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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The 1980s On The Brink Of Becoming Ancient History: 20-odd years ago, it was remarkably common for publishers to "update", however superficially, the sort of old-school children's books I was writing about below: the defiantly post-war (and sometimes much earlier), middle-class, Home Counties ilk. Until at least the very end of the 80s, and probably into the early 90s, the Jennings books were re-edited to include more contemporary dates (ie that "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" was "established 1989") as well as to make more obvious changes such as removing the old sense of "gay" or even referring to "blokes" rather than "chaps". But these changes were always the least incongruous and the most believable; quite apart from the fact that the books never did contain the more backward and class-bound of 1950s attitudes, Buckeridge - as open to the present as ever - supervised and approved the edits himself.

The real incongruities and unbelievabilities were elsewhere. Who could believe, for example, that the gentle, polite Buckinghamshire meanderings (most unbelievable-in-an-80s-context moment: our heroine's father won't accept "okay" as British English) of the "Penny" series by A. Stephen Tring (one of many pseudonyms for Laurence Meynell) could have been happening in the year of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as inferred in a now 20-year-old reprint of one of the books where an 84-year-old woman claims to have been born in 1900? Could one really envisage the Famous Five having all the same old adventures - in, as far as I could tell, unedited versions of the books, though with the illustrations changed - dressed like a Top of the Pops audience milling around Gary Davies as he introduced the latest Johnny Hates Jazz single, as on the front covers of the FF books I devoured obsessively in 1987/88?

1980s reprints of Blyton's "Willow Farm" and "Cherry Tree Farm" series had the same sort of contemporary-looking covers, despite the fact that the sort of farming life depicted therein had completely disappeared decades before, and had never been anywhere near that rose-tinted anyway (the one memorable thing about those books was that the obligatory hermit who Knew Everything About Country Ways - a less patronising latterday equivalent of that archetype might be The Badgerman from the oft-repeated '84 Look and Read story "Badger Girl" - had the always-amusing Name That Sounds Like A Dubious Organisation, in this case The Tammylan). And as for the inference in the c.1983 reprints of the Billy Bunter books that the Fat Owl of the Remove could be living, complete with near-daily canings and the mutilated English of Hurree Ramjet Singh, in a world of decimal currency ...

But I read these books voraciously as a child. And the result of this early exposure - I never wanted to confront the present day in my childhood, ever - led me to develop an absurd personal fantasy that those with more money and privilege than myself were living in a complete parallel universe way beyond anything that actually existed by then. I don't know whether I should confess this here, but there's a very good chance that, some time on the cusp of the 80s and 90s, I went for a piss in the Royal Festival Hall toilets right next to Will Young (he'd surely have been among the vast crowds from prep schools who'd go to the Ernest Read Concerts for Children my mum took me to on Saturday mornings; we were poor, you see, but we had aspirations). If it had been suggested to me then that any of those prep school boys would grow up to enjoy lucrative careers in popular music I would have completely ridiculed the entire possibility. The very thought seemed utterly absurd, and I blame those who tried to translate a past era of children's literature into a time when it could no longer make sense for my wrong-headedness; the marketeers of the 1980s (the repackaged old children's books are quintessential Thatcherism-before-it-was-seen-as-contradictory cultural products) hadn't merely conned the adult population, they'd conned one far too young to understand what they were actually doing.

The question is: would publishers have thought that the predominately state-educated youth of the nation would believe that such obviously outmoded scenarios could be taking place in the 1980s had the teen mags of the day been full of pop acts from the same social background as Will Young and at least some of the members of Busted and McFly? Would they have even dared to market the children's literature of the 1940s and 50s in a present-day 1980s context had the most critically feted band of the period been to the same sort of school as Radiohead or if the biggest-selling mainstream pop/rock bands of the era came from the same social backgrounds as Keane and Coldplay? And is the dominance of artists from such backgrounds in present-day pop a key factor in the way publishers have now given up trying to market such books as though they could be Happening Right Now, with recent editions of the various Blyton series sporting Heritage Britain covers deliberately designed to evoke a notional 40s/50s world rather than the half-arsed attempts at contemporaneity that so marked out my own childhood?

I know what my position is, and it isn't the cultural compartmentalist one.
For the second time in less than three months I have to cope with the death of someone who wrote a personal letter to me in my childhood. Thankfully, it doesn't come as a shock this time like it did when Caron Keating died, because the man who died on Monday had lived to the age of 92.

Anthony Buckeridge was most famous as the writer of the Jennings stories, and as such a key figure in the whole genre of stories about middle-class Home Counties children, immunised from the Americanised brashness of the popular culture already taking over the working classes' lives, which dominated British children's literature throughout the post-war period and only really began to seriously decline in the very late 1960s (even then, it was a long, slow fade-out). But there's an important difference between Buckeridge and figures as diverse (all that unites them is the general social class base of their work) as Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville, Monica Edwards, Antonia Forest and John Verney. Buckeridge never wrote an equivalent of Edwards' "Fire in the Punchbowl", Forest's "The Attic Term" or the opening sequence at least of Verney's "Samson's Hoard", books where the writers vent their spleen at social and cultural changes to such an extent that it almost obscures the narrative (Augustus Callendar's talk of the "war" going on in the south of England in 1973 is painfully autobiographical from Verney's perspective, while "Fire in the Punchbowl", often referred to on this blog, is nothing more nor less than a manifesto of loathing for Harold Wilson). Buckeridge could never have written an equivalent of that c.1965 short story where Blyton vents her spleen about the rudeness of modern children and has The Local Father Christmas Impersonator withholding his presents and telling them How Selfish They All Are. He never came up with such a desperate piece of ambulance-chasing as the hilariously unconvincing stories called things like "Pop-Singing Schoolmaster", "The Girl Who Rocked Manorcliff", "Kit and Ken - Top of the Pops" and "Golden Disc Girl", published from 1959-63 by a dying "Schoolgirls' Own Library" aware that its readership was rapidly being swept away into (heavily Avalon/Fabian-inspired) Cliff Richard and Billy Fury fan-mags, and written by sixty-something hacks who clearly despised what they'd been told to come up with. And when interviewed in later years, Anthony Buckeridge never showed any sign of the bitterness over the state of modern British society that ran through Malcolm Saville's mind and, by the end of his life, had almost become a crushing personal demon which ensured that he could not die a happy and contended man as he deserved to.

