10 Things I Wrote in 2017, Annotated

I used to be skeptical of year-end lists. In the past I rarely read them in full,  I found their length frustrating, and although they pre-existed the internet (magazines have run them for quite a while), they seemed designed to emptily maximize clicks.

I’ve recently come around and can see their value. When indexed well, a year-end list can help capture a year in retrospect and tie together dangling threads you weren’t quite privy to from your small corner of the world. Also, web architecture has changed a bit since I first started browsing these lists (2010), so you don’t have to click through 100 pages anymore, making it way less of a burden. Plus, I now know people who contribute to these lists, and have contributed to a few myself, and a lot of effort goes into many of them (and lists in general, it should be noted), so I respect the labor.

Anyway, all that to say, I’ve made a list of 10 things I wrote this year. Annotations are included for various reasons, in case you don’t have the time to read all of these (which is totally understandable; no hard feelings). My main goals for this post are to demystify my writing and to record some new thoughts post-publication. As always, thanks for reading!

1: Critical Failure

This piece stewed for quite a while. It initially was set to publish at Gawker, but after Gawker was killed, it was declined many times before reaching Hazlitt, and then due to their small staff, it took months to finalize. It was frustrating, but I appreciated the editor’s honesty. After the 4th draft, he asked me to completely rewrite the piece and I wanted to take the kill fee, but I wanted the story to be published, so I bit the bullet and his instincts were right; the 5th draft was stellar. I did a lot of reporting for this piece that  is a bit buried, but the big takeaway for me is that if you’re writing for your ego or to flex on your peers and not for your readers or out of enthusiasm for your subject, you’re bound to crash. And this is a cautionary tale.

Some people took this as a “takedown,” but if you read the damn thing it should be clear that this isn’t really about Armond or his politics. It’s about the point of criticism.

2: What Wonder Woman Saw

Wonder Woman was a cultural event, but the movie doesn’t survive close scrutiny. It’s undeniable that the movie meant a lot to women and girls and feminists, but I was disappointed by how critics responded to it. Wonder Woman falls into many of the same traps as previous superhero flicks, but the combination of Patty Jenkins’ direction, the iconography, and the movie’s tone seemed to result in some willfully pulled punches. I wrote this just to sidestep the power of the spectacle of WW and think about how it’s themes intersect with other movies outside the superhero genre. I don’t think everybody was duped or anything patronizing like that, but I do think that criticism should be consistent and cautious, and I suspect the praise for WW will feel hyperbolic down the line.

3: Earl and his Mom

Earl is a fantastic rapper, maybe the best, but I think his larger ideas tend to get overlooked by his technical skill. He’s been building toward painful, radical honesty in his music since Doris, so I wanted to talk about how and why he got there. His relationship with his mom is an important part of that growth. I also haven’t always been the best son to my mother, so this element of his music always resonated with me. His production is also becoming more refined, for what it’s worth. I preferred the original headline (it’s in the URL), but so it goes.

4:  What Marvel Has That Everyone Else Wants

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become shorthand for perfection and success and that’s utter nonsense. I wrote this just to go a little deeper and think about some of its failures, many of which are obvious, and to think about the future of its model as it seeps deeper into the Hollywood hivemind. For the record, I like Marvel, I like DC, and I dislike bad movies. It’s really that simple.

5: To Pimp a Butterfly Revisited

I’ve gotten to write many things this year, but my heart is still in music reviews and just reviews in general. I wrote this as a bit of a corrective to me panning To Pimp a Butterly in 2015 while not really articulating that disagreement well or thinking about how it fails. I still think it fails, but there’s a lot of nuance and strength to its sprawl that I didn’t quite appreciate the first time around. Vince is the sharpest rapper out right now, but Kendrick is the most sacrificial. And that counts for something.

6: Coffee Terroir

Coffee’s general use is as a vehicle for caffeine. I fault no one for using it that way, but if you scratch beneath the surface just a little bit, coffee can be just as variable as wine or beer. This piece is essentially about what generates that variety. Working on it fundamentally changed my relationship to coffee and I’m really happy about that. There is so much good coffee out here that won’t break the bank or offend your taste buds. It really is that easy. Trust me.

7: Shell Shock

I’m still bewildered by how bad this movie was, but the rhetoric I used in this piece is a bit small-minded. Beyond the racism of the movie’s adaptation and execution, the larger problem is the way in which Hollywood adaptations assume that audiences can’t comprehend other cultures without white faces AND how those assumptions impact casting, budgets, and storytelling in general. Plus, anime is a composite genre that draws upon a host of lineages, so essentializing characters by race misses the point a bit. That said, as I mention in the piece Ghost in the Shell as a series is explicitly invested in nationhood and identity, so this movie still misses the mark. All that to say, I stand by this piece but in retrospect, I just wouldn’t use “yellowface” as the centerpiece of my argument. More importantly, see this piece at The Ringer.

