He’s a joker, he’s a smoker, he’s most certainly a midnight toker, but at this year’s Grammys, Kid Rock was also something of a savior. During an evening that amounted to the boomer generation’s blatant repudiation of anything new, the sight of Rock hurling out ”Bawitdaba,” flanked by caged dancers and half-pint-size MC Joe C., was enough to make you throw a devil’s-horn salute at the TV screen. In an equally telling moment, this bastard son of David Lee Roth and LL Cool J segued from ”Bawitdaba” into a version of Grand Funk’s ”We’re an American Band.” Unlike most of his rap-metal peers, Rock doesn’t merely have personality to burn (and a surprisingly likable one) but a sense of history as well. He may be the first rock star who views Americana as not simply blues, country, and boogie rock but classic hard rock and rap as well. That vocabulary was on full display on 1998’s Devil Without a Cause, which stretched from the chicken-fried rap rock of ”Cowboy” to ”Only God Knows Why,” the best power ballad since the Gulf War. As he boasts in his otherwise routine body-slamming single ”American Badass,” he slops as much Hank Williams Jr. and AC/DC onto his plate as Grandmaster Flash and Motown.
Unbeknownst to most of the millions who bought it, Devil Without a Cause was actually Rock’s fourth projectile, and its follow-up seeks to educate us on what preceded it. The amusingly titled The History of Rock features songs from his out-of-print 1996 indie disc Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp, remakes of songs from 1992’s The Polyfuze Method, and flotsam, from brand-new tracks to nearly decade-old tunes he never recorded. (Absent is anything from his disposable 1990 debut, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast, still available via Jive Records.) In other words, The History of Rock feels even more chaotic than Rock’s stage show.
Compared with Devil Without a Cause, it’s also underwhelming, a push mower to Devil’s lawn tractor. With Rock’s scrawnier rapping style and references to ’90s flukes like Billy Ray Cyrus, older tracks like ”Paid” and ”Ya Keep On” are more dated than Cyrus’ mullet, and new songs like the grinding hard-rock blues of ”Abortion” and the generic alt-rock of ”F— That” smother Rock’s personality. ”F— You Blind” wittily disses a gold digger (”You don’t wanna f— me/ You wanna f— some dead presidents”), but it’s still Neanderthal rap-metal. The shelved compositions he’s finally put on tape didn’t necessarily need to be resurrected, as proven by the Chuck Berry knockoff ”Born to Be a Hick.” The funk groove and soul-sister harmonies of ”I Wanna Go Back” and the blend of Curtis Mayfield falsetto, Joe C. rapping, and boogie organ in ”Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp” show his range. But The History of Rock is less a signpost of Rock’s potential than of the business’ strike-while-you-can mentality.
Rock rightly sees himself as a white-rap pioneer, but even he overplayed his hand in his early days. The songs are strewn with references to bitches and booty, and in ”I Wanna Go Back,” he brags about his days as a hip-hop lover, telling us he was ”watching Eddie Murphy instead of Clark Gable.” (Back in the ’80s, who wasn’t?) ”3 Sheets” and ”Dark & Grey” mostly demonstrate he was imitating the Beastie Boys and grunge long before his own sound coalesced.
The Beasties touchstone is doubly significant. Kid Rock’s development — from flattopped kid rapper to Beastie-influenced snot hurler to the more musically developed force heard on Devil — is a sort of pilgrim’s progress of the rise of Caucasian hip-hop. In Rock’s music, one can hear the genre becoming less self-conscious and more integrated with each year. Perhaps this marginal collection by a potentially major act should have been called The History of Rap (by White Boys). C