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'Hey, look at me,' they rap and sing

POP MUSIC : CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

These artists have stood out in a shifting landscape over the last six months.

June 03, 2012|RANDALL ROBERTS | POP MUSIC CRITIC
  • Rapper Azealia Banks performs during the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on April 14, 2012.
Rapper Azealia Banks performs during the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella… (Chris Pizzello / Associated…)

Of all people, it was an over-the-top rapper named Riff Raff who recently shared an insight that typified the state of music halfway through 2012, a year that has already seen revelation after revelation from many corners of the pop music spectrum.

The tattooed white rapper with gold teeth, many crooked tattoos and an obviously concocted street patois (the rapper is originally from Minnesota), would have been considered a black-face performer a century ago, but today he explains that his outlandish approach to music is really all about branding. He told LA Weekly: "People are desensitized to the point where nothing is special," he said. "People are getting bored. It's so saturated that if you're not in your own lane, you aren't needed."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 03, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Critic's Notebook: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, an article about the highlights in pop music so far this year said the TV series "Loiter Squad" airs on Comedy Central. It airs on Adult Swim. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 10, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Critic's Notebook: A June 3 article about the highlights in pop music so far this year said the TV series "Loiter Squad" airs on Comedy Central. It airs on Adult Swim.

Where even a decade ago, musicians were mostly defined by the music they made in professional studios, their live shows and the occasional video, full-frontal creation now involves random video teasers, witty and/or provocative tweets, a steady stream of mix tape releases and whatever other quirky attention-getting device an artist can concoct to rise above the noise.

Granted, Adele doesn't need to dress like Lady Gaga to gain attention -- she has a voice and presence that do the trick. And as Riff Raff's output has confirmed, just because you dress big doesn't mean you've got rhymes to match.

But standing out from the crowd helps, as many strands of pop music in 2012 attest. It's in Deadmau5, who performs in a giant helmet shaped like a mouse head and offers equally as big opinions on Twitter about electronic dance music; it's in Nicki Minaj's turning herself into a cartoon nymphet onstage and in her videos and influencing a new generation of female rappers. It's in Tyler, the Creator's knee-high white tube socks and cartoonish antics as part of Odd Future (his "Jackass"-style Comedy Central series, "Loiter Squad," was just renewed for a second season). Even Lana Del Rey, derided by many as a poser, was a runaway success, not by being the most magnetic or as a proponent of any particular movement but by creating a distinctive aesthetic brand. Though the year is only half over, a mountain of data has already accrued, and sifting through it reveals many transformative highlights.

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Death Grips. In times of musical chaos, major labels often sign baffling uncommercial acts. After Nirvana broke, for example, Warner Bros. landed Japanese skronk rock band the Boredoms. For some mysterious and wonderful reason, Sacramento three-piece Death Grips this year released its second album, "The Money Store," via Sony Music, but don't expect it to compete for airplay with labelmate Future. It's too far gone. One of the breakout acts of Coachella, the group makes abrasive, hard experimental rap -- a place where punk rock and hip-hop collide and burn. Reporting on the wreckage is vocalist Stefan Burnett (a.k.a. MC Ride), a lithe, mohawked black version of Iggy Pop or Darby Crash.

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Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. A swirling whirlwind of sound, British singer Beth Jeans Houghton and her band the Hooves of Destiny's recent single "Sweet Tooth Bird" is one of the most beguiling pop pastiches this year, a mixture of sounds and styles ranging from 1940s and '50s cowboy music, Fairport Convention folk, British pop rock and Houghton's young voice (she sounds like a heartier, less precious Kate Bush). And as a character, Houghton is impossible to ignore; her style is as oddly alluring as her music. Witness her performance of "Sweet Tooth" on the British TV show "Later With Jools Holland," in which she wore her hair in a platinum pompadour, with her bangs curled like a rolling wave above massive fake eyelashes.

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Azealia Banks. Last week, the talented New York rapper Azealia Banks released her debut EP, "1991." An inheritor to a rap throne that Nicki Minaj seems to have already abandoned while chasing dance pop, Banks, 21, draws on a more experimental, minimal brand of beat music to provide support for her rhymes. This four-song teaser, which features her breakout hit "212," displays her wit and smarts on the microphone, but it's how she picks her beats that stuns. On a recent teaser "Jumanji," she mixes harp, synth bursts and a hard tribal rhythm to fuel her fire.

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