Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Seeing Slick Rick, 8Ball and MJG, and Raekwon in a Columbus Parking Lot

This summer I work for a federal judge in Columbus, Ohio. We do some exciting things, like passing on the constitutionality of healthcare reform or deciding whether Michigan's voters are allowed to ban affirmative action in state universities (they can't for the moment, but will be free to again when the Supreme Court reverses us), but the bulk of a federal appellate judge's work, and by extension, my own, is deciding whether murderers should go free because of irregularities in their trials, whether aliens get to stay in the country, whether an arrest was wrongful or justified, whether prisoners' rights to some modicum of medical care have been violated, and so on. Virtually no one with any kind of financial wherewithal litigates before a Court of Appeals (those people settle); people who litigate in federal appellate court do so because they have no other choice but to appeal and appeal until some court, hopefully, springs them from prison or lets them stay in the country or gives them a huge judgment without which they couldn't financially subsist. So you see a lot of bad lawyers and work through a lot of uninteresting law. Often, even if the convicted murderer in jail for the rest of his life has a strong argument, one which the poor recent Harvard/Yale Law School grad assigned the case will labor mightily to persuade the court of (the grad being one of the judge's clerks), the guy's lawyer will screw all your good work up by being an idiot. So it can be a frustrating job.

Anyway, the somewhat random grouping of Slick Rick, 8Ball and MJG, and Raekwon came to a dingy Columbus club's parking lot to perform Saturday night. The place was in a terrible neighborhood, the girls seemed to have largely wandered off the set of Apache's 'Gangsta Bitch' video, there were only about 150 people, eight of them white, etc. The fact alone that these four legends could end up together in a tiny parking lot, and that kind of a tiny parking lot, is pretty remarkable. Slick Rick and Raekwon obviously didn't have the most fully realized careers, perhaps Raekwon never really had the talent or personality that his having recorded perhaps the best rap album ever made would suggest, but these still are fairly colossal figures in the history of the genre, and yet there they were in this tiny lot. And not as some kind of back to their roots gesture - this is how they make their money. I don't think an equivalent gathering of great rock artists could occur in that kind of a setting. There's still a sense in which, as dominant as "rap" is in pop music today, rap never really made it to the mainstream or got taken seriously. Particularly the latter. Millions of college-age white kids know who Dre and Snoop and 50 and Wayne are, but have no notion that rap exists that isn't made to be played at frat parties or blasted out of their cars or laughed at because at times it's even more misogynistic than they are. It's an unfortunate and, of course, vaguely racist state of affairs.

So anyway, Slick Rick performed first, and that was rather dismal. At this stage in his career, Slick Rick is no less an oldies artist than the Beach Boys. He stands there in his eyepatch and huge jewelry and does songs he recorded 22 years ago when he was young and brilliant, but today he looks and sounds like an ordinary middle-aged guy. It's one thing to be an old-school purist and quite another to find any sort of enjoyment in seeing it performed by a 46-year-old-man. At one point he did this sad little gimmick where he wanted to "test" whether the audience preferred the old school or the "new school." So he would say, "DJ, play me the best of the new school, of the last two years of the new school." And then we were supposed to cheer, but not as enthusiastically as we were supposed to cheer when the DJ subsequently put on a Run-DMC song. So first the DJ plays 'Hustle Hard,' and I'm like, what the fuck, Slick Rick is playing us 'Hustle Hard.' Then he actually goes, "do you remember this from the BET Awards?" And he starts dancing to it! I don't even watch the BET Awards, what is the great Slick Rick doing watching the BET Awards and dancing to Ace Hood? Then the next song was 'We Fly High,' another exemplar of the "best of the last two years of the new school," though it is most assuredly not from the last two years or three years or four years. And for that, Slick Rick actually briefly did the balling dance. No one in the crowd seemed to see any irony in this. Meanwhile, the women in the crowd were finding whorish ways to dance to 'Hey Young World.' So his set was an absolute torture.

