By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Usually the line comes from some rapidly bourgeoisifying alt-rocker emeritus who hasn't bought a hip-hop record since Fear of a Black Planet, the kind who thinks the Beasties' formerly trashy music has been improved by their brushes with Buddhism and flutes, a stay-at-home who wouldn't dance to the revolution if Emma Goldman sent him a personally engraved invite. Whatever happened to all the politically conscious rap? our straw man wants to know. For him, hip hop started with "The Message" and ended well before Puffy and Mase desecrated the same; he thinks that hip hop is less a form of music than a significant cultural moment, like an interview with Alice Walker on Charlie Rose.
In response to such pontification, Tha Liks' X.O. Experience (Loud/Columbia) snakes a grimy finger down its throat and heaves with a sound that's exuberant, rowdy, inventive, and without redeeming social value. Not as easy a task as you might think, given the critical pressures for hip hop, even at its most mindless, to be meaningful. Ask Eminem: You start out wilding on whatever sanctimonies you encounter just for the hell of it, next thing you know folks are making an argument that your social value is rooted precisely in your defiant disregard for social value. Or you get swallowed up by the insanity you generate and thrive upon. Ask Ol' Dirty Bastard--if his visitation privileges haven't been revoked.
The nearest that Tha Liks' E-Swift, Tash, and J-Ro come to social protest is when they complain that the FBI won't let them drink in public. The trio used to be called Alkoholiks, and what their new name lacks in specificity it makes up for in lewd connotations. They still serenade their drug of choice: "Put the bottle to your lips/When I sip, you sip, we sip," goes one chorus, and Tash is resigned to feeling his "liver shrinkin' like an elf." "We not promoting drinking/We just havin' some fun," J-Ro protests disingenuously, though he later demurs, "AA? Not today-ay. I just bought a bottle of Tanqueray-ay." When Tash claims to be "Animal House just like John Belushi/I'll be drinking all the sake while you're eating all the sushi," he's having such a good time you don't want to remind him how Belushi ended up.
Like so much major-label hip hop, the music lives in a world where the boundaries between R&B and hip hop have been deemed irrelevant. Musical guru E-Swift holds his own against big-money producer Rockwilder, favoring a variation on the three-note bass pump that diffuses into a high-hat sputter. He also comes up with the disc's best sound effect: simulated blowing across the lip of a 40-ounce bottle. The worst sound effect comes courtesy of producers-of-the-moment the Neptunes, who, despite their much-vaunted melodic gifts, seem intent on recycling the same hook every time out. Tha Liks' vigorous bounce makes the laid-back thump of the chronically hazy Dre seem decadent by comparison. They sing tunelessly: The words of best hook/title of best song are "Da Da Da Da," which proves you can invent unexpected harmonies by singing off-key in different registers.
Skeptics might note that the above proceedings sound a bit, well, dumb. But do any of you old punks remember the hardcore standard "Go to a Party (And Act Like an Asshole)"? Don't tell me you never took it to heart. Somebody needs to crash the dull self-congratulatory circle of today's hip-hop party, shake up his Olde E, and splurt the carbonated contents on the nearest designer threads in sight. After all, who said popular music was supposed to be good for you? And whoever said that a squad of black goofuses who happen to have a major-label deal are obliged to be more political or socially conscious than you, me, or Fred Durst?