I must be the only person who looks forward to a vacation so he can…work. Just, you know, work on the things he wants to do and enjoys instead of the things he’s mandated to do by financial and fiduciary responsibilities.
I’m writing this from my parents’ kitchen table near Windsor, Ontario. The last time I was here, in June, I was working through the first draft of the book. That was rarely a cheery process, so I cherish the opportunity to visit and just…be. I’ve made no plans with friends, nor do I intend to. I kind of just want to hang out with the fam jam, pet some dogs, eat snickerdoodles, pilfer their record collection (see results on Instagram) and recharge the batteries before heading back to Toronto and researching more ways to make rice and black-eyed peas (meal of champions).
This time last year I took a moment to walk y’all through the holiday music I actually enjoyed, those songs that add comfort and meaning to my holiday season. Since I’m in such a good mood today, it’s a perfect time to look at the songs I cannot stand, the ones that make me burp peppermint-tinged vomit into the back of my throat. I’m only working with those songs admitted to the canon; there are countless atrocities buried in the holiday albums of pop acts from today and yesteryear (looking at you, “Funky, Funky Christmas“) but I want to discuss the mediocrity that’s somehow slipped through the cracks of common sense and become standards.
In last year’s post I mentioned that “Jingle Bells” is no one’s favourite holiday song, and the practice of adding a few tinkles of the melody on the outro of your version of “The Christmas Song” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is pandering and repellent.
Look, “Jingle Bells” is fine when you’re a kid and you’re commenting on the odour of certain superheroes and their egg-laying abilities, but there’s no way to save this song for anyone past the age of 11, not that it’s stopped crooners of the past sixty years from trying, and no one fails more spectacularly than Barbra. My mother plays this record every year and I will cast no shade to “I Wonder as I Wander,” but this scat-tacular rendition of “Jingle Bells” is a sewing needle in my ear.
Baby It’s Cold Outside
“Say, what’s in this drink?”
“The answer is no.”
“What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”
Okay, just—*ducks tomato* will you just *dodges cup full of piss* just wait a minute, damn it!
It’s not a bad song. I might even go as far to say that I actively like it, I’m bouncing in my seat as I listen to it. The issue is, I don’t know that I consider it a Christmas song, or just a pop song wearing a Santa hat, and maybe that’s what makes it exceptional in the first place, but I don’t think it deserves its honour as the last song to enter the all-time canon of holiday classics. But I swear, the fervor that this song inspires in you people, the nuclear rage that can erupt at the slightest criticism of it, is unreal. It’s good, I will give you that. It’s just not as good as y’all think it is, and not as good as any of the songs I mentioned last year.
I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
I mean, do I really have to? Sure, it’s for the kids, fine, whatever, if the day ever comes when I’m blessed to loose some spawn on the world I’ll grit my teeth and put this song on repeat, too. But I know grown adults who still hold it down for Gayla Peevey, think it’s adorable. Get your lives together, people. And this is me saying that.
This Christmas (by Chris Brown)
This is not an indictment of the Donny Hathaway song, this is an indictment on the need for anyone [especially the above…individual] to cover it. Stop. Erase the tapes. You have nothing, absolutely nothing to add to the original. As a friend once said, “I know God is good because He brought us Donny.” Anyone thinking they need to trot their flat-ass voice all over the perfection of the original needs to sit down, pour a glass of egg nog and think about their choices.
So those are the songs I’ll be avoiding this year like a kiss from your auntie with the beef smell. Let me know how wrong I am or what I missed in the comments when you’re hiding from family in the bathroom this week.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all y’all who take ten minutes out of your day to read the junk I throw up here. I appreciate it more than I’ll ever let on.
Last weekend, the nerdmageddon known as FanExpo Canada hit Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, and despite my well-documented thoughts on convention season, I was seriously considering going, but ultimately tapped out due to the financial commitment required and my unwillingness to spend my rent money getting photos with Nathan Fillion and The Walking Dead’s Dixon Brothers. But it was dicey there for a minute.
I’d forgive you if you’d forgotten or were unaware of how deep my geekery runs. Most of the topics around here lately seem to centre around hip-hop or weak-kneed attempts at personal insight. But it’s always gurgling inside me, ready to spurt out at any moment, from my continued love of professional wrestling, my slavish dedication to the comic series Saga, or the fact that after September 17, I will be on permanent vacation causing mayhem throughout Los Santos.
I did not expect it to be triggered by a Japanese anime about magical girls.
