Chop God / Beyoncé
Chop God: Beyoncé (Chopped & Screwed)
By Adam Downer | 20 January 2014
When Anthony Fantano dismissed Macintosh Plus’ incredible Floral Shoppe (2011) for employing lengthy, slowed-down-but-otherwise-untouched samples of adult contemporary music, he overlooked the genre’s compelling challenge to the idea of an auteur. Vaporwave as a movement pulls long samples from forgotten easy-listening and recontextualizes them in odd, almost uncanny ways. The tenth track of Floral Shoppe, for example, is an immaculate, brain-melting epic, though it’s literally just two lines from Zapp’s cover of “I’ll Only Have for You” slowed way down and repeated for six minutes. It’s easy to smirk upon hearing something so ostensibly plain, as one might upon viewing a piece of particularly minimalist modern art, but the strength of the song is undeniable. And this is hardly the only recent example of incredible artwork made from preexisting pop music manipulated with simple technology tricks. Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes (2013) was remarkable for its sample selection and pitch shifting more so than its original material, and that recording of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile” slowed 800% is an ambient piece to rival anything Sigur Rós ever released. Copious amounts of incredible pop music are becoming the tools of the Soundcloud’s experimenters, and the gap between consumer and artist is shrinking.
Which brings us to Chop God and Beyoncé. It’s telling that this Chopped and Screwed version of Bey’s self-titled came out two days after Beyoncé itself was released. It doesn’t sound like its creative process was particularly involved; were Beyoncé a painting, Chop God’s interpretation amounts to stretching it onto a larger canvas and throwing some purple on it. As with most Chopped and Screwed remixes, Chop God’s piece is essentially the original album with a few BPMs sliced off and occasional embellishments, nothing more adventurous than a hiccuped beat or a vocal line repeated throughout the track. While these techniques usually result in compelling reinterpretations of their source material, they tend to go critically disregarded as supplementary gimmicks instead of their “own thing.” Chop God’s take on Beyoncé, however, demands to be taken seriously. Far more than a supplement, it’s a hypnotic companion piece that is breathtaking in an entirely different way: whereas Beyoncé is a triumphant expression of a pop queen’s struggle for perfection, Chop God’s version is a darkly beautiful epic.
Slowing down Beyoncé’s voice gives it a slightly more masculine edge, but because her feminine inflections remain, the album comes to inhabit a space between the ends of the gender binary. This shift gives the album a striking new range of mesmerizing and even deeply poignant tones. Take the opening lyric: the difference between “Mama said, ’you’re a pretty girl / What’s in your head / It doesn’t matter’” when it’s sung smoothly by Beyoncé and when it’s sung in a slow, mournful breath by an androgynous narrator is seismic. Were this to be the work of a recording artist rather than a remix artist, the line would listen like a brutal declaration of gender dysphoria. That dissonance permeates all 82 minutes of this mix. By slowing Beyoncé down and upping its reverb, Chop God makes explicit the transference that goes into identifying with Beyoncé; one may not always “want to be the girl you like,” but one can surely identify with wanting to please a partner. What makes this particular mix so compelling, however, is the maudlin stroke with which Chop God colors that identification.
Of course, perhaps the record’s character can be chalked up to the fact that slowing and pitching any piece of music down will naturally make it sound darker, but what’s incontrovertible is that Chop God has unearthed themes in Beyoncé that perhaps go by too quickly to be caught at normal speed. The album’s undercurrents of anxiety, self-doubt, and arguably submissive sexuality play loudly when its palatable tempos are stretched so that each compositional element is allowed to linger in the air. “Partition”’s chorus is a fine example of how a simple recontextualization is enough to cross the bridge from sexy to striking in a less titillating sense; “Take all of me / I just wanna be the girl you like” goes from aggressive to desperately impossible. Elsewhere, Chop God’s take on “No Angel” has it slinking along at a witch-house crawl which gives the song’s electronic wobbles room to play but also gives Beyonce’s lyrics an air of tremendous seriousness. At normal speed, it’s difficult to imagine the depths to which Jay-Z is “no angel,” but in Chop’s more emotionally dire mix, the track bears a helluva lot more weight.
This isn’t to say that everything on Chop God’s remix is dark. Because of its form, his mix is bound to the various tenors of the the original album, which means the more upbeat tracks get imagined in ways different from the way he interprets tracks like “No Angel” or “Mine.” For example, when he plays the wonderful, shamelessly maximalist “XO” in slow motion, it becomes an IMAX sensory overload. “Blow,” one of Beyoncé’s undeniable stunners, gets its Neptunes thump moved from the hips to the head, and becomes a cerebral trip-hop track, replete with the soon-to-be iconic “I can’t wait till I get home so you can tear that cherry out” playing throughout. And if “Rocket” is for making love slowly, Chop God’s take might be for moving at a sloth’s pace—not necessarily in a bad way, either. Of course, while the mix’s emotional tenor is bound to the journey of the original album, so is its quality. With the exception of “No Angel,” the songs and moments that are superfluous on Beyoncé are the same here; slowing Jay-Z down to Snorlax levels does nothing to help the impression that his verse was a lazy cash grab, and no amount of work with “Heaven” could make it hold up against the mastery that surrounds it. On the flipside, the highlights remain highlights; basically, the quality of the original album dictates how hauntingly addictive Chop God’s mix is.
And thus we return to the strange critical question at the heart of Beyoncé (Chopped and Screwed): who to give the credit to? What we have here is an interpretation of Beyoncé’s album, an album that is both phenomenal in its own right and whose minimal, beat-driven makeup make it perfectly suited to a Chopped and Screwed mix. Put the two albums side by side: one was labored over in secret with multiple millions of dollars and dropped on the world to record-breaking fervor, the other mixed with various, ostensibly simple production techniques with a considerably smaller budget. Naturally the impetus is to privilege the former because it involved a tremendous amount of talent to produce, and dismiss this, the latter, because it sounds like an experiment. But there is something here, something worth evaluating critically for its political potential, for the alternatives it presents to what the pop mainstream must produce, try as it might to break out of that shell (as Beyoncé surely does). If you kill the author, then you’re looking at two pieces of work in very similar quality. Perhaps it’s about time critics and fans started looking at the little guy who made a compelling piece of fan-art more seriously, because what Chop God made is marvelous, even if Beyoncé provided all the tools. The “artist” may be murky, but the art, however, is there. Isn’t that what we’re here for?