Nothing Was the Same – part I

“So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop Generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over….It’s but one version, this dub history–a gift from those who have illuminated and inspired…”

– Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

I have been listening to Drake’s latest studio album, Nothing Was the Same, a LOT. I’ll be honest, right now NWTS is constituting a large majority of my weekly and even daily music consumption. After the first few listens, I started noticing the album’s samples of classic Golden Era hiphop songs and I began formulating my little hiphop-hypothesis (aka
hip-hop-eth-is) that Drake was tipping his hat towards the hiphop greats while simultaneously composing himself into their company, into the hiphop canon.

In fact, he doesn’t really do this. Or rather, he is largely saluting the Wu-Tang Clan. All three samples of rap songs from the mid-90s are from Wu-Tang’s first two albums, and two of the three are actually samples of the same song, Wu-Tang’s 1997 “It’s Yourz,” which appears in Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” and then again in the immediately following “Own It” as tracks 4 and 5. Turns out my hypothesis was based on a faulty aural ID of the sample–probably from both songs–as the sample of T la Rock and Jazzy J’s “It’s Yours” (1984) that turns up on Nas’s 1994 “The World Is Yours.” (Put simply, I thought Drake’s producers were sampling Nas, not Wu-Tang. Guess I wasn’t looking at the track listing.)

Here is where my research falters. I didn’t research deeply into these songs’ producers to see where they were or whether they worked together or what they were thinking. I use “Drake” as a synechdoche for all of the people who collectively create the music called Drake’s. But neither Wikipedia nor WhoSampled had any indication that Wu-Tang’s use of the shouted phrase “it’s yours!” which constitutes the chorus on “It’s Yourz,” released in 1997 in New York City, referenced or had any legal relationship to the shouted “it’s yours!” on Nas’s track from three years prior, which came out on his debut Illmatic in 1994, also in New York. I find this strange.

On NWST I also recognized the sample of Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” and that makes 3 samples of Wu-Tang, among the album’s other assorted samples of pop, soul, and hiphop tracks. Not the broad Golden Era homage I had in mind.

And yet, it’s still noteworthy that Drake et al is sampling rap from the ’90s, including Nas or not. As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Of course sampling “is about paying homage” (79), but it also “locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present’” (89), allowing an artist like Drake to position himself in music history and highlight how earlier music circulates in the lives and musics of contemporary artists. In this way rap artists arrange for themselves their own portraits of musical history, the history of themselves. Drake arrays himself alongside contemporaries and predecessors, a group that has included Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Wu-Tang Clan, Curtis Mayfield, 2-Chainz, and Timbaland.

Rappers sampling rappers is noteworthy because early rap couldn’t sample rap–there wasn’t any yet. Bambaata sampled Kraftwerk; “The Message” boasts a funk bass line under a disco beat. Sampling has always been one method by which hiphop artists intertextually situate themselves within living traditions of American, African-American, and world musics.

Three-and-a-half decades on, contemporary rappers have a rich repository of hiphop musics, including rap and R&B, to sample from, besides earlier and other contemporary forms. So Drake’s opener on NWTS, “Tuscan Leather,” can sample Whitney Houston alongside Curtis Mayfield–nodding both to the music that was on the radio when Drake and in fact I were kids, as well as the music our parents’ generation heard. Mayfield joins other soul and funk greats like James Brown and Otis Redding, along with so many other artists from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, in forming the backbone of hiphop beats.

In more recent rap, hiphop’s traditional sample base has expanded to include more contemporary references. Mayfield is sampled heavily on Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout, released in 2004, an album which also references Lauryn HIll, and that was already 10 years ago. Now, in 2014, we’re into the generation where J. Cole samples a track from West’s debut, West’s “The New Workout Plan,” on Cole’s “Work Out” from 2011. My 18-year-old students from a few years ago knew who Aaliyah from Drake’s 2010 “Unforgettable,” which samples Aaliyah off of her 1994 R. Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, whose title track is sampled in Outkast’s “May-December,” off of their 2004 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below–or maybe my students never noticed the sample but recognized Aaliyah’s name from Kendrick’s line on Drake’s “Buried Alive Interlude” that, “Only that nigga was missing was Aaliyah,”  or Drake’s quick eulogy–“Since I saw Aaliyah’s precious life go too soon”–on “We’ll Be Fine,” both off Drake’s 2011 Take Care.

