[8 October 2001]
It is impossible not to confront the obvious features when faced with this amiable but basically lightweight piece of Pop-Hop. Skin colour and Marshall Mathers. Eminem is white and has got Dr. Dre, Bubba Sparxxx is white and has got Timbaland. They therefore both share the good fortune of having two of the most influential and instantly recognisable black production talents behind them. Of course they differ as much as do their producers’ house styles. Eminem is urban, Northern and angry (well, petulant at least) while Bubba Sparxxx is rural, Southern and kinda laid-back. Sadly but inevitably, being white they both get more media attention than 95% of black rappers. They also initiate a whole number of debates about hip-hop as the new rock music and no longer the preserve of African-Americans. All I can say to all this is “ho-hum”. As hip-hop is now the dominant force in popular music, the fact that two white Americans have become competent rappers is hardly a surprise and musically and culturally much less important than the fact there are now significant hip-hop scenes in every country on the planet—including some particularly distinctive and under-discussed ones in France, Britain, and South Africa. Neither Eminem nor Bubba Sparxxx actually raise that many real questions—except about the importance of image and marketing in what is supposed to the form that represents the authentic voice of Now.
This is just another pop album. It’s not bad for what it is, but the social significance with which this country boy has been lumbered is farcical. Surely even our historically blind music press can think of one or two white southerners who made reasonable livings drawing on black musical forms? I don’t believe this represents either a new cross-cultural understanding or an unprecedented ripping-off of some hitherto unplundered form. It is part of what happened throughout the twentieth century. Black musical styles get popular and others start to copy them. Some do it well, most do it execrably. That, to me, is the issue—how does Bubba fare as the latest in a long line that runs from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band through Jerry Lee Lewis and up to the present?
Well, he does all right, but hardly adds to a genre that, truth be told, could actually do with some fresh talent. It does him no harm having Timbaland on board, for his beats are solid and less commercial than he sometimes delivers. By the way, not all the album is Timbaland produced so the Mathers/Dre comparison is not as apposite as has been implied. The songs themselves are either comedy numbers (catchy but short-lived in their appeal, I suspect) or vaguely introspective. Bubba seems ill at ease with the compulsory boasting—which is about the most refreshing thing about the record. Outkast is an obvious and admitted influence and the whole Dirty South thing has some bearing on the feel of the record. He is not as skillful a rapper as any of the figures associated with that trend—and Ludicrus is wittier too. The much publicised back-porch persona is sort of likeable but outstays its welcome.
The best tracks are the bizarre, classically accompanied, paranoia of “Take Off” and the less sharp than it imagines but nicely funky “All the Same”. The widely heard “Ugly” and “Lovely” already sound tired—although props to Timbaland and the video-makers who undoubtedly had a field day with the raw material provided them by Sparxxx. As a rhymer, Bubba is no great shakes. Although he does have humour and intelligence plus a nice line in self-deprecation. At least he is nowhere near as whingey as Eminem nor as crass as most contemporary wordsmiths. What he lacks is variety—rhythmically and lyrically. Listen to this set then go to Big Daddy Kane, Rakim or Q-Tip and remind yourself how banal rap technique has become. Bubba doesn’t, thank God, just yell angrily at you but he really only talks into the mike—barely even riding the rhythm never mind having any attack or finesse to his stylings. He has one good idea: down home boy = down home wisdom, but it is just one idea and can’t quite sustain an album.
Once you’ve got the strengths of the character then there is little to add. The mixture of Bubba’s relaxed drawl and some catchy hooks means none of the tracks are in any way unlistenable but there is better out there. If you like Timbaland stick with Missy Elliott and if it’s a change from the norm you are after, check out J-Dilla or Madlib. If it’s the Bubba character itself that really grabs you, then wait a few months as he will undoubtedly head for Hollywood, since that seems to be the goal of all of today’s rising rap “stars”. Comedy feature—country boy in the big bad city? Don’t bet against it.
I have a fantasy that as more of the white boys start rapping and as the suburban rock-kids who buy rap ditch the black faces for the white ones, rap will move on or maybe even fade away. There’s too much money in the game for that to happen but, with a few exceptions, that’s what hip-hop is now—a profitable game. The beats still sound good, but what is lain on top of them ain’t generally up to much. The irony is that most of the white kids like the attitude more than the beats anyway—what they really want are gangsta lyrics over hard-rock. It is surely time to break out, recognising that hip-hop is the new rock ‘n’ roll is identifying the problem not the solution. Bubba has the edge over Eminem in that he is definitely no gangsta (wannabe or otherwise) as yet, but he is a less well-honed performer. Either way, neither of them bring anything especially astounding to the form, whatever they might bring to the sociological consideration of that form.
There is some amusement to be had in delving into the folksy world of numbers like “Bubba Talk” and there is no denying that “Ugly” does do the business on the dancefloor. It is also worth noting a pleasing coherence to the structure of the whole album. Dramatic monologue and dramatis persona are efficiently executed, despite the narrowness and the repetition. Even so, the world hardly needs another average rap album, which, whether you see Sparxxx as mere marketing gimmick or genuine signifier of the New South, I am afraid,is all Dark Days, Bright Nights represents.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sparxxxbubba-dark/