On Everybody

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Logic Everybody AfricaryanLogic is no storyteller. The Maryland rapper has professed his love for Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and favors lush, expansive soundscapes, but his cinematic ambitions are diminished by his vlogger perspective. Everybody, his third studio album is a feat of narrow vision. Covering race relations and identity and metaphysics, the album aims big but is utterly unrewarding, a dull haze of half-baked ideas and muddled intent.

Centered around an encounter between a deity, played by astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a mortal named Atom following his death in a car accident, Everybody follows Atom as he is endlessly reincarnated, slowly becoming everybody across the span of human history. It’s a trippy conceit but Logic fails to ever develop it. His verses attempt to ping between perspectives, but his characters are indistinguishable blurs, always inevitably folding back into Logic’s own underdeveloped story. This slippage could have illustrated the album’s themes of reincarnation and collective unity, but its shoddy execution reveals the limits of Logic’s vision.

Simply put, Logic doesn’t have an eye for detail. His verses are pure information dumps, full of declarations and claims but rarely narratives. “I’m a dirty motherfucker, a waste of life, a waste of skin,” he says on “Confess,” summarizing a story he never told. “Television tellin’ my vision to get greedier!” he says on “Most Definitely,” citing the entire medium rather than a specific channel. When he does attempt a narrative, settings and scenarios are announced rather than evoked. “Imagine this child growing up and seeing the craziest shit, being apart of the craziest shit,” he says without elaboration on “Take It Back.” Imagine if he actually told that story. The Incredible True Story, Logic’s last album, lacked a compelling plot, but it at least didn’t confuse stage directions with action.

This album’s working title, “AfricAryaN” (a nod toward his biracial heritage), was discarded in the wake of a public backlash, but the original title’s hollow provocation is built into the album’s core. Logic frequently uses his mixed heritage to reject extremism, but he doesn’t even seem to grasp the difference between identity and prejudice. On “Everybody” he oscillates between questioning the idea of white privilege, rejecting racial identity outright, and claiming he contains the blood of slaves and masters. His confusion is forgivable, but it’s jarring that he resolves it by declaring everyone equal as if that were ever the question, as if his own discomfort encompasses the entirety of the issue.  On “Take it Back” his heritage becomes the key to transcending identity, another unsolicited solution. “He always saw things from two sides. He always knew that the message that everybody was born equal regardless of race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation, he knew that because he saw that,” he says in blank verse, referring to himself. This is Logic’s idea of racial harmony: a black man whitesplaining equality.

Logic’s rapping is just as tortured, full of empty flow shifts and whiffed punchlines. “Street’s disciple, my rap’s a trifle/I shoot slurs from my brain just like Cobain,” he raps on “America.” “I wish I had motivation to get money/My rainy day would be sunny if I had a vision of currency falling above from the sky,” he raps on “Killing Spree.” Logic has never been an evocative rapper, but what he’s lacked in imagery he’s typically made up for with earnestness. Here he frequents a choppy stutter flow that mimics a record scratch. It’s stylish, but the sense of tedium does Logic little justice, especially when he gets outclassed by Black Thought and Chuck D on “America,” rappers capable of rapping well and emoting, not just one at a time. And this tedium is even more punishing if you’re a listener who’s familiar with the corners from which Logic sources all his parts: “America” is a schlocky imitation of Kanye’s “Fade” (it even has a Post Malone impression); “Most Definitely” lacks the assured breeziness of Mos Def’s “Umi Says;” “Killing Spree” bites Jay Rock’s “Vice City” but isn’t as infectiously seedy.

Ultimately, it’s just not clear what Logic is trying to do. Is he having an identity crisis? Is he affirming his identity? Is he having a crisis of faith? What is the nature of his faith? Is he upset about Spider-Man: Homecoming? You’d think these questions could be addressed in 71 minutes and 13 songs (many of them 6+ minutes) but Everybody is Logic’s least focused album yet. Instead of surveying human history, Logic vaguely explores his own anxieties, stargazing into the mirror. The beats are gorgeous and the ambition is clear, but what was supposed to be an album about everybody ended up being another album about Logic. And it doesn’t even tell his own story very well. Reincarnation is cruel.

On Da Reality Show

Young Dro Da Reality Show

Despite being at the epicenter of rap for well over a decade, and both launching and enduring major changes in the genre, the narrative of Atlanta hasn’t changed. In the collective mind, Atlanta is a land of constant succession, a place where artists build brands not legacies, where the moment an artist can afford a coupe is the same moment that artist is dethroned by a coup. In Atlanta, rappers are hitmakers, nothing else, the myth goes.

