Saturday, February 20, 2010

The NBA Can Still Surprise Us

Yesterday I claimed that we are approaching the end of history in the NBA as the league progresses towards an era of family-friendly, fully realized superstars whose talents are so beyond question that they leave no room for debate or surprise. But the NBA still can surprise us, if only because the previous generation of stars has not quite left the building yet. Tonight Tracy McGrady made a stunning and indescribably poignant debut for the Knicks. Of all the teams in the league, no teams' games are as inconsequential as the Knicks. Of the current Knicks, only one, Gallinari, seriously figures in their future plans. (Chandler figures, I suppose, but not very seriously, and Lee may not be back.) They're simply playing out the string until free agency comes. It doesn't even help them if they lose; their draft pick is Utah's. I have no idea why Knicks fans watch the games. It's into this malestrom of meaninglessness that McGrady got traded, his contract the mechanism by which the Knicks could lure a second max player and thereby lure LeBron (since otherwise he'd be coming to play with absolutely nothing). In return for his cap-clearing services, McGrady gets to showcase his skills for the one NBA franchise that can afford to let an ex-star put on a purely self-seeking showcase. Some teams couldn't afford a successful showcase because they're trying to tank; other teams couldn't afford a McGrady showcase because he might shoot them out of games in efforts to impress future employers. New York's the only team that could give McGrady this opportunity. It's quite a convenient confluence of circumstances.

The same factors that make New York such an ideal destination for McGrady make McGrady's new home an ideal one for NBA fans. Because McGrady plays on the most meaningless stage of all, we're free to focus our attentions solely on his play, without any nagging concerns about the outcome of the game or the actual efficacy of what he's doing. It's star-watching without the guilt that usually attends star-watching, or at least attends star-watching for those of us who think that winning, rather than the soap opera-like clash of personalities and styles, is the most important thing in sport.

So it was with great pleasure that I watched McGrady's improbably successful comeback. T-Mac is not back; athletically he's deteriorated to the point where he can't split a double team, blow by anyone, or even dunk for all we know. But he got to the rim somehow or another, finished with great accuracy, shot the ball well, passed beautifully, took only one bad shot, and managed to put up 19 by halftime. Not only did he look miles better than the shaky, diffident player we saw in spot action earlier this season in Houston, he played better than he did at any point last season, maybe even the season before that. Gone was the McGrady who spent most of his last years in Houston lazily launching arcless jumpers from the top of the key. Time and time again he went to the basket, in spite of looking even more hobbled than he did a year ago. I know it's only been a year since McGrady got real playing time, but I was almost reminded of Tom Watson's nearly winning the British Open two months shy of his 60th birthday, turning back the clock to his 30 year-old self in spite of very visibly being trapped in a 60 year-old body. Shades also of 'Mama Said Knock You Out.' At one point McGrady even shook his head at a defender who let him can a 17-footer in a gesture of "I'm still Tracy McGrady" pride.

Perhaps the most touching part of the night, though, was when Jonathan Bender and T-Mac were on the court together. Bender's a veteran of the high school era; picked fifth in the 1999 draft straight out of Picayune, Mississippi (McGrady went ninth two years prior), he was touted as the next Garnett. He was a 7 footer with guard skills and immense leaping ability, shot the three well, and could block shots, a rare combination. But he never did figure the pro game out, became an injury problem, and retired four years ago, leaving only legends of what he did in practice, where teammates said he looked like the most talented player they ever saw. Then this season the Knicks unexpectedly signed him. In his comeback, he's shown flashes, but ultimately has looked even spottier than he did in Indiana. D'Antoni's using him primarily as an outsider shooter hasn't helped, and he didn't look particularly good last night. But there was a certain synergy between him and T-Mac, as seen on the play below where he gets the ball from McGrady, fakes the three and delivers a perfect pass back to McGrady under the basket that McGrady converts for his flashiest score of the night. Nothing could have been more fitting than the sight of these two players, both young men (30 and 28) who seem much older, trying to hang on to their careers in a league that's passed them by.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Thoughts On Melo/Bron and The End of History In The NBA

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? Early this morning the sky was gray, but if you go to the window now you are surprised and lean your cheek against the latch of the casement.
- Franz Kafka.