I’d heard of Madoka Magica long before I thought to watch it: one night I stumbled across the ‘Headless Mami‘ meme and found it odd that a character in a cutesy-wutesy magical girl show would get decapitated, but stranger things have happened. But the image stuck with me, solely because it wasn’t something I’d seen before. I’ve been long burned out on anime, the tropes of the medium had become too trite and predictable to me [I solely blame Love Hina for this]. But something about Mami’s demise stuck with me, so when I saw that Crackle [the dollar bin of online video] had the whole series available, I gave it a shot. And was pretty much stunned into submission. Because it’s Sailor Moon-meets-Evangelion.
In the late 90’s, the North American broadcasts of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z combined with a fluke viewing of the cult classic Akira to transform me into the most rabid of anime fans. The crap we would have to go through back then to see anything that wasn’t already bought for syndication on children’s television would floor the fans of today. There was one store [ONE] that had a small selection of VHS tapes from the now-defunct Streamline Pictures and early releases from Manga Entertainment. If you’re of my generation of fandom, you remember these shows: Wicked City, Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, The Wings of Honneamise, Dirty Pair. Smaller distributors like ADVision or Central Park Media had started releasing shows by the mid-90’s, but digging them up in Windsor, Ontario was next to impossible, and when you did they were usually horrific English dubs by barely conscious voice actors [the ‘sub v. dub wars’ were real, friends; even worse, dubbed anime retailed for less than its subtitled counterparts, since manufacturers considered anime in its original Japanese a more ‘niche product’ and because, as rumour had it one executive explained, ‘fans will pay it.’ DVDs, with their multiple audio options, changed the game]. One afternoon in my university computer lab I did a Lycos search [really] of ‘anime’ and discovered something called The Right Stuf International. Today, TRSI is an online behemoth, the oldest North American anime retailer in the business. Back in the day, its sales were done via mail order, and all we had to go on were recommendations and descriptions from the catalogue. There were no trailers to watch, you could maybe glean some info from the fledgling message boards that started cropping up, but a lot of times you went on instinct, what you though sounded good. Then you sent them an order form and a cheque, and six weeks later you got some tapes.
We will not talk about how much of my money this company received from 1996-1998.
Many of the shows I love to this day I learned about from the TRSI catalogue, or from people I met on their message boards and would send/trade tapes with. One of those shows was Neon Genesis Evangelion. I would never call it my ‘favourite’ anime in the same way I wouldn’t call The Sandman my ‘favourite’ comic, but images and story points of Eva have stayed with me for almost 15 years. We don’t need to get into a major plot synopsis of the show, all we need to say is that Eva took the genre of giant robots, which had been around in Japanese SF for decades and added an element of psychology and deconstruction that no one had ever tried before. When fans didn’t approve of the show’s conclusion, director Hideaki Anno rereleased the ending in the theatrical release End of Evangelion which has to be the most flagrant pair of middle fingers to a property’s fanbase in the history of filmmaking. It was glorious to witness. As the series gets tweaked and retold in a new theatrical tetralogy, its impact is still being felt [the tandem piloting of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim is one of a few ideas in that movie that seems to be inspired by Eva]. What makes that show so fascinating is that ultimately, it was never about smashy-smashy robotic fisticuffs, it was about the trauma inflicted on the 14-year-olds forced to pilot the things, all of them dealing with abandonment issues, all of them searching for a meaning in a meaningless world. Existentialism at its finest [or worst, depending].
PMMM looks to do the same thing with the magical girl genre. In shows of that type, typically some unremarkable girl has a trinket of some sort bestowed on her by a sparkly cat/puppy/squirrel/wolverine which then allows her to transform into a powerful crusader of justice who battles the monster of the week before squaring off the overarching menace.
PMMM takes the formula but turns the magical girl proposal into an overtly Faustian bargain: Kyubey, the show’s wonder-rodent of choice and indeterminate origin grants wishes, anything a young lady may desire, and in return, said lady must work as a magical girl fighting ‘witches’, physical manifestations of hopelessness and despair. For most of the show’s 12 episodes, Madoka, the titular character and protagonist, wrestles with the decision whether or not to take Kyubey up on his offer, despite his forceful encouragement and claims that she would be the most powerful magical girl ever. For those characters that do decide to accept Kyubey’s offer, the gift turns to a monkey’s paw: Mami’s elation at the possibility of no longer being the lone magical girl leads to overconfidence and death; Madoka’s friend Sayaka makes a wish to help the boy she loves, which brings her nothing but pain and hurt, and also death, turning her into a witch [the ultimate fate of all magical girls]; the antagonistic Homura reveals herself to be a time traveler who had her life saved when Madoka sacrificed her own, and has gone through hundreds of timelines to try and prevent the same outcome. And when Madoka finally makes her choice… well, I suppose I should leave you some mysteries.
