Self-Titled Eponymous: Reggie Watts – Making A Positive out of a Negative

I’ve tried to write the introduction to this review four times, deleting and revising my attempts to introduce the uneducated to Reggie Watts. I give up. It’s impossible to truly explain Reggie Watts in any kind of condensed, summarized version. He stands for so much, while also standing for nothing. He’s hilarious but unfunny in the most intentional and unintentional ways. He’s a genius composer and skilled beatboxer. And nothing about him makes any sense unless you want it to.

With the release of his newest standup/music CD, Why $#!+ So Crazy?, we finally have a document that’s somewhat representative of the improvisational, nonsensical music/comedy act that Watts has been crafting since 2004. Firmly based in jazz and hip hop, Watts’s live show consists of him beatboxing drum patterns, basslines, and harmonies one by one, looping and sequencing them with a delay modeler pedal to create the musical backdrop, before unleashing a stream of consciousness rant of nonsense words and sounds in the form of an abstract emcee or beat poet. And strangely, each song builds, swells, and moves to crescendos, resulting in fully formed musical pieces. There is a method within his madness, and the result is maybe the most pure representation of how purely powerful the elements of music can really be, both individually and collectively.

Why indeed?

Watts’ music is a testament to the exploration of negative space musical elements; specifically, the non-obvious (and some would even say unimportant) parts of “normal” hip hop, or even general pop music. For instance, take a normal rap song. You actively listen to a song to hear (a) the actual lyrics that the emcee says; and (b) the overall texture of the beat that’s been preproduced to meld with the rapping. You don’t care about how the beat was created, you don’t really listen to the grunts or the sounds that a rapper says in between the words. You don’t care about the moments in between the words, the spaces in between the sequences of the beat. You want a fully formed product. Sure, you can always engage in deconstruction if you want, but for the most part, you are listening to the song as a whole, unconcerned with the elements and the parts that are literally there to fill the space in between the more important or meaningful parts of the song.

Watts comprises songs full of those unimportant noises and sounds, those grunts and nonsensical babbles, that are usually there to fill space. He creates the beat piece by piece for you, to the point where you listen to the song as a collection of elements, rather than a song as a whole. You don’t even notice that you’re bobbing your head, so those moments where Watts throws a conventional music moment at you (a beat drop, a hook or refrain), your mind has to cycle back around to the realization that you are actually hearing something enjoyable as a whole, not just fascinating or impressive in the elements he lays out in front of you.

That isn’t to say that Watts doesn’t have things to say. His studio single, “Fuck Shit Stack” is an over-the-top celebration of crude language that slowly transforms into a scathing indictment of the childish tendencies of rappers and hip hop culture. Buried deep in “A Future in the Future” lays a dense rant against the cyclism and futility of technological improvement, told in the completely insignificant metaphor of candy wrappers making noise during movies. “Rainbows” is a simple story of a drug deal, formed as a love ballad to the ritualistic tendencies of users. And the gorgeous R&B-like “Social Construct” is a drug-infused existential exploration of daily life. And to be honest, I could probably write this review ten times, and attribute ten different meanings to each of these songs.

The songs are as meaningful and profound as you want, like all true art should be. Regardless of what Watts originally meant in creating the songs, they exist in the cultural consciousness and become what the audience wants it to be. And in an era where pop music consumption is so passive and lifeless, it’s been a thrill to have something to sink my teeth into, without being unenjoyable to wade through (see: lots of jazz). At any time, you can turn your brain off and enjoy the beautifully crafted beats, or listen to Watts’ gorgeous melodies, or, like I’m sure Watts intended, you can just sing along to the chorus of “Fuck Shit Stack,” which is way more fun than I really care to admit.

The comedy aspect of Watts’s style is more perplexing. It’s no surprise that Watts won the 2006 Andy Kaufman Comedy Award, as his comedic stylings in many ways mirror the almost antagonistic way that Kaufman treated his audience for the sake of humor. Watts doesn’t directly antagonize, but often phases in and out of accents and voices, creating characters and telling jokes that don’t have punchlines in between his songs. Meanwhile, there are moments in his music that are simultaneously hilarious and borderline disturbing, such as the ending rant on “Get Your Shoes On,” in which Watts recreates a fight between a man and a woman trying to get out the door to go out for the night. Filled with hilarious lines, it builds to the man yelling furiously for her to “get her motherfucking shoes on.” You laugh because it’s all you can do; all while feeling like the artist could be funnier if he wanted to, but simply has no interest in being conventionally hilarious in the way we expect him to. And believe me, I mean that in the most complimentary way possible: Watts is a fearless performer who has pulled legions of fans into his sphere, forcing them to recognize the beauty and genius of his music and style. That is the hallmark of a revolutionary artist.

The first time I was exposed to Reggie Watts a few years ago, I was convinced I had just seen one of the greatest performances I had ever seen, even though I couldn’t figure out why. My friend turned to me and simply yelled in desperation, “What is he doing?!?!” Over time, I’ve come to understand the reasons why I love him so much, and watch with delight in seeing so many other people starting that journey in understanding why he’s such a fantastic performer and creative talent. It’s not easy; and for what it’s worth, I’m glad there aren’t more people doing things like Reggie Watts. I think we’d all burn out pretty quickly. The world only needs, and perhaps can only handle one Reggie Watts at a time. But thank god we’ve got the one.

“Fuck Shit Stack” video:

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