On Unapologetic Blackness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Broke With Expensive Taste

Album Artwork for 'Broke With Expensive Taste,' music by Azealia Banks

While hip-hop producers have always been forthright with their wide range of influences and sources, rappers have largely been less pronounced. Strangely, hip-hop actually abounds with stories of rappers excitedly meeting their favorite musicians from other genres (for example,  Tyler, the Creator’s Instagram account is riddled with selfies he’s taken with his favorite musicians),but within the music itself, these influences are often either strategically encoded in internal references or omitted altogether. Part of this variance between rappers and producers stems from the sheer historical fact that hip-hop production was frequently built from samples: you couldn’t quite hide your interest in soul music when you were audibly sampling Curtis Mayfield. But a larger part of this difference is the strange and tautological belief that rap is supposed to “sound like rap,” which has resulted in rappers incestuously offering only the rappers they listen to, but rarely revealing their favorite jazz singers, rock bands and movie soundtracks, among other things.

On her new album, Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks breaks rank with this established trend. Where other rappers have tried to deviate by securing features with their favorite non-hip-hop acts (see: B.o.B, Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino, Kanye West) or actively making rap songs with the elements of other genres (see: Tyler, the Creator, G-Eazy, Sean Paul), Banks goes all the way, embracing her influences in full. The result is genuine hybridity, songs that truly explore and embody the genetic potential of their origins.

In many ways, it’s a jarring listen. The album begins with “Idle Delilah,” a cheery song in which Banks raps and croons over a breezy, layered instrumental that features an uncharacteristic amount of live instrumentation (for her). It is a sharply built song, especially after considering its many moving parts – paced singing, boastful rapping, xylophone, guitar, off-kilter percussion, distorted samples – but its construction isn’t nearly as impressive as its execution. Banks seamlessly melds a tapestry of sounds without having to alter them. This lack of compromise and its superb execution are just plain uncanny, especially for an artist who wants to pack so many styles into one song (or into one album).

Yet, the album continues this parade of uncompromising gene splicing throughout. On “Gimme a Chance” Banks crisply raps in both English and Spanish, and is backed by a lively horn arrangement and an Enon sample that morph into a salsa arrangement .  Likewise, “Ice Princess” begins as a dark, bass-heavy trap session, then abruptly transforms into pulsating electronic dance-pop. This is not collage. Collage relies on the obviousness of its juxtaposition. Banks never draws attention to her wide-sourcing; she is singularly and obsessively focused on the results.

This obsession with the final result is most apparent in her rhyme patterns. Whether she is rapping or singing, Banks rarely lets syllables go to waste. “Heavy Metal and Reflective” and “Desperado” both have verses where Bank uses the same rhyme for an entire verse, each word cascading into the other like the wail of an ambulance. While this intensive focus limits the substance of her rhymes, it greatly amplifies their melody, which allows Banks to rap aggressively without dominating the tone of the song. This really cannot be overlooked. Azealia Banks has successfully made rap compatible with other genres without having to adjust her aggression: she makes rap blend in without making it fall back (or take over). She’s made pop-rap cool again by doubling down on the rap instead of the pop.

That said, Azealia Banks’ innovations in rap are just one dimension of this album. Alongside her rap experiments are experiments with seapunk. Banks has managed to scrub away the kitschy elements of the odd subgenre without sacrificing its playful essence. “Wallace” and “Miss Amor” are beautifully mixed tracks that evoke the sea without having to be overly submerged in corny aquatic sounds and watery samples.

The absence of kitsch may offend some seapunk purists, but purity and listenability aren’t always the same thing, which is made abundantly clear by “Nude Beach a Go-Go,” the album’s sole blemish. Banks’ reworking of the Ariel Pink song isn’t awful, but it is grossly self-indulgent, like a celebration dance after one’s sixth touchdown against a score-less opponent. Even on an album that is essentially the soundtrack to a tumblr page – complete and conspicuous indulgence in one’s favorite things – it is an outlier that beckons to be skipped.

Nevertheless, Broke with Expensive Taste is largely a triumph. After years of Twitter beefs, soured relationships with other artists, label mishaps and fan inertia, Banks proves that her initial promise was both deserved and understated. She’s much more than a foul-mouthed and proficient rapper from Harlem; she’s actually a formidable, well-rounded musician, with no boundaries. This revelation has benefited both her career and her music. Variously released over a year ago or more, “212,” “Luxury” and “BBD”easily could have become relics of another unblossomed rap career, but this album revitalizes them, repackaging them as the products of an uncompromising curator and creator of melody. If Banks can continue down this interesting path, she probably won’t be broke for long.

Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81” are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81” shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.

On Drake Jokes

Drake Jokes - Tumblr

Drake Jokes - Tumblr

A few minutes ago, I came across the above compilation of Drake jokes. Admittedly, some of them made me laugh, especially the ones that reference Grand Theft Auto, but after reading through them all, specifically the one that says, “Drake the type of nigga that sucks dick and call the other nigga gay,” it’s pretty clear that few of these jokes are really about Drake.*

These jokes are just a reactionary and [subtly?] homophobic screed against the kind of masculinity that Drake isn’t afraid to endorse.

These are the type of jokes that you’ll hear in a barbershop full of angry guys who are afraid to be nice to people, particularly themselves.

These are the types of jokes that guys tell to assure themselves that the machismo that they strive toward isn’t stupid and destructive.

