Saturday, July 14, 2012

album review: 'wild ones' by flo rida

Short version: it's a short review, because there's really nothing to say about it. While there are some signs of promise, there aren't enough to make the album worth a damn.

We all have guilty pleasures. Yes, even you. Don't even pretend that you don't. Even as you shake your head with disdain, you know that there is something that you just like despite - or indeed because of - its flaws and failings. I feel the admission of said pleasures is important to one's development as a critic of anything, not only because it humanizes the critic, but it also forces us to delve deeper into the question of why we like something. 

And by now, if you've been reading these reviews, you probably have an idea of my guilty pleasures already, but just to clarify them, I enjoy bubblegum pop (this is your S Club 7 and Aqua), boy bands and the occasional girl band, cheesy hair metal and folk/symphonic metal, and a musical every once and a while. 

But besides these, there's one guilty pleasure that I have a fair amount of guilt in admitting - mainly because I still have a hard time explaining why I like the genre. Is it because of the high energy, the potent dance beats (albeit often limited lyrics), or because it's music solely for the purpose of raucous partying amongst a demographic I have never and will never fit into.

Yeah, I'm talking about Southern crunk music.

Yes, you can hurl the catcalls and I can take the laughter here - I mean, being a white Canadian male of some culture and class, the idea that I enjoy crunk music is probably hard to swallow. Most would probably assume I'm listening to it ironically, but I'm not - I genuinely enjoy music from acts like Lil Jon and the East Side Boys, even despite the stupid-as-all hell lyrics and the general cultural disconnect between me and anything crunk. I could say I like in the same way that I like gangsta rap, but even that's being disingenous. I think part of my liking for it falls into some of the reasons that I like hair metal - if you can embrace the broad spectacle and energy of it all, it can become kind of awesome. Now granted, it's quite a stretch to leap from hair metal to crunk - both were born out of wildly different subcultures and musical traditions - but I think the observation is still valid because it traces back to a root desire to want to find epic party/dance music, and that there's something about crashing guitars and heavy bass that just works for me on a semi-primal level.

Now some of you are already asking, 'Okay, you like crunk, why can't you like dub-step?' I think part of it is that I find the 'wobble' of bass a particularly annoying sound, and that despite the many negative things you can say about crunk music, at least it strives to be rhythmic and energetic instead of dissonant and grating. But part of the longer answer is that I've always liked dance music that has instrumentation that aspires to be sweeping and broad and powerful. For instance, I've always had something of a weakness for DJ Sammy's 'Heaven', a pop-dance track that charted in the early-2000s, simply because the juxtaposition between the resonant synths and the acoustic guitar over the bridge to the chorus set up a great soaring feeling, supplemented by the female vocalist's pleasant soprano.

In fact, one of the things that bothers me about most electro-house music (and hip-house music - yes, that's a term, look it up - in particular) is that it never strives to be 'bigger'. Most house music is content to be basic and completely uninteresting, just a few layered beats for people to dance and little else. I've had a fondness for the Chemical Brothers because they've striven to make electronic music interesting with strange samples and the occasional vocal guest. On the trance side of things, I've always liked trance music with vocals, simply because I get more invested in the song if there is words and poetry behind it. On the other hand, one of the many reasons I find LMFAO deplorable is not just that they make bad hip-house music, but that they're parodying the genre of truly good house music by making it as cheaply and sloppily as possible. There's never any sense of bigness or epicness to LMFAO - the closest they ever came to it was 'Party Rock Anthem', but you can't help but ignore the winks at the camera that make it clear the band is only attempting bigness ironically.

And moving away from the topic of epic music entirely, let's talk about Flo Rida.

