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 As Little matures into Chiron, a lanky, withdrawn teenager, his confusion reaches its peak.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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

On The Incredible True Story

Logic The Incredible True Story

According to rap fans, the only thing better than a classic album is a timeless album. If classic albums are albums that survive, outliving their contemporaries through tenacity and continued relevance, timeless albums are albums that transcend life itself, escaping mortality and ascending to a plane of eternal existence. Timeless albums don’t live or die: they are. Maryland rapper Logic has been aiming for timelessness ever since he christened himself “Young Sinatra.” On The Incredible True Story he finally achieves timelessness, but that isn’t a compliment.

The album is framed as a sci-fi adventure in which two space travelers, voiced by Steve Blum and Kevin Randolph, travel to a potentially habitable planet called Paradise. Raised in a space colony, the two travelers have no memory of Earth, which has been destroyed: they are so far removed from it that the sky is simply a concept to them. The only contact they have with Earth is The Catalog, a collection of music and other media that keeps them connected to their lost roots despite only 5 million humans being left in the universe. Logic’s music is apart of that catalog and the two travelers spend their journey listening to him. He is literally the soundtrack to humanity’s salvation.

This grandiose self-mythologizing isn’t supported by the music. Although Logic has graduated from the generic earnestness of his previous work, he’s still plagued by his inability to evoke compelling imagery. Throughout the album he alludes to the anxieties and difficulties in his life and career, but these references are barely even sketches. On “Never Been” he speaks of becoming more mature and knowledgeable and struggling every day, but these reflections don’t seem to be tethered to any concrete experience. His verses are just strings of aphorisms, unearned righteousness masquerading as maturation.

This lack of imagery wouldn’t be a problem if Logic was more emotionally flexible or at least more imaginative, but he is frequently neither. Though the album is framed – conceptually and sonically – as a space adventure and it even features Steve Blum, the voice behind one of sci-fi’s best series about space (Cowboy Bebop), Logic never quite digs into the metaphorical potential of his theme. Not only is the “incredible story” completely uneventful (they literally just fly to a planet: there are no computer system malfunctions, crashes, comets, evil computers, pit stops, supernovas, etc.), but Logic himself sticks to incredibly straightforward lyrics. “I’m on an interstellar mission” he raps on “Innermission.” “In a spaceship, I’m in another system” he raps on “Fade Away.”

Part of the reason Logic seems to be limited in his lyricism is his overwhelming emphasis on flow. Though he no longer actively cloys to be respected as a lyricist – i.e., he’s eased up on the corny punchlines – the showiness of his flow shows that he still yearns for that recognition. He frequently raps at high speeds for no apparent reason, bludgeoning tracks with a grating cadence that is on beat but often has no engagement with the instrumentals. On “Fade Away” he blitzes through cheerful synths, warm hums, and clicking percussion. On “Stainless” he blazes through a symphonic sample and snappy snares. There’s nothing wrong with rapping fast, but Logic uses his flow bluntly rather than nimbly, clobbering through songs rather than waltzing.

There are a few moments where Logic does appear to be more tactical with his flow. “City of Stars” features him trying out auto-tune and patiently crooning over a slow-burning, crinkling beat. As he declares the end of a wearying love, you can feel the warmth in his voice, the lingering hurt despite his chest-thumping dismissal. “This ain’t a love song,” he insists, convincing himself more than his former lover. “I Am the Greatest” also features a deviation from his typical over-flowing, but it’s a road that’s already been paved. Logic sounds exactly like Drake circa 2015 on this track, his slow and strained delivery sounding more imitative than indignant.

In the end, “The Incredible True Story” shows Logic’s vision of hip-hop to be thoroughly, exhaustingly simple. For him, hip-hop is just rapping: flair, technique, finesse, drama, tension, and even passion are afterthoughts, excesses. Despite regularly citing and imitating his pantheon of idols – Drake, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, Quentin Tarantino – Logic consistently comes across as another deluded stargazer mistaking an orbit for a trajectory. If Logic can’t expand his narrow vision on an album that is literally about traversing the cosmos, he likely has little else to offer. ”The Incredible True Story” is a timeless album through and through: unvarying, static, stable. It can endure for eons because it makes no effort do anything more.

