Thursday, August 7, 2014


What the Hell is One Point Twenty-One Jigga-Whaaaatts?!

I'm Brendan McGuirk, and this is what I'm about.


When this space was launched six-and-a-half years ago under a joke of a masthead whose punchline was so opaque and insular that I was sure it would be laughed at exclusively with and by myself, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted it to be. I just knew that puns fusing rap-lyrics with nostalgic pop-culture-citations would be key ingredients. After all, those were key ingredients to me.

I was a young writer figuring out how to publish and what I wanted to work towards. To my great fortune, I had a few platforms and spaces available to me, and I wanted 1point21jiggawhatts to be the platform I used to discuss the things that weren't appropriate for the sites where I plied my wares. Comics were my career, at that point-- I'd interned out of college at DC Comics' editorial, I had worked at Midtown Comics' highly-trafficked Times Square retail location, I'd collaborated on a comic of my own, I'd begun writing about comics semi-professionally, first at PopCultureShock, then Newsarama, Comic Foundry, and ComicsAlliance. Funnybooks were my lifelong passion, so much so that I actually tailored my undergraduate degree to their unique qualifications, focusing my Bachelor's Degree With an Individual Concentration program on Writing for Visual Media. Intentionally oblique, it was my way of saying, yes, I will pursue a higher education by writing fancy essays about Spider-Man, but I won't be naive enough to corner myself into a life where those are my sole qualifications.

So 1point21jiggawhatts would be where I wrote about the not-comics stuff I loved. Sports, music, politics; I had opinions on them all, but I lacked reps in the field, so before I could venture out to try and sell THOSE opinions to prospective editors, it would be where I proved my chops, chiefly to myself, but also maybe to them. To echo my hero and pop-culture avatar Kanye West, I wasn't really spittin' game, I was scrimmaging.

And so it was for a time. I eventually began working full-time as a web editor for my hometown tabloid, The Boston Herald. Catching onto a real-life gig in publishing meant a lot to a kid that knowingly took the risk to personally-customize his college degree, and while the news industry was a churn, I took pride in being a cog. I did this and continued to freelance and write, around the internet on comics, and on this site for other fun stuff.

Then, like probably everybody, I caught a bit of mid-twenties malaise. The day-to-day of maintaining a news website went from a lark to a grind, comics became less personally rewarding, and I didn't know what I wanted to do or be. Happiness came and went, all too often with the phases of the sports seasons.

During this time, my relationship with 1point21 began to fray. After I'd covered San Diego's Comic-Con International, the week-long show that acted as a sun the entire industry revolved around, my goals within comics seemed both tantalizingly close and further than ever before. My passion, which had been such potent fuel for so much of my education and early professional life, began to wane. I kept this site as my browser's homepage, ostensibly as a daily reminder to get back in the saddle, but really as a (very Catholic) way of punishing myself, and shaming myself for allowing so much time to slip away without attempting to re-engage with my goals. For months that became years, I would say the same static image, every time I booted up my web browser, each instance a new cutting reminder of what exactly I was not up to.

When I finally would muster up the energy to put pen to pad, all I could summon were justifications for my slacking ways. I was trying to motivate, but I instead only felt the chasm between where I was and where I intended to be widen.

As happens when one's life is fraught with corrosive doubt, the circumstances of my personal life also changed. Romantic upheaval made it much easier for me to focus the attentions of my daily life on everything but my writing, my goals, and what I could only dare to name as such after a few adult beverages; my career.

But life is long and full of opportunity. While I fell out of love, in life, with comics, with some long-held and romanticized dreams, I needed something to fill the gap. After watching all of The Wire and reading all of the Game of ThronesA Song of Ice and Fire series during one notably nihilistic winter, I began to pack my daily life with music. I had always been musical-- unabashedly loved Disneys and musical theater, a lifelong backup singer to whatever was playing on car stereos-- but now music was the styrofoam peanuts packing the walls of my entire waking life. I filled the silence of my days with meticulously curated mixes, and consumed more, and more diverse, music than I ever had before.

After going that way for a few months, I recognized that this played into an existing pattern. Maybe this was true of other people, but I thought back to the times that I had delved deepest into music and discovery, and realized it had always come at times of great tumult. Some of this was surely circumstantial, like when I went to college and was introduced to the world of inter-campus filesharing (long ago...), but it occurred to me that part of the purpose music had served in my life was to give me a running conversation I could participate in, even when only as a listener. It kept me engaged, even as engagement levels in other parts of my life faltered.

I started seeing more live music, making sure to experience the artists that affected me most in their optimal habitat. I started expending more and more energy on music, consuming it with great intent, sharing my discoveries with anyone who would listen, and being consumed by it. It was true love, one that reached back into the recesses of my life, but that also had an open-ended future. My uncle had been a struggling musician until joining the Knights of the Keyboard ranks himself, once upon a time. That decision led to a new life for him across the country, a book bearing his name being published, and eventually, a life-changing time as an American ex-pat in Thailand (it's both not as bad and worse than you might imagine). My sister, who had been a diva our entire lives, who could be counted on to belt out the Mariah hits at the top of her lungs with each daily shower, was blossoming as a young performer herself.

It started to seem like maybe music was going to somehow prove to be a key to whatever was to come next.

Eventually, my frustration over lack of creative output began to boil over. Then, another young American man who had once shown great promise in his field but allowed distractions to interfere with his calling, began staging a return, and announced himself ready to take back the spotlight. It was decided. My comeback would come on the coattails of a man that inspired me long ago, during another transitory era. I would write a massive exploratory piece on Justin Timberlake. It was an exercise just trivial enough to feel consequential, or perhaps vice-versa.

I took far too long and published my opus. It was an album analysis, but it was also a mission statement. I didn't want to apologize for the romanticism of my goals and dreams any longer. I had no options other than to be the guy I am-- the guy that spends 4k words discussing the ways a pop star's commercial celebrity vehicle dedicated itself to telling a meta-story about the pursuit of True Love, through anecdote, observation, and funny image juxtaposition. It made sense in my head, I had to see if it would on the page.

It was a project, I tackled it, it felt good. Then there was more down time. I knew I had gotten the ball rolling so I could get the ball rolling, but I still wasn't sure where to direct myself next. I had long since retired my standing gigs in comics, and I wasn't quite ready to go back to that world. I tooled around on other projects, losing months to trying to find a coherent take on Kanye West-- the man I consider to be the most influential artist of my lifetime-- only to find myself babbling without end.

Still, I got deeper into the world of commercial music. I started to see everyone I had always meant to see.

I saw the Compton valedictorian, Kendrick Lamar. I saw schizophrenic alt-R&Ber The WeekndJanelle Monae, music's highest energy performer. Ascended NYC throwback Joey Bada$$ and TDE conspiracy theorist Ab-Soul. I saw the artist that makes me most sentimental, John Legend, and the one that makes me most inspired and engaged, Kanye West. Maybe all I was doing was seeing a bunch of music I already knew I liked, but I was thinking about it all an awful lot, and sorting out how to best give those thoughts shape and life.

I took some time off my Yeezus-feedback loop to try something different, and more finite. And I found that, with the work I was doing, even the parts that weren't seeing the light of day, I was feeling better about my dexterity and capacity. I was getting the reps in, finally, and coming to terms with some of the things I felt had held be back in the past-- namely my willingness to seek out help from those who would offer it.

One of the luxuries afforded to me during my time away from "working," was a role in the wonderful community that sprang forth from, of all places, my neighborhood sports bar. As the son of a relatively well-known local bartender, I had spent a good deal of my formative years in some of Boston and Cambridge's better-known bars, but Parlor Sports was the first place that I dared call my own. Close with the staff and the regulars, I was made to feel free to be my obnoxious, outspoken self, because in a place where everyone's an asshole with an opinion, nobody needs to feel badly about it.

