Sunday, October 4, 2020

"Stranger in Moscow" by Michael Jackson (1996)

This is another track I decided to analyze in depth because it's been playing in my head lately.  In fact a few days ago I found myself on the roadside spontaneously singing it, for at times I too feel "like a stranger in Moscow".  But it was also upon doing so I realized that, outside of the chorus, I don't even really know the words to it.  So it's like not knowing the words to one of your favorite songs is as good of a reason to research it as any.

The cover art to Stranger in Moscow (1996)

Speaking of Michael Jackson (1958-2009), he was indeed a polarizing figure.  I guess such is to be expected when you're the most-popular singular human being to walk the Earth during the 20th century.  People are going to be all up in your business, and along with the good comes the bad and even the straight-up lies.

But one thing I will say about Michael is this.  Even though he was hands-down the top musician in the world, he didn't come out with mediocre songs or drop half-ass collaborations just to make a quick buck.  No, MJ put his all into his music career.  In fact it has been said that part of the reason he died prematurely was because he overworked himself to death.  So even though Stranger in Moscow (1996) came out like a decade after his heyday, you can still tell that he put his full emotion into the track.

Who knew that Sonic, in his own way, contributed to the
creation of Stranger in Moscow?

MICHAEL JACKSON & SEGA

But with that being noted, here's an interesting fact.  Brad Buxer, a composer who worked regularly with Micheal Jackson, has stated that at the "base" of the instrumental for Stranger in Moscow is actually music he and MJ put together to be used for the Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994).  And this is something which Michael himself reportedly admitted to.

An older pic of Brad Buxer, the dude who is said to have helped
Michael Jackson create the musical basis behind Stranger in Moscow
Buxer also worked with other classic Black artists like Stevie Wonder
and Smokey Robinson.

So why did Michael use chords from a song that he actually intended for a videogame?  Well the main console which Sonic 3 was featured on was the Sega Genesis.  And MJ, as implied earlier being a perfectionist, was frustrated with the quality of sound the machine could produce.  So apparently the Moonwalker just got fed up one day and bounced on the project.


However it has also been put forth that the reason he behaved so was due to what he was going through at the time - something we'll get into later.  But that being established, it is still widely held that some of the music he helped create made it onto Sonic, even if he wasn't credited.  So if true, he apparently still retained enough control over what he did produce to use it on his own personal song also, most notably Stranger in Moscow but also quite a few others.  And truth be told, according to the video embedded above, the ending theme to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 does sound, at one point, almost identical to Stranger in Moscow.

THE TEAM

However at the end of the day, whether Michael had help creating this track or not, it is only he who is credited as its producer and writer.  The labels behind that put it out are Epic Records, Sony Music and MJJ Productions - the latter being founded by MJ himself.  The song was officially released on 28 August 1997, and it served as the fifth single from Michael's double-disc project entitled HIStory: Past, Present and Fture, Book I.

Michael Jackson's History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (1995)
cover art.  As implied by the imagery, he opted to stand strong despite
what he was going through around the time of its release.

The video to this track, which I guess you could say is perhaps the best parts of the song, was directed by an English photographer named Nick Brandt.  And it's obviously the type of visual that's meant to be a work of art, one in which the viewer is tasked with interpreting what the images mean.  But at the same time, combined the lyrics the video is pretty easy to understand.  And as for me personally, I always thought the video was, you know, actually filmed in Moscow.  But it was in fact shot in Los Angeles, which is like Michael Jackson's hometown.  And that brings us to the actual meaning of the song.

THE LYRICS

Despite his aforementioned fame and wealth life wasn't all peachy for MJ, especially around the time Stranger in Moscow came out.  For it was in 1993 when he was first formally accused of child-sexual abuse.  These allegations took a serious and immediate toll on his career as well as health.

Moreover, you know everybody likes making fun of Michael.  This was true even before these accusations came out, and the mocking did not let up while he was going through this ordeal.  In fact in the aftermath, the media persecution of the King of Pop got a lot worse.

