One of the fascinating things about pop music, one of the things that makes it so essential and so addictive to me, is the way a song or a certain lyric can at once feel incredibly personal and completely universal. The example that always springs to mind, blows my mind with its perfection every time I hear it, is Jawbreaker’s ‘Chesterfield King’ - nothing, ever, in any medium, captures the weight of sexual tension as well as Blake Schwarzenbach’s distinctive croak-growl of “We sat on the floor, and did we sit close/I could smell your thoughts and thought: ‘do you want to touch a lot like me?’/Too scared to say a thing.” There’s others, on a whole range of emotions: ‘Puddle Splashers’ by Cap’n Jazz’s opening of “we’re busy touching til we’re dizzy, stupid” is an oddly elegant, sweet description of that tension’s resolution; while I certainly can’t brag about my prowess with women the way that the Beastie Boys do and I’ve only been to NYC once in my life, the elation of ‘No Sleep til Brooklyn’ is certainly one I’ve felt when the place you want to be finally edges into view at the end of a lengthy, sleepless bus journey. It’s impressive when an artist, like Jawbreaker, manages it just once in a very strong career - what makes Will Wiesenfeld of Baths incredible is his ability to do it on just about every song he makes.
Cerulean was easily the musical high point of 2010 for me, and Obsidian shows every sign of taking the honour again this year - with the possible exception of a Graduation-sans-Drunk and Hot Girls-level effort from Kanye West, who was also his best competition then. Both efforts, and interim compilation Pop Songs and False B-Sides, are rich, emotionally mixed bags: all three are somehow records you’d be just as likely to put on to soundtrack a long day in bed with a lover or a dark night of the soul in the wake of a bitter break-up. Wiesenfeld’s rich production and soft falsetto vocals mean that his lyrics are sometimes initially secondary or indecipherable, reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s early-R.E.M. mumble using his voice as an instrument, but almost every line that jumps out hits home directly - the determined laziness of ‘Indoorsy,’ quiet, frank romanticism on ‘You’re my Excuse to Travel’ or the loud, frank whatever-the-opposite-of-that is in ‘No Eyes’. Whatever he’s expressing, you’ve probably been there, and if you haven’t - you can likely imagine. Due to a reliable policy of either violently hating or cheerily maintaining friendship with all exes, I’ve never really been where ‘Iniuria Palace’ takes the listener, but the layered, soaring coda “all the classical music in the world/cannot weep as deeply as a broken-hearted teenager” certainly offers a window in.
What Wiesenfeld is doing isn’t just cathartic, it’s important. His music - like a lot of great pop, as it happens - is unapologetically, openly queer, and his sentiments are heartfelt and human and universal. It reminds me of my favourite line from Grimes’ powerful manifesto on her femininity - “I don’t want to be infantalised because I refuse to be sexualised.” The music that Baths makes doesn’t compromise his identity, but he refuses to be ‘Othered’ for it. This is why pop matters. It’s far from just being words and music, and it’s far removed from the elitism of ‘literary canons’ or ‘high culture.’ It’s real people, expressing real emotions in a way you can dance to or cry to or just think about, and that dancing or crying or thinking can change the way you approach the world afterwards.
part two of the mixtape set, this one’s supposed to have more of a cool watery summer’s day by a lake sort of feel and as a result is probably more accessible (not everyone’s really up for sci-fi deserts eh). it’s less predictable shit/my summer playlist standbys than i thought it was at first though.
not writing but i made a pair of twin (they’re both 15 tracks and around an hour) hot weather mixtapes for very different types of hot weather. this is the specifically hot, dry and vaguely sci-fi one, and i’m really proud of it. not gonna ruin the tracklisting because there’s FUN SURPRISES but I guess I used the deserts in Earthbound and The Great American Desert movement in Dan Deacon’s America suite as jumping-off points.
