“Hip-hop is what you would call the bastard child of a lot of different forms of music.”
So says DJ Jazzy Jay on the song “Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2,” the best hip-hop track on the CD “White People,” by Handsome Boy Modeling School. Offered by one of the CD’s more than thirty guests, this line verbalizes the musical theme of this quirky but exciting concept album, the second in a series by Handsome Boy Modeling School, whose headmasters are Chest Rockwell (rapper and producer Prince Paul) and Nathaniel Merriweather (DJ Dan “The Automator” Nakamura).
“White People” extends the boundaries of hip-hop by bringing in musical powerhouses from different genres and different worlds, creating a hodgepodge of music that is impressively and originally mixed. But however stylish, the bizarre match-ups on “White People” sometimes offer more novelty than quality.
Also included on the album are (mostly funny) comic skits featuring Saturday Night Live alums Father Guido Sarducci and Tim Meadows, who wax poetic about being handsome and reflect on their experiences in the (fictitious) modeling school. So while “White People” contains both highlights and lowlights, at least it maintains a sense of humor throughout.
The collaboration of super-producers Paul (best known for producing De la Soul’s classic debut “3 Feet High and Rising”) and Nakamura (the man behind brilliant concept albums like “The Gorillaz” and “Deltron 3030”), Handsome Boy first created buzz with their 1999 debut, “So — How’s Your Girl?” The record, which can be considered a prequel to “White People,” had a similar mix of guest stars, from the Beastie Boys to Sean Lennon.
Taking their name from an episode of “Get A Life,” the cultish sitcom starring Chris Elliott (yet another SNL alum). Paul and Nakamura adopt with straight faces the stylish but sleazy alter-egos Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather, respectively. Both albums are as playful musically as they are stylistically, creating hip-hop variety shows by using heavy sampling and rich instrumentation — electric guitars, classical piano, jazz trumpet and decadent strings, to name a few.
The most laudable thing about “White People” is its seamless integration of samples and cross-genre sounds, which result in an end-product that is both still smooth and recognizable as hip-hop.
That “Rock and Roll” boasts guests Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, infamous beat-boxer Rahzel and hip-hop stars Grand Wizard Theodore and Jazzy Jay is indicative of the album’s unique and often riveting combinations (never mind the troubling insinuation that Linkin Park rocks).
The guest list quickly becomes ostentatious. The songs pander to the presence of stars like Pharrell Williams (of the Neptunes), Jack Johnson and Cat Power by reproducing their trademark sounds. To be fair, Paul and Nakamura’s production adds distinctive elements to the mix: it is certainly a pleasant discovery to find that Johnson (on the wonderful and relaxing “Breakdown”) sounds infinitely better with a full drum backing (acoustic is not always better).
There are other less obvious, but no less exciting, guests: Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand joins underground legend Del tha Funkee Homosapien (who raps with the Gorillaz) on the reggae-influenced “The World’s Gone Mad,” the album’s gem. The dynamic rhythm combines an offbeat guitar riff with a slyly forceful bass that creeps through the rich keyboard and Del’s melodic rhymes.
Other highlights: De La Soul sweetly raps about parenthood on “If It Wasn’t for You,” Mars Volta lends a sick guitar riff on the appropriately abrasive “A Day in the Life,” and John Oates (half of Hall and Oates) and Jamie Cullum croon on the dreamlike, poppy “Greatest Mistake.”
The weaker songs on the album are the ones Handsome Boy do by themselves, without the help of their VIP guests. “The Hours” is a repetitive, lackluster, droning song that repeats the same phrase over and over for two minutes. That’s not to say that the celebrities’ influence is always a good thing: “Class System,” which features Pharrell, is too Pharrell to be anything new.
Though not without its bumps, “White People” is nevertheless entertaining and, more importantly, features surprisingly creative production.
One can only hope the novelty won’t wear off.