Defending Love Lockdown, Gilbert Arenas

 

Kanye West is the most relevant musician on the current music scene, because he operates in a dying genre that he’s somehow resuscitating by reminding everyone what it’s like to take a gumbo of music forms and make it into one thing. He has this bold vision that he may never specifically articulate, except to say that it deals with greatness and dimensionality. Some of his best work is a berth of pride and spiritual boldness. “Love Lockdown” is part exceptionalism, not one rapped lyric finds its way in; and part leapfrog into a world of little accountability. If artistic liberation metes itself out in the quixotic “experimental” album moment for every musician, this is Kanye’s Electric Circus/Perfect Imperfections/Sgt. Pepper, if you will.

Continue reading ‘Defending Love Lockdown, Gilbert Arenas’

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The Virtue of T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It”


Fuego.

The short ad-lib that clips the melody of another T-Pain croon. Either we believe that T-Pain is the loose assembly of hollow machine sounds. Or we believe that he is the brilliant incarnation of many soul singers pressed through the strainer of digital synthesis. Obviously, he is a bit of both, and it’s hard to assign him a mode as he adopts a similar harmonious template for most of his songs, whether they are cloying or redemptive.

T-Pain is brilliant emptiness. He is not vapid. His clownish costumes recall Flava Flav, but there’s always some hidden meaning with the jester. I remember The Source article covering Flav in the nay-day of Public Enemy. The formerly grand hip-hop rag made sure to color Flav’s run-ins with authorities, and family court issues as part of the mad genius that made him. In a way, T-Pain is a Flava Flav protege.

With the T-Wayne hit “Can’t Believe It” we get the best of the circus motif, from the track’s insistent twinkling bells to the top hat on a dancing teddy bear’s dome. The video is a work unto itself because it renders T-Pain as the ringmaster, the sad engineer of a strange world in which only he and some bizarre others fit. To keep with the running theme of being in love with a stripper, T-Pain indulges a wild fantasy about saving her from her life of lecherousness. He has this absolutely morose dream of loving a woman who has set herself up not to be loved. And he wails distressingly about it.

“Cause you look so gooo-oood, you make me wanna spend it all on ya”

And the poetry there is that he cannot spend it all on her. For all the “you ain’t tricking if you got it talk” seeping into the framework of his songs, he is bitterly deciding against being with this morally insufferable woman. This stripper-harlot-trope makes T-Pain’s exceptional use of melody more than a jester’s prosaic call: it’s his pastiche for invention. In a radio interview on Hot 97, T-Pain talked to Angie Martinez about his married life possibly being in contradiction with his woeful Single Man in the Club image. And as playfully as Angie brought up the randy contrast between the two value systems, T-Pain niftily explained that he wrote many of those songs (about strippers) while broke. This leads me to believe that he was never fascinated as much about the marketing of a Strip Club song as he was about getting to the heart of the troubled, enraptured club patron.

If T-Pain’s Can’t Believe It is ostensibly about being in the V.I.P. section of some seedy strip joint, it makes no real pretense out of being that close to its subject matter. “She make the people say yeeeeah” could just as well be a chant in any other R&B song, but here it’s as if he’s commenting on the allure of some dancer in some flashing light panel. He is bathing the song in that same light of ominous revelations: that strobes can hide the scars; drinks and tips can push a good man away from reality.

That is why T-Pain has the most appealing song in radio rotation for my money. It’s not because there is something honorable about using the auto-tune capabilities as instrument, rather it’s the audacity of hiding such depressing themes in such upbeat music. The whine of the “yeahs” is fully submerged in their electronic coating. The ardor of unsanctioned love is also there beneath the sweet surface. To be honest, I didn’t know T-Pain was so deep.