The reason for this is that Buckeridge - the last of the great post-war middle-class Home Counties children's writers to survive - had precisely the opposite political views to those associated with such books and such settings. Buckeridge's lifelong Socialism, fervent support of the Labour Party (he publicly expressed his disappointment with Blair's cautiousness at the end of his life), membership of CND, conscientious objection to conscription (he spent the Second World War in the fire service) and wariness of the very boarding school system he wrote about were never made public at the height of his popularity - in the climate of 1950s Britain, this probably made perfect sense, but it later led to Buckeridge receiving some hideous abuse from ultra-Leftists of the 1970s which, personally and politically, he most emphatically did not deserve. His response to this misunderstanding was to write one of the great lost masterpieces of post-war British children's literature (I'm serious here), "Jennings at Large" in 1977. Almost any of Buckeridge's contemporaries would have made this story of John Christopher Timothy Jennings portrayed in the real world for the first time - mixing easily with his contemporaries of all ethnic backgrounds in a tower block of South London, where it is revealed that his oft-mentioned Aunt Angela (long assumed by most readers to be a genteel Home Counties lady) actually lives - into a bitter, condescending rant. Buckeridge made it into a celebration of a more open society where children from Jennings' background did not feel so disdainful in the company of the working classes, and a call for society to become more open still - the setting was clearly a pointed response to those who had put two and two together and made five when imagining what his personal political views would be. Suddenly, in "Jennings at Large", the erstwhile 1950s hero transmutes radically from Radio 4 listener in training to Tim Westwood without the egotism, Chris Martin without the self-loathing and pomposity.

This non-linear narrative might seem, if you haven't read the books, to be every bit as absurd as Antonia Forest's portrayal of characters who initially recalled their experiences of the Blitz watching "Up Pompeii" and making themselves up as punks when they're just a few years older. But the unconvincing nature of AF's non-linear narrative derives entirely from her own reactionary bitterness; she quite simply despised everything she had chosen, for her own perverse reasons, to write about (maybe she needed to move the Marlows on, however unreal it seemed, simply to wring out her demons in public). Conversely, it was the essential positivity and progressivism within Anthony Buckeridge - a positive and sympathetic man who never descended to bitterness or jealousy, even during long years of his work being mostly out of print - which ensured that a series of books which began in 1950 could end 44 years later with the same characters pretty much all the same age, now talking about computer games and mingling easily among football crowds on the London Underground, yet never seeming remotely inconsistent or absurd (had he carried on much longer it might finally have appeared so, but for reasons totally beyond his control - what a pivotal year 1994 has been shown to be in recent British cultural history; the last knockings of both Jennings and the Trebizon series coincided with mass boarding school closures, "Parklife" and New Labour). And the reason why Anthony Buckeridge could believably square what most would consider an unsquareable circle was entirely social and political; his essentially forward-thinking worldview, and his lack of bitterness about social changes in recent decades, allowed him to embrace them in a way none of his contemporaries ever could. In that sense it's appropriate that he outlived pretty much all of them. Had his ideological opponents of the 70s actually read his earlier work they'd have seen that he absolutely never patronised or talked down to the "masses" when his characters encountered them (in the early 50s, Buckeridge almost seemed like a Communist in an age when many similar children's books were written by erstwhile sub-Mosleyites and supporters of eugenics). By the late 60s, his portrayal of local youth club leaders as more human and sympathetic than an awful lot of people within Linbury Court School was not a desperate piece of clock-chasing, but the relieved optimism of a man who had sensed that his views were finally becoming more widely accepted in British society. Had Malcolm Saville portrayed youth club leaders denouncing Rye as backward, he would have regarded them as a great social evil; when Buckeridge had his characters alluding mockingly to "darkest Dunhambury" you feel he was at least partially on their side.

One lifelong Socialist - albeit in my view a somewhat confused one, but maybe that's just my Hoggartism creeping through - who lives in a part of rural Sussex which swung dramatically away from the Tories in 1997 this week becomes, presumably, the first man to appear on the cover of the NME over a timespan of 40 years. But Anthony Buckeridge - to whom the same description may be applied, with the difference that any confusion over the authenticity of his Socialism would be inspired by plain old hard-Left dogmatism rather than cultural Hoggartism - meant at least as much to me as Paul McCartney, not least because he was one of the few figures in the Official British Culture prior to 1963 who could cope with and indeed thrive under the changed conditions of the post-Beatles era (no surprise that Buckeridge always rightly preferred his late 60s / early 70s books to his earlier ones; no surprise also that the unrepentent Tories of the children's literature nostalgia societies who would claim him for their own tediously prefer his earlier, Children's Hour-mythologised work). Rest in peace, my friend.

The Pet Shop Boys still play on. Sometimes at times like this they seem like the only pop group in the world, ever.
For the last few hours I have been listening to the Pet Shop Boys' "It Couldn't Happen Here" on constant repeat. And the thing is: I genuinely can't imagine myself listening to anything else.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

OLDCHARTBLOGGING (again)

1965 and 1972 today, and the first year is by far the most moving for me: from now on, all the hits of that adventurous, challenging, dreaming summer - the first summer when pop genuinely seemed to have no horizons and no boundaries - will recall a once very close friend of mine who recently died, far too young. It's still too soon for me to feel like revealing much here - mourning should remain private for as long as the mourner feels that it should, including forever if necessary - but this was his era, in a market town on the cusp somewhere not too far from here (Boy In A Man's World!), and when you're thinking of the childhood of someone who won't be able to grow old, inevitably your own mortality comes to mind and haunts you. But there is plenty of other context here - BBC Four's wonderful Summer in the Sixties season (highlight last night: the juxtaposition in "Sounds of the Sixties" of Lord Reith and "Get Off Of My Cloud", which I vividly remember from the first transmission in 1991), it's 39 years today since the Beatles got their MBEs (out of today's honours the only one I know so far is Pam bloody Ayres, ho-hum), I'm winning an Ebay auction for Antonia Forest's "The Thuggery Affair" (The Marlows Meet The Working Classes, '65 model, the point where AF and the real world began to fall out of affinity with each other and the novels became fundamentally unbelievable but ever more fascinating with it). Mind you, did a chart on POTP ever have as unprepossessing a start as ...

THE SHADOWS - "Stingray"

Out of place, out of time, overweight and out of date. Oh no, that was Presley (of whom more later), wasn't it? But it still fits - this Gerry Anderson-related instrumental was a '62 timewarper right from the start. They never did top "The Savage", anyway.