When I heard that Das Racist had officially called it a day, I wasn’t too bothered. I’d seen it coming, or at least suspected it; it wasn’t like Heems or Kool AD were retiring from music or anything, and I always say more artists should know when to stop, rather than continuing to work in a style that no longer enthuses them with people they no longer have a spark with. Indeed, the solo output of both MCs has shown them moving into distinct, different directions while still creating music I want to listen to - they’re still charming and clever and funny and I’d pay to see either of them again separately.
But it wouldn’t be quite the same as when I saw Das Racist, and that’s the thought that now, nearly half a year after the announcement and a while longer since the actual fact, that’s begun to bum me out whenever I look at that show poster above my bed or whenever I stick on ‘Who’s That? Brooown!’ It just doesn’t feel like I’ll ever have anything quite like Das Racist again.
[thoughts on dark’n’edgy hip-hop for grown ups, probably for a ghost review although I’ll be submitting a refined/edited version.]
So after a few weeks of having it downloaded and knocking about on my desktop, I finally got around to listening to Antwon’s debut release, In Dark Denim. I’d been curious to hear more from the Greedhead label than the non-Das Racist work of figurehead Heems, but hadn’t been sure where to dive in, until the unsettling, jagged promo clip for Antwon’s ‘Still Guarded’ surfaced and seduced me, just like Antwon’s cat-headed ex-lover is presumably doing in the song. In Dark Denim isn’t a perfect release, by any means, but it’s doing enough to keep me hooked and is currently on my third runthrough as I write this. Some things I can say for sure, impartially, and allow you to decide whether they’re positive or negative: it’s one of the many albums that could very easily have just been titled Songs About Fucking. It’s got messy, lo-fi production values, full of buzz and hiss and the exact opposite of the shiny, meticulous production that you may have gotten used to in hip-hop from people whose names end in “Beatz.” Antwon’s delivery is surprisingly versatile if not particularly sophisticated-sounding, calling to mind at various points Danny Brown, Death Grips’ MC Ride, and Kool Keith. And – and this is what interests me most – just as could be said of all three, and as suggested by the title, he sounds dark. It’s fascinating that even the songs which are, as I said, basically just about fucking still sound bitter or tortured – even the fizzy disco beat of ‘3rd World Grrl’ has a faded, somewhat hungover quality to it, speaking more of fluorescent lighting and mornings after than neon and dancefloors. In short, In Dark Denim is hip-hop that makes you feel like you need a long shower afterward, and it’s not alone.
Dark hip-hop is nothing new, of course – it was sixteen years ago that the aforementioned Kool Keith made everyone profoundly uncomfortable with Dr Octagonecologyst in a way that I certainly think paved the way for Antwon, but it’s certainly having a moment. Actually, oddly, it seems that standout rap at the moment lines up on one of two sides of a broad divide: the dark, jagged and filthy, or the wavy, fluffy, cloud-rap. And even that in the fun, cuddly camp doesn’t fully escape its dark side – cloud rap’s patron saint (or more accurately, principal deity) Lil B’s Im Gay (Im Happy) is a genuinely gut-wrenching and cathartic listening experience in places, and my personal highlight from Kool A.D.’s recent 19 & 63 mixtapes is the brooding ‘Exotische Kunst’, which borrows the beat from Kanye’s equally brooding ‘New God Flow’ – in turn sampling Ghostface Killah’s ‘Mighty Healthy’, which has a special place in my mind as one of the most chilling records in all of hip-hop, or possibly all of music. There’s a simple explanation, I think: hip-hop’s growing up.
