Year in National Pop: New attitudes

Are we fated to pretend?
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  December 22, 2008

HE’S GOT IT! Like T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” was a straightforward ode to being rich and getting laid.

Music is a drug, as they say, distorting perception and shaping reality into æsthetically appropriate patterns and themes. In heady times like these, it can be a real trip to look back through the past year and see what our musical idols were telling us about ourselves all along — whether showing us our most craven inner id, or echoing the cynicism that grows in our hearts as we react to the madness around us. As MGMT said in one of the most beguilingly mind-bending pop moments on record this year, "We're fated to pretend."

The interface between reality and fantasy is almost always a war zone in contemporary rap, but this year it felt as if the fantasy were ready to snap. Rap's sonic frontier shifted radically, as the legal hazards of sampling meant that most rappers had to get by with synths and beatboxes. Whereas KANYE WEST's new digital sobfest 808s and Heartbreak faltered, other rappers were able to make spare production work. "It ain't frontin' if you got it" is a line uttered in two Top 10 rap tunes this year: LIL WAYNE's "A Milli" and T.I.'s "Whatever You Like," both straightforward odes to being rich and getting laid, in that order. T.I.'s song is particularly epic and seductive, if only because its brazen fantasy is so tawdry and false: when he offers to "gas up the jet tonight and you can go wherever you like," he seems to forget not only the then-$4-a-gallon gas tariff but also his own ankle-cuffed house arrest.

"Whatever You Like" was eventually dethroned from the #1 spot on the Billboard "Hot 100" by another T.I. smash, his duet with RIHANNA, "Live Your Life," a song equally obsessed with the twin goals of reaching for the stars and making that paper, with, at the beginning, T.I.'s somewhat contradictory spoken exhortation to "stop lookin' at what you ain't got and start bein' thankful for what you do got." T.I.'s success here hinges on his understanding that the goal of a pop song is to put the zeitgeist in a blender and hit "puree." "Live Your Life" does that with gusto — did I mention that it's dedicated to "all my soldiers over there in Iraq"? Of course, it doesn't really matter what you're singing or rapping about if you have Rihanna. Which may explain why "Live Your Life" was one of three #1 hits Rihanna had in a year where she didn't even put an album out. The 20-year-old Barbadian is the bellwether of a trend in superdivas where the ability to get a tell-tale sing-along hook on the radio is more crucial than the ability to display a multi-octave voice or manufacture lyrical introspect.

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