DAVE CLARK FIVE - "Come Home"

America was welcome to them. Like most of their songs, quite defiantly unmemorable.

THE WHO - "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere"

It may be a cliche, but this is one of the very few pop songs ever that has embodied a whole new way of thinking, a whole new set of values: if I had to envisage a phrase to refer to the people who defied Paul Johnson's 1964 assertions to rise to the top of British society I would call them the "anyway anyhow anywhere generation", however sour it may all be turning now. The very sound of this record would have seemed other-worldly at the time, more an extended breakdown (in all senses) than a song, and while the rock tricks have been played to death, the social assertions are as definite as they ever were. Those who hate them understand (check Heffer and Hitchens on BBC Four tonight).

UNIT FOUR PLUS TWO - "You've Never Been In Love Like This Before"

They weren't *quite* one hit wonders, you see ... but they might as well have been. "Concrete And Clay" is still a great pop moment - you can tell they'd been brought up on a cultural territory unknown to any pop group today from the line "purple shades of evening", for a start - but this is proof positive of why some groups *should* only have made one record.

DONOVAN - "Colours"

Funny how Mr Leitch's second hit doesn't actually evoke what it was supposedly supposed to - heatstroked days in the fields, yada yada yada - anywhere near as much as the record at number four this week, perhaps because it's far too blandly one-dimensional (Van Dyke Parks did it far better). Donovan's moment, if he ever really had one, was yet to come.

THE KINKS - "Set Me Free"

At this stage of their career, before their lyrical turnaround, the Kinks were all about sound, "Tired Of Waiting For You" having been as full-on and as suggestive as number ones got in early '65. After the ill-fated "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy", this was how they got back on course in the run-up to the astonishing harbinger of '66/'67 that was "See My Friend"; it doesn't go that far of course but it's still an ominous song, Ray Davies subtly underplaying his hand as ever.

BILLY J. KRAMER AND THE DAKOTAS - "Trains And Boats And Planes"

The dodgy British cover (surely such things went out in bloody 1963!) of the sublime Burt Bacharach / Dionne Warwick hit, and an undignified farewell from the balladeer-always-uneasily-turned-Merseybeater, who makes the "mmm ... mmm ... mmm ..." of the outro sound like a constipated Scouse wino outside Lime Street station.

PETER AND GORDON - "True Love Ways"

The other end of the scale to the Beatles getting MBEs, etc, etc. It must have been around the same time as this that Douglas-Home indignantly asked of Wilson "why can't you behave like a prime minister?" (a teenage - impossible as that is to imagine - Robert Henderson doubtless took notes), the event which led his advisers to quietly lead him away and suggest that it might be better if he made way for a younger man. This Buddy Holly cover certainly only really becomes interesting if you think of P&G counting the days until that happened - musically, it's nothing much in itself, not as effectively melodramatic as their near-hysterical take on "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (retitled, of course - they hadn't actually been at boarding school, you know).

Jackie Trent's tragic vignette "Where Are You Now (My Love)" gets skipped, disappointingly.

MARIANNE FAITHFULL - "This Little Bird"

Unlike "True Love Ways", this is a memorable enough record to withstand meaningful discussion in itself rather than merely in the context of her descent/ascent from convent school to the most glamorous wreckage imaginable. It's an infinitely better example of mid-60s folk-pop than Donovan's damp squib - the balance of the song's beauty and Marianne's actual life make you feel, with hindsight, that what happened was almost designed, almost planned right from the start; this kind of perfection (still conscious of a Monica Edwards-reading childhood, you feel) cannot last forever, it has to fall. For now, though, her voice was just about untouched by All That Stuff. And there was still the endless promise of "Summer Nights" to come, as well (I know of no record which makes me imagine myself in 1965 so passionately), but by then worldliness was just about starting to creep in.

THE HOLLIES - "I'm Alive"

The pleasure among all sane men that such a consistent band did at least manage to get one number one out of the 60s should be balanced with the knowledge that they had other hits more deserving of the honour. "Bus Stop" and "On A Carousel" were more joyous, "Stop Stop Stop" more dramatic.

Fuckfuckfuck we don't get the original and best "Trains And Boats And Planes" (the Bacharach version - his only hit under his own name). But we *do* get ...

THE ROCKIN' BERRIES - "Poor Man's Son"

Heatstroke. Entrapment. Desperately searching for escape. This is what "Fire In The Punchbowl" - and the destruction of all life's dreams that it symbolises - felt and sounded like. This was the other side of the Springfields' "Say I Won't Be There" just like that was the other side of "Spirit of Punchbowl Farm". Awesome. Someone, somewhere, is still crying. Who cares if it wasn't meant? Pop is classless or it is nothing.

EVERLY BROTHERS - "The Price Of Love"

This was a pretty decent (although wholly unexpected) comeback; blaring harmonica, piercing blues, chugging train-rolling rhythm, the Everlys sounding tougher and far *older* than ever before, it was the only way Phil and Don could get their final Top 10 hit.

ELVIS PRESLEY - "Crying In The Chapel"

Unlike this. Can't be arsed to actually be offended by it, but still a ghastly lachrymose Republican anthem. Doesn't even have the appalled fascination that still, somehow, makes "American Trilogy" so compelling.

SANDIE SHAW - "Long Live Love"

Yes, OK, Chris Andrews wasn't a songwriter of the Bacharach-David calibre, but this is still an evocative record, thoroughly Rediffusionesque and all the better for it. Individuals may die, but the era as a whole lives.

PAUL SIMON - "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard"

1972 begins with Rhymin' Simon's second solo hit. He rarely did better; this kind of wordiness (mention/detention and leak/Newsweek rhymes, etc.) can irritate at times, but here he got it just right.

DIANA ROSS - "Doobedood'ndoobe Doobedood'ndoobe"

Yes, that was the title. And no, it wasn't up to the level of "Remember Me" or "Surrender" - a decent enough moving-to-California-and-losing-most-of-its-cred-era midtempo Motown song, all the same.

SLADE - "Take Me Back 'Ome"

Their most boring big hit ("Cum On Feel The Noize" is probably worse, but it actively irritates; this is just totally forgettable). And they had so much *character* before and after their commercial peak, as well (twin artistic peaks = "Coz I Luv You" and "How Does It Feel").