Then after a very long intermission, during which the winner of some Columbus beat battle showed us how he could set the Supremes's 'You Keep Me Hanging On' to DJ Khaled-bop, 8Ball and MJG came on. That was a lot less depressing, if only relatively speaking. For starters, both have actually done notable things after their first album, so their set was way less of an oldies act and way more, unfortunately, of an unnecessary walk through their Bad Boy/Grand Hustle discography. Now I like 'Don't Want No Drama' as much as the next guy, but how much more amazing would it have been to see them do 'Armed Robbery'? Not happening. I think the earliest song they did was 'Pimp Hard.' That aside, it was an interesting set in some respects. Maybe this is just my view, but since 8Ball got older and less facile, I've felt that MJG is by far the more technically adroit member of the group - but at the same time by far the least interesting. And that was very much the case Saturday. MJG kept doing the same stop-start, precisely enunciated flow he's been doing on everything for forever, carefully mapping out every little hitch in the air with his off-mic hand as if he were conducting himself in an orchestra, and doing so with a great deal of intensity. Yet there was something strangely inessential and hollow about it. Meanwhile, 8Ball was slurring everything, practically inaudible for half of the time, but quite riveting all the same. Between the hat and shades covering his entire face and how round the guy is, the man barely seems human; he looks like a big ball that might roll off the stage if he weren't so firmly stuck in one spot. At times when I was watching him, I wondered if he didn't just lay on a sofa all day, hibernating until it was time to roll off the couch and record something in perfect double-time. (Even though he was a bit of a mess for most of the set, this performance of 'Sho Nuff' was shockingly sharp.) At one point, he just stopped doing anything and his whole crew gathered round him in a circle as MJG looked on nervously, as if 8Ball were about to give birth. I half-expected that he might - or that he was about to pass out from the heat. Unfortunately, 8Ball started to seem a whole lot less like a magic rapping fat globule and more like a regular guy when, towards the end of the set, he repeatedly reminded us that 10 Toes Down, their latest album, is currently in stores.

Then after another huge intermission, Raekwon showed up. This was a somewhat emotional experience for me. One tends to forget that Rae isn't just his solo career, but a huge part of Enter the Wu-Tang, and particularly of songs like C.R.E.A.M. and Can It Be All So Simple, both of which were staples of my late adolescence. Raekwon still looks like Raekwon, he still raps about the same and about as well, though he's obviously much less hungry, he still does random rants about seeds and respecting your elders and the future of the youth and how he loves grandmothers. That said, I was struck by a few things. He was constantly performing other people's verses - ODB's on Da Mystery of Chessboxin, Nas's on Verbal Intercourse, Prodigy's on Eye for an Eye, probably INS's on Protect Ya Neck and a bunch of other things. So little of what he did was purely solo Rae - Incarcerated Scarfaces, a couple of the new things, and that was it. And after a while it began to serve as a reminder of how inessential Rae arguably was to the music that bears his name - indeed, how inessential and replaceable all the various Wu members may have been vis-a-vis the project's real driving force, RZA's musical vision. Second, he did do a few of his new songs, and I guess I'm not sure what the purpose of new Rae in 2011 is. He does a superb job of recreating the sound of Wu in its prime, but none of it even begins to compare to the originals or have anything new to say, musically, thematically, however, that the old stuff didn't say already. I wish that Cam could have kept going on forever in the Purple Haze vein, but Purple Haze, unlike Cuban Linx, isn't a 16-year-old album. And even in Cam's case, when he still was capable of rapping well on Killa Season, there was a point, songs like I.B.S. aside, where the whole endeavor of Cam being as crazy and far-out and 'surreal' as he could possibly be started to feel very tapped-out and redundant. All that said, seeing Raekwon perform Cuban Linx, even today, is a hugely rewarding and at times moving experience.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree Of Life Is Not A Good Film



Jean-Luc Godard once accurately said of Au Hasard Balthazar (the first masterful five minutes of which are above) that it was the world in an hour and a half. In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick attempts to give us the universe in two hours and a half, only to give us over-edited fragments of a 60s Texas suburban clan's family videos. What's particularly galling is how little Malick cares about his characters; he treats them with precisely the degree of interest (and in precisely the same way) that a music video director treats his models. Large parts of the movie feel like extended anti-allergy or anti-arthritis* commercials. You know, the rapturous shots of mothers and their toddler sons playing outside - imagine a couple hours of that, edited at exactly the pace of a real anti-allergy commercial, leavened with a digression on the Big Bang and pseudophilosophical disquisitions on the "way of nature" and the "way of grace." And like a commercial, Malick's movie isn't about the people in it; it's about aggressively selling the viewer on some bullshit about loving every leaf, every ray of light (an actual quote from the film's constant voiceover). And even at that it fails completely. The only slightly interesting thing in the movie is the bit when the eldest of the Allegra Fam's three sons develops a not-very-subtextual thing for his mom, which Malick seems to be cool with, because in the film's unsubtle dichotomous world, she represents the way of grace, while Brad Pitt, her husband, represents the way of nature (apparently the bad way, which is odd given that the entire film is a series of loving shots of sunflowers and trees and flowers and more trees). It's the only sexual thing in a very sexless film, Malick being more comfortable with plant life and its less messy means of reproduction.