And no, they did not stop even after Michael settled with his accuser, Jordan Chandler, for a whopping $23,000,000 in early 1994.  In fact according to the The Washington Post the entire ordeal remained the main story in the news until the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial of September, 1994.  And as many readers can attest to, even well after Michael Jackson passed away in 2009 the media still hasn't stopped f*kin with him.  So I guess you can say this was the negative effect of being as rich and mega-famous - and eccentric - as Michael Jackson was.  Or stated differently he was never actually convicted of sexual abuse, even after a thorough and extremely-humiliating investigation.  Moreover he richly settled the matter with the accuser.  But regardless the media would not let the issue die down.

So in summation Michael was losing tens of millions of dollars in endorsements, even outside of the money he paid to Jordy Chandler.  Also his health got all messed up.  Then on top of that, people wouldn't stop making fun of him and prying into his private life.  Moreover on even an even more-intimate personal level, as this song reveals, he was also in an exceptionally-lonely state.

Wherever Michael went in Moscow, he was flanked by crowds.

According to the legend behind this song, Michael Jackson wrote it while he was indeed in Moscow.  This was during September of 2003, while MJ was conducting his highly-lucrative Dangerous World Tour.  And according to one in-depth account of his time there, despite being constantly mobbed by innumerable fans MJ was "as lonely as maybe never before".  In the same article it has been noted that it was a "surprise" visit he made to Russia just "a couple of weeks after being first publicly accused of child abuse".  Or stated differently, he likely already wasn't in the best of spirits even before he landed there.

Above is a short documentary on Michael's visit to Russia in 1993.  It's pretty informative, despite being in Russian. You can see that wherever he goes, there's multitudes.  Indeed MJ required a presidential level of security, even though he was in fact a long way from Starbucks.

Michael only seems to have one travel companion, some old Black dude that I don't recognize.  And not for nothing, but your chances of making friends are likely minimized when you're like hiding your face in public and running from crowds.  But at the end of the day, logically speaking nobody knows how it feels to be Michael Jackson other than Michael Jackson.  Indeed Michael was rockin' surgical facemasks in public like a good 30 years before they became fashionable.

Michael Jackson wearing a facemask in Russia during September, 1993.

So with that in mind it doesn't seem that he actually had beef with the Kremlin, as the first verse of the track implies.  Indeed even on the official Genius explanation of the lyrics it says that the "Kremlin", as used in the song, is meant to be symbolic of the powers-that-be, so to speak.  But Michael does goes on to say in the second verse that he was being 'dogged' by the KGB.  So maybe, considering that he was in fact accused of a heinous crime, the Russian security forces were conducting extra surveillance on him even beyond their already-infamous norm.  And overall, on Stranger in Moscow Jackson partially comes off like a celebrity who wishes he could shed his fame.  Using Russia as an example, he's tired of people always being up in his face wherever he goes.

And remember, once again, that the music video to this song was filmed in Los Angeles.  So ultimately the phrase "stranger in Moscow" can be interpreted as allegorical language, as in the way Michael felt everywhere he goes. This was an individual who, as ironic as it may sound, suffered from intense loneliness.  Indeed according to his own words he used to go out at night and randomly approach people in L.A., looking for a friend.  And with that being said, take a moment to imagine walking down the street and some pinkish-looking Black dude with like relaxed Jheri curls, indeed Michael Jackson himself, suddenly steps to you, trying to spark a random conversation.  You'd probably be left speechless, no pun intended.

So analysts of this song who look past its geographical origins understand that MJ was singing of his overall mental/social state at the time.  He had indeed experienced a "swift and sudden fall from grace" which had left him perturbed.  Or perhaps another way of looking at it is that, despite how many fans Michael may have had, he felt as if the world had turned on him in a way.  But at the end of the day, at least we can say that he got a dope song out of it.

CHART PERFORMANCE

Stranger in Moscow made it onto the Billbaord Hot 100 yet only peaked at number 91.  To put that into perspective, that's the lowest any Michael Jackson song which ever appeared on the Hot 100 has ever charted.  But it did reach number 50 on Billbaord's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

But more importantly, Stranger in Moscow did manage to top the charts in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain.  Additionally it made it all the way up to number four on the UK Singles Chart and charted in over 20 countries overall.  It also re-charted in handful of European countries in 2006 (again reaching number one in Spain) and in 2009, in the latter case presumably after MJ's passing.  But it didn't sell a gazillion copies like some of his other hits.  And perhaps in this particular instance that wasn't necessarily his goal.

