It Ain't Bragging If You Back It Up
It was Elvis Costello who once said “America is the only country that thinks this way about rock ‘n’ roll. Everywhere else it’s just pop music. In America it’s culture because it’s the only damn culture you’ve got.” And what a culture it is, defined by celebrities who are often famous not for what they’ve done but simply for who they are, how much money they’ve got, or who they’ve slept with.
Kid Rock managed to carve out a niche for himself by combining heretofore-incompatible genres (southern rock, hip-hop) and subcultures (rednecks, suburbanites). The supposed Kid Rock demographic consists of blue-collar workers, NASCAR fans, porn fans, porn stars and strippers, rednecks, truck drivers, et al. But the real Kid Rock demographic probably consists largely of middle-class suburban white kids who find his music the perfect accompaniment to sporadic bouts of drinking, drug-taking, vandalism, and the profound wish they could find a “corn-fed Midwestern ho” (meaning stripper or porn star) who would give them the time of day. Fact is, a huge number of Kid Rock fans have never seen a Raylene or Janine video. It’s more the symbolic nature of these women that makes them perfect icons for Kid and his fans: they’re outlaws (just like Kid), they don’t give a damn what society thinks of them (even though they try very hard to gain some level of ‘legitimacy’), they make a great deal of money and often live a flashy lifestyle (a lifestyle that saps their finances and ensures their continued dependence on the industry), and, most importantly, it drives middle-class parents crazy to see their kids worshipping blue collar burnout redneck rockers and porn stars. Throw in a little hip-hop, and you’ve got a potent brew that offers the sense of rebellion that will always be the mainstay of rock music.
Needless to say, this has opened Kid up to a lot of criticism. He’s not a good role model, they say, advocating dope smoking, drinking, misogyny, intolerance, a taste for Lynyrd Skynyrd, tattoos, wearing fur, bad language, and pretty much anything else you can think of except disrespect for the flag. No, Kid is a patriot and he’ll let you know that at every possible turn. He never misses an opportunity to salute the flag or use it in his live shows, website, or album covers. Kid tells us that he loves this country precisely because he can be who he wants to be and do what he wants to do and no one-NO ONE-has the right to tell him otherwise. And by the way, he also never said he was a role model.
And Rock has a secret weapon—he knows that none of this stuff matters once the crunchy guitar is pumping from the speakers and the beers are flowing. Once “Forever”, the single and second track on the CD starts its old-skool rhyming and foursquare stomp, you don’t care whether Kid is being PC or not, you just wanna get down with the jam. Who can blame him for being smug? “Thought I got dusty / Thought I’d get rusty / Thought I’d get rich and quit / Or he must be / Fat and ugly, broke, black and blue / But I’m trim, fit, rich, and I’m down for round two”. Because he is rich, he is justified in talking, or rapping, or whatever, almost nonstop about HIMSELF. Please don’t feel that you need to clue me in to how this is an important part of hip-hop culture. I am aware of this, but many hip-hop artists have moved beyond this tactic, reminding us only every third song or so of how fabulous they are. Kid, however, is old school. “I always loved old school hip-hop,” he has said. “I just cannot outgrow that. The boasting, the easy-to-understand raps, the very cleverly thought-out words.” Indeed.
“Lay It On Me” offers a nice, sexy groove that you can do the Axl Rose dance to if you’re so inclined, a groove that’s repeated in the winning “What I Learned Out on the Road” with its Skynyrd-style chorus celebrating life on the road. The break offers nice electric piano work and some vocoder stuff-it actually reminded me of Beck’s Odelay for a moment. Kid gets off a nice salvo against over-intellectual rock, too: “I got rich offa keepin’ it real/While you Radioheads are reinventin’ the wheel/Got critics all trippin’ off I don’t know what”. In between these mellow grooves we get the title track in which Kid brags he gets more ass than Mark McGrath (yeah, but how is he at Rock & Roll Jeopardy?).
After that, things get a little less interesting; a less than incisive dig at critics who say he’s a bad influence (“I’m Wrong But You Ain’t Right”) and a southern rock filler ballad (“Lonely Road of Faith”). “You Never Met a Motherf**ker Quite Like Me” gets back to the same middle-of-the-road territory as “Lay It On Me”, and Kid lets it slip in his rap that he’s been educated on jazz by Ahmet Ertegun, which certainly comes as a surprise to me. (Hey, Kid, how about that John Coltrane?) It even works in the guitar lick from “Free Bird”. You can almost see the kids lighting up their lighters at the concert . . . (the song ends hilariously with Andy Sutton interrupting Kid’s vocal histrionics and telling him “Hey, man, there’s more to life than just you” to which Kid responds with laughter.)
This middle doldrums section of so many new CD releases often makes me long for the concise days of the LP, but then Kid pulls something out of his bag of tricks for which I am completely unprepared, the gorgeous ballad “Picture” on which he duets with Sheryl Crow. It’s like a country ballad that uses every cliché in the book but still moves you to tears. Lyrically perfect in every detail, it’s the story of a couple cheating and breaking up long distance while he’s on the road. Sheryl does a vocal more relaxed than anything she’s turned in since Tuesday Night Music Club. In the album’s press release Kid says “With Sheryl it was laidback, we drank some beers, played some songs, had a wonderful time together. . . .” Well, we all know that Sheryl enjoys a good beer buzz, especially early in the morning. Seriously, though, this track in particular bodes well for Kid Rock. He clearly knows the elements of a good song and he could have easily sold this one to his good buddy Tim McGraw. It puts some of Kid’s “I’m out on the road and I’m getting’ so weary, but having a great time with all these chicks and partying” songs in perspective, demonstrating that he’s aware there’s a price to be paid for all that fun. “Midnight Train to Memphis” has some of the same qualities, but it’s a little less convincing, partially because of its close placement to “Picture” and partly because there’s no Sheryl Crow vocal to help sell it. Not only that, but halfway through David Spade appears (“I knew his first album was the good one”) to goad Kid back into hip-hop mode and let us know that even though he lost a good gal due to his bad behavior, “it’s just the way I am”.
The disc ends with “WCSR” featuring Snoop Dogg (it’s a “bonus track”), an out-and-out sex rhyme that pulls no punches and will give the adult content lyric patrol a stroke. See, they’ll say, this is what he’s really all about—money, whores, tits and ass.
While there are a lot of good songs and moments on Cocky it doesn’t ultimately hold together that well as an album. Taking into account how much his songwriting has grown, the absence of Uncle Kracker (he co-wrote many songs but doesn’t appear on the disc) and the schizophrenic nature of life on the road, it’s probably inevitable that this disc be less focused than Devil Without a Cause. Some fans will no doubt be disappointed by the extra helpings of country influence here as well. Kid may well find himself caught between his ambitions and the expectations of his fans at some point, and it will be interesting to see how he resolves them. And he’ll no doubt continue to be the focus of irate parents and religious groups. Hey, lighten up: either it’s just pop music or it’s the only damn culture we’ve got.