The characters in the show are all wrestling with powerlessness and failure, despite the mighty abilities at their command. When Kyubey’s intentions are finally revealed, he turns out to be a member of an alien race looking to harvest emotional energy to restore balance to the universe and prevent entropy [shaky science here, but it’s still a rare hard-SF angle to the typically new agey approach these shows usually take] and what conduit can provide more emotional energy than adolescent girls? They’re nothing but unchecked emotional energy. While not nearly as nihilistic in its storytelling as Eva gets, I was taken completely off guard by the weight of the story, by the loss the characters feel, the elements of horror that emerge during the witch battles [the animation style changes to a flat, stop-motiony style whenever a witch is around, and the ending credits are…off putting].
At 12 episodes, it’s a tightly wound narrative, nothing is wasted, it has none of the filler that tends to plague most anime shows. You could do worse than checking it out on Crackle.
This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.
That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:
These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.
Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.
The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.
BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II
Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.
Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.
ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel
Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.
Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.
J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away
My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame
My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.
At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.
Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis
Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.
Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.
Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy
Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.
Knxwledge – wntwrk
My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.
BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above
Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You
I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.
Washed Out: Feel It All Around
This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.
Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel
The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.
A couple of weeks ago I got the following text from the lovely and talented Joyce Vogler, who I used to work with at the store and is now studying art and being generally wonderful at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.
If that ain’t a dream assignment, I don’t know what is. Here’s a young woman, seeking to actively engage in the art of rap and culture of hip-hop [“good stuff from the 90’s,” specifically] . I grabbed my weathered copy of Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Listsoff of the shelf, just to make sure I wouldn’t gloss over anything in my enthusiasm. It was an intro-level playlist, I admit, but illustrated some of the best the music’s had to offer over the last thirty-plus years. The whole exercise was a pleasurable one, reminding me what I loved about the music I’ve dedicated so much thought and energy to.
And then, this.
Sometime this morning a video of Lil Reese, an 18-year-old rapper from Chicago signed to Def Jam and a crewmate of Chief Keef [he who does not like] started exploding the rap webs. In the video, Reese appears to be arguing with a young woman [the mother of his child, according to some reports] who asks him to leave her home [though it’s unclear whose home it is]. He pokes her, she smacks his hand away. He shoves her, she rushes up in his face, where he proceeds to unload on her with punches. Once she’s knocked down, he continues to kick and stomp at her head while her friends scream in the background. As onlookers do nothing and the cell phone cameraman keeps it all in the shot.
I’m not running a news site here, so I’m not going to post the video because frankly I don’t want it here in my ‘house,’ but it’s on Miss Info’s site [with the appropriate tone] for anyone who wants to see it.
Forgetting for a moment that the kid beat the shit out of a woman, adding a layer of awesome sauce to this whole disgusting mess is Reese’s complete and utter lack of remorse, or even awareness about his actions, tweeting: The haters tryna see a mf Dwn lol Dey gotta b broke and bored wanna upload sum shit from years ago damnn we winnin it’s 2 late… #3hunna [Note: the tweet seems to have been deleted in the hour I’ve been working on this post].
What are we to make of this, then? If Joyce chooses to continue her studies in the culture, how do I explain/defend this? Does it have to be?
Look, I’m a rap fan since nine-years-old, I’ve had plenty of practice navigating the thorny dialogue about violence and misogyny in the music, but I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t for a moment believe the reprehensible actions of a foolish kid speak for or should reflect on the culture as a whole. As some have pointed out, back in August Pitchfork reported cops charged John Paul Pitts, the frontman of something called Surfer Blood with domestic battery and no one started pointing the finger at indie rock as the culprit.
But. But. I also don’t think there were a crew of plaid-shirted, knitcaps on Twitter defending Pitts’s actions. But check out the search results on Twitter for him, or even in Info’s comment thread on the original story. You’ll see a surprising amount of people looking to defend or justify kicking a woman in the face. Repeatedly. One person doesn’t reflect the culture as a whole, no, but when a surprisingly large segment of the culture seems to empathize…the tried and true argument starts to show its cracks.
How odd that this hits the same week Kendrick Lamar’s much hyped major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city hits the shelves, to near universal acclaim, due in no small part to his portrayal of a kid trying to avoid the street life who can’t avoid the drugs, guns and botched home invasions that run throughout it, whether he’s personally involved with it or not. It should be a good week for hip-hop, but I can’t help but wonder if for every Kendrick, Childish Gambino, or Big Sean, there are a dozen regional acts owning the streets [and thus, the culture’s conversation] that saw that video on World Star and went, ‘yeah, I get that.’
