By Chet Betz | 6 November 2007
Jel should know better. On “To Buy a Car,” the opening track of Soft Money, he throws himself into the trap established in the minds of a million Anticon haters, as if he thinks by playing completely to type he’s somehow going to transcend their criticisms. Dead-pan, dry, message-direct speakerphone rapping, like open mic night down at the Café Marx: “Don’t buy this product / You don’t need it…” The etcetera’s too predictable, Jel commenting both literally and meta-textually on the usual Anticon hot topix: commercialism, the art of music, commercialism’s appropriation of the art of music, music’s lameness for letting itself be appropriated by commercialism (shed a tear for “Gravity Rides Everything” and “We’ve Been Had”), and somewhere in the subtext I bet there’s a scathing diss of U.S. imperialism. Bush gotta get his. And, if not here, guess what “WMD” is about.
While Jel’s obviously trying to be ironic by making the beat behind his anti-propaganda propaganda sound like the archetypal car commercial jingle, the cleverness of the music-words combo is only truly clever at one point, at the end of his verse: “As long as we get paid / You can drive it off a cliff / With your family and your dog inside / We don’t give a shit,” which is clever because it works on multiple levels, the voice coming from the car manufacturers, the advertising agencies and the musical artists that soundtrack the former two’s exploits in the world of mass communication. For anyone who remembers the minivan ad that featured “Ghostwriter” by Rjd2, it’s specifically an indictment of the artist; the lines become an embittered jab from one underground hip-hop producer to another (and also, how apt, from Anticon to Def Jux).
So, I’m sure I’ll never hear any Soft Money tracks encouraging me to drive a Volkswagen or chew Dentyne or employ the sharkiest of stock brokers. But most of these sleek, downbeat, culturally-void songs could fit that purpose very easily, even though Jel would never allow it. And, really, isn’t that just as bad, Jeff?
Album highlight “Sweet Cream in It” stands out because Jel’s ratatat drums live up to his legacy, and self-righteousness places foot in mouth: the guitar chops are pure RJ, and like pure RJ, very fun. Tony Scott slaps together a hundred angles of a BMW spitting desert sand off its wheels. “All Day Breakfast” runs distant synth reps, whinnying treble and fragments of India through the Odd Nosdam 2000, echoes on everything. Oh so cool and edgy, a Mitsubishi streaks through a wormhole of cascading city lights. “No Solution” is a canned beat and lightly cloudy atmosphere. A family of four, smiling, steps out a fucking Subaru. It’s okay, though, as long as Jel doesn’t get paid.
On Soft Money undeniable talent finds its nemesis in homogeneity of style and absence of individuality. Drum patterns usually recline on standard signatures with polyrhythmic interplay only an occasional refreshment, rather dissimilar to the mutant, monstrous percussive syntax Jel created on Them. “Thrashin” may sound awesome in thirty second clips, but the entirety reveals that all those El-P bass blurps, screech tones and scratches are in search of a direction, an erection, a dirty blast of shocking catharsis. And as skilled and tasteful as the sampling and composition might be, it’s the same kind of skill and tastefulness that Endtroducing made fruitful and multiplied, and that got a bit boring after that first UNKLE album. Why would the same man who produced such nasty siren ‘n thud anthems as “I Am Hip-Hop” and “Sebago” try elevating himself to well-crafted flaccidity? Because this is what instrumental hip-hop is supposed to sound like when you’re not mining the roots? When you’re not mining the roots, I want to hear what instrumental hip-hop’s not supposed to sound like.
On the final track, a crooner instructs, “Sample my words / Speed it up now,” and Jel immediately, diligently obeys. By the time the sample’s in the stratosphere, it’s saying that we’ve got a hit. But “Chipmunk Technique” is no hit; it’s a minute-and-a-half outro. Jel doesn’t capitalize on the opportunity to fulfill the prophecy, nor does he subvert it with the kind of weird, sprawling hip-hop maiming he’s capable of. Instead, he delivers something that, like much of Soft Money, sounds simultaneously blatant and pointless. Thus, I guess, it’s the perfect album-encapsulating closer, full of potential driven irresponsibly, incorrigibly in the middle of the road. Like a Hummer.