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.

Advertisements

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 At.Long.Last.A$AP

At Long Last ASAP, ASAP Rocky

A$AP Rocky has always been a void, a black hole continuously accreting matter into his nucleus. Look no further than his name. “Always Strive and Prosper” is the standard meaning of “A$AP,” but it’s also been defined as “Assassinating Snitches and Police” and “Acronym Symbolizing Any Purpose,” among other things, revealing the fundamental hollowness of the A$AP brand. But despite this lack of a core, Rocky isn’t a dud. His appeal is the sheer luminosity of this accretion, his swagger. In other words, there may be nothing at his core, but it’s always been dazzling to see what he pulls into his orbit. On At.Long.Last.A$AP (ALLA), his second studio album, his gravitational pull remains impressive, but his accretions freefall rather than orbit, colliding instead of shimmering.

ALLA begins with a reflection on religion. The A$AP mob has always goofily flirted with religious imagery, but on “Holy Ghost” Rocky takes the imagery seriously. Speaking frankly, his voice straightforward and nervous, he compares the music industry to a corrupt church. Danger Mouse provides the instrumental, a solemn swirl of twangy guitar and dulled drums that flickers like candles in a sanctuary. Rocky seems to feel the gravitas of the instrumental, but he doesn’t really deliver. Allusions to souls and sacrifices and altars abound, but they don’t seem to be related to Rocky’s life. His head is bowed, and he feels he has to say something, so he just rambles, hoping his god will comprehend.

Rocky has never been a particularly focused rapper. He’s rarely gone more than a few bars without eventually mentioning money, fashion, sex ,or drugs – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but on ALLA that’s precisely what he seems to be trying to do. For the entire first third of the album, the trap, neo-grime, and syrupy Houston beats of his past work are passed over for skeletal instrumentals with vast chasms of dead air. These bare beats feel intentionally challenging, beckoning to be filled by a vocalist with presence and range, but every time Rocky steps into the ring, he meets Apollo Creed. On “Fine Whine” he’s drowned by dreary keys and static synths. His chopped and screwed voice feels less like a vocal effect and more like an actual description of his presence: broken, fragmented, diluted. M.I.A., Future, and Joe Fox briefly appear to liven the dull song, but rather than saving the song, lifting Rocky from the canvas, their cameos hint at what it could have been in more capable hands.

Rocky momentarily finds himself on album highlight “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye,” bouncing around the slick darkness of the beat like Juicy J in Rocky’s own “Multiply” video. “Electric Body,” which follows “LPFJ,” works well too. Schoolboy Q always brings out the menace in Rocky and Rocky always brings out the conceited pretty boy in Q. Unfortunately, these songs are brief, tiny dinghies in an ocean of missteps.

“Jukebox Joints” finds Rocky again attempting to challenge himself. Rapping over slow-burning soul samples courtesy of Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music producer Che Pope, Rocky reaches within, mentioning his newfound interests in producing, acting, and LSD. His flow is paced and intentional – you can feel his desire to tap into the sentiment of the samples – but his thoughts fall out clumsily, attached to lines about women and fashion. It’s as if Rocky can only try on new things while he’s still wearing his old garments. When the sample changes in the middle of the song, he tries again, announcing, “Let’s get past all the swag, trapping, and fashion talking.” Yet two bars later, he’s already slipping into swag, trapping, and fashion talking. This Rocky doesn’t go the distance.

“Pharsyde” is more successful. Again backed by wispy and somber Danger Mouse production, Rocky drops his voice to a hush and describes the contrast of present-day Harlem and the Harlem that raised him. His verses are uneven, but filled with potential. At one point Rocky beautifully describes being haunted by a local murder: “Found his body parts in awkward places/Like apartments, basements, garbage, vacant lots/Garages, spaces, Harlem’s far too spacious.” At other points he’s delivering clunky lines like “Gentrification split the nation that I once was raised in” and “Used to not give a damn/Now I don’t give a fuck entirely.” Unfortunately, the clunkers win out. But these brief flashes of brilliance suggest that with some focus, mirrors and camera lenses aren’t the only things that  can make Rocky reflect.

In April, Rocky described ALLA as a “return of the god emcee.” This may be true, but the album suggests that he wasn’t referring to himself. From Lil’ Wayne’s Carter 3-era use of autotune on “M’$,” to Pimp C’s posthumous verse on “Wavyside,” to Yasiin Bey’s verse on “Back Home,” to M.I.A.’s verse on “Fine Whine,” Rocky is eclipsed at every turn. And it’s not because he’s hollow. He’s stunted by his inability to accept that hollowness, to work with it rather than constantly fight it by going further inward. In the end, it’s impressive that Rocky was able to assemble such talent – on vocals and behind the boards – but summoning the gods and challenging their reign aren’t the same thing. If A$AP Rocky is to ever be a titan of rap rather than just a mortal with a long rolodex, he’ll have to learn the difference.