While this myth has some merit (e.g., Freak Nasty, Youngbloodz, K.P. & Envyi, Yung Joc), it is often more prescriptive than descriptive, resulting in Atlanta artists being filed away just because the myth and its believers prefer a pre-packaged narrative to messy facts. Some of these artists accept the myth, strategically cashing in and then cashing out once the spotlight recedes. Other artists retreat to their original bases, the streets, and churn out mixtapes ad infinitum until that mythmaking spotlight finally shines on them again. Young Dro is one of the latter kinds of artists, but even within that group he’s in the minority.

Da Reality Show, Young Dro’s third studio album, isn’t an event album, a swaggering red carpet catwalk like Ma$e’s Welcome Back. For Dro, this album is just his latest project. “Round 3,” Dro mechanically announces before his brief verse on “Black History,” unenthused. This album isn’t a glorious return to the ring because Dro never left. His gloves are still laced, his arms are still taut, and Grand Hustle is still in his corner.

Of course, longevity isn’t stasis. There have certainly been some major changes to Dro’s style since 2006. Dro’s famous swag talk is much more punctuated. His verses and songs are shorter and punchier and his cartoonish obsessions with Polo and multi-color cars have been dialed back in exchange for menacing lines about crime and vice. On “Dead,” a sluggish track that creeps along on stilts of scratchy percussion and muted keys, Dro runs through the pricing for contract killings: “I sell knees for 20/Ankles for 30/Wrists for 25/and 50 for the whole nigga, fuck it I’mma kill him.” This kind of gutter talk has always lurked in Dro’s music, but it hits harder in the absence of references to M&Ms and Tropicana.

When Dro actually does opt for swag talk, he tends to let the instrumentals do the heavy lifting. “We In Da City,” the album’s lead single, features Dro squeezing himself in between airy synths and a lively organ like cheese passing through a grater. Likewise, “Ugh” features in-the-pocket verses surrounded by a lush instrumental courtesy of Zaytoven that flutters between a chirping flute and crashing bass. The result is “Maybach music” as spoken by the Maybach itself instead of the rapper, swagger being evoked rather than insisted upon.

There are moments where Dro is a bit too insistent. The album tends to falter when Dro becomes overly sentimental. The last 3 tracks of the brief album (12 songs, 36 minutes) are cloyingly confessional, clumsily attempting to resolve Dro’s flirtations with crime and vice like a reality show settling an episode-long conflict in a two-minute scene before the credits.

But even as Young Dro aims for resolution, his own stubbornness holds him back. “Feeling Myself” is Dro’s version of “T.I. vs T.I.P.” (the song, not the album), an internal war between career-minded rapper and inveterate knucklehead dopeboy. While T.I. chose compromise, Dro firmly chooses to be a dopeboy, his final verse ending with a boast: “I’m realer than fucking real/ The hoodest nigga on BET, still.”

This choice to remain in the streets, in obscurity, likely won’t land Dro back “on MTV with Green Day,” as he boasted on “Gangsta” from Best Thang Smokin’. But this is probably a good thing. While the bird’s-eye-view of Atlanta rap continues to focus on emerging stars, Dro can flourish in the periphery, busting the myth of Atlanta, one album, one mixtape, one ongoing career at a time. 

Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything – but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

On Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop

whywhitekids

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

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

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

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

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

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

This entire song!:

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

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

By Eric Fischer

By Eric Fischer

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

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

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

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

* Note

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

Sources:

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

Album Review: /\/\ /\ Y /\ (Maya)

Although Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is often described as an “explosion in a shingle factory,” I think we can all agree that it is still a wonderful work of art. /\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A.’s new album, can similarly be described as an explosion in a haunted Home Depot. However, it is not a wonderful work of art. Listening to this album was punishing and grueling. The album is so excruciatingly awful that I am inclined to believe that her music studio also serves as an S&M dungeon. In fact, I hope it does because then I could say that she created this awful music with the intention of being heavily criticized for it, which would partially excuse her.

The album begins with, “The Message,” a short track that serves as the harbinger of the audio massacre that you will soon experience. The instrumental is classic M.I.A. –  obnoxious, tribal, boisterous, yet catchy – but the lyrics( Headbone connects to the headphones/Headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government) sound like a podcast from Conspiracy Brother.

