A List of Things I Wrote This Year

I pitched like crazy this year and for the most part, it turned out well. I got to work with some great editors at some great pubs and I got to publish a wide range of writing on a bunch of subjects and works of art. One thing that particularly stands out to me is that most of the editors I worked with were women. I think that’s really cool.

Here’s a compilation of that writing. This is a not a best-of list, but there’s a reason that some things aren’t listed and some things are, haha.

The Haircut

This is an essay on racism in the economy and seeking employment and how personal relationships (with myself and others) get affected by it.

You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Fuck The Police

This essay was in the works for a while. When I was in grad school, I would occasionally read selections from this book called That’s The Joint, an anthology of scholarship on rap. It’s a very versatile book, but throughout the book there’s a very narrow vision of political rap that just didn’t hold weight for me. So this essay responds to that by giving a more detailed, almost phenomenological definition of political rap.

Of course, I don’t dismiss all rap scholarship or rap writing (not all of the selections in the book are academic articles). From what I gather, it took a while for rap to even be considered a worthy academic subject, and you can feel the fight to show that it’s credible throughout the book. But even with that context, that doesn’t mean that  Common and Public Enemy get to be the only political rappers.

Review of Compton

This album has some nice performances and sharp production, but there’s a strong and cynical corporate aura hanging over it that really disturbs me, especially in lieu of this being the soundtrack to the N.W.A. biopic. I was surprised at how many people praised the album given its origins.

Review of To Pimp a Butterfly

I didn’t and don’t like this album. It’s a very good album in terms of production and affect – it really feels of the moment. 2015’s unique blend of anger, rage, disappointment, and shattered hope pulsate throughout the album. But politically I think it deeply misunderstands “the personal is the political.” Kendrick also has bad politics when it comes to women. (I recommend ignoring the review that is paired with mine. There’s not really an argument there)

The Labor Theory of Exercise

This essay is probably the most Protestant thing I’ll ever write. It’s essentially about how recognizing that exercise is work has helped me continue exercising. It’s also my paean to Dance Dance Revolution. Don’t judge.

Review of But You Caint Use My Phone

This album is barely a month old, but it’s really penetrated my psyche. A lot of folks seem to think that “Phone Down” is the heart of the album, but Erykah Badu isn’t just some luddite. She really digs into our relationship with phones beyond saying we should use them less. I really dig it.

Review of Summertime ’06

Album of the year. And it’s not because Vince Staples is dark and brooding and brutally honest like a lot of writers would have you believe. This is album of the year because Vince Staples has no interest in courting sympathy. He’s a black villain without a neat pathological story that ends with him being an antihero. That was definitely a shot at Kendrick, but seriously Vince Staples works because he doesn’t seek apologies, for himself or from others.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

I got a ticket in Virginia earlier this year because my tags were from Georgia. I wrote about the experience of interacting with a cop and how people reacted to me being stopped.

Shakey Dog, an Epic

“Shakey Dog” is a song from Ghostface’s album Fishscale. It’s the most detailed rap song I’ve ever heard, so detailed that it struck me as an opportunity to redeem the idea of epicness. Jeff Weiss helped me craft it into its current form, which I greatly appreciate.

Review of 55 5’s

I love reviewing instrumental albums. The lack of a clear narrative, a voice, really demands that you find those subtle hints of the person who made it and infer what compelled them. I especially like how hard it can be to avoid pure description. Everyone who writes about music should review instrumental albums. They’re always a challenge.

Still Timely: Book Review of Marvel Comics, The Untold Story

I read a lot of comics this year, new and old and mostly Marvel. This book really helped put Marvel Comics into perspective. There’a  lot of excitement about the cinematic universe expanding, but this book really tempers that. I don’t think I was ever fanatic about the happenings in the comic world, but this book absolutely shifted my perspective to unflinching cynicism. Considering Marvel’s history, I definitely think we should be wary of their long-term commitments to fans, characters, and creators.

Mystique Was Right: Review of All New Wolverine # 1 and 2

See previous paragraph.

Review of At.Long.Last.A$AP

This album is trash, but a lot of people said it was good. I’m still a little confused, but I think my argument holds up.

Priced Out: Why I Can No Longer Afford a Career in Writing

I started off this post praising editors because this year I’ve dealt with a lot of editors, in the music world and beyond, that have really blown me off. This essay gets at the violence of being collectively dismissed and the privilege of pubs regularly using writers that they know and who tend to look like them. I also talk about debt, which I have a lot of, and diversity, which I don’t see a lot of in the writing world.

There’s other writing of mine out there, but these were the highlights. Hopefully 2016 brings more opportunities to write and more things to think and write about it.