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.

On All About the Beat , Kanye West and Aesthetics

All About the Beat - John McWhorter

Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus has all the elements of hip-hop that John McWhorter rails against in his polemic book All About the Beat: it’s loud, it’s infectious (not in the good way, in my opinion) and despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary, it is very media friendly. Furthermore, it explicitly claims to be radical and revolutionary in terms of content, in terms of form and in terms of production (how it was produced as well as who is was produced by). For John McWhorter these characteristics of hip-hop are precisely what make it politically inert, hence the book’s subtitle and thesis: “Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”

Quite honestly, I agree with this thesis: if Black America is to be saved – economically, socially, politically, existentially – hip-hop seems ill-equipped to be our sole savior. I could certainly see it playing a role, but given who it appeals to (not all Black people like hip-hop and the ones who do aren’t necessarily politically coherent) and how it appeals to us (through highly mediated networks of capital, cultural legibility, availability and taste), it would seem rather naive to attribute to hip-hop as a genre/practice/way-of-life too much revolutionary potential.

But the point of this post isn’t to agree with McWhorter’s thesis. In fact, I want to do exactly the opposite. Of interest to me is how McWhorter goes about building his argument, specifically his use of conservative ideas about the “truth” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “superficiality” of aestheticizing politics. By unveiling his sly conservatism I not only want to show how he misrepresents what hip-hop and its defenders claim to be doing, but I more crucially want to demonstrate that the politics of depth – a common conservative technique – is really just a way of depoliticizing and subsequently dismissing the political nature of surfaces.

Staying on the Surface

The central claim of All About the Beat is clear in the following statement: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake” (18). McWhorter frames this claim as an unveiling of hip-hop’s actual mission, a revealing of its true politics. It’s a clever move because McWhorter knows exactly how most defenders of hip-hop will respond to this statement: “No, hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority!” This outcry would then be followed by proof that hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority in the form of an argument for depth, for meaning. This would entail citing “conscious” artists then dissecting their lyrics to demonstrate a political consciousness. Expecting this move, McWhorter would then either dispute their lyrics if the lyrics are ambiguous/vague or ask “What have they done for the community?” If the artist has undeniably politicized lyrics and a clear history of helping the community, McWhorter resorts to his trump card: “Well, most people don’t listen to that anyway” (75). Finally, if the song is popular, he resorts to his ultimate ace in the hole: “It is just a sequence of words that sounds good, especially when seasoned with rhythm” (67). Translation: music is just music, nothing else, nothing more.

This is the actual structure of the book: Chapter 1 asserts that hip-hop artists don’t practice politics; Chapter 2 then says the ones who think they do (conscious artists) actually don’t; Chapters 3 and 4 then claim that even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because no one listens to them and these politics are incongruous with accepted or successful political practice; finally Chapter 5 says that hip-hop is “just music” and music can’t be political anyway. ”

I’ve outlined this argument because all of its possible moves are solely enabled by its original proposition: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake.” While this statement appears to be just a claim, a provocation to be proved or disproved, it is actually a judgment, a valuation of how politics should be practiced. Depicted with its politics on its face, that judgment would would look like this: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake and that is not an acceptable form of politics because it is aesthetic and aesthetics aren’t political.” McWhorter is not not just dismissing hip-hop’s alleged politics; he’s upholding his own. This technique and the politics it preserves are notoriously conservative, but we can avoid getting duped by remaining on the surface, by not assessing hip-hop in terms of depth.

A Reluctant Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus is an awful album. If my luck persists, I will never have to listen to it again. But beyond how it sounds, I think it’s more interesting to think about what Yeezus was trying to do. As I understand it, Yeezus is Kanye’s polemic against the various forces that have kept him provincialized within hip-hop and “black culture.” According to Kanye, throughout his career and even before it, he has attempted to push into other worlds – visual art, fashion, design, film, rapping, singing – and been met with opposition, disdain, ridicule and the like. We’ll call it “hate” for short.

This has some merit. Since College Dropout, Kanye’s attempts to open new doors have frequently been resisted by bizarrely zealous doormen, despite his artistic versatility and his earnestness. Of course, Kanye isn’t one to make a quiet entrance: he has always been loud and obnoxious. And no doorman likes an unpleasant visitor. But the force of the resistance to Kanye has often not been equivalent to the force he came with: while he’s knocked with only a brash smile and a loud voice, he’s been met with armed guards and German shepherds. Just look at the infamous Taylor Swift incident. What should have been just another silly moment at an already silly award show – the VMAs are such a joke – genuinely became his stigma. It’s strange: people actually despise the guy for possibly his most innocuous statement.

