Artists of the Year

12 Rods, Jon Stewart, Howard Stern, Quentin Tarantino, Garrison Keillor, MF Doom, Lawrence Lessig, Randi Rhodes...

T.D. Mischke hosts The Mischke Broadcast on KSTP-AM (1500).

 

MF Doom
by Peter S. Scholtes

The phone rings off the hook with urgent offers of vacation. E-mails pile up promising housewife sex. You can't go five minutes without feeling like you're being sold something. Which is why people take comfort in the idea of a street culture--something you have to seek out, something that never comes to you.

Yet the truth is that spray-paint graffiti anticipated the invasiveness of modern advertising by 30 years--it originated as a personal exercise in "branding." Now the moron who tagged the tree outside my house has as much right to call himself "hip hop" as the artist who painted the untitled aerosol-on-canvas hanging in my living room. The difference is that art, unlike advertising, invites a second glance: In Ernest Arthur Bryant III's almost abstract jigsaw shapes, I see disembodied eyes and African-looking noses painted in colors so gentle and warm they could be oils. Then I notice telltale spray-can dribble beneath one of the eyes, a touch that suggests a watery stare.

In music, MF Doom is that watery stare. His moist and resigned voice delivers a rhapsody in blue. And at some basic level, he does not "scan." Doom is too weird a rapper to be processed by the culture machine, which this year is really saying something. On Madvillainy, the best of his three major 2004 albums, the Atlanta-based MC boasts that he's "got enough styles to start three fads." But what would those fads be? Wearing a metal mask onstage? Never writing choruses? Releasing every record under a different name? (Madvillain is the handle he uses for his collaboration with L.A. producer Madlib.) Fans love Doom precisely because, like the Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force, he represents the only Dada that makes any sense in the communications age--the kind that makes no sense at all, and communicates nothing.

Lord Scotch, the graffiti artist who designed Doom's faceplate, has said, "Hip hop has never been recorded." He meant that the product is a ghostly echo of something real, a shell of a living culture. But Doom himself is a ghost: His music is never an advertisement for himself. (What self?) And his voice expresses only sadness, with lyrics drawing on Marvel Comics lore to invent new characters, usually riffing on Fantastic Four archenemy Doctor Doom. He is the ultimate escapist, which is why his best references are to real villains who get away. Only Doom would name-drop Saudi arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi, the Kevin Bacon of espionage scandal. On MM... Food? (which Doom released through the Minneapolis label Rhymesayers), our hero finds his perfect counterpart in a 1971 skyjacker who jumped out of a 727 over the state of Washington with $200,000, never to be heard from again. "Average MCs is like a TV blooper," Doom raps. "MF Doom, he's like D.B. Cooper."

No, he will not be right back after these important messages. You get the sense that if Doom had his way, he would not be back at all.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

Kanye West
by Dylan Hicks

In 2004 Kanye West was omnipresent, like his boy Jesus' dad is said to be. Or at least he was nearly omnipresent, like cars and shirts ("Everywhere you look," my crazy uncle used to say, "there's a shirt"). Hit after hit he made--some his own, some his productions--and his album The College Dropout has more in reserve. In a month or so that album will win the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, unless Brian Wilson robs West of his moment. Because I'm better than everyone else (kidding!), I don't normally like to be so consensual, but this year I'm happily running with the pack. What larks we have, this pack and I.

Right now my favorite song is "Family Reunion." Do you know that tingle? Not the famous spinal one, the one that runs down your chest, into your stomach, almost makes you feel queasy, sweetly queasy? The piano chords on "Family Reunion" do that to me (most every time). Plaintive, they are. The chorus goes, "All that glitters is not gold." You've heard that before. Perhaps you haven't heard it conveyed so meaningfully, with such unsentimental appreciation for the matte-finish gold of extended family.

Which brings up a more general thing I like about The College Dropout: Each song--or maybe all but one or two--is about something. A lyricist friend of mine says that stringing cool-sounding, ambiguous words and phrases together is the road to mysterious, poetic bliss, or maybe he says it's the last resort of hacks too dumb and lazy for coherence, I forget which. For argument's sake, let's say that in pop music, it's frequently the latter (the last resort thing). The College Dropout stands with tradition in its commitment to meaning and clarity. It's about sex and God and capitalism and family and insecurity and race and ambition and failure and how defeating and intoxicating materialism is. Like anyone who enjoys thinking, West is confused. Cognitive dissonance is part of his shtick--"first nigga with a Benz and backpack," he raps in an oft-quoted line. He probably isn't even the first Afro-centric gospel comedian to wear one of those teddy bear sweaters that Ralph Lauren sells at Christmastime. But there's something new about him. Or maybe it's that there's something old about him. He's trying to explain what it's like to be alive and trying to make the explanation beautiful. Odd that a proud college dropout should be such a fine professor of liberal-arts ideals.

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