But that being said, as implied earlier the negative press he was receiving affected its performance.  So it's pretty amazing that it still did as well as it did, proving that verily it is a quality track and that at the end of the day the Moonwalker was a force that couldn't be denied.  Indeed HIStory itself sold in excess of 20,000,000 copies.


THE VIDEO

I had to give another shoutout to the music video because now that I think about it, it's my favorite Michael Jackson.  The audio and visual combine to tell a comprehensive, easy-to-follow story, and even to this day I would say the aesthetics are beautiful.  This track has stood the test of time better than most of Michael's bigger hits.  And here's an interesting fact - the slow motion they used in it is said to be a technological predecessor to the bullet-time effect used in The Matrix (1999).

CONCLUSION

I sympathize with what Michael Jackson was going through when he came out with Stranger in Moscow.  No, I'm not trying to insinuate that I know how it feels to have thousands upon thousands fans, unlimited dough and still be lonely.  But one thing this song helped me realize is that chronic loneliness is chronic loneliness, no matter who is suffering from it.

Michael Jackson chillin' with one of his homeys, Hollywood child actor
Macauley Culkin.  It was pretty obvious that Michael was not comfortable
in his natural skin which may have logically, in various ways,
contributed to his loneliness.

Indeed as the old saying goes, "it's lonely at the top".  And truth by told MJ was too rich and famous to be hanging out with other Black celebrities.  In fact I would say that was part of the reason he tried to make himself White, because his success had reached a point where he could no longer identify with his own people, so to speak.  But maybe, just maybe he should have tried a little harder.  After all, you can't spend all of your time hanging out with like Elizabeth Taylor and Macauley Culkin and sh*t.  So conclusively, I guess if there's one ultimate lesson to be learned from Stranger in Moscow it's that even enviable success has its disadvantages.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

"Superstition" by Stevie Wonder (1972)

If you "believe in things that you don’t understand" the consequences, in two simple words, is that "you suffer".  That is how Stevie Wonder sums up the main sentiment behind Superstition (1972).  And while I’ve heard this song frequently over a span of time, I realized that I never really took a close look at the lyrics and what the implications of them were, until now.

 

The cover art to Stevie Wonder's Superstition (1972).
Notice the broken-glass effect.

The track starts out with three distinct drum kicks.  Then enters the electric keyboard grooving along with the percussion.  Stevie opens his narrative as if he is observing someone, a person who is superstitious, right in his line of sight.  And this individual is not just superstitious, but very superstitious.  And afterwards is where it gets interesting, as Stevie says:


Then the rest of the song is a variation on these same types of lyrics, so I want to just focus on these few major superstitions Stevie is very-concerned about people believing in that are mentioned in the first verse.  Let’s try and break it down.

 


The number 13, to those who subscribe to the sort of superstition Stevie is referring to, is a very serious thing.  The superstitious are those who would refuse to live on the 13th floor, and some people would even refuse to set foot on a so-called 13th floor.  The seriousness with which this 13th floor is taken has had a profound effect on not just individuals but also the construction industry.  For instance a recent study by The Atlantic, based on New York City Housing data, found that out of 629 buildings in NYC with 13 floors or more, only 55 of these structures actually labelled the 13th floor as what it is - the 13th floor.  Rather what you would typically see is an 11-12-14 sequence on elevator buttons (as pictured above).  But 13?  Oh no.  


Further research on the number-13 superstition would suggest and most commonly points to a New Testament biblical reference.  For those who are superstitious, it is thought that the number 13 is 'bad luck' because it is a reminder of Judas Iscariot, who many consider the 13th apostle and the same indivdual who betrayed Jesus, leading to the latter's crucifixion.   That being said, it is my opinion that this is probably not the entire reason structural engineers build 13th-floorless skyscrapers in New York City.  But who’s really to say?


Next, Stevie states that the "13 month old baby broke the looking glass".  Ok, let’s stop and think.  How many times have we heard that breaking mirrors is 'bad luck'?  Mr. Wonder seems to make a passionate plea against believing these sort of things throughout the track.

 

Looking glasses, otherwise known as mirrors, are believed to be bad luck if broken or shattered.  This idea stems from belief systems dating back to at least Ancient Rome/Greece It was believed among those who have long spread what we now come to know as superstitions that mirrors were a reflection of the soul, and breaking a mirror somehow damages the spirit or whatever.  Basically, that is the most common explanation about that portion of Stevie Wonder's lyrics. 


