[24 June 2007]
“Talk is cheap”, Queen Latifah said in “Latifah’s Had It Up to Here”, “and if talk got any cheaper, they’d be sellin’ Nike tongues instead of sneakers”. Heh … sellin’ tongues. Yep. That Latifah is a funny lady.
Although they aren’t manufacturing cheap tongues (yet), Nike has commissioned emcee and producer Aesop Rock to create an original composition to accompany its “Nike+ Original Run” series. Aesop Rock’s 45-minute master mix, titled All Day, is the third installment in the franchise, following mixes by the Crystal Method and LCD Soundsystem.
I’m just gonna give it to you straight: The mix is made for runners, but I can’t run to it. I mean, I laced up my non-talking running shoes and everything but, somewhere in the middle of my first lap, I had a series of epiphanies. One: I don’t like distance running. Two: even if I liked it, I wouldn’t run for 45 minutes. And three: Even if I wanted to run for 45 minutes, I couldn’t do it to All Day. I’m not saying I need the Rocky theme behind me, but it takes a heck of a music mix to get me around a track. I can move mountains with the right mix; I can barely move my body when I have the wrong one. I’m a complicated brotha.
Aesop Rock, however, reportedly composed the music for runners, so I felt compelled to experience it in the context of some type of workout. I didn’t want to just listen to it while I played Hearts against computer opponents Gabrielle, Halle, and Beyoncé. So, in the spirit of true investigative reporting, I chose to listen to All Day during a brisk walk at a par course—one of those long tracks with exercise stations located at random intervals. However, before I could test the viability of working out to the mix, I had to break that 45-minute track up into manageable pieces. I ended up with seven tracks and I’ve catalogued my impressions of the CD during my workout below (I literally walked the track with my notepad and my music player):
Track One (0:00-7:11): Okay, y’all. I’m stretching, doing my warm up. All Day begins with soft steps in the sand, establishing a basic rhythm. Aside from some space age noises and sound effects, it’s very much like what you’d hear at a track if you weren’t listening to your headphones—shoes grinding against the granules of the track.
Okay, I’m done stretching and I’m starting the walk. The mix isn’t doing much right now. I think this is basically the mix’s Warm Up phase. My mind is wandering. I’m concerned about how I haven’t even questioned whether the corporate dollars behind this project might corrupt the vision of the artist. Not that I’d blame anybody for taking the money. Rather, I’m alarmed that I’m no longer bothered when art and music are used as marketing tools. I’m too at peace with it. Music has helped companies sell everything—raisins (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”), pickup trucks (“Like a Rock”), birth control (“There she goes / There she goes again”), you name it. In fact, the other day at the grocery store, this lady’s kid kept bothering me, so I used a handy trick I’ve developed to get rid of bratty kids: just hum the McDonald’s theme song (“Dada da da da, I’m lovin’ it!”) and their little brains will be fixated on French Fries. It’s evil, but it never fails. Don’t blame me; I didn’t put the Filet O’ Fish in that kid’s hands. That’s the power of smartly marketed music.
All right, the mix got my attention again. It’s a minute and 28 seconds and Aesop Rock introduced a “rap” into the mix. It’s more of a chant. It fades in and out of the song and it’s extremely annoying. It comes back somewhere near the three minute, 40 second mark. The beat, however, has a forceful thump, which is good, while the synth and horns punctuate the piece. Also noteworthy: the high end noises that sound like R2D2 from Star Wars got a record deal.
Track Two (7:12-13:00): The second segment starts off with pop-like keys. I thought this was supposed to be a hip-hop mix! That’s okay, though, because the tempo quickened and got me through four repetitions at the Flat Footed Jump station—you kangaroo hop over metal poles fixed horizontally into the ground and I suppose you could kill yourself if you don’t jump high enough and accidentally trip on one of the poles.
It’s two minutes and 20-something seconds into this track and Aesop’s rap is at it again, chanting, “Cut two holes in a big brown bag, Cut two holes in a big brown bag…” and some other gibberish. Now how the $%#! is that supposed to help me get the hard body I’ve always wanted? I can’t do pull-ups and chin-ups to this! Damn it, Nike! The good news is that the pop feel gives way to an intriguing guitar-driven stretch that sounds like the riff in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. The bad news? The segment ends with another annoying rap/chant. There’s gotta be a way to edit that out.