WINGS - "Mary Had A Little Lamb"

What do you do if your last single got a blanket ban and even its title was considered unmentionable ("at number 19, a record by Wings" intoned Fluff of "Give Ireland Back To The Irish")? Set the nursery rhyme which opened the era of recorded sound 95 years earlier to music, if you're Paul McCartney. I don't hate this record but I wish he'd never released it as a single; it's helped to strengthen his cheesy, naff, insular reputation when really he deserves far better. Shame he never released "Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey" as a UK single, and that the only exposure it ever got here was when the opening section was played over Buster Merryfield getting melancholic in the Docklands - it's a fabulous rollicking excursion, the Fieldings taking in whoever came past in the background, the Thorntons fleeing like hell, although they shouldn't have done.

Michael Jackson's "Rockin' Robin" gets skipped even though it climbed twelve places to number 10. Is this a new policy? Can't say I welcome it, if it is - I share Marcello Carlin's belief in the Philip Larkin principle (which is why I was pleased to see Jonathan King in the "Sounds of the Sixties" repeats last night, especially because it was his only good record).

NEW WORLD - "Sister Jane"

Pleasant enough sunlit halfway point 'twixt Britgum and played-out post-hippie acousticisms, very akin to Marmalade's "Cousin Norman". Their last Top 20 hit, Dale says, and I'd guess that even if I couldn't confirm it in Guinness; the world was about to get colder.

THE MOVE - "California Man"

Why did people in the 70s insist on peddling this kind of tired 50s "tribute"? They'd originally been so much better as well ... no wonder it was their last gasp before ELO and Wizzard. Final moments of exhausted enterprises usually feel like this, even if they don't sound like it. "*Traditional* rock'n'roll" says Winton. Yuk. It's people like him who've reduced the phrase "rock'n'roll" to a sad, sad, sad parody only ever used by fucking wankers.

DAVID CASSIDY - "Could It Be Forever?"

Marcello's repeated praise for this man makes me listen like I wouldn't have done a few years ago. It takes repeated listens to make it sink in, but there is a genuine power to this song - the reputation of the phrase "feel like a man" is what does it, reveals his desperation to grow up, to turn the words of such a song into the reality of his own life.

THE DRIFTERS - "Saturday Night At The Movies"

Did anyone mention nostalgia *in* the 70s, as opposed to nostalgia for them? Funny how that market always went, more instinctively and totally than any before or since, for the very corniest Americana. "Dance With Me", "There Goes My Baby" et al were earlier and really far better, lacking the cheesiness of this Juke Box Hit (to use the terminology of 70s ITV ads).

HURRICANE SMITH - "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?"

The arrangement here could almost be straight off "The Good Old Days". So quaint and homely and provincial - and that is not an insult - that I can hardly believe it was a US Top 3 hit. Then he went back to being a sound engineer. I think.

LINDISFARNE - "Lady Eleanor"

See above, only spun out into a sort of Three Rivers Fantasy of pop, lost in an industrial netherworld only without any hint of strikes, aspiring instead to the castles of Northumberland - can it really have been less than 15 years before that Nissan "now with added Sunderland" advert? They were ugly, yes, but that was part of the point. Don't remember them for Gazza. Remember them for this.

DON McLEAN - "Vincent"

The reason why I wasn't originally going to do this today is that I couldn't imagine myself having anything to say about this song, so nondescript and unpreposessing is it. So maudlin and self-righteous that it could quite easily fit into Sunday-morning religious Radio 2. And, yes, it still sounds like it goes on for ten minutes.

T.REX - "Metal Guru"

And a mixed, uneasy chart about to get uneasier still - very 1972, then - is topped off by a piece of unashamed mid-Atlantic teenraunch which, when cross-fertilised with Richard Hoggart, gave raise to "Panic". Actually thinking of the ideological twisting of "Metal Guru" involved in the Smiths' usage of its undertow (woo-hah!!!) is far more interesting than the song itself; compared to "Hot Love" or "Telegram Sam" it's a weak, tuneless, uninspired dirge.

The Rockin' Berries, though ...

Friday, June 11, 2004

JADAKISS featuring ANTHONY HAMILTON - "Why"
CAM'RON featuring JAHEIM - "Lord You Know"

You can tell it's an election year.

Hip-hop, in its abiding moods, atmospheres, contents, contexts, is possibly the best guide we have to the feelings of black America as a whole, its relationship with the wider American mood, its tensions and loves and hates and wars. Had Bush Sr won in '92 there's no way Afrocentricity would have gone out of fashion so soon and so totally. We'd probably never have had Biggie's "Juicy", which summed up its moment so totally precisely because of its sheer kicked-back relaxation - they're out, we're in, the 80s were worth living through after all. And without the Clinton era we'd never have had pinnacles of late 90s confidence and collaboration and pride and, above all else, sheer *optimism* like Meth's "Retro Godfather" and Ghostface's "We Made It", near-hymns that, looking back from the other side, can make me cry with their unashamed certainty that the world - their world, our world - got a little bit better every day.

Then, as Momus put it, the future wasn't those Clinton-era dreams, it was more like Bang Bang Bang. And the War on Terror era begat fascist-hop; confused through its years of mainstreaming to the backdrop of a relatively tolerant and rational US government, hip-hop instinctively knew the elite had turned nasty and the game had switched, but the Clinton era had trapped it in a position it couldn't easily jump out of. And the elite took their grip on the media, creating the most paranoid and censorious climate since the McCarthy era ... and hip-hop was practically forced to follow. And you know what '03 was like. Bone Crusher acting like Mobb Deep if they'd been trained in Aldershot, the Diplomats (that name!) punching the air with a boot in every living European's ass, the D-Block clique unashamedly making themselves out to be the sort of people who'd think nothing of torturing Iraqis. As Americosceptic Conservatism was reborn in Britain, these songs would power out from Westwood every hot weekend summer night, blasting out from the motorways and the market towns within earshot of the CDA, and the culture war was twisted around and thoroughly reinvented from within ... now, the "scum nation" was, if only by default, way way way to the militaristic right of the "true blues". Fascist-hop will have a place forever in my mind as the very heart of last summer's heatstroke, soundtracking each day and night with endless nervous tics, the chill to my body the first time I heard the *post-human* harpsichord of "Stunt 101", the self-loathing excitement of blogging like all my life was ahead of me even as I genuinely feared the very existence of the next few months. Even reaching the Trent Bridge terracing (contextual point; BBC Four showed a clip of Brian Johnston within 20 minutes of "Get Off Of My Cloud" this evening), fascist-hop became one of the great private, alternate pop musics of our time, far more reflective of contemporary reality than the comforting fantasies of Lumidee (brilliant though her one shining moment was).

