On Detroit

Robocop Classified“Motherfuck a Robocop.”

When I first heard Dopehead blurt this in late 2013 I didn’t know if he was dismissing the remake arriving the following spring, or the upcoming statue, or the entire series,  but I knew why he picked Robocop in particular.

The original Robocop  tells the story of Murphy, a victim of corporate exploitation of the working class. Caught in the crossfire between crime and crony capitalism, Murphy morphs from dead cop to blue collar cyborg, rising from the post-industrial detritus to take back his city. The film is remembered for its gore and dark humor, but I’m always struck by its cinematography. Paul Verhoeven frequently employs a POV shot that shows the world through Murphy’s eyes. Wired by data and directives, Murphy sees Detroit through a glitchy interface, his entire sensory experience mapped and coded in deference to the law. The film mourns the agency that Murphy loses as a result of his mechanization, insisting that this augmented reality, a cop literally restrained by the law, is a tragedy. The man beneath the machine is the real protector, not the law, the movie exhorts repeatedly.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit reproduces that mechanized interface and unplugs the human. Procedural to a tee, Detroit plunges into the 1967 Detroit riots with the cold distance of a drone. Flitting between crowds, buildings, and bullets, Detroit trades the empathy of most historical fiction for the clarity (or rather, the pretense of clarity) of modern surveillance. Bigelow’s eye is sharp but disengaged, zooming in and out of scenes of violence with a steely, inhuman precision. In her depiction of policing, a cop’s adherence to the law is a tragedy for an entirely different reason. Rather than constraining cops, law unleashes them, irradiating them with autonomy and power.

Much has been written about Bigelow’s decision to condense the chaotic sprawl of a riot into the organized terror of policemen torturing and killing the residents of the Algiers Motel. Detroit exploded for a host of reasons over those five days, and police abuse is only a single factor, the movie’s detractors note. This is true. Impoverishment, redlining, segregation, overcrowding, wage stagnation, and racialized job scarcity existed alongside the racism of the Detroit Blue. And Bigelow’s nods to these other factors do them little justice in terms of narrative or even comprehension. Detroit is certainly not a movie that will teach you about the history of Detroit or the year 1967 or anything.

But it will make you see a black body under a police state. Despite having a central cast, Detroit doesn’t really have characters. Its subjects are constantly depersonalized, their faces obscured, their clothes removed, their stories clipped.  It traffics in brutal, permanent reversals: the site of a welcome home party for two black Vietnam vets gets raided by cops and set aflame; an unarmed looter gets shot by a cop and dies under a truck; that same cop gets collared by internal affairs and then sent right back into the streets; a fake gun is fired out a window as a harmless act of resistance and is received as a declaration of war. There’s a  systematicity to all these reversals and there is never any doubt or ambiguity about their logic. The law always moves in one direction, with one force, toward one object, black bodies breaking in the northern breeze.  

The objectification of black bodies in Detroit isn’t dramatic. Wails and screams and groans spill out, but the violence isn’t pointed. No sweeping score or shots of troubled onlookers or Common raps are employed to ennoble the struggle against tyranny. Black pain is simply there, cops and security guards and National Guardsmen exchanging winces but never balking. Never. To watch Detroit is to confront the utter normalcy of black pain, to breathe the logic that inflicts it. The scenes at the Algiers Motel have been likened to torture, and yes, literally those victims were tortured. But cinematically Detroit doesn’t treat this as torture and that’s its skill. It treats black pain as logic, as the final product of a systemized domination of black lives. People are right to question the Algiers Motel Incident as a microcosm of the Detroit riots, but at its best Detroit isn’t making that claim. Its central claim is that police overreach is an inevitable result of systems—of law, of seeing, of thinking, of judging—that codify racism.



In the aftermath of lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, Hannif Willis-Abdurraqib wrote, “It’s vital that we look at a place as more than just the violence that has been done to it.” I love that line, and Detroit violates that edict, but I think it works because its gaze is unflinchingly honest. There’s an inherent lack of agency in choosing to tell a story so impersonally, so I wouldn’t fault any viewer for initially feeling that Detroit is constricted. But consider how most movies and shows, across time, zero in on agency as the locus of change.

From Selma, to Crash, to 12 Years a Slave, to The Wire, to The Butler, to Straight Outta Compton, to The Help, to Glory, to Narcos, to Dear White People, to The Battle For Algiers, our dramatizations of oppression and resistance are full of charisma and perseverance and cunning. These are the traits of individuals.

