Baltimore club music broke out of Baltimore clubs a while ago, at least at the DJ and blog-nerd level. Defined by former Pitchfork writer Tom Breihan as "a cheap, hard, frantic, fiercely regional strain of black house music that exists only within Baltimore," the style has been cropping up for a few years now on releases by indie-oriented artists like Diplo, Spank Rock, and Ghislain Poirier, among others. Albums by hometown B-more heroes like Rod Lee have been getting reviews from national mags. And then there's HBO's "The Wire", which gave local musicians a national TV platform and eventually spawned a fine major-label compilation, Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks From The Wire.
A Washington, D.C.-based DJ/producer with a pronounced Baltimore club influence, Jesse Tittsworth uses the tinny breakbeats and raunchy subject matter of this once-local subgenre within a broader dance, pop, and hip-hop context. Last year, Tittsworth put out a couple of sample-driven EPs, Afterparty and EZ-T, both in the Baltimore club style, and he got together with the like-minded DJ Ayres for a Baltimore/Miami loops-and-grooves battle record called T&A Breaks. But Tittsworth also joined the electro-house hordes churning out "D.A.N.C.E." remixes for Justice. A free Tittsworth DJ mix posted online to promote his first proper album, 12 Steps, jumps from Baltimore's Blaqstarr to Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Soulja Boy Tell Em, Hard-Fi, and George Michael. Clearly, this could've been Baltimore club's pop moment.
Unfortunately, 12 Steps is too little, too late-- the free mix is worth more of your money. The sort of electro-rap synthesis this album achieves has been done before, and better, not just by West, but also by his associates like A-Trak, Kid Sister, Flosstradamus, and Cool Kids, or even by Alaska-based Curtis Vodka. Kid Sister, a charismatic young Chicago MC whose "Pro Nails" does for manicures what Lil Mama's "Lip Gloss" did for L'Oreal, appears on one of 12 Steps' catchiest tracks, "WTF". But the "whassup, whassup" hook, despite reportedly being sung by post-M.I.A. it-girl Santogold, is as dated as the old Budweiser TV campaign; Pase Rock's rhymes about "So Fresh, So Clean" and "Trapped in the Closet" fall as flat as day-old beer. On blippy first single "Broke Ass Nigga", with an orchestral melody similar to the "place in France" playground song, Tittsworth skirts the obvious issues inherent in a half-white, half-Asian guy throwing around the n-word by bringing on guests DJ Assault, Kenny B, Jinxx, and Frankie Baby. The result is mildly funny, particularly the deliciously absurd closing non sequitur: "Can I hold your fish, man? I need some company."
But 12 Steps is more interesting when it sounds less East Coast, more European. Tittsworth, whose background is also in hip-hop and drum'n'bass, gets the album off to an energetic start on "Haiku" by combining those distinctive Baltimore handclaps with robotic filter-disco buzzing and dramatically swooping synths. And on "4.21", he turns crackling distortion, hard-edged beats, and light, floaty electronics into what could've been one of Simian Mobile Disco's more contemplative tracks. By comparison, predictable fare like the gimmicky "Bumpin'", in which a DJ complains about a drunk guy bumping into his turntables, or the raucous Baltimore-club update "Drunk as Fuck", in which a knife sound accompanies rappers the Federation bragging about "cut[ting] up the pussy like the movie Hostel," sounds like (mere) childish imitation.
Tittsworth has produced, by and large, an album of potential novelty singles. That's fine-- you can argue that some of the best records are novelty records-- but the problem is that most of the tracks on 12 Steps are neither particularly novel nor memorable. The guitar-coated "Almond Joy" begs you to-- wait for it-- "play with my heart like a toy," and the soppy light R&B of "Here He Comes" nicks a melody from Hall and Oates' "Maneater", which Timbaland referenced with Nelly Furtado two years ago. As many words as the Clipse have for snow, Baltimore club and its cousin Miami bass have for sex, so letting guest rapper Pitbull settle for such Kindergarten Cop-level laziness here as "spread legs like a gynecologist" is an insult. Not to his Miami base, not to Baltimore clubbers, but to pop fans. We're fickle-- not stupid.
* MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/titts
- Marc Hogan, August 14, 2008