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.

 

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.

Cuz It’s All a Nigga Got: On Vince Staples, Guns and Nihilism

ImageThough G-Unit’s song “My Buddy” is one of rap’s most memorable songs about guns, in the song, guns are aggressively one-dimensional. Essentially serving as accessories, their only real function is to amplify G-Unit’s street cred. Nas’ “Got Ur Self A Gun” is less fetishistic, but the resulting message is the same: people with guns are people to be feared and respected. On Vince Staples’ new album Shyne Coldchain II, guns don’t appear as mere props. Tying his love and need for guns to the stark absence of any other forms of security, Vince develops guns as a rich and multifaceted symbol. For me, how he accomplishes this is interesting in terms of symbolism and narrative technique. 

The first thing that makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the sheer fact of Vince’s characteristic obliqueness. Even when he’s being clever, Vince always maintains his poker face, speaking at a constant slant as if he’s being wiretapped. For instance, on “Humble,” he raps, “Daddy had us contact high off of crack smoke/Had to get it crackin’ with the 7 cause the MAC broke/Wrist fucked up, couldn’t make it to practice.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, in this brief aside Vince reveals that he spent so much time shooting guns as a teenager that he ruined his wrist and ruined his usual gun. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to injure their wrists through sports or masturbation or plain old misfortune, but Vince Staples injured his wrists because he was always having to shoot his gun. His life was intensely precarious at all times.

That is utterly depressing. Nevertheless, despite this depressing revelation, Vince keeps it moving. These kinds of oblique references are found throughout the album and throughout Vince’s body of work. A lot of rap’s most-praised storytellers are heralded for how vivid and evocative their stories are. Vince goes the opposite way, filling his tales with silhouettes, shadows and ghosts. Obliqueness isn’t for everybody but it works excellently for Vince.

For Shyne Coldchain II in particular, this obliqueness is important to note because Vince develops guns as a symbol by actively focusing on other symbols. It’s tempting to call these other symbols foils, but I think Vince is doing something much more interesting.  For instance, on  “Turn” Vince spends the verses accosting religion and other forms of authority, noting how god, school and family – the biggest forms of authority when you’re young – have all failed him and failed themselves. Vince then hammers in this rampant failure during the chorus, chanting, “When it comes down to it, know I’m out here shooting, cuz it’s all a nigga got, cuz it’s all a nigga got.” It’s tempting to see guns and gangs as the replacement for all the forms of authority that have failed Vince, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Vince has discarded trust in authority altogether. Guns and gangs aren’t foils. As proven to Vince by the imprisonment of his father, whose previous life as a gang member is detailed on “Nate,” guns and gangs are just as characterized by failure as everything else: there is no contrast. So though Vince cherishes his guns, they’re really just another empty, meaningless symbol. When it comes down to it, Vince Staples is a nihilist.


What’s interesting about his nihilism is how Vince lives through it instead of resorting to narratives of rugged individualism. Given the systemic failure of everything in his life, you would think he’d attribute his success to himself à la “Started From the Bottom.” But there’s no narratives of self-reliance here. Because Vince Staples sees the world for what it is, he has to see himself with that same raw clarity. He’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to shoot them before they shot him.

I don’t have any reliable way of knowing Vince Staples’ self-image, but on Earl Sweatshirt’s song, “Centurion,” Vince raps, “I can’t wait/ ’til the money comin’ in/ Spend it all on guns and rims/ I ain’t nothin’ but a nigga/ Ain’t no reason to pretend,” so I don’t think I’m too far off. If this is in fact his self-image, it’s easy to dismissively say that Vince has self-hate or that he’s a victim of circumstances. These are the typical mainstream narratives that people use when they want to make sense of the lives of people on the margins. But I think that the whole point of Shyne Coldchain 2 is that both of those narratives look at the world without considering the values that are embedded in their respective worldviews.

For instance, people who advocate self-love overestimate the availability of the resources to develop such love. For Vince, religion, family, school and even Common (“Trunk Rattle”) just can’t think outside of their privileges. Becoming a good student or a good kid or a faithful churchgoer or a positive rapper takes more than pure effort; it takes the privilege to even be able to make those efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who argue that folks like Vince are victims of circumstance overestimate how defining circumstances actually are. In contrast to that argument, Vince describes a world in which people are actively working through their circumstances despite an utter lack of privileges. These people don’t have it easy and they should have it better, but they definitely aren’t victims.

In the end, because he values nothing in particular, Vince Staples is perfectly equipped to describe his world. And while his description won’t flatter anyone, even himself, it’s a description that everyone needs to hear. Listen to the album here. Even if you don’t care about guns or nihilism, the dude can rap his ass off, so there’s always that.