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 Summertime ’06 

Vince Staples Summertime 06

From samples, to interpolations, to autobiographical lyrics, the past is an integral part of how hip-hop is made. When it comes to the main narratives in hip-hop, the stories rappers tell about themselves, this ingrained relationship with the past has often resulted in tales of redemption: Kendrick Lamar escapes the “m.a.a.d.” city, Biggie gets a Sega Genesis, Ice Cube finally has a good day. On his debut double album Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples doesn’t find redemption. For him the past isn’t a distant memory, a road he can finally drive down after a long, tiring walk. Vince Staples sees the past as the horizon of his future, a roundabout in which he can change lanes but never exit.

Though Summertime ‘06 is timestamped by its title, Staples freely weaves in and out of his past and present. On “Lift Me Up” he’s performing for legions of fickle white fans in Paris; on “Norf Norf” he’s lamenting that Long Beach has never seen any of Obama’s mythical “change”; on “Hang ’N Bang” he’s on the corner Crippin’. These leaps through time can be jarring, but Vince’s inconsistency isn’t the result of sloppiness. When it comes to setting the scene, Vince isn’t concerned with concrete details like what music he was bumping or the clothes he was rocking in 2006. He’s more concerned with mood. Summertime ‘06 isn’t a time period; it’s a perspective, an angle for processing the world.

Vince’s perspective is unapologetically dense. The album begins with “Ramona Park Legend Pt 1,” which features the sounds of a beach: waves crashing on the shore, seagulls yelping in the sky, stillness all around. A bluesy wail briefly trickles in the background, but moments later it’s greeted by menacing percussion, circling in the water like a shark. But even the shark isn’t the real menace. The song ends with an oblique gunshot, the true apex predator. This isn’t any beach. It’s Long Beach, the “end of the land with the surf and the sand,” as Vince tersely describes it on “Jump off the Roof.” Vince sees Long Beach in stark detail, recognizing and repping both the symbolic beauty and destruction of a beach, the calm waters and the threatening waves.

This mixture of beauty and danger and pride permeates the album. Staples regularly shouts out his old haunts – Ramona Park, Poppy Street, Artesia Boulevard, 65th Street – freely admitting that he’s done dirt on all of them. These are the places where he was made, places where he’s witnessed and facilitated death and ruin. But Vince doesn’t want to be forgiven, to be seen as having made it. “Fuck gangsta rap,” he snarkily says on “Norf Norf.”

He seems to mean it. “Dopeman,” a hazy song driven by droning synths, doesn’t make drug dealing sound particularly fun. Expert murmurer Kilo Kish chants “I don’t need a gun just to melt a nigga brain/ When I pull up to the slums with a quarter key of ‘caine.” Staples barks out a brief and manic verse, stretching out his words as if his brain too has been altered by the drugs he’s dealing. Even “Street Punks” a threatening song about credibility, puts a damper on gang life. “You ain’t ever caught a body/Know it cause you talkin’ bout it,” Staples coldly raps, more as a warning than a boast.

Amidst the stone-faced shooting and selling dope, Vince spends a lot of time contemplating love. “Lemme Know,” a breezy song that features Jhene Aiko, radiates  lust. On it, Aiko and Staples wear their desire on their sleeve, coyly purring out three dual verses together. But though they address each other as lovers, their words are full of taunts and warnings, imminent danger. On “Loca,” the love is just as palpable, but the danger is more explicit, with Vince quickly moving from seduction to demanding loyalty. “Would your courtroom lie for a nigga?” he asks his new lover with utter seriousness. As much as he contemplates and feels love, Vince refuses to detach it from his day-to-day life in the streets.

For “Summertime” Vince goes solo, crooning in autotune about a love he deeply wants but doubts is possible. The song is hard to listen to. The autotune sharpens Vince’s voice rather than smoothing it, making his typically nasally delivery gravelly. But that seems to be the point. Even when Vince is fully immersed in his emotions, his skin is still hardened by the Crip-blue waters of Long Beach.

Not everything on Summertime ‘06 works well. “Might Be Wrong,” which features singing from James Fauntleroy and a spoken word verse from Haneef Talib, who delivers his verse from prison, has its heart in the right place but it doesn’t quite fit. Its melodramatic synths and Fauntleroy’s singing are a bit too straightforward for the complex, dense atmosphere that producers No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino have carefully curated throughout the album. The bluesy track “C.N.B” also stands out. Vince runs through a laundry list of politicized topics – gentrification, victimization, cultural appropriation – but nothing gets fully washed. Some topics demand more than a perspective.

That said, Vince Staples’ perspective is frequently fresh. Avoiding the moral high ground, he freely roams the seedy lowlands, making unflattering observations about himself, his home, and the world that made them both without resorting to soul-cleansing self-flagellation (like Kendrick Lamar) or lung-collapsing chest thumping. It’s not always an easy listen – Vince seems to enjoy street life as much as he abhors it, gleefully loading his gun just as often as he mourns his friends who have taken bullets. This moral ambiguity results in hip-hop that probably won’t please the activists or the sociologists or the Rap Geniuses, but that’s fine. For Vince Staples, hip-hop isn’t about pleasure. It’s about unflinching realism, the kind that redemption, with its happy endings and moral clarity, isn’t equipped to handle.

The past has never looked as ugly and unflattering as it has in Vince Staples’ hands, but the thrill of this dogged realism is that he also manages to make it look beautiful. There just might be some truth in nostalgia.

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!

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.

False Symmetry: Illmatic vs good kid, m.A.A.d city

I wrote a piece for RESPECT. that I’m kind of proud of. In it, I address the burgeoning (and annoying) discussion about whether or not Kendrick Lamar’s debut album will be as “classic” as Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. I argue that the discussion is silly in terms of the albums’ actual contents and in terms of “classic” as a useful or possible designation.

You can read it here.