On But You Caint Use My Phone

But You Caint Use My Phone Erykah Badu 2015 album cover

Smartphones are the culmination of over a century of technological achievements. Enhanced processors, intricate circuitry, capacious storage, hyper-sensitive touchscreens – the list of innovations is lengthy, complex, and still growing. Alongside this list of advancements is an equally dense list of anxieties: which emojis to use, when and where phones are allowed, how many texts can be sent without seeming intrusive, ad nauseum. Despite their conveniences, phones, especially smartphones, are a constant source of stress, alienating and connecting in equal measure. But You Caint Use My Phone taps into this contradiction, exploring the deep ambivalence that comes with being so attached to phones.

Inspired by Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” But You Caint Use My Phone singularly focuses on phones as a muse. Badu’s first full-fledged project since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two, But You Caint Use My Phone picks up where that album left off, using personal relationships as a lens for the larger world. Produced entirely by Badu and Zach Witness, the mixtape melds soul, R&B, and hip-hop into a dazzling half-hour statement. The thrill of the brief mixtape is the thoroughness of its fascination with phones. Dial tones, voicemails, operators, text message notification sounds, radiation – Badu is interested in phones not just as symbols but as multi-purpose objects that teem with functions and quirks, infinite ways of acting in the world.

On “Cel U Lar Device,” her fuzzy and sensual reworking of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Badu injects a voicemail message into the middle of the song. The message gives callers 8 touch-tone options, many of which are hilariously snarky: “If you’re calling to beg for some shit, press 4. If you’re calling to beg for some shit and this is the pre-call before the actual begging, press 5. If you’ve already made that pre-call and this is the actual call to beg, press 6.” The humor and detail of the voicemail seem straightforward, but Badu’s being quite clever. If “Hotline Bling” is about the nostalgic joy of a past booty call – “that could only mean one thing” – “Cel U Lar Device” is about calls meaning too many things, so many things that Badu has a directory for her callers. The voicemail ends by undercutting itself entirely – “If you’re calling to say peace and don’t really fit into any of those descriptions, text me, because I don’t really answer voicemail,” Badu dryly announces before the beep – but it only emphasizes Badu’s point. A single call can communicate a world of feelings. Badu is just too jaded to deal with the calls that always waste her time.

Although the mixtape seems to be a response to the current era, especially the quasi-Luddite anthem “Phone Down,” the form and content of the tape are deeply in conversation with the past. Elements of Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call,” New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me” and Badu’s own “Tyrone,” the source of the mixtape’s title, all make appearances, subtly reminding us that phones have always been at the uncomfortable nexus of intimacy and privacy, distance and proximity. On “Dial’Afreq” Badu goes even further than human concerns, connecting our relationship to cell phones to the deaths of bee colonies. The personal is the political is the ecological.

These connections to old songs and sentiments reveal the true theme of the tape: tautology. “Hello hello, hey, hello, hello” Badu purrs on “Hello” and “Hi.” “But you can’t use my phone” Badu repeatedly declares on “Caint Use My Phone.” There’s an intrinsic redundancy at the heart of communication, especially greetings, but for Badu there’s something thrilling in that constant recurrence, the cycling between hearing a voice and hearing a voicemail, between feeling loved and feeling rejected, never knowing which will come next.

The mixtape’s composition plays with that thrill throughout, using “Hotline Bling” as a leitmotif, the song’s playful drums making regular cameos, but always doing something different. Badu’s nimble voice works similarly, stretching out into taunting melodies on “Phone Down,” reminiscent wails on “Cell U Lar Device” and hopeful croons on “What’s Yo Phone Number/Telephone.” Yet it’s always still her voice, its power stemming not just from what it is, but what it could be: a plea, a confession, a greeting or all in one.