These individuals might represent collective conflicts, but the focus is inevitably on the battle, not the war. For some stories this works, but all battles aren’t pivotal. Tiny victories are vital and seeing them is thrilling, but what if they don’t add up to anything meaningful? What if it’s just as vital that we look at a place as exactly the violence that has been done to it? What will we see? Who will we see? What will be the locus of change?

Detroit doesn’t settle on agency. It’s more concerned with rationale. It asks us why police have so much power. It asks why something like the Algiers Motel Incident can even happen. It questions how citizens can be detained and tortured not just by a few rogue cops but by their fellow community members and the National Guard and state police. It asks why relative strangers would endure torture instead of yielding to police demands? What binds these tacit agreements—both those in favor and against black life—together? How is this normal?

Detroit doesn’t answer these questions, nor does it provide the strongest possible foundation for asking them (black women are also victims of police terror, as Angelica Bastien has duly noted; and pain has consequences, as K. Austin Collins notes), but it knows why they go unasked. It looks at racism collectively, as an aggregate system empowering some and depriving others. It’s not the best story, but it’s a riveting vista.


Detroit ends with a broken singer, Larry,  retreating to gospel for sustenance. Robbed of his best friend’s life, artistic inspiration, and of justice, Larry visits a church and sings to his community. It’s not clear whether religion will restore him, but there’s no uncertainty about why or how he became a broken man. Instead of delivering justice, the legal system absorbed his pain and reduced it to the tepid neutrality of testimony, his agency turned against him and his torturers acquitted. As his voice ascends toward the rafters, there’s no doubt who the enemy is.

Robocop ends with a CEO being shot out of a window.

No one has said that Detroit is Robocop, but its reception, that quiet clamor for neatness and character arcs and resolution, reminds me of an anecdote from Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust:

“And so I hang out at the Ozsut [Cafe]. Which is a curious place. Only foreigners and Syrians. Because by now everyone knows that only we journalists come here, and so the others are all Syrians. They sit there with their banana cake, a slice of apple, pie, at the table next to yours, and you study, write. At some point one of them leans over your table, from behind, and tells you: ‘I have a child soldier.’ Like that, in your ear. He says: ‘And he’s the son of a shabia! Do you want the son of a shabia?’ he asks you. ‘No one has him.’ And the journalists, especially the ones who spend one week in Syria, one week in the Congo, who when the war in Libya starts again say, ‘Awesome!’ the journalists say: “Do you have a suicide bomber too? I need a suicide bomber, possibly drunk.’ ”

Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme.

Advertisements

On Everybody

Logic Everybody AfricaryanLogic is no storyteller. The Maryland rapper has professed his love for Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and favors lush, expansive soundscapes, but his cinematic ambitions are diminished by his vlogger perspective. Everybody, his third studio album is a feat of narrow vision. Covering race relations and identity and metaphysics, the album aims big but is utterly unrewarding, a dull haze of half-baked ideas and muddled intent.

Centered around an encounter between a deity, played by astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a mortal named Atom following his death in a car accident, Everybody follows Atom as he is endlessly reincarnated, slowly becoming everybody across the span of human history. It’s a trippy conceit but Logic fails to ever develop it. His verses attempt to ping between perspectives, but his characters are indistinguishable blurs, always inevitably folding back into Logic’s own underdeveloped story. This slippage could have illustrated the album’s themes of reincarnation and collective unity, but its shoddy execution reveals the limits of Logic’s vision.

Simply put, Logic doesn’t have an eye for detail. His verses are pure information dumps, full of declarations and claims but rarely narratives. “I’m a dirty motherfucker, a waste of life, a waste of skin,” he says on “Confess,” summarizing a story he never told. “Television tellin’ my vision to get greedier!” he says on “Most Definitely,” citing the entire medium rather than a specific channel. When he does attempt a narrative, settings and scenarios are announced rather than evoked. “Imagine this child growing up and seeing the craziest shit, being apart of the craziest shit,” he says without elaboration on “Take It Back.” Imagine if he actually told that story. The Incredible True Story, Logic’s last album, lacked a compelling plot, but it at least didn’t confuse stage directions with action.