Believe it or not, I've actually been one to defend Flo Rida before. I can't deny the fact that his sampling tends to be aggregiously bad, or that he overuses rhymes, or that he's just a completely boring performer, but I do think the guy has potential. Some have drawn the comparison between him and the Miami bass guys of the 80s and 90s, but I don't exactly agree. For one, Flo Rida does have some lyrical skills, and for another, his production is damn near top-of-the-line. It's frustrating that Flo Rida's beats and collaborators (usually on the chorus) are almost universally better than he is with few exceptions (I'll talk about that one exception in a moment), and it's also frustrating that Flo Rida generally has nothing all that interesting to say. I'm reminded a lot of T-Pain, but T-Pain tends to have a bit more energy and style, particularly in his lyrics. Flo Rida has pretty solid flow (better than most rappers working today - I'm looking at you, Wiz Khalifa), but outside of that, Flo Rida doesn't have much to say. In fact, any time he does try to say something different, like with 'Rewind', the collaboration with Wyclef Jean on his second album, he's actually not that bad. He's certainly better than Pitbull or the Black Eyed Peas in that regard, even though those two acts tend to upstage him in terms of personality. In fact, Ke$ha actually asked her name be taken off 'Right Round' because she thought that association with Flo Rida and his general blandness might be harmful to her career - and for all we know, she was right, considering the direction of all kinds of strange her career is going. But does his fourth album Wild Ones change that?

Well, no. Most of the tracks are utterly homogenous party music, which Flo Rida throws himself into with characteristic gusto and makes little impact. I'm not the biggest fan of the instrumentation - I prefer more classical background or heavy guitars or intricate synths, instead of the clumsy layering present on every Flo Rida album - but it's passable. The Auto-tune is notable, but not really worth complaining much about. And yeah, the lyrics remain interchangable between songs.

But what I'd like to talk about are the themes in Flo Rida's music. Outside of the explicitly pornographic 'Whistle' (it's got something of a nifty beat, but it's a song about oral sex - trust me on that), Flo Rida, like always, has provided plenty of songs about partying. But there are points on some of the tracks where I start to really doubt how invested Flo Rida is in partying anymore. The track that really struck me was 'I Cry', where he samples Brenda Russell's 1988 hit 'Piano In The Dark', and unlike what he did with 'Right Round', the sample adds an interesting new context to the song. If anything, by having the part with 'I cry just a little/ when I think of letting go', it can be interpreted in the context of Flo Rida's song that he's starting to find the partying and the 'letting go' (the giving into the drunken wildness of the club) a little exhausting. On the bridge of the same song, he sounds exhausted, and almost dejected when he realizes that the club is the only environment where he feels he can stay sane - or that the club is the only place where anyone remotely cares who Flo Rida is. It's a surprisingly jarring segment of the album that raised my eyebrows and spirits immensely, because it's indicative that Flo Rida might actually be getting of the club environment and might be moving on. And this isn't the first time I've spotted tendencies like this either: 'Club Can't Handle Me' (a song that has me singing Kings of Leon every time I hear it - seriously, the chord similiarities are jarring) contained some interesting word choices in his rhymes which suggested that Flo Rida might actually be getting sick of the club.

Another example is the single ballad on the album, 'Thinking Of You', where Flo Rida lends a truly shocking amount of vulnerability to the track - for being a 'club playa', Flo Rida tries to put forward a sensitive side, and ends up succeeding more than I think even he realized, because he sounds more honest and sincere than Chris Brown and more dynamic than Drake. Believe it or not, if Flo Rida wanted to make a transition to these sorts of hip-hop ballads, I might actually be able to buy it, and it would sure as hell force him to be more creative with his rhymes. I'm not sure how well his flow would work with that particular style, but I'd really like to see him try.

But of course, the album ends with the absolute worst track, 'Run' featuring Redfoo of LMFAO, where Flo Rida is back again to the club and Redfoo is remaining as lyrically worthless and personality bankrupt as he was with LMFAO. Go figure.

Overall, I really can't get mad at this album or Flo Rida - the guy, despite some skill in his rapping, is just not interesting enough to merit my attention. But I do see positive indicators on his album - the beats are a little more interesting than usual, and there are signs that Flo Rida might just be able to walk away with something of a career when the club music genre finally collapses in upon itself again. But the man desperately needs to get more invested in his songs so he doesn't continue to get overshadowed by his beats and collaborators, and he really needs to find something interesting to say and fast. As it is, Wild Ones isn't horrible or great - it's just kind of bland and mediocre. You can dance to most of the tracks, but it's be a lot like eating a saltine cracker - a little flavour, but ultimately nothing worth mentioning and leaving you craving for something more.

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