I'm not sure what that has to do with the NBA but I've always liked it. I guess it means the snow is melting and the playoffs are coming. Anyway, did you see Denver-Cleveland Thursday night? Carmelo had 40, 6 and 7, while LeBron had 43, 13 and 15. Making him the first player to score 40 with 15 assists and 10 or more rebounds in 36 years. He now averages a 30, 7 and 8.4 on the season. Simply put, if you are one of those people who persists in thinking that Kobe is the best player in the league, you're either insane or not very bright. There are a great many things that Kobe can do better than LeBron offensively, but concluding that Kobe's a better player because of all the things he can do that LeBron can't is like concluding that Vladimir Guerrero, in his prime, was a better hitter than Barry Bonds because Guerrero could hit the ball at his feet and Bonds couldn't. That said, LeBron, like Shaq, is this weird contradiction in terms, someone who's undeniably the best player in the game while being pretty raw in many phases of the game. But unlike Shaq, who never tried to do anything he couldn't do (except for trying to hit free-throws, which wasn't by choice), LeBron does try to do quite a bit that he's not very good at. For instance, last night LeBron shot 12-16 from within 10 feet, and 3-17 outside of ten feet. 1-9 from three. Now obviously on an average night LeBron's shot falls with greater frequency than it did Thursday, but even on a good night he's just an average shooter. Whereas Daniel Gibson is making 47% of his threes this year and Delonte West 41%. So why does LeBron take nine and Daniel and Delonte take 4 combined? I'd be crazy to call LeBron selfish, he's the best and most willing passer the game has outside of the point guard position, but he seems to be of the view, understandably, that as the best player in the world, he should be taking the shots that a Kobe Bryant does, and that's mistaken. If he weren't so content to inaccurately fire away from the outside, Cleveland would've won that game. I worry that LeBron is forcing himself into a Jordan/Kobe mold and thereby depriving his team, but more importantly us, of the chance to see what a fully realized power wing would look like. The game has never seen a face-up player of his power, speed and athleticism, and right now we're only seeing the half of it because he's trapped in antiquated notions of what a superstar perimeter player is supposed to do on a basketball court.

On the game in general, I think everyone's starting to realize that the league is at a crossroads in about 82 ways, the most obvious of which are the potential lockout and 2010 free agency. LeBron's decision this summer is probably going to be the biggest factor affecting the narrative of professional basketball in the next decade. But what's been less acknowledged is that the old generation of superstars is dying out - even Kobe only has a couple years left before age catches up with him - and is being replaced with a group that may be a lot less underachieving but is frankly a whole lot more milquetoast. When I began watching the NBA, at the beginning of the decade, these were the guys who made All-NBA teams:

Allen Iverson
Kobe Bryant
Tracy McGrady
Kevin Garnett
Shaquille O'Neal
Tim Duncan
Chris Webber (once)
Jason Kidd

And on the second teams you had Vince Carter and Webber and Iverson in years they didn't make the first team. Lesser stars included Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Baron Davis, Jermaine O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace. That was the constellation of superstars. In the new decade, the constellation of superstars going forward should look something like this:

LeBron James
Dwight Howard
Kevin Durant
Dwayne Wade
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Bosh
Chris Paul
John Wall
possibly Brandon Roy
and maybe Tyreke Evans several years down the road.