Track Three (13:01-18:52): I’m hearing a funky, wormy bassline and I dig it! For some reason, I want to sing “Monster Mash” along with it, but never mind that. This time, I even like the rap near the beginning (“You can put your radios a little bit louder / If the radios are louder then the people will play”), but the rap that pops up at around four and a half minutes isn’t nearly as compelling. Now you can really appreciate the Flavor Flavs and Lil Jons of the world. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for Flavor’s “Yeyah boyeee!” or Lil Jon’s “Yeyah!” right about now to keep me motivated. Everybody disses Lil Jon’s music, but if you think about it, he’s only a stomp away from being Kirk Franklin and a haircut away from turning into a motivational speaker.
Oh, yeah, the music! The bass, the guitars, and the keys work nicely together. I suspect the strongest parts of the mix are interspersed with filler to make it last the full 45 minutes. There’s a little filler in this section.
Track Four (18:53-24:59): The segments are getting predictable. They open with some “Cat in the Hat”-like rhyme, which totally disrupts my concentration. The tempo would fit EPMD’s “You’re a Customer”, except there’s less thump to the percussion. The guitar reminds me of Mission: Impossible; I can almost see Tom Cruise grinning his way through another M:I movie. [Shudder.] Better yet, Aesop Rock incorporates some exquisite scratches and cuts into this section, word to DJ Kool Herc. By the way, I did three sets of 10 on each leg at this silly High Jump station—you jump on one foot and tap the high bar. Very easy to do but it makes you feel like you were born on Mount Olympus.
Oh, no. I’ll probably have to give the “Nike Plus” product line a plug. It sounds kind of corny—well, wait a sec, it’s not as bad as that ridiculous Reebok pump. The Nike+ shoe “talks” to your iPod nano—and Wonder Twin powers ... activate! The shoe “tells” the iPod the time, distance, and pace of your run, in addition to the number of calories you’ve burned. Sounds like the perfect Christmas gift for Inspector Gadget. Computer software helps you create a “personal” training program (“Go, go, Gadget coach!”). Hmm … something about the shoe makes me think a cyborg from the future is going to arrive at any moment to put a stop to all this, preferably before the shoe becomes self-aware and plots a course for global destruction. Then again, Nike should send shoes (size 11 and a half please), an iPod (any color is fine), and a trial account for the training software. That way, a reviewer can get the full impact.
Track Five (25:00-31:20): I’m walking faster because this segment isn’t as interesting as the previous ones. I figure I can save myself some misery if I pick up the pace. I did the Hand Walk (I thought these were called “Monkey Bars”), the Bench Leg Lift (they should rethink this station before somebody throws their back out), and the Push Ups (when I’m low to the ground, I don’t think about all the power lines surrounding me—geez, I thought this was the “good” part of town). On the plus side, I like the song’s “jungle” theme, complete with congas and bongos and what not, yet a little spacey and industrial. This track feels more like a transition than a focus, though. The raps are so intermittent and irritating I want to throw my music player into that nearby crowd of trees. Let’s find out what the squirrels think.
Track Six (31:21-37:39): Question: Name one thing that would be great about this segment. Answer: No rap at the beginning of it. Survey says: DING! As luck would have it, the track doesn’t start with a rap. Instead, the percussion kicks up a notch, which is a good thing, like Sheila E. ran into the studio and said, “Yo, I got this, just gimme them sticks!” Triumphant horns dart fluidly through the piece, thanks to a clever echo effect. Ya know, I genuinely like this part of the mix. The voices in the background—I can’t tell if they’re saying, “Yo! Yo! Yo!” or “Go! Go! Go!” Either way, they got me pumped up and I rocked the hell out of my crunches. Ut oh. That little old lady with the cane is checking me out.
Track Seven (37:40-End): Despite the rap, the bass bubbles again, the guitar sharpens, and there’s an element of whimsy as the track initiates a sonic cool down. I like it when keyboards appear in this mix, but I’d like to hear some real chords, not just a key here, a key there—the way people who can’t type peck at the letters. There isn’t much going on, but that makes sense because the workout is presumably winding down. I’m doing my cool down stretches now.
Let’s see … Overall, I think the music is decent though not necessarily conducive to working out. Maybe runners will like it. I might switch this mix in and out of an array of other mixes, as part of my workout routine, but I’m more likely to listen to the segments I like while I play Hearts. Nike’s not going to be happy about that. I wonder what I’ll write in the review.