Who's Afraid of the Outsider?
The discourse of hip-hop in the ‘90s paralleled that of American politics: a two-party system representing (on paper) left and right, under- and over-ground views. The tail end of the decade finally saw the establishment of the third unheard (perhaps better described now as the third herd?), a body that tried to speak to those that felt neither here nor there, black nor white, Gore nor Bush, Def nor Jux. This is all an oversimplified view of discourse in both arenas, but it is difficult to discern the details from the top.
The top-down perspective is important to note, because artists from Atmosphere to the Roots have entrenched the third party by acknowledging the top’s fiscal aspirations while seeking to maintain their artistic integrity. These artists, who are neither left nor right nor completely in the middle, embrace values from both ends of the old discourse. They willingly jump into bed with the music machine (not just Clive Davis, but Michael Solomon, John LoFrument and Steve Jobs… Can you still hear me? Good!) to better the lovin’. The results vary obviously—Kwa got Jigga on the remix, but that don’t make him no Mos—but they have enabled a new model for artists in the music industry. Duh, you say? Perhaps that duh should be pointed at the absurdity of the old model. After all, it’s just a twist to that proverbial horse: “...keepin’ it real, / Yet you should try keepin’ it right” (sorry Pos).
Pigeon John, a Los Angeles-based MC hailing from the devout L.A. Symphony crew, kept this party’s constituency in mind when he made 2003’s Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister for both the party people and the nerds on the internet, thus rightly becoming aligned with the third majority. While John’s self-deprecating and self-aware observations found a warm home—no hope amidst the mainstream sheen nor the rough and tumble underground—his style was not without precedent: the Fat Boys, Biz, and Del came to mind. However, while the Pharcyde—a group with a comparable melodic sensibility and absurdist sense of humor—only made it to the verge of commercial success, John comes at a time when independent vision is sustainable, and so he keeps on keepin’ on with his latest release Sings the Blues. Content to introduce, reintroduce, and seemingly re-reintroduce himself, John covers familiar ground: love, faith, and being Pigeon John. The rehash of themes makes Blues an appendix to the previous release. John exhibits some growth as he eschews humor at times to reflect deep within his self, crafting some of his most soulful songs. However, in covering the same ground, certain flaws in John’s work begin to surface. Blues, with its scatological cover art, seemingly carries high aspirations, but works at best as another canvas for Pigeon John’s colorful world, and at worst as an indicator of stasis.
Blues’ opener, “Upside Down Rotten”, immediately evokes Dating by reconnecting with John’s audience. From his first “freak freak y’all”, evoking the party aesthetic of the days of yore, to shouting out his current audience, “whether short or tall or skater or b-basketball player or a geek hiding in the bathroom stall”, John opens his arms to everyone: “I really love y’all.” The proclamation can be read as John wanting it both / all ways, to earn the respect of the devoted and the money of the well-to-do. However, John endears when he bares his soul with lines like “I used to drink Bacardi and go to strip clubs, / And I still want to go to strip clubs”, using both pathos and humor to pave a way into the heart of the universal audience. The effect is not unlike the previous album’s “Hello Everybody”, but John’s directness and sincerity make “Rotten” sound fresh. The inverse is quickly revealed on “Perfect Formality”, a cheeky romp through John’s other familiar stomping grounds: places he is not. John shines with lines like, “Checking out the Wake Up Show and I know / I’m never gonna fit in”, summarizing the mainstreamed mindset on the supposed underground. When he later croons, “All I wanna do is be Radiohead / And do something ingenious”, he is not giving it up to the Postal Service over Paperboy, but rather critiquing the lack of subtlety in the aforementioned hip hop discourse. Mind you, this is a game with artists like, well, the Game; there is little room for a successful and creative artist. However, as John continues on about receiving “two and a half stars instead” and being “locked out”, he merely embraces his outsider status and uses it as a rallying point for his audience. It’s funny to suck, c’mon and join the PJ party. Structurally, John’s dialogue is no different from the past rhetoric: us versus the other, we versus the not. The song is entertaining initially, but hardly moves past sophomoric self-mockery.
Not to say that John’s sense of humor is trying, when it is in fact one of his strengths. On “She Cooks Me Oatmeal”, John cleverly wraps his voice within sheets of soft Rhodes-type stabs, sparse boom-crack, and enveloping bass, lubing the listener for lover’s rock before hitting the silly hook, “You cook me oatmeal, / You make me breakfast, / And I miss you, / Cos I am hungry.” However, John balances the humor with the tender, slipping in lines like “What did I do to deserve such an angel? / And now my heart is untangled.” “Oatmeal” also serves as a hopeful footnote to the harshly confessional “Emily”, which appropriately appears on Blues in remixed and rerecorded form. To heighten the impact, John now half-whispers the lines over a subdued beat, telling an all-too familiar tale of male irresponsibility and child neglect. Such is the key to resonant humor: a balance of the laugh-aloud absurd and the eye-opening observation.
The heart of Blues remains John’s ability to affirm both the self and life. On “Matter 101”, John once again goes for self, but shines when he pits struggle and success against the grand scheme. To establish an artist’s frustration, he precedes “Matter” with Sean Penn’s emotional breakdown from “I Am Sam” before fading into a meditative track built around bass tones and keys moving in rhythmic octaves. With calm and dignity, John’s matter-of-fact chorus reveals the relativity of commodified art, that both money and respect become enveloped within infinite time:
“You can say what you want, /
You can pose and front, /
But, yo, it don’t really matter, /
You can scream, you can yell, /
Succeed or Fail, /
But you’ll slowly start to shatter, /
You can fight, you can write, /
You can piss and gripe, /
And try to climb up the ladder, /
But know this the abyss will swallow and kiss, /
As you become decomposed matter.”
The realization is empowering for John, enough that he can say “I don’t care if the hip-hop headz turn away and say Pigeon John has turned gay”. The line is actually the most revolutionary, the most hardcore, though borderline Not Quite Ready For Primetime humor. In this sense, John elevates past rap clown, and allows him to reach out: “All my niggas in jail come and sing my song… All my niggas that don’t know they daddies, sing along…” John’s message of self-reliance and empowerment can apply to everyone in this case. John similarly places life in perspective in “The Grand Ole Waltz.” Featuring a full arrangement of keys and strings, and a rhythm built around kicks, snare-rim hits, and light-ride cymbals, the track undulates like the Verve with a slight boom bap. Although the melody is partially lifted from Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” (really, that cymbal wash is rather unbearable), John delivers more in his storytelling, such as when he denies a man a hand-out: “That’s when I saw this 60-year-old man noticed his life did go and come.” While John does not offer solutions, his willing and observant admissions invoke a considerable emotional stakehold with the listener.
Other highlights of Blues include the “posse” cut, “Sleeping Giants”, featuring G&E cohorts the Grouch and Eligh, in addition to remixes of “Identity Crisis”, and “Life Goes On”, all of which are certain to please (note: my review copy was not enhanced with two videos, as the commercial release will be). However, Blues works best as a collection of headphone material for the current PJ fan. While the record only hints at John’s potential, 2005 in general perhaps promises more: Lyrics Born hand-picked John to join Quannum Records’ recent extensive roster expansion, and John will open for the Living Legends’ “Classic” Tour. While the listener can lend a hand by opening their door when John comes a’ knockin’, ultimately it is up to John himself to take a stronger step forward.