We can quibble about the composition of the second group, but I think it's safe to say that, of the first group, only Tim Duncan can match the sheer uncontroversiality of pretty much everyone in Group 2. Even Shaq had all his psychodrama with Kobe going on, the sense that he was just a big goofball who didn't maximize his talent or take care of his body, the passive-aggressive way he took shots at all his former teammates, coaches, competitors, the feeling one occasionally got that his warmth was something of a manipulative put-on, etc. Garnett, we forget, spent his career getting criticized for being too skilled, too intense, and too unselfish. Vince Carter only ceased to be controversial once everyone agreed to hate him. Sleepy-eyed McGrady, for many, epitomized what was wrong about the post-Jordan NBA. And then there were Iverson and Kobe and Webber. The NBA of the next decade, on the other hand, will be comprised of superstars who, everyone agrees, "get it" in the way that Iverson and Webber and perhaps McGrady and for years Kobe never "got it." It's not like the future is a league of Tim Duncans, these are players who by and large have a lot of personality (though see Kevin Durant), but it's all of the affable, jovial, extroverted sort, like Shaq if Shaq were genuine and not really just a public approval whore. The most controversial thing any of these guys ever did is appear in a Stop Snitching tape, and that was followed by boatloads of apologies. Besides, no one really thinks that that episode tells us anything about Carmelo, other than that he did come from Baltimore and that he's a go along get along sort of guy who will appear in your tape if you ask him to. It's more a sign of his chumminess than anything else.

And on the court, none of these players are a fabulous waste of potential the way Webber or Rasheed or 'Toine or Steve Francis or Carter or Iverson or McGrady arguably were. Some of them will win championships and some never will, but when Chris Paul or Melo retire ring-less many years from now, no one will blame that on them, they'll be graced with the John Stockton "they were one of the best ever (and nice guys too!), they just ran into superior teams" narrative. Maybe someone will complain that Dwight Howard could've done more with his ability, but Dwight Howard is no Webber or Rasheed. He just doesn't have a lot of post moves and probably never will. Some players are more agile in the post than others. That's rather different than being able to do anything and everything a power forward ought to be able to do but choking in the fourth quarter, shirking the spotlight or spending your career chucking up threes. It seems to me that we live in an era where players who don't get it are becoming marginalized, most spectacularly in the cases of Arenas and Marbury. Years ago, guys like Tyrus Thomas, Michael Beasley, Charlie Villanueva, J.R. Smith, Chris Wilcox, Rashad McCants would have been given franchises of their own to destroy, fan bases to tantalize with their talent only to crush, or at least in the case of Rashad some actual playing time. Sean Williams would be somebody's enigmatic starting center. So would Eddy Curry. Do you remember how many years Robert "Tractor" Traylor hung on in a haze of obesity and weed? The guy got drafted over Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki! Got indicted for laundering $4 million of his cousin's drug money. That doesn't happen in today's NBA. In today's NBA, columnists are running out of players they can call enigmatic. Even once enigmatic players are letting go of their enigmatic ways (Josh Smith, Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Ron Artest to a great extent).

How many guys are there left in the NBA who look like someone you wouldn't want to meet on a dark street corner, even when they're signing a kid's jersey?

None of today's rising stars inspire debate; they only inspire consensus. Just as there is no serious debate as to how good Duncan was or any lingering questions about unrealized potential, there can be no debate about how good LeBron, Wade, Howard, Paul, Durant, Melo, etc. are. They're all unambiguously great players to a greater or lesser extent. People will debate which one deserves the MVP in a given year, but people will never question whether they make their teams better or worse the way we did with almost all of the last generation of superstars, whether they're good enough to build a team around, whether they get it or don't. Even Brandon Jennings, who since the 55-point game is shooting 35% from the field and is still pulling the trigger 16 times a game, reaching levels of inefficiency that Iverson could never have dreamed of, somehow doesn't project the same "I'm going for mines" attitude that Marbury and Francis did every night of their careers. He just seems like a confused kid. Moreover, there are no villains in today's generation of superstars, no one who elicits hatred the way Kobe or Reggie or, for some portion of the public, Iverson could. And at the same time there's no one nearly as lovable as Iverson was. Even the stars themselves all seem to like each other; rivalries become dimmed by a glow of mutual admiration. Garnett's the only star left in the league who hates his opponents, and even he's become a parody of himself, more an exaggerated simulacrum of competitiveness and universal emnity than the real thing.