This year, after all, the last of us born during hip-hop’s Golden Age will be trooping off into our twenties, and look how the landscape has changed: the economy’s collapsed and refuses to pick up, like a ragdoll spiralling off in a physics sim, meaning that for aspiring young MCs and producers making and distributing tracks entirely in their bedrooms, Jay-Z or Snoop levels of bling and mainstream fame seem like an unlikely fantasy or missed boat. The fiercely autonomous, dog-eat-dog mentality of gangsta culture is, after all, frequently argued to be a product of the Reagan administration and mentality, and while Killer Mike’s ‘Reagan’, from last year’s thrilling R.A.P. Music, has plenty to say on that subject, he sums it up with “I’m glad Reagan dead.” Incidentally, it’s a very different song from those you’d find earlier in his career. Things just aren’t the way they were – the Wu-Tang Clan may have been one of the darker and edgier of their generation, but twenty years ago they had an eccentric lighter side in the form of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, which we do not now. ODB’s wasn’t a spectacular hip-hop death in the vein of Tupac and Biggie, but it was no doubt connected to his hip-hop lifestyle. This is a sobering thought, and it’s one Danny Brown seems acutely aware of with XXX’s attitude to his chemical preferences equal parts defiant, morbid and honest.
But what about the girls? What the hell is happening to heterosexual male sexuality in hip-hop at the moment? I don’t think any of the MCs I’ve mentioned in this piece have deep-set issues with women, and yet - rap misogyny is certainly alive and well, as anyone outraged by Odd Future will be willing to tell you as if they’ve never heard a Nick Cave or Eminem album before (my excitement for OFWGKTA never really managed to carry past the initial thrill of ‘Yonkers’, but I maintain and will to my deathbed that they’re a poster case for the way people are a lot more outraged about misogyny and homophobia if they can blame young black men for it) and I have to say that Antwon and Danny don’t make me feel mad empowered when they talk about their relationships, but I do think there’s something distinctly different going on. It’s the grubby, cold-shower feeling, the mixture of the fantastic content with the dry, dirty realism of the sound - almost like audible conflict.
Antwon’s seemingly genuine fascination with sexuality is considerably more interesting for me to hear than the casual, constant misogyny of Action Bronson’s Bon Appetit… Bitch! (evident even from the title) – Bronson’s a superior MC for sure, but the constant weight of the bitches and pussy is fatiguing. It’s lazy, thoughtless and it sounds dated. It also doesn’t sound sincere: Bronson sounds like a gourmet chef, trying on rap because he seems to have a gift for flow and spitting about bitches because it’s, as far as he can tell, what you’re expected to do when you’re a rapper. The dark discomfort with sexuality on In Dark Denim seems to be the product of guilty but very real desires – how do you talk about just wanting to fuck (not make love, fuck) without objectifying the object of those desires? It’s a male gaze I can identify with – in the fug of sex and drugs and poverty and violence and mortality on XXX I can see a flipside to the woman asking herself if, as a feminist, she is comfortable asking her partner that he tie her up and beat her for her sexual gratification. The current generation of dark, adult hip-hop is one that has a lot on its mind. It doesn’t have answers, but it certainly opens up dialogues.
- the way you,
on long afternoons at the grand-parents’
would kill time catching frogs
- and never attempt to harm -
but always feel a pang
when the next day would find
a soft frog body
floating milky-eyed, lifeless
in green water.
- and the way you
still sense a little piece
of lead in your heart
when, walking home in the dark
you feel the crunch-then-squash of a snail,
- and the way you wonder
if the eight spiders you eat per year
(or so you’re told)
in your sleep
go to their fates marching, determined,
unbeknownst to you,
or if you dream of cakes and sweets
and swallow, and bite.
First off, this isn’t about the music itself - although I do think that No Love Deep Web was the stronger of Death Grips’ two 2012 releases, what I really want to talk about here is the first thing that ‘No Love Deep Web’ puts in the head of, well, anyone savvy to recent music: that album cover.
Pitchfork think that it was one of the worst album covers of last year, (NSFW warning for the unprepared) while placing its predecessor The Money Store on the best of list. While other choices on the list puzzled me (why was the artwork for Battles’ Gloss Drop worth celebrating and Bear in Heaven’s album worth berating despite them sharing a distinct “brightly coloured gloopy shit” aesthetic? We may never know) the Death Grips choices - on both ends - were the ones that really prompted the “oh REALLY now?” reaction that one pretty much signs up for when looking at end-of-year music lists. I’m not saying this to be facetious: I genuinely think the NLDW album cover is one of the greatest pieces of album art I’ve ever seen.