Shakey Dog, An Epic

Ghostface Killah Fishscale

“Shakey Dog,” from Ghostface Killah’s 2006 album Fishscale, tells the story of two veteran stick-up dudes, Tony Starks and Frank, driving to a stash house, entering it and having a shootout in pursuit of the spoils. The story is very light on plot – the previous sentence just summarized the entire plot – but it overflows with details, from the S. Dots on Ghost’s feet, to the smell of fried fish from Harlem and spliffs saturating the car, to the size of Frank’s hoody, to the backstory of an old woman pushing a shopping cart. Way before they even enter the stash house, we can feel the wintry New York City air and the tension that’s making Frank stutter like a nervous dog.

And these guys aren’t amateurs. When they pull up to the block, the stash house’s first line of defense does nothing because they don’t get paid enough to deal with men of Frank and Tony’s caliber. They’re not about that life. But still, Frank is shaking in his goose-down coat. This job has lots of liabilities. “Jackson 5-0,” cops on foot, might come. The cab driver might speed off if things start to look sour. They might not make it back to the Marriott. Through it all Tony is talking tough, blunted into a state of cool confidence, but when his stomach growls after smelling the plantains, steak and rice on the other side of that stash house door, it’s clear that he’s got the shakes too.

Ghostface weaves this tapestry of images effortlessly. Not only is he participating in the story as Tony, speaking in first-person, but he’s also rising and receding with the instrumental, which samples “Love is Blue” by Johnny Johnson, and oscillates between frantic horns and dramatic, pained wails. It’s a juggling act few would attempt and even fewer would complete without failing.

But what really sells the story is not the story itself, but Ghost’s storytelling, the way he delivers the details. “Push the fuckin’ seat up,” he yells with irritation after mentioning that Tony is in the backseat with a stiff leg. “I’m on the floor like ‘holy shit!’ ” he shouts with strangely exhilarated surprise after the stick-up takes an unexpected turn. When he tells the backstory of the 77 year-old lady with the shopping cart and the shotgun inside of that shopping cart, his typically whiny, ambulating voice, briefly becomes respectful, because she’s not someone to be taken lightly. These granular details are what initially stand out, but it’s Ghost’s voice that really brings them to life. For Ghost, merely providing the details isn’t enough. He uses his voice to add dimensions to each description, shading in each image, simultaneously providing and justifying his excessive attention to sights, sounds and smells. Just like your neighborhood barbershop sophist, who always talks more than he listens, Ghost uses every available opportunity to convince the listener that what he’s saying matters. No large breast, no nervous stutter, no stomach growl, is left behind.

A lot of authors try to make their stories more vivid post hoc, paving over gaps and ambiguities in their work in an interview or an afterword or a sequel, but Ghost makes his mark in media res. His directing itself serves as director’s commentary. For Ghostface, everything about this story is big and important and awing, so that’s how he presents it, refusing to allow even the tartar sauce on his shoes to be overlooked.

This insistence on every detail being relevant deviates from the classical definition of epic, where the sheer events of the story indicate the story’s importance. That kind of epic is what you’ll find in a fantasy or fairy tale, where simply seeing a giant or a blind man allegedly elevates the story to epic proportions. That’s not a dismissal of fantasy, but when it comes to storytelling “Shakey Dog” earns its stripes precisely because it doesn’t merely walk us through a museum of certain highly-valued, pre-packaged icons, like “impossible tasks that must be done” and wise blind men. “Shakey Dog” makes it clear why each exhibit deserves our attention.

Of course, every story shouldn’t be in Ghostface Killah High-Definition©. That’s what leads to the dry world-building of some fantasy and sci-fi stories or the misguided search for the “true” person behind RiFF RAFF. Sometimes readymade, easily understood symbols work just fine. Even Ghostface himself could learn from that; some of his songs are vivid to a fault. Ultimately, the need for details really depends on the story being told. For “Shakey Dog,” Ghostface knew what was necessary and he delivered, flawlessly, epically.

Because we live in a world with things like like Epic Meal Time and epicfails.com, it might feel disrespectful to call “Shakey Dog” an epic. With all the other words out there, at first glance epic feels like a George Foreman grill, rarely useful and easy to live without. But that’s precisely why “Shakey Dog” has to be considered epic. It takes a cheapened word, blows off the dust and crud,  and shows its real value. 2007’s Epic Movie may have fallen flat on its face, but its heart was in the right place. Epicness is much more than symphonic movie scores, hour-long battles and men standing on mountaintops. It’s Ghostface Killah, paying $60 plus the toll to take a cab from Staten Island to Harlem, and wreaking havoc in a crowded apartment, all for the cash, coke and the crack.

Further reading:

To Be Continued, by David Brothers

Take Me Back: Ghostface’s Ghosts, by Steven Shaviro.