* The last fifteen minutes are more of a riff on anti-arthritis ads - tons of old people happily taking a stroll on the beach. The twist here being that they're all - SPOILER ALERT! - reincarnated old arthritic people. Or maybe they're just in Sean Penn's mind. Either way, who cares.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Sun May Rise Tomorrow

Yeah, it might do that.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Shawna Kingston (JR!) In Critical Condition/NY Times Totally not Culturally Stereotyping French People



This is a great picture of Sean Kingston. Or "rapper Sean Kingston," as he is referred to by the Chicago Tribune, Extra TV, HipHopDX (???), and many local TV stations. I suppose he was a rapper once; JR Rotem has been quoted as saying: "Sean Kingston was a rapper when we found him and it was a development process to get him more melodic. At Beluga we essentially refine the talent so that it's more of a marketable product." Wow, super-artistic approach to making music. "Essentially refining" the talent so that it doesn't rap anymore. Anyway, Sean Kingston crashed into a bridge on a Jet Ski and is in stable, yet critical condition. I wish him the best of luck.



This, on the other hand, is a picture of French-American people. Check out the Gallic gestures! French-American people, the New York Times tells us, have mixed reactions to the once-future President of their homeland being an accused rapist. Not just that, it's "forcing them to examine their loyalties." Because that's what people do when someone of their nationality is accused of rape. Many of the American French, the Times tells us, "work for French restaurants, French banks and enterprises specializing in perfume, high fashion and luxury goods. They often prefer French newspapers..." They also have weird French views about stuff. For example, in the case of Ms. Cottavoz, who runs a health food store in the Upper West Side and was raised in the Gascony region, "her French blood boiled" when she saw DSK doing the perp walk. That's because she's French and they don't perp walk in france. Another Frenchwoman, Ms. Steckel, who runs a French culture-promoting institute, says that when DSK got arrested she got "extremely emotional" and that her "Frenchness came to the fore with more force than [she] would have thought." Ms. Steckel also adds the insight that the French are more prone to think DSK was set up because "the French adore the idea of plots," while "French Americans are more factual." Way to promote your culture. Mr. Touchard, however, who is a French American owner of a French bistro, still thinks that DSK was set up, cryptically observing that "if you want to take down your enemy, you have to know his weaknesses." And a Thomas Bishop, who isn't even French, but who is a bigtime French people expert, explains to the Times that "French-Americans... do not integrate into the American mainstream as easily as other ethnic groups, retaining stronger feelings for their homeland." These French-American peoples, he goes on to explain, may view DSK as "a man with a tragic flaw," rather than holding the normal American view of DSK as a "frisky Frenchman." Meanwhile, Ms. Cottavoz can't reconcile the views of "her American mind and her French mind" on the matter. Her American mind, apparently, tells her that raping maids is wrong, but her French mind is the one with the boiling blood over DSK's mistreatment at the hands of the police. I thought that, like, our sophisticated media elites were supposed to be all about French people and their elite sophisticated ways, not a bunch of anti-French bigots. That's what Sarah Palin told me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cornel West and the "Jewish Brothers"

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First, sorry for not blogging. I'm just at a point in my life where I don't care too much about rap. It isn't that rap isn't good right now; it is. But major label rap has become so moribund that the only way to stay on top of things is to follow a million tumblrs and listen to mixtapes from a million artists that don't have record deals. I lack both the time and the interest to do that. I do, however, write capsule reviews of pop, and some rap, at thesinglesjukebox.com. You can have fun guessing which of the writers I am.

So Cornel West went on MSNBC last night to be interviewed by a liberal talk radio hack, who was upset that West, in an Internet interview, had criticized Obama for lacking backbone and being the "puppet of corporate plutocrats." I sympathize with those on the left who are disappointed with Obama; from a liberal perspective, his has been a disappointing presidency. However, this is, no matter what people say, a center-right country and I doubt that Obama could have done much more than he did - besides, perhaps, making the stimulus somewhat larger. But even that, you may recall, was very difficult to get passed, even with 60 Democrats in the Senate. He does, of course, have the power to leave Afghanistan, and I do think his staying there is, in large part, attributable to a failure of political courage. But I don't really think that that's why people like West are mad at Obama, though perhaps it should be.

Anyway, when West was asked why he had accused Obama, in a previous interview, of having a "fear of free black men," West replied (about 4 1/2 minutes into the video above) that Obama has "a predilection much more towards upper middle class white brothers and Jewish brothers and has a certain distance from free black men who will tell him the truth both about himself as well as what’s going on in black communities, brown communities, red communities and poor white and working class communities." My initial reaction was that this was shockingly anti-Semitic; otherwise, why single out us "Jewish brothers" when Jewish people, after all, are white people? It all sounded very "teh Jews secretly rule the world." Moreover, this wasn't some weird slip of the tongue, because in the interview that this interview was about, West said the same exact thing, namely that "brother Barack," apparently due to his "Kansas influence [and] loving white grandparents," is frightened by "independent black folk" and "feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men."