A friend I knew through the bar had recently come to some notoriety for work he did for MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He had encouraged me to find my way into that conference, as it was a real hotbed for the major sports leagues and teams, the sports industrial complex surrounding those leagues, the statistics and analytics community, and the sports bloggers' community. It promised to be a cool place to be.

I finally crossed streams and pitched to editors at my day job. The Herald would cover the Sloan Conference. The first day was a general overview of the event (and me being blown away), the second day was about the competitive nature of the games, and the event itself, and shit, I dunno, maybe sports overall.

It was a very exciting experience, but not entirely a new one. It was broader, but in my life as a comics-guy, I'd covered plenty of industry conventions. Nothing could be more intimidating than my first time working San Diego's Comic-Con International. I thought back on that as I settled into the media room that first day of Sloan, regaining my bearings after so long away from this kind of work, where I was truly engaged. San Diego's a huge convention in comics, and covering it had been a personal milestone, but it was one that had come in 2009. I hadn't made it back, but as I pulled up desk space I wasn't thinking about how long it had been in between, I was thinking how grateful I was that I had the experience, and could reasonably assume I would be able to write something coherent about my time there.

You know, I don't know if what I wrote about those two days was totally coherent. It felt great to do, either way. Sports, and the way we talk about sports, and how talking about them intelligently can help discussion in other intellectual arenas, are all passions of mine. Writing words down about what it was like there felt very, very good.

Opportunities beget opportunities. One of the things I had written for this space caught the eye of an old friend and editor who wanted to know if I was available to write some stuff about some comics again. For a while I had felt like I wasn't able to do that, write about comics with conviction and perspective, but now it felt different. Comics weren't going to threaten to take over my world, but there was certainly room for them to be part of it.

Best Shots Review: Thor #18, 
Jason Aaron & Das Pastoras,
Marvel; Newsarama
I am an unyielding sentimentalist, and wrote my first comics' review in some time on Thor, because Thor is my idol. I love Thor so outwardly that it's a punchline, but the thing is, I think humbling one's arrogance is a valuable lesson, and that's what Thor's about. More macro, I like superhero stories largely because the best of them are about being your best self, and how that is the clearest path to happiness. I'd love to have a hammer I could pick up each day that assured me I was worthy to carry it; I could know if and when my worth began slipping. If Mjonlir represents anything to me, it's assurance. Coming back to comics by talking about a story where my favorite character acted like an asshole couldn't have been any more perfect.

Best Shots Review: Fatale #20, 
Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, 
Image; Newsarama
One of the nice things about coming back to comics after being out of the cycle for a bit was I had a clean sheet to freshly discuss some long-running stories, like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Fatale. Theirs is a creative partnership that really any serious comics' fans are well-versed in, but they've retained their magic on each project, taking new risks on new stories. I was thrilled to sink my teeth into the work of such masterful storytellers.

Opportunity begets opportunity. Micheal Christmas, a young rapper I'd written about for an experimental piece was going to be playing a gig the night before Sloan, just on the heels of his mixtape release. He was an act that you could reasonably say I was stanning, and I thought it would be an interesting show for the Herald to cover, as there isn't often a local rap act that attracts the daily's eye. I approached our music writer, who very graciously extended the invitation that I contribute to his Herald blog space with some live concert reviews.

Best Shots Review: The Auteur #1, Rick 
Spears, James Callahan & Luigi Anderson, 
Oni Press; Newsarama

Rick Spears was a guy whose grungy, punk-rock work I followed pretty closely in my New York days, but I'd lost track of his stuff. The Auteur, with James Callahan, is a total riot, I couldn't get over how many ideas were jumping around each page.

I was also pretty happy that I felt like I'd found something worthwhile to say about a book with something worthwhile to say, which was very satisfying.

Best Shots Review: All-New X-Men #24
Brian Bendis, Stuart Immonen von 

Grawbadger & Gracia, 
Marvel; Newsarama
It wasn't going to be long after I got back into writing about comics before I got re-acquainted with probably my favorite comicbook writer, Brian Michael Bendis. He had taken over the X-Men franchise, as he once had The Avengers, and I was completely in the dark about it. I gorged on the two ongoing series he had been penning for over a year, not stopping until I caught up with this then-current issue.

As a result of the gorging, I opted to react to the series as a whole, and the direction I thought the X-Men's world was being led in. I loved how unabashedly comic-booky the story was, where characters were meeting their past/future selves in hopes of learning the most valuable lessons. The best X-Men stories are the most over-the-top ones, and I was impressed at the stories' scope, especially to read as a whole.

Best Shots: She-Hulk # 2, Charles Soule,
Javier Pulido & Muntsa Vicente, 

Marvel; Newsarama
As Marvel has become a behemoth entertainment brand, they have taken some of their sub-top-tier titles out of the megaplexes, where the summer blockbusters play, and moved them into the independent movie houses, where it's cooler to bring a date.

She-Hulk is a quirky book, and I'm totally not above saying that a girl about a hyper-competent professional woman has "broad appeal." Because I am a pig (albeit a well-intentioned one).

I'm psyched to talk comics, and music too, but really what gets me going is the shit that I love. I love being inspired by great art, which can be pretty easily traced back to one of my first creative loves, Jim Henson's Muppets. Of course, I am not the only person born between 1970 and 1990 to have been inspired by Kermit and the gang, so when I heard that someone that had written a book about how to make money through the pursuit of their dreams was delivering a lecture on her findings, I really had to know more.

The speaker had written a book titled Make Art Make Money after coming to some notoriety for a piece she'd published on the integrity-challenging resurrection of the Muppets franchise. It was exactly the sort of thing I was eager to both hitch my wagon to, and give a little extra shine. I did everything short of dedicate the piece to the lovers, the dreamers, and me. 

Best Shots Review: Rocket Girl #4,
Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder, 

Image; Newsarama
Rocket Girl was made by some of my dearest friends in comics. Amy is one of the best people you can do karaoke with, and it's to Brandon, who I worked with at DC, I owe my first byline. 

They also made a fantastic comic. Knowing the two of them, I wonder how much time they spent focusing on heady concepts like "the nature of grown-ups through the eyes of children," when they could just talk about how to make awesome things happen on the page, but they're both very smart, so I wouldn't put both past them. Covering this book restored some of my feelings of community within the world that I'd lived in for so long, but felt very far away. It was quite literally inspiring.

I felt like, if there was anything that the Herald didn't cover as in-depth as it might, it was rap music. Hip-hop has been the dominant cultural force of the late 20th century and early 21st, but in some respects it still fights for recognition and respect.

Donald Glover's stage presence as Childish Gambino impressed, but what got me was the ambition of his show, taking on things like the impact of the Internet, American Blackness, and identity, all while carrying the stage and dropping some of the most intricately-wrought bars you'd ever heard.

Something I wanted to avoid in my comics' coverage was gravitating towards the same stories, titles, and creators I'd read forever. I didn't want to neglect the work of fresh creators whose work I hadn't already been exposed to. There's an exposure/ Shutter pun to be be made, but we're above that.

Best Shots Review: Batman #30, Snyder,
Capullo, Miki & Plascencia,

DC; Newsarama
Sometimes, though, you've gotta dance with the girl that brung ya, and with me, that means superheroes. Batmans was in the middle of another origin reboot, part of a line-wide continuity reset by DC Comics (a decision I was, at best, ambivalent over), and I was happily surprised to discover that not all change was bad.