This album’s working title, “AfricAryaN” (a nod toward his biracial heritage), was discarded in the wake of a public backlash, but the original title’s hollow provocation is built into the album’s core. Logic frequently uses his mixed heritage to reject extremism, but he doesn’t even seem to grasp the difference between identity and prejudice. On “Everybody” he oscillates between questioning the idea of white privilege, rejecting racial identity outright, and claiming he contains the blood of slaves and masters. His confusion is forgivable, but it’s jarring that he resolves it by declaring everyone equal as if that were ever the question, as if his own discomfort encompasses the entirety of the issue.  On “Take it Back” his heritage becomes the key to transcending identity, another unsolicited solution. “He always saw things from two sides. He always knew that the message that everybody was born equal regardless of race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation, he knew that because he saw that,” he says in blank verse, referring to himself. This is Logic’s idea of racial harmony: a black man whitesplaining equality.

Logic’s rapping is just as tortured, full of empty flow shifts and whiffed punchlines. “Street’s disciple, my rap’s a trifle/I shoot slurs from my brain just like Cobain,” he raps on “America.” “I wish I had motivation to get money/My rainy day would be sunny if I had a vision of currency falling above from the sky,” he raps on “Killing Spree.” Logic has never been an evocative rapper, but what he’s lacked in imagery he’s typically made up for with earnestness. Here he frequents a choppy stutter flow that mimics a record scratch. It’s stylish, but the sense of tedium does Logic little justice, especially when he gets outclassed by Black Thought and Chuck D on “America,” rappers capable of rapping well and emoting, not just one at a time. And this tedium is even more punishing if you’re a listener who’s familiar with the corners from which Logic sources all his parts: “America” is a schlocky imitation of Kanye’s “Fade” (it even has a Post Malone impression); “Most Definitely” lacks the assured breeziness of Mos Def’s “Umi Says;” “Killing Spree” bites Jay Rock’s “Vice City” but isn’t as infectiously seedy.

Ultimately, it’s just not clear what Logic is trying to do. Is he having an identity crisis? Is he affirming his identity? Is he having a crisis of faith? What is the nature of his faith? Is he upset about Spider-Man: Homecoming? You’d think these questions could be addressed in 71 minutes and 13 songs (many of them 6+ minutes) but Everybody is Logic’s least focused album yet. Instead of surveying human history, Logic vaguely explores his own anxieties, stargazing into the mirror. The beats are gorgeous and the ambition is clear, but what was supposed to be an album about everybody ended up being another album about Logic. And it doesn’t even tell his own story very well. Reincarnation is cruel.

The Moonlit Prison

Everybody's Protest Novel

“Literature and sociology are not one in the same,” wrote James Baldwin in his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” That essay is often remembered for its scalding criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Baldwin found to be so forceful it was dehumanizing, but if you read closely, the literary criticism is secondary. Baldwin’s real concern was the humanity of black people and how that humanity is jeopardized when black characters become objects. The characters of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are beautifully rendered, awash in moonlight, sunlight, ocean water, and even darkness. Even as the camera swirls through projects and dingy apartments and the trap, black people just glow, every nigga a star. But as your eyes adjust to the star light, this beautiful, reverent black gaze, you realize that this beautified blackness obscures the black people, especially the main character, Chiron.

It begins with Chiron’s introduction in part “i” of the film, which is divided into three parts, each named after Chiron’s name at the time – “Little” for childhood, “Chiron” for teendom, “Black” for young adulthood. Materializing as a white streak racing across the frame, Chiron debuts in torment. Fleeing a mob of his peers, who gleefully pursue him, hurling insults and objects, he hides out in an abandoned drug den. At this point he is “Little,” a taciturn child. Juan, a drug dealer who Little darted past while escaping the mob, rescues Little and takes him out to eat, eager to help him find his way home. Little happily devours that free meal and then another soon after, but even as his mouth is occupied his eyes remain drawn, the torment never subsiding. When he finally returns home, escorted by Juan, he remains in anguish, his expression troubled even as he’s reunited with his worried mother. His humble Miami home is clearly not a home, and his discontent with that reality encases him, defining his every moment on screen.

