While we are here, we may as well address that savage little concern creeping in the periphery of all things related to this song, the dead-eyed, be-fanged question of cultural appropriation, i.e., is it ok for a white guy from West Philly, among other places (including, to be fair, a stint in Harlem) to release a song called “Harlem Shake” with apparently little to no knowledge of the term’s origin, and thereby unleash upon us all a torrent of progressively derivative—and irreverent— “Harlem shake” videos? If his pleads of ignorance are true, I do not bemoan Baauer so much for creating the song; after all, one could readily have performed the true Harem shake to it. No, the blame lies not with Baauer, but with Filthy Frank, from whom the first video sprang, and the ebola like nature of the meme’s structure and ludicrousness. Basically, it would have been a surprise for this to not catch on. And would it truly be better if everyone was doing the real dance, anyway? At least in this way, the dance itself is spared from what would surely be a brutalizing.
Far more nefarious than this one song is the trap genre of electronic dance music, which, in its use of trap rap sensibilities, I have no qualms with, but in its wholesale thievery of the name, I do. Trap music is exceptionally powerful, and the dissemination of its elements—like the drum tracks on Purity Ring’s Shrines, for example—is not only beneficial to music, but a testament to the original genre. Purity Ring does not advertise themselves as trap, however; even Chicago drill, which is arguably the most immediately related genre to spring from trap’s loins, had the decency to coin its own terminology. This seems to be a great amount of fuss over labels, but for those of us who study and critique art, the label carries almost as much weight as the works themselves; something must be taxonomical to be analyzed, and genres are an inherent part of the framework which underlies all critical theory. Willful muddying of said framework crosses the lines, and when crossed, the music journalism world tends to bite.
With all that being said, if someone was going to pull “Harlem Shake” back into the realm in which it belongs, Jim Jones would be perhaps an unlikely candidate. Not that Jones is lacking for uptown credibility, but with the currently white phosphorus hot A$AP Rocky, the new-mixtape-dropping Juelz Santana and the always lionized Cam’ron all hailing from Harlem, smart money would have been placed upon one of them. But Jones is what we get (let us put aside, for now, that Azealia Banks version, which Baauer himself described as “so-so,” which is an understatement) and, to his credit, he does an admirable job.
I have never been a big fan of Jones, but this effort, and his verse on the remix to A-Trak’s “Piss Test”—another dance-centric cut—has gone a long way towards mending my opinion. In both cases Jones takes to the beat with his typical sauntering flow, hefting his big frame along in a manner similar to Slim Thug or a simpler Bun B, and relying heavily on the voice side of the voice-skill spectrum. His refusal to change it up for the rollicking BPMs he has found himself on as of late could have been taken as braggadocio or a lack of talent, but instead works in his favor, as he subverts “Harlem Shake” and lays atop it like lake effect snow. This is where Banks’ version failed; she breathily rode the beat, not fully integrating herself within it or controlling it, and becomes simply another musical element. While “Harlem Shake” is not trap in the traditional sense, it does demand the same authoritative talents as the original genre.
If there is one thing Jones is capable of, it is bodying a beat with the power and slight grace of a power forward, and his subjugation of Baauer’s work to his will is an entertaining one. Whether that effort carries deeper implications is up to the listener.
“Harlem Shake Freestyle” receives a PARL
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