Thursday, July 11, 2013

album review: 'skitszo' by colette carr

Youtube Review after the jump.

There are two unfortunate truths in rap music: namely, that if you’re white or female, you face a much more difficult road.  If you want to rise to the top and not immediately be deemed a novelty act, you’ll have to establish a presence and achieve some amount of street cred, and do it fast. More than a few white rappers and female rappers have flamed out in spectacular fashion after less-than-impressive debut albums, and even if their mixtapes are solid, they tend to be derided (fairly or not) as a joke to the mainstream public.

So what happens if you’re a white female rapper? Unfortunately in that case, you’ve got the toughest row to hoe of all (no pun intended) – not only are you operating in the extreme minority, there are very few (if any) acts who have achieved success in this vein. I mean, who are your successful white female rappers? Can you think of any off the top of your head? At least with female rappers you have Lil Kim and Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj, and white guys have the Beastie Boys and Eminem and Macklemore, but in combination as a white female rapper, who do you get?

Well, the first one that jumped into my head was Kreayshawn, and if you look at the sad trajectory her career took after her disastrous debut album, the prospects look bleak at best. What’s all the more unfortunate is that her career charted the same path as most other rappers who get signed and rushed to market before a coherent album is released, which is a single album of sloppy club tracks that showcase none of the girl’s talent before being dropped from the label and consigned to the ephemeral dustbin of pop history. And as someone who actually thought Kreayshawn had real potential, her failure did sting a bit. And of course there was some of Cher Lloyd’s early rapping material, but I don’t like to dignify the fact that exists.

So when I heard that a female white rapper named Colette Carr was dropping her debut album this year, I was more than a little skeptical. Outside of Kacey Musgraves’ mind-blowingly great country debut with Same Trailer, Different Park, I don’t have a great track record looking at debut albums from female solo artists this year. Hell, Skylar Grey had the pedigree of Eminem behind her album and she couldn’t rise above mediocrity. So to say I had low, low expectations when it came to Colette Carr’s debut was a bit of an understatement, and coupled with the fact that it was a debut album comprised of four EPs mashed together with a few additional tracks (which was the same path Charli XCX took with her unfortunate debut), I expected this to be a disaster. And with the, well, let’s call it unfortunate album title of Skitszo, I was fully prepared to be treated to a catastrophe that would end her career before it truly began.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was wrong. It turns out Colette Carr’s Skitszo isn’t that bad after all. In fact, I’d almost take the additional step and say it’s actually pretty decent for what it’s trying to be. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it great, I am prepared to recommend it – providing you go into the album with the right mindset.

See, one of the reasons many rappers who start with critical mixtape acclaim disappoint upon their major label debut is because they immediately become more ‘commercial’, rapping about the cars and the jewelry and the hoes – hell, you’ve seen all of this before. And since most of these rappers rise to acclaim while unsigned based upon the content of their material, it’s a real disappointment when their major label debut is full of the same garbage you’ve heard time and time again. At this point, only talent and personality are what will distinguish you from the rest of the herd, and that’s where you’ll see some formerly conscientious rappers stumble.

Colette Carr, on the other hand, doesn’t do this. Her material is straightforwardly plastic and commercial and has been since her EPs – and since her debut is essentially an amalgamation of said EPs with some new material, there’s not that sense of ‘selling out’, per se. She started by making pop-rap, and her album is a natural outgrowth of that.

Now I can imagine some of you (you know who you are) are immediately saying, ‘Wait a second, we’re expected to give Colette Carr a pass because she never even attempted to write ‘intelligent’ rap music? Shouldn’t we hold the genre to a higher standard?’ Well, here’s the thing – I did a bit of research into Colette Carr’s inspiration and musical influences, and outside of the typical appreciation for artists like Eminem, I discovered that her primary influence isn’t a rapper or hip-hop artist at all: it’s the Spice Girls.

And really, it’s more than a little uncanny how much this makes her album make sense within the pop consciousness. While I’ve never been a fan of the Spice Girls, I definitely appreciated their role in the pop scene in the mid-to-late 90s, with slick, well-produced hooks and a certain element of self-aware shallowness to the whole endeavor. Sure, they were writing corny, silly pop music, but there’s an art to doing that well, and the fact that the Spice Girls’ most well-known songs have survived shows their quality.

And if I’m going to be embarrassingly honest, I think Colette Carr has some of this quality on her first album, balancing reasonably effective hooks (that she actually can sing – her voice might not be great, but it does have a lot of personality and energy) with some surprisingly good rapping. I wouldn’t call it anything extraordinary, but it fits the tone of her material and keeps a quick cadence. Hell, I’d argue in terms of rhyming, coherence, and articulation, Colette Carr is certainly doing better than the majority of what Nicki Minaj is releasing right now. And yes, it is shallow clubbing music, but for the most part, it’s good shallow clubbing music, with the occasional splash of wit or stronger rapping technique to elevate it. I’ll even go so far to say that on a few of her songs, I can almost see some of Eminem’s influence in her flow and in her better-produced instrumentation. It’s nowhere close to dark or edgy, but it is reminiscent of the catchy hooks from Eminem’s more radio-friendly singles.

More impressive than that is the fact that Colette Carr doesn’t embarrass herself on this album (beyond the absolutely ridiculous album title, obviously). Unlike Nicki Minaj, she almost completely avoids the love ballad territory, and whenever she does go there, she reasonably sells her emotional response.  More importantly, she completely blows the three C-list rappers brought in to support her (E-40, YG, and Far East Movement member Kev Nish) out of the water on their supporting tracks, and does a credible job in a duet with synthpop singer Frankmusik (who also helped produce the majority of her album). Best of all, the album maintains a consistent tone and personality, which one could argue was the biggest hurdle Colette Carr would have had to tackle given her influences from the oft-interchangeable Europop.

So what are the real problems with the album? Well, the biggest issue I can spot is in the production and instrumentation, which is the album’s big weak point. As I said, you can make good shallow party music, but what often redeemed most of that genre in the mid-to-late 90s was a breadth of instrumentation and some real polish. And while there are traces of that here, I would have liked to see more organic variety in the instrumental choices. And yeah, I won’t deny that the few attempts Colette Carr makes at ‘luxury rap’ fall pretty flat, mostly because she doesn’t have as much energy on those tracks and the production doesn’t help her here.

And while I’ll definitely applaud Colette Carr for succeeding in writing shallow pop music, I do see more potential here. On songs like ‘F16’ and ‘Told You So’ and ‘Mes Amis (We Can Party)’, there is some real rapping talent that I honestly wish she would take in a smarter direction on her next album. She has a good enough voice to sing her own hooks, and provided she’s given good production to support it, I can see her going above and beyond pop and I hope she does.

So all in all, if you’re a fan of well-written shallow pop music and the Spice Girls in particular, I think you’d like Colette Carr’s Skitszo. While I admit I do have something of a weakness for this type of music – after all, this is the guy who will defend Ke$ha and is eagerly looking forward to the next Backstreet Boys album – I can recognize talent when I see it. As for everyone else, forget judging this album on a lower standard because Colette Carr is a white girl working with pop rap.

This is no Kreayshawn – Colette Carr is pretty damn good and worth checking out all the same.

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