At the heart of all pop music is theft. Almost by definition, popular music borrows the more palatable elements of the underground to forge an easier and softer version, perfect for mass consumption. The final product should be friendly, but also deep enough to make any listener feel hip, like they've stumbled upon the essence of cool. The album 18, Moby's follow-up to 1999's Grammy-winning Play, is the ultimate product of its kind. With a minimum of effort, Moby manages to take the sound nurtured by American breakbeat artists such as Q-Burn's Abstract Message and Tranquility Bass and turn it into fodder for VH1 and car commercials. Even more so than its predecessor, 18 seems to revel in its masquerade, hiding its larceny under a thin veil of hip-hop aesthetics.
Once again, listeners are assaulted with a collection of pedestrian beats and samples. The familiar gospel and blues samples (an idea appropriated from Adrian Sherwood's Little Axe project in 1994) seem to frame the album, an obvious attempt at recapturing the alleged novelty of the previous album. A track like "Another Woman" bastardizes the tribal percussion of leftfield house, coming off like a lackluster version of the Idjut Boy's reworking of Esther Phillips on "Long Ride." It's all too obvious.
Moby's at his best, though, when stealing from himself. "In My Heart" utilizes the Italo pianos that saturated his earlier work (back when he could truly be described as groundbreaking), and the album's opener, "We Are All Made of Stars," has a guitar appeal ripped straight from his rock-star days (as chronicled on 1997's Animal Rights). Perhaps the best track (also the shortest) is "Fireworks," a subtle piano-and-beats workout that could very well be an outtake from 1993's brilliant Ambient LP.
The guest stars, including MC Lyte and Sinead O'Connor, do little to salvage the album, which ultimately bores the listener with its redundancy. Where Moby fails is in his sampling, an art that should always involve an attempt to make something new and exciting out of old material. But 18 is no better (or worse) than any of its parts. It's a pity that the man who turned the techno world on its end in 1992 with a wonderfully placed sample from Twin Peaks has traded in his magic for popularity.
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