Meta yeezus SummaryAfter a career filled with these obstacles, Kanye finally confronted them headfirst. Forgoing the wit and cynical distance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on Yeezus he simply yelps, summoning a vast collective of producers and writers from within hip-hop and beyond to transform that yelp into a breathless, 40 minute-long scream. Throughout Yeezus we hear Kanye rearticulate why he’s so upset, literally shouting out (at) hate in the form of corporations, racists, classists, sidechicks, clothing companies, critics and so on. No stone is left is unturned: he addresses Haters as a collective.

Kanye tries to connect his screams to historical and ongoing screams for respect, self-dignity and opportunities, but if you listen closely – and I did – the screams don’t overlap too much. In a joke I wrote earlier this summer, I talked about how his song “Blood on the Leaves” uses apartheid as a metaphor for relationship conflicts. This kind of poor interlocking of disparate narratives occurs all across the album. Kanye actually thinks that his inability to push into new markets and new women and new houses in the Hamptons is akin to a Civil Rights struggle. It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Kanye West is a multi-millionaire with profitable stakes in various industries and he enjoys a level of privilege, comfort and luxury that is unmatched by most black people and most people in general. Quite simply, his haters are his haters; his struggle is literally mostly his struggle..

But it is a struggle nonetheless. In his dismissal of hip-hop, John McWhorter doesn’t offer the opportunity to recognize such struggles or even interrogate why people connect them to larger struggles. At the end of Chapter 4, his treatise on “real struggles” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), he writes, “Of course racism is still around. But in deciding what is possible today, black people must do their grandparents the courtesy of remembering what America was like in the old days. In this, black people will also do themselves a courtesy, in working from what is constructive and positive about our times. Smoking out one more indication that racism is still alive in subliminal ways must be less interesting to us than coping, dealing, building ” (139).

McWhorter’s reference to grandparents is telling. In this quote and the previously mentioned quote in which he states the thesis of his book, authority is essential. Because the atrocities that energized the Civil Rights Movement are “over,” black people must quietly “respect” the ones who experienced those atrocities and never make connections. Since nothing can be more unfathomable than the experiences of Black Americans before the 60s, no correlations should ever even be posited. This has a scary logic. Sure, being profiled at Barneys is certainly not akin to being beaten for simply existing and that’s just fact, honestly. But the way McWhorter articulates his point is insidiously programmed to preclude all grievances, even bad ones. To solely focus on the positive, as he asks us to, is to suppress the possibility of rage or a politics of rage that can emerge from it. Stated otherwise: McWhorter is saying, “Stop complaining!” This sounds very familiar to me.

Jacques Ranciere gives us further insight: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.” (Dissenus 38). The call to “stop complaining” is precisely such a denial of recognition. Kanye’s politics is a bad politics because it is self-centered and unreflexive. But it is a politics nonetheless. As bad a song as “New Slaves” is (politically) it is still a political utterance.  McWhorter denies a politics for an entire discourse, an entire field of thought and action. My concern is not just this act of denial and the masses who are affected by it, but how it works. In order to depoliticize hip-hop and subordinate it to a dubious historical narrative (authority), McWhorter must tacitly ignore the politics that hip-hop wears on its surface, the politics that are built into its aesthetics. And it’s bizarre that he constantly brings up the Civil Rights Movement, but he never thinks about its own aesthetics. It is not a coincidence that marchers and demonstrators often wore their “Sunday Best” and chanted church hymns rather than singing Elvis songs and wearing their pajamas.

Resurfacing: Fucking the Police

The phrase “fuck the police” has a cherished position in hip-hop, from N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” to Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” to MellowHype’s “Fuck Tha Police” to B. Dolan’s “Film the Police.” Though the specifics of each song matter, I’m not going to go into them. What I want to point out is how ill-equipped McWhorter’s ideas are for interrogating why “fuck the police” has circulated within hip-hop for so long. Although believers in the Illuminati,  backpackers and label executives probably think otherwise, hip-hop is aggressively decentralized. There is no apparatus keeping “fuck the police” alive. People are saying it for a reason. And I don’t mean that in a deep way; I mentioned “Mrs. Officer” for a reason – It is literally a song about fucking a female police officer.

But there is a reason why “fuck the police” is so bolted to hip-hop in particular. Even if it has become something that hip-hop fans just say willy nilly, without provocation, performing it as police officers dutifully stand by the stage at a mega-concert, there is a reason why hip-hop fans say it, but Taylor Swift fans don’t. Stated differently, there’s a reason why there’s rap songs against stop and frisk and not country songs or indie rock songs or even R&B songs.

And my grand point is that McWhorter could never account for that reason. For him, aesthetics never matter because they can’t matter because he doesn’t want them to matter because if they do matter he’ll actually have to listen to a Kanye album and think beyond his constricted, constricting, conservative definition of politics. For McWhorter music must remain “just” music because if it turns out to be anything else, the world might become a lot less simpler than he pretends it to be.

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)