Tag Archives: I Need a Dollar

Way Up In This Building With R. Kelly

by Chris Randle

Last month, I had the singular pleasure of attending the New York premiere for new chapters of Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s musical soap opera about some Chicago characters (cops, reverends, gangsters with bullets for teeth) who are all secretly having affairs with each other. They’re the first installments since 2007, when the series became a beloved cultural touchstone, partly due to people too clueless to realize that its creator is very much in on the joke. (The new episodes began with him sitting in an opulent study, brandy at hand, singing “the story so far” from an actual book.) Kelly said that Trapped is improvised in his studio, which explains its addictive how-can-they-possibly-resolve-this quality, and while there are subtle modulations or homages throughout – reworking the series’ eight-note leitmotif through various genres, multiple En Vogue jokes – the quickness of his narrative thinking is most impressive (there are already 85 chapters on deck). In Trapped’s disorienting spirit, then, here is the ensuing Q&A as a stream of consciousness , shorn of all context. Kells wore expensive-looking gloves the whole time.

“I had to save up my money for five long years. Dollar a day.”

Trapped in the Closet is an alien and I’m like an astronaut.”

“I don’t have a job, so I just sit in the studio all day thinking of stupid stuff to do.”

“I went out and got me those tall shoes with the fish in them.”

[in response to a walk through a building that’s narrated for almost an entire chapter] “That’s me trying to say, in a hilarious type of way, ‘That guy is way up in this building.'”

“Chewbacca and all of those guys.”

“I’ve got a leash on this thing and I’m going to walk it.”

“The record company is like ‘where’s the hook,’ and I’m like ‘that is the hook.’ The hook is that there’s no hook.”

“I feel like a scientist of music.”

[the opening bars of “Bump & Grind,” which he sang for a delirious fan in the audience with nobly horny-sounding ardour]

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Filed under chris randle, music

“I Need a Dollar” by Aloe Blacc (2010) and “Busking” by Aloe Blacc (2006)

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 verymuchremixed 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.”


Filed under carl wilson, music, TV/video