But then came the backlash. Then came the other side. Then came the shock and awe. But not the kind originally intended. And slowly, steadily, even the US media began to change tack, in some parts anyway. The public mood visibly changed. What had been at worst (best) a grudging acceptance turned into vicious anger. And pop is never more pathetic than when playing last year's game, expressing last year's feelings, peddling last year's emotions. Call these two tracks volte-faces if you will; I call them extraordinary admissions of guilt, practically calling for forgiveness, desperately searching for a way out. The contrast with what Jada and Killa Cam - leaders of the two most overtly militaristic, don't-mess-with-America cliques that dominated hip-hop's brief immersion in the War on Terror hysteria - were doing last year is such that "Moment of Clarity" and "Takeover" might as well be the same song by comparison.

Quite apart from its own brilliance, "Why" is clear proof of Kanye West's genius and status as the most important man in black pop right now - when he said he was the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack" it's like he stripped away the whole black-on-black war, got everyone focused again, made them realise that just because you're in the Billboard Top 10 doesn't mean you can't have the same relationship to the US elite that hip-hop had under the elder Bush. It's almost like that line, even more than the rest of "The College Dropout", changed the whole game; while the torture images and everything else would probably have killed fascist-hop anyway, it was Kanye's throwdown - his open challenge to the rest of hip-hop - that pushed it to the fringes within a hip-hop context. Three 6 Mafia's "Who Gives A Fuck Where You From" is a living fossil in wider hip-hop terms; that sound came from the South and is heading back there, back to its own private world, marginalised again just like the (not entirely unrelated) Master P sound was when No Limit charged over the top.

There are people on ILM who hate records like "Why" and - to a lesser extent - "Lord You Know", the songs that have started the last few weekends' Westwood shows, the songs that may well define this summer like "Never Scared", "2 Gunz Up" and "Santana's Town" did last. They will opine that "Why" is "luddite", "boring", "worthy", all the tedious anti-intellectual, Philistine reflex words and stock insults of those who know they've been outplayed, outnumbered and defeated. The problem with the whole ILM ethos has always been that it never came to terms with the fact that the Clinton era was over, it always sneered at thought, it always (and *here's* the stirrer) preferred black people when they weren't thinking. It always felt unsettled, unnerved, vaguely destablised by those who spit from their own experiences rather than relying on the magpie ethos of the middle-class aesthete (which I must stress is fine in its own context and has produced vast swathes of great music but *you know* ...) So fixated is it on the idealistic vision that racial and cultural divides are dead, it cannot face the reality that they are *still* there, still divisive, still affecting each moment of people's lives, so it ridicules those whose music is imbued by a sense of black pop history, and gives fervent, uncritical, embarrassingly OTT praise to those who step outside it (hence all those euologies over the classical samples and marching beats of fascist-hop, hence all the BEST THING EVAH hype over Lil Jon's production of Usher's "Yeah", which I still don't think is really anything special - it may be startling in the contrast of a song which tops the charts throughout Europe but not really beyond that).

Last year Jada and the D-Block clique were among the most stern-faced and scornful in their dismissal of sonic "blackness"; we will go to war, we will use force and power and our race and history is irrelevant, so they said. Now Jada's out on his own again and he sounds older, apologetic, still equally defiant but now from an equally different perspective. Anthony Hamilton's voice could be played at Ray Charles' funeral without the Jools Holland purists finding it even remotely distasteful, and while that might sound like a criticism, he can shine in his true context - his voice almost alone turned Nappy Roots' "AwwNaww" into luscious Southern neo-psychedelia some time before Andre 3000 thought of such a direction, and a good deal less self-conscious about it. On "Why" he sounds as old as time, wondering whether true human rationality can ever be achieved, articulating a frustration dating back centuries, effectively setting the atmosphere for Jadakiss' reinvention. A year ago this might well have inferred that he'd be rhyming about his cat over Autechre beats, but since "The College Dropout" opened a new halfway house not seen since Wu-Tang's pinnacle, Jada can shine like never before - the lyrics ("why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt / why they stop letting niggas get degrees in jail / why niggas can't get no jobs / why they ain't give us secure for AIDS / why they forcing you to be hard?") are closer to Mos Def's lacerating "What Beef Is" than to anything Jada's done before, but the voice is still as harsh, as aggressive as ever, its essence still recognisable from the poignantly distant days of "We Gonna Make It" (which was, remember, pure reborn 70s soul; Jada was never leading the way in D-Block's military period, that always seemed to be Sheek Louch). As a combination, it has the sort of power that can define a year when viewed from a decade or more's perspective.

Cam'ron's "Lord You Know" feels definitively like a *comeback* in a way precious little else in hip-hop does at the moment; Cam was so closely associated with last year's fascist-hop insurgence that he, more than anyone else, has a hole to dig out of, a new path to find, a point to prove. In terms of its production "Lord You Know" is much less of a reassertion of the black sonic lineage than "Why" - it's still the same big, empowered, driven Diplomatic Immunity (!!!!!!) sound in essence - but now it's being undermined and taken in another direction by something Cam'ron would surely have called "weak-ass" this time last year: a singer. Jaheim - whose R&B sweetenings of ghetto life have always set him firmly against the Dipset's disconnection of themselves from all previous black pop, and who here sounds oddly European, very nearly indistinguishable from Seal or Xavier Naidoo - is practically singing gospel music here, pleading forgiveness, making it clear that the torture of "What's Really Good", the beating of "I'm Ready", the bludgeoning of "Dipset Anthem" are part of the past, part of a different era.

Way back in 2003 ... facing the '04 election, suddenly it seems that way. And somehow the obvious anti-Christian hatefulness and total ignorance of the gospel's true message that runs through the Bush administration increases the necessity for even someone like Cam'ron to "reclaim God", point out that the Republican culture doesn't have a monopoly on Christianity, that just because you're not Common doesn't mean you can't have a consciousness ... I thought Cam'ron came over well on B*ll O'Re*lly's show but I never thought it'd seriously influence his music; now he seems to have taken in the lessons that come from exposure to that world, realised that greater issues are at stake than the safe tribal warfare of his earlier work, developed an awareness of what is at stake in America's most important presidential race for 36 years. Although his voice is still as recognisable as ever, it actually seems to have changed more than Jada's - it sounds subdued, understated, aware, regrouped, refocused.