The point is, time flies. 2004 was 10 years ago and 1994 was 20. In 1994, I was 8. So was Drake. Aaliyah was 16 (ergo the statutory-rape-ness of her relationship with producer R. Kelly). Kendrick Lamar was 7. Nas’s Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Common’s Resurrection all came out that year–that’s why Nas and Outkast had twentieth reunion tours this year: nostalgia. Nostalgia sells. These cycles put us in rap’s third or fourth generation, if such distinctions aren’t the fictions Jeff Chang warns us they are. Christopher Wallace would’ve been 42 this year and Aaliyah would be 36. Nas is 41 and Andre 3000 is 39, even if he plays a 24-year old Jimi Hendrix in the new biopic All Is By My Side. History is more like a circle than a line, or a rhythm that you hear in the corner of your mind, still echoing from the tape deck long shut off in the dash of the quiet, waiting car. “[T]he thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it,” that is, when it “‘cuts’ back to the start” (Snead qtd. in Rose 69). Hiphop history lives in the cut.

Nothing_Was_the_Same_cover_1

via Wikipedia

References

Wikipedia: “Nothing Was The Same,” “Tuscan Leather,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Drake album],” “Own It,” “Connect,” “Poundcake/Paris Morton Music 2,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Wu-Tang Clan album],” and more.

WhoSampled.com: “Drake ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR Own It samples Wu-Tang Clan Its Yours,” “Nas The World Is Yours samples T La Rock and Jazzy Jay It’s Yours,” “Drake feat. Young Jeezy Unforgettable samples Aaliyah feat R. Kelly At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Wu Tang Clan Its Yourz,” and more.

WhoSampled.com Blog. “Drake–Nothing Was The Same: The Samples.”

Andrew Martin, “A History of Drake’s Obsession with Aaliyah.” Complex.com.

Print

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador (2005): New York.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.

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“We are pleased because we are pleasing”: Black Panties and The Body’s Grace

Image

via Pitchfork.com

Last weekend, in the car with two besties from Chicago, I asked a really buzzkill question when one of them started talking about R. Kelly’s new musical proposal, “Marry the Pussy.” Echoing the kind of infamous celebration of the new album that appeared in feminist publication Jezebel a few weeks ago, my friend insisted that “Marry the Pussy” was a celebration, what Jezebel writer Isha Aran called “a magnificent ode to pussy.”

“But,” I asked, the mood dying around me already, “…does the pussy have any agency?” Continue reading

Yeeziography: raw beats, but the lyrics are half-baked

"New Slaves" on SNL, via fistintheair.com

“New Slaves” on SNL, via fistintheair.com

So Yeezus gives us a new Kanye: minimalist, “black new wave,” hyper-fragmented, stripped down. Well, I’ve been listening and I’ve been reading reviews, and here’s my final answer:

The MUSIC is tight: surprising, eclectic, unfulfilling, jagged, intelligent. I am thinking of “Bound 2,” the album’s closing track and my favorite song, the one I keep replaying. Yes, the samples are titillating but shift before your heartbeat finds the record’s groove. The album curates a huge swath of American music, from Nina Simone to breezy 70s disco to early, obscure rap to a rising Caribbean influence. West has perfected DJ Kool Herc’s originary hiphopvention of cueing up the best moment on a record–but unlike Herc, West doesn’t loop it: he gives us just a taste, then pulls away. It’s up to us to loop. Loop Yeezus.

The reason I don’t keep playing the whole album, though, is that the LYRICS are banal. Continue reading

Which Sketchy Songwriter Stuffed Miguel + Kendrick’s New Track Full of Rape Logic?

Miguel is a stylish new R&B crooner with a new post-Akon/Neyo aesthetic, so I’m sorry that his new single, “How Many Drinks,” is full of predatory one-liners. The music is sultry, true. And whenever it comes on the radio, I admit I groove for a second before I remember what song it is.

