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.

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Listen Comprehensively: Quick Thoughts on Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon’s Rap Covers

Last night Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon converted some rap songs into lounge music*. I was afraid that there might be some lame mocking of rap, but that’s not what happened. The main joke seemed to be the sheer oddness of lounge performances, especially the awkward, contrived sexual tension between the pianist and the singer and the bizarreness of the popular songs they choose to perform. Live lounge music is basically karaoke done by professionals instead of drunken strangers. It’s wrong in principle and even worse in execution.

What was specifically interesting to me was how thoroughly Fallon and Hathaway managed to convert the rap songs into lounge music. They genuinely sounded nothing like the originals. The cadences, deliveries and general affects were profoundly different despite the lyrics remaining unchanged. A lot of people – especially the people over at Rap Genius and sometimes Reddit- insist that lyrics are the most critical part of rap songs and implicitly music in general, but I think that performances like this and perhaps even remixes in general thoroughly disprove that argument. There is a constellation of things happening in this performance and the lyrics are just one, tiny dimension.

Lyrics vary in significance from artist to artist (within rap and across genres) and I definitely would support the notion that lyrics have a heightened significance in rap, but lyrics aren’t everything. More importantly, as this performance demonstrates, how we experience lyrics is profoundly affected by other elements of songs. Anyone who has ever been to a live concert and enjoyed it despite a crappy sound system or complete ignorance of the music being performed can definitely agree. Even better, if you watched this video and knew nothing about the original songs, yet were unable to identify them as covers of rap songs, you can agree. Rap music is so much more than words on a page or just words. Talking about music is only worthwhile if we realize this and listen comprehensively, not just closely.

Lastly, damn Anne Hathaway can sing.

*The video is labeled as “Broadway versions” of rap songs, but I think that’s a mistake. This is definitely lounge singing.

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.

Free Advice (and Commands) for the [Online] Hip-Hop World

Hip-Hop Bloggers: 1) Spell-check your shit. Writing with a dialect or nonstandard writing style doesn’t justify being sloppy. 2) Stop acting shocked when rappers “reveal” that they hang out with musicians from other genres. If you are genuinely surprised when this happens, you shouldn’t be writing about music. 3) Read/watch other interviews before you conduct an interview. A million webpages with the same boring ass question (e.g. “So who are your influences?) does nothing for anybody. 4) Respond to your comments. Not everybody is a troll. 5) Don’t be scared to criticize your favorite artists. Thinking through your preferences is engaging and rewarding. Being a fan doesn’t mean being a publicist. 6) Read about hip-hop outside of hip-hop sites. For example, The NY Times, Grantland and other sites that are not solely dedicated to hip-hop have cool (and uncool) things happening all the timel. 7) Be nicer to commenters (I’m currently working on this myself). 8) Stop comparing female rappers solely to other female rappers. Sure, they influence each other and are in conversation with each other, but they shouldn’t be reduced to their sex. They don’t have specially-designed radios that solely play music from female artists. They listen to and are influenced by the same music as everyone else. If we are going to take gender seriously when discussing rap, it needs to be taken seriously for all artists, not just ones with vaginas and/or breasts and/or inexplicable bikinis in music videos.

Hip-Hop Blog Commenters: 1) Stop using the term “real hip-hop.” No one understands what you’re saying, including you. 2) Stop unnecessarily discussing the 90’s. The 90’s were cool, kind of (not really), but they’re gone. No one listens when you shout about how great they were, so chill out. 3) Stop making claims about who is the GOAT (greatest of all time). People say discussions about the GOAT are just for fun (after all, it’s a dumb idea), but no one leaves 400 comments on an article “just for fun.” You are all being hella serious.

Rappers with Twitter Accounts: 1) Stop telling us about your adventures with the ladies. We get it; we listen to your music. 2) Use Twitter strategically. You’ve only got one shot and if you fuck up because of some dick pic gone viral, you’re going to feel incredibly stupid.

Everybody: Stop saying “You didn’t see that on Instagram?” as if everyone else is always on Instagram. (We aren’t)

Rap Genius: Just stop. Seriously though, change your name, keep transcribing songs (You folks are really on point with the transcriptions) and get rid of the whole Rap IQ thing: it is the dumbest concept since reverse racism.

World Star Hip-Hop: Take Hip-hop out of your title and fuck off. Also, fuck off.

Kanye West: You should probably just get a tumblr or something. “Twitter essays” are silly.

Chris Brown: You can sing. You can dance. You can’t rap. Unless you’re doing covers, you should stop.

Childish Gambino: Rap about some different stuff. Yes, you were alienated as a kid because you operated outside of the accepted parameters of Black masculinity. I personally know that it sucked and is hard to forget, but using rap to reverse that history can only go so far. Being accepted by the people who abused you will never satisfy you because the terms are always in their hands. As Frantz Fanon said, the best way vanquish those ghosts from your past is to “skim over this absurd drama that others have staged.” In other words, don’t try to improve a shitty play with stellar acting or rigorous re-writing: just move on. Hip-hop can be your stage, but not as long as your ghosts are your director.