Hip-hop always has a particularly strong place in the air at this time of year; Jay-Z used to count out his dominance in terms of summers rather than years for a reason. Somehow the heat heightens the music's tension, the length of the days deepens its power, its ability to worm its way into your mind. If you want to call me a "bore" or "over-intellectual", go ahead; I don't give a fuck because songs like this are practically my lifeblood right now. Remember both Reagan and Ray Charles this way.
JADAKISS featuring ANTHONY HAMILTON - "Why"
CAM'RON featuring JAHEIM - "Lord You Know"

You can tell it's an election year.

Hip-hop, in its abiding moods, atmospheres, contents, contexts, is possibly the best guide we have to the feelings of black America as a whole, its relationship with the wider American mood, its tensions and loves and hates and wars. Had Bush Sr won in '92 there's no way Afrocentricity would have gone out of fashion so soon and so totally. We'd probably never have had Biggie's "Juicy", which summed up its moment so totally precisely because of its sheer kicked-back relaxation - they're out, we're in, the 80s were worth living through after all. And without the Clinton era we'd never have had pinnacles of late 90s confidence and collaboration and pride and, above all else, sheer *optimism* like Meth's "Retro Godfather" and Ghostface's "We Made It", near-hymns that, looking back from the other side, can make me cry with their unashamed certainty that the world - their world, our world - got a little bit better every day.

Then, as Momus put it, the future wasn't those Clinton-era dreams, it was more like Bang Bang Bang. And the War on Terror era begat fascist-hop; confused through its years of mainstreaming to the backdrop of a relatively tolerant and rational US government, hip-hop instinctively knew the elite had turned nasty and the game had switched, but the Clinton era had trapped it in a position it couldn't easily jump out of. And the elite took their grip on the media, creating the most paranoid and censorious climate since the McCarthy era ... and hip-hop was practically forced to follow. And you know what '03 was like. Bone Crusher acting like Mobb Deep if they'd been trained in Aldershot, the Diplomats (that name!) punching the air with a boot in every living European's ass, the D-Block clique unashamedly making themselves out to be the sort of people who'd think nothing of torturing Iraqis. As Americosceptic Conservatism was reborn in Britain, these songs would power out from Westwood every hot weekend summer night, blasting out from the motorways and the market towns within earshot of the CDA, and the culture war was twisted around and thoroughly reinvented from within ... now, the "scum nation" was, if only by default, way way way to the militaristic right of the "true blues". Fascist-hop will have a place forever in my mind as the very heart of last summer's heatstroke, soundtracking each day and night with endless nervous tics, the chill to my body the first time I heard the *post-human* harpsichord of "Stunt 101", the self-loathing excitement of blogging like all my life was ahead of me even as I looked into the next few months with utter dread and loathing. Even reaching the Trent Bridge terracing (contextual point; BBC Four showed a clip of Brian Johnston within 20 minutes of "Get Off Of My Cloud" this evening), fascist-hop became one of the great private, alternate pop musics of our time, far more reflective of contemporary reality than the comforting fantasies of Lumidee (brilliant though her one shining moment was).

But then came the backlash. Then came the other side. Then came the shock and awe. But not the kind originally intended. And slowly, steadily, even the US media began to change tack, in some parts anyway. The public mood visibly changed. What had been at worst (best) a grudging acceptance turned into vicious anger. And pop is never more pathetic than when playing last year's game, expressing last year's feelings, peddling last year's emotions. Call these two tracks volte-faces if you will; I call them extraordinary admissions of guilt, practically calling for forgiveness, desperately searching for a way out. The contrast with what Jada and Killa Cam - leaders of the two most overtly militaristic, don't-mess-with-America cliques that dominated hip-hop's brief immersion in the War on Terror hysteria - were doing last year is such that "Moment of Clarity" and "Takeover" might as well be the same song by comparison.

Quite apart from its own brilliance, "Why" is clear proof of Kanye West's genius and status as the most important man in black pop right now - when he said he was the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack" it's like he stripped away the whole black-on-black war, got everyone focused again, made them realise that just because you're in the Billboard Top 10 doesn't mean you can't have the same relationship to the US elite that hip-hop had under the elder Bush. It's almost like that line, even more than the rest of "The College Dropout", changed the whole game; while the torture images and everything else would probably have killed fascist-hop anyway, it was Kanye's throwdown - his open challenge to the rest of hip-hop - that pushed it to the fringes within a hip-hop context. Three 6 Mafia's "Who Gives A Fuck Where You From" is a living fossil in wider hip-hop terms; that sound came from the South and is heading back there, back to its own private world, marginalised again just like the (not entirely unrelated) Master P sound was when No Limit charged over the top.

There are people on ILM who hate records like "Why" and - to a lesser extent - "Lord You Know", the songs that have started the last few weekends' Westwood shows, the songs that may well define this summer like "Never Scared", "2 Gunz Up" and "Santana's Town" did last. They will opine that "Why" is "luddite", "boring", "worthy", all the tedious anti-intellectual, Philistine reflex words and stock insults of those who know they've been outplayed, outnumbered and defeated. The problem with the whole ILM ethos has always been that it never came to terms with the fact that the Clinton era was over, it always sneered at thought, it always (and *here's* the stirrer) preferred black people when they weren't thinking. It always felt unsettled, unnerved, vaguely destablised by those who spit from their own experiences rather than relying on the magpie ethos of the middle-class aesthete (which I must stress is fine in its own context and has produced vast swathes of great music but *you know* ...) So fixated is it on the idealistic vision that racial and cultural divides are dead, it cannot face the reality that they are *still* there, still divisive, still affecting each moment of people's lives, so it ridicules those whose music is imbued by a sense of black pop history, and gives fervent, uncritical, embarrassingly OTT praise to those who step outside it (hence all those euologies over the classical samples and marching beats of fascist-hop, hence all the BEST THING EVAH hype over Lil Jon's production of Usher's "Yeah", which I still don't think is really anything special - it may be startling in the contrast of a song which tops the charts throughout Europe but not really beyond that).