Almost twenty years ago Tupac Shakur, no stranger to explosive outbursts of violence himself, released a song with the following lyrics:
And since we all came from a woman got our name from a woman and our game from a woman, I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women, do we hate our women? I think it’s time to kill for our women time to heal our women, be real to our women. And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies That will hate the ladies, that make the babies.
That complexity, that contradictory nature, that the same dude who was spitting on reporters and flipping the bird from an ambulance gurney following a shooting could still write lyrics pleading for better treatment of women is what made him such a compelling artist. And without that flipside to the rapper posturing, what are we left with? And how much longer will it stay something I want to be a part of?
Some of you might recall my glowing endorsement of actor/comedian/writer/ Donald Glover’s commercial debut as the rapper Childish Gambino, 2011’s Camp. I loved that album so much I started watching Community and fell in love with Glover’s character as much as everyone else does. So I can admit, I’ve become a bit of a stan for dude in the last six months. When he announced he was dropping a new mixtape last week, I downloaded it immediately.
Here’s the thing about rappers: success is usually the worst thing that happens to them, because then that becomes all they talk about. While Royalty doesn’t totally abandon the raw confessional tone that permeates much of Camp, this is clearly Glover-as-Gambino’s coming out party, complete with the requisite thousand guest spots [16 of the album’s 18 songs have guest verses by everyone from PFG favourites like Bun B, Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q to Beck and Danielle Haim of the tweerock sister trio HAIM] and lots of bragging and boasting about skills and money and woman-acquiring potency.
Glover’s clearly been putting in work on his flow [“more swag, pull back on the punchlines”] but for as much as he’s improved as a rapper, he’s grown less interesting as an artist. While some tracks have the same sort of straight talk that so impressed me about Camp, many of the songs have the sort of ‘hip-hop as usual,’ feel found on most rap albums. Which is fine, and maybe I hold Glover to too high a standard on the strength of Camp, but ‘hip-hop as usual,’ is never what I went to him for.
On the production side, Glover still handles most of the beatmaking with varying levels of success, while snagging beats from Beck, up and comer skywlkr and Toronto beatking Boi-1da.
Ultimately though, one line soured the whole project for me. On ‘We Ain’t Them,’ the first track on Royalty, Glover raps about making a guest appearance onstage with The Roots and talking to Questlove after the show. The talk prompts him to put his career into perspective [taking shots at his infamous 1.6 Pitchfork review in the process] and think about what he wants to do: “Back of my mind, though, I hope the show gets cancelled. / Maybe then I could focus.”
I know what Glover’s trying to say, but as a fan of said show and his work on it, it just comes off as ungrateful and unappreciative of the fans that have gone to bat for Community over the years. Last I checked, Glover wasn’t scheduled to join the rest of the cast at Comic-Con this year, further suggesting that he’s got one foot out the door in favour of music. And yes, I know to criticize anyone for following their passion smacks of the worst sorts of fanboyism and jealousy, but that’s just how it feels to me.
Now granted, free mixtapes are never the best way to judge an artist, and Royalty is by no means a bad project. “We Ain’t Them,” “One Up,” and “Black Faces,” start the album strong; Bun B drops the best Dragonball Z reference in hip-hop on “R.I.P.”, and “Wonderful” was the perfect song to start my weekend as I waited for a westbound streetcar at Queen and Bathurst. But everything that made Camp so fascinating is notably absent, and choosing to end the album with Tina Fey doing the usual, ‘white nerdy person comes hard on a hip-hop track’ not nearly as well as Natalie Portman did it concludes the whole affair on weird, sour note. It sounds like an artist with no lack of talent trying to figure out where he wants to go. Time will tell if I’m still interested in going with him.
Royalty is free for download on Glover’s website, and he hits Toronto for a sold out show at Echo Beach on July 31.
I’ll call this out at the top: When Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch lost his battle with cancer this week, an era of hip-hop ended. We’ve suffered many losses in hip-hop, many of them are senseless. But this one….maybe because it’s natural causes, maybe because it’s not something anybody could have prevented, it just saddens me so much more.
The Beasties were never the best MCs [I always made the joke that they got paid everytime they told a listener what their names were], but they were charismatic as hell, something that has to be credited to the unique personalities and tonalities of their voices. They each occupied a different sonic register and complemented the other two perfectly: AdRock’s played the nasal high, Mike D sat in the middle, and MCA rounded out the bottom with his signature rasp. It’s incredible when, individually let alone as part of a group, an artist can develop a voice instantly recognizable to a listener. And now one of them is gone.
