As recently as 1990, when Vanilla Ice’s dancers chanted ”Go white boy, go!” the concept of geeky Caucasian guys appropriating African-American music was truly a laughing matter. A select few have pulled it off, but they’ve been more the exception than the rule — until now. Many of the current arena-packing neo-metal bands — Korn, Limp Bizkit, relative veterans Rage Against the Machine — feature frontmen who rhyme more than sing. (Is further proof needed that rap is the ”new rock”?) Meanwhile, nasty-boy white rappers like Eminem and Kid Rock have been awarded instant credibility points that were never accorded Vanilla Ice or Snow. And why not? Eminem’s a lughead, but his rapping is funnier and sharper than most of the mumblers on Master P’s roster.
In this context, the Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t have picked a better year for an attempted comeback. Way back in the ’80s, the Chili Peppers’ overflowing keg of metal, rap, and funkpioneered the funky-white-boy pose, at both its best and worst. After the stumble of 1995’s almost-there One Hot Minute, though, they laid conspicuously low (thanks, in part, to accidents and recurring drug habits), and maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea: How much longer could they have carried on the horny-shirtless-stud shtick before descending into self-parody?
Starting with its elbow-in-ribs title (which makes one think they’ve been spending quality time with fellow sex-pun groaners Van Halen), Californication has the whiff of desperation. And when Anthony Kiedis opens his mouth, the situation grows even more dire: ”All around the world, we could make time/Rompin’ and a-stompin’, ‘cause I’m in my prime,” he raps on the first track, ”Around the World.” You’re tempted to hit the stop button on your stereo then and there. Compared with Eminem or Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Kiedis’ rhyming skills (”You’re ill but I’m iller!”) sound stiff and thin — or, as he might put it, clunky and unfunky!
But then something startling happens. Perhaps it’s the return of guitarist John Frusciante, who played such an integral role in 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For the bulk of Californication, the Peppers sound more relaxed, less grating, and, in their own way, more introspective than ever before. The soul-searching sentiments of ”Otherside,” ”Californication” (which appears to take digs at Courtney Love and ”celebrity skin”), and the sobriety-imbued ”This Velvet Glove” are set to music that’s lilting and freshly scrubbed. They’ve taken the vibe of ”Under the Bridge,” still one of their masterpieces, and ridden it to a more pastoral plane. The rockers are powerful but not obnoxious (or clotted with popping bass lines), and the whirlybird pulse of ”Parallel Universe” also marks new turf for them. The Chili Peppers — Kiedis, in particular — can’t refrain from sub-beat-poetry lyrics, throwaways like ”I Like Dirt,” and the naughty finger-painting ode ”Purple Stain.” But those tendencies are kept to a minimum. Californication is the sound of aging party animals who sense the room is emptying out and that they’d better look for another, healthier buzz.
Jamiroquai doesn’t rap, but like the Chili Peppers, the British hat act otherwise known as Jay Kay has made a career out of appropriating African-American pop, particularly that of Stevie Wonder. On Synkronized, Jamiroquai’s fourth album, Kay’s retro jones blazes on, albeit with a new twist: Imagine if Wonder had made a disco album in 1977! With producer Al Stone, he’s concocted an eerily perfect homage to that era, setting his songs to the swooping strings, wah-wah guitars, and boogie-wonderland beats of the Studio 54 era. ”Got canned heat in my heels tonight!” Kay exults in ”Canned Heat,” while the murkier ”Black Capricorn Day” conjures the what’s-your-sign vogue of the ’70s.
There’s no denying the craft with which Synkronized was made, and Jamiroquai is smart enough to toss in a few curveballs, like a Latin-hustle break in ”Planet Home,” a ”Riders in the Storm” piano in the instrumental ”Destitute Illusion,” and trendy turntable scratching in ”Supersonic,” which is passable coffee-table techno-funk. Still, the album’s re-creations of pop past are as absurdly pointless as they sound. Synkronized is a hat trick done with the sharpest chapeau in the store, but it’s a trick all the same.