I think diversifying the sorts of art I was inspecting and discussing was what led me to look at this book as an artifact of Batman the multimedia entity. Cracking the cultural code of Batman as a pop star was the beginning of shape the way I saw all forms of modern-day iconoclasts.

Speaking of iconoclasts, for my money, Black Dynamite might be the greatest hero of the 21st century. Well, he or Django Freeman, anyway, and it's no coincidence that both are retroactive 21st century historic insertions. Like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, they allow us to re-align history's injustices in accordance with the values of today, or at least through its satirical prism.

I'm probably, y'know, a feminist. Although describing myself that way kind of makes me feel like a self-justifying contestant on I Know Black People. All I can really say is I grew up in a world of women, and I'm, y'know, down with the struggle.

There was no getting around the familial femininity of the Haim show, so I didn't. Which meant writing a bunch about the girls' hair. I'm also curious if they lifted a phrasing from a favorite movie on a favorite song of theirs.

Brian K. Vaughan tells big stories, but intimate ones. Along with artist Fiona Staples, Saga is a huge tale of culture and community and family and humanity. It's a grounded story about, like, space-wizards and fairies making babies and royal robots and murderous bounty-hunters. Above all else, it's a story you never see coming.

I don't have the same energy to dive into the hype-machine of multi-part,  mega-event storytelling that I once did, but I thought there were some interesting choices being made on Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato's Original Sin, that set it apart from many of its contemporary stories.

"Wu Tang is for the children. We teach the children."

That's what ODB said at the 1998 Grammys, and sixteen years later, we can say history proved Dirt McGirt correct. I think the followers of Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future are the very kids that ODB had in mind, who flout authority and that hold originality as the value above all else.

For all the progressive energy of our society, there's still some detritus to be cleared up. I think Sex Criminals is an important book, in the way it both treates sex and mental health.

The opportunity to cover the massive JAY Z, Beyoncé On The Run tour was an exciting uptick in scope. I was eager to see two legends hold the stage. Beyoncé is a figure that has long-fascinated me, largely because she soaks up the bandwidth of so many women, so her performance was something I looked forward to reacting to. Jay Z had never been my favorite rapper, but now I was an occasional-rap-writer, with the chance to see what the biggest institution in rap had to offer.

I don't think I was naive. I saw the commerce driving the collaborative event, and said as much. Still, I did want to believe in that perfect love story, anyway. With the divorce rumors now reaching critical levels, I feel like they had me fooled. Cliché, cliché, cliché...

I like to think of myself as a curious guy. Sure, I was once the kind of kid that would say "I listen to every kind of music, except for country," but we can grow, and change, can't we? I sure hope so. Anyway, Southern Bastards, the South, and the flavor of places.

Something about covering the Jay Z and Beyoncé show made me look at the work I was doing differently. Maybe I wasn't faking it anymore, and maybe I hadn't even been faking it before, even if I thought I had. Ever a reflective guy, a new book came out from an old favorite creator, which got me reminiscing to the last time he'd put out a comic.

I dug up my four-year-old review of the Scott Pilgrim finale, and was pleasantly surprised to learn I did not hate what I had written. And because I am not a subtle writer, or person, really, I could remember back to the state of my personal life when I had written it. I decided I was proud of the piece, and proud of my progress.

My prideful acceptance turned out to be fortuitous, and very thematically relevant to Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds graphic novel.

Eventually, of course, things came full circle. An opportunity arose to review the live show of someone I had seen perform a million years ago, in another life...

Seeing Justin Timberlake perform during the FutureSexLoveSounds tour at Madison Square Garden was one of the last things I did as a New York resident, in 2007. I brought the woman I was dating, she was a big fan and it was meant to be a big gesture, and left the show a full-on convert. Two months later, both the city and the girl had broken up with me. I bought into that Justin record so hard that it was okay, that I lived it, adopting some of its glamour to see how it fit, and what powers it may grant. Which was silly but fine, and gave that album a deep and lasting personal resonance.

This time I got to go as a professional, and bring my sister, the diva, and I was once again in awe. He fulfilled that show's promise. I was less starstruck, though, because this time I was more fascinated by the mechanics of what he was doing, and why. I somehow failed to mention his "constituency" in my presidential-flavored piece on the show, which haunts me, but it was very clear why he has remained a beloved personality; because he really wants to be beloved. And hey, game recognize game.

You know who's great? Mom. 

I'm among the many blessed with a great mom. She had me young, so I got to see her drive herself through an early career, her higher education, and was witness to her overcoming incredible hardships. She's my hero. She's Wonder Woman, to me.

Not, that, y'know, she's a warrior princess or whatever, but she is tall, and does have dark hair. And loved Linda Carter. And studied a lot of Greek civilization stuff at Wellesley. Waitaminute maybe we're onto something... 

Anyway it's kind of commonly held among the comics' community that Wonder Woman does not quite get the popular or commercial recognition she deserves, but the current iteration by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang has really done the character justice. It's smart, it's nimble, and it's feminist without even a hint of politics to it. It's self-evident, which is a testament to creators that know how important tone is to the receptiveness of audiences. Of course, the two will soon depart the series, which means it's all the more important to celebrate it while it lasts. Wonder Woman deserves to be made proud.

The best part of this year's work has been looking forward to it. Conversations that I started here, at 1point21jiggawhatts, in an empty room, have migrated to more populous rooms, which means the experiment worked in part, at the very least. I find, though, that what's been rewarding about the work discussed above is not that more people are listening to the discussion, but that I'm more satisfied with what's being said. The work still isn't quite the shape I want it to be, but it's demonstrably closer than it was, just by existing. 

There's excitement on the horizon, as well. This weekend, I get to see my boy John Legend for the second time in the year, this time with an opportunity to share my thoughts on it, and to share the show as well. Drake & Lil Wayne could happen in a few weeks, Sam Smith a few weeks after that. Opportunity begets opportunity, as does community, as does commitment.

This is the part of this conversation where I wonder if how much vanity is required to even have it. I've always hated the idea of being self-obsessed, because there's so much other awesome shit to obsess about. So I've gotta just hope that it's more the former than the latter, or better yet, believe it. 

Belief is a funny thing. Funny actually requires a good deal of belief, too; belief that a reference will be mutually understood, or that someone will hear the humor of your punchline. Sure, there's a little bit of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, but pack enough belief and no one need know the difference.

-Brendan P. McGuirk
August 7, 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Case For Reading Ta Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations Atlantic Cover Story

Ta Nehisi Coates' June, 2014 Atlantic cover story, The Case for Reparations, is probably the most affecting piece of journalism I've ever read.

It is as long as it is upsetting.

Privilege and discrimination are not issues that are exclusive to black-and-white America, obviously, but they do have a unique and fundamental role in our national origin story. And equivocation is a lie we tell ourselves intended to pacify, whether due to feelings of helplessness, or internalized guilt.

Words like "reparations" are divisive, in every sense. As a result, we shy away from them, thinking that, like Voldemort, if we fail to mention them they will lose their power, and that politeness alone can power us to become a better union, as if by default. That's bullshit. Kids who read "Harry Potter" know that's bullshit. The only way to reconcile divisive issues is to acknowledge them, in full.

I don't find racism to be any more malicious a sin than -isms relating to gender, or sexuality, or class. But institutionally, it has a different role in American history. We didn't invent misogyny. Or homophobia. Or even racism, in the broadest sense.

But there are practices that were invented by this country that had very specific repercussions. The long tail of those developments is what Coates explores.

I've been a white guy for basically my whole life. Despite conflicting reports, I've never aspired to be anything different. But one thing that has never sat well with me was the idea that conversations about race and institutions in America were limited, "minority issues," as if only the underserved had either cause or qualification to engage in the discussion. It's the ultimate manifestation of privilege, right? That since *we* didn't engage in the historic deplorable practices, since *we* aren't to blame, we have no obligation, no skin in the game.