The "seven years of bad luck" is a very-interesting part of the song to explore mainly because seven, as I came to learn, has a lot of different meanings and interpretations to a lot of different people, and not all of them are based on superstitions.  In fact a brief search on the number seven will render a wide variety of results.  The most common explanations regarding it once again point back to Ancient Rome, as it was commonly believed that it took seven years for one's soul to renew itself (after breaking a mirror).  There is also a lot of other information regarding the number seven having significance related to belief systems dating back to antiquity and beyond.  Seven is also notably a prime number, which basically means that it can only be divided by itself or the number one.

 

Stevie Wonder (center right) alongside his mom, Lula, Little Richard (far left),
Chuck Berry (second to right) and others after winning a 1974 Grammy Award
in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for Superstition.  This was
actually the first of many Grammys he won throughout his career.
  
CONCLUSION

 

Stevie Wonder, in his Grammy-award winning, chart topping hit single Superstition, attempted to touch upon some very serious issues with lyrics that are relevant even now, some 50 years later.  The song offers advice to those who believe strongly in things such as walking under a ladder or throwing salt as being a harbinger of things to come.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Road to the Riches b Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (1989)

The late 1980s was perhaps the most-pivotal point in the history of rap music, even though it's often overlooked for more-exciting eras in the genre's history.  This was when rap was, generally speaking, transitioning from its original subject matter (social consciousness and dance) to what it has become today (money and gangsta).  And many of the popular artists from those years straddled between these lines.  In other words they often presented themselves as being in tune with the 'hood or perhaps even criminals, but they didn't tend to go as far as to actually brag about committing crimes or shooting people.

One of the rappers who defined this era was Kool G Rap.  Kool G Rap is someone whom I would say if he were born like 10 years later (after rap music really blew up), he would have been a multi-millionaire.  He is extremely-talented and was one of the last great rappers from the days when New York was basically the only place on Earth where rap music was coming from.

The cover to the Road to the Riches single.

And he was even more influential than I presumed before starting this research.  For instance I'm now reading the Wikipedia page of the Road to the Riches album, and it's saying, shockingly to me at least, that this project "is often cited as the beginning of the mafiaso rap genre".  Mafiaso rap was basically the East Coast version of gangsta rap.  Indeed the article goes on to list rappers "such as... Nas, Jay-Z [and] The Notorious B.I.G." as artists who were directly influenced by this project.  Meanwhile, the only reason I really decided to write about this song is because it's been playing in my head lately.

The cover to the Road to the Riches album.

Yes, this article is about the track, not the overall album.  For the second single released from the aforementioned project was itself entitled Road to the Riches.  Readers who are actually familiar with Kool G Rap should instantly recognize this song as one of his many classics.  And again, since we're talking the 1980s, this doesn't mean that it sold a bunch of records or achieved massive chart success.  Rather, as mentioned prior, Kool G's tracks were mad-influential.  However this is not to imply that Road to the Riches was completely overlooked, as it did manage to peak at number 16 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks listing.

As has already been alluded to, in the 1980s even popular rappers didn't tend to be mega-rich.  Also, this was a time before it became standard for rap artists to front like they have dough which they don't or were compelled to portray themselves as millionaires in order to be accepted.  Indeed the hip-hop acts that were really selling records back then were the likes of De La Soul, PM Dawn and the Beastie Boys.  And you know, nowadays if someone dropped a track called "Road to the Riches", dude would be talking about banging 1000 strippers in a gold-plated airplane.  But Kool G, in keeping it real, was rather rapping his about ambitions to make it big and more to the point the lessons he learned along the way.

Now Kool G. Rap's shtick, if you will, wasn't as much his street persona as it was the fact that he was, even to this day honestly, an extremely-talented lyricist.  In fact back in the late 1980s, the only individual rapper who could hang with him style-wise was perhaps Big Daddy Kane.  When people use the term spittin' to refer to rap that's what Kool G. Rap does - he spits.  He was one of the most-notable examples that rap music had become way more sophisticated than it was during its original days of the late 1970s, just a decade before Road to the Riches came out. 