As a result, a kind of "it's just a game" indifference creeps into the game. The stars' reputations are already set in stone - even if LeBron never wins a title we'll blame it on his bad supporting casts - so in a very real sense, one ceases to feel, when one watches the NBA, that history is being made. The season takes on a feel of one long celebration of young talent (all good friends from their halcyon days on the Olympic team), with some suspenseful moments interspersed, rather than the feel of a narrative. In the past, the season began with unanswered questions - is McGrady for real or a fraud, is Kobe good enough to win on his own, who is Kevin Garnett really, etc. - that the playoffs ostensibly answered. In the past, the playoffs took on an air of a battle between good and evil, depending on one's idea of who the good and bad guys were. In today's game, they're all good guys and history has already been made before the fact. LeBron will inevitably win his rings, Durant and Melo and Paul may or may not but if they don't it won't detract from their reputations that they'll ultimately make as two of the great scorers and one of the great point guards the game's ever seen, Wade's title is on the books already. One begins to sense that the players themselves are aware of the ultimate irrelevance of how the games actually play out. This was especially apparent at the All-Star Game, when Deron fouled with seconds left not realizing the score was tied and laughed it off, when Melo clanked a game-winning three-pointer that he shouldn't have taken and laughed it off, when we had a dunk contest that none of the participants seemed to care about because we all know already that Shannon Brown and DeRozan and Gerald Wallace are great dunkers, won by a guy the sole point of whose being in the league is to win dunk contests. There was something very symbolic about Nate's bringing the cheerleaders onto the court and then not using them; their presence on the court was entirely meaningless, like the weekend itself.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts On We Are The World 25

I don't actually find this a whole lot more objectionable or stupid than the first We Are The World, which had some great zombie Michael action but otherwise, total garbage. This is also total garbage, but not of a higher/lower order in any way that I can discern. In fact, in a way I find it a little less rankling. The original version featured a shit ton of retarded sanctimonious Hollywood singer liberals vaguely ranting about making a brighter day, whereas this one is a lot less sanctimonious, just really stupid, and it's actually motivated by a specific cause, not some vague "let's save the whole world" nonsense. However, there are some definite lowlights and surprises.
  • Jamie Foxx should never try to talk about anything serious. Here he sounds like some idiot Oscar presenter talking about how actors are the people who bring movies to life. (You know how before they give out the award they'll give these awful speeches from teleprompters about the importance of actors/screenwriters/directors to movies. Like, "tonight we honor the director. They're the ones who put everything together. They're the dreamers - but also the doers! From Navi aliens to people dying in I-raq, we saw a lot of great movies made by great directors this year." Same level of self-congratulatory stupidity going on here.)
  • The kid who starts this thing off is only 15 and he already sounds like he's full of shit. There must be some 8 year old pop star I don't know of who could've lent a little sincerity to these proceedings.
  • Nicole Scherzinger is here. I don't really think that a woman famous for terrible songs about what an unapologetic slut she is should be part of the cast. I guess they wanted somebody good-looking involved.
  • Jennifer Hudson always sounds like she believes in whatever she's singing, good choice.
  • This next woman has a frighteningly husky voice. Apparently she's a big country star. She makes a weird face when she sings like she's taking a shit.
  • Josh Groban is the first huge douchebag on the track. You might classify him as operatic closeted metro douche.
  • I was prepared to like Tony Bennett's part in a cute old senile man way but he's doing this weird self-conscious fist-pumping thing and doesn't really seem senile.
  • Mary J. Blige just creeps me out. What huge shades. She's like the megalomaniac Darth Vader of hip-hop soul.
  • Dead Zombie Michael sings along in split screen with Living Diana Ross. Somehow less creepy than in the original. Partly because, thanks to Diana's aging, they no longer look like twin sisters.
  • Barbara Streisand comes in to restore a bit of the sanctimonious flavor of the original. If Nancy Pelosi ever got Hollywood to make a movie of her life, Barbara would be the perfect one for the part. Watch the disgustingly gooey way she shakes her head to confirm that it really is true that you and me will one day make a better day.
  • Miley Cyrus kills. This doesn't surprise me. Aside from her lyricists making her shout out a 'Jay-Z song' about 7 years after Jay-Z's last good song, what has Miley ever done wrong? I'm serious.
  • Enrique Iglesias sounds like a gay vampire. Really freaky ex-Latino heartthrob vibrato on the 'cries,' as in "so their cries will not be in vain." (My God this song has great lyrics.)
  • Somehow Celine Dion doesn't turn in one of the top 5 worst performances. It's kind of disappointing, actually; she would seem to be the ideal candidate to do something awful on a song like this.
  • Jamie Foxx's first go-around is not a disaster. (But don't worry, he gets another shot.)
  • Wyclef wins the Bruce Springsteen Memorial I Will Frighten You With My Douchey Intensity Douche Award. It's hard to get a good still because his face is in such Tourettic motion, but compare:

  • It's uncanny.