Rihanna: 1) Hi Rihanna  2) Your tweets are weird as hell. 3) None of this is advice.

I Heart NPR Interns

At the beginning of the summer, I blasted Rap Genius. Before you continue, you have to read what I wrote.

My thoughts on the matter of Rap Genius haven’t changed and the responses to a recent NPR article have only further solidified my stance. In the article, an NPR intern outlines why he isn’t very moved by the “classic” Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. After giving the album a listen, in essence, the intern says, “This is old and I appreciate it, but  I prefer the [really] new stuff.”  Unsurprisingly, the resulting animosity didn’t take long at all.

https://twitter.com/1000TimesYes/status/224597190671212545

https://twitter.com/benmshields/status/224603055864299520

https://twitter.com/noz/status/224601724978077698

As someone who writes about hip-hop despite getting involved with it kind of late compared to my peers (My middle school was overwhelmingly Black), I really hate this reaction.  Granted, this intern’s introduction to rap was Drake circa 2010; mine was Ludacris circa 2001. That being said, so what? From a fan perspective, both of those moments in hip-hop (and every moment that has been and will be) is equally as important (or not important) to the genre. As I have said previously, being a fan of a genre doesn’t mean being a goddamn historian. When a “history” is required to access a genre, we end up with Rap Geniuses, people who promote exclusivite and arcane experiences of rap at the expense of all other experiences.

For example, look at Rap Genius’ explanation of a Jay-Z line from “No Church in the Wild.” Jay says, “Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek.” Rap Genius says,

“This is essentially Jay’s take on the Euthyphro dilemma: a conflict between two biases or opinions. If the gods love something because it is pious, then there must be an objective goodness intrinsic to the universe. If something is pious because the gods love it, then goodness could roughly be seen as arbitrary or subjective. Jay seems to ignore the fact that Socrates rejects the second part of the dilemma and advanced the notion that objective truth could be discerned through reason (i.e. the Socratic Method). He’s not alone: both members of The Throne seem to advance a slightly revisionist take on Socrates.As a side note, was Socrates was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for “corrupting the minds of the youth” and chose his method of execution (poisoning via hemlock)

This is horse shit. If Freud were alive today, he would say something along the lines of, “Sometimes a bar is just a bar.” Translation: sometimes niggas just be rappin. Even if Jay-Z himself told me that Rap Genius’ explanation was spot on, that wouldn’t matter. Hip-hop thrives on a diversity of meanings and experiences. If someone hears that line and just wants to dance, so be it. Trying to reduce hip-hop down to one meaning and one experience and one demographic is preposterous and absurd.

I want to believe the platitude that “Before you can contribute to a conversation, you have to know what was said before you arrived,” but I feel that this line of thought always benefits the people who spoke first. The people who arrive late(r) are silenced and told to wait their turn, but oftentimes either that turn never comes or when it does, it is met with condescension and rejection. The reaction to this NPR letter is a case in point. Because this intern admitted that Drake was his introduction to hip-hop, people legitimately believe that he is unqualified to speak about hip-hop. What the fuck?

I love hip-hop, but I hate the way hip-hop fans treat it. If we really care about hip-hop, we have to stop excluding the people who aren’t as familiar with it. Their experiences with the genre are just as noteworthy as ours. I definitely think that we should call bullshit when outsiders present themselves as experts, but when an outsider admits to being an outsider and we still metaphorically deport them, we’re only hurting ourselves.

Honestly, if you look at the origins of hip-hop, arcane knowledge  isn’t what it was all about. When DJs in the Bronx went to record stores to find records with cool break beats, they weren’t looking for things people wouldn’t recognize. In fact, they didn’t care about recognition at all. All they wanted was music that would make the “party people” keep the party going. Whether you like it or not, the party is now worldwide. You can have your “classics” DJ play old Public Enemy records while you grimace and contemplate the political climate of 1989, but when you go to the restroom, don’t scowl at the chick who came to the club to listen to dubstep remixes of Drake. She’s just trying to have a good night. Aren’t you?

Dear People Who Will Want to Support Dear White People

Dear White People looks interesting, but just from the trailer, I can pinpoint its fatal flaw. Straight up, this movie is a bourgeois black hipster’s wet dream. For black people who didn’t go to college or who interact with white people at work or in the world at large, this movie will be uppity fluff. There is a reason that Living Single and Chappelle’s Show resonated more than A Different World and The Cosby Show. Not everyone goes (or should go) to college. That is fine.