The problem with this line of thinking is it puts all the responsibility to solve and overcome historic injustices on the historically underprivileged. Which only exacerbates things. Which only leads to a culture of increasing division, but a mutating one, that evolves and simmers and only boils to the surface in explosive and obvious moments. It fosters resentment on both sides of the coin, even as both sides wish to move on, beyond. "Don't characterize me as a racist, I'm not Sterling, or Zimmerman." "Don't talk to me about empathy if the upper limits of your identification is the rejection of slumlords and murders." It can be insidious, alienating and cyclical.

There's no way to read Coates' reportage without coming away outraged. We're supposed to be better than this. That aspiration is what we pledge to, and how we define ourselves. For me, actualization is a core tenet to self improvement. And I thought this piece could have just as appropriately been titled "The Case for American Actualization."

If you've read this long, dear stranger reader, I hope you've been convinced to read the piece in its entirety. If you're not a sociopath, it'll hurt, quite a bit at times. But it will bring truths to the surface. A scar heals easier than a cancer.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentime's Bey: A Drunk-on-Love weekend, remixed

The universe can be a scary place when Valentine's Day falls on a Friday. Regular, everyday Friday thirstiness aligns with the once-a-year desperation of people in and out of relationships feeling the crushing burden of expectancy with which St. Valentine damned us all and creates an amorous eclipse that can drive damn-near every person goddamn insane.

People respond in a couple different ways. Some shut it down, loudly cursing the holiday and its place in society, the cultural implications of it ubiquity, and the mental acumen of those who allow themselves to be duped by a greeting card-commercial holiday.

Others surrender to it. If they're in relationships, they celebrate them to the fullest, hit every ritualistic touchstone from chocolate to flowers to the intimate dinner for two. If they aren't, they mourn, bask in their loneliness, and redouble their efforts in the pursuit of romantic fulfillment.

But you know what every one of those people do on Valentine's Day, ESPECIALLY when it falls on a Friday?

They get drunk.

You know who knew that? You know who was ready to pounce on people's fragility on the most questionable holiday this side of Columbus Day and Evacuation Day?


The Superwoman must have decided that this was her weekend to get us all drunk off her good-good, because we weren't just given one remixed shot of the most brazenly raunchy single of her career, we were given rounds and rounds of them. So many that things got a little blurry.

It started on Thursday, the day before the Whitman's chocolate started flowing like water, when Neil “Detail” Fisher, the original producer of Drunk In Love, unveiled his “official” remix to Complex.

Drunken Love is a dramatic take. It doesn't build its drunkenness the way original does, where we spiral into irresponsible decisions along the ride with Beyonce, it's more of a hungover memory of a night. It's an echo; atmospheric but unspecific. The remix sounds good, but it is much more of a compliment to the original than a replacement. It's interesting but inessential.

Late Friday night, another remix surfaced, this time with Watch The Throne-in law Kanye West giving it the Yeezus treatment.

I can promise you that I have more opinions on Kanye West and Yeezus than you care to hear. Maybe someday. The important note for here, though, is that Yeezus is a hell of a caricature, representative of a very publicly exploratory phase in Kanye's career.

The natural comparison to draw here is to Kanye's verse on the remix of Rihanna's Diamonds, since that was the last time Kanye guested on a top song he was uninvolved with until after it was already its own phenomenon.

Over the last year, people have often said they miss the “old Kanye,” who was introspective and playful and whose combativeness was less pervasive, but I've always felt that his contribution on this song, talking about Fresh Prince, Back to the Future, and The Louvre along with his demons and insecurity, proved it was all a ploy, since here he was his doing everything short of donning the old Dropout Bear costume. On his Yeezus tour, he does this verse as part of his final, maskless sequence, along with Jesus Walks, All The Lights, The Good Life and Bound 2, as if to tacitly acknowledge that he knows how to give fans that uplifting and inclusive “good Kanye,” but is only willing to do so on his own very specific terms.

The Diamonds verse reads like the only time Kanye's spit with explicit literalness in the last two years, a sharp contrast to the darkly fragmented and elusive Yeezus persona. “Voices in my head/ 'I need choices in my bed'/ Aaaagh!/ Get out my fuckin' head!” That conflicted sentiment is basically the entire thrust of the Yeezus album, tidily packed into someone else's song so that on his own work he's not over-explaining things.

Kanye's verse on Drunk In Love feels like a coda to the Yeezus persona. He's filthy-talking baby-mamma Kim Kardashian, but none of the conflictedness that ran so rampant through the Yeezus album is left. What's more, he's tipping his hand, whether by using the “Ooh” sample from I'm In It as a substitute for saying what he's, um, in, or putting her on that bike (bound, girl); he's just riffing on how much fun he's having when sleeping with Kim, putting a bow on it, saying the Yeezus monster has been fed. He's not actually mad.

Drunk In Love is about how, when those two states are in concert, the universe is made up of only two people, and the importance of everything else melts away. When Yeezus debuted, there was a lot of talk about Kanye's commitment to Kim, and a lot of hay was made about many of the songs' implications. This verse makes it pretty clear that the album was all about he and Kim, all for her, but also that if Kanye hadn't explored his doubts before they'd had a baby, it would have made for pretty boring music.

Because while it's a fun verse and an interesting inversion on the beat, aside from the Flashing Lights drop, Kanye's Drunk In Love remix is kind of boring. Maybe because Kim isn't altogether that interesting (granted, unless you're having sex with her). I think I like the idea of it as a Yeezus coda because I'm so interested in what comes from Kanye next, once he puts away the diamond masks and starts to process all the animosity he actively pursued over his Yeezus year. His relationship with his girl is pretty neatly squared away, now he can go back to working on his relationship with America. Which, last time he did that, birthed the opulent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I told you I had more to say about Kanye than you were ready for. But that wasn't it for the weekend, because late Saturday, on his birthday, The Weeknd also got involved with all the drunken loveyness.

He labeled it a remix, but it's really something closer to a cover, or a reimagining. Not too much is done to the beat, but Weeknd has taken over the singing duties from Beyonce (the gall!). But he's not just singing her song, he's transforming it into the sort of dystopian, paranoid aural landscape he's made his trademark.

This song was inspired by Beyonce's, but his lyrics create a pretty seismic gap between her get-me-off-I'll-get-you-off pathos and his get-me-off-don't-expect-to-hear-back-from-me-ness. Which, again, is pretty in keeping with Mr. Kiss Land, whose biggest driving creative questions generally seem to circle around the shortcomings of intimacy as a solution to feelings isolation and loneliness. It might have been a little more intellectually honest if he'd called it Drunken Lust, or Drunk In Love With Myself, because there's very little to indicate any sort of even cursory interest in mutuality.

So it might be, like, thematically deplorable?, but like so many Weeknd songs, it sounds very, very good. It's expansive and, probably, honest, because, like, why would he say he wouldn't call a girl unless she gave good head unless he meant it? Not a ton of upside there in admitting that one.

There were at least a few other Drunk In Love remixes that came out over the Valentimes weekend, but those were the ones that most crossed into my interest-stream. Was it a weekend filled with a greater than usual number of instances of waking up in the kitchen asking “how the hell did this shit happen?” Oh, maybe.

