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Mirror at the Orgy

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Beck

Midnite Vultures

(DGC)

Ol' Dirty Bastard

N***a Please

(Elektra)

By Josh Goldfein

Nineteen ninety-nine was the year the devil himself felt overwhelmed by sleaze: in the year's best movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Saddam Hussein chased an intimacy-deprived Satan around hell at the point of his engorged penis. Even the most mainstream institutions have become positively priapic, with the influence of compulsorily het pornography rearing its unprotected head in film (American Pie, American Beauty), on TV (Action, Sex and the City), and on radio (the "clean" version of Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up"), not to mention on the Senate floor. For artists like Beck and Ol' Dirty Bastard, who delight in unpacking America's baggage, sex was an unavoidable subject. Their new records, both released toward the end of last year, explore the implications of unchained libido with a troubling vagueness of intent.

Ol' Dirty Bastard is the most fully developed action figure in the Wu-Tang Clan, a wild man whose sex drive and violent tendencies rage unchecked. On his second solo record, N***a Please, he's been pushed so close to the edge that he's lost his head. Both musically and personally, he's on a new plane; in addition to the Wu-Tang's RZA, he's enlisted the Neptunes, Irv Gotti, and Buddah Monk, and they've given him a krazy kaleidoscope of sounds to match his mad vocals.

Dirty represents the culture industry's nastiest fantasies. In three songs here he's a pimp, including the Neptunes' ripping "Got Your Money," in which he's a really vicious pimp. Although guest vocalist Kelis assures him she's going to turn over his share, he howls, "If you want to look good and not be bummy--girl, you better give me that money!" Just to be clear, he warns that he might kill her; when he shrieks, "Sing it girls! Sing it right now!" you have to wonder what he'd do if they didn't. He's not just a predator, he's a monster, the Mack as Mandingo. He gives Rick James's "Cold Blooded" ("Girl I think you're hot") a demonic reading, erasing any trace of compliment.

Beck, on the other hand, knows chicks dig feminists; on Midnite Vultures, he sounds like one even when he's horny. "Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists / I'll let you be my chaperone," he sings in "Sexx Laws." Where ODB is full of threats, Beck wants to pleasure his partner as well as himself. On "Nicotine & Gravy," he promises, "I'll feed you fruit that don't exist / I'll leave graffiti / Where you've never been kissed / I'll do your laundry / Massage your soul / I'll turn you over / To the highway patrol."

Sounds like fun, except maybe that last part. Beck's dark side emerges in dadaist bursts throughout Midnite Vultures: At the start of "Hollywood Freaks," for example, he vamps, "Hot milk / Mmmm . . . tweak my nipple / Champagne and Ripple / Shamans go cripple / My sales go triple." The LA references suggest that he's got the Industry in mind, but "Mixed Bizness" is less specific: "I'm mixing business with leather / Christmas with Heather / Freaks flock together / And make all the b-boys scream" (later he's "mixing fitness with leather / Homework with Heather," and the flocking freaks "make all the lesbians moan").

If there's a message in his madness, I can't find it; maybe Beck's just the guy holding the mirror at the orgy. Still, his opacity doesn't insulate him from implication: much of the music on Midnite Vultures sounds at least as straightforwardly "black" as the tracks on N***a Please, and the correlation of sex with blackness is disturbing. For "Get Real Paid" he cooks up a Miami jeep beat from Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" to accompany the refrain "Thursday night I think I'm pregnant again / Touch my ass if you're qualified." "Hollywood Freaks" is set to a Dre strain of P-Funk, and "Mixed Bizness" is 99.44 percent pure disco funk. In mixing porn dialogue and nonstandard English over recognizably black music, he's invented a kind of techno-minstrelsy, which is daring but still creepy. Does he think black-themed music is sexy, or is he commenting on the sexualized portrayal of African-Americans in pop culture? Like ODB or Isaac Hayes's Chef character on South Park, he dares you to laugh at an outrageous characterization of black male sexuality. Is that funny?

Of course Dirty's dirty act is just as disturbing--maybe more so, because it's not nearly so obvious whether he's kidding. He's made a career of blurring the lines between showbiz and reality, trying to live up to his rep as a man at risk: He's been in and out of rehab, bum rushed stages on live TV and at other performer's shows, and renamed himself Osiris, Big Baby Jesus, and Dirt Dog. He's been shot by assailants both unidentified and uniformed, charged on both coasts with crimes ranging from driving without a license to possession to attempted murder (the last was dropped), and claims to have fathered 13 children. (Uncharacteristically, in "Got Your Money" he claims the kid is not his son.)

He's the man who'll say anything to prove he'll do anything; he introduces Gotti's grandiose RZA-esque "Rollin' Wit You" with a fervent chant of "You ain't ringin' the bell / You ain't bustin' the grape / You ain't imitating me on this fucking tape," before telling white America that not only can it not hold him back, he's already taken over. He then advises, "If I got a problem, a problem got a problem 'til it's gone....I'm the only black god....I control Michael Jackson's Thriller." Are we clear? He's not silly like Beck; he's Stagger Lee as the Antichrist. When the backup singers sing, "Jesus, I'm rolling with you," they're talking to ODB.

He weaves his violent impulses with his sexual urges to remind us he's in charge: "I don't have no trouble with you fuckin' me / But I have a little problem with you not fuckin' me," he warns in "Got Your Money." But while his deranged logic heightens the sense that we better not mess with him, it also reveals his vulnerability. On "I Want Pussy," he announces he won't pay for it, adding "Bitch you obey me / You better not betray me / Don't be calling no cops saying 'This is his baby.'...My momma cannot protect y'all." This last bit of Freudian business seems like a slip; maybe she can protect us.

On the inside of the booklet for N***a Please, Dirty dares the camera to watch him bite a woman's thigh, his hand strategically covering her crotch. It's telling that her anatomy is what can't be shown--someone at Elektra apparently felt that sex was the most dangerous aspect of his work. The "clean" version of his record leaves in the references to drugs and violence but bleeps out all the naughty bits, along with cusses and the eponymous N-word. The myth of the hypersexual black man lives on, but as the South Park crew made clear, there's something even sicker at work in our culture: the idea that pleasuring people is still a bigger taboo than hurting them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charlie Gross/Jonathan Mannion.

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