In the collective cultural imagination, beck is the little loser that could -- the unlikely alterna-rocker who became enough of a sure thing to veer from folk to funk and back again without jeopardizing his superstar status. After sullenly watching the homespun funk of "Loser" become a Gen-X anthem, he released the Folkways-simple One Foot in the Grave and the John Cage-weird Stereopathetic Soulmanure before revving up his funk motor on Odelay. Then, after "Where It's At" made him a bona fide hit-maker, he put his good foot back in the grave with last year's Mutations, a spare album of quiet meditations on death and loss.
Beck's got another brand new bag on Midnite Vultures (DGC), but it doesn't become fully apparent until the last song on the album. "Debra" began life as an offhand goof, a jokey slow jam he played around with at the end of concerts to send people home with smiles on their faces. But by the end of his two-year Odelay tour, the loser with a devil's haircut had become a sexy showman in a rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suit, and the closing song had become a hoochie-man come-on, brimming with raw lust. The lyrics retained a "Loser"-esque emotional remove ("Lady, step inside my Hyundai"), but the beggin'-and-pleadin' delivery -- including a shockingly polished falsetto and a soul-man drop to the knees -- was no joke.
That's exactly what makes Beck at once so engaging and so frustrating: It's hard to tell when he's kidding, because he doesn't seem to know, either. Too gifted a performer not to be entertaining but too smart to ever entertain solely at face value, Beck seems to embrace his stardom while deconstructing it. His interest in urban musical styles -- especially the over-the-top soul that inspired "Debra" (think Philip Bailey's delivery on "Reasons") -- seems to be genuine, but it's hardly straightforward or, often, sincere.
It's a tough line to walk, but at times, Beck's weirdness for weirdness' sake isn't only fresh -- it's revelatory. "Milk & Honey," a rock anthem on which former Smith Johnny Marr adds epic guitar to Beck's understated raps, sounds like a brilliant musical hybrid -- Steve Miller jamming with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. The R&B rave-up "Sexx Laws" is polished but undercut with banjo and steel guitar; it's a catchy song that gets completely stupid yet is all the more appealing for being so.
Sometimes, though, Beck doesn't even seem to know where he's at: "Hollywood Freaks" mocks Puff Daddy materialism ("Drivin' my Mercedes / prob'ly have my baby / shoppin' Old Navy!"), but it's enthusiastic enough to make one wonder what he really thinks about Cristal culture. It's as though Beck has become so good at changing identities -- loser, player, joker, midnight toker -- that his own personality is spread too thin to come through with much force.
In that same cultural imagination, the artist formerly Known as Prince is a self-exiling Napoléon in buttless pants -- the superstar who walked away from Warner Bros. to self-release albums of outtakes and ephemera. Like Beck, the Artist has an encyclopedic knowledge of urban music and the fashion sense to match. But even at his creative and commercial peak, he never needed to hide behind a mask: When no one knew what he was talking about -- or even what name he was going by -- everyone still knew where he was coming from.
Like Beck, the Artist sees a disconnect between creative and commercial success -- he seems to think the abstract experiments on Emancipation are more worthy because they don't quite sound right on the radio. But Prince's biggest sellers -- 1999, Purple Rain -- were also his hardest-hitting work; the "personal" material he recorded for Emancipation just sounds like it lacks the focus that gives his music impact.
In that sense, much of his new Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Arista) represents a return to form. (Part represents a return of a less exciting kind -- at least one track has been available on bootlegs for years.) The Artist has returned to the major-label fold, realizing that record companies are better at selling records than he is and, apparently, willing to trust Arista chief Clive Davis to set up the kind of superstar collaborations (with Gwen Stefani and Sheryl Crow) that helped Carlos Santana reclaim the top of the charts. The album's producer and the performer on the title track are listed as "Prince" -- a name the man himself hasn't used in years -- and there's something refreshingly familiar about the utopian party lyrics and fist-in-the-air guitar riff of the title track.
From there, though, Rave sags under the same self-absorption that's become the Artist's biggest problem. "Commercialization of the music is what brought it down," he sings on Rave's second song, "Undisputed" -- when in fact it was his own obsession with commercialization that made his music a self-involved muddle. And Rave still retains a few irksome vestiges of the Artist as entrepreneur, including an advertisement at the end of the album in which a digitally treated voice says portentously, "To experience NPG merchandise and music, access www.1800newfunk.com." (Now commercials, not commercialism, are bringing the music down.) Only after that does he deliver the best song on the album, the ultrafunky (and unlisted) "Prettyman," to which Maceo Parker contributes frenetic alto-sax funk while the Artist does his best James Brown routine.
Several of the songs on Rave are virtually impossible to parse, let alone enjoy, but the Artist's personality still comes through anyway. Still, it's too high a price to hear the vindictive egomaniac within. "Even in the wrong," the Artist sings on "I Love U but I Don't Trust U Anymore," "I was right." Right.