[3 September 2009]
I’ve been waiting for this album for two and a half years, give or take, ever since I heard Aaron LaCrate’s Bmore Gutter Music mix for the (assumedly) defunct Science Faction mix series. That excellent disc was my first exposure to the Baltimore-based “gutter” sound, loosely affiliated with the Hollertronix crew, which itself exists under Diplo’s auspices. LaCrate is based in the Murder City while Diplo hails from Philly—only about two hours between them, an axis of mad crunk club musicians dominating the mid-Atlantic region. All of these influences can be heard on I Love You, in addition to the practically de rigeur Brooklyn hauteur of Dave Sitek.
It’s a little bit exhausting to keep track of all these connected dots. I’m looking at the preceding paragraph, checking back and forth on Wikipedia to make sure I have everyone’s home city correct, along with whom is connected with whom, etc. And certainly it would be easy to dismiss I Love You as little more than the sum of all these many, many connections. Coming on the heels of Spank Rock, Santigold, and M.I.A., perhaps there’s a sense that Diplo has too many protégées on the market. But then, of course, it would be a disservice to call any of the above Diplo’s “protégées”, even though they all carry his imprimatur. It’s complicated. (Just ask anyone foolhardy enough to dismiss M.I.A. on the basis of her producers.) Basically, Blank’s problem is that while her connections and collaborators are the reason she’s reached this point, she’s going to be judged as nothing but the product of these connections, unfairly or no. Whenever any scene blows up, the last one out the door with their album always gets pegged a Johnny-come-lately, even if they were at ground zero. (Just ask Masta Killa.)
So, the question becomes, is I Love You less interesting as an album because the sound that spawned it hit big years back? Or is Amanda Blank just a less interesting performer than the aforementioned Santigold and M.I.A.?
Again, it’s complicated. She stole the show on Spank Rock’s 2006 debut YoYoYoYoYo with a simply obscene (in more ways than one) display of tongue-twisting dirtier-than-dirt sex rap on the track “Bump”. Her talents are on display here to mostly good results, and she more than proves her mettle as a rhyme-slinger. Perhaps, you may argue, her chosen métier is limited, with lyrics such as these, from the album’s debut single “Might Like You Better”:
Ride no lie just get inside me
Like you better if you just ride me,
Grind me, try me, watch me finish
I like you better if you get up in it.
Again, I hear your rhetorical reply, “we didn’t like the whole slutty white-girl-singing-2 Live Crew thing when it was called Princess Superstar, why should we care now?” I’m sympathetic to this argument because, despite my best attempts, I never quite warmed to the Princess, either. (Some did.) It’s an obvious gimmick, really, but that doesn’t necessarily make it entirely invalid. She’s good at rapping dirty, and the frisson gained by hearing a fetching Caucasian lass get filthy is, if a gimmick, at least a legitimately arresting gimmick. Some of these couplets are positively inspired. If you don’t like the premise, that’s your prerogative. But she embraces the role of slut with a vigor that places her entirely in command of her situation. She’s not some rap video porno-wannabe victimized by capitalism into surrendering her volition in exchange for remuneration. She’s in charge, and her desire to dominate the rhetorical battlefield of her sexual conquests is entirely convincing. Some guys like that, or so I hear. She’s colonizing the same territory the New Young Pony Club explored on Fantastic Playroom. If the result is less consistent than that excellent release, well, that’s nothing to worry about. I think Fantastic Playroom is one of the best albums of the decade.
There are, it must be admitted, two regrettable “covers” (interpolations, really): the aforementioned “Might Like You Better”, which spins Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never” to lackluster effect, and “A Love Song”, which you might better recognize as LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”. The latter track—or at least, a verse from that track—also appeared on Santigold and Diplo’s 2008 mixtape Top Ranking. It worked in that context but not so much in this context. It’s a fun little bit on a mix filled with fun “gotcha!” moments, but on an album that feels occasionally flabby at 33 minutes long, a gratuitous cover draws attention to what might otherwise and unkindly be seen as a paucity of actual ideas.
But I’ll be kind because I like the album, in general. Most of the beats are good (props to Switch and Diplo for not dropping the ball), her verses are top notch, and her attempts at changing pace with a couple of straight-forward sung pop tracks works pretty well, all things considered. She is conscious, it seems, of her voice’s limitations. She’s not a very versatile singer, not in the same way she is a good rapper, but her ballads sidestep any misguided vocal pyrotechnics. “Shame on Me” and “Leaving You Behind” are better pop songs than anyone could reasonably expect on a rap album (wisely, she cedes some of the singing responsibility on the latter track to Lykke Li). “Big Heavy” sounds like it could very well have wandered in off the aforementioned “Fantastic Playroom”, and features Blank switching between her sassy rap persona and her more nuanced singing voice with a confidence that speaks well for her future longevity as a pony of more than one proverbial trick.
So yeah: good debut, if a bit short. She comes off well even next to celebrity ringers like Diplo and Santigold. She’s in control of her vertical, and if you’re not careful she might be in control of your horizontal as well.