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Sarai

The Original

(Epic; US: 29 Jul 2003; UK: Available as import)

Skim Shady

I hope to someday offer a community college course for marketing people. It would mostly consist of insults and perhaps a day or two showing participants how to put cyanide in a rear molar in case they were to spontaneously develop consciences. I would also train them to do more rewarding and useful jobs like picking rancid flesh off road kill on behalf of carrion predators that are disabled or otherwise unable to gather their own death meat.


Poor Sarai (rhymes with DeVri), her marketing hacks have done her so many bad turns, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there are the insidious photographs, a fold out portfolio of what look like fuzzy stills from soft-core hotel pay-per-view. The most shuddering example is the insert photo with Sarai squatting in velour gym shorts, with tube socks and hair aerodynamically feathered like Family Ties-era Justine Bateman. It projects a wholly creepy sexualization, like the photographer was making a water sports fetish centerfold for a Japanese magazine called Pee Pee Teens. I don’t blame her in the least, except that she should perhaps have balked at the shot of her bra and said to her A&R toady: “I don’t think stripper pole is what I’m going for with my music”.


Bad photo shoot aside, the bigger misstep has to be that they’re trying to market her as the female Eminem, as if he’s some kind paper doll category that can be reproduced by twisting off his penis and slapping on some boobs. Tell me, dear marketers: will you soon be announcing a “black Eminem”? The problem with looking for a “Feminem” is that good artists are not products, and consequently while their knock-offs might generate a short-term spike in sales for the imitators, eventually they simple dilute the authenticity of a style to the point where even innovators are overlooked because of the public’s boredom with a particular “trend”. For all my misgivings about the ascent of the Oedipal wonder, I can’t help but marvel at what an unprecedented cipher he has become for vague, apolitical rage. He’s the disaffected do-nothing redeemer of angsty white boys in exit ramp towns across America. Hip-hop for Eminem is uniquely cathartic: a rhythmically complex substitute for the therapy that Medicaid clearly should have paid for. Eminem is Eminem and not surprisingly, Sarai is not.


Heather Havrilesky, writer for Salon, suggests that previous attempts to find that white female grail for the mic have failed because other contenders were either too smart (Northern State) or not as easy to objectify (Princess Superstar). If there’s any truth to that, and I have every reason to believe that there is, then it makes Sarai’s record all the more difficult to stomach. It’s just another example of the sexism inherent in the music industry’s promotion machine. Women’s talent is only marketable if industry scum can portray them as stroke-off posters or whore-training icons for impressionable little girls.


None of this is this Sarai’s fault, mind you, but it’s inevitable that such issues should be confrontationally addressed if this is how her record company is going to choose to pimp her to the masses. Honestly, if you hadn’t told me who it was, I would have thought that this was the new record from A.M.I.L., whose pan flash came in the form of one full length resulting from her cameo appearance on the Jay-Z song, “Can I Get A . . . ?” Their silken, imploded vocal styles are virtually identical. And so is the fleeting, shrugging impression their music leaves.


With Sarai, it seems to be a problem of reference points (not having any good ones) and a style that is notable for its nondescript blandness. Musically, Sarai’s aim is muddied by her obviously stab at pop crossover. Her music sounds like hip-hop that’s trying to avoid sounding too much like hip-hop, the sort of Will Smith approach whereby every single edge and distinguishing feature is mulched in service to a pillow-smothered beat and a chorus that’s catchy in a cloying, catchphrase, office joke kind of way. Sarai’s worst flailings are truly egregious. “Swear” actually lifts its chorus from “Jump in the Line” (made most famous during that Beetlejuice dinner party scene) to startlingly bad ends. It’s one of those songs that reeks of a bad day in the Playdoh hit factory.


If you’re going to try to posture some artist as the latest incarnation of Eminem (apparently hip-hop’s version of the Dalai Llama), at the very least she should be able to perform minor feats of verbal arabesque. In the gymnasium of lyrics, Sarai is pretty much confined to somersaults and log rolls. Clever incorporations of cultural flotsam are entirely absent (unless you count lines like “You Could Never’s”: “Got Liberace feelin’ my ghost I glow rocks”) and the rest pretty much sounds like an uninspired and tentative riff to the girl’s room mirror. In “Black & White” she rotely struts with “Come to a session at the studio watch me flow / Watch the record sales watch me blow / Watch me get ‘em all sayin’ oohh look at her go”. She’s everything that’s tired about radio hip-hop in a passively sucking way. Don’t get me wrong, if I heard her music on the radio, it might take awhile before I switched it back to NPR, but I would nonetheless quickly tire of music so slothfully bored with its own emptiness. I might forego bitching about the sad state of the backdrops and the Lee press-on jankyness of the lyrics, if I thought Sarai actually had much to say. “I mean we’re all the same color inside” (“Ladies”) was as close as I could find to a statement of principle outside her noncommittal self-stroking. Right, too bad we can all walk around half-eviscerated with our guts hanging out, then everybody would get along. This album is a boilerplate throwaway of calculated clichés that should be taken out like flung skeet. If you’re hungering for some women on the mic, go grab some T-love, Princess Superstar, Northern State, or Jean Grae and don’t let Epic Records dry hump your wallet with this misguided attempt to plunder your stereo with McShady.

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