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I’m A Jamaican in New York

These few weeks have felt like Prelude to An Historic Speech or America Week. The Election bonanza so fittingly dovetailed the Olympics. The Democrats and Republicans put on a show that showed how disparate and simultaneously ethnocentric America can be. It’s difficult to place myself in the middle of the American spectrum. First, I’m black so I have dealt with pressing “otherness” since I learned that blacks in this country were treated differently through a system of historical treatise. Then, uncoerced, Aime Cesaire showed me that the same system effectively suppressed blacks in the West Indies (of America/Britain) and in Africa.

 

Obama

Obama

Since I was born in Kingston, Jamaica but raised stateside, I always had an allegiance to a place where most of my memories had long dissolved. I was stumped trying to figure out my Blackness, my Jamaican-ness, and my American-ness in the face of this larger diaspora idea, which in itself implies dissonance. Then, this week, as if to tap me on the shoulder, Lamika Young, educator and friend spoke to me over chat about Barack Obama. She asserted that the idea of him being named “Barack Obama,” and in turn his separateness from Black Americans, made him less threatening to the general population. I was willing to acknowledge that his exotic nature and name sets him apart from any generalized description of Black American. In the same huffy breath, I was dismayed that we were getting into a discussion of what makes someone Black American. Was she telling me that Black America had institutionalized Blacker Than Thou tests? Continue reading ‘I’m A Jamaican in New York’

200 Or Less: Flight 187

Fifty flirts with fatalism. Forget flirts, fancies futility. While a reluctant Jay-Z downplays conflict and heralds success, 50 Cent openly contests the value of earthly gains. Curtis Jackson has seen the mountaintop; his G4 jet crashes into it. Most compelling about “Flight 187”: video mural depicting a confused but decidedly ironic multi-millionaire. If celebration and champagne are in vogue, macabre meltdowns are 50’s leverage, his levee stemming the tide.

Drake, the reluctant baller, has purred about the pitfalls of progress. 50 hasn’t pretended as much about his need for riches. Here, the first signs of wealth’s drag on his conscience. Not one for window shopping, he’s indulged even the negative parts of fame, namely feuding and vanity. But the yield has been curious.

“Brought you from the hood/Destination, hell or heaven?”

The floating question mark deranges his song nearly as much as its groaning vocal thump. In one “mm,” there’s baby mama drama, death visions, astuteness. Like Biggie before him, 50’s been ready to die from the inception. Specifically, it’s the imminence of his dream. As he nears the symbolic end, life’s hold tightens inexplicably. Black manhood ultimately corrodes vitality, discarding dreamers in the offing.

I’m a rider.

ManchildInThePromisedLand

200 Or Less: Blueprint 3

Marooned in Marcy Projects. Kid hustler: grown ambition. Debuts to slow buzz. Finesse and grace belie inner Doubt. Four albums later, two classics. All his friends are dead.

Trendy but seasoned. King of New York? No one likes a monarch. Divine assignment. Progressively tyrannical. Mirrors a mafia, in name and destruction. Pacino fixations. Queens rival unearths past envy, weakens the throne. Still, dollars pile.

He won’t wear jerseys; he’s thirty-plus. Lingering “Ether” flares nostrils. But relevance trumps quality. Sponsors love it. Insecure icon begets imitative Italian. Brooklyn nostalgia punctuates.

Jordan metaphors are yet-fulfilled prophesies. Maybe you’ll love him when he fades. Spotted in St. Tropez. Bottle service and champagne flutes. Excuse me, Miss…married?

World tour, Coldplay, water for the Continent, Live 8, Minority Ownership, Kingdom Come, executive suite, Leering at landscape. Hardly photogenic.

Petty feuds dissolve. Hardcore swagger. Mid-life musing. Unsuited for introspection. American (Gangster). What’s Kanye up to? Forgets to text LeBron about soundtrack. They’ll catch up.

Oh! More classics! Redemptive leftism! Studio never seemed so small.

