Bring Some Soul For My Robot

The internet connection is squeaking again in fits of malcontent. Videos just don’t play like they used to. Need about 10 minutes to check my digital mailbox, another 15 to scroll through the article links friends posted, 20 more to go through the various feeds to publications. Instant information, or at least the semblance of it, is like daily milk for the suckling neurons. For every sensuous byte, there’s an equal fire sparking within, gluing to genetic circuitry and drawing the flesh ever so close to the machine. What of the modern art galleries that feature video stills and metal sculptures? Do they lose the essence of “art” because the forms change with the era? Music flows dually in the currents of art and information. Video killed the radio star by necessity as technology sectored the world of sound. Wax records swallowed up live musicians who couldn’t cross over to vinyl in time. It’s the stuff of science fiction: the Matrix descending on the airwaves first, then into the brain patterns, and on and on.

Both sides of the digital divide have their place, but only the artists whose voices we hear materially captive, confined to cassettes, compact discs, and videos exist for our grandchildren. All the same, cardiovascular rhythm burns off technology’s bulk, leaving traces of the human soul within the filaments. The music with the best chance of survival inside the techno-sphere, then, is the kind that forces its heart into the robot, filling it with lifeblood to make it distinguishable from just another voicebox. Audio recording methods will forever mold how songs are preserved, but the true measure of timelessness is our ability to operate both inside and outside of wiring. Aretha Franklin, Nas and Jimi Hendrix will outlast any disc where their voices are heard partly because of their extensive catalogs and partly because of their infinitely soulful stance.

Now, as before, there are countless tweaks to enhance the vocal register, including the machine we know simply as Auto-tune, which eponymously indicates just how to “automate” a human sound with a robot’s hand. The current music climate welcomes robotic sounds, the metallic hum of a thousand modems. But it can be hard to differentiate the refuse from the jewels. Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On the Alcohol” exists in the same crowded room with Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” shoving one another for space along the same frequency. Foxx wins. Mavado and Vybz Kartel smooth the edges of gangster dancehall with bleats and beeps, while Drake and Lil Wayne observe looking for clues. Which of these robotic voices makes sense to the human ear over decades?

The science fiction genre dependably sorts benign robots from malignant ones. Val from 2001: A Space Odyssey — bad. Eva from Disney Pixar’s Wall-E — good. V.I.K.I, the well-meaning pro-human droid from I,Robot, straddled the line between good and bad with some suspicious, subversive motives lurking beneath the surface. In music, there are good robots, gently aiding song clarity; and there are bad robots, who pry open the disc and insert the tentacles of inhuman squeaks. Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson experimented with good robots, careful not to yield too much power to their recording equipment. T-Pain surrenders much of his human identity to the Auto-Tune robot, while constructing a playful paean to soul music. Based on the recent slew of machinated tunes, the robots have laid their strongest claim to music yet.

Good Robots with that SOUL

“Dancing Machine”, Jackson 5
The lyrics alone explain possession of the human soul by the relentless dancing machine: “Automatic, systematic/fully colored self-contained/Tune the channels to your box.” But that’s only the beginning. Soon Young Michael Jackson is in full controlled flail, snapping and popping his joints across the stage like so many sprockets. The refrain impels his faux automaton with trumpet blasts and drum clicks.

“Darling Nikki”, Prince
Only the confines of a programmed microphone and acoustic guitar could contain Prince’s squealing sex ode.

[livevideo id=2DDC1E36553A41DEA099E4E766D40D55/452903/prince-darling-nikki-.aspx]
PRINCE “Darling Nikki”

“Needy Girl”, Chromeo
Chromeo set out to be well-meaning copycats of the 1980s synth-funk and created a bona fide robot hit.

“Digital Girl” (remix), Jamie Foxx ft. Drake, Dream, Kanye West
Drake’s best verse, flat out: “I remember Amy/she used to AIM me/she stayed up late, and used to blame me/she say I’m too wild, she wanna tame/I told her even Photoshop couldn’t change me” Kanye’s funniest verse of late tracks the process of taking indiscreet photos and videos for digital arousal.