I’m not the first listener to be turned off by. At the LA Weekly, Shea Serrano describes “Why This Song Sucks.” (Answer: because it’s rapey). At Madame Noir, Clark Gail Baines asks whether it’s ok to still jam out to a song that, if its lyrics were directed to her at a bar, would have her “two step[ping] in the opposite direction.” And while the video posters at Clutch, Rap-Up, Absolutepunk.net and 2DopeBoyz don’t say anything of the kind, commenters at all four compared the lyrics’ scenario to “date rape.” But the best treatment of the song came in Twitter conversation between @BShariseMoore, @UrbanGrief (Lisa Good), and @sisterprofessor (Dr. Zada Johnson) in a series of tweets, from which Johnson segued into a great discussion of the falsetto in R&B, and BShariseMoore follows up with a blog post that breaks down the song’s questionable lyrics.

https://twitter.com/BShariseMoore/status/337445212051877888

It’s a damn shame Miguel’s people didn’t notice a sociopath wrote their new track. This song is filled with really classic predatory logic, from using alcohol as a weapon for committing assault, to distorted thinking that blames the victim for something she didn’t choose. I know you guys think I”m being a total killjoy here. And I’m thinking of the scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell is told to go for the drunkest girls in the bar, and he ends up with Leslie Mann, who of course is hilarious and it gets very funny. But the depiction of Mann as the aggressor is disingenuous. In real life, real drunk girls are vulnerable to real predators, not affable adult virgins.

Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to look at lyrics like these to remind ourselves how blurred conceptions of consent are in our popular culture, and in popular depictions of courtship. Miguel’s lyrics describe a seduction that focus entirely on his wants and his needs, which describe a pickup as a process with only one ending, whose only variable is not whether a woman might want to sleep with him or not but only “How many drinks?” it will take to get her there.

The song opens with Miguel’s assumption that because he’s attracted to a woman, he’s entitled to her.

Frustration: watching you dance.
Hesistation: to get in your pants
Come closer, baby, so I can touch
One question: am I moving too fast?

So the song opens with Miguel, presumably at a bar, “watching you dance.” Immediately he feels “frustration,” which I’m reading as both sexual frustration but also anger: you have something he wants. But it’s all about his feelings, not yours. He feels frustrated, so you need to “come closer” so that he “can touch.” (What, is he supposed to come over to you? Ask you to dance? Too lazy.) Miguel has “one question: am I moving too fast?”–but from the lyrics that follow, it doesn’t seem he cares what your answer is. He already knows how the night will end, and your opinion doesn’t matter.

‘Cause I ain’t leavin’ alone, feel like I could be honest, babe,
We both know that we’re grown
That’s why I wanna know
How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?
Yeah, you look good and I got money
But I don’t wanna waste my time
Back of my mind I’m hopin’ you say two or three
You look good, we came to party
But I don’t wanna waste my time

The chorus is where things get aggressive. “I ain’t leaving alone,” said instead of sung, is an almost threatening statement. It suggests to a woman that there’s only one way out of here, and it’s with me. The next two lines sport some faulty logic: Assumption: “we’re grown” (meaning what: we’re both DTF?); ergo (“that’s why”) there’s only one question here (“I wanna know”): “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” Miguel knows you’re coming: you’re a grownup, right? And, because he’s grown, and you’re grown, and he looked at you, your desires must be identical to his. Or if they’re not, he doesn’t care. The “one question” he asked you is not, “Do you want to go home with me?” or “Are you attracted to me?” or even “Wanna fuck?” It’s, How drunk do you have to be, or how much money do I have to spend, or even how much do I have to talk to you “to get you to leave with me,” which if you do, I will assume that is consent to sleep with me (though it isn’t).

via npr.com

via npr.com

The next few lines strike me as pathologically narcissistic, as Miguel lays out what he’s comfortable with in this situation (spending money) and what he’s not comfortable with (you spending his money without the payoff). Twice Miguel repeats that “I don’t wanna waste my time.” This line would read hugely different to me if he said “I don’t wanna waste [your] time,” giving some small indication of the woman’s subjectivity, like that she could be disinterested in him. And why is the “back of my mind hopin’ she’ll say two or three”? Because then she’ll be good and drunk? Or because more than that is expensive and who needs four or five, honestly? Miguel, in the “back of your mind” you should be sayin, I hope I’m being respectful of this woman’s boundaries. She seems kind of drunk,  maybe I should ask for her number and call her tomorrow. 

Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the song is interesting because it shows how rape culture and alcohol culture intersect.  On “How Many Drinks,” he raps, “Pool full of liquor then we dive – in it/Knowing if I lick her I might die – in it.” The first part of this couplet is lifted from Lamar’s track “Swimming Pool (Drank),” where the voice of an experienced partier explains to Lamar, “First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” However, as one of my students V. J. demonstrated in a great paper last near, “Swimming Pool (Drank)” is a polyphonic narrative that uses multiple voices to demonstrate a really ambivalent attitude about drinking. Yes, one voice advises “diving in,” but another voice, identified as Lamar’s “conscience,” reminds Lamar that he’s “drown in some poison abusin’ my limit,” and the chorus depicts the anomie of a life of binging, hangovers, and the real boredom of addiction.

But this ambivalence is totally lacking in Lamar’s track on “How Many Drinks.” It’s almost as though he misquotes himself, takes his own words out of context, and distorts the meaning of (and tarnishes the subtlety of) his original song. Lamar’s lyrics don’t have the same narcissism as Miguel’s: his lyrics, which aren’t so brilliant, depict the choice to get together as one he and the woman make together: “Ah, what do we have? Your empty heart and my empty bottle and yellow cab.” That is, it takes two people’s desire, not just one: she’s had a break up, he’s had some drinks, there’s a taxi waiting outside. What’s really striking to me about Lamar’s verse is the effect it has on our reception of the sampled song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” Because as listeners there’s this impulse to read the values of “How Many Drinks,” which is about getting a girl drunk so you can bang her, onto “Swimming Pool,” to forget that the latter actually questions alcohol culture as self-destructive, and instead remember it as a binge drinking anthem.

At the end of the remix, Miguel tries to spin his sleazy pickup as an exercise in women’s lib with a dash of YOLO:

I ain’t judgin’ if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
What? More power to you if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
Let’s go, shit, we only live once right?

Whatever action verb is used for sex is mixed out, but it sounds pretty clearly like “fucking” to me. Sorry, guys, but this is what rape scholarship calls “cognitive distortions.” In Miguel’s outro, the cognitive distortion is that while earlier in the song he was the one deciding “I’m not leaving alone,” suddenly the woman is an engaged participant with agency and choice. These lines also function to remove Miguel from responsibility while implicitly shaming the female. Suddenly “I ain’t judgin'” her decision to be promiscuous. Of course, these lines are laden with implicit judgment. In fact, they are nearly victim-blaming. Suddenly the empowered woman “decide[s…] to be fuckin’ tonight.” What happened to the girl you only had one question for? The sarcastic congratulations, “more power to you” only makes the line more offensive. They equate women’s victimization with women’s empowerment. If you wants to be liberated, go ahead, but you’re gonna get fucked. By Miguel. Yucky.

Oh, Kanye, You Always Know Just What to Say

Kanye West wants to be heard.

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park

He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around,  re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.

And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:

And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.

As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),

Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).

Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”

MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.

Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.

At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.

And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.

What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.

Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.

I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.

What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.

On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”

On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”

And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.

Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.

Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.”  Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”

I know that we the new slaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves…

Get your piece today.

And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too  high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”

Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:

Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things”  as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.

Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.

As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice.  “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?

Males Rapping Females: Drake, Pride, and Manly Self-Sacrifice

via necolebitchie.com

via necolebitchie.com

So, I finally raised my white flag and started listening to Drake. This was on the heels of a lot of Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how each of these three male artists writes and performs songs about female characters. (I’m thinking here of Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Lamar’s Section.80 and Good Kid, mAAd City). At first, my response was positive, both personally and politically – I felt noticed as a female listener: hey, he’s talkin’ ’bout ladies, he’s male but he cares, he notices the women around him. Cool. Then, my critical impulses jumped in: hey, talkin’ about ladies is great, but I shouldn’t be  satisfied by men talkin’ bout women. Where’s the women talkin’ ’bout women? And then, finally, I started collecting evidence, listening to the songs about women more closely. I started wondering about these tracks’ emotional content: why sing a certain song about a female character instead of about yourself? What can these artists achieve emotionally through female characters that they can’t or won’t approach through their own male selves?

