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The Boston Phoenix Hit Charades

Ultimate compilations 2000!

By Douglas Wolk

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Year-end hit compilations like Arista's recent Totally Hits are generally marketed as stocking stuffers. But as annual summaries of mass musical taste, they can also be fascinating anthropological documents. Twelve of Billboard's Hot 100 singles for '99 turn up on Totally Hits (Arista); meanwhile Now That's What I Call Music! 3 (Universal) features eight more along with modern-rock fodder like Limp Bizkit's "Nookie. And seven of the year's Top 10 rap singles are divided between Best of Rap City (Virgin) and The Source Presents Hip Hop Hits Volume 3 (Def Jam).

Looking back on '99 through the lens of these comps, future historians will have little choice but to conclude that it was a ghastly year for progress in pop songwriting. The only formally original tune with a '99 copyright on either of the pop discs is TLC's "No Scrubs," a post-Aphex Twin sing-along that floats like a butterfly and stings like a truck. "Nookie" and Cher's "Believe" are merely solid songs bolstered by tremendous production. LFO's weirdly compelling "Summer Girls" splits the difference between Beck and the Backstreet Boys. "Ray of Light" and "Rockafeller Skank" are ringers from '98. And there's gunk by earnest guys with guitars (Blink-182, Oleander) and silicone-pumped fembots (Faith Hill, Britney Spears) that could've been recorded any time in the last 10 years.

If there's a disturbing trend reflected here, it's that even as black-and-white/dance-and-nondance have reached a point of almost total integration in pop -- Totally Hits and Now . . . find Brandy and Fastball rubbing shoulders with Usher and Sarah McLachlan -- the rift between hip-hop and everything else appears to be widening. There's rap in the rock of "Nookie" and the pop of the scratching-intensive "Summer Girls." But there isn't a single rap artist on either Totally Hits or Now.

Meanwhile, MTV, which released a Party To Go comp last year that was more than half hip-hop, has banished rap from the new Party To Go 2000 (Tommy Boy). Instead, the gaps between the dance hits are filled with a painful club edit of LeAnn Rimes's "How Do I Live" and well-chewed bubblegum from the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Steps, 98 Degrees, Joey McIntyre, and Britney Spears. The problem with much of this material isn't that it's written and performed by anonymous studio hacks -- that's never been an obstacle to pop greatness. It's that, with the possible exception of Steps' deranged Eurodisco rodeo fantasia "5, 6, 7, 8," the hacks don't try anything weird, risky, or new. And bubblegum without the novelty loses its flavor quickly.

The most innovative music of '99 was hip-hop. The cuts on Hip Hop Hits and Best of Rap City may have been stamped out like assembly-line gangsta action figures, but at least they're not last year's models. And since some of the best contemporary rap albums contain more filler than your average futon, hearing innovative cuts from a couple dozen full-lengths distilled down onto two CDs is a blast. The brassy swagger of Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says," the flute and Latin percussion of the Beatnuts' "Watch Out Now," and the withhold-and-snap of Busta Rhymes's "What's It Gonna Be?!" are all weirder and more bracing than anything on the pop comps.

Thanks in large part to Juvenile's brilliant, marble-mouthed "Ha" (the completely incomprehensible original flavor is on Best of Rap City; Hip Hop Hits has a more coherent remix), hip-hop developed a strong Southern accent last year. The song came out in '98, but it took the patented bounce beat of producer Manny Fresh nationwide in '99.

"Ha" underscored the idea that a rapper's flow is now way more important than the content of the lyric -- which may explain why it's become so hard to find a hip-hop hit that doesn't feature at least one guest-star cameo: if the voice itself is the hook, then more voices means more hooks. In fact, you could easily argue that a hit like Cool Breeze's fabulous "Watch for the Hook" -- #8 for the year on the Billboard rap charts -- owes all its success to flow. The lyrics don't address any particular theme, and the backing track -- a few seconds of a Neil Young cover, hacked up crudely and endlessly repeated -- hardly seems finished at all. It's just broken pieces of an old record thrown together with the edges still jagged and bleeding. As for the "hook" -- i.e., the one the title refers to -- it doesn't turn up until the end of the song.

Of course, the real hook on "Watch for the Hook," which made it onto Hip Hop Hits, is the sound of eight MCs drag-racing their respective flows. Khujo's 10-second, mid-song, 75-syllable verse flies by so fast it's impossible to make out anything he says until his final airless yelp: "I withdraw!" Five years from now, like the rest of last year's hip-hop hits, it'll scream "1999" -- but at least it'll scream.

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