Why the ''Bad Boys II'' album and ''The Wire'' are great. The two explode pop-culture cliches about loyalty and betrayal, machismo and crime

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 15, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why the ”Bad Boys II” album and ”The Wire” are great

When the most pervasive pop culture becomes drearily predictable, you just have to root around for smaller, better pleasures. Right now, the most visible stuff, the hits — whether we’re talking sequel movies like ”American Wedding” or ”Tomb Raider 2” or, on the radio, the pathetic, inescapable bleating of ”American Idol” winners — aren’t merely boring: They’re as oppressive as mid-August humidity.

In this atmosphere, I came to the soundtrack album of ”Bad Boys II” (Bad Boys/Universal) expecting to hear an extension of the movie’s obviousness and arrogance — a little combo Hollywood calls ”directed by Michael Bay.” But surprise! Executive producer P. Diddy, no stranger to O&A himself, called in markers on everyone from Jay-Z to Mary J. Blige to Justin Timberlake and came up with a broodingly messy, CD-long exploration of machismo and its discontents. Sure, the Neptunes and Nelly crank out a pair of xeroxed oldies party jams (”Show Me Your Soul” and ”Shake Ya Tailfeather,” respectively), but then Fat Joe rues his bullying ways and vows to ”change [his] life.” And then Mary J. and Justin turn the sexual tables. She asks a man not to cry over their breakup, while he falsettos fear — ”It’s okay to be scared ’cause this girl is superbad” — i.e., worth dropping the bad-boy pose. You go through emotional whiplash, one song contradicting the next.

On TV, the summer’s most enjoyable ball of confusion is HBO’s ”The Wire,” now barreling toward a second-season conclusion on Aug. 24. The show’s ostensible star is a cop, the Irish screwup Jimmy McNulty (craggy, sly Dominic West), and the season’s major plotline, the downfall of a hapless Polish union man (expressively doughy Chris Bauer). But ”The Wire” cuts most deeply with sharply honed roles for its black actors. Recently, we watched elegant drug lord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) attend a college economics class to strategize a better profit margin for his seamy trade. We’ve seen Jimmy rely on his partner, cool Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), the most unreadable lesbian this side of Gertrude Stein, and savored the leaps of deduction practiced by a man who knows more about office politics than we ever will, Det. Lester Freamon (my new idol, Clarke Peters).

”The Wire” rejects ”Sopranos”-style psychoanalysis and ”Six Feet Under” solipsism to grapple with the mysteries of temptation, despair, and a new meaning for Johnny Cash’s ”I Walk the Line.” (Indeed, the country music that surfaces here and there is the only reminder that the series’ creator, David Simon, is white. Among his writing staff this season is the terrific thriller author George Pelecanos, a Caucasian whose best literary creations are frequently black: Go, as we say in the ambiguity trade, figure.) The result is hypnotically dense drama without pat answers. Some of us watch the same episode twice a week, to suss out the ambiguities.

Much black pop culture constantly asserts nuanced, complicated ideas about camaraderie and betrayal. Yet it’s galling how little of our mass culture is inclined to hear past, say, the harshness of the language in which those ideas are sometimes communicated to appreciate the arguments being made.

”You lookin’ for some closure, huh?” says Stringer Bell to psychotic hood Omar (a serenely flipped-out Michael K. Williams) in a climactic conversation this week.

Replies Omar: ”No such thing.”

Culture Clash is a new monthly column by EW’s critic-at-large Ken Tucker.

Bad Boys II Soundtrack

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