Imagine tuning into your favorite Top-40 radio station expecting to hear the latest Jack Johnson single, and because of some massive meteorological disturbance, the signals had been crossed with your city’s underground hip-hop station. Instead of a hostile rap takeover, the music coming out of your speakers is more of a mixture, like top 40 filtered through hip-hop’s drum and bass. Those of you without expressive imaginations need not worry — expert knob-twiddlers Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and Prince Paul have completed an album just like this, and Handsome Boy Modeling School call it White People.
This crossing of signals isn’t anything new. From Deborah Harry’s interpretation of hip-hop for “Rapture” to the always classic examples of gospel culture stolen by Elvis and The Rolling Stones, white artists have had few qualms borrowing from black music. White People, on the other hand, takes a different approach, and winds up with mixed results.
The pinnacle of how the interpretation of white music can succeed comes with a guest appearance of the indie-folk songstress Cat Power on the song “I’ve Been Thinkin’.” A normally stoic and depressed Chan Marshall sings with a shockingly different flavor: “You can slide, slide, slippity- slide / You can hip- hop, and don’t stop / But I’ll never be / On my knees.” Hearing someone so previously dedicated to the soft twang of guitars lend her voice to a song ruled by drums and bass is dirty — dirty and great, that is. “Thinkin’ ” is undoubtedly the high point on the album.
Because White People is such a conceptual and sometimes satirical album, it’s more difficult to criticize the songs that didn’t succeed. As with all satirical albums, White People needs to be judged on a different scale. After all, a good spoof song can still be bad to prove a point: that the style it is lampooning is itself bad. That being said, there are decidedly bad songs on White People.
Unfortunately, The Automator’s playground beats can’t support Mike Patton’s terrible falsetto rapping on “Are You Down With It?,” and “Breakdown,” which features Jack Johnson, sounds like a simple Jack Johnson song. There’s little evidence of any help from HBMS.
Fortunately, these failures are few and far between. The more traditional rap songs seem more natural — especially “A Day In The Life,” which features the RZA and white funk band The Mars Volta. Automator’s arrangements bring the same familiar giddy joy that it did to Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagon’s records, creating something supernatural out of RZA’s standard rhymes. Tim Meadows even lends the Leon Phelps character from “The Ladies Man” to the song’s close, talking about how Handsome Boy Modeling School taught him how to wash his penis, and which fork to use for salad and “you know, soup or whatever.”
As with all of The Automator’s records, White People can sound like a revolution. There’s honestly none more bombastic and none more willing to take on one conceptual record after another. It’s just unfortunate when he misses his mark.
White People is no botched experiment. Hearing this blend of such different musical styles may be shocking to some listeners, but the conceptual lessons that Handsome Boy Modeling School tries to teach are nothing short of courageous.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars