by Carl Wilson
Los Angeles rappa-ternt-sanga Aloe Blacc has been garnering millions of plaudits and YouTube hits (if perhaps not dollars) since spring for his very-much-remixed recession lament, “I Need a Dollar.”
The song got its boost on the shoulders of an HBO series called How to Make It in America that, like a few other of the channel’s other recent recession-conscious productions, seems to stumble over the gap between the subject and the channel’s, shall we say, coastal-elite sensibilities (“from the producers of Entourage,” ’nuff said). The best recession-informed work of art on TV I know is Breaking Bad, from comparative upstart AMC.
You could make parallel criticisms of Aloe Blacc’s take on neo-soul: He’s the well-educated offspring of Panamanian immigrants and the layoff that inspired his popular mini-beggar’s-opera was from a job as a consultant with Ernst & Young. Which is definitely part of the financial downturn’s story, but not quite the blue-collar, Bobby Womack tale that his song calls to mind. More important (because using biographical details to call a song phony is always a sucker’s move) is that musically, as many have noted, the track gets walloped by the comparisons it’s just strong enough to bring up, whether that’s Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.
Nevertheless, social-realist songs about money are still scarce enough in the Richie Rich fantascape of contemporary hip-hop and R&B that I’ll take its anthem-of-2010 status gladly.
In a couple of interviews Blacc talks about the stylistic genesis of “Need a Dollar” in listening to field recordings of chain-gang music. That’s what inspired the “woah-oh” bits of the arrangement, the call-and-response. To NPR he also added: “The song, to me, feels like kind of a community song, something that you would sing with a group of friends. And each verse would be sung by a different person about their particular issue or problem or reason why they need a dollar, you know?”
So the tune comes by its ultra-remixability organically, and versions that add rapping (a form that has passing verses around in its DNA) feel more satisfying than the original, enough so that it’s funny he didn’t think to do it in the first place – since Blacc’s also been an MC since his start in 1990s rap duo Emanon.
But that field-recording impulse is more simply and delightfully realized in an oddball track from Blacc’s previous album, Shine Through.
I’ve been thinking lately about whether and how the current vogue for mixing fiction and documentary expresses itself in music, and “Busking” goes pretty far in the direction of audio vérité. Enough so that I can’t quite tell if this video is actually the record of the song’s creation and don’t even want the illusion shattered. (I know he’s said that he used to walk around at the time with a recorder to capture song ideas on the fly.) In lieu of a bass line you’ve got the hum of traffic and pressure hoses, and instead of a snare break you’ve got a bus-stop sneeze.
But more than those elements, I love its seemingly almost-involuntary, OCD weave of internal monologue and melody, which feels like pulling open the lid on the deepest wellspring of song. I don’t know about you, but occasionally, when I’m feeling lonely, fretful, a little desperate, I’ve comforted myself by taking whatever set of thoughts is looping unstoppably through my brain and singing them to myself: “Gotta make that phone call, don’t wanna make that phone call, it’s a terrible phone call…” or even just, “I’m freaking freaking out today, can’t make that freaking out go ‘way.”
Blacc here applies that formula to what is no doubt the very frustrating situation of dependency on Los Angeles public transit – a recessionary audio-film without all the hoopla of beats and horns and all the more effective in suggesting scarcity.
Of course, low production values in music are just as often the domain of the privileged (who unintentionally make a show of that privilege exactly by discarding its trappings and going “lo-fi”), while polish testifies to the aspiration to accrue more privilege (which isn’t an ignoble goal at all). The standard object of a field recording, after all, is someone or something of exotic or anthropological interest. Still, the gutsy sonic imagination of “Busking” (with the pun in the title that both recalls and makes fun of hip-hop bragging – hey hey, he’s the Bus King) presents alternatives to the old escapism-versus-protest-song duality when it comes to portraying hard times in music just by lending a little extra meaning to the phrase “economy of means.”