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Rap trumps rock at MTV marathon

OutKast was among the standouts at the Video Music Awards, but the show cried out for a fast-forward button.

August 31, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

TiVo was made for award ceremonies, as MTV's ridiculously long-winded Video Music Awards on Sunday night demonstrated.

Even more than the Grammys, this annual extravaganza lets us sample the best of commercial pop music in a tidy, 25-minute package. Unfortunately, the program from Miami ran more than three hours.

Thanks to the digital video recording device, you can skip through the inane podium patter, lots of mediocre performances and endless commercials to get to the heart of the matter.

But not even TiVo is perfect. You'd think a recording system smart enough to predict a viewer's listening tastes (based on the shows one watches) would realize that you can't take award shows at their word. They always run long. In this case, the VMA's ran about 20 minutes long.

The lesson: instruct TiVo to record the awards show and whatever follows the show.

Fortunately, MTV loves to recycle its programming almost as much as it loves the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton (all three of whom made cameos Sunday), so it'll rebroadcast the whole thing at 7:30 tonight.

Two things stood out during the telecast:

-- In a year when U2, Radiohead and the White Stripes don't release a record, commercial rock 'n' roll is pretty dull. Performances Sunday by Jet, Hoobastank and Yellowcard were not a good substitute.

-- Hip-hop/R&B continues to be the creative center of commercial pop. When OutKast's fun-packed "Hey Ya!" won video of the year honors, it was the third straight year a rap act has won the top prize. The night's other big winner also came from rap: Jay-Z's captivating "99 Problems." Both won four awards.

But the most meaningful competition is in the live performances. Few MTV viewers will probably remember who won for video of the year six months from now, but they'll remember OutKast's performance -- as well as commanding numbers by Usher, Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Lil Jon. Jay-Z didn't perform, but watched the proceedings from the audience with his girlfriend, Beyonce.

In fact, many of the night's key figures, including Usher, Keys and West, were seated so close to one another that it looked like a private party when the camera shifted to them, which was often.

Because these artists also work together on record projects, there is a sense of community in the upper echelon of today's hip-hop/R&B world reminiscent of the Motown family of the '60s and '70s, only the artists are on different labels now.

Apparently unable to come up with its usual blockbuster gimmick to start the show, MTV relied on Usher to get things going, and it wasn't a bad idea. Usher is so hot that he had three singles in the pop Top 10 at one time this year, only the third time that has happened. (The others were the Bee Gees during the "Saturday Night Fever" disco craze and the Beatles during the height of Beatlemania.)

To add to the sensual heat of his "Confessions Part II," water poured over the bare-chested singer, who eventually lashed out at the tension in the song by smashing his image in a mirror. Then he was joined by Lil Jon and Ludacris on the dizzy, good-natured "Yeah!," the number that won awards for best male and dance videos. So if you do TiVo, be sure to catch the beginning.

Then you can skip (past Shaquille O'Neal's walk-on, commercials for Taco Bell, Revlon, Snickers and more, and some awards) to around the 45-minute mark, when new rap sensation West served up snippets of his hits, joined midway by Chaka Khan, whose voice he had sampled on "Through the Wires."

Then fast forward again to the point where Lil Jon and friends took over for a lively demonstration of his "crunk" sound, which seems chaotic in structure but is irresistible in sound.

The next high point (after more commercials and patter) is in the second hour when Keys was joined by Stevie Wonder on harmonica on her torch-like "If I Ain't Got You." With Lenny Kravitz on guitar, the pair then ripped through Wonder's "Higher Ground."

The final highlight is in the show's final minutes when OutKast delivered wonderfully celebratory renditions of four tunes, including "Hey Ya!."

Throughout the OutKast numbers, the arena was decorated with red, white and blue posters, reflecting the political convention spirit. But the message was nonpartisan: Vote.

By the end of the show, even the performers seemed exhausted.

Usher had the right idea. He was so excited by his first MTV awards that he said on stage that he couldn't wait to check it out

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@

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