It doesn't matter how much you pray, Puffy. Biggie ain't coming back to revive your career.
It doesn't matter how much you pray, Puffy. Biggie ain't coming back to revive your career.
Yariv Milchan

Summer suns and some aren't

Well, here we are, all the way to back-to-school time and what do we have to show for it? An embarrassment of riches, that's what. A summer of radio fluff that moved with you and kept you going till supper. Whether you got to the beach or were stuck in the city, the freakish sounds of American pop kept on bringing the hits. Any summer that can make Limp effing Bizkit sound as good popping out of your car radio as Eminem and Lauryn Hill is a summer the likes of which we'll never see again. There was so much, you'll notice all sorts of omissions, so don't take it personally. Here are a few comments on 25 of the summer's biggest singles, with a rating from one to 10 after each. Enjoy. We did...most of the time.

Christine Aguilera, "Genie in a Bottle": An instructional tape for young Mr. Lovah-Lovahs disguised as post-Disney girl fluff. Does Dick Armey know about this? (9.0)

Tal Bachman, "She's So High": In spite of great hair and better wings, Tal manages to make her sound very, very dull. (2.1)

Backstreet Boys, "I Want It That Way": Whenever you need some close harmonies right this second, they'll be there. Wherever there's a 12-year-old girl with wall space to spare, they'll be there. Whenever there's a slot at the top of an MTV countdown, they'll be there. (7.0)

Blaque, "808" (remix): That's not remixing, it's strip-mining a pretty good R. Kelly ballad and turning it into a juggernaut ode to a nice, fat booty. Girls, no one's got the boom like you do. (9.0)

Destiny's Child, "Bills, Bills, Bills": An ode to the lightness of the male wallet when it's around a willing woman. A much smarter colleague tells me that this song was written by the same liberated G who penned "No Scrubs," which means he's trying too hard, like that guy with the floppy hair and serious expression in Intro to Contemporary Feminist Thought. Will be remembered best for introducing the diminutive "automobills" into popular usage. (4.0)

Eminem with Dr. Dre, "Guilty Conscience": Mr. Mathers is far and away the baddest white boy to grab a mike and go boom, mostly because he goes where angels (black, white, purple, whatever) fear to tread. Circa The Chronic, in no way would I have believed that I would see the day where Dre would let a white kid, or anyone, say to him: "You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes??!" Or, "Mr. Dre? Mr. N.W.A.? / Mr. AK comin' straight outta Compton / Y'all better make way?" My jaw hit the floor the first time I heard that line, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. (7.5)

Lauryn Hill, "Everything Is Everything": The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a pop event like no other in the '90s. Hill was everywhere and nowhere, on the radio, on the covers of magazines, on folks' lips, making dollars, but not on the talk shows, not doing the music channels, in magazines only occasionally, touring behind her album a good six months after it dropped. Remember that great episode of MTV's show Ultrasound about women in hip-hop last year? It featured Left Eye (who blew up as large as Sister Hill her own way this year), Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (whose summer singles evaporated by Memorial Day), Foxy Brown, and Mary J. Blige (whose summer singles are just getting started). Lauryn's absence hung in the studio like a better-than-thou fog, and elevated a dull talking-heads thing into subliminally bitchy drama. "The Lost One" was the keeper from Miseducation, as jarring and dramatic and terrific a slice of hip-hop as hit the radio in '98; it had staggered, off-kilter beats, thunderous sorta-ragga delivery, and a message of righteousness more interesting and less preachy than "Doo Wop (That Thing)." And "X-Factor" whumped and shifted like a heart rolling slowly down a hill. But now we're on single number four, moving into Jagged Little Pill territory, and I just can't believe in the simple twists of fate in "Everything." Point added for bomb-ass video of Manhattan being scratched and spun by that bomb-ass DJ, God. (6.0)

Enrique Iglesias, "Bailamos": I was hoping for a cover of Bowie's '83 hit of the same name, but 'twas not to be. Still, Julio, you done good. (6.5)

Eve and Nokio, "What You Want": Jeez, that was quick. Conscious sister rapping her heart out with The Roots on "You Got Me" (probably the most perfect single of the year, if not the summer) turns gangsta bitch faster than you can hear those Ruff Ryders say, "shut 'em down / open up shop." You're coastin', sweetie; come correct and lose the Swiz beatz. (3.4)

Jay-Z, "Jigga": See above. (3.0)

Jordan Knight, "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man": Jordan, Jordan, Jordan -- what are you thinking, man? Backstreet and 98 Degrees pave the way for you to come back large, and all you can do is slow down a stellar Prince ballad so that it's wholly unrecognizable? Poor form, J. Much funnier would have been a boy-band ballad cover of Dre's "Been There, Done That." If you (the consumer) are starving for a good cover of this classic, check out Sleater-Kinney's "Good Things," their heart-wrenching take on the exact same chords. (1.0)

LEN, "Steal My Sunshine": A song so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you expect it to follow you to school then jump up and lick your face, but the rest of the album gets electronica-geeky with the quickness, so, like, beware. Somewhere Andrea True is cashing a much needed check, which is reason enough to show these Canadians some love. (7.0)

Lenny Kravitz, "American Woman": Mind you, it's not a good song, but it sounds so much like a demo that you wonder why it's on the radio, and suddenly you're focusing on the fact that Kravitz is able to actually pull it off. A little. Lenny's always tried to make that anxiety-of-paisley-influence thing work for him, and mostly he's failed, but if you're gonna cover a bombastic '60s hit, it takes a certain kind of cajones to remove most of the bombast. Apparently American Teens, about half of them of them American Women, had no idea this was a cover. It stands to reason they're also not sure that it was intended as a dis at the time. Hell, maybe Lenny doesn't know either. A good three points added for the hottest video maybe ever, featuring girls, bikes, girls on bikes, flags, explosions, exploding flags, more girls, and Heather Graham playing The American Woman Sex Goddess Of The '90s If Not The Late 20th Century And Don't You Forget It. (6.9)