“Lollipop”, Lil Wayne
Forget the 33 million-plus YouTube views. This song is a mixture of bluegrass, pop, soul, and rap with just enough syrupy lubricant to make you feel its prurience. Robots don’t do oral sex, after all.

“Rompin Shop” Vybz Kartel feat. Spice
Pure raunchy dancehall tune with Auto-Tune as the guise. Vybz has no qualms with being the oversexed DJ, proven on his first worldwide album with smashes like “Tight Pussy Gal Dem” and “Rough Sex”

“Can’t Believe It” T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne
You already know how I feel about this one. What a voice embodied by the ultimate robot trickster, T-Pain. He wraps his voice in extreme harmonies and then dresses them with twinkling interjections. He make the people say “Yeeeaah.”

Honorable Mention: “Cry Me A River” Justin Timberlake, “Blame It” Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain

Confused Robots Still Choosing Sides

“My Love”, Justin Timberlake feat. T.I.
A beautiful Timberland beat nearly ruined by the preponderance of Timberlake falsetto. T.I. also drops his craziest pimp talkin’, flow-switchin poem to keep it topical and light.

“Ayo Technology”, 50 Cent feat. Justin Timberlake
Where to start with this song about long-distance love? 50 probably wanted the haunting melody of “Candy Shop” to fuse with the monotony of his singing to create something entirely new. Instead, he turns Justin Timberlake into fretful accompaniment for his forced double-time. Convoluted chorus doesn’t help either.

“Icebox” Omarion (written by Keri Hilson)
A dope joint, really. Cut it down to the chorus, piano riffs alone for naked, clean soul.
Icebox Video

“Robocop” Kanye West
Took the concept too far.

Robocop Video

“Knock You Down”, Keri Hilson ft. Ne-Yo, Kanye West
The Keri Hilson droning renders this busy song nearly intolerable. A song about love that sounds as if only a software glitch could make it malfunction. Kanye cleans up yet again with his final verse, citing Michael Jackson, Joe Jackson, OMG, and enough references to regain familiarity with human touch.

Knock You Down

Evil Robots Like the Borg

“Birthday Sex” Jeremih
Girl you know I-I-I…should never record my voice. Not ever.

“Best I Ever Had” Drake feat. Auto-Tune Drake
Schizophrenic Drake modulates between Lil Wayne flows and Robo-Cop Wannabe.

“Throw It In The Bag” Fabolous feat. Dream
Usually, the brash Brooklynite can do no wrong mixing hustler rapping with R&B romanticism. This time, with the Dream whining alongside, he serves up a clanking, buzzing, fiercely annoying dud.

“Death of Auto-Tune” Jay-Z/”Me and My Girlfriend” Jay-Z feat. Beyonce
Jay-Z is a Decepticon. He complains of Auto-Tune after using its vibrato to fill out his Tupac cover. Although his role as the gatekeeper of what’s “real” is respectfully noted, Shawn Carter often ignores the irony of telling people not to adapt to robot ways. Adaptable is Jay’s calling card. Also ironic: that Auto-Tune will be cemented in pop culture terminology because of his song’s title.

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2 Responses to “Bring Some Soul For My Robot”

  1. 1 don rico September 1, 2009 at 1:06 am

    This is surreal, And really deep: I’m listening with one ear to a NPR (Dick Gordon’s “This Is The Story”) interview with an artist talking about his meeting, as a young man, the painter Andrew Wyeth, and about Wyeth’s work…

    …and at the same time I’m reading the work of one of my favorite writers, Drew Breez…and marvelling at true genius.

    I wish i could write half as good as you, Drew

  2. 2 don rico September 1, 2009 at 1:11 am


    Hey what’zup with the September 1, 2009, 1:06 am time stamp on the comment I just posted?
    It is now just after 9:00 pm in Miami FL, August 31, 2009.
    What’zup wid dat?

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