My sympathies towards the royal family can be described as ambivalent at best. I would
lose little sleep if the institution, absurd relic of a feudalist past, were to be disbanded overnight. Yet much like the monarchy itself, this show has succeeded in capturing the public imagination, and it would be churlish to deny that it also captured mine. The key is not to focus on the regal responsibilities, which would be as tedious for us to watch as they are for the Queen to perform, but on the family drama seething beneath the glamorous surface of the crown. The Crown is in essence a soap opera and as daft in its own way as Downton Abbey or Eastenders, with sibling rivalry, marital strife, scandalous affairs, premature deaths, very public divorces – all of these providing the meat of the drama. Whether it is at all historically accurate remains irrelevant because it works as pure entertainment, as vaguely hysterical melodrama and as an epic portrait of familial dysfunction.
Their internal squabbles are similar to those of so many other families, but uniquely they must be resolved or else risk bringing down an institution that, as they are continually reminded, is bigger than they are. Such a weight on their shoulders is what makes the private lives of the royal family so fascinating to us, and is what makes this particular soap opera worthy of attention even amongst staunch republicans. Because, hate the institution or not, it is very difficult to despise Elizabeth, and Claire Foy does an excellent job in depicting the burdensome impact of the crown upon her mild-mannered disposition – a job that she did not choose and explicitly does not want. What’s more, republicans will greatly enjoy the depiction of shadier elements of the monarchy, including a Princess Margaret who delights in shocking the press, an alternately dastardly and dashing Prince Philip, and a post-abdicated Edward VIII whose cold-shouldering by his own family pointedly exposes their nasty side.
This hit series is doubtless to continue for many a year, as inevitably will the monarchy itself. I remain ambivalent about the latter, but about the former I could not be more pleased.
Black America Again – Common
Black America once again chips away at the white male orthodoxy in this album, exposing the crucial prejudice at the heart of the Trump campaign: ‘We staring in the face of hate again/The same hate they say will make America great again’. As Common and anyone with half a brain cell is aware, the ‘again’ in that famous slogan is a throwback to a White America that no longer exists, a nostalgia that acts as a veiled threat to minorities across the country. So expect Trump to keep on denying that he’s a racist whilst enacting draconian legal measures to increase the incarceration of black American youths. But also expect Black America to fight back, as they do better than almost any minority group on the planet, mobilised by a music that has never ceased to tell white nationalists where to shove it. Common name-checks James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Public Enemy on this album, legendary political acts who greatly influence the powerful title track, one which pertinently re-channels the nostalgic use of ‘Again’ from the Trump campaign.
But those artists were never just political acts, they were spectacularly successful musicians as well, each one driving R&B to previously unimagined heights. Here Common struggles to match them, making of his protest muzak not the frenzied funk of To Pimp a Butterfly but, despite using many of the same musicians, an ill-advised 70s lounge jazz vibe. It utilises many of the worst ideas of that decade’s fusion experiments, including noodling keyboards and distracting flutes, which are both given voice on the absurdly extended codas. With Kendrick’s opus there were no wasted moments (besides the 2Pac finale), on Common’s they’re everywhere. He might be on point in his rapping now like never before, but without a Kanye or a J Dilla on production he seems hopelessly lost.
Like America itself.
We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
I love the Quest – their brand of goofy rhymes over jazz-hop loops and ‘Low End’ bass is one of the great musical pleasures of the 90s – but the tail-off in their last two albums and solo careers left me with the feeling that they had nothing left to say. Cue the ‘comeback’ album 18 years after the group’s last, marketed of course as a ‘return to form’. It also acts as a farewell to the tragically deceased Phife Dawg, the Tribe’s second-in-command. Whilst ‘Trump and the SNL hilarity/Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy’ might prove that he was never much of an intellect, there’s no denying that his Jamaican patois on ‘Solid Wall of Sound’ and braggadocio on ‘The Donald’ (his nickname is ‘Don Juice’) are some of the album’s high points. Another high point is defined by his absence: the posse tribute cut ‘Lost Somebody’, where Q-Tip and Jarobi pay their respects with a sentimentalism that Phife clearly earned.
Recording this album whilst undergoing extensive dialysis treatment, I have enormous respect for Phife’s commitment to music, and only wish I could hear it more in the music itself. The problems start with the opening track, which overdoses on sound effects, chucking in studio cackles and passages from Willy Wonka, and killing the flow in the process. So it is with the record as a whole, with everything from Jack White’s guitar to the Elton John guest spot being treated as mere, gimmicky sound effects rather than musical spices to flavour the funk. It’s a mostly unengaging listen, which is a real shame as it has been touted as their last. When the dust settles, there’s no way that We Got it From Here will be mentioned in the same breath as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. But when the dust settles, at least we’ll still have The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders.
Updated 25/11/16 (prev. 2.5 stars): Christgau has ranked this an A+, implying that it’s the Tribe’s best album (contravening my last paragraph) and record of the year. I have so much respect for the man that I immediately gave this another spin. I must admit the thrill of certain tracks (‘We the People….’, ‘Dis Generation’) and horror of others (‘The Killing Season’) struck me harder than before. Whether this is down to greater exposure or Christgau’s ever-elucidating prose I’m not sure. But I stand by most of what I wrote initially and a comparison with The Low End Theory still left it trailing. I feel that Bob has overstated its importance, although I can understand the personal significance it has had for him in transcending the post-election blues. More like an A- than A+.