8: On Everybody

This went unpublished because of some editorial disagreements that will respectfully go unmentioned, but I did get paid, so there’s no bad blood. It’s unfortunate that this review won’t be “on the record,” but other reviewers gave the album its proper execution, particularly Sheldon Pearce at Pitchfork. Logic is well-meaning, but so few of his ideas, musically and thematically, ever manifest into anything compelling or original. And his lack of perspective is staggering for an album with such high ambitions.

9: Beautiful Thugger Girls Review

Writing about Young Thug is hard. This was one of his tamer projects, so I lucked out, but I just wanted to highlight this review and the record. It’s not Thug’s best, but I think it might hint at his future in terms of songcraft.

10: Nighthawks Revisited

Nighthawks is a nifty little record that does a lot of things simultaneously and subtly. At different turns it mocks police, fantasizes about unchecked police power, and kicks around dark dick jokes. The fact that it differs from the movie it’s sourced from really fascinated, and thus this write-up was born. This column, “No Reason To Pretend,” didn’t last very long because I didn’t have the bandwidth to keep it going and because I didn’t always get the editorial support I wanted, but it did give me an opportunity to regularly write about music in a porous way.

Music is always porous, of course, but as someone who historically has been introduced to songs and artists through soundtracks and commercials and from riding in friends’ backseats, I always experience music in conjunction with other media. This column didn’t pay enough or offer much visibility relative to the amount of work I put in, but it was a good experience and allowed me to play with form a bit.


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.

A List of Things I Wrote This Year

I pitched like crazy this year and for the most part, it turned out well. I got to work with some great editors at some great pubs and I got to publish a wide range of writing on a bunch of subjects and works of art. One thing that particularly stands out to me is that most of the editors I worked with were women. I think that’s really cool.

Here’s a compilation of that writing. This is a not a best-of list, but there’s a reason that some things aren’t listed and some things are, haha.

The Haircut

This is an essay on racism in the economy and seeking employment and how personal relationships (with myself and others) get affected by it.

You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Fuck The Police

This essay was in the works for a while. When I was in grad school, I would occasionally read selections from this book called That’s The Joint, an anthology of scholarship on rap. It’s a very versatile book, but throughout the book there’s a very narrow vision of political rap that just didn’t hold weight for me. So this essay responds to that by giving a more detailed, almost phenomenological definition of political rap.

Of course, I don’t dismiss all rap scholarship or rap writing (not all of the selections in the book are academic articles). From what I gather, it took a while for rap to even be considered a worthy academic subject, and you can feel the fight to show that it’s credible throughout the book. But even with that context, that doesn’t mean that  Common and Public Enemy get to be the only political rappers.

Review of Compton

This album has some nice performances and sharp production, but there’s a strong and cynical corporate aura hanging over it that really disturbs me, especially in lieu of this being the soundtrack to the N.W.A. biopic. I was surprised at how many people praised the album given its origins.

Review of To Pimp a Butterfly

I didn’t and don’t like this album. It’s a very good album in terms of production and affect – it really feels of the moment. 2015’s unique blend of anger, rage, disappointment, and shattered hope pulsate throughout the album. But politically I think it deeply misunderstands “the personal is the political.” Kendrick also has bad politics when it comes to women. (I recommend ignoring the review that is paired with mine. There’s not really an argument there)

The Labor Theory of Exercise

This essay is probably the most Protestant thing I’ll ever write. It’s essentially about how recognizing that exercise is work has helped me continue exercising. It’s also my paean to Dance Dance Revolution. Don’t judge.

Review of But You Caint Use My Phone

This album is barely a month old, but it’s really penetrated my psyche. A lot of folks seem to think that “Phone Down” is the heart of the album, but Erykah Badu isn’t just some luddite. She really digs into our relationship with phones beyond saying we should use them less. I really dig it.

Review of Summertime ’06

Album of the year. And it’s not because Vince Staples is dark and brooding and brutally honest like a lot of writers would have you believe. This is album of the year because Vince Staples has no interest in courting sympathy. He’s a black villain without a neat pathological story that ends with him being an antihero. That was definitely a shot at Kendrick, but seriously Vince Staples works because he doesn’t seek apologies, for himself or from others.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

I got a ticket in Virginia earlier this year because my tags were from Georgia. I wrote about the experience of interacting with a cop and how people reacted to me being stopped.