  • It's like he's one of those greenbean plants in kids' books that have minds and faces, reaching his head to the sun for nourishment. "Ah, the sun! Photosynthesis!" And you know he had to break out the braying goat melisma tricks. We are the childre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-en indeed.
  • Adam Levine and Pink both don't embarrass themselves. Weird.
  • Bebe Winans starts moving his hands around like he's trying to conjure up a "better day" with his fingers. I think I've seen wackjob gospel preachers do this on TV when I'm flipping channels.
  • Zombie Michael returns. He then passes the baton to...
  • Usher. The producer of this thing must have wanted to embarrass Usher because he really does pale in comparison. Between this, his annoying All-Star ditty, and his All-Star performance, he could end his career right now.
  • Then the producer starts pointing at Celine to start in a sort of "unleash the Canadian mammoth-voiced hounds" manner. Celine goes "well well well well" before getting fully revved up and into obnoxious diva mode. But again, not one of the top five worst performances. I think when she's all screaming and shrill like this it kind of negates her Celineness and makes her seem a little human.
  • Then comes Fergie who looks really fat, is wearing a strange bondage-y outfit, and cannot sing. I mean, it's like she just talks. She's had much grosser moments though.
  • Cut to the full ensemble, and then Nicole Scherzinger, who has stripped down to a clingy white tanktop. Seriously, she's taking articles of clothing off as the save the dying Haitian children video progresses.
  • One of the Jonas Brothers sounds eerily like Michael, if Mike had been a white teen-pop hack.
  • More close-ups of Nicole! And this time she looks like she has bad gas issues. Just strange directorial choices here. Of course, this was directed by the director of the worst movie ever (Crash) so that's kind of to be expected.
  • I can get behind Toni Braxton's guest spot.
  • Lil Wayne sings into Autotune. Neither as heartfelt or as going-through-the-motions awful as it could've been. More on the plus side of the ledger.
  • Akon turns in one of the more awful insincere bullshit performances of the night.
  • I don't question T-Pain's sincerity but the way he phrases his lines you'd really think he was singing about a cute ass-shaking bartender.
  • Jamie Foxx starts jokily imitating Ray Charles and clowning around like he's at the All-Star Game. This is no time for bad douchey humor. Gross Lowlight Of The Song Award.
  • LL starts rapping. Along with Swizz,, Snoop and Busta Rhymes. LL's rapping at this point is kind of on the level of the little rapped interludes in 'Black and White.' Swizz doesn't even move his mouth. He knows this sucks.
  • Wyclef emits some sort of Haitian tribal war cry. This is devolving into The Lion King soundtrack.
  • More Jennifer Hudson singing, fewer tight closeups of her fat face, please.
  • Damn, Celine has a lot of Botox.
  • Uh oh, Kanye has arrived.
  • More Wyclef tribal war cries. I know it's French but he really sounds like a cartoon African lion right now.
  • Kanye seems sort of chastened by the Taylor thing; not a ton of energy. (I wonder if he's why she's not here.) But he does sort of serve as the social conscience of the whole affair, actually talking in his sung-rap bits about the actual dying people in Haiti. I like Kanye when it comes down to it, I just think he's made three straight shit albums and is deeply confused about his abilities and limitations. He means well.
  • is the embodiment of retarded consciousness in black pop music. Here is no exception as he improvises, "like Katrina, Africa and Indonesia, and now Haiti needs us, they need us, they need us." Nicole stands next to him looking confused, like she entered the wrong set and is thinking, "where's the stripper pole?"
  • Wyclef starts making noises. The song ends.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The New York Times Breaks Down Gender Disparities In College Dating