Last year Jada and the D-Block clique were among the most stern-faced and scornful in their dismissal of sonic "blackness"; we will go to war, we will use force and power and our race and history is irrelevant, so they said. Now Jada's out on his own again and he sounds older, apologetic, still equally defiant but now from an equally different perspective. Anthony Hamilton's voice could be played at Ray Charles' funeral without the Jools Holland purists finding it even remotely distasteful, and while that might sound like a criticism, he can shine in his true context - his voice almost alone turned Nappy Roots' "AwwNaww" into luscious Southern neo-psychedelia some time before Andre 3000 thought of such a direction, and a good deal less self-conscious about it. On "Why" he sounds as old as time, wondering whether true human rationality can ever be achieved, articulating a frustration dating back centuries, effectively setting the atmosphere for Jadakiss' reinvention. A year ago this might well have inferred that he'd be rhyming about his cat over Autechre beats, but since "The College Dropout" opened a new halfway house not seen since Wu-Tang's pinnacle, Jada can shine like never before - the lyrics ("why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt / why they stop letting niggas get degrees in jail / why niggas can't get no jobs / why they ain't give us secure for AIDS / why they forcing you to be hard?") are closer to Mos Def's lacerating "What Beef Is" than to anything Jada's done before, but the voice is still as harsh, as aggressive as ever, its essence still recognisable from the poignantly distant days of "We Gonna Make It" (which was, remember, pure reborn 70s soul; Jada was never leading the way in D-Block's military period, that always seemed to be Sheek Louch). As a combination, it has the sort of power that can define a year when viewed from a decade or more's perspective.

Cam'ron's "Lord You Know" feels definitively like a *comeback* in a way precious little else in hip-hop does at the moment; Cam was so closely associated with last year's fascist-hop insurgence that he, more than anyone else, has a hole to dig out of, a new path to find, a point to prove. In terms of its production "Lord You Know" is much less of a reassertion of the black sonic lineage than "Why" - it's still the same big, empowered, driven Diplomatic Immunity (!!!!!!) sound in essence - but now it's being undermined and taken in another direction by something Cam'ron would surely have called "weak-ass" this time last year: a singer. Jaheim - whose R&B sweetenings of ghetto life have always set him firmly against the Dipset's disconnection of themselves from all previous black pop, and who here sounds oddly European, very nearly indistinguishable from Seal or Xavier Naidoo - is practically singing gospel music here, pleading forgiveness, making it clear that the torture of "What's Really Good", the beating of "I'm Ready", the bludgeoning of "Dipset Anthem" are part of the past, part of a different era.

Way back in 2003 ... facing the '04 election, suddenly it seems that way. And somehow the obvious anti-Christian hatefulness and total ignorance of the gospel's true message that runs through the Bush administration increases the necessity for even someone like Cam'ron to "reclaim God", point out that the Republican culture doesn't have a monopoly on Christianity, that just because you're not Common doesn't mean you can't have a consciousness ... I thought Cam'ron came over well on B*ll O'Re*lly's show but I never thought it'd seriously influence his music; now he seems to have taken in the lessons that come from exposure to that world, realised that greater issues are at stake than the safe tribal warfare of his earlier work, developed an awareness of what is at stake in America's most important presidential race for 36 years. Although his voice is still as recognisable as ever, it actually seems to have changed more than Jada's - it sounds subdued, understated, aware, regrouped, refocused.

Hip-hop always has a particularly strong place in the air at this time of year; Jay-Z used to count out his dominance in terms of summers rather than years for a reason. Somehow the heat heightens the music's tension, the length of the days deepens its power, its ability to worm its way into your mind. If you want to call me a "bore" or "over-intellectual", go ahead; I don't give a fuck because songs like this are practically my lifeblood right now. Remember both Reagan and Ray Charles this way.
JADAKISS featuring ANTHONY HAMILTON - "Why"
CAM'RON featuring JAHEIM - "Lord You Know"

You can tell it's an election year.

Hip-hop, in its abiding moods, atmospheres, contents, contexts, is possibly the best guide we have to the feelings of black America as a whole, its relationship with the wider American mood, its tensions and loves and hates and wars. Had Bush Sr won in '92 there's no way Afrocentricity would have gone out of fashion so soon and so totally. We'd probably never have had Biggie's "Juicy", which summed up its moment so totally precisely because of its sheer kicked-back relaxation - they're out, we're in, the 80s were worth living through after all. And without the Clinton era we'd never have had pinnacles of late 90s confidence and collaboration and pride and, above all else, sheer *optimism* like Meth's "Retro Godfather" and Ghostface's "We Made It", near-hymns that, looking back from the other side, can make me cry with their unashamed certainty that the world - their world, our world - got a little bit better every day.

Then, as Momus put it, the future wasn't those Clinton-era dreams, it was more like Bang Bang Bang. And the War on Terror era begat fascist-hop; confused through its years of mainstreaming to the backdrop of a relatively tolerant and rational US government, hip-hop instinctively knew the elite had turned nasty and the game had switched, but the Clinton era had trapped it in a position it couldn't easily jump out of. And the elite took their grip on the media, creating the most paranoid and censorious climate since the McCarthy era ... and hip-hop was practically forced to follow. And you know what '03 was like. Bone Crusher acting like Mobb Deep if they'd been trained in Aldershot, the Diplomats (that name!) punching the air with a boot in every living European's ass, the D-Block clique unashamedly making themselves out to be the sort of people who'd think nothing of torturing Iraqis. As Americosceptic Conservatism was reborn in Britain, these songs would power out from Westwood every hot weekend summer night, blasting out from the motorways and the market towns within earshot of the CDA, and the culture war was twisted around and thoroughly reinvented from within ... now, the "scum nation" was, if only by default, way way way to the militaristic right of the "true blues". Fascist-hop will have a place forever in my mind as the very heart of last summer's heatstroke, soundtracking each day and night with endless nervous tics, the chill to my body the first time I heard the *post-human* harpsichord of "Stunt 101", the self-loathing excitement of blogging like all my life was ahead of me. Even reaching the Trent Bridge terracing (contextual point; BBC Four showed a clip of Brian Johnston within 20 minutes of "Get Off Of My Cloud" this evening), fascist-hop became one of the great private, alternate pop musics of our time, far more reflective of contemporary reality than the comforting fantasies of Lumidee (brilliant though her one shining moment was).

