What I’ve Been Up to Lately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuz It’s All a Nigga Got: On Vince Staples, Guns and Nihilism

ImageThough G-Unit’s song “My Buddy” is one of rap’s most memorable songs about guns, in the song, guns are aggressively one-dimensional. Essentially serving as accessories, their only real function is to amplify G-Unit’s street cred. Nas’ “Got Ur Self A Gun” is less fetishistic, but the resulting message is the same: people with guns are people to be feared and respected. On Vince Staples’ new album Shyne Coldchain II, guns don’t appear as mere props. Tying his love and need for guns to the stark absence of any other forms of security, Vince develops guns as a rich and multifaceted symbol. For me, how he accomplishes this is interesting in terms of symbolism and narrative technique. 

The first thing that makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the sheer fact of Vince’s characteristic obliqueness. Even when he’s being clever, Vince always maintains his poker face, speaking at a constant slant as if he’s being wiretapped. For instance, on “Humble,” he raps, “Daddy had us contact high off of crack smoke/Had to get it crackin’ with the 7 cause the MAC broke/Wrist fucked up, couldn’t make it to practice.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, in this brief aside Vince reveals that he spent so much time shooting guns as a teenager that he ruined his wrist and ruined his usual gun. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to injure their wrists through sports or masturbation or plain old misfortune, but Vince Staples injured his wrists because he was always having to shoot his gun. His life was intensely precarious at all times.

That is utterly depressing. Nevertheless, despite this depressing revelation, Vince keeps it moving. These kinds of oblique references are found throughout the album and throughout Vince’s body of work. A lot of rap’s most-praised storytellers are heralded for how vivid and evocative their stories are. Vince goes the opposite way, filling his tales with silhouettes, shadows and ghosts. Obliqueness isn’t for everybody but it works excellently for Vince.

For Shyne Coldchain II in particular, this obliqueness is important to note because Vince develops guns as a symbol by actively focusing on other symbols. It’s tempting to call these other symbols foils, but I think Vince is doing something much more interesting.  For instance, on  “Turn” Vince spends the verses accosting religion and other forms of authority, noting how god, school and family – the biggest forms of authority when you’re young – have all failed him and failed themselves. Vince then hammers in this rampant failure during the chorus, chanting, “When it comes down to it, know I’m out here shooting, cuz it’s all a nigga got, cuz it’s all a nigga got.” It’s tempting to see guns and gangs as the replacement for all the forms of authority that have failed Vince, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Vince has discarded trust in authority altogether. Guns and gangs aren’t foils. As proven to Vince by the imprisonment of his father, whose previous life as a gang member is detailed on “Nate,” guns and gangs are just as characterized by failure as everything else: there is no contrast. So though Vince cherishes his guns, they’re really just another empty, meaningless symbol. When it comes down to it, Vince Staples is a nihilist.


What’s interesting about his nihilism is how Vince lives through it instead of resorting to narratives of rugged individualism. Given the systemic failure of everything in his life, you would think he’d attribute his success to himself à la “Started From the Bottom.” But there’s no narratives of self-reliance here. Because Vince Staples sees the world for what it is, he has to see himself with that same raw clarity. He’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to shoot them before they shot him.

I don’t have any reliable way of knowing Vince Staples’ self-image, but on Earl Sweatshirt’s song, “Centurion,” Vince raps, “I can’t wait/ ’til the money comin’ in/ Spend it all on guns and rims/ I ain’t nothin’ but a nigga/ Ain’t no reason to pretend,” so I don’t think I’m too far off. If this is in fact his self-image, it’s easy to dismissively say that Vince has self-hate or that he’s a victim of circumstances. These are the typical mainstream narratives that people use when they want to make sense of the lives of people on the margins. But I think that the whole point of Shyne Coldchain 2 is that both of those narratives look at the world without considering the values that are embedded in their respective worldviews.

For instance, people who advocate self-love overestimate the availability of the resources to develop such love. For Vince, religion, family, school and even Common (“Trunk Rattle”) just can’t think outside of their privileges. Becoming a good student or a good kid or a faithful churchgoer or a positive rapper takes more than pure effort; it takes the privilege to even be able to make those efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who argue that folks like Vince are victims of circumstance overestimate how defining circumstances actually are. In contrast to that argument, Vince describes a world in which people are actively working through their circumstances despite an utter lack of privileges. These people don’t have it easy and they should have it better, but they definitely aren’t victims.

In the end, because he values nothing in particular, Vince Staples is perfectly equipped to describe his world. And while his description won’t flatter anyone, even himself, it’s a description that everyone needs to hear. Listen to the album here. Even if you don’t care about guns or nihilism, the dude can rap his ass off, so there’s always that.

On Doris 

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris - Cover Art

Doris is the latest album by Odd Future member, Earl Sweatshirt. I reviewed it for RESPECT., but I want to get personal.

For me, the personal appeal of Doris is its insignificance. Debut albums tend to be these big, grandiose affairs that are telegraphed to us by a lengthy, calculated stream of ads, lame press appearances, bombastic statements like, “This is gonna change the game” and now, commercials during the NBA finals. But Doris kind of just materialized. Of course, it wasn’t a pure emergence; I knew Doris was coming because of general hype, marketing, interviews, tweets from Earl, music videos and funny videos. Those things are expected. But despite the combined efforts of all the requisite parts of the modern hype machine, Doris was never quite defined. Leading up to Doris, all I knew was what it would not be. It knew it wouldn’t be “Rap(e) Chronicles Part Two,” a plausibly-named sequel to Earl’s old project Earl (2010), his engaging, but profoundly fucked up first outing. I also knew it wouldn’t be a trap-centric celebration of molly. So when Doris got here (August 20), it really wasn’t a big deal.

The music follows suit, with Earl rapping almost exclusively nonchalantly. I’m sure he cares about his work – it’s way too detailed to be the product of indifference – but I never get the feeling that Earl has bought into his own hype. He knows that this – rap, hip-hop – is just a blip on a larger grid with far more important axes, so he sees no interest in convincing us to “care,” in that hollow and common sense of demanding our attention a la Kanye West. He makes music because he wants to make music and because he’s good at it. What we do with it as fans is epiphenomenal to the music being created.

I think that this is the biggest lesson that he’s taken from one of his known idols, MF DOOM. People often make the Earl-DOOM connection because of their shared penchant for internal rhymes, slanted rhymes, obscure references and “straight rappin” (rapping without choruses, bridges or refrains), but I think that Doris shows us that this connection is more than aesthetic. DOOM taught Earl that making rap music doesn’t mean catering to rap fans and their strange and often hostile whims (“There’s not enough bass, man!” ; “That’s way too much bass, man!”).

The risk of making music for the sake of music is high if you’re trying to make a career out of it: if fans are epiphenomenal to the creative process, money will be too – DOOM is definitely not going to be in Forbes anytime soon. But that’s the point: fuck Forbes and fuck fans. If you’re in Forbes, I’m probably not going to buy your album. (Earl isn’t in Forbes)

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.