Crotchety formalist or unabashed trailblazer. You decide, of course. Afraid to run it back. Very afraid.

jay-z-blueprint-3-cover

“Off That” Jay-Z feat. Drake

Essentially, Shawn Carter sells his audience on his panache, often prematurely misunderstood. But trend-setting dares to tip him past Wizards-era Jordan style overexertion. Returning as rap’s tyrant, he directs the flow of trends while chasing them. “Off That” featuring rap meteor, Drake, deploys laser blips, zipping drums, and Jigga’s trademark lullaby flow. Timbaland’s Euro-pop electronics drown Drake’s disinterested refrain. The beat bangs, but Jay’s dicta ring like the caprice of a high school fashionista. As he enters mid-life in a profession called “the game,” Jay-Z often rehashes youth at his creative expense. “Off That” syndicates his passion for cool in a concerted quest for classic.

Link Round-Up for “Off That”

Smoking Section

NahRight

2dopeboyz

Also: Jay-Z looking squirmy on Bill Maher’s show. Terrific interview with surprisingly candid answers from the Jiggaman. Makes you wonder how much this “guru speak” about manifesting confidence on the surface level rings true. The man is clearly uncomfortable on camera as “Shawn Carter discussing Jay-Z.”

jayzoffthat

Bring Some Soul For My Robot

The internet connection is squeaking again in fits of malcontent. Videos just don’t play like they used to. Need about 10 minutes to check my digital mailbox, another 15 to scroll through the article links friends posted, 20 more to go through the various feeds to publications. Instant information, or at least the semblance of it, is like daily milk for the suckling neurons. For every sensuous byte, there’s an equal fire sparking within, gluing to genetic circuitry and drawing the flesh ever so close to the machine. What of the modern art galleries that feature video stills and metal sculptures? Do they lose the essence of “art” because the forms change with the era? Music flows dually in the currents of art and information. Video killed the radio star by necessity as technology sectored the world of sound. Wax records swallowed up live musicians who couldn’t cross over to vinyl in time. It’s the stuff of science fiction: the Matrix descending on the airwaves first, then into the brain patterns, and on and on.

Both sides of the digital divide have their place, but only the artists whose voices we hear materially captive, confined to cassettes, compact discs, and videos exist for our grandchildren. All the same, cardiovascular rhythm burns off technology’s bulk, leaving traces of the human soul within the filaments. The music with the best chance of survival inside the techno-sphere, then, is the kind that forces its heart into the robot, filling it with lifeblood to make it distinguishable from just another voicebox. Audio recording methods will forever mold how songs are preserved, but the true measure of timelessness is our ability to operate both inside and outside of wiring. Aretha Franklin, Nas and Jimi Hendrix will outlast any disc where their voices are heard partly because of their extensive catalogs and partly because of their infinitely soulful stance.

Now, as before, there are countless tweaks to enhance the vocal register, including the machine we know simply as Auto-tune, which eponymously indicates just how to “automate” a human sound with a robot’s hand. The current music climate welcomes robotic sounds, the metallic hum of a thousand modems. But it can be hard to differentiate the refuse from the jewels. Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On the Alcohol” exists in the same crowded room with Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” shoving one another for space along the same frequency. Foxx wins. Mavado and Vybz Kartel smooth the edges of gangster dancehall with bleats and beeps, while Drake and Lil Wayne observe looking for clues. Which of these robotic voices makes sense to the human ear over decades? Continue reading ‘Bring Some Soul For My Robot’

Best I Never Had: The Blank Drake

Be prepared for a wave of Idolatry in Rap unlike one we’ve seen in recent years. At least that’s what Drake, the Toronto actor and former CTV star, is banking on. Unfortunately, for all Aubrey Graham brings in terms of persona pump-priming, he badly copies the trite images we have grown tired of already. Whether it’s LL Cool J with his obsessive lingual luxuriating or Kanye with his fashionista obsessions, modern rap music has made more of the visual presentation of an artist’s sexuality than the quality they bring to our waiting ears. The canard in this picture is the rapper who combines familiar sounds of the moment with familiar visuals of the moment. That rapper du jour is Drake. He’s ruining the radio.