Everything about how we feel on February 14th of every year is pretty unmistakably arbitrary. It's not better to have love on that day than it is on August 14th. But in an era where we hold tighter onto the things we experience universally and simultaneously, like live sports and award shows and unexpected album releases, there's something reassuring about the knowledge that it is a weekend of shared feelings, be they contended ones or anxieties. Or vices. We have all these incongruous data streams in our lives, some from artists, some from friends and family, some from highly-targeted corporate interests. When they streamline into singular focus, the effect is powerful. Things like Valentimes and Beyonce remixes become impossible to avoid.

It seems like a weekend of an awful lot of trying. People trying to be happy, trying to be loved, trying to be heard, recognized, validated.

People are chasing that feeling, that something, whether they're rubbing beautiful bodies, hitting the club, or hitting refresh on Facebook as they web surf, bored.

[Surf bored]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Readmix: Hoth x Jotunheim and the January 2014 playlist

Today's curriculum
I'm a big advocate of the playlist-as-living-mixtape lifestyle. We are in an era where radio has long since been declared deceased, and where the tastemakers have all basically fundamentally been compromised. The protective walls of commercial music have come down, and active listeners can just as easily access a tine that was produced in someone's bedroom as they can something born of a major studio. While it isn't quite an even playing field, it is closer to it than ever been before. In this limitless musical landscape, we are completely empowered to chart our own musical constellation, cater it to our specific personal tastes, and form entire relationships with songs and musicians in a way that, historically, was mandatorily negotiated through a major corporation.

It's a great time to love music. You can envelop yourself in a personally-tailored soundtrack. But it's also completely overwhelming. We've got culture and media saturating our lives at all times. The only way to cultivate your sonic garden might be to spend entirely too much time on it.

Which is certainly what I do.

Given the over-attentiveness paid to my iTunes arrangement, it's only right to share this newest playlist, foist some opinions your way, and try and let you know how and why each track came to me and sounded like the earliest days of 2014. It is the Ice Age phase of the new year, with the entire country only thawing out once a week in order to watch titans do battle on frozen and foreign tundras, so read on to tune into Hoth x Jotunheim. Because I am a huge nerd.

"All you hear is tires,
click-clack, boom of the gats."
1) Phantom
Chester Watson

This kid, a teenager from the South I guess?, came across my path via the Shots Fired podcast. A hip hop radio show I'd never heard until I came across it via Stitcher, they had steered me the right way with dude Anderson Paak (who does what's basically a life-changing cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' MAPS on his Cover Art album), they played this song and shouted him out, it sounded like my kind of mellow vibeyness, so I hit it up on Youtube and whatever whatever I'm a fan.

This song is just super melodic and haunting, and really tonally on point. His rhyming is really unassuming and comfortable, and his voice really contrasts to the more accosting, put-on styles of guys like Chance the Rapper and Earl Sweatshirt, who, age-wise, are probably the dudes in what we might call this guy's draft class. He's not quite singing, it's like he's focused on cooperating with the sound.

What's most impressive is how he curates the sound of his ghostly phantom with his timbre, the loop, and the imagery. It's a hyper-focused grab bag that's extremely rad, like a corkboard in the world's most cultured coffee shop. That skill makes me confident that following up on him will prove worthwhile.

"Telling songs in the key of life,
you was on your Stevie."
2) Martyrs
Mick Jenkins

After the way Kanye used it on Blood on the Leaves, someone was going to have to sample Nina Simone's Strange Fruit in a way that could more readily be seen as contextually-appropriate to the song's storied legacy. Dude Mick Jenkins steps up, his rejoinder “I'm just with my n****s hangin'” plainly equivocating impoverished urban decay and social surrender with Strange Fruit's lynching imagery. Again, it's super haunting- terrifying really- but in such a way that it really honors its ambition.

Jenkins is really clever, and he illustrates his music with real quickness and dexterity while making something very specific. He's making Martyrs a composite of all this cultural shorthand we associate with, basically, hood shit. He's got Django on a horse, he's got a weird composite of James Franco and Gucci Mane's Spring Breakers characters, along with weaves and basketball dreams. It's all building this case for nihilism and fatalism. It's almost like it's a response to Lorde's Royals, a commentary that isn't quite a rebuttal but, since it's not quite in agreement, isn't quite complimentary, either. There's no substitute for friends in different areas with great, eclectic tastes, and it is to my old roommate in NYC that I owe credit on this particular cutting observational find.

Martyrs definitely gets richer with each listen. Which, considering the portrait of impoverished surrender it articulates, is probably ironic.

"I just need a reaction to keep it alive, baby"
3) Fertilizer
James Fauntleroy

You have no idea how much it thrilled me to unearth this gem from the dusty corners of the Internets. I came upon it while researching (although can we really call snooping around the Web “research?”) James Fauntleroy had blown me away with his contribution to Drake's phenomenal Girls Love Beyonce track, a Nothing Was The Same leftover that uses Destiny's Child fragments as well as James Blake ever could. Fauntleroy has a voice that is vulnerable and precise, and that delicate precision gives his rendition of the typically-female Destiny's Child Say My Name verse an unexpected authority. Fauntleroy had cropped up doing hooks here and there since, notably on J.Cole and Big Sean's most recent albums. You got the sense that he had a pretty big musical reach, due to the prestige of the his collaborations, but he definitely didn't seem high-profile.

So, having dug the limited stuff I'd heard, I go down the rabbit hole a little on him, come to find out he'd done a bunch of stuff I'd heard from another mid-level favorite of mine, Jhene Aiko, and worked on a good amount of Kanye's Cruel Summer album, mostly performing and being credited under the guise of Cocaine 80s. And that was all cool cool and whatever whatever.

Then I found Fertilizer.

I should note at this point that last year, in the lead-up to the release of channel ORANGE, I became pretty thoroughly obsessed with Frank Ocean. I heard Pyramids, which sent me backwards to Nostalgia, Ultra., which I devoured and is probably my favorite mixtape ever and a top-15 all time album. I was privileged to see Frank in a small venue just weeks after ORANGE's release, and at that point I already knew every word to every song in his catalog. When I go in, I go in hard. (#pause)

channel ORANGE was an interesting (and acclaimed) project, but one of my favorite layers to it was the way that Ocean really orchestrated it to feel like you he was tuning you into all these different stations along the way. He used sketches and interstitial tracks to compose this thematic collage that alluded to everything and made nothing explicit. One of these interstitial tracks was a 0:40 ditty called Fertilizer. “Fertilizer, I'll take bullshit if that's all you got.” That's all we get, then the tuner shifts and we move on from Thinking Bout You to Sierra Leone. It was a song you could appreciate without ever thinking too much of it, you assume it's just an unfinished fragment considered but cast aside as not worthy of inclusion in totality on the final album. It's a curiosity.

Well it turns out Fertilizer is a 2010 James Fauntleroy song, which Frank decided to cover for forty scant seconds on his 2012 major label debut.

And the full song turns out to be a bit of dimestore ear candy so sweet I think I gave myself an ear-cavity listening to it on repeat.

That I'd heard it, fragmented, as the third song on channel ORANGE, tucked right between the lovesick Thinkin Bout You and the spacey responsibility dream Sierra Leone, made this song super-fascinating to me. I'm dying to know why it was included in Ocean's major-label debut project, why it's the only song on the album without an Ocean writing credit, why for only 0:40. But more than anything, I was thrilled to find a throughline from Ocean to Fauntleroy, both of whose mastery of what the Academy confusingly calls “Urban Contemporary," has been among the most rewarding part of following pop music of the last couple years.

Fauntleroy has a needy garden in his heart that can only be filled by the bullshit of one negligent gardener. It's a sentiment that bore right through me. The desperate urgency and resignation to the anatomy of one-way relationships and crushes and power dynamics is familiar and universal, unless you've always been the one crushed on, I guess, in which case, go screw. Still, for a song about the absence of affections, it's incredibly upbeat and optimistic. It's pleading, but not victimized, as if the singer knows he's just as responsible for the problem as anyone. It lives in that moment before resentment sets in, when a lovestruck crusher still sees the two's union as an inevitability, despite all evidence to the contrary. Which, let's be honest, can be the most thrilling part.

