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.

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The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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.

 

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.

Mystique Was Right – (On All-New Wolverine # 1 & 2)

Mystique WolverinesWolverine is one of the oldest X-Men institutions. He has his own rogue’s gallery, his own X-Men teams, and his own onomatopoeic sound effect. He has had more mini-series than some entire X-Men titles have had issues and has appeared in every single live-action X-Men movie, often as the main character. Even after his canonical death in the comic, two full series were dedicated to just his legacy. He’s that important.

One of these series, Wolverines, did the tortuous work of fleshing out the villains, clones, children, and friends that have orbited Wolverine, proving, amazingly, that despite their healing factors, claws, rage, and willingness to kill that they were more than just pale derivatives. Even better, the series was propelled by a lesbian love story.

All-New Wolverine, a relaunch of the Wolverine character, cements his death but preserves the institution. In the first issue, X-23, a clone of Wolverine, descends upon Paris in search of a man being targeted for assassination by an unknown group. Rushing through rain in a bulky overcoat, she finds him near the Eiffel Tower, saving him mere seconds before sniper fire rains down upon them both. The man escapes, but X-23 takes a bullet to the brain, momentarily killing her.

All-New Wolverine X-23 Laura Kinney

As her healing factor brings her back from the dead she unconsciously recalls an exchange with the original Wolverine where he encourages her to resist her programming, to be Laura Kinney and not X-23, the programmed assassin. They both wear their X-Force uniforms, grim gray costumes with black stripes and splashes of red: they are killers. Wolverine regrets X-23’s inheritance of his burden, but he praises her reluctance to kill. She holds promise, he believes.

This scene is the crux of the comic and the subtle justification for the new series. Laura is not Logan: she is someone and something different.

Potentially. When X-23 recovers from the kill shot, setting her sights on the person who fired it, she throws off her overcoat, revealing the iconic blue and yellow costume of her genetic father. Enraged, she storms the Eiffel Tower. Bolting up the tower, she sniffs out the sniper then confronts her, beating her into submission. The fight scene emphasizes X-23’s reluctance to kill. She begins the fight by slicing through the sniper’s gun. For the rest of the fight her claws are retracted: her weapons of choice are fists and finesse. This is a subtle move, establishing this Wolverine’s desire to be ethical, to be better. 

Laura Kinney X-23 nonviolence

Panels from Issue #1

In the moment it works. When the defeated villain summons a drone and then jumps from the tower, killing herself, X-23 screams “No!” and it feels sincere. Death was precisely how she didn’t want this encounter to end.

This disinclination toward violence continues in issue 2, where the villain from issue 1 (who turned out to be a clone of Laura, sigh) is revealed to be one of many clones. In a sequence that is similar to the confrontation in issue 1, Laura pops her claws just to disarm her opponents and then pleads for the encounter to not end in death.

X-23 All-New Wolverine

Panels from Issue #2

Again, in the moment this works. But in the context of the institution of Wolverine, this fear of being an instrument of death is stale. Since at least 2000 Logan has had this exact relationship to death: the mini-series “The Twelve” had him literally become a character named Death; Uncanny X-Force explores the absurd circularity of his wanton killings; Uncanny Avengers explores the direct consequences of his killings; Wolverine and The X-Men explores the tension of trying to teach others to respect life when you’re a known killer; Wolverine (vols. 5 & 6) features him without his healing factor, rendering him vulnerable to death both literally and psychologically.

If the point of this comic is to establish Laura as a different Wolverine, to saddle her with the same enemy, the same fears, the same burden that the character has dealt with for ages, is grossly lazy at best and deeply sexist at worst. Is being a literal clone not torture enough?  Is constantly screaming “No!” the extent of her character?

Even her supporting cast is stale. In the first issue, the X-Man Angel, who has been established as her love interest, helps her take down the drone and attempts to comfort her as she recovers.  In the second issue he flies her to her apartment and they flirt in mid-air. There almost seems to be some weak joke at work. The original Wolverine and Angel were notoriously at odds. Angel regularly accused Wolverine of savagery, once even leaving the X-Men because he couldn’t stand Wolverine’s presence (Uncanny X-Men 148). The relationship might not be a callback to that old tension, but even if it isn’t, why is the so-called all-new Wolverine already being tethered to a character who is [literally] from the 1960s? (through a goofy time-travel plot that is now canon – i.e., the series All-New X-Men vol. 1 – the 5 original X-Men have returned to the present.)

Wolverines ended with a rejection of the need for Wolverine. Although the series was framed as a quest for Mystique to resurrect Destiny, her dead lover, the final issue revealed that Mystique had been tricked (by Destiny) into resurrecting Wolverine because, in Destiny’s words, “The world needs a Wolverine.” Deeply outraged, Mystique disagreed, choosing to leave them both dead. Although All-New Wolverine #1-2 has flashes of promise, as long as X-23 is fundamentally the same character, Mystique was right. Wolverine – whether Logan or Laura – is better off dead.

Mystique Wolverines X-Men

 

Ain’t I Clean Though? Quick Notes on Respectability Politics and Vanity

Last week, Code Switch ran an article about the origin of respectability politics. They didn’t find an exact answer (because there probably isn’t one), but I don’t want to focus on that. At the top of the article was a sample of directives/advice/commands that a respectability politician might offer:

Pull up your pants. Calm down. Get good grades. Stop the violence. Buy a gun. Fix your hair. Go to church. Have a normal name. Speak properly. Be polite. Put your hands up. Stop loitering. Go inside. Have a good job. Smile. Apologize. Don’t shout. Try harder. Own a home (in the right neighborhood). Lose weight. Be braver. Do better. Don’t move. Seriously. Stay. The heck. Put.

There’s a clear individualist bent to all of these mandates. This is DIY anti-racism, the self being the only thing that needs to change. There’s no point in reiterating how ridiculous and condescending it is to be told that beating structural racism is simply a matter of self-improvement, but I do think that it’s worth noting how deeply vain this list is.

Smile, pull up your pants, go to church, speak properly – all of these instructions can be flipped: be seen smiling, be seen with your pants up, be seen at church, be heard speaking “properly.” Respectability politics is heavily invested in perception, in surfaces.

It’s not surprising that a racial group that has [primarily] been visually marked would invest in perception. But what’s troubling is how naive this investment is. To strive for respectability is to submit your self-image, your self-worth, your self-importance, to the person looking at you, judging you, evaluating you, shaming you. To be respectable is to become a surface.

Respectability isn’t so much individualist as it is submissive, deferential.

I can see the appeal. There’s an inherent contingency in submission. Looks can change. Judges can break with precedent. Shame can become admiration. Maybe if we just look good enough, they’ll have to smile back.

But what if there’s no one looking back at you? Structural racism has always struck me as horrifyingly inhuman. One of the most memorable things about the Case for Reparations was that although Coates followed the Ross family, the outcomes for an entire generation of black people were largely the same. This really can’t be overstated. Despite the fact that black migrants from the South traveled north along different trajectories, settling in different cities, and interfacing with various government institutions – they largely all had similar outcomes. And this isn’t surprising. As Coates forcefully argues, absconding with black wealth was policy. In other words, what he gets at in that piece is that institutions are designed to eliminate contingency, to standardize outcomes.

So even if respectability politics did begin to acknowledge structural racism, to concede that there is a system, not a just a bigoted person or two exacting judgment and pulling triggers, it could still only submit, looking flawless in front of the obelisk instead of toppling it or finding away around it. I honestly can’t imagine a belief system that is more suited (pun intended) for late capitalism.

So, all that to say, maybe Riley Freeman should be the new poster child for respectability politics. I think he gets it.