LFO, "Summer Girls": So completely a ready-made summer hit that the whole thing nearly smacks of effort, which I'd never thought I'd say about a song from guys secure enough in both their masculinity and their wallets to call themselves Lyte Funky Ones. The year they're talking about is 1989 (the number, another summer, sound of the funky drummer -- oops, sorry) for those of you up nights wondering. The girls come, the girls go; some write you when you get back to school, others you never hear from again, and you shake the sand from your suit. My only caveat: When was the last time you saw a girl in an Abercrombie and Fitch ad? (8.9)

Limp Bizkit, "Nookie": It's nice to know that some people still have no idea that the phrase "rock and roll" at one time stood, more or less, for "nookie." As a wise man once said of AC/DC, "not a brain cell to spare." But it's important to remember that there was a time when these guys were worse. And as someone who sat through OZZFest this year, I can tell you that second-tier neo-metal-hop acts get much, much worse. You don't have to make it a way of life to bang your head to the giant choruses, and in fact, please don't. Point added for a guitarist much scarier than the first hour of The Blair Witch Project. (6.0)

Lil Troy and, like, 30 of his closest pals, "Wanna Be a Baller": Make 'em say "dirty, dirty," baby. Troy jumps out like the bastard son of Nate Dogg (somebody remembers) and our man P in New Orleans. Indeed, continuing to show Yankees that Southern hip-hop can clock dollars jes' like the left and right coasts is indeed "makin' money the fly way." (8.0)

Madonna, "Beautiful Stranger": Her Worship buries her best song-qua-song since "Like a Prayer" on a soundtrack, which is only the latest trick she yanked from black pop. (Check out the otherwise uninteresting 1997 Money Talks soundtrack for the astonishing title track, a mob epic starring Lil Kim and Timbaland's all-time deepest groove -- but I digress.) Listen to that glorious nasal break on the chorus: talk about old-school -- that's a "Borderline" sound, baby, a sound that takes you back to being touched for the very first time. Beautiful strangers are the staff of life, and this three-minute heaven-slice makes you feel like you just got home better and clearer than Ray of Light's music-of-spheres shtick. (9.5)

Puff Daddy, "P.E. 2000": It was a rough year for pretty much everyone in hip-hop whose joints went skyrocket in the nine-seven. Look at the Wu: a tribe of gods in disarray, like the Norse deities after Ragnarok, or the Olympians after they realized Christianity was around the corner. The new GZA? Terrrible. Deck? About a third as good as it should've been. Puffy's empire is in tiny pieces, what with Mase off with Jesus and the Lox out the door, and he responded by damn near having a breakdown right in the public eye. This useless Public Enemy jack didn't really help. (2.5)

Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Scar Tissue": It's tough to figure out which Peppers are more annoying: the frat-funkers or the post-dryout crooners. Man, talk about scar tissue: Have you seen John Frusciante lately? The man is a walking Partnership for a Drug Free America ad. Take a look at the photos circa Mother's Milk for details. Yes, ladies, he was beautiful once. A mopey L.A. ballad cut from the same mopey L.A. ballad cloth that brought 'em all the Behind the Music fuel they could handle when this song was called "Under the Bridge." (4.0)

Chris Rock, "No Sex": Cornbread -- ain't nothing wrong with that. Ain't nothing wrong with a song parody that doesn't even count as one, really, because even six months after the fact, no one remembers Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" moron-a-thon. You got sage advice from the most deservedly popular comic ever, a dope beat thanks to Prince Paul (whose A Prince Among Thieves is the most consistent and complex hip-hop album of the year), and guest moaning courtesy of Gerald Levert. Ain't nothing wrong with those things either. Perfect. (10.0)

702, "Where My Girls At?": The best Missy-Timbo joint of the year, outstripping Missy's own "She's a Bitch," but that's not saying much. Missy's stuff went nowhere even if the album is pretty good, and the Ginuwine songs are OK, but I expect more from hip-hop's Tiresius: I want beats from Jupiter, I want grooves from Atlantis, I want the future now. (4.5)

Will Smith, "Wild Wild West": Nothing like a triple bogey with Kevin Kline attached to ruin your handicap. Do what you gotta do, Will, but don't drag Kool Moe Dee into this. (2.0)

Smash Mouth, "All Star": They've got their game on, and they're ready to play. They don't even have to be the rock band safe for neo-contemporary swing yutzes to like anymore. Now they're the soundtrack-guitar-organ-pop band that's safe for people who might think The Offspring is a little too lively, which is a lot more fun. Somebody find the big man a lozenge. (7.5)

Sugar Ray, "Someday": If you think I can possibly tell Sugar Ray songs apart, you're wrong. I'm sure this one is just fine. (This also applies to anything by Lit or Blink 182, Warped Tour or no Warped Tour.) (5.0)

TLC, "Unpretty": Fanmail was one of the year's most slept-on-as-avant-garde records of the year. (Not an impossible idea: call it the "Missy/Timbaland effect.") The electronica slung on this joint is as easily "out" as anything by Autechre or Mu-Ziq, only Fanmail comes with scrub-free girls telling it like it is. This self-esteem ballad seems a little lightweight even after fluff like "Silly Hoe." Wouldn't we all have felt better about our bodies if this song encouraged us to move it rather than contemplate our navels? Summer radio hits should do nothing less than dance this mess around. Guilty songs are for back-to-school. Which I guess is where we are. (3.0)


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