Jenkins does a great job of contextualizing that discontent by slowly revealing the mixed messages that fill Little’s life. In one scene he’s measuring dicks with his peers, while in another he’s openly pondering the meaning of the word “faggot,” his face always contorted, skeptical. As Little matures into Chiron, a lanky, withdrawn teenager, his confusion reaches its peak. Following a title card, Chiron is again introduced in agony. Sitting in a high school class, he is humiliated by a bully. The scene is horrifying. Chiron and the bully sit on opposite ends of the classroom, the camera stretching to frame them both, but the bully dominates the image; it feels like a one-sided tennis match, each of the bully’s swings landing beyond Chiron’s reach. “My name is Chiron,” Chiron volleys, his name his only defense.

This section of the movie adds more to the pile of confusion, for the audience and Chiron. Juan is revealed to have died and Chiron’s mother has become a full-blown drug addict, turning tricks to fund her habit. Chiron’s feelings about these turns of events are unknown. He occasionally spends the night at the house of Juan’s widow, Teresa, who may or may not have continued Juan’s drug business, but neither this detail nor Chiron’s feelings about Juan’s death are explored. Jenkins leaves these threads to dangle, choosing instead to constrict the film around Chiron’s budding romance with his schoolmate, Kevin, and his growing tension with his bully, Terrel, a choice that climaxes in an entanglement of violence, intimacy, and betrayal.

This constriction is suffocating. At this point, Chiron’s entire character is defined by tragedy. Death, addiction, sexual frustration, alienation,  and humiliation shadow him at every turn, a chain gang of miseries. This could be the makings of a complex human, someone in rich thrall, but it’s so conspicuously contrived. Chiron’s entire world has been ground down into people and circumstances that let him down. He lives for nothing, he longs for nothing. He’s just an ornate receptacle of pathologies on a conveyor belt of ruin.

Little was a child so it made sense that his world was circumscribed, but Chiron has free reign and we never see it amount to anything. He is given money by Teresa, but we never see him spend it. He goes to school, but he’s only shown taking one class. He has a wet dream, but it’s about the only schoolmate he’s talked to that isn’t his bully. On the only night he’s shown as homeless, he just so happens to run into the literal boy of his dreams. To watch this movie, you can’t just suspend disbelief: you have to revoke it. Moonlight reveres black people and dwells on the tragedies that shape our lives, but it forgets about the quiet joys that are just as shaping: favorite foods, favorite shoes, favorite songs, favorite haircuts. Moonlight loves black people, but that love is a prison.

In the final section of the movie, Chiron is revealed to have served jail time and made his way to Atlanta. He is no longer scrawny. Now named Black, he is an adonis of muscle and gleaming skin, and the camera lingers on this new body. Black wears a gold chain and gold fronts, drives a muscle car, and traps. Black is hard. Jenkins spends this last arc of the movie deconstructing this hardness, first through a scene at a rehab clinic in metro Atlanta where Black’s mom apologizes, and then in an extended scene that spirits Black back to Miami. Sitting in a restaurant, slowly being seduced by Kevin, who summoned Black down to Miami through an apology, Black finds himself defending his new look. “Who is you?” Kevin asks him, a psychological undressing. Black is eager to explain himself. “I built myself from the ground up, I built myself hard,” he confesses. Kevin is appeased. Black is again Chiron, an object of pity.

But he’s not disrobed just yet. The unveiling isn’t complete until they make their way to Kevin’s apartment, where Chiron reveals that Kevin is the only person who has ever touched him sexually. This is supposed to be the saddest and happiest moment of the film, and that’s the problem.

Chiron has survived bullying, the prison industrial complex, and poverty and rebuilt himself as Black, but, the film insists,  Black is a facade. Black is really Chiron, that scared, alienated boy who just wants a home and someone to love him. This reveal isn’t implausible. Love and intimacy aren’t guaranteed, for anyone. But in order to take pity on Chiron, which is absolutely what the direction demands, we have to completely objectify him. We have to believe that the same boy who was beaten for being gay in high school was unharmed in prison. We have to believe that he had no lovers in prison. We have to believe that he has lived in Atlanta, a mecca for gay black men, and has avoided all intimacy. We have to believe that he has “Classic Man” on a CD, but doesn’t have Tinder on his smartphone. We have to believe that he believes himself to be a fake, that his life is a costume. We have to believe that, fundamentally, Black cannot be real, that a hard drug dealer cannot also be a queer man. We have to believe that Chiron is everything that the world has said him to be and that rebuilding himself, his only act of pure agency throughout the movie, is an illusion. I don’t believe.  

