Commentary

Can't get swept up in Morello's new club

Updated: June 30, 2009, 8:10 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

I'm an expert on almost nothing, but I'm especially inexpert when it comes to the judgment of hip-hop music.

[+] EnlargeStreet Sweeper Social Club
AP PhotoWith Tom Morello on guitar, Street Sweeper Social Club presents the best chance in years for Paul Shirley to like rap music.

Thus, a caveat before I commence a wide-ranging, rambling and, in the end, judgmental discussion of the genre: What will follow is merely a collection of my opinions. Many of those opinions are based only on my experiences and, while genuine and honest, they are grounded neither in a background of music appreciation at a liberal arts college, nor in a childhood spent whiling away hot summer days on Slauson Avenue. I haven't listened to every Nas album, so please don't get angry if I missed something soulful that he once rhymed. I won't claim that my opinions on rap or hip-hop (see, I don't even know what to call it) are fully developed, fully defined or even fully relevant. But they are real.

With that, away we go ...

Street Sweeper Social Club isn't hip-hop, per se, but it's close. SSSC is a collaboration between Boots Riley of The Coup and Tom Morello, most famously of Rage Against The Machine. Their album, which carries the same name as the group, was released June 17 but has been getting heavy rotation in my bedroom thanks to an advance copy I received in May.

But before I get to any dissection of the album, a digression into my views on hip-hop.

Like many rural-suburban white guys my age, I have no real rap bona fides. My exposure to the genre happened because -- and this might come as a shock to many -- most of the basketball players I've been around have been black. In turn, most of those players listened to hip-hop or rap almost exclusively. Thus, my exposure to the art form has been oblique, at best, and my guides were mostly young, black males whose musical tastes were by no means well-rounded.

One obstacle to my enjoyment of rap is the same obstacle I face whenever I'm confronted with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan can't sing. For some listeners, this isn't a problem. They relate to the poetry of his lyrics, and don't need those lyrics delivered in melodic fashion. That's fine for them; it just doesn't do much for me. I'm a music-before-lyrics person, which probably makes me shallow and tasteless. But I can't change the fact that I'll take the guitar solo in "Eruption" over the lyrics in "Tangled Up in Blue."

To me, rap music is similar -- the lyrics are often poetic, but because the voice delivering them is not utilized as a melodic instrument in the same way that it is in other genres, I quickly lose interest, much like I would if exposed to a style of music based largely around drumming. Rappers and their producers recognized this problem early on, and began to solve it by utilizing samples and back-up singers to help take off the sharp edges. Nonetheless, because the core of the music is based on something that is often monotonic, it doesn't hook me.

Additionally, I often can't relate to hip-hop lyrics. In "popular" hip-hop, there is a tendency toward bravado that doesn't sit well with me. I rarely feel so confident. Even the more realistic or, rather, more genuine styles, such as those employed by Tupac Shakur, Nas and DMX -- while significantly more artistic -- get tiresome after several listens, probably because the story stays the same.

I suppose I'm most bothered by the lack of vulnerability in rap music. As anyone who has lived past age 5 has figured out, life rarely works out how we think it will, and most of us are constantly messing up. We fail all the time. And, often, those failures are our own fault. Rap -- at least, the rap to which I've been exposed -- rarely addresses that issue.

In 2004, a British rapper named Mike Skinner, who goes by The Streets, released "A Grand Don't Come For Free." I bought it soon after, mostly because I had read rave reviews in British music magazines while in Europe. At first, I couldn't figure out why everyone liked it so much. To my ears, The Streets wasn't much of a rapper. But I persevered, probably because I had ample time and no girlfriend, and eventually figured out the reason The Streets was different: He actually admitted his insecurities and failings. For example, in the song "Could Well Be In" he raps about a date during which the girl plays with her hair, and how that could mean he has a chance with her. He even expresses worry that his own haircut "looked a bit cheap."

The problem, though, is that "A Grand Don't Come For Free" just isn't that much fun to listen to. The Streets sounds like what I would sound like if I were a rapper, and that's not music I'm going to crank to high volumes in order to scare off the neighbors.

All of this pains me because I want to like rap music. I never feel as good about life as I do when the bass line intro hits on Snoop Dogg's "What's My Name?" at one of my lame house parties. Thus, I don't want to condemn the genre as worthless. I will say, though, that until now, rap music hasn't lived up to its potential.

Enter a possible savior, Street Sweeper Social Club -- a rapper and a guitarist already known for scorching work with a band I'm already comfortable loving. It's either a brilliant marketing move directly targeting rap neophytes like myself or the product of a fortuitous encounter between two serious artists. Whatever the reason for the creation of SSSC, it's likely there hasn't been a better chance for me to like rap music (or at least something rap-related) in years.

For your part, have a listen to "100 Little Curses."

I'd like to say that SSSC has changed the landscape of popular music forever but, unfortunately, that's not true. I think they've taken a step on the staircase -- the first, and most well-known, step on that same staircase being Run DMC's dalliance with Aerosmith. The step that SSSC has successfully mounted is an important one: The duo has something to say, and it's mostly fun to hear. Riley's lyrics are nothing if not militant, and Morello's guitar work is astounding, just like it always is. The combination works, for a few songs. But every time I start through the album, I find myself bored by the halfway mark. Which is not a ringing endorsement for a record, regardless of its genre.

The album is close. Close to what, I'm not sure. Maybe just close to pleasing to the ears of an ill-qualified rap critic like me.

Fortunately for Riley and Morello, not everyone is as melody-centric as I, and many people will find the record to be a welcome addition to the musical soundscape, even if it is only as Neosporin to heal the wounds of the breakup of Rage Against the Machine.

For me, though, it's back to a continued search for the Holy Grail of rap music. Street Sweeper Social Club didn't quite get it done this time. But it has to happen eventually -- the genre has too much potential, and too many great artists are at work within it.

I only hope I'll have the taste to recognize it.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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