Every so often a newspaper will do an hilarious piece purporting to inform grown folk on how the kids live. They tend to read as if the author was a Victorian Englishman who just got plunked down into North Philly and thought he'd write a letter about what he saw to his Victorian friends back home. These things have become such an obligatory subject of mockery that I even saw them being made fun of on Law and Order the other day. My favorite used to be the Rolling Stone piece about Duke post lax-scandal, when some wiseass told the writer that we had a thing called the Duke Fifteen, the elite fifteen percent of lax players, frat stars and sorority girls, and the writer actually believed him and structured her whole article around the non-existent Fifteen. But today the Times came out with a doozy. 'The New Math On Campus: On College Campuses, a Shortage of Men.' If the editors have any sense, they'll fire the author.

The piece begins with a tale of a girls' night out. The girls are at a "gritty basement bar." They sing along to Taylor Swift, drink beer, and "trade jokes." But wait, there's something missing! No guys.

“This is so typical, like all nights, 10 out of 10,” said Kate Andrew, a senior from Albemarle, N.C. The experience has grown tiresome: they slip on tight-fitting tops, hair sculpted, makeup just so, all for the benefit of one another, Ms. Andrew said, “because there are no guys.”

No GUYS?? Where'd they go? Are they, like, dead? Well not quite. See, "North Carolina, with a student body that is nearly 60 percent female, is just one of many large universities that at times feel eerily like women’s colleges." Wow, eerie. But how did 41% of the population just up and vanish? By this logic it would seem that there are also no non-whites at UNC because white people make up 67% of the population. (And in fact, in the 8-photo slideshow accompanying the article, there are no non-whites in the whole thing.) Well, it turns out there are some guys at UNC. Just not any desirable ones:

Jayne Dallas, a senior studying advertising who was seated across the table, grumbled that the population of male undergraduates was even smaller when you looked at it as a dating pool. “Out of that 40 percent, there are maybe 20 percent that we would consider, and out of those 20, 10 have girlfriends, so all the girls are fighting over that other 10 percent,” she said.

Of course, it's also true that out of that 60% female population, there are maybe 15 percent that I would consider, and out of them many have boyfriends. It's not like the scarcity of genuinely attractive people is a one-way street. However, the author's about as dumb as Miss Dallas, and genuinely seems to think that you've got 6 girls chasing for each desirable/available guy. This massive demographic imbalance leads to some seriously unladylike behavior (I really can't go a post without alluding to No Limit):

Thanks to simple laws of supply and demand, it is often the women who must assert themselves romantically or be left alone on
Valentine’s Day, staring down a George Clooney movie over a half-empty pizza box.

“I was talking to a friend at a bar, and this girl just came up out of nowhere, grabbed him by the wrist, spun him around and took him out to the dance floor and started grinding,” said Kelly Lynch, a junior at North Carolina, recalling a recent experience.

Oh my God, she just came up out of nowhere! I can't decide whether this piece is really anti-feminist or whether it's trying to say that "simple laws of supply and demand" have created the slut. Perhaps the latter:

“If a guy is not getting what he wants, he can quickly and abruptly go to the next one, because there are so many of us,” said Katie Deray, a senior at the University of Georgia, who said that it is common to see six provocatively clad women hovering around one or two guys at a party or a bar.

Since that is not her style, Ms. Deray said, she has still not had a long-term relationship in college.

That's right, because the only way to form a long-term relationship is to hover around a guy with five other provocatively clad women at a party or a bar. Actually, quite the opposite. Sluttiness is also a product of geography:

At colleges in big cities, women have more options... But in a classic college town, the social life is usually limited to fraternity parties, local bars or coffeehouses.

You don't say. Of course, just because there's a massive 41:59 gender gap doesn't mean that just any guy can get play:

“Even though there’s this huge imbalance between the sexes, it still doesn’t change the fact of guys sitting around, bemoaning their single status,” said Patrick Hooper, a Georgia senior. “It’s the same as high school, but the women are even more enchanting and beautiful.”

