Us3: Questions

Tim O'Neil

1993 was a long time ago, and what was sly and cosmopolitan then is elementary now.



Label: Self
US Release Date: 2005-04-26
UK Release Date: 2004-09-20
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Those who remember Us3 at all will remember them for one reason: their early '90s soundtrack-staple "Cantaloop". It was, even in retrospect, a brilliant piece of hybrid pop that excellently foreshadowed many of the defining movements of the decade's latter half -- the consolidation and rapproachment of multiple disparate genres. Us3 came along with a deceptively simple mixture of jazz, hip-hop, R&B and house music at just the right time in the continued development of all these genres, pointing the way towards the now-inevitable future in which we all live, wherein artists as varied as Beck, Björk, DJ Spooky, Saint Germaine, the Chemical Brothers, Radiohead and even Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit make their bones by warping and mutating previously staid and conservative genre boundaries. It is now taken for granted that some of the most vital places in contemporary music are the intersections where previously well-defined modes meet and commingle. Interesting and/or lucrative things happen when boundaries are demolished, whether it means bringing conflicting musical traditions together for profitable contrast or merely putting two unlike tastes together in hopes of exploiting previously demarcated marketing demographics.

But 1993 was a long time ago, and what was sly and cosmopolitan then is elementary now. This is ably demonstrated by the fact that not one but two remixes of "Cantaloop" appear on Questions, the 2004 "Soul Mix" and the 2004 "Bossa Mix". Both feature a regrettable rap by Reggi Wyns, featuring lyrics like:

"Fell the beat bop, jazz and hip-hop, /
Now we got black rock, neo-soul and hip-hop, /
If you don't know the roots of the tree, /
You don't know the branch where the fruit will be.

If you follow hip-hop, you know that there's nothing less convining than a veteran old-schooler proclaiming his current relevence merely by restating his uncontested influence. Music is a "what have you done for me lately?" world, and unless you can prove that what you're doing now is as interesting as what you did back in the day, no-one's going to care.

Unfortunately for Us3, putting simplified jazz riffs over rudimentary hip-hop beats is hardly original. There are so many people who have done this kind of hybrid in the past fifteen years, and done it better, that Questions has a hard time seeming anything but stale. Wyns raps reappear on other tracks such as "What Does That Mean?" and "Why Not?", but you'd be hard pressed to tell one from the other, with such basic beats and extremely textureless melodic accompaniment. Ed Jones' flute shows up on a handful of tracks, but even though he seems an excellent player he is limited by this uninspired material, forced into the unpromising position of playing melodic counterpart to Wyns' simplistic raps. Mpho shows up to add soul vocals for tracks like "Watcha Gonna Do?" and "The Truth", and while she is an absolutely competent vocalist, she is limited by the uninspired material she is forced to elaborate. This kind of laid-back neo soul is hardly my bailywick, but I can't help but thinking that her tracks do nothing but follow meekly in the footsteps of superior singers like Jill Scott, India.Arie and Erykah Badu.

If it sounds like I'm being overly harsh, please forgive me -- but this is well-trod ground. In and of itself, unoriginality is no cardinal sin. Some of the best music ever made has been variations on previously established modes. But Questions commits the ultimate error of being both redundant and boring, and when you get down to it, there really isn't much more I can say on the matter.


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