My entry to hip-hop came on the playground. Schoolyard boomboxes blasting Run-DMC and the Fat Boys at recess made me a fan for life. It wasn’t a popular position in a world where The Bangles and The Pet Shop Boys were dominating airwaves. Classmates subjected me to the usual accusations of being a ‘n—-r lover’ and cursed at me to turn down that “monkey music.” But things started to change the next year: people started getting their hands on License to Ill by The Beastie Boys.
There’s no arguing the point: for white kids on the playground, The Beasties made it okay to like hip-hop. Even if your friends didn’t want to follow you to the worlds of LL Cool J or Eric B. & Rakim, you’d always find common ground with License to Ill.
I can’t overstate how revolutionary that album is. The Beasties and sometimes DJ [and Def Jam Records founder] Rick Rubin took the aesthetic of black hip-hop and used their own musical heritage to make something wholly their own but respectful of the mode they were working in. Instead of James Brown, they were using Led Zeppelin. Much as I never want to hear ‘Fight for Your Right’ or ‘No Sleep til Brooklyn’ ever again, there are a surprising number of jams on that first album that were killing dance floors in the ’80s. The Def Jam coffee table book that came out last year specifically discusses how much it frustrated some black MCs that a song like ‘Hold it Now, Hit It’ was so good, because they really wanted to hate them.
Three years later they took whatever superficial fans they made with License to Ill and tossed them under a bus with the crate-digging opus Paul’s Boutique. A more traditional ‘rap album,’ but with an a progressive view of sampling rivalled only by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like their debut, this is not an album that could ever exist under current sampling laws and pay structures.
The album that resonated with my friends and I the most was 1992’s Check Your Head. The Boys returned to their punk roots to perfectly coincide with the grunge explosion, not just playing punk songs [‘Gratitude,’ ‘Time for Livin’] but taking the chopped guitar riffs of License to Ill and rubbing them full of dirt to give the songs a gritty, lo-fi, DiY feeling. It was the perfect record for a 15-year-old trying to fake a love of rock music while gangsta rap was leaving him alienated from hip-hop. It worked for a while. I mean, watch the video for ‘So What’cha Want.‘ That’s basically how we all dressed until 1996 [toques in the summer all day, son!].
I fell off after Ill Communication, really stepped off after Hello Nasty [too many wack people who reaaalllly liked ‘Intergalactic’], checked in and was pleased by To the Five Boroughs and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Though I never had any reason to, I always considered Yauch the most creative of the three, maybe because he so overtly stepped into other arenas like directing their videos or crashing awards shows as his lederhosen-wearing alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower. If you need a clear indication of the group’s cross-generational appeal, watch that video for ‘Make Some Noise‘ again, and count just how many celebrities were willing to take a day to be a part of a Beastie Boys video.
Had they toured this summer, I probably would have gone to see them, not because I’m any sort of super fan, but because they’re legends and I should have seen them when I could. Now I can’t. But if Yauch’s out of pain, if he was at peace with his passing [as a Buddhist, I hope he was], nobody has any right to complain.
Rest in Peace, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch. Thank you for constantly reminding us that the foundations of this thing we call hip-hop can still rock a party after 25 years. Don’t believe me? Watch the Boys rip ‘Shadrach’ from Paul’s Boutique on Soul Train, and pay attention to how that crowd goes from skeptical to buck wild thanks to a skillfully placed ‘Funky Drummer’ drop, some ‘Don Cornelius’ chants and the sheer will of the Beasties’ enthusiasm. A lot of rappers today could do well to take some showmanship notes from these dudes.
During my brief and infrequent stints in an office environment, the one criticism consistently lobbed at me by managers and superiors was my perceived unwillingness to engage with people, to favor email over face-to-face communication, for vocalizing my ideas in the casual debriefing we would have after meetings. I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that my preferred method of conducting myself was something I needed to “get over,” and with no small amount of time and difficulty, I did to an extent. But the second my boss presented me with a request for information from somewhere in the company I’d never dealt with before, I would sit at my desk and have to psych myself up for something as simple as an email, then pore over every word, read the thing out loud to ensure the information was related clearly, then get irritated when my carefully constructed email would snag a two-line reply.
How lovely, then, to come across a book arguing that not only is it okay to be how I am, sometimes it’s even preferable.
Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a 300-page excuse for the introverted to retreatfurther into themselves, rather it’s an indictment of a certain type of Western worldview that puts a premium on the dynamic, go-getter extroverted types at the expense of the more reserved among us who would prefer to make decisions more slowly. Cain travels everywhere from the Harvard Business School to Cupertino, California to an Anthony Robbins Seminar, marveling at how sharp the dichotomy is between introverts and extroverts really is, and how painful the struggle is for introverts trying to fake it in a world that doesn’t value them or what they can contribute [like the guy at the Harvard Business School who pulls great grades but feels he’s wasting his education because he can’t muster the energy to attend the multiple social outings he was expected to attend every week].
The worlds of business and education come under the harshest scrutiny from Cain, with their unrelenting emphasis on forced collaborations that sometimes do more to stifle innovation than encourage it. I mean, I was a low rung on the ladder when I was in the office, my busiest day might have involved three meetings at the most. That’s still at least three hours of the day that I’m not working, at least not under my definition of the word. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are actually busy there.
But, the book doesn’t let introverts off the hook, examining the ways in which they can stretch themselves into pretend extroverts to better make their way in the world. It can be done, but it’s important to note, and the book does so frequently, that it really only works when introverts believe fully and passionately about the things they are stretching themselves for: I was able to finally start speaking up in meetings because I fully cared about the ideas we were sharing; I can talk to someone I’ve never met at the bookstore for fifteen minutes or more because I’m passionate about books and reading and want to help a stranger in their reading experience.
While I adored the book, I found I enjoyed it the most when I was able to most recognize my experience in it; when Cain wrote about things like the science of introversion and extroversion or how to encourage introverted kids [subjects I agree the book needed to address] I found myself skimming ahead.
All told, Quiet was a fantastic read, and pretty mandatory for anyone who’s ever been made to feel like there’s something wrong with them because their idea of an amazing Friday night involves a pizza and a movie at home more than a house party crammed with people.
For the interested but lazy, check out Cain’s 16-point ‘Quiet Manifesto,’ [taken from her website] as well as her recent TED Talk on the subject.
1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.
2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.
3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.
5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.
6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.
7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.
8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.
9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.
10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.
11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.
12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.
14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.
15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.
16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi
Because not every great song I discovered last year came out last year, and I did more than listen to music.
The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
I imagine hardly any people will read this book, and that’s tragic. Non-fiction books by novelists are always kind of a hard sell to people other than completists, academics and nerds like me, and I’ve never really understood that. If you love what an author has to say about people who don’t exist, shouldn’t you love what they say about people who do even more? Lethem’s first collection of non-fiction, the slim essay collection The Disappointment Artist, solidified my love for him more than any novel he’s ever written, an all-nighter with the smartest stoner on campus discussing topics from the John Wayne movie The Searchers to the late-period comics work of Jack Kirby, to his father’s painting career; his essay on seeing Star Wars 21 times in 1977 is one of the best things I’ve read by anyone, anywhere. The book blends cultural scholarship with narrative non-fiction in a way that 97% of bloggers working today wish they could emulate.
The Ecstasy of Influence works the same lane, but augments it a bit. Titled after a controversial essay Lethem wrote for Harper’s in 2007 celebrating plagiarism and demonizing copyright and intellectual property [and revealed in the footnotes to have been reconstructed wholesale from the words and ideas of other people], the book is heavily modeled on one of Lethem’s favourites, Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Like that book, TEOI reprints a large body of Lethem’s journalism and non-fiction on subjects as diverse as 9/11, James Brown and life as a used bookstore clerk, strung together with original pieces and commentaries. Lethem might reprint an essay he wrote about his well-documented admiration for Philip K. Dick, going so far as to move near his house in California, then follow that piece up with a new piece on how Dick would likely have hated him had the two ever met, rounded out with a previously-unpublished early short story to illustrate just how much Dick’s work influenced him. It’s a meandering, comprehensive book perfect for dipping in and out of, but when taken as a whole, shines as one of the best I read this year.
Last autumn a friend of mine at the store told me with excitement that she was volunteering for Manifesto, a weeklong urban music and art festival here in Toronto. Being a tiny Jewish girl and dyed-in-the-wool Glee fan, I found it an odd bit of extracurricular activity, but I’ll support anyone who wants to spread the love [it is the Brooklyn way, after all]. So as the festival drew near, she asked me if I could get a mix together of all of the artists who would be performing at the marquee concert, a free show in Toronto’s Dundas Square featuring Rakim, Kid Capri, Blu & Exile, Phonte & 9th Wonder and more. Like a fool, I said yes, and started looking into some of the acts I was unfamiliar with. One of them as Little Brother, the group 9th and Phonte were a part of with Rapper Big Pooh. I’d heard of them in my travels, but when they were putting out most of their work I was kneedeep in the band and trying to smother my hip-hop self into a little corner of my soul and wasn’t following the music that closely. So rediscovering their second studio album last summer was a revelation.