The women are even more enchanting and beautiful. Someone sounds like they just stepped out of an unholy hybrid of Gone With The Wind and Superbad. In pieces like this you really have to wonder whether the kids being interviewed are putting on the writer. You also have to wonder how someone who writes for the Times could be such a dope. My guess is that they put their dimmest bulbs on pieces like this and that that explains why they're always so ridiculous. But maybe the generational disconnect is just that great.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Have Lost All Respect For Alicia Keys/A Mildly Funny Story

Too disturbing.

Well first the mildly funny story. I was sitting here doing some work for the family business when a very large, openly poorish African-American classmate started talking to me, hoping to learn what the reading for today's class said. I, being reasonably polite, did not run in fear of the obese girl and at some point asked her where she was from. To which she replied Huntsville, Alabama. I said that I listened to some rappers from Huntsville. She said there were no rappers from Huntsville. I said they were called the Paper Route Gangstaz, G-Side, and several other things. She said I was making them up. I said that I'd been told that they had a few regional hits in Alabama. She said this was not so. I said I guessed they were probably just a hipster thing. Then when I googled them to prove their existence, I noticed that all the hits were New York Magazine, The Fader, Pitchfork, and other similar outlets. So the next time you feel like making some argument about how the industry and the radio won't give the authentic people's music a chance, consider that, judging by this purely anecdotal evidence, the authentic people from Huntsville itself have never even heard of these authentic folk.

As for Alicia, I read that she is thinking of marrying Swizz Beatz. Obviously her music has taken a huge turn for the worse in recent years, but I never saw her marrying one of the lamest people in the industry. I could certainly see Beyonce marrying Swizz if he were a bigger deal, I could see Christina Milian doing it because dating powerful producers is what washed-up singers do, I could see Keri Hilson doing it because she strikes me as a careerist robot. But Alicia? It really devalues songs like 'You Don't Know My Name' to learn that Swizzy is Alicia's idea of a suitable lifelong love interest. Even musically, how can she stand to be in a relationship with this guy? It'd be like the director of The Hurt Locker being married to the director of Avatar. Oh wait, that actually happened. Of course, Swizz was not always a terrible producer. In fact he was once a very good, if limited one. Maybe the best thing Jada ever did is 'All For The Love,' which Swizz sold to Bad Boy at the tender age of 20. It's an unusually reflective track for a guy of his age.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rap! Styles!

I listened to some new rap for the first time since The State vs. Radric Davis dropped. Naturally the only rapper who could bring me back to rap is Styles P. Styles may never write a particularly clever line or come up with an interesting flow from now till the end of his career. But the guy just raps with a degree of integrity, sincerity, honesty, warmth, and heart that never fails to bring a smile to my face. No homo. I feel the same way about Styles some people feel about G-Side.* I can't think of any song from last decade that I enjoy more than 'Switch My Style,' 'Kill Dat Faggot,' 'Please Listen To My Mixtape,' this 'Where's My Homies' freestyle, or the infinitely quotable 'What Up.' Youtube commenters are the biggest idiots on the planet, but one surprisingly accurate index of a good song is when its youtube commenters just quote every amazing line of the song in their comments. Such is the case with 'What Up.' Nothing Styles says on 'What Up' is actually that special but he says it all with so much passion that it sounds like it is. I can't tell you how many cumulative hours of my life the last six or so years that 'Everybody wants Jesus to come/Well I can send you there, and all I need's my weed and my gun' or, 'And I might need a sedative/they said I'm cool and I, drop a lot of jewels but I'm too fucking negative' or 'And how foul could his karma be/Still smoke a lot, still in the hood, still move coke in large quantites', or 'Yeah, I'm respected and feared/Slice your neck and your ear/Then torture you the rest of the year/I'm from the school of hard knocks so the lessons is here' have run through my head. There's just a matter-of-factness to his presentation, like he's not bragging about his negativity and foul karma the way the rappers people compare him to would, like a Hell Rell or Uncle Murda or Sheek, but like he's just stating that he's an incredibly foul individual. There's also a kind of quasi-religiosity to Styles at his best; not only is he the hardest out, it's his mission, it's his credo. Sort of like Forest Whittaker in Ghost Dog.