These questions are rooted in my longtime interest in gendered values/vices, a subject I’ve discussed briefly here before. To briefly summarize where I’m coming from (and you can read more at the linked post), I’ll just note that traditional Western Christianity tends to see self-sacrifice as a virtue and pride as a sin, a la Jesus Christ. However, in the 1960s feminist theologians began to criticize this vision of virtue and vice as tailored primarily for the powerful, for white, heterosexual men: if you’re in power, self-sacrifice can be virtuous, pride and overreach can be sinful, sure. But for folks who are oppressed, who are voiceless, inculcating the “virtue” of self-sacrifice tends to reinforce their oppression. These feminist theologians suggested instead that for oppressed peoples, self-assertion is virtuous, while self-abnegation is a vice, a revision also taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he asserted that those in power will never give up power willingly, but it needs to be claimed by the powerless: i.e., the virtue of pride.

I mention this all because I’ve noticed in Drake’s work especially a use of female characters to elide pridefulness. On his album Take Care, while Drake is braggadocious, he doesn’t take wholesome pride in his accomplishments and hard work; instead, he ascribes pride to female avatars: mother figures in “Look What You’ve Done” and a female love object in “Make Me Proud.”

On “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake proudly recounts his rise from obscurity to fame, the hard work and the lucky breaks, but repeatedly redirects his pride from his own self to a grateful honoring of his mother and another mother figure who supported him. Of his mother’s health problems, he asks, “But maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard/If you were healthy and it weren’t so bad.” In this moment Drake resists taking pride in his own work ethic. Perhaps a work ethic isn’t manly, but altruism is: so Drake suggests he worked hard not because he was a hard worker, but because he had to be a man and take care of his mother. He continues:

Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on
[Lil Wayne’s] thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
I almost get a Grammy off of that thing
They love your son man that boy gone
You get the operation you dreamed of
And I finally sent you to Rome
I get to make good on my promise
It all worked out girl, we shoulda known
Cause you deserve it

These lines fascinate me because Drake is being playfully prideful, braggadocious: “Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on,” and he alludes to his hard work when he makes a Grammy-nominated mixtape in record time. But these declarations of pride and hard work are quickly redirected from effeminate pride in oneself to manly self-sacrifice, i.e., taking care of Mom: “you get the operation you dreamed of…’cause you deserve it.” What I’m wondering here is, why can’t Drake deserve it?  Didn’t he work hard, didn’t he make this music? But recognizing his own hard work in a serious way seems uncouth, and so he transforms his own pride into gratitude and self-sacrifice by using his achievement to take care of Mom.

This picture of acceptable virtues and vices is expanded on “Make Me Proud,” which similarly resists pridefulness but celebrates and encourages a female other–voiced literally by Nicki Minaj–to take pride in her accomplishments. On this track Drake paints a picture of a girl working hard, balancing her academic/career aspirations with her social/superficial concerns. Remarkably, she pulls it all off, and Drake expresses a kind of sympathy for what a catch she is, how she must be getting hit on at every turn:

weekend in miami, tryna study by the pool
Couple things due, but you always get it done….

