Wednesday, 13 January 2010

While You Were Sleeping...*

Just as the first decade of the 21st century was limping to a close, and perhaps in an attempt to disprove the maxim that nothing decent is ever released during December, three new tunes quietly surfaced with comparatively little fuss last month. Personally, I thought all three were better than just about anything else released in the whole of 2009 and, while it's more or less certain that at least one of them will reach a mass audience in 2010, they all deserve more attention than they received during that dismal month when half the country was pretending to like Rage Against The Machine.

The track most likely to find its way onto Radio 2's A-list (Radio 1 wouldn't dream of A-listing anyone so old...) is Sade's Soldier Of Love, the title track from her forthcoming album. Not so much a capital-S single as an exercise in mood and atmospherics, I'd be fascinated to hear a dubstep treatment of it (a Mala rework would be amazing, if anyone from Sony happens to be reading). Sade clearly has no interest in trying to compete with what's on the radio right now, whether that happens to be Michael Buble, Paolo Nutini, the Saturdays or Chipmunk – the song is six minutes long, after all - so the absence of a clear, strong hook isn't that important. On American r&b radio, where she's still worshipped as a goddess, they'll play it regardless, and the fact that it doesn't sound formatted to fuck and back won't make a blind bit of difference. It isn't just the grown-and-sexy crowd who'll get behind this, either. Within days of the song being premiered on her official site, rappers were falling over one another to be the first to spit a hot sixteen over its meandering groove and get an unofficial remix of some sort circulating around the net.

Characteristically, Soldier Of Love sounds as if it's been built from the groove upwards, the voice and lyrics seeming no more than another component of the song's atmosphere rather than the centre of it, as might be the case with another singer. Like Pearls or I Never Thought I'd See The Day, the vocal sounds as if it came from within the music rather than something that was worked up elsewhere and added at a later date. All the separate elements - the martial drum motif, the combat metaphors, the stuttering guitar near the end that sounds like gunfire - all sound as if they're vibing off everything else in the track and everything sounds exactly where it's supposed to be. It's tremendous stuff, but whether it'll be enough to prevent lazy hacks trotting out a succession of cliches about 80s wine bars when the time comes to review the album remains to be seen. Despite being in the game for almost exactly the same length of time (as well as being around the same age), Sade's never shown any inclination to mimic Madonna's eagerness to be seen to be on top of whatever the cutting-edge sound is. In fact, much like Portishead (who we'll come to in a moment), she continues to strike me as someone who knows precisely what she's aiming for every time and is prepared to shut herself away for as long as it takes, in complete defiance of passing trends, until she gets what she wants. And again, much like Portishead, the finished article will sound as if it couldn't possibly have been made by anyone else.

Within a few days of Soldier Of Love reaching the web, Portishead marked International Human Rights Day by slipping the leash on a new song, Chase The Tear, making it available for download exclusively via 7Digital and donating all profits to Amnesty International. Given that the band usually works at the sort of pace that would make a Tarkovsky flick seem to zip along like Usain Bolt or something, it came as quite a shock that some new material should surface within 18 months of the magnificent Third. Perhaps less surprising is that the wintry analog spookiness of Third’s best track, The Rip, seems to have led them toward something that sounds a little like Can remixed by Giorgio Moroder. Let’s just look at that again, shall we? New Portishead music without the customary years-long wait, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s probably the closest they’ve ever got to a dance record. Oh, no - nothing interesting ever gets released in December…

As sure as night follows day, anything Portishead do will either be described as “moody”, or will be greeted with a chorus of grouchy demands that Beth Gibbons cheer up and try working in a call centre if she wants something to be miserable about. Funny thing is - and I may as well go for the world record on Things You Never Thought You’d Write About Portishead here - Chase The Tear really does sound like a group of musicians having fun again. It’s driven by a surging motorik judder that manages to sound exhilarating and claustrophobic at the same time, and while it isn’t exactly Music Sounds Better With You, it’s still quite a way from what Portishead seemed to have become between their last two albums; a band apparently so repulsed by the idea of their music soundtracking chi-chi dinner parties and “edgy” TV dramas that they were paralysed with fear at the thought of making a record people might actually, y'know, like. Well, I’m quite pleased I was wrong about that, and if 2010 sees the release of a fourth Portishead album, that’ll be another nice surprise.

Not as nice a surprise, however, as a tangible physical release by the most intriguing rapper to emerge in the latter half of the decade would be. Yes, Jay Electronica's handle is an unwieldy one – a little corny, even – but as anyone who’s been following this New Orleans-born emcee for the last few years will tell you, once you hear him, you'll know it really wouldn’t matter a tuppenny fuck if he called himself The Reverend Kenny Carl Jackson-Jones Dominguez IV or Barack Hussein Obama. Web buzz can be a fickle thing in the hip-hop world, as Papoose and Charles Hamilton can probably testify, but Jay Elec has avoided the established path of mixtape after mixtape and more guest verses than Busta and Jadakiss combined. Instead he’s gone for a steady drip-drip of internet-only releases (often an indication that your status most assuredly ain’t hood, although not in this case) punctuated by the odd thing you can buy at iTunes, the most recent being Exhibit C.

Built on an incredible, neck-snapping beat by Just Blaze (one of JE’s earliest champions) crafted from a few diced-and-sliced chunks of Billy Stewart’s gorgeous 1967 soul ballad Cross My Heart, Exhibit C is one of those songs you don’t - can't - listen to just the once. If it had been released back in the days of analog mixtapes, I guarantee you that kids would have been hitting the rewind button again and again on this, trying to catch every last, dazzling syllable of verses that – honestly, it's this good – are almost the equal of vintage Rakim or Illmatic-era Nas in terms of imagination, audacity and self-assurance. "Swagger", I think the kids are calling it now. Just listen to that last verse. I mean, fucking hell. It’s one of those all-too-rare tunes that unites the backpackers and the how-about-some-hardcore types, simply because it deals directly with the fundamentals of rap music – beats and rhymes – and does so with such purpose, intelligence and unwavering, I-don’t-mean-to-brag-I-don’t-mean-to-boast self-confidence that time-served rap fans have described it as “like hearing hip-hop for the first time”. Just Blaze himself orchestrated a Twitter campaign that pushed the song into the top 10 of the US iTunes Hip-Hop chart in the third week of December. Yeah, imagine that, eh? People buying music they like in the hope of livening up the charts at Christmas. I wonder if it’ll catch on? Put it this way; if you like rap, then you can’t not like this.

(* - yeah, like I can talk...)

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