In college, I took a course on African-American poetics. The first part of the course was a survey on African-American poetry. The second part focused on four contemporary poets. The final part of the course consisted of relating material learned during the poetry portions to the musical movements of jazz, blues, R&B, and hip-hop. This part was enjoyable but occasionally wandered to tangential topics. For example, when one lecture discussed re-appropriating terms from hip-hop into pop music, we spent the bulk of class discussing Justin Timberlake’s use of “I just love your brain” in his first solo single “Like I Love You.” Timberlake’s use of a slang term for fellatio, combined with his association with The Neptunes, served to distance Timberlake from his more reserved pop career with *N Sync.
In 1989, Brian Wilson attempted to use the term “brain” on a recording that was rejected by Sire Records. Unlike Timberlake, Mr. Wilson was not referring to oral sex. Instead, Wilson just wanted to express his appreciation for sexy ladies with high intelligence quotients.
Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Wilson’s “Smart Girls”
The blog at WFMU posts some solid info plus the song itself. As with most Brian Wilson material, there’s lots of nice harmonies with a generous helping of reverb and echo. There’s also rapping.
At first, I thought the song might be a result of a situation like Neil Young’s 1980’s relationship with Geffen. I’m not sure if Wilson ever had such a contentious relationship with Sire. The influence of Eugene Landy on Wilson’s life probably is the most likely explanation for such a wild departure from the pop music at which Wilson excelled.
“Smart Girls” may have more to do with “Like I Love You” than I originally thought. Both songs make use of hip-hop qualities in order to make a departure from previous work. While Timberlake’s use is subtle and seems commonplace given its time, Wilson’s song sounds like an attempt to use typical hip-hop tropes without an understanding of hip-hop’s subtlety and restraint (Not that I’m Professor Guru of hip-hop over here. I’m sure much of my opinion was formed from years of hip-hop moving more into the mainstream. Brian Wilson did not have the whole “hip-hop in the mainstream” thing going on in the late 1980’s).
First, Wilson’s voice sounds affected and forced. Perhaps he was trying to produce a voice of confidence, cockiness even, that he found emblematic of rapping. He also places lots of importance on straight end-rhymes.
Wilson’s lyrics point to an understanding of hip-hop that needs an sexualized persona delivering the rap. Lines like “I’m no different from the rest/I love hips and legs and breasts” and “Wouldn’t it be nice/ if they gave PHDs/ For strokin’ me with hypotheses” place an emphasis on sexual satisfaction, but they also show what Wilson does not grasp about rapping. There is an absence of slang or logical metaphor. I mean, given some time, I think getting stroked by hypotheses could catch on, but in the context of the song, there needs to be more explanation.
Finally, Wilson’s use of samples is intriguing. The insertion of the Beach Boys seems like an attempt to give the Beach Boys’ music some timelessness by presenting it in a new genre. While Wilson makes attempts to fit the lyrics of the samples with the lyrics of his rap, he does not account for tempo, key, or measure. Again, my own perception is colored by the ways sampling has evolved since 1989. Wilson sees sampling as a characteristic but he does not fully master that characteristic.
In the end, though, he’s Brian Wilson. He can do what he wants.