Or maybe not. Defining the ontology of Stardom As Artistry and vice versa is a useless quest.

Maybe it’s just my merciless discerning taste. I fight tooth and nail for hip-hop culture because it’s the same culture that extends from blues and reggae. The Culture of Black Rhythm produces books, albums, artists and works of note. It also swaddles the individual voice in the rich cloth of collective, choric, chanting traditions. There’s a double-edged sword to the material manifestation of that kind of art: rap music, in its frenetic commercial cycle, produces none of the above. There are boastful gunmen, conniving hustlers, shameless players and romantic poets, but they exist in separate spaces of the public covenant. As critical listeners, we’re lucky to get a universal morsel out of a song, much less food for thought. Thus, I’m at a loss when it comes to Drake, the young performer whose entire portrait is a John Hughes caricature of the arrogant team captain.

But he sings, he acts, he raps. What more could you ask for?

Well, talent. Throw on your tap shoes, young man. There’s no longer room for mere method acting in rap music. Although that is a talent: fitting a perfectly scripted role provided by publicity managers and record labels, it won’t swim unaccompanied. For starters, if hip-hop is to thrive (not merely survive) rappers must bring a modicum of talent to their too-large audience. Meaning, they should know how to put syllables and metaphors together in a coherent way so that songs have a theme, beats sustain our active imaginations, and records have a shelf life beyond the corporate quarterly report. If they can muster it, they should learn a dance step, create an indomitable stage show and take it on the road.

Then again, Drake’s deference to an “acceptable Negro” template is also troublesome. In the age of Barack Obama, when multi-racial identity is synonymous with success, but where the same is not true for single, downcast racial groups, Drake represents the deceptively “safe choice” for teen girls of all colors. At first, the thug paradigm in hip-hop appealed to mainstream American teenagers because of its exoticism, but then African nationalism took over before finally giving way to genteel sportsman in Puffy, Jay-Z, and now Drake. The Aubrey Graham Experiment is no embrace of the diversity of multi-racial performers as much as it is an indictment of the rebellious, ill-fitting archetypes embodied by ruffians like Jadakiss, Freeway. Those black rapscallions provide a contrast from the American television-reared norm (except in the case of 50 Cent when that rebellion is commodified). Drake lives in the Eminem continuum, in this sense, because he blends with preconceived expectations of racial parity, of preconceived norms, and inoffensive vanilla appearances, while telling us that (really!) he’s all bad ass. This way, Sarah need not fret when that poster of the rap superstar hangs on Becky’s closet door. After all, she’s traded bare-chested pin-up shots of thugs with the tattooed tear for a beautiful petticoat and handsome knickers.

Which brings us to an important question about Drake: does his adherence to a standard, safe, orthodox style make him a poor artist, an unrealized artist, or merely a reflection of the current culture? As a lyricist, he falls somewhere between Lil Wayne’s casual and Kanye’s self-important. But those two artists showed verbal improvement during the various stages of their career before they were knighted as rulers of hip-hop’s mainstream. Lil Wayne had to release “Go DJ” and a slew of mixtapes before anyone dared notice how his improvisational skills could overshadow many of the prosaic songs of his contemporaries. Kanye West practically learned how to rap before an unforgiving audience, straining first for breath control, and then for more potent similes. His majesty behind the mixing board also built his legend in a tandem with his bold public statements. Drake has benefited from the iconoclastic traits of these two without necessarily carrying with him their attention to personal detail, to variety, and to composition. Of his slim volume, Drake has mostly touted the powers of auto-tuned, caramelized melodies. But in rap music, where the melody and harmony of blues music and reggae meet the archly defiant voice of the emcee, he is only half developed. His lyrics, when examined as an expressive tool, fail even at the rudimentary level of execution. With attempted double-entendres, Drake leaves the doubling unfinished, rhyming the same words over again without changing the meaning from couplet to couplet. Even more egregiously, his main duty as an artist, to demonstrate the full depth of his points, always seems just beyond his reach.

