Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Präludium" by Jay (1997)

You know, it may be true that there are a certain number of songs whose praise is universal enough to be considered 'objectively' great songs. I'll never go wrong, or find people who disagree with me, if I fill his blog with the likes of 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'That's All Right Mama'. And they have their place here too, but ultimately this is my list, and the only criterion that matters is whether or not I like it. So that can lead to songs as obscure as this one.

I don't really know anything about this. It comes from a Def Jam release, so it's not exactly an obscure indie thing. The album also includes LL Cool J and Warren G on it, so again... seemingly high profile. But try finding anyone who's ever heard of it.

It's called The Rapsody Overture, and the terrible pun of the title comes from the fact that it's a various artists record of hip-hop / classical crossover stuff. Potentially horrible stuff, and a good amount of the songs on it are pretty bad. This one, however, is something the others aren't. Or rather, it isn't something the others are: overblown and ostentatious. Most of the other rappers on the collection seem to have felt that 'opera', or 'classical music' more generally, meant an exotic and wailing variation on the 'female voice to sing the chorus' cliché, with cheesy synthesised approximations of the musical score as background music. And then business as usual rapping over the top.

It's by Jay, and I have no idea who that is... it's not Jay-Z, who got his start at tround this time, but I have no information at all on him, and he's afforded two tracks back-to-back on this collection. Anyway, Jay takes Bach's Präludium #1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the piece that would later become Ave Maria, as his starting point. It's not a symphonic piece, and it's not an opera piece. It's a two-minute long composition for piano (there also feature strings, probably synthesised, that may or may not appear in Bach's original; anyway they're understated). Beautiful, yes, but more importantly: simple. Understated, in fact. Jay takes this two-minute piano piece and, amazingly, resists the urge to pile stuff on top. A simple beat, slow, and his rapping. The track peters out as Bach does, and that in itself is remarkable: who's ever heard of a two-minute rap song?

Jay finds a kind of pathos in Bach's piece. He tells it as a story of two childhood friends who have fallen on wrong sides of gang warfare, and the narrator is tipping off his former friend, as a final favour, that he's 'getting touched'. Bach gives this tale a mournful, wistful finality. There's no anger, no resentment, no aggression. Not even regret: just a quiet, resigned tip-off and goodbye, in the same breath. Bach's piece has a beautiful ending, and Jay's song ends the same way, with a simple melodic turn and a satisfying resolution of the song's principal chord: a tiny ray of sunshine, perhaps, but a bittersweet one. The illusion of happiness, or peace, perhaps. Truth be told, there's none here. The best possible solution is that the childhood friend disappears, never to be seen again.

Gang culture is so mythologised partly because it is brutal barbarism dressed up in the must cultured of clothing. There's a reason gang life associates itself with the arts, with high culture, and there's a reason we find ourselves attracted to the accompanying dichotomy. In avoiding histrionics and going for simple, naked grace, Jay alone on this Def Jam vanity project understands.

A note: I found, a few weeks ago, much to my pleasure, that someone had uploaded this song onto YouTube. It racked up barely more than 1000 views. Now, YouTube is swimming with copyright violations. Huge uploads with millions of views use popular mainstream songs without permission, and get away with it. Here, this barely-viewed upload of an obscure song that is almost certainly out of print anyway... It's the one that gets yanked for copyright issues. Sigh. I have no idea why. But as I've already composed this entry, it'll go ahead. In its place, I present "Ach So Fromm", the other Jay contribution to the soundtrack. And my disappointment at UMG's pointless behaviour.

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