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is more delicate and nuanced than Richard Wright’s ghastly Native Son, but it’s got the same source code. Moonlight makes blackness and queerness beautiful by making the world ugly, a move that’s well-meaning but deeply dishonest. Reverence and reckoning are not one in the same.

100 Blanks: On 100 Bullets

I started reading 100 Bullets last year. The series was recommended to  me by a used bookstore owner in Seattle, who briefly described the story as a “gritty morality play.” Those words didn’t mean much to me at the time and they still don’t now, but the price was great, so I bought the first trade, First Shot, Last Call, which contains the first 6 issues of the series.

Here’s the gist of the series: random people who have been wronged are given a suitcase containing evidence that irrefutably incriminates the wrongdoer, and a gun with 100 untraceable bullets. How these people choose to use the content of those suitcases is the substance of the series.

Issue 1 page 11.png

Issue 1

Although I liked this concept and its early execution, I immediately disliked the artwork. Eduardo Risso’s style is meticulous as hell, except for when he’s portraying women and people of color. Cartoonishly engorged lips explode from mouths, tits, forever plump, ejaculate from blouses, thongs snake through perfectly exposed butt-cracks, and gold teeth and chains are as natural as curls. Sometimes the stereotypes were so abundant that searching a single panel for something inoffensive could be like playing Where’s Waldo.

issue-9-page-10

 

issue-94-page-20These flaws were mollified by Risso’s fantastic sense of perspective, which is incredibly imaginative and daring (one of my favorite panels is drawn from the inside of a mouth welcoming a hot dog), but Brian Azzarello’s writing was rarely as daring or as whimsical. His dialogue is painstakingly idiomatic, dripping with slang and accents and regionalisms that align with each speaker’s background. The intention is to be realistic, but it often comes across as amateur ethnography, casual observation parading as intimacy. When read in context with Risso’s hyper-stylized artwork, this attempt at realism just appears absurd. Here we are in a contrived world of gratuitous murder and vice, and we’re supposed to be struck by the verisimilitude of  the dialects? I want to call this an odd creative choice, but that would be euphemistic. The dialogue is exploitative and duplicitous, maximally jazzed up at the expense of the characters and who they represent. Straight up.issue-20-page-20issue-15-page-12

This blend of flat realism and lazy caricature was annoying, but not unbearable, so I continued reading. Although the story truly was the morality play that the bookstore owner had promised, I mostly stuck around because I was intrigued by how redundant the series’s sense of morality was. The same question arose over and over again: is it okay to kill another person? Many characters said yes and some were killed themselves, but I was struck by how even in this fantastically seedy world of cabals and crooks and scoundrels, murder still seemed to be this supreme sin with cosmic consequences.

As the series progresses this tautology is broken to tell the story of the Trust, an Illuminati-like organization, and the Minutemen, the Trust’s personal militia. This subplot-turned-plot works well in terms of world-building. Azzarello does a masterful job of turning a ledger of minute details into a sprawling mystery that obscures as much as it illuminates. The story is plotted beautifully, each plot thread laid out, picked up, or woven with a puppeteer’s precision.issue-32-page-2

But as the stage expands, the stakes begin to shrivel. Murder, which was previously this critical act that could shift the pillars of existence, becomes as pedestrian as the bloated boobs and exploitative dialogue. Moving away from the random people who populated the earlier issues, the series begins to focus on members of the Trust and the Minutemen, who are all sadistically violent or voraciously power-hungry, sometimes both, but never more. Most of the characters are motivated by revenge or desire, but that’s claimed rather than shown. The Minutemen are all hard-boozing, chain-smoking, womanizing, and tetchy, but they’re bound to these traits by duty more than personal conviction, loyally punching in at Azzarello’s booming factory of noir tropes. Similarly, the members of the Trust are all cunning, Machiavellian, and ruthless, frayed cardboard cutouts from a Puzo novel.

