Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
One of the centerpieces of Rick Ross’s new album God Forgives, I Don’t is “So Sophisticated.” There is, actually, a lot of sophisticated stuff about its construction, like the way Ross manages to rhyme or half-rhyme about 25 lines with “sophisticated” (although he decides the hell with it halfway through his second verse), but it’s also flamboyantly crude, and Ross keeps referring to the most lowbrow stuff he can come up with. Dom Perignon is the stereotypical beverage of the upper-upper class; purple drank is way at the other end of the scale, and Ross mentions both inside a minute.
“Sophistication” is a messy idea, and it’s kept turning up over the course of the past 80 years’ worth of popular music. For a bit of its history, have a look at this New Yorker interview with Faye Hammill, the author of “Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History.” The interviewer, Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, notes that another Ross — Harold Ross — made being “what is commonly called sophisticated” part of his plan for the New Yorker itself; Hammill quotes a terrific line from Amanda Prynne in Noël Coward’s 1930 play “Private Lives”: “I suffered a good deal, and had my heart broken. But it wasn’t an innocent girlish heart. It was jagged with sophistication. I’ve always been sophisticated, far too knowing.”
There’s always a touch of flattery or mockery about “sophistication”; you can describe someone else as being sophisticated, but never yourself, unless you want to be Eustace Tilley, looking at a butterfly through a monocle. (But wait–isn’t that what Rick Ross just did? Yes. We’ll get there.)
One key to what’s going on is the first important hip hop track to be built around the word “sophisticated”: Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch,” from 1987. (This was from back in the days when more hip hop artists had hard-rock cred — that’s Vernon Reid of Living Colour playing guitar on it.) It’s incredibly mean-spirited, but its premise is that the character Chuck D is smearing “thinks she’s so-/Phisticated.” She thinks of herself as being entitled to nice things, but she’s actually just a gold digger who’s “Got the nerve to turn her funky nose up.”
The title of “Sophisticated Bitch” is, naturally, a twist on one of the most-performed standards of the years immediately after “Private Lives”: Duke Ellington’s 1933 composition “Sophisticated Lady.” He later claimed that he’d written it about three of his former teachers, and that the sophisticated thing about then was that they got to travel in Europe during the summer. (Here’s a later live performance by Ellington and his orchestra, with an impressive held note by saxophonist Harry Carney.)
As with a lot of instrumental hits of that era, “Sophisticated Lady” quickly acquired lyrics and became a vocal standard, too. (Ellington later hinted, ever so gently, that Mitchell Parish’s lyrics — about a heartbroken Amanda Prynne type, smoking, drinking, and flashing diamonds she might well have picked up from Rick Ross — were perhaps not exactly to his taste.) One of the earliest recordings of the vocal “Sophisticated Lady” was this 1933 version by the Boswell Sisters.
A little wave of songs about sophistication came along in the ’60s, heralded by the Shangri-Las’ 1966 “Sophisticated Boom Boom,” in which “the girls were wearin’ formals/ And the boys were wearin’ ties.”
By 1967, there was a minor dance craze called “the sissy” or “the sophisticated sissy”–and yes, that was “sissy” as slang for gay men. Both names for the dance seem to have been used interchangeably; it was apparently popular among straight as well as gay danceclub audiences. Rufus Thomas, who never saw a new dance he couldn’t make a record about, responded to it by recording the minor R&B hit “Sophisticated Sissy.”
Two years later, the debut single by New Orleans legends the Meters was a slow-grinding instrumental called “Sophisticated Cissy.” Why the different spelling? Who knows?
Natalie Cole had a #1 R&B hit in 1976 with “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady)” — an entirely different song from Ellington’s. It’s an ace performance from Cole (and it won her a Grammy for Best Female R&B performance), but curiously ambiguous on what makes the lady it’s about so sophisticated: “Everybody knows how she got her name”? Okay, then.
As Hammill points out, the idea of “sophistication” is now used, “To sell everything from from perfumes and luxury holidays to cars and electronic goods.” What it sells, specifically, is a cultural context: The illusion of deep knowledge and discernment, which always comes with an enormous price tag. (You’ll never see a cheaper option described as “more sophisticated.”)
That’s what Public Enemy were mocking, although they mostly took it out on the character who embodied that idea. That’s what Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, a.k.a. NPSH, a.ka. Brite Futures, sideswiped with their ridiculous 2009 video “Sophisticated Side Ponytail,” below. (Note that the word “sophisticated” appears nowhere in its lyrics.) And that’s what Rick Ross leaves Maybach tracks across in “So Sophisticated”: If the social-aspirational ideal of “sophistication” doesn’t mean knowledge or expertise or anything but cash, then it might as well work the other way around, too.