Even in a world with the pyrotechnics of the Beastie Boys, the zany antics of Beck Hansen's flirtation with hip-hop are quirky enough. Like that raucous bunch from Brooklyn, Beck's take on the rap world is essentially a humorous and harmless onehe doesn't try to out-bad the likes of Snoop Doggy Dog, the Geto Boys, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre or any of the other major players of that scene; doesn't try to cultivate an image of being too cool to approach; doesn't even bother to sing about bitches and forty-ouncers. What he does instead is use the rap form as a springboard for his often wild flights of the imagination, and if it sometimes doesn't sound quite like anything that would ever come out of the studios of either Easy-E or Suge Knight, so much the better.
This much is obvious from the opening track of Beck's new album, "Odelay". "Devil's Haircut" is a bombastic blend of several styles, glued together with a steady, thumping and highly danceable rhthym block of bass and drums. Listeners unfamiliar with his work shouldn't let this description put them off, though; unlike the voyages of such acts as King's X and much of Faith No More's material, Beck's blending and bending of genres is almost always listenable, even when the stylistic shifts are on the abrupt side (as in the case of the first single "Where It's At," which starts off as a sample-laden rap stomp before segueing into a mellow, soothing interlude with keyboards that flow like water). It's all held together, though, by a sophisticated, ironic sensibility. "Hot Wax," for example, displays some vicious beats, as well as a few wild slides out of formBeck knows exactly when he is and when he is not following the rules of laying down a tune that will pack the dance floor. "Minus" is a scattershot mix that sounds as if it might derail itself at any moment, though the soaring, one-note chorus magically keeps it roaring right on course. Cynics may have been tempted to say that his 1994 hit single "Loser" was a mere cover-up for the fact that he couldn't lay rhymes down like the boys from the 'hood, but the most cursory listen to his new collection proves that the surreal and unpredictable quality of his songs is not only a legitimate approach in and of itself, but one which he cultivates with zeal.
Oddly, Beck's skill as a straight-ahead guitar twanger has never really been recognized for the minor genius that it is, despite the abundance of evidence. "Jack-Ass," despite its funny name and soundbits from the animal that is the song's namesake, is an undeniably pretty and touching number; it's as if Beck were taking a breather from the high-octane craziness of the album's other tracks to chill out and write a musical letter to a long-lost friend. "Ramshackle" explores similar emotional territory. Wistful and maudlin, it nonetheless showcases a sweeping vibrancy reminiscent of Mellow Gold's closing number "Black Hole," and, believe it or not, the quiet strummings of Led Zeppelin III and much of Neil Young's acoustic mid-Seventies work. Though these and other folk- and country-inspired tunes still comprise only a fraction of his work, they may wind up being what he is remembered for. That is, a gifted, earnest and serious songwriterin spite of or, perhaps, because of all the goofiness he projects to the world.