Tropes are perfectly fine, but what’s unsettling about the series is how so many easy shortcuts are taken just to build to an easy cynicism. I’m specifically referring to the long arc of Agent Graves, the leader of the Minutemen who hands out the guns and evidence and who works to dismantle The Trust after they betray him. Graves embodies the ostensible core sentiment of the series, which is that we must make choices. This message is repeated every time Graves issues a suitcase and every time someone acts based on the suitcases’ contents. But as the series progresses, it becomes apparent that choices actually can’t be made.

issue-90-page-12

Agent Graves and Dizzy Cordova

People who refuse to exact revenge end up dead. People who do exact revenge end up dead, victims of the people who were already in power. In a word, violence is portrayed as both necessary and inevitable. Thus, the mindless carnage of the Minutemen and the Trust (who both seem to have no worldly motivations, by the way; they just are and want to continue being) is just what must be done. The bullets must fly because bullets have always flown.

To sit through 100 issues of racism and sadism and sexism and caricatures just to get this bland nihilism was a real disappointment. It’s especially upsetting considering how the series is praised. In the introduction to the fourth trade, for example, Bill Savage writes, “Risso draws a realistic physical world, one with consequences.” Elsewhere, Kieran Shiach describes the series as “a very real struggle between everyday people and those whose positions of power are so lofty, it never occurs to them who they might be hurting.” Similarly, Azzarello himself told the AV Club “100 Bullets was about the “real world,” so a lot of that was just reading the Metro section in a lot of different newspapers, finding crimes, that sort of thing.” Although I think the series mostly works as a grand, intricate thriller, it really shocks me that so many people could describe this series as realistic.

And that’s why I wrote this, really. Somehow, this deeply fantastical series has become shorthand for realism in comics and that infuriates me because the only way to believe that this series is realistic is to believe that women and people of color are every single thing we imagine them to be, and that’s just preposterous.  I can’t say that I’ll never return to this series or that I feel that I wasted my time, but I will say this: comics criticism needs more voices.

Further reading: 1, 2.

Recent Writing

I haven’t written here lately, but I have been writing elsewhere.

I wrote about triple-washed salad.

I wrote about smiling while black.

I wrote about paranoia in 2016 rap.

I reviewed Physics of Blackness.

I reviewed Coloring Book, untitled, unmastered, 99¢, and The Heart Speaks in Whispers.

There’s a few more things scheduled for the future, but I’ve got to say, I’m pretty thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far. I always want to write more, and I know that I will write more, regardless of whether it’s here or at an outlet, but I’m always appreciative of being published outside of my own bubble. It’s not something that should be seen as validation because lots of poorly written and poorly developed stuff gets published at top places every second. It’s just personally satisfying to weather the harrowing timeline of pitching, researching, writing, and editing, and seeing an idea finally materialize on the other side. Plus, [good] editors are a treasure!

In other news, I have a novel that I’m trying to get published. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

On Unapologetic Blackness

Fuck you, understand me.” – Saul Williams. (“All Coltrane Solos at Once”)

According to the web, 2016 is the year of unapologetic blackness. There’s Lemonade. There’s Formation. There’s Cam Newton. There’s Black Panther. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. There’s Kendrick. There’s Cornrow Kenny. There’s the Birth of a Nation. There’s Rihanna. There’s Empire. There isn’t Prince, but his spirit lives on. Ad infinitum.

I like the term and I think I know what it means – blackness unmediated, unfiltered, uncut – but I wonder how useful it is. On one hand, it’s a celebration of blackness without concession, especially in hyper-public spaces, like the Super Bowl and the Grammy’s. Even better, at the same time  it’s also a celebration of mundane blackness, in private and at ease: afros and hot sauce and selfies and t-shirts and cousins and aunties and church and attitude and crocs at Wal-Mart. Never has something so nebulous seemed so concrete. I love it. But what gives me pause about the term is that I don’t know why it’s needed and I think it might be too rosy.

I say this because unapologetic blackness, despite its defiant undertones, seems eerily similar to blackness. The term openly hints at the constant pressure to reduce blackness, in public and in private, so maybe it resonates because it highlights active affronts to that pressure. But doesn’t blackness itself already do that? We’re in the midst of a crazily racist presidential election, and to even mention that race is a factor in this election is to draw serious ire, on both sides of the political spectrum. And to go further and mention how blackness in particular is a factor might as well be witchcraft.

And beyond the election, even the way people talk about blackness is still guarded “Diversity” is still our go-to word to describe very specific problems with media. Terms like “race relations” and “racialized” gracefully slither around particular grievances.  It almost seems that as our terms proliferate, our grasp of what we’re referring to weakens.