Anyway, Styles and Green Lantern came out with a mixtape/album. It's called The Green Ghost Project and it's very good. Personally I prefer Styles over super-cheap beats and old 90s beats, he struggles with the album format - maybe even with the song format period, but since it's not really an album this is the closest thing we'll get to a great Styles album. (Maybe it's a tie with The Phantom Sessions. And Gangster and a Gentleman isn't bad.) No stupid Akon features, no Swizz Beats, no Ray J, no songs about the opposite sex. Some mistakes are made, such as the ridiculously lachrymose hook sung by one Dwayne Collins on 'Send A Kite' about how you should send Dwayne a kite when he's locked up, don't come to see him or send him money or expect collect calls to get placed by Dwayne, none of that. Just the kite. Styles being Styles triumphs over even Dwayne's crappy hook and turns the thing into a pretty successful song. (Prison raps, of course, are a Styles specialty.) There are a couple other mistakes, like failing to recognize that just because this is a hard no-compromises mixtape doesn't mean that we must hop in our time machine and try to bring crappy scratched hooks back. And I don't know if anything here is out and out classic, the way the cuts linked to above are. But there's plenty of fantastic stuff on the album. 'Pablo Doe,' a non-catatonic-Noreaga feature, sounds appropriately like a way more sinister version of 'Superthug.' 'Double Trouble' is the requisite neo-Bomb Squad banger, and it features Sheek, who does well with old-schoolish shit. More innovatively, 'Real Ghostly' is probably the closest we'll ever get to Styles rapping over Goblin (the famed late-70s Italian synthmeisters who did the soundtracks for Italian horror director Dario Argento's best movies). The rest doesn't quite lend itself to description, but Green Lantern, Alchemist, Scram Jones, Buckwild, and Dame Grease and co. do a solid job with the beats and Styles is Styles, consistently great.

Except Styles is actually a great rapper and the guys in G-Side need to go to rapping school/stop talking about the exciting time they were actually in a hotel in, like, a European country and rented a Hummer. And met a girl. Who was European. I understand coming from a certain background that stuff can be really exciting. Shit, I'm excited about being first in my class. Others here are excited about just being in the top half. But I/we are not writing songs about it. Maybe if they were actually great rappers, they could make that stuff sound exciting, the way Kool Keith could make a Saab with fog lights in the front sound really fucking special. Otherwise, however, it's just like listening to two dudes talk about their grocery list, and how hard they worked at their boring-ass job to afford the items on said grocery list. Actually, that would be way more interesting than actual G-Side. I grind hard for this butter! In all seriousness I liked their last album to an extent but they do have an excessively blue-collar problem.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Shot So Great It Deserved Its Own Post

Though I do think Topaz is a minor masterpiece and that the film's rigorous suppression of audience sympathies is a big (maybe the) reason why, there's no question that it could have benefited from somewhat less incompetent actors and that the scenes between the lead and his wife are some of the flattest things Hitchcock ever did. But even in this arid wasteland of abysmal acting, writing and not especially expressive or inspired directing, Hitchcock occasionally does something that just floors you.

When Andre, the French spy, is sent off to Cuba to find out what the Russians are up to (the Americans have no intelligence operation there so they're forced to rely on the services of other nations' intelligence agents), his wife is none too happy and some dreadful acting ensues. Then she pronounces the name of Andre's Cuban contact and mistress, Juanita de Cordoba, and we cut to Andre's reaction. But Andre isn't there:

And for several sections the camera sits, immobile, trained on this empty doorway into a bathroom, until Andre sulks out and demands that his wife tell him where she heard his mistress's name. In a film that rarely surprises or shocks, the cut away to the empty doorway when the viewer expects a reaction shot packs quite a lot of punch. In that one shot, Hitchcock says more about the emptiness of Andre's marriage, and the emptiness of all lives subsumed to international power politics, than his actors ever could. Partly it's my German DVD of the film, which offers a fuller frame than the American version at the expense of blanching Hitchcock's Technicolor, but what a haunting study in muted whites. Look at the way the lampshade in the left foreground ceases to be a lampshade and functions as an abstract part of the composition. One's almost reminded of Malevich's White On White: