Slate is not normally known for their excellent music coverage. That’s a shame because they have two good critics on staff, Hua Hsu and Jody Rosen. They also used to publish Sasha Frere-Jones before The New Yorker came calling, as well as Eric Weisbard. Slate makes an good effort to cover music – much better than, say, NPR with sports.
That is what makes this article by Ben Mathis-Lilley so puzzling. It is called “When good rappers collaborate with lame rockers“. Mathis-Lilley, according to his byline, is an editor at New York magazine. He might even be a good editor but he sure is a terrible music writer.
He starts out his piece writing about how he was excited that his beloved hip-hoppers The Roots had a record forthcoming. Then he was crushed because the band has a song on it called “Birthday Girl” that has Patrick Stump, of Fall Out Boy fame, singing on it. Then he offers this confession:
Now, I don’t really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I’m expected not to like them. They wear hair gel, and one of the guys in the band dates Ashlee Simpson, so it’s fair to assume that they suck and that their fans are vapid teeny-boppers whose heads would explode if they heard what real rock ‘n’ roll sounds like. What kind of lame middlebrow loser do the Roots take me for?
That turns out to be okay because “I gave “Birthday Girl,” the Roots-Patrick Stump song, a courtesy listen and was greatly disturbed to discover that I liked it.” What kind of person hates their life so much that they’re disappointed in their own enjoyment? “I was a bit taken aback; cultural snobbery is such an integral part of my personality. I’d have to rethink a lot of things if it turned out I liked listening to Fall Out Boy, Maroon 5, and Linkin Park.” Oh.
But there’s a happy ending in all this soul-searching: “Fortunately, a quick zip through the iTunes store reassured me that I don’t.” Phew. That was a close one.
Mathis-Lilley doesn’t lose his focus though and still wants to answer the question of his article. He draws the conclusion that “[those lame rockers] are seen by their hip-hop collaborators, I think, as living samples, picked out of the musical spectrum because their voices have some distinctive quality that the Roots or Kanye West or Dr. Dre want on their track….Adam Levine has an indisputably fantastic voice for the wistful soul of ‘Heard ‘Em Say.'” Case closed; end of story, right? He could have fared better by using that as his thesis and building from there.
He spends the article with a premise that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about and has some biases against things he isn’t supposed to like, gets disappointed in himself when he finds that he does in fact enjoy it. His research concludes that they were right he was wrong and maybe these “lame rockers” were the correct choices for the songs. So, unsurprisingly, he concludes with the premise that he began with, and in a bit of Rumsfeldian denial, still sticks with it:
In these last days of the record business as we know it, established indie-rockers are as good a sales bet as anyone else. So why not get the best rap acts and the best indie acts in the studio together? It might produce some great songs, it could move a lot of units, and—I say this with significantly less condescension than I would have a few weeks ago—it might introduce some vapid middlebrow teeny-boppers to bands they’ll like even more than Fall Out Boy.
Yeah. I’m sure the next thing this world needs right now is a Snoop Dogg/Iron & Wine collaboration and for 50 Cent to tell more people about Spoon. Moreover, just why was there no mention of Lupe Fiasco working with Matthew Santos?
Mathis-Lilley wanted to ask just what in the hell was ?uestlove thinking but he and his editors need to answer that same question first.