"Though both can't be broken, I'm not
your heart, I'm your habit"
4) Beautifully Bad
Idle Warship AKA Talib Kweli and RES

Lyrical bar-setter Talib Kweli and syrupy golden vocalist RES have been collaborating for over a decade, first cropping up on my radar on my single favorite track of my collegiate era with Where Do We Go, off Kweli's 2002 Quality album. This song stood out even in those wild-west days of rampant music piracy and the infancy of internet-induced information overload, moodily challenging its listeners to take ownership of things as thematically broad as their own isolation, creativity and ambition, and the taught dynamic tension underlying all three. It was Kweli at his strongest, the “backpack rapper,” playing professor to his impressionable audience, with RES providing insulating  harmonies, keeping things in frame. I could never explain why it was my favorite out of the tens of thousands of songs I panned through in that exploratory era, but the fact was it certainly was the song most likely to be heard from outside my dorm room at any given time.

Fast forward a million years, and my man Kweli tweets that we need to check out this great Fleetwood Mac cover by his girl RES. It's phenomenal (and I will surely feel compelled to explore it another time), and sent me down another musical spelunking journey to see where she'd been since working on that song I loved a million years ago. Come to find out the two had worked on a few entire projects together as Idle Warship.

Beautifully Bad succeeds everywhere Where Do We Go did, in terms of demanding introspection, focusing on a single failing relationship instead of the ambitions of an entire generation. The vocalists almost seem to negotiate a sweet spot between singing and rapping where they can both perform comfortably and authentically, as opposed to donning the traditionally gendered roles of “rapper” and “singer.” They make a wonderfully complimentary pair, and really share the space of the song. Beautifully Bad tells the story of two people walking opposite directions away from the wreckage of a failed Great Romance. It's not an argument, because it lives in a moment that exists after all those have passed. Instead, it's a eulogy for something that was nearly magical, right up until the point it wasn't.

If we learned anything from Pacific Rim, it is that together we can build beautiful things. Of course, this makes it all the more tragic when they come crashing down, but even in that tragedy there's beauty (again, as illustrated so beautifully in Pacific Rim). Idle Warship proves both with their existence, collaboration and creative ambition.
You know how to drive in rain
and you decided not to make a change"

5) Honeymoon Avenue
Ariana Grande

It was never going to take very long for my pop-proclivity to reveal itself. I'm probably too old to be listening to Ariana Grande, but as long as her rangy vocals continue to evoke mid-90s, totally-in-her-prime Mariah Carey, I'm going to be giving her fair listens. As an avid comicbook guy, I'm used to enjoying it when one artist ably apes the style of another successful one. And while I know I'm SUPPOSED to hold that lack of originality against the imitator, I'm usually too distracted by all the enjoying I'm doing. Make no mistake, Grande sounds EXACTLY like Mariah, especially given the way her voice climbs. At a certain point, though, it's like, who cares who you're dunking LIKE? You're still throwing down WINDMILL REVERSE JAMS!

So again, I have no issue with someone lifting something that works. Which is convenient, since Honeymoon Avenue (the first song off Grande's Yours Truly album), begins with nearly the exact same orchestral string overture as the first song on Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience Pt. 1. It's a harmless little flourish that definitively demarcates the pop era it is participating in. The strings give way to very Glee-meets-RENT choir doo-wops as Grande, again channeling Carey, sprinkles coy little vocal exclamation marks about. The project is very glossily produced, but it can't diminish from how impressive it is to hear someone hit her marks the way that she does. Grande's age and career makes me think of modern collegiate NBA prospects, who are younger, more talented, more refined and more specialized than their predecessors. It's impossible to think of how prepared these kids seem without thinking about how that preparation must have shaped their entire youths. It's really remarkable. These kids these days, I tells ya. This is why one of my favorite hobbies is flippantly dismissing any and all 90s babies.

She sucked me in with her Big Sean and Mac Miller collaborations, and has won me over with her acrobatics on Honeymoon Avenue. 90s babies might not know ANYTHING, being that they missed the most important decade that I remember most of, but some maybe they learned some shit via osmosis or something. Because they certainly know some things about some good sounds.

"Then we mix it up, call it Pikachu"
6) Hands On The Wheel
ScHoolboy Q feat A$AP Rocky

Covers, right? Love 'em. I love the chart of music and influences they can map out. Love it when someone unexpected can own something unconventionally, in a manner that runs against type. Its gratification is something akin to karaoke, albeit at an at-least-passably professional level, which makes it, y'know, awesome. So a sample of a cover is something like a box within a box (within a box?), and while its anatomy is that much more insular, its appeal can be that much broader.

ScHoolboy Q's Hands On The Wheel samples this girl Lissie's cover of Kid Cudi's smash hit Pursuit of Happiness in an endeavor that would probably be best represented by some sort of Venn diagram visual aide. I mentioned karaoke and going against type, as that is one of my favorite parts of performance singing and which I think, when wielded properly, can be one of society's most subtly effective weapons against what we might call otherization. There is, of course, a fine line between participation and appropriation, and, contextually, as a straight white man I occupy pretty rarefied and risk-free territory when it comes to what the “type” is that I can go against. Big words and big ideas aside, all I mean is that doing Beyonce and Toni Braxton songs is really really fun, especially when the audience doesn't see it coming.

This type/code-switching was definitely part of the appeal and notoriety of Lissie's cover, a white folk singer covering a young black rapper's hit single (although it's worth noting that throughout Cudi's musical career he has gone to great lengths to distance himself from anything that might marginalize him as strictly a rapper, and that he's no stranger to the switching act himself, sampling pop-contemporary Lady Gaga's Poker Face on Make Her Say).

It's not fair to say whether Lissie was making some sort of statement with her cover, whether it was about her or Cudi or music or expectations, but who the performer is and what she is performing certainly informs its resonance. Top Dawg Entertainment's Q flipped it one more degree, co-opting the co-opt.

Kendrick Lamar has done the most to establish TDE as a thinking fan's rap label, but the entire crew has shown themselves to be deliberate and thoughtful in their creative approach, so while ScHoolboy is basically just making a getting-fucked-up banger anthem by plucking a good and familiar sound from wherever it crops up, its inclusive anatomy is no accident. It posits that, actually, here, at least, no one is appropriating anything; we're all just sharing the stuff that was made for all of us.

It is one of those quiet things that, again, to me, signifies an underlying racial and cultural progress that is taken as a given by the younger generation. They all just want weed and brews and to fuck once or twice. The arc of justice is long and bends towards beautiful interracial babies, just like The Matrix promised.

Oh, incidentally, Q and A$AP Rocky are really good at rapping, and this song goes hard. If you were wondering.
"A lotta brothers from the ghetto
got the gift of gab"

7) Ill Vibe
Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip

As I believe I've made clear, I remember the 90s. I don't know when the era became so mystified for me, being that most of what I remember about the decade is awkwardness and sexual frustration, but it is certainly a time that happened. I spent half the decade pretending that I was someone who didn't like rap music and then spent the subsequent decade doing everything in my power to catch up on everything I'd missed within the genre when I wasn't paying attention because I was too distracted by Metallica.

Busta Rhymes was the favorite rapper of my childhood best friend and hip-hop consigliere. He was cartoonish and broad and nimble and even if I didn't acclimate to him instantly, I could see his strengths. Q-Tip, I would later learn (again, didn't have it totally together in the 90s), was largely responsible for the kinds of mellow music I loved that came out of the era.