These are the types of jokes that guys tell each other when their girlfriends leave them for a guy they could probably beat up and don’t understand why the mere ability to physically harm someone probably isn’t enough to keep a relationship intact.

These are the types of jokes that guys tell when they don’t understand why their relationships fail.

These are the types of jokes that force me to have to defend a rapper who I actually dislike.

These are the types of jokes that make me reluctant to answer honestly when I furiously nod my head to Azealia Banks songs on the train and a dude asks me, “What are you
listening to?”

These are the types of jokes that make an often shitty blog seem like a place worth visiting.

These are the types of jokes that lead to you being called “Faggot!” if you don’t laugh at them. 

These are the types of jokes that people shouldn’t feel comfortable telling.

**If you think that these jokes are actually about Drake, try this: replace “Drake” with “Frank Ocean.” The joke doesn’t change at all. That’s my point.

On Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop

whywhitekids

Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop and I have a strange history. Four years ago, I bought it as a birthday present for a friend. He read it, thought it was blah and then shelved it. Three years later, he cleaned out his library and offered me some books he didn’t want to keep. WWKLHH was in the pile. After reading it, I can see why he wasn’t reluctant to part with it.

Seeking to explain why white kids love hip-hop beyond typical inane explanations such as, “They want to take hip-hop the same way they take everything else!” author Bakari Kitwana takes us on an odd adventure through hip-hop history. Using interviews and analyses of films, television shows, magazines, and songs, he attempts to make the case that “Generation X” and the “millennium generation” have ushered in a “new racial politics” (Kitwana xiv). This new racial politics is “marked by nuance, complexity, the effects of commerce and commercialism and a sort of fluidity between cultures” (xv). Kitwana argues that it differs from the “old racial politics,” which is characterized by “adherences to stark differences – cultural, personal and political – between Black and White” (xiv).

This idea of new racial politics fascinates me because it makes no sense, especially in regard to hip-hop. Right off the bat, I can think of dozens of examples of “the old racial politics” surfacing in hip-hop:

Kanye West : “You know white people! Get money don’t spend it./ Or maybe they get money, buy a business.” – “Clique,” 2012.

Plies: “I don’t wear skinny jeans like the white boys! But I do get wasted like the white
boys!” – “Wasted,” 2009.

Azealia Banks: “Oh la la la, flirted with a cool French dude named Antoine/ Wanna taste the pastry, chocolate croissant/ Ce soir with ya bitch, cafe au lait.” – “1991,” 2012.

This entire song!:

I could list examples forever, but I think you get the point: there is nothing particularly novel about the way hip-hop uses race to explain stark differences in peoples’ behaviors and experiences. As a genre, hip-hop perhaps encourages the use of race to explain the world. After all, it is one of the few thriving genres overtly concerned with the lives of black people. Nevertheless, hip-hop is preceded by and accompanied by soul and funk and disco and jazz and even gospel, genres that have/had very similar concerns as far as the conditions and circumstances of blacks in America. If anything, rather than supplanting these preceding genres’ concerns, hip-hop reinvigorates those concerns (and maybe even those genres through sampling!). In other words, with hip-hop the significance of the “old racial politics” is heightened because not much has changed, meaning we probably need those politics now more than ever.*

Even more distressing than Kitwana’s patently wrong distinction between old and new racial politics is the one particular “fact” that he cites as the source of the new racial politics:  “[Generation X and the millennium generation] are the first Americans to live their entire lives free of de facto segregation” (Kitwana xii). Where is he getting this data? In 3.5 years of attendance, my high school, North Clayton High School, had 3 white people, and one of them was a Black Republican. My graduating class had 0 white people. After our first semesters away at college, one friend from high school joked that he hadn’t seen that many white people in person since he went to a symphony. Beyond my personal anecdotes, de facto segregation is typical. Look at this demographic map of New York City by Eric Fischer. Each dot represents 25 people of a particular race:

By Eric Fischer

By Eric Fischer

Even in one of America’s most diverse cities, segregation persists, almost aggressively. Look at how concentrated those colors are! If New York City were integrated, the colors would be sparse, dull.

Beyond New York City, the pattern is the same across the nation (http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/sets/72157626354149574/detail/) and has been since 2000 and earlier. This is clearly de facto segregration, but Kitwana is so committed to making a distinction between the past and the present that he overlooks their stark similarity.

Because this distinction between old and racial politics underpins the entire of argument of the book, most of the book is ultimately useless. The only chapter I found of worth was “Erasing Blackness,” a chapter in which Kitwana challenges the narrative that white kids are hip-hop’s primary consumer base. His argument is very compelling. Citing the absence of reliable statistics on who purchases albums and the absence of any statistics of who acquires mixtapes, he argues that there’s no conclusive evidence on whether white kids are actually hip-hop’s core audience. I buy that argument and commend Kitwana for doing the work. If better stats are ever available, maybe we actually can draw some conclusions.

In the meantime, I still don’t know why white kids love hip-hop. If you yourself want to know, reading this book is definitely not a recommended first step. That being said, if you want, I’ll send it to you. I could use the shelf space.

* Note

When I uphold “old racial politics,” I’m not using Kitwana’s caricatured definition of them. Progressive racial politics of any era are complex and nuanced and fluid.

Sources:

Kitwana, Bakari. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005. Print.

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.