A concept album based around the fictitious Minstrel Show [the greatest colored show on Earth!] and hosted by Chris Hardwick of Nerdist fame [it’s really him, him and 9th both confirmed that for me on Twitter], the album gives over an hour of stellar soul-sampling beats, guest appearances from DJ Jazzy Jeff and Elzhi, and features the soulful stylings of Percy Miracles, in a parody of R.Kelly/Ronald Isley-style ballads so hysterically good it actually gets legitimately caught in your head. With its ‘Caught you cheatin, you was creepin, to the windows to the walls, skeet-skeetin‘ chorus, it probably predicted contemporary R&B in 2011 way better than they’re probably comfortable with. A crazy good album I will preach on to anyone and everyone.
I spend half my time fudging with inventory. I spend the other half in load screens. The combat is like fighting Jell-O, nothing seems to connect despite the sound of the clanging swords. The notorious glitches are frequent: I’ve fallen through walls and witnessed the mythical backwards flying dragon. It’s a glorified to-do list.
While never averse to RPG’s, I learned after a brief dalliance with Fallout3 that the specific brand of game put forth by Bethesda Softworks are the sort I no longer have the right lifestyle to accommodate. Some early reviews boasted 300-hour experiences, and I just don’t have that sort of time anymore.
Sixteen hours in, it would appear I do.
So what the hell is it about this game? There are all the aforementioned strikes against it, and forget about the story, I only know what’s happening 20% of the time [Empire? Stormcloaks? Uhhhhh…] so why can’t I stop? Why is writing this entry about Skyrim making me angry because it makes me want to stop writing to go play Skyrim.
If I have a gun to my head, I would probably settle on “immersion.” While Skyrim has the same open-world, sandboxy gameplay I love about Grand Theft Auto (IV in particular), GTA lacks any sort of character skill progression or first person perspective. In both games, you’re never beholden to perform the tasks the game demands, but you will run out of things to do in Liberty City and go back to the main story line. I went four days in Skyrim without going anywhere near the primary narrative. Even when I did decide to go to High Hrothgar or whatever the hell it is, I ended up meandering into mill towns and military camps, picking up some quick gold clearing out a dungeon or two. I just adore the world Bethesda’s created. The first time I saw the aurora borealis over the fields surrounding Winterun my jaw actually dropped. The first time a dragon unexpectedly thundered overhead I panicked and hid behind a rock [actually an effective strategy it turned out]. I also enjoy the absence of Fallout’s karma system. The few hours I spent with that game, I didn’t enjoy constantly being reminded that the game was watching and ticking off everything I did, always placing weights on the scale of judgment. If my intent was to be a good person, one point of negative karma could undo hours of play. With Skyrim, the decision to steal, pickpocket or murder innocents is purely up to your own moral code. And, interestingly enough, as with Red Dead Redemption, it’s never occurred to me to start tossing fireballs at shopkeepers.
There’s also the matter of character creation. I know this is standard practice in any RPG worth a damn, but it’s a feature I haven’t had the opportunity to tool around with in a very long time. I feel an ownership and connection over that ball of fur pictured above that I haven’t experienced in a game in a very long time. I anguish over every decision I make for him, every skill to build, the type of game I’m going to play [one-handed brawler]. I might have enjoyed tooling around Liberty City with Niko Bellic, but when Iloru Sachiel [a name I agonized over, even consulting a fantasy name generator] runs around Skyrim, it feels like me, because I control how he looks, how he fights, his abilities, what he wears. When I take Lydia my ‘housecarl’ [pictured above, think medieval personal assistant] out with me, I constantly check on her safety during battles. I even get bummed when I have to kill other Khajiit, because I don’t like killing my “own kind.” And I am fully aware of what a pitifully geeky thing that is to even say, let alone praise.
It actually wasn’t my idea to get the game. For the first time in history, The Lady bought a video game she wanted to play. And we are already playing two different games: she’s playing as a Nord woman with a preference for two-handed weapons. She’s done different quests than I have. If we swapped notes after a week, we’d probably find we had very unique experiences. When you take into account the numerous class builds you can make [I’m already thinking Highborn Warmage my next go around], you start to realize just how much is hiding under the hood of this game.
I acknowledge this is all very surfacey praise, and anyone who’s played the previous game Oblivion or even World of Warcraft figured these things out years ago, but it speaks to Skyrim’s overall success if it can win over players like The Lady and I back to its snowy bluffs hour after hour. After hour. Why am I still talking to you?