“Tyrone” was a very clear message to no-good, deadbeat lovers: leave. Its final lyrics, “But you can’t use my phone,” were even clearer: leave immediately; I’m so done with you that I don’t even want you to linger to make the phone call that will help you leave. But You Caint Use My Phone is much less coherent, but that’s precisely its strength. Our glowing metallic appendages may be disruptive and poisoning, covered in feces and pizza particles, but they’re also connective and enriching. The trade-off isn’t sustainable, but the trade must go on. All we can do, Badu insists, is keep renegotiating the terms, powering our phones on and off but always continuing the conversation.

On Da Reality Show

Young Dro Da Reality Show

Despite being at the epicenter of rap for well over a decade, and both launching and enduring major changes in the genre, the narrative of Atlanta hasn’t changed. In the collective mind, Atlanta is a land of constant succession, a place where artists build brands not legacies, where the moment an artist can afford a coupe is the same moment that artist is dethroned by a coup. In Atlanta, rappers are hitmakers, nothing else, the myth goes.

While this myth has some merit (e.g., Freak Nasty, Youngbloodz, K.P. & Envyi, Yung Joc), it is often more prescriptive than descriptive, resulting in Atlanta artists being filed away just because the myth and its believers prefer a pre-packaged narrative to messy facts. Some of these artists accept the myth, strategically cashing in and then cashing out once the spotlight recedes. Other artists retreat to their original bases, the streets, and churn out mixtapes ad infinitum until that mythmaking spotlight finally shines on them again. Young Dro is one of the latter kinds of artists, but even within that group he’s in the minority.

Da Reality Show, Young Dro’s third studio album, isn’t an event album, a swaggering red carpet catwalk like Ma$e’s Welcome Back. For Dro, this album is just his latest project. “Round 3,” Dro mechanically announces before his brief verse on “Black History,” unenthused. This album isn’t a glorious return to the ring because Dro never left. His gloves are still laced, his arms are still taut, and Grand Hustle is still in his corner.

Of course, longevity isn’t stasis. There have certainly been some major changes to Dro’s style since 2006. Dro’s famous swag talk is much more punctuated. His verses and songs are shorter and punchier and his cartoonish obsessions with Polo and multi-color cars have been dialed back in exchange for menacing lines about crime and vice. On “Dead,” a sluggish track that creeps along on stilts of scratchy percussion and muted keys, Dro runs through the pricing for contract killings: “I sell knees for 20/Ankles for 30/Wrists for 25/and 50 for the whole nigga, fuck it I’mma kill him.” This kind of gutter talk has always lurked in Dro’s music, but it hits harder in the absence of references to M&Ms and Tropicana.

When Dro actually does opt for swag talk, he tends to let the instrumentals do the heavy lifting. “We In Da City,” the album’s lead single, features Dro squeezing himself in between airy synths and a lively organ like cheese passing through a grater. Likewise, “Ugh” features in-the-pocket verses surrounded by a lush instrumental courtesy of Zaytoven that flutters between a chirping flute and crashing bass. The result is “Maybach music” as spoken by the Maybach itself instead of the rapper, swagger being evoked rather than insisted upon.

There are moments where Dro is a bit too insistent. The album tends to falter when Dro becomes overly sentimental. The last 3 tracks of the brief album (12 songs, 36 minutes) are cloyingly confessional, clumsily attempting to resolve Dro’s flirtations with crime and vice like a reality show settling an episode-long conflict in a two-minute scene before the credits.

But even as Young Dro aims for resolution, his own stubbornness holds him back. “Feeling Myself” is Dro’s version of “T.I. vs T.I.P.” (the song, not the album), an internal war between career-minded rapper and inveterate knucklehead dopeboy. While T.I. chose compromise, Dro firmly chooses to be a dopeboy, his final verse ending with a boast: “I’m realer than fucking real/ The hoodest nigga on BET, still.”

This choice to remain in the streets, in obscurity, likely won’t land Dro back “on MTV with Green Day,” as he boasted on “Gangsta” from Best Thang Smokin’. But this is probably a good thing. While the bird’s-eye-view of Atlanta rap continues to focus on emerging stars, Dro can flourish in the periphery, busting the myth of Atlanta, one album, one mixtape, one ongoing career at a time.