Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Soulless Soul: Thoughts on "Otis"

"I'm like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding/ I give you soul and presence/"
- Kool G Rap; "Ya Chic Chose Me"

Four summers ago, Chuck D and Professor Griff of Public Enemy were on Tavis Smiley's show to promote How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (which was released to coincide with PE's 20 year anniversary as a group). During the discussion, Professor Griff compared mainstream music to bubblegum, which I felt really hit the nail on the head. You chew it, you spit it out - just like that. Repetitive (and payola-fueled) radio playlists have been a problem for a long time, but the decade-long advent and subsequent proliferation of easily-disposable mp3 files has further contributed to the disintegrated value of (new) music - and no, I'm not talking about monetary value (sorry, RIAA). This subject came to mind while listening to "Otis" for the bajillionth time tonight. I couldn't stop listening to it, not because it's such a great track, but because I'd been searching for what's missing. And then I realized what it was all along: this track has no soul.

Without a doubt, Otis Redding is one of the greatest soul artists of all time - amazing, considering he passed away at such a young age - and hearing his chopped up vocals on a RZA-esque Kanye West beat is all sorts of fun. But that can't be the only impetus to draw me into the track. Yes, the song samples Otis Redding. Yes, the song is called "Otis". It's got a soul sample, sure, but does it really got soul? What are Jay and 'Ye talking about on the track? Swag, watches, Benzes and G450s. Jay even alludes to puffing cigars with Castro (we don't believe you, you need more people), right before pandering to Mexicans, Cubans and Dominicans, as if he's Barack Obama, pathetically wooing the Hispanic vote by visiting Puerto Rico and dropping references to food and J.J. Barea. The subject matter on "Otis" is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Kanye's "I made Jesus Walks so I'm never going to hell" and "sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive" lines added two or three degrees of a smile to my borderline-frowning face, but that ain't cuttin' it for me. I certainly wasn't expecting this track to be a tribute to Otis Redding, but on the other hand I also wasn't anticipating the ADD ramblings of a couple of multi-millionaires. I thought we'd be getting a little something in between - a little something more soulful.

I still really like the beat, and as Combat Jack mentioned on his show tonight, Jay Electronica woulda been perfect for this track. Overall, I feel like "Otis" is a wasted opportunity and, truthfully, a letdown to Otis Redding. Finishing this little write-up, I'm listening to "Gone", the Redding-sampling closer track from Kanye's 2005 album Late Registration. That song remains a classic to me, not just for nostalgia's sake, but for the soulfulness emitted from the beat and the emcees' lyrics and delivery. Despite covering approximately the same topics on "Otis", the chemistry and, most importantly, the cohesion of 'Ye, Cam and 'quence produced a sense of fun that was almost palpable even to the listener. Alluding to that G Rap quote above, Jay and 'Ye got the "presence". What about the "soul"? "Otis" is missing that entirely. What fun is just watching the throne anyways? After it's all said and done, I'd rather revert to my ol' Sample & Example self and just listen to the original: "Try a Little Tenderness". I think I'll do just that...

Sample: Otis Redding - "Try a Little Tenderness" (Volt/Atco, 1966)
Example: Jay-Z & Kanye West - "Otis" (Def Jam, 2011)

Sample: Otis Redding - "It's Too Late" (Volt/Atco, 1965)
Example: Kanye West - "Gone" (feat. Cam’ron & Consequence) (Def Jam, 2005)