But then came the backlash. Then came the other side. Then came the shock and awe. But not the kind originally intended. And slowly, steadily, even the US media began to change tack, in some parts anyway. The public mood visibly changed. What had been at worst (best) a grudging acceptance turned into vicious anger. And pop is never more pathetic than when playing last year's game, expressing last year's feelings, peddling last year's emotions. Call these two tracks volte-faces if you will; I call them extraordinary admissions of guilt, practically calling for forgiveness, desperately searching for a way out. The contrast with what Jada and Killa Cam - leaders of the two most overtly militaristic, don't-mess-with-America cliques that dominated hip-hop's brief immersion in the War on Terror hysteria - were doing last year is such that "Moment of Clarity" and "Takeover" might as well be the same song by comparison.

Quite apart from its own brilliance, "Why" is clear proof of Kanye West's genius and status as the most important man in black pop right now - when he said he was the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack" it's like he stripped away the whole black-on-black war, got everyone focused again, made them realise that just because you're in the Billboard Top 10 doesn't mean you can't have the same relationship to the US elite that hip-hop had under the elder Bush. It's almost like that line, even more than the rest of "The College Dropout", changed the whole game; while the torture images and everything else would probably have killed fascist-hop anyway, it was Kanye's throwdown - his open challenge to the rest of hip-hop - that pushed it to the fringes within a hip-hop context. Three 6 Mafia's "Who Gives A Fuck Where You From" is a living fossil in wider hip-hop terms; that sound came from the South and is heading back there, back to its own private world, marginalised again just like the (not entirely unrelated) Master P sound was when No Limit charged over the top.

There are people on ILM who hate records like "Why" and - to a lesser extent - "Lord You Know", the songs that have started the last few weekends' Westwood shows, the songs that may well define this summer like "Never Scared", "2 Gunz Up" and "Santana's Town" did last. They will opine that "Why" is "luddite", "boring", "worthy", all the tedious anti-intellectual, Philistine reflex words and stock insults of those who know they've been outplayed, outnumbered and defeated. The problem with the whole ILM ethos has always been that it never came to terms with the fact that the Clinton era was over, it always sneered at thought, it always (and *here's* the stirrer) preferred black people when they weren't thinking. It always felt unsettled, unnerved, vaguely destablised by those who spit from their own experiences rather than relying on the magpie ethos of the middle-class aesthete (which I must stress is fine in its own context and has produced vast swathes of great music but *you know* ...) So fixated is it on the idealistic vision that racial and cultural divides are dead, it cannot face the reality that they are *still* there, still divisive, still affecting each moment of people's lives, so it ridicules those whose music is imbued by a sense of black pop history, and gives fervent, uncritical, embarrassingly OTT praise to those who step outside it (hence all those euologies over the classical samples and marching beats of fascist-hop, hence all the BEST THING EVAH hype over Lil Jon's production of Usher's "Yeah", which I still don't think is really anything special - it may be startling in the contrast of a song which tops the charts throughout Europe but not really beyond that).

Last year Jada and the D-Block clique were among the most stern-faced and scornful in their dismissal of sonic "blackness"; we will go to war, we will use force and power and our race and history is irrelevant, so they said. Now Jada's out on his own again and he sounds older, apologetic, still equally defiant but now from an equally different perspective. Anthony Hamilton's voice could be played at Ray Charles' funeral without the Jools Holland purists finding it even remotely distasteful, and while that might sound like a criticism, he can shine in his true context - his voice almost alone turned Nappy Roots' "AwwNaww" into luscious Southern neo-psychedelia some time before Andre 3000 thought of such a direction, and a good deal less self-conscious about it. On "Why" he sounds as old as time, wondering whether true human rationality can ever be achieved, articulating a frustration dating back centuries, effectively setting the atmosphere for Jadakiss' reinvention. A year ago this might well have inferred that he'd be rhyming about his cat over Autechre beats, but since "The College Dropout" opened a new halfway house not seen since Wu-Tang's pinnacle, Jada can shine like never before - the lyrics ("why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt / why they stop letting niggas get degrees in jail / why niggas can't get no jobs / why they ain't give us secure for AIDS / why they forcing you to be hard?") are closer to Mos Def's lacerating "What Beef Is" than to anything Jada's done before, but the voice is still as harsh, as aggressive as ever, its essence still recognisable from the poignantly distant days of "We Gonna Make It" (which was, remember, pure reborn 70s soul; Jada was never leading the way in D-Block's military period, that always seemed to be Sheek Louch). As a combination, it has the sort of power that can define a year when viewed from a decade or more's perspective.

Cam'ron's "Lord You Know" feels definitively like a *comeback* in a way precious little else in hip-hop does at the moment; Cam was so closely associated with last year's fascist-hop insurgence that he, more than anyone else, has a hole to dig out of, a new path to find, a point to prove. In terms of its production "Lord You Know" is much less of a reassertion of the black sonic lineage than "Why" - it's still the same big, empowered, driven Diplomatic Immunity (!!!!!!) sound in essence - but now it's being undermined and taken in another direction by something Cam'ron would surely have called "weak-ass" this time last year: a singer. Jaheim - whose R&B sweetenings of ghetto life have always set him firmly against the Dipset's disconnection of themselves from all previous black pop, and who here sounds oddly European, very nearly indistinguishable from Seal or Xavier Naidoo - is practically singing gospel music here, pleading forgiveness, making it clear that the torture of "What's Really Good", the beating of "I'm Ready", the bludgeoning of "Dipset Anthem" are part of the past, part of a different era.

Way back in 2003 ... facing the '04 election, suddenly it seems that way. And somehow the obvious anti-Christian hatefulness and total ignorance of the gospel's true message that runs through the Bush administration increases the necessity for even someone like Cam'ron to "reclaim God", point out that the Republican culture doesn't have a monopoly on Christianity, that just because you're not Common doesn't mean you can't have a consciousness ... I thought Cam'ron came over well on B*ll O'Re*lly's show but I never thought it'd seriously influence his music; now he seems to have taken in the lessons that come from exposure to that world, realised that greater issues are at stake than the safe tribal warfare of his earlier work, developed an awareness of what is at stake in America's most important presidential race for 36 years. Although his voice is still as recognisable as ever, it actually seems to have changed more than Jada's - it sounds subdued, understated, aware, regrouped, refocused.

Hip-hop always has a particularly strong place in the air at this time of year; Jay-Z used to count out his dominance in terms of summers rather than years for a reason. Somehow the heat heightens the music's tension, the length of the days deepens its power, its ability to worm its way into your mind. If you want to call me a "bore" or "over-intellectual", go ahead; I don't give a fuck because songs like this are practically my lifeblood right now. Remember both Reagan and Ray Charles this way.

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