VERSE 1

My definition of a good rap - not a poem but a rap - is that with rap even if the person reading it on paper is not a rapper or even familiar with the particular song, he or she will find himself rapping.  Take this stanza from the first verse of Road to the Riches for instance:

But enough of me sweatin' Kool G Rap.  The first verse of this song focuses on the frustration the rapper faced as a result of being broke.  He found himself bustin' his ass at a conventional job but only bringing home an inadequate minimum wage in the process.  Moreover, he suffered from the type of humiliation that comes with girls not wanting to holla at you because of your meager cashflow.

But he didn't just accept things as they were.  Rather he realized that his ambition "to be a billionaire" would take "hard work for years".   And even more specifically he conceptualized, i.e. fantasized, that he could make such dough via the rap game.  And verily by the end of the verse, he is celebrating the day that he landed his first record deal.

VERSE 2

The rapper begins the second verse by putting forth that prior to becoming a professional musician he instead chased money by selling crack "on the block".  Furthermore, he lets it be known that he was in fact a successful drug dealer.  You may recognize this tale as being the most dead-horse-beaten origin story in rap music history.  And yes, rappers who have come off as such, on the East Coast at least, have more or less copied G Rap's style in that regard.  And don't take my word for it, as this is an assertion that has been made by people a lot deeper into the study of rap music than myself.

In the process of bragging about his illicit come-up the rapper goes on to compare himself to the likes of Al Pacino and Rudolph "Pretty Boy" Valentino and accordingly presents himself as a gangster, not a gangsta.  The difference is that even though Kool G is talking about 'shooting up stores' and 'letting the pistol smoke', there isn't that feeling that he actual does such things but is rather portraying a character.  This is not to say that he never actually ran the streets.  Rather, let's say that he isn't actually glamorizing this lifestyle but is more like recounting a period from his personal history.  In other words the first verse is based on him blowing up via music, while in the second, which represents the past, he is making dough by selling drugs.

VERSE 3

Meanwhile the best way to comprehensively describe the third verse is as a street-based social commentary.  In other words G Rap is for the most part still portraying a drug dealer.  But he is recounting his experiences in a way that illustrates just how dangerous the streets can be.  And overall, you can say the passage reads sort of like a PSA.  For by its conclusion Kool G has decided to 'make a U-turn' in terms of his lifestyle in the name of not getting himself incarcerated.  For he knows that the "rules are different", i.e. very-violent, in prison, and people who are not really about that life are exposed:

Also the third verse features some of the track's other illest lyrics, such as:

So in putting all three verses together, Road to the Riches comes off like the tale of a young man with stars in his eyes deciding to pursue his material dreams by becoming a rapper as opposed to remaining a drug dealer.  For after he becomes personally knowledgeable of the latter, he perceives that path more like the road to the jailhouse rather than to a steady cashflow.  And this idea is further buttressed by the track's music video (which it contains its fair share of blingin' and guns anyway).

THE TEAM

Back in the days ghostwriters were virtually unheard of.  As such this song was written exclusively by Kool G Rap.  And its producer, in addition to DJ Polo, was another of Kool G's partners from early in his career - the legendary Marley Marl.  In creating the instrumental they sampled a 1974 track by the Commodores called Assembly Line and a 1978 tune by Billy Joel entitled Stiletto.

A depiction of Marley Marl, who was amongst the
first celebrity producers
in rap music. He was also
perhaps the first to perform vocally alongside his artists.

This particular song came out on 14 March 1989 as part of the Road to the Riches album.  And the labels behind it are Warner Bros. and Cold Chillin' Records.  The latter was perhaps the most-popular label in the entirety of rap music during the late 1980s, with Marley Marl being their central artist.

Kool G Rap, circa 2014.

CONCLUSION

The way of the world is that pioneers rarely get to fully enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices.  For instance you have someone like Jackie Robinson who made about $3,000,000 (in today's money) throughout his entire career, whereas Black baseball stars nowadays (i.e. those who came after him) can earn up to 10 times as much in a single season.

But this is not to imply that Kool G Rap got cheated or anything like that (although his career did suffer in the name of the gangsta rap).  After all a bunch of rappers, including permanent A-listers such as Eminem and the aforementioned Jay-Z, have cited him "as a major influence" on their careers.  Instead it just bothers me sometime how like dudes today can be selling records, as well as fans bopping their heads, based on storylines that can be traced to an artist whom many of them may have never even heard of.