Shakey Dog, an Epic

“Shakey Dog” is a song from Ghostface’s album Fishscale. It’s the most detailed rap song I’ve ever heard, so detailed that it struck me as an opportunity to redeem the idea of epicness. Jeff Weiss helped me craft it into its current form, which I greatly appreciate.

Review of 55 5’s

I love reviewing instrumental albums. The lack of a clear narrative, a voice, really demands that you find those subtle hints of the person who made it and infer what compelled them. I especially like how hard it can be to avoid pure description. Everyone who writes about music should review instrumental albums. They’re always a challenge.

Still Timely: Book Review of Marvel Comics, The Untold Story

I read a lot of comics this year, new and old and mostly Marvel. This book really helped put Marvel Comics into perspective. There’a  lot of excitement about the cinematic universe expanding, but this book really tempers that. I don’t think I was ever fanatic about the happenings in the comic world, but this book absolutely shifted my perspective to unflinching cynicism. Considering Marvel’s history, I definitely think we should be wary of their long-term commitments to fans, characters, and creators.

Mystique Was Right: Review of All New Wolverine # 1 and 2

See previous paragraph.

Review of At.Long.Last.A$AP

This album is trash, but a lot of people said it was good. I’m still a little confused, but I think my argument holds up.

Priced Out: Why I Can No Longer Afford a Career in Writing

I started off this post praising editors because this year I’ve dealt with a lot of editors, in the music world and beyond, that have really blown me off. This essay gets at the violence of being collectively dismissed and the privilege of pubs regularly using writers that they know and who tend to look like them. I also talk about debt, which I have a lot of, and diversity, which I don’t see a lot of in the writing world.

There’s other writing of mine out there, but these were the highlights. Hopefully 2016 brings more opportunities to write and more things to think and write about it.


What I’ve Been Up to Lately

I haven’t updated this in awhile, but I have been doing stuff elsewhere, so here’s a quick roundup.

I wrote a review of a Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic) concert for Bandwidth. I’ve been listening to their album as well. It’s a fun ride if you’re looking for some spaced-out beats and very in-the-pocket rhymes. And Rock’s voice is very compelling. He raps like he’s possessed by words.

I recorded a podcast with video game writer Zolani Stewart called Bar Exam. In it we talk about Earl Sweatshirt’s new album (I Don’t Like Shit,I Don’t Go Outside) and Kendrick Lamar’s new album (To Pimp a Butterfly). We won’t be rolling podcasts out weekly, but I think they will be ongoing. We had fun recording it and we have a nice rapport.

I uploaded a recording of a recent comedy performance to Soundcloud. The audience wasn’t digging it, but I like the joke a lot.

I reviewed To Pimp a Butterfly for Paste. I have complicated feelings about this album, but I don’t like it much. The review goes into detail, but in short, I just don’t think the album lived up to its own expectations.

The Toast published a personal essay I wrote about an involuntary haircut. My hair is important to me, so this episode in my life really involved some tough decisions.

The Toast also published a personal essay I wrote about the economic and personal difficulties of writing professionally without a lot of money and time.

I reviewed Tetsuo & Youth for Paste. I still listen to this album. It has blemishes, but the moments where it shines are really impressive. “Deliver” is my favorite track.

I reviewed B4.DA.$$ for Paste. If you’ve seen the movie Detention, this review might make you proud of me.

That’s about it. I have some blog posts planned for the next few weeks, but I’m really trying in earnest to write all over. I think I may have another post about comics soon, but otherwise, I think I’ll be sticking with the usual mix of race, movies and music. We’ll see. As always, thanks for reading!

Atlanta to the Bone

Last month, during a weekend visit to Brooklyn, I found myself in a kitschy dance bar, listening to early 2000s Atlanta music that I hadn’t heard since middle school. Preceded by aggressively undanceable hits from the 50s and 60s – that people danced to anyway because sometimes a good time is a mission, not an experience – the Atlanta songs were jarring. Though I quickly realized that I rarely had any knowledge of these songs beyond their first verses or choruses – the attention spans of 12 year-olds are pretty short – it was genuinely exciting to hear them, especially when I was so far from Atlanta.

But the excitement didn’t last long. As my veil of nostalgia and surprise slowly lifted, I started to notice how other people were receiving the songs. Most of them were executing the same generic dance moves that they had been employing throughout the night. I didn’t think much of this until the DJ played D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” the song that introduced the world, and me, to leanin’ and rockin’. Accordingly, I leaned, I rocked, I snapped, I did my step, and what do you know, I was doing it all by myself.