Me and my bestie would eventually get our chance to see Busta's cartoonishness up close, when he performed at our college during our underclassmen days. It was an absurd evening, complete with a woozily drunken and stoned crowd that wasn't entirely sure how to compose itself at a RAP SHOW, and an ornery Busta who, when dissatisfied with the audience participation during one of his hits, jeered the crowd and, unforgettably, told us all to put down the sandwich and get on a treadmill. This made it all the funnier when, years later, Bus' was alleged to be a part of a whole group of rappers vaguely implicated in a celebrity HGH sting. People in glass houses need to be careful where they scream at fisheye lenses, bruh.

In any case, Q and Busta came together and gave The Culture a stiff shot of nostalgia late last year with their The Abstract and The Dragon mixtape. Both have solo albums upcoming this year, and in today's all-important hype market, they crossed streams with a mix of old, new and forgotten stuff that reminds audiences of the power and consequence they wielded in the days when the power of celebrity and airplay was more concentrated. These guys are super talented, still, and if they have new things to say it'll bear listening. HGH or not, Busta still slams his verses with the power and precision of Barry Bonds, playing the part of ferocious dragon. Q-Tip sets the mood, giving Busta the boom-boom-bap flooring to build upon, and curating the (abstract, natch) sound that transports us to those halcyon, naïve Clinton years.

Some reunions are sad affairs where it is impossible to note anything but the powers that have been lost. Hip hop is advancing to middle age, though, so the fact that these dudes are doing it gracefully and crisis-free is, in and of itself, worth catching an ill vibe to. Word.

"Love ain't fun for me, it's a battlefield
and I got a big gun with me"
8) Love Is
Dutch Rebelle

I don't know a single reason why Dutch Rebelle shouldn't be a superstar. I'm just a guy with an iPod and some headphones and a slice of digital real estate and a lot of opinions, so whatinthefug do I know, but to me this Boston girl is, to borrow a local title that's currently going unused, The Truth. She popped up last year on a lot of year-end lists with her Married to the Music debut album. It was the aching and cinematic Runaway Bride that sold me, not only on her talents rhyming and singing, but her creative direction and well-tuned ear.

We haven't yet hit the time when female rappers are as respected and exposed as their male counterparts, and the ones that have begun to break through seem to share a hyper-ferocity they couple with a hyper-sexuality, as if there's some need to prove that they can “hang with the guys.” Rebelle is no pushover, she's as lyrical and canny as any contemporary, but she doesn't seem to need to be a swinging dick to represent herself. Her music is capable of dealing with her vulnerability as a strength, roundedly, making her work more approachable and relatable than someone like Azaelia Banks or Angel Haze. Which is totally unfair to everyone involved but oh well.

Love Is marks Rebelle's most precise and well-executed work to date. She's simultaneously strong and wounded in the a soulful ballad. Like Runaway Bride, it is a woman's song with a woman's perspective. It has R&B trappings, but plays to her strengths, storytelling the betrayal with vibrant detail.

Mainstream hip hop has evolved a lot the last few years, in terms of participation and pathos. There are feels rappers and there are punchliners and superficial plastics and living legends and everything in-between. But fifteen years after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's still a boy's club, complete with all types of saloon doors in need of swinging open.

Dutch is that fly half of Lauryn Hill from the Doo-Wop (That Thing) video. Not because she has the look, though she does, or the bars, though she does, but because she's got the authenticity. Her songs reek of realness. If there's justice, she'll break all the way through. If she doesn't, well, somebody's gotta make Beantown Shit the official anthem of Boston's inevitable next sports championship, if only so the Dropkick Murphys guys can finally be put out to pasture.
"I'ma hit the dojo like Neo hit Morpheus
and see who got the plug like Dr. Kevorkian"

9) Daily
Michael Christmas

Rap is more differently inclusive than ever, which means there's more room than ever for the out-and-out weirdos. Michael Christmas, another Boston act on the come-up, is definitely one of those weirdos, whose distinctly clever and referential flow is in the same weight class as the latest by Joey Bada$$ or Mac Miller. Of the jams Christmas released in advance of his Is This Art? mixtape, farcical mission statement Michael Cera was catchier, but Daily, the Hot Pocket, pot-smoking and jerking off testimonial, is where he really embodies the well-intentioned burnout/underachiever-persona that Seth Rogan and all the other Judd Apotow-ites have made such a major part of our cultural lexicon over the last decade plus.

You're inclined to be like, “This dude is just normal,” again, like the players in an Apatow project, which, while true, takes the work's quality for granted and distracts from how talented and comfortable in their craft all the creatives really are. The end result is the same, too, where that ambient likeability translates to relatability which can, with the right breaks, subsequently translate to universality. To paraphrase (well, no, steal-a-phrase) another great millennial philosopher, Christmas may not end up as the voice of his generation, but he's certainly a voice of a generation. Which is probably more in keeping with his ambitions, anyway.

"If I was yours, and you were mine, would you do
me like you do him and have someone on the side?"

10) If U Were Mine
Nipsey Hu$$le feat. Sade & James Fauntleroy

The aforementioned James Fauntleroy-research-black hole I found myself sucked into also turned out this track, off Nipsey Hu$$le's Crenshaw mixtape. I just wanted to hear that dude's voice as many places as I could, even if it was merely him echoing the sped-up Sade sample looped throughout this song. Hussle had been somewhere around my radar since Crenshaw dropped, but I hadn't found that all-important point of access to his work until now. If U Were Mine is benign; in it Hussle is negotiating with someone that's crushing on him, trying to set honest realistic expectations for her while seeing if she's still down.

I couldn't help but be reminded of LL's Hey Lover, where Cool James Todd richly details this fantasy world built around and for the object of his affection. He offers the world, assuring her that their union would solve everything short of world peace. Of course, it's a fantasy; it won't come true. The gender roles are flipped on If U Were Mine, and Nipsey, playing the pragmatist, promises no more than he's willing to deliver while also picking apart the motivations of the girl making the proposition.

I dig that Hussle never out-and-out rejects her, he just teases out the scenario and lets the story speak for itself. There's a gap between Hey Lover and If You Were Mine, it involves the respect with which each rapper is explaining the situation to his respective prospective, that I can't help but think speaks well of gender equality's cultural evolution in the nearly twenty years between releases. Nobody's motivations are totally pure, but there's a baseline respect with the way Hussle holds this girl accountable to her proposal that LL's pleading but knowing mansplainin' lacks. Maybe it's just a triumph of laissez-faire hookup culture, I don't know, but it seems more honest and on more balanced footing.

It's a fun track, and Sade, Fauntleroy, and Nipsey Hussle's voices all blend well. I found Hussle's ideas on fan culture and artist ownership and the Internet and direct sales and involvement in the new and unstable economy of the recording industry to be, like, trenchant? And probably telling about the direction of all produced content in a world where content has been rendered free but for those who pay voluntarily. So the dude seems worth paying attention to, going forward.

"Rather be alone than unhappy"
11) It's Not Right But It's Okay

Everybody tells me I gotta listen to Chrvches, because they play like a brand of synth R&B with a delicate female lead vocalist and I love Metric so how could it not be a fit, but I had, to date, lacked that entry point to their catalog. Their Whitney Houston cover, given both the practice and the subject, seemed like the maximal opportunity for they and I to see how we all get along.