This leads to my real concern. Unapologetic blackness gestures at these obstacles to unadulterated blackness, but it often focuses on the triumph, the breakthrough. This is fantastic, but I wonder if that focus obscures what gets stonewalled.

To put it differently, can unapologetic blackness account for mediated blackness? Can it encompass compromise or failure or resignation? Can it process another officer acquitted in the Freddie Gray case? Can it comprehend Stacey Dash and Azealia Banks endorsing Donald Trump? Can it oppose the execution of Dylann Roof?

I ask these questions because blackness, sans qualifier, can handle it, as it has been doing for years. Even though it’s well accepted that respectability politics is toxic, no one denies that respectability politics is a facet of blackness. Likewise, blackness encompasses religiosity and profanity, conservatism and progressivism, hate and love, tragedy and triumph, murder and excellence. Maybe it’s a good thing to purge the tension of blackness, to purify it, but what’s the cost? Unapologetic blackness may be indifferent to the white gaze, but what about black discord?

These are just speculations. Perhaps I’m being a lame ass literalist, something I’m often guilty of. Unapologetic blackness is probably just a cool term for the moments that make black people proud, collectively and individually. And more importantly, it’s probably just a defiant response to the longtime hegemony of respectability politics. I really want to believe this.

But at the end of the day, when it’s just me and the abyss, I wonder about those moments beyond pride and spectacle, where refusing to apologize is no different from refusing to engage, where not apologizing leaves the bridge burned, where the fuck you never leads to the understanding.

On The Life of Pablo

The Life of Pablo cover art Kanye West
Kanye has always been obsessed with contrast. His best work draws its power from strong polarities, whether inherent or situational: gospel‘s piety paired with rap’s sacrilege, reverence of college alongside the pride of finding success without a degree, gripping soul music distorted into cartoonish whining, true romance with a porn star, niggas in Paris. Kanye is intrigued by the beauty and ugliness of unthinkable unions and strives to show why these opposites attract his attention.


The most fundamental contrast of Kanye’s career has been his career itself. “When did I become A-List? I wasn’t even on a list,” he raps on “No More Parties in LA.” Somehow, a producer-turned-backpack rapper became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. And he did it on his terms: plastering teddy bears onto his album covers, accosting presidents, declaring himself a deity, all while being black. It’s been quite a journey.  

Around the time he recorded and released Yeezus, Kanye’s journey was encountering some major obstructions. Nike wasn’t supporting his foray into shoe design, the fashion world wasn’t supporting his venture into clothing design, and tabloids were vigorously documenting his designs on Kim Kardashian. Yeezus vocalized these antagonisms, harshly, and sometimes movingly, but it didn’t solve them. In 2015, finding himself further entrenched in these multiple skirmishes, on Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” Kanye rapped, “I think they finally got me where they want me at,” and he seemed to mean it. The Life of Pablo expands that sense of confinement into a battle royale against all of the people and forces that he sees as preventing him from ascending to further heights. Where previous albums largely confronted ideas,  The Life of Pablo is deeply personal, confronting specific people and experiences.

This approach often comes across as deeply petty. Women have always had limited roles in Kanye’s music, but on The Life of Pablo, the limits are grating. The first verse of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” begins in pornographic detail: “Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my t-shirt/I’m a feel like an asshole.” He goes on to describe the woman as someone he met in Tribeca, vaguely humanizing her by mentioning that she knows how to get under his skin.

“Famous” features him crassly insulting Taylor Swift, his perpetual frenemy. And on “FML” he alludes to an argument with another woman that took place at a Giuseppe store in Mexico, boasting “I’mma have the last laugh in dee end, cause I’m from a tribe called “Check-a-ho,” the stupidest and most insensitive line of his entire career, including his tweets. While Nike gets a weirdly fun takedown on “Facts” and Kanye deconstructs himself on “I Love Kanye,” the fact that women receive the bulk of Kanye’s ire is hard to miss. Kanye’s never been above punching down and it’s never been easy to stomach, but this time around it feels like he’s reaching, actively seeking to cause harm rather than just elevate himself.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are striking moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Album opener “Ultralight Beam” is a beautifully earnest appeal to the heavens, Kanye desperately prostrate before his god. Bowing his head, he asks for deliverance, his voice unfiltered, pleading. The composition is exuberant: thumping percussion, a slow, droning organ, the loneliest little trumpet, an ascendant choir. Kanye has always taken cues from gospel ( “Jesus Walks,” “Dark Fantasy,” “Good Friday”) but this is the first time he’s fully given in, allowing his seemingly bottomless faith to take the wheel. Although Chance the Rapper steals the show, the song still belongs to Kanye, channeling his unique worries, his particular need for salvation.