In his most “thoughtful” song to date, “Successful,” with Trey Songs’s crybaby crooning as a charming backdrop, Drake recalls a murky story about his mother. The lyrics are an absolute puzzle of inadequate rhetoric however:

But as of late, alot of shit been going sideways

And my mother try to run away from home

But I left something in the car and so I caught her in the driveway

And she cried to me, so I cried too

And my stomach was soaking wet, she only 5’2″

Just as the story might have explored the reason his mother ran away, or the reason for her tears in the driveway, he talks about her height. How perplexing to even go down the road when only shallow discovery would come of the couplets. But berating Drake’s commercial hit seems neither here nor there as even legendary artists have stooped to numbing simplicity in the name of driving a hot beat to its eventual destination. For whatever he may lack in depth, he has certainly captured this summer’s imagination with his songs, videos, and all-around charisma. The striking thing here, though, is that there’s an overwhelming sentiment that he is the “next coming,” the singer with a rap sensibility, the polished actor with a brash hip-hop attitude. In the age of charlatanism, of surreal swagger (I swear some of these performers would gild their caskets for more swagger points), Drake is not just the perfect fit, he’s the only fit. He will be only what we, the ravenous audience of fickle followers, require him to be. As it is the charge of an artist to be both slave to his spirit, the thing that makes him human, and to be the frank interpreter of the common spirit, Drizzy makes short sloppy work of the tasks at hand.

Now, would we be pleased if he brought his Black Thought rhyme book out for every recording? Or if he displayed some surprising emotional clarity on a debut album? Who’s to say? The intrigue of Drake remains in his status as an incomplete but compelling demonstration of the ego’s influence on emceeing. In a sense, Drake does what Kanye did before him, daring listeners not to like him, as if those who do criticize are at a distance from what’s “hip.” Hipness notwithstanding, when you’re mantled with the label “Great” too early, the results can only be disastrous.

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Updates

This is a drop in the bucket. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for NewsOne.com. So much that they even blessed me with a go-round as a featured blogger. Nice to be seen alongside Bakari Kitwana, Mark Anthony Neal, Casey Gane-McCalla and Stephany Rose, to say the very least. Here are a few joints from that site.

1. When Politico broke the story of Palin’s wardrobe spending, I thought it appropriate to talk about the contradiction in terms that is saying “spending freeze” and “fiscally responsible” and then splurging because you have enough money to do so. It’s an insult to the same hard-working Americans they’re making an appeal to.

10 Things Palin’s $150K Outfits Could Buy

2. In the same aspect of pushing the cultural message, McCain-Palin and Co. have been helping themselves to a large portion of the white American apple pie. Nothing wrong with saying you advocate for a group as historically critical as this one, but there was another easy contradiction in dissecting Joe’s aspirational sense of capitalism. The media bit at this kind of white-branded individualism, almost missing the point of a national, broad-based election. 

Media Chases the White Joe Vote

3. It wouldn’t be the internet without some instant commentary, would it? Nazneen Patel of NewsOne.com and I talked about the final presidential debate as it took place. Think high school time capsule. 

NewsOne Debate Chat

4. The list of Republicans who have joined the Obama cause. Apparently, the ideological rift in the party between the sensible intellectuals and the class-race-tinkering cowboys has become external, prevalent. With Buckley, Will, Kristol, Brooks, Parker, Noonan and a host of others leaving for the moderate outskirts (or gasp! the left), there will be a vacuum of new ideas. Tucker Bounds just won’t do in heady economic times. Hat tip to the Jed Report.

List of Republicans Ditching McCain So Far

On TheUrbanDaily, there’s a review of Wale at a CMJ Showcase for SOB. He disappointed the crowd using his body of work is his defense. Giant Mag has a review of Eagle Eye also. This is a March essay about New Orleans recently found on King Mag’s site. 

Good night all.