What is not fine is the fact that this movie doesn’t look self-reflective. That lack of self-reflexivity is what makes A Different World and The Cosby Show so alienating. To view those shows as a black person who is not middle class is to see your experience flattened and neglected. Black people don’t need [more of] that. We need more works like Do the Right Thing, The Wire and Night Catches Us, projects that are rooted in a particular time and place (and space). Despite what fans of these works say, these movies don’t have pretensions of universality. Dear White People does.

I know that I am speaking very matter-of-factly, as if this movie will instantly become a cult classic. Don’t view that as arrogance. I feel this way because I know people who nostalgically praise The Cosby Show. For them, that show embodies “the black experience,” whatever that means. This worries me because that experience doesn’t exist. The only thing all black people have in common is the experience of racism and even that is a diverse experience.

When Dear White People comes out, go see it, but remember that it is not the definitive manifesto on black life. Neither is Black in America. Neither is BET. Neither is The Wire. In fact, that manifesto has never existed and never will. As evidenced by the sales of Toure’s book, for some people this is news. For me, it is obvious. I sincerely hope that you feel the same way.

Sincerely,

Black Steve (Yes, I am aware of the irony of signing this with this name.)

P.S. As I stated in my post on Rap Genius, I am working on a series of essays in response to the essays in the book That’s the Joint. I wanted to have written a few essays by now, but I’ve been busy. They’re still on the way though. Don’t fret!

Rap Genius is Stupid*

I have beef with Rap Genius. It all started when I heard “Middle of the Cake,” a song by rap group Das Racist. In the last verse of the song, Kool A.D. says, “RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry/ Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees.” Ignoring the ironic Black Nationalist rhetoric, I found these lines to be very interesting. In the past, I had used both sites, particularly Urban Dictionary, without much thought. Despite their problems – namely an abundance of crappy [over]explanations and fucked up (racist, sexist, etc.,) jokes – at the end of the day I saw both sites as relatively benign. After listening to this song, however, that changed.

In essence, Das Racist argues that Rap Genius and Urban Dictionary are plagued by an undercurrent of positivism.   Das Racist is right. Unlike SongMeanings.net, Rap Genius does not endorse a plurality of song experiences. Rather than providing meanings, a plural term implying a boundless amount of ways to experience songs, Rap Genius provides the meaning of rap lyrics. In its title and its mission, Rap Genius sees itself as an authority, the authority, rather than one resource among many.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It’s tempting to dismiss Rap Genius as a bunch of white nerds circle-jerking (and yes they are overwhelmingly white), but I think we can use Rap Genius as a way to think about one of the larger issues in hip-hop culture: the authenticity debate. In this debate, hip-hop fans vehemently argue over what constitutes “real hip-hop.” By “real,” overwhelmingly they mean “good.” This is a problem.

On a daily basis, my homie, Cameron Kunzelman, confronts a similar problem in the world of video game criticism. In a recent piece in which he debates Taylor Clark’s now (in)famous assertion that video games can be “smart,” Cameron laid down some useful words of wisdom:

“Instead of constantly fighting over what is smart and what is stupid, we should value the games that both reward us as players and open up the field of games for more experimentation and difference. Under this paradigm, Anna Anthropy’s contributions to the gaming scene and Skullgirls have equal aesthetic right to exist.

This saves us from “smart” and “dumb.” It saves us from video game journalists and tastemakers telling us how to feel about a game. Play a game; if you think it is smart, it is smart, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Celebrate art that makes the world of gaming bigger, more robust, more strange, most hackneyed, more archaic.”

For Cameron, conceiving of games as “smart” or “dumb” is useless, arbitrary and ultimately detrimental to the world of video games. These falsely objective value judgments do nothing but preclude diverse experiences of video games and feed peoples’ egos (particularly Jonathan Blow). I agree. By rewarding people with “Rap IQ” (this just might be the most pretentious concept ever), Rap Genius encourages limiting and egoistical ways of understanding rap. For Rap Genius, the “smart” way, the “best” way, to experience rap is to distill it down to the minutia, to definitively explain every tiny aspect of every song.Under this schema, it logically follows that the most intricate songs are the best songs.

That kind of thinking is stupid, positivist and indicative of a severely flawed understanding of rap.

Please don’t be a Rap Dummy Genius. Be a rap fan. It isn’t hard. I’m not going to define what a rap fan is because I’m not a Rap Genius. I don’t need to pin down what rap “means” to validate my experience of it.  I think that Kreayshawn is just as legitimate of a rapper as Kanye . In the end, all I’m saying is that participating in the discourse around rap doesn’t and shouldn’t require fastidiously breaking down  songs and dissecting them for presumed hidden meanings. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Afterword*
For more on video games and all that other stuff Cameron writes about, visit This Cage is Worms.

This post is the first post in a series that I will attempt to develop over the summer. The current plan is for most of the posts to be responses to the essays in That’s the Joint. We’ll see how that goes.