THE JOKE ABOUT 2-STEP garage is that it's a field full of failed jungle producers who couldn't cut it in the dark side of drum-and-bass.

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Giant leap

U.K. producer MJ Cole's debut marks 2-step's U.S. landing.

THE JOKE ABOUT 2-STEP garage is that it's a field full of failed jungle producers who couldn't cut it in the dark side of drum-and-bass. Much of 2-step is painfully bad— resembling flimsy R&B or wanna-be Timbaland. But thanks to ex-drum-and-bass (and house) producers, there are a few slabs of wax not destined for the dustbin.

MJ Cole

EGO, Friday, March 30

MJ Cole, before his current guise as the darling of adult contemporary 2-step, tinkered with beats as a—surprise—jungle producer, utilizing his classical music chops to produce tracks on B-level label Emotif Recordings and for higher profile cribs like SOUR, while also working with the likes of Trace and Ed Rush. When his jazzy joints (under the monikers Morf, Jilt, and Spectra 1000) failed to turn on the lighta' krews and when 2-step turned into the fairy godchild of the U.K. scene, Cole smartly and swiftly left for greener pastures.

Just as well, as most jazz-jungle hybrids end up sounding like coffee-table music or, as my roommate likes to call it, cross-legged drum-and-bass. Since 2-step makes no effort to keep it real by keeping it hard, all manners of "soulful" elements are welcomed with big, wide, Gucci-covered, diamond-glittered arms. Cole and other jungle expats have a field day rediscovering melody and vocals, presenting a wider emotional scope than jungle's twisted terror tales allow.

For many, Cole's debut, Sincere, is the introduction to 2-step. Like Goldie's Timeless, it's a landmark album that immediately sets the standard for everything that may follow it. The uplifting title track's airy piano melody floats over Cole's spiny beats, while the bass line peels rubber, jetting outta the driveway. Cole, like other 2-step artists, produces the beats and the bass like a symphony with only two parts. Taking its cue from drum-and-bass, the bass line is the star, so the drums must be thin and crisp, finely recorded to slice their own place amidst the bass line's growl. The tempo is slower, and every third beat is missing from the four-four (which makes it sorta like a breakbeat, but more like a skip); the beats click and snap, but never, ever boom. Yankees may never do the doodle dandy to 2-step, even as it reigns on U.K. charts and mainstream radio. For U.S. heads to dig 2-step's breakbeat science, the beats must be phat, not flat. Though Cole might flex more production muscle than most of his peers, his methods still stand in line with much of 2-step; his intricate programming and diced-up drums never really punch.

AN AMALGAMATION of U.S. hip-hop and R&B, house music and drum-and-bass, 2-step's combination is confusing because each genre contradicts the other while they simultaneously pat each other on the back. Borrowing speed garage's gurgling sub- bass lines, house music's midrange tempo and diva vocals, and hip-hop's abfab attitude and style, 2-step manages to sound like none of these things and all of them at the same time. It's like a familiar stranger.

Nothing sounds too alien or left field on Sincere, which works in Cole's favor. Able to reside on both the pirate radio stations and the mainstream channels like Radio One, Sincere hit the critical list when it was nominated for a Mercury Prize last year, while it simultaneously got play in the underground dance clubs.

The less traditional Cole gets, the more effective he is. "Sincere" and "Attitude" are distinct descendants of British rave music: Repetition, rolling beats, and clipped quips of vocal snippets create a disembodied protagonist on the two standout cuts. The bass on "Sincere" is blubbery and flatulent—something foreign to R&B. And the bass on "Attitude" is like a record skipping; the vocal is as percussive as the drum tics. Other tracks, like "Tired Games"—with Elisabeth Troy's pissed-off, guttural lover's swipe—tip their hat to R&B, but some are more successful than others. "Crazy Love" and "You're Mine" can be just as corny as your run-of-the-mill R. Kelly song, and the bits with British rappers will make you feel American MCs' pain. Tales from the boyz in the hood about locking and popping and clocking are completely absent. Brit MCs don't rap, they toast, owing their style to dancehall; like drum-and-bass, their lyrical content is as empty as the superficial playa-haters of the scene.

Then again, this can be a notoriously shallow genre. Witness, will you, Artful Dodger's decidedly artless and dodgy hit single "Re-re-wind." Even Cole's own album cover depicts him as a brand, splashing his name designer-style over objects of status: a champagne bottle, a shopping bag, a watch, a sunglasses case, and the all-important record stylus. Since 2-step is the Brits' nod to Puff Daddy's glossy, ghetto-fabulous style, it's all the more ironic that the future of British black music is a white guy.

Since its rapid rise, 2-step has replaced drum-and-bass as Britain's anointed star genre, confirming its status with its giant crossover potential. Songs, not tracks, and albums, not singles, make a lasting impression. Cole's skills—miles above many burgeoning, fresh-outta-the-box, wet-behind-the-ears 2-step producers—help cement Sincere as an album worth holding on to, even if 2-step as a genre burns out and fades away.

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