Family seems to worry Kanye the most. “I’m a deadbeat cousin,” he admits on “Real Friends,” chastising himself for forgetting birthdays and openly hating family reunions. “I got my own junior on the way, dog, plus I already got one kid” he declares later, his verse ending abruptly as if he’s just then fathoming the gravity of being a family man. Toward the end of the song he condemns another deadbeat cousin who once stole his laptop and held it for ransom, but Kanye’s still guilty: he’d been using the laptop to cheat.

“Wolves” is equally as condemning. Kanye starts the song by positioning himself on a precipice, using his dead mother to shame himself. “If mama knew now/ How you turned out, you too wild/ You too wild,” he chides, his auto-tuned voice surrounded by a shrill howl and sickly, bottom-scraping bass. At some points his words become completely garbled, a literal loss for words, his shame too deep. In the context of the album, it’s clear that infidelity is the cause of his shame, but there’s also a sense of visceral dissatisfaction with who he’s become in general, with the position he’s placed in his family in. The song ends with Kanye proposing an alternative history of the meeting of Mary and Joseph, one in which their first encounter foreshadows impending doom instead of joy.

The specter of Christianity looms over the album, but to call this gospel would be a stretch. Though Kanye yearns for redemption and salvation, he seems to be most ecstatic when he’s recalling or detailing wicked, roiling sex. “Freestyle 4” is a dark carnal romp, Kanye at his most base, dick out, ready to fuck, whether on a dinner table or in the middle of a Vogue party. Although the title of the album references Paul of Tarsus (Pablo is Paul in Spanish), Kanye has more in common with Augustine of Hippo, the saint who was a profligate before he was a priest. The Life of Pablo doesn’t quite show Kanye on the road to Damascus. It’s more an account of his guilt-ridden escapades at some brothels in Jericho. This is Kanye’s blues record.

Despite being the centerpiece of the album, in many ways this supposed schism between Kanye’s Christian leanings and his love of sin just doesn’t work. Throughout the album Kanye tries to strike this contrast, but in a world with Spotlight and Creflo Dollar and Donald Trump, situational contradiction by itself isn’t compelling, especially when Kanye doesn’t explore the texture of the contradictions.

Much of the production is richly textured, but the bulk of the songs feel incomplete and hurried. “30 Hours” should be the album’s closer, but its melancholy groove peters out with Kanye practicing potential flows and answering a phone call. “This a bonus track,” he offers, apologetically. “Feedback” is driven by a warped siren that crashes between bloated troughs of acid house bass, but it haphazardly lacerates the ear, striking wildly instead of tactically, like a perpetually pissy housecat. Album-closer “Fade ”is just as incomplete, its various samples swirling around in the beaker, but never quite forming a solution. It’s easy to interpret this mad whorl of unfinished thoughts and ideas and beats as some kind of stroke of genius, but I think the more empirical response is to just admit that the album’s sloppy. And that’s not a dismissal or an invalidation of Kanye’s art or ideas. It’s just an acknowledgment that the radiating-light-beam hotness of a hot mess doesn’t resolve the mess.

On “I Love Kanye,” Kanye’s acapella take on his origin story and his polite dismissal of it, Kanye raps “I miss the old Kanye.” The song is deeply self-deprecating, but it’s also Kanye displaying his core strengths: self-awareness, openness, refinement. Kanye’s anger and refusal to smile all while having the time of his life (i.e. so-called “new” Kanye) have always been subversive, but ultimately contrast relies on the power of juxtaposition, the spectacular waves emitted when poles collide.

The collisions on The Life of Pablo just aren’t as productive as they’ve been in the past; the impacts are predictable, the trajectories are worn. The Life of Pablo is too deluged in the ghosts of Kanye’s past: his ego, his narrative, his expectations of himself. It’s Robert De Niro in the mirror at the end of Raging Bull. And that’s okay. The man who brought us Barry Bonds has to walk sometimes, whether with Jesus or with his latest not-so-secret lover or through his own ailing mind. But that doesn’t mean his run is over. Waves actually do die, but their energy never fades.