Something hit me recently about “Loser,” Beck’s big single from 1994 that put him on the map. It’s like a trick you can only do once. I mean, if an artist were to issue “Loser,” and then another song that was that overtly suicidal (obviously I know the lyrics are meant tongue-in-cheek but the very mention of the theme carries a natural weight, as well), it would cease to be funny and start to approach a depressing Elliott Smith kind of territory. For his next album, it was like he had no choice but to go all “cool” and “professional,” enlisting hip-hop ringers The Dust Brothers as producers and crooning out a glib, nonchalant classic in “Where it’s at,” a light, breezy tune steeped in safe hip-hop proverb.
Now, of course, this idea runs counter to the typical theory of an artist having a set identity, or m.o., of you will, and adhering to this core identity on every project he or she has. This selfsame makeup would of course safeguard against the “fakery” or “phoniness” claims you might level against, say, Robbie Williams, or Nelly, or certain others whose music tends to come across more as median money-grab.
But with Beck, his pop-mindedness seems like an opposite pole of the fresh, street-emcee shtick he launched with “Loser,” arguably perfected on “Where it’s at” and then reinitiated on Guero (2005) and The Information (2006), two albums which followed heartbreak in his personal life. That Beck too is prone to reductive pop should not be denied, of course, by anyone who’s encountered Midnite Vultures (1999), an album so stupid that it was uniquely designed to soundtrack the same little era in time as Jamiroquai, Kidrock and The Bloodhound Gang. So it took his pithy, sh**-kicking rap technique to tear him out of the relationship heartbreak detailed so vividly on Sea Change (2002), a malady which, in my opinion, followed the debacle of Midnite Vultures in no coincidence. Beck’s latest album Hyperspace (2019) showcases him as a stage virtuoso, with the bulk of the songwriting having been completed by venerable producer Pharrell Williams. And really, with a couple of exceptions, like “Movie Theme” and the entire album Mutations (1998), we can trace an overarching trend in his career of pop as a safe, meaningless comfort zone, and rapping as his galvinizing, if somewhat more belabored, ticket back into true artistic synergy. In other words, Hyperspace is not, in any regard, the stuff of “losers.”
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