I was the outlier. Sure, no one said anything. But I could read their body language and the collective corporeal consensus was clear: my nativist, slightly judgmental dance moves were undermining the mission. I was making things weird. So I stopped, caught my breath for a few minutes, then quietly returned to the dance floor, adopting the rest of the bar’s generic dance moves in a fit of quiet rage.

As the mid-2000’s Atlanta hits continued to play and the crowd continued to carry out its mission, I pondered my rage. I have never felt particularly possessive of popular music, especially Atlanta music, especially mid 2000’s Atlanta music, which is often cheesy with parmesan sprinkled on top, but I was feeling it. I genuinely felt violated, like something had been taken from me.

Eventually the DJ moved to some other unduly appropriated era of music and my rage subsided. In retrospect, the rage was indefensibly obnoxious. In the future I’ll definitely try to curtail it rather than eagerly giving in.

Yet, I’m ultimately struck by how primal it was, how instinctively this rage materialized. On some level this worries me because who knows what other affective allegiances are lurking under my skin, but on the other hand, it’s refreshing to know that I’m connected to Atlanta and presumably other forms of music and identity, on this weird, inaccessible, visceral level.

That said, I’ll continue to decline those discounted Braves, Hawks and Falcons tickets. Geography is powerful, but I’m not its slave. (I hope)



Against the Think Piece

Last week I was led to read Roxane Gay’s think piece on Halloween and blackface, which was published in 2013. The preface of the piece, provided by Gay herself on Twitter, was that the piece was “STILL RELEVANT” (her emphasis). After reading it, I didn’t feel that way. Though I am a fan of Gay and I think that she regularly says and writes interesting things, the article felt expired, like Halloween candy in July. The main points of the article – don’t wear blackface because it’s offensive, demeaning and unncessary – were paraded out ceremoniously and opaquely as if they are self-explanatory – which they clearly aren’t if the article is being written to explain them. Even as someone who does oppose race as costume, I really didn’t like this article.

My first impulse to this negative reaction was to question myself. Perhaps I had just read too much about blackface and Halloween and I now thought the argument was passé. After all, it really is a perennial conversation. If some sarcastic entrepreneur were to publish a calendar of annual American conversation topics, “Is Blackface Wrong?” would fit right in with other staples like, “What are we serving for Thanksgiving?” and “What are we doing for New Year’s Eve?”

I was pretty satisfied with this answer until I remembered that I regularly read rehashes of the same argument. For example, two of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations and We Are Respectable Negroes, frequently make the same arguments as they encounter American racism in its infinitely varying guises. I have no issue with this because their arguments are routinely qualified, anchored to specific incidents and explicit ways of understanding those incidents. In fact, by repeating their arguments and accumulating more and more evidence to support them, these blogs make their arguments even stronger.

Gay’s piece and think pieces at large, I think, do not do this. Think pieces float in time, barely attached to their subject matter or to each other. They are timestamped by time, but not history. They have ambitions of old age, but they perish before they even learn to crawl. They are fated to be stillborn. In other words, they have no lasting value. Their expiration  date and their publication date are simultaneous. Think pieces are intellectual H&M.

Of course, many things on the internet and in publishing are immediately disposable and I’m okay with that, but think pieces draw my ire specifically because of their will to be discarded. They are frequently written without references, without establishing context and with a strange air of superiority, as if the writer is greatly inconvenienced by writing this, but it must be done because this opinion is just that pertinent. These traits upset me because they prevent writing from having any lasting life, resulting in pieces that are self-contained, insular and effectively unshareable. Think pieces are direct messages posing as tweets.

Academic knowledge and technical knowledge are also largely immobile and contained, but they differ from think pieces in that they don’t aim for wide circulation and they are invested in their readers’ time, so they [ideally] qualify their arguments. Think pieces aim for wide circulation, but they don’t value that potential readership enough to do even the minimum amount of baseline explanation. I’m tempted to call this practice of writing en media res sheer laziness on behalf of the writer, but I don’t think that calling these writers lazy quite captures what is happening here. Many think pieces are actually very sharply written, despite their opacity, so I think this opacity is an aesthetic feature of think pieces. In other words, think piece writers aren’t lazy: think pieces are a lazy way of presenting an argument. Think pieces traffic in alleged self-evidence, “obviousness,” which, in practice, allows writers to skirt over details, the most important part of any argument. Seriously,the entire point of writing at length is to use that additional space to build an argument. An old philosophy textbook I have actually defines an argument as an “inference made explicit.” Every argument starts with an inference, but it ends with an explanation. At best, think pieces are inferences never made explicit. At worst, they are explanations of nothing.