The next track is “Steppin Up.” This song is one of the two songs on the album that I actually enjoy. The rambunctious instrumental features odd electronic percussion and sounds as if it was post-dubbed by a foley artist, but it works really well. Reminiscent of Missy Elliot, the lyrics display M.I.A’s confidence and ease. The fact that she is a British female rapper may put her on the fringes, but when it comes down to it, she can still rap.  Ultimately, the track is good because it is devoid of the obscure and poorly executed [pseudo]-political references and irritating overproduction that characterize the rest of the album. It is pure entertainment.

The next song is “XXXO.” If you told me that the artist behind brilliant songs like, “Bamboo Bangaa,” “Paper Planes,” “Bird Flu,” and “Come Around,” wrote, “you tweeting me like tweety bird on your iPhone,” I would call bullshit. Alas, I heard it for myself (3 times to be exact) so I cannot deny it. Even if you ignore the crap lyrics, the overall song is also terrible. The vocals sound like a collaboration between the Kids Bop kids and Madonna with a throat infection and the instrumental sounds like the title track from my dad’s favorite porn VHS from the 90’s.

“Teqkilla” comes up next. It’s about tequila, believe it or not. It’ s actually not a bad song. Despite my lack of experience with Tequila or heavy drinking in general, I found myself really enjoying it. Nevertheless, it eventually bored me. Unless you are Massive Attack, you probably shouldn’t have a song that is 6 minutes long as your 4th track. After “Teqkilla” comes, “Fighting.” Ha, I’m just kidding. I wish I wasn’t though, because the next song, “Lovalot,” is quite a tragedy. Although it began with the corny lyrics,  “They told me this is a free country,/But now it feels like a chicken factory,” I found myself genuinely enthralled by the synergy of the visceral instrumental and M.I.A.’s serious tone. However, upon hearing the chorus, I was wholly disappointed. “I really love a lot, I really love a lot./I really love a lot, I really love a lot./But, I fight the ones that fight me./But, I fight the ones that fight me.” Seriously, M.I.A? This sounds like the mantra for a group of kung-fu hippies (which would probably make a cool comic book ).

The next three songs, “Story To Be Told,” “It takes a Muscle,” and “It Iz What It Iz,” made me feel as if M.I.A. was truly missing in action. Luckily, however, she reappeared, for the song, “Born Free,” which is undeniably the best song on the album. The track begins with a dynamic drum roll that transforms into a synthesizer and percussion free-for-all. 40 seconds later, this segues into the surreal, echoing vocals of M.I.A. The echo effect amplifies her voice to a god-like frequency. The commanding tone works well with the simple, yet powerful statement, “I was born free,” which serves as the chorus. Although I will never see her perform this song live, I don’t mind because the song itself sounds like a live performance. Listening to it makes me feel as if I’m in a giant amphitheater. If you like One Day as a Lion you will definitely like this song.

Sadly, as Nelly Furtado (and others who aren’t as important) have said in the past, all good things come to an end. “Born Free” cannot redeem the tracks that succeed it. “Meds and Feds” is impossibly loud and overproduced. The difference in loudness between this song and the rest of the album is equal to the difference in loudness between a television show and its interstitial commercials (if you’ve ever watched Comedy Central late at night and seen those annoying Girls Gone Wild Commercials, you know what I’m talking about) . I genuinely have no idea why this song is so loud. Moreover, in addition to being egregiously loud, the track is just plain unintelligible, but not in that cool, creative, discordant-but-still-amazing kind of way. It just sucks. “Tell Me Why” and “Space” and follow suit, with the former featuring truly weak lyrics (Tell me why/Things change but it feels the same/If life is such a game/How come people all act the same?) and sounding like a song from Jay Sean’s digital discard pile and the latter being a lame response to M.I.A.’s NY Times and twitter fiasco (Whoa, she dedicated a song to dissing a journalist. She’s  a “real” rapper now).

Interestingly, one of the few things from “Meds and Feds” that I actually understood and can remember was M.I.A.’s use of the phrase, “digital ruckus.”  That is exactly what this album is. However, it is not a good digital ruckus. It not the cacophonous yet appealing, avant-garde masterpiece that M.I.A. wants it to be. It is just silly noise. Now, if she is aware of that, then goddamn, she is really pushing the frontiers  of music (but she isn’t).