These comments are stupid in a typical Cornel West-ian way - West, who started his career as a fairly brilliant philosopher, has spent so many years talking down to an uneducated audience that he seems to have deeducated himself as a result - but I don't think they're anti-Semitic. For, as it turns out, West has this really weird view about Jewishness as an ethnicity, on which Jewish people (or Jewish brothers, if you prefer) are no more "white" than Chinese people are white. Hence, for him, saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and Jews is like saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and Asians, as opposed to saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and a religiously defined sub-set of whites whom, for suspect reasons, West felt like singling out. However, this view, as we'll see, is perhaps even more disturbing than the garden-variety anti-Semitism that it sounded like he was espousing.

Turning to this weird view, West has been rather explicit that Jewish people just aren't white. In a podcast he did for the Holocaust Museum in a series entitled, ironically, 'Voices on Antisemitism' (ironically because some of the views he espouses in the podcast seem fairly anti-Semitic), West actually says, "even if some Jews believe they're white, I think that they're duped." West doesn't claim that Jewish people are somehow genetically non-white; rather, his view is that anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted in Western civilization that Jewish people can never truly become white. Even though, he acknowledges in somewhat queasy terms, Jewish people have "move[d] from underdogs to middle dogs and upper middle dogs, and even a few top dogs at the top of American capitalist civilization," West says that he is "not going to believe the hype," as even in America, "the antisemitism lies just beneath the surface." That is why, he explains, "those like myself who are fundamentally committed to defending the humanity of Jewish brothers or sisters" are constantly reminding those brothers and sisters that they aren't really white and that Jewish brothers who lived in Nazi Germany thought they were safe too. (Yes, he says that.)

As you'll notice, this all seems awfully dissonant. For on West's terms, Jews are a race of "upper middle dogs," "top dogs at the top of American capitalist civilization," and one of the two privileged races that control "brother Barack's" policy decisions. (One might also add that we comprise a third of the Supreme Court in spite of comprising less than 2% of the U.S. population.) On the other hand, this uniquely privileged race, if you insist on calling us one, is, according to West, not white, not because that's the case biologically but because America is still such an anti-Semitic country that it regards us as racially other even though we're no less white than Russians, Italians, etc. It strikes me that, rather than being "fundamentally committed to defending the humanity of Jewish brothers and sisters," West feels a sort of vested interest in the continuation of anti-Semitism even after it's ceased to exist in American life in any important way (though I have no doubt that anti-Semitism is still huge in poor white, and black, communities where most Jewish people would never be caught dead in the first place, just as there are all sorts of powerless places in America where there's anti-white bigotry).

That this is the case is abundantly obvious in his podcast, in which he bemoans the estrangement of "Jewish brothers" from their black brothers and sisters. The way in which he does this is rather revealing. On the one hand, he says, Jewish people did play a huge role in the civil rights movement, and that's great. But then, "on the other hand," America is a place of "unbelievable upward social mobility," and this mobility has led to the "bourgeois-ossification of American Jewry," and this "bourgeois-ossification" has led to tensions between Jewish and black brothers. And it's precisely at this point at which he goes on his rant about Jewish people being duped if they think they're white or are safe in America, because Jewish people in Germany thought the same thing. The implications of all this are terribly clear. West thinks it's an unfortunate thing that Jewish people have succeeded in this country, a success he chooses to give the ugly name of bourgeois-ossification, and continues to view us as a victim of bigotry, in spite of all the evidence that that's not the case, in order to maintain some rhetorical community between Jews and blacks. This is why he insists that Jews aren't really white.

I find this rather pathological. It's understandable to be a little sad about Jewish-black relations, and it's undeniable that a - not the - cause of their declined state is Jewish economic success and black economic stagnation, or rather, a lesser degree of economic success on blacks' part than on our part, as there is a thriving black middle class that's a great deal larger than it was 40 or 50 years ago. (Of course, another cause of the declined quality of Jewish-black relations is black anti-Semitism.) But in the scheme of things, I would accept a decline in Jewish-black relations as the inevitable price of Jewish success and assimilation any day, and anyone who claims to be fundamentally committed to defending Jewish humanity should be happy for our success, rather than delusionally pretending that we didn't cross the line from other to white decades ago out of regret that we're no longer around to be partners in someone else's misery. It's a little like the fat girl who's always telling her formerly fat friend that she could put on 50 pounds at any moment, and that her warnings are just out of deep concern for her good looks. Except I don't believe that there's any fat girl out there crazy or pathetic enough to tell her ex-fat friend that, beneath the veneer of weight loss, everyone still sees her as fat. Then again, there probably is. At least that, though, isn't as egregious as not so subtly hoping for a re-injection of anti-Semitism into American life.