You said niggas coming on too strong girl
They want you in their life as a wife
That’s why you wanna have no sex
Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right
Cause you don’t love them boys
Pussy run everything, fuck that noise

That line in there: “Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right” – in invoking the feminist mantras, Drake gently mocks them, mocks this girl he supposedly loves. And this dressing down of her righteous and well-earned pride in herself is continued into the chorus when, first of all, the girl’s achievements are conflated with her physical appeal, and second, her pride in herself is something that appears to need to be validated by Drake:

I know things get hard
But girl you got it, girl you got it there you go
Can’t you tell by how they looking at you everywhere you go
Wondering what’s on your mind, it must be hard to be that fine,
When all these motherfuckas wanna waste your time
It’s just amazing, girl, and all I can say is…

I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so,
I’m so proud of you (x3)
Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back
That’s why you’re bad as fuck and you…

And then Nicki jumps in – unlike Drake, she can inhabit pride in a way he is not permitted to:

B-b-b-bad I am
All of them bitches I’m better than
Mansions in Malibu babblin
But I never mention everything I dabble in
…Done did the pop tour, I’m the realest deal,
The best legal team so the deals is ill
It’s Mac, OPI and a fragrance too
Apparel, I’m dominating every avenue
Cobblestone, good view, lil gravel too
Gotta pay for the entourage travel too
Cause I’m fli-fli-fly, I’m flying high
Ain’t got time to talk, just Hi and bye

It’s interesting to ask, in this context, whether Nicki’s braggodocious lyrics, above, are qualitatively different from Drake’s. (We’ll look at another song of his in a moment). Taken on their own, I would say they’re not: she’s better than bitches, she has a great team, brand-name deals, she flies her entourage around, etc. Drake brags about the same shit. I think the difference is the context, the introduction Nicki receives. “That’s why you’re bad as fuck,” he says, and she replies, “Bad I am,” as though Drake gives her permission to take pride in herself and she accepts it, as though she condones his  validation of her worth.

It’s also fun to watch Drake and Nicki’s genuine chemistry and affection in the video of “Make Me Proud,” above.  Because when they are actually rapping the lyrics to each other the song has an even clearer dialogic quality. And we see then that not only does Drake sing to Nicki, “I’m so proud of you,” but she sings it back to him, gesturing to the audience: “I really am so proud of this guy.” It’s almost maternal, a mother saying she is proud of her son. Perhaps that’s the invisible voice missing from Take Care: maternal pride (though actually it does appear, dressed as gratitude, at the end of “Look What You’ve Done”). Drake doesn’t need to be proud of himself; he’ll be proud of the women, and the women will be proud of him.

I compare “Look What You’ve Done” and “Make Me Proud” with a number of other songs on Take Care in which Drake engages with female characters and variously brags, acts falsely humble, appears emotionally unavailable, or alludes to a private emotional self but resists trespassing beyond a set core of manly emotions: sexual appetite, generosity for women and friends, gratitude/blessedness, blase oversaturation at the volume of food, drink, pussy he gets, empty apologies for said emotional unavailability. But never can Drake say, I worked hard, I earned this (only female characters can say that); and while Drake can say I mistreated some women, he is never mistreated by them – he uses them for sex, they use him for money, but his heart is never broken (that is weak): thus, “Cry if you want to, but I can’t stay to watch you, it’s the wrong thing to do.” I.e., Drake’s sin is emotional unavailability, he’s too tough to love you right now, but he’s rational enough, smart enough, chivalrous enough to break your heart to your face, instead of “end[ing] up lying, and say I love you too.”

There’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. I’m interested to hear what y’all think – all fictional characters are in some sense avatars of their authors, and I’m hoping to create space for us to notice the different characteristics rappers care to occupy as themselves versus as female fictions in their work. We also see this going on in Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and lots of Kendrick Lamar tracks, but I’ll save that for another day. Peace y’all.

Rap, School, and Weed in varying degrees of awesomeness

This video and song are so bad I wasn’t sure whether to post them but I felt compelled given the whole “looking for school in rap” function of this blog.

Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa – “Let’s Go Study” | Watch Hip Hop Music Videos & New Rap Videos | HipHop DX.

However, as retribution for that I’ll also give you the cover art for Rihanna’s new song “Diamonds” (also not the best song ever, but better than that weak joint above), about which all I have to say is that it’s fucking awesome.

As for the song itself, it has a little bit of Phil Collins going on in the instrumentation, a little Nicki Minaj in the hook, and a little American Idol in RiRi’s stretchy vowels. Still love her though, duh. But if you’re gonna listen to a Rihanna song it should probably be “Rude Boy.” Speaking of which, did you ever read that article about Ester Dean?

