I reviewed Chris Thomas King’s Live on Beale Street for our upcoming issue, and it reminded me of everything great and perplexing about King. The less he tries to seem significant, the more interesting he is. On the other hand, his efforts to establish his version of hip-hop as “21st Century Blues” sound strained. He’s a journeyman as an MC, which makes his hip-hop tracks sound dilettante-ish, as if he likes the idea of hip-hop more than he likes actually listening to it.
Putting forward the idea that hip-hop is the modern version of the blues is provocative, and anyone who puts interesting ideas in the world is okay by me. But just as classic rock bands who cut disco tunes sounded older for doing so (with the exception of the Stones, but that’s because you believed Mick danced to it), reaching to a youth-oriented form to try to make a traditional genre sound contemporary has the opposite effect.
Perhaps if King made his hip-hop blues his primary output, it would seem less like a novelty, but though he has been talking about it for years, it has been a minor part of his last three albums. But as they demonstrate, he doesn’t need to dabble in a shaky genre-cross to make the blues sound relevant. The frankness of a couple of tunes on the new album mark them as the product of the modern world, as does Rise, recorded after Hurricane Katrina. In those instances, he doesn’t take contemporary thoughts and phrase them in timeless language to make them sound as if they could be 50 years or 50 days old. All it takes to write blues that reflects contemporary times is the willingness to pay attention to detail, then write about it. Â