Odelay’s music is built on samples, loops, and collage (i.e., beats). The beats in question were constructed by hip-hop pioneers the Dust Brothers, whose most famous production credit to that point was the other obvious white-boy rap masterpiece: Paul’s Boutique (1989). Its lyrics—abstract and weird, sure, but no weirder than MF Doom or Kool Keith—are rhymed over beats by an urban kid with good flow. His lyrical themes and tone, rooted in art and middle-class values and calm delivery, isn’t that far removed from the Native Tongues crew. (Dude’s not gangsta and he waxes philosophical, which veers him towards De La Soul’s “Fuck being hard, Posdnuos is complicated” more than to, say, the Wu-Tang Clan. Though those cats are weird, too.) So, why isn’t Beck’s Odelay widely thought of, or talked about, as a hip-hop record, which is exactly what it is? In the 1990s, the going line was that Beck’s starting point was the folk tradition or the experimental mode—as in, not black music. But the kid had made a sorta blues record (One Foot in the Grave) just before Odelay, and he samples rap and funk throughout, so he’s been geared into black music from the get-go. Besides, saying Odelay is a oddball folk album just because it samples folk/blues is sorta like saying Moby’s Play ain’t a techno album because he samples from Alan Lomax’s field recordings. Any casual listener knows better. So, Odelay is one of the best hip-hop albums ever made but it was decidedly marketed and critiqued as something else—indie-rock, new-wave folk, a genre onto its own. No, no—The Books create their own genre with collage and found recordings. Beck, at least the Beck of Mellow Gold and Odelay, is a rapper. Say it with me: a rapper. Odelay made rap safe for white hipsters because it’s noisy and squiggly enough so that listeners could pretend it’s not rap, it’s not danceable, and it’s not beat-driven. (Let’s remember, though, that Missy Elliot’s albums produced by Timbaland sound just as odd and alien.) You could love Odelay, and many critics did, without admitting that you liked a rap album. At a time when people were still seriously debating whether sampling was art or theft, and sometimes doing so on MTV or in Rolling Stone, this was an important sticking point. So, I wonder, 15 years later, the following: Would Odelay have so quickly achieved canonical status if its cover design looked like a No Limit record? If Beck was black and wore gold chains? If he were more likely to hang out with Lil’ Kim than Kim Gordon? Has the cultural climate changed enough so that, if Odelay were released today, we identify it (correctly) as hip-hop? Beastie Boys made rap safe for frat boys with License to Ill, then dodged the same frat boys with Paul’s Boutique, then fused hip-hop with garage-rock/lo-fi aesthetics (Check Your Head, Ill Communication, which sound cruddy and cool enough to be Guided by Voices records), and then went off the skids. They’re the hippest thing going but, unlike Beck, they still rock the Adidas, they still slap fives with black folks, and they still make call-outs to Pretty Purdie and Lee Perry. As awesome as Odelay is, Beck seems to consciously reject the hip-hop fashion, aesthetics, and people that Beastie Boys, Eminem, 3rd Bass, and Michael Rappaport consciously embrace. And that makes me think a little less of Beck, unfair though that may be. Beck’s hip-hop to the core—he’d just prefer you didn’t know it.
This post was inspired, in part, by Girish Shambu’s thoughts on “micro-criticism.”