It's a take that is well-served by the huge stylistic gap between it and the original. It's upbeat, slick and sparse. The lead singer doesn't make the mistake of attempting to mimic Whitney's vocal gymnastics (as karaoke jockeys across the globe collectively shudder), and really succeeds in containing the intensity of the song within the range she dictates. It's not as complimentary to the original as a lot of the covers I gravitate towards, but it's a very confident and specific take. It'll be that confidence that makes me curious about Chvrches in their own, original work, which I now can at least begin to approach.

"Don't think I'm just his little wife"
12) ***Flawless

Beyonce is America's only real superhero. Think about it; she's got the origin story, the celebrity, the acumen, and the let's-just-say-it flawless reputation. No one has more fans, or bigger ones.

For those that might self-identify as part of the Destiny's Child generation of girls, Beyonce is a real-life Disney princess all grown up, complete with a coronation and a Hollywood happy-ending husband. It might be that she serves as a beacon of sisterhood from a bygone age of Girl Power that makes her so seemingly impossibly popular among women. Guys don't have an immediately apparent analogous hero. For men, the only unifying figure even nearly as universally idolized and beloved has got to be Batman.

Beyonce's most impressive feat is the way she wears the crown without ever seeming to break a sweat under the crushing weight its burden of perfection must carry. The culture is shocked when even the slightest cracks begin to show, but even then negativity fails to stick to her the way it does so many contemporaries. Those biggest stars are the ones most closely scrutinized, so when the biggest acts deliver in the biggest way, as Beyonce did with BEYONCE, its impressiveness is matched by its improbability.

Our constant consumption of content and messaging has fostered an environment where hype is like a cultural high-fructose corn syrup, insidiously rotting our insides and expectations. The impossible bar set by hype is very probably why this album was released without any advance warning. There was no time to envision this project being anything other than what it actually was, making it impossible to disappoint.

***Flawless is Beyonce's superhero testimonial. It's an ownership of her entire mythology, and the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's feminist TED talk pushes its scope even further. A superhero, like a celebrity athlete, is measured by his or her opponent, and Beyonce has set her sights on misogyny and gender inequity, as well as a culture whose willingness to celebrate her life and career is contingent on her credentials in the historically subservient roles of wife and mother. She's taking on a big fight, but if she is going to be ladies' (FLAWLESS) biggest champion since Wonder Woman, it is really her only worthy adversary.

She wears an armor powered by the belief a generation of women has placed in her, and gives the world the visage of immaculate perfection it demands. But she doesn't surrender it, coyly, deferentially; she flaunts it, brusquely, authoritatively. She dictates the terms to let her acolytes know that it is what they should be doing, too, and that it is what the world should expect and accept of them.

Before there was BEYONCE the superhero, there was Ms Knowles, the secret identity. The Star Search scenes that bookend ***Flawless highlight the imperfection and failures that compose the messy reality of her own inward personal origin story. Girls' TYME, the precursor to Destiny's Child, loses its bid at fame. The devastation it must have meant to an 11-year-old Beyonce is obvious and self-evident. It's a tip of her hand, a reminder to the audience that, like magic, perfection isn't a reality but a well-orchestrated illusion.

Still, mastery of the illusion is a feat in and of itself. After all, I woke up like this.

"Wanted to spread them legs like you number 23"
13) Lay Down
Fabolous feat. Ryan Leslie

Fabolous had lit the New York streets on fire over the holidays with his Soul Tape 3 mixtape, as I understood it, and, being that I'm bitchmade, it was the Ryan Leslie track that I had to check into first. As you might expect from a Leslie collaboration, Lay Down is a tender ballad, free of aggressiveness. Fabo has his walls down, the cat-and-mouse game of courtship has already been resolved, so he can comfortably bask in the resulting intimate trust as it plays out in the boudoir.

Lay Down is a strikingly grown-folk song. The patience of its cadence and rhythm makes high-tempo urgency seem foolishly immature. Young bucks might work themselves into a frenzy, but on this song, no one has anything to prove. It displays the kind of confidence that only comes with experience and the kind of curiosity that romance fosters best. Leslie croons and Fabo narrates and the lights are lowered and grown-folks do grown-folk things without reservation.

Fabolous just seems so much more grateful for his partner than most rappers aspire to be in their attempts at love songs. The gratitude is the sort that could only exist between peers, which gives it a much more heartfelt resonance. Leslie is also totally welcoming and nonthreatening, which is, of course, no surprise.

Anyway the fact that I even care if a song about nothing but sleeping together aspires to some sort of equity probably just proves how and why I'm bitchmade. Always caring about people's feelings and shit...

"Cookie monster."
14) Cookie
R. Kelly

Will R. Kelly force every music consumer to also become some sort of ethicist?

I'm not sure what R. Kelly's legal history means to our standards for cultural participants. I don't know if listening to R. Kelly songs empowers him to abuse others, and, without being overly relativist, I'm not sure if or how my attentions empower any famous person to do despicable things.

This being the case, I am going to take advantage of and underdeveloped and under-supervised entity and steal R.Kelly's album from the Internet without his consent, and advocate you do the same. It's nice to find a backdoor ethical loophole and payout to occasional piracy.

Make no mistake, the Black Panties album is a nymphomaniacal masterpiece. It's sixty-nine (!) minutes of pure, prime-grade freakiness. Casual vulgarity doesn't come to anyone as naturally as it does to R.Kelly. It's so casual, in fact, that after immersing yourself in it for long enough, you might even get used to it, and before you know it, you're belting out “Oooo like an Oreo, I love to lick the middle like an Oreo,” as if that was even remotely acceptable behavior in any civilized society. But goddamn if it isn't catchy as shit. Although “pervasive,” might be the better word.

Still, when Kelly breaks into “Cookie, cookie, cookie, I'm your Cookie Monster,” you can't help but wonder whether he's willfully trolling us all or if his lack of self-awareness is so absolute that he could possibly fail to recognize how casting yourself as a Sesame Street character might be a questionable decision for a man that's been repeatedly and publicly accused of inappropriate behavior with children.

If his apparent failings as a human being can be compartmentalized, his musicianship can be duly celebrated. He clearly aspires to be a sexual revolutionary of some sort, fighting a war against repression; not only repression of desires but even of the conversations around sex and sexuality. Which has merit?

Sadly, the affirming, let's-all-be-freaks-together message of Kelly's music is pretty incongruous with the reputation of a man who's best known for (probably/basically/definitely) peeing on a fifteen-year-old child in order to get his rocks off. It kind of sucks that we don't get to choose who gets to be our geniuses.

I'm someone who has gone to extraordinary lengths in erecting mental barriers of plausible deniability around the life and times of Michael Jackson because the alternative would make loving his music too heartbreakingly difficult. Ultimately, we negotiate our relationships with the artists whose work we allow into our lives individually. Who they are and what goes on in their lives are things that only matter as much as we decide they do, and that decision is really the point where we begin to weave our own narrative into theirs. It's where we decide their context for ourselves.

And contextualizing art for yourself can probably be pretty cool or whatever.


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So yeah, it's cold and the bedsheets are hip-hot and that brew of lyrcism, observation, affection and discovery is Hoth x Jotunheim. If this has all gone well, you've gotten the chance to hear a story while listening to some music in some sort of weird essay-meets-listening-session amalgamation. These 14 songs will be on steady repeat on my ipod for the next three weeks, running over and over, like Casey Kasum playing his top-40 to an audience of one, because I'm into repetition. Then I'll move on to a new set, probably made up of largely the same bones of this one, but with whatever comes into my life in the next few weeks added, and that will get the repeat-treatment, because I'm into repetition. Later still I'll be able to come back to Hoth x Jotenheim, hopefully from the warm of spring, and have that little flash of exactly enough tupperware-sealed nostalgia.

Hope the highlighting and sequencing pleases. Appreciate you appreciating the appreciation. Thanks for listening.