at its worst, acts as sort of a middling appendix to So, Where’s Your Girl?. Lead off single “The World’s Gone Mad” throws together Barrington Levy, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Karpanos in an ugly blend of dancehall, hip-hop, and rock and roll that fails to coalesce into anything worthwhile. The duo, and returning turntablist genius Kid Koala, put a worthwhile beat underneath Jack Johnson’s “Breakdown”, but the great beat and Johnson’s mediocre mope-pop tune sound as if they were created in isolation and then forcibly jammed together. The combination of Dan the Automator, pop-jazzster Jamie Cullum, John Oates, and Tarnation’s Paula Frazer seems like an inspired anything-can-happen mix, but “Greatest Mistake” is essentially a bland Oates ballad with the rest of them working as hired guns to salvage the mess. I will, out of respect for all involved, not delve into the torture that is Tim Meadows’s misguided resurrection of his Ladies Man character.
Does it bode well for the band’s genre defying manifesto that the two highlights of White People are two of the straight-ahead rap songs? De La Soul kick-off the album with “If It Wasn’t For You”, which finds the venerable band at their Three Feet High and Rising peak, complete with a glorious kitchen sink production full of trumpet flourishes and sped up samples that once again establish Dan and Paul as the most flexible and unpredictable hip-hop producers of the modern era. Even De La Soul, however, pale against Black Sheep’s Dres who gets “First And Then” all to himself and makes the most of his opportunity. Dres, gone from the public stage for so long, seems to recognize that he has a shot to burst back onto the scene. He grabs the microphone and then never lets go, unleashing a furious onslaught of rhymes sandwiched between a chorus that follows the simple “first x and then y” format of the title. It is a simple gimmick that is ridiculously addicting listening.
Whenever I feel tempted to disparage White People, I listen the album’s central thematic tracks. First comes “Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2”, which expands the opening track from So, How’s Your Girl? into an epic treatise on the importance of musical evolution. The first sequence features old school DJs discussing how hip-hop evolved from rock and roll beats, and then continued onward to influence rock and roll, and how this continual progress is necessary for the development of music. The track then goes on to illustrate this old-hat idea in a radical new way. “Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2” is a suite, in the style of the Beastie Boys’ immortal “B-Boy Bourgeoisie”, consisting of musical sketches that stop soon after they begin, only to jump to the next idea. Throughout the track’s seven minutes, Handsome Boy Modeling School explores vocal hip-hop, turntablism, electronica, hard rock, classical music, and even a bit of spoken word history in order to create a soup that, if not entirely successful, redefines the ambitions of this project. The first album attempted to completely break down walls between genres, the new album realizes that these walls did really exist at all and refuses to acknowledge them.
“Class System” is the other key to appreciating White People despite its flaws. In “Class System”, a slumming upper-class socialite’s unconscious racism (sung to perfection by the underrated Julee Cruise) is explained by Pharrell Williams’s insistence that we are “all trapped in a system”. If we all continue to be trapped in these systems, human beings can not progress. Cruise’s character mentions how awkward it is when her poor lover tries to act outside her perceptions of how his “class” should act. “Don’t try to fit in”, she pleads. Handsome Boy Modeling School understands that this awkwardness must be risked, and survived, in order to break out of these artificial systems and social structures. Despite the album’s numerous missteps, there are moments of genius here that the band would not have discovered without its willingness to fail. On what other album could you hear Cat Power reborn as a sultry trip-hop chanteuse, hear the lead singer of the Deftones (of all people) hold his own with El-P, or, best yet, hear Mike Patton sing a song that was genuinely pretty. If So, How’s Your Girl? was the riveting manifesto, White People is the first, tentative attempt at living up to the manifesto’s ideals.