In the end, I think that think pieces are ultimately wastes of space and effort. I have no problem with watching people think out loud nor with watching people working themselves into a corner and giving up. In fact, I love those things because I see the thought happening, I see the process, the inference becoming explicit. I also realize that the time, space and knowledge to see an inference to its logical end are luxuries, especially in an age where many writers are writing for free and the writers who do actually get paid are constrained by deadlines, word counts and lack of resources. I get that.  That said, think pieces upset me because they presume that these things can’t be overcome or worked through and accordingly circumnavigate the entire process of making an argument, building a case. Think pieces are Law and Order with only the opening scene and the judge’s sentence. They inherently devalue the topic, the writer and the argument. And in a world where many kinds of topics, kinds of writers, and kinds of arguments are devalued just because (I’m talking about writers of color, women, LGBTQ folks and poor folks), it is piss-poor policy to accept that devaluation just for a few clicks.

Caveat: Despite different etymologies think pieces and op-eds are basically the same thing, so op-eds can die too.

Hip-Hop in 2012: An Annal

This is not an end-of-the year list. This is an annal. The annal is an interesting way of chronicling events because it explicitly shows the interests of the writer. I chose to make this annal just to highlight how one’s knowledge of a field is overwhelming influenced by one’s personal interests and tastes. It’s an obvious point, but in world of music writing, people often use descriptive terms like “timeless” and “classic” to mask how the things they praise are essentially just the things they like. The other benefit of the annal is that is helps to illustrate how one can amass significant knowledge of something (in this case, a genre) and still have a very limited perspective. In short, this is my 2012 hip-hop experience, y’all!

Date Unknown/irrelevant: XXL releases its annual 2012 Freshman Class List, further demonstrating the unreliability and silliness of the list. In retrospect, Angel Haze, Joey Bad@$$, Nitty Scott, MC., Azealia Banks, Gunplay and other artists with significant buzz, are noticeably absent.

January 20: On the third anniversary of Obama’s historic inauguration, Red Tails is released, showing the world that Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry aren’t alone in their inability to make shitty movies for black people.

Feb 8: Earl comes home.

February 24: Kevin Hart throws J. Cole an alley oop.

February 26: Travyon Martin is murdered.

March 7: I become an intern for RESPECT.

March 26: John Seabrook shows the world why so much pop music sounds the same.

April 6: Danny Brown and Ab-Soul team up for a potentially hard-hitting song and Ab-Soul nearly ruins it with his stupid hippie bullshit.

Good Friday: “Mercy” by G.O.O.D. Music is released, unleashing 2 Chainz to the world that now wants to give him back.

April 24: Santigold releases her second album. The album artwork is done by Kehinde Wile.

June 5: Big K.R.I.T. reminds us that 2 Chainz isn’t the only voice of Southern Rap.

June 17: Haleek Maul shows us the dark side of Barbados.

June 21: I enter the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne debate, then renege in the comments a few days later.

June 27: Clear Soul Forces talks with me and puts on one of the best live hip-hop shows I’ve ever seen.

June 27: Google introduces hip-hop to Kafka.

July 4: Frank Ocean is beautifully frank.

July 9: Nitty Scott, MC calls for interviewers to ask tougher questions.

July 9: Lianna la Havas releases the most beautiful album of the year.

July 10: Frank Ocean releases an album that’s also beautiful, but I don’t want contradict the entry above, so…

July 13: An NPR intern acknowledges the fact that old rap albums are oftentimes insufferable.

July 15: I Heart NPR Interns.

July 24: Brandon Soderberg writes the most important hip-hop related article of the year.

July 25: Lupe Fiasco reminds hip-hop of the pain that gives it life.

August 2: Rap Genius gets called out for being inherently shitty.

August 3: Kendrick Lamar readies the world for his upcoming album. Months later, this song is played at college parties.

August 11: Azealia Banks disses Jim Jones, poignantly saying, “It takes a Harlem bitch to execute a Harlem bitch.”

August 19: Slaughterhouse releases their mixtape On the House. It is better than their album, welcome to: OUR HOUSE.

August 20: DOOM releases Key to the Kuffs, a collaborative effort with Jneiro Jarel, a producer who’s name is way easier to pronounce than it looks.

August 20: Nitty Scott, MC talks to me about her first commercial release, boomboxes and Nicki Minaj.

August 23: Lupe Fiasco casually and arrogantly addresses the word “bitch,” confirming his decline.

September 3: Talib Kweli unimaginatively and wastefully appropriates the best movie of 2011.

September 14: Kreayshawn releases her debut album; it sells less than J.R. Writer’s debut album.

November 2: The RZA takes killer bee swag to Jungle Village. The soundtrack is the best collaborative release of the year.

November 29: I regret reneging in the comments on the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne piece I wrote in June.