And if you’re actually going to care about a Rihanna video, it should obviously be “Man Down.”

Watch the Throne, Givenchy, and the Ethics of Luxury Sampling

So, I finally got my hands on a copy of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne (2011), I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and I gotta write about it. If Kanye’s previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like dropping E with your best friend you’ve had a crush on since you were a little kid, Watch the Throne is like doing mounds of coke with your best friend you’ve been jealous of and competitive with since y’all were kids, then going to a party full of people richer than you, getting smashed, and walking home through the city streets with your arms around each other singing camp songs into the dark, expensive night.

Since his last solo album, Kanye’s vision of luxury has deepened–not just aurally and lyrically, but visually, too–and branded. While it’s no secret that Watch the Throne is about luxury, I’ll let you listen to the lyrics on your own time. Today’s post is about visuals: in the music video for “Otis,” Jay and ‘Ye dismantle a Maybach– you know, Maybachs on backs on backs–and Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy art directed the CD, the tour, and a few videos, “Otis” included. The CD materials for WTT aren’t as beautiful as MBDTF’s, but it’s not Tisci’s fault. MBDTF has a fold-out packaging in rich red with gold lettering that seems designed with its holiday-season release in mind. After the banning of its miscegenation-themed cover art, an original oil painting by George Condo, buyers ultimately had the choice of one of five other original Condo paintings as their peekaboo cover image. Inside the packaging, the CD booklet folded out into a square poster of the Condo painting on one side. On the inside, in bright gold lettering, all of the album’s credits and permissions. For a guy who made name through innovative samples, a task that’s too often wrought with legal troubles and debt for artists, these gold letters screamed that Kanye had every singer, rapper, producer and sample on his album that he wanted, and he paid for it all, straight-up.

MBDTF Ltd. Edition Vinyl

By the time WTT rolls around, Kanye’s provedhis piece. Gold letters behind him, he’s onto gold covers now, that is, the gold-plated cover art for the album designed by Ricardo Tisci, the head designer for luxury house Givenchy. On the pack page of WTT’s album booklet, Tisci is credited as “Creative Director.” And while folks kept hounding Kanye for touring in a leather skirt and a t-shirt with a picture of himself as a tiger on it, it only takes a quick flip through the WTT CD booklet to realize that that’s a Givenchy shirt designed for this album by Ricardo Tisci. So who’s laughing now?

Also in the booklet is the screen-printed American flag that adorns the wall above the dessicated Maybach in “Otis” — a fibrous, pop-art looking thing that reminds us from the booklet’s inside cover that what’s happening here is uniquely amazing because it’s uniquely American: rags-to-beyond-riches, hiphop style. (As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, hiphop tells the story of “something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America” (18).) Unlike in the MBDTF literature, WTT’s booklet is all business: certainly no lyrics, some custom Givenchy art, and two tight pages of permissions in a basic sans-serif typeface with Gothic lettering for the song titles. But it’s still all there. Contains samples from. Contains samples from. Additional creative input by. Used with permission. Used with permission. Appears courtesy of. Used with Permission. All rights reserved.

As Stringer Bell said to Avon Barksdale, “We making so much goddamn straight money, man, the government come after us, man, ain’t shit they can say” (The Wire s3e6, 2004).

So, my point is, Kanye’s last two albums point to an interesting new development in sampling ethics, which have grown and heaved over the last decades as the legal profession has run them raw. We’ve seen the Lil Wayne response, which is to rap over whatever he wants, then release it for free as a mixtape; the Tyler the Creator response, who doesn’t even sample–he wants other folks to sample him. And then, fittingly, the Kanye response: big, brash, and willing to shell out for what he wants. This is luxury sampling ethics, samples bought and paid for, further elucidation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that “For Jay-Z [and, I’d add, Kanye], wealth is revolutionary”–and this is the part where I string together a bunch of WTT song titles, so brace your dork-o-meters–’cause it’s a New Day, they’ve Gotta Have It, these tracks were Made in America, and Who Gon Stop Me? Not Otis (nor the keepers of his estate).