Not an accurate representation. Actual show much more insane.
I’ve made no secret of how far anime fell from my good graces as I got older. Comics are probably the only nerdly pursuit I’ve invested more time and money in, but they can at least be sold one day for something resembling a return on investment. The 150+ VHS tapes I ultimately left at our old apartment when we moved were never going to get me a dime.
This sort of thing will sour a person.
But, despite my aversion to the Narutos and Bleaches and Death Notes of the world, there are series and movies that will always have a place in my heart and will always get a pass. And no collective except Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli gets carte blanche with me quite like Studio GAINAX.
But perhaps none of their collected output means more to me than their 2000, six-episode miniseries FLCL, aka Fooly Cooly.
Essentially a demo for the studio’s newly finished CG division, FLCL is almost an indulgent vanity project, with the director throwing everything he loves [guitars, scooters, Lupin III, baseball] into a spastic bouillabaisse that doubles as an allegory for puberty.
How could this possibly be bad?
Naota is a middle schooler trying to play cool and nonchalant during a difficult time in his life. His brother has left him to play baseball in America, his brother’s girlfriend Mamimi is getting all kinds of inappropriate with him, and then a girl who may or may not be an alien runs over him with her Vespa and smacks him with a Rickenbacker bass guitar. Robots begin to spring from his head shortly thereafter. The series charts Naota’s struggle to deal with the changes in his body and his life, while trying to figure out what Haruka the alien girl is really after and defending his city from continued robot attacks. Yup.
Like most things featured in the Throwback, FLCL was hard to track down for a while. Despite popular airings on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, the company responsible for the original DVD release went under, copies dried up and prices shot up: the original Synch-Point boxset being the only thing I’ve ever been ripped off for on eBay; cost me 75 bucks, never showed up. I almost punched out a vendor at Toronto’s Fan Expo two years ago for implying my tastes were antiquated. Luckily, the show’s been reacquired by licensing behemoth Funimation, allowing me the chance to pick it up for a cool 30 bucks.
Visually, the animation hasn’t held up especially well. I can’t speak for the BluRay release, but the colours on the DVD look a little washed out, probably partially due to the yellow palette used on the sky most of the time. The animation isn’t quite as revolutionary as it was a decade ago: those 360-degree shots of people flying through the air look downright precious, although the famous ‘manga scenes,’ when the show changes from traditional animation to a camera panning over a narrated manga page, and the South Park cutout scenes look as good as they always did.
The Funimation set appears to preserve the original Synch-Point dub and director commentaries. For a guy who originally saw the show on a downloaded fansub, the show makes a fair bit more sense with the aid of a professional translation, though not much more.
And of course, there’s the music. Longtime readers of the site know how I feel about the pillows, and this is the place I first heard them. From the second the acoustic guitar chords of ‘Brannew Lovesong’ played during the menu, I was swooning like it was 2002 all over again. I know fans have given the band shit over the reworked instrumentals they did for the show, but I’ll always hold them in special regard. The video for ‘Ride on Shooting Star’ is even included in the special features, giving me the first legitimate piece of pillows memorabilia I’ve ever owned.
FLCL is still an amazing, ballsy work to witness, in the way that a lot of Gainax’s work is. It does exactly what it wants to do and doesn’t give a damn if you get it or not, and makes no effort to explain itself. If you know the pigeons that fly by in episode 5 are a nod to John Woo, or what the talk about red vs. blue ‘Cagliostro Castle‘ jackets, great. If you don’t, tough shit, you’re on your own. But an intimate knowledge of the jokes isn’t necessary to appreciate what a wonderfully mad experiment it is. It could even make me love anime again.
Ha! No, I can’t do that with a straight face.
FLCL: The Complete Series is available now on DVD and BluRay from Funimation.
But when you move to Toronto, Scott Pilgrim becomes somethingelse entirely, especially when you find out you work with the guy who married Wallace Wells. They love Scott Pilgrim up here. It’s almost totemic, a piece of art that celebrates and justifies everything from indie comics to video games to manga fandom to living in Toronto. Me being me, I did not react well to this enthusiasm.
If we don’t already have this book, I am making sure it’s on order, and then slapping a staff pick sticker on it immediately. Any children’s book that concludes with, ‘It’s a book, Jackass.’ gets my sound endorsement.
I have been woefully lacking in public appreciation for the homey Jay Smooth and all he’s done on his various sites over the years. As an orator, Jay’s that cat you wish you could sound like, the guy who breaks everything down real simply, respectfully, in a way that always makes sense. Today, he talks about people with a fatalist attitude towards politics, or when T-Pain met Hannity.