The most obvious argument in its favour is that no-one is going to forget that album cover. There is no way I saw more discussion of a piece of album art last year - or possibly even in my admittedly brief lifetime - than No Love Deep Web's cover. Maybe Kanye West chilling on the couch with his phoenix, and guess what? I thought that was awesome as well. As witty and memorable as it was, though, one will recall that the apparent “controversy” generated by the album cover was to some extent fabricated by Kanye. The cover art of NLDW, on the other hand, was simply the icing on the cake to a sudden, thrilling and genuinely rebellious parting of ways with Death Grips’ labels - a final middle finger to Epic records, or quite literally, the phallus that finger represents. In teasers for the new album, Death Grips had revealed what would presumably have been the artwork had all gone to plan - a stark, black-and-white image of a faceless hooded figure. I love that art: it’s very much in line with their aesthetic, and it’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing than the ugly dick pic they replaced it with. But good art never has to be aesthetically pleasing to be good.
Why is it good art? It’s meaningful. I’m sure you could say I’m just saying that to get a reaction, but I don’t need to - being confronted with that picture in that context provokes more than enough thoughts by itself. The particular thought I’ve dwelled on most is that it simply and effectively skewers two things: technology and internet-driven culture, and ideas of masculinity and power, and I’m going to explain the easy one first.
2012 was certainly Instagram’s year - it’s been around for longer and it seems to be going strong still, but last year was definitely when the phenomenon exploded. I have no problem with Instagram as an easy method of sharing photos, but god did the ubiquity of its grainy, square, skill-free aesthetic become tiresome swiftly. And damn, does that album cover have that aesthetic. It’s simultaneously also the aesthetic of the hasty sext; the celebrity ‘nude’ that accidentally-or-not finds its way to the public eye for us to (regardless of actual desire to see the subject naked) frantically google and tweet about for a couple of days before we get bored, and the aesthetic of the narcissistic ‘awareness-raising’ campaign: To Write Love on Her Arms, or similarly asinine attempts to erase a serious issue through showing everyone how good you are by writing a word on your body and then taking a photo of it. The photo is ugly and amateurish and it looks every bit like 2012. #nldw #leaked #priapism #lookatme #thispassesforartnow
The cover’s challenge to masculinity is related to its contempt for attention-seeking internet behaviour, I think: attention-seeking, after all, goes with being ‘cocksure’ and ‘dick-swinging’ and ‘pissing contests.’ But think for a moment about what other symbolism the phallus has: it’s powerful, it symbolises dominance and energy and strength; the masculine ideals.
Look again at the No Love Deep Web cover. You see none of these things. It’s an ugly picture of an erect penis with the album title crudely written on it. It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, sure; it’s certainly not sexy and it does not inspire awe. Isolated from the rest of the body and labelled with the album title, it’s almost submissive, castrated-looking. I genuinely think that’s fascinating. In interviews the group have frequently stated that they don’t want to be associated with masculinity, that they make androgynous music, and as a woman engaging with their music I’d largely agree: I find it empowering and purely energetic in a very exciting way. I know the Money Store artwork was intended in the same vein - as an empowering pro-feminist, pro-gay image, but at the end of the day when I look at that cover I see sexualised female bodies, I see pornography. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, of course; anyone who’s got their hands on one of my sketchbooks will know I’m very interested in eroticism in art. But the notion of “hey, let’s take sexy women and present it as empowering and feminist” is something I’ve seen a lot more and I find a lot less exciting and challenging than what No Love Deep Web does. It takes raw male sexuality and renders it submissive and distinctly unsexy, and makes it look like it’s taken no effort whatsoever. If only we could all challenge the patriarchy while seeming so blasé.
The whole “Chick-Fil-A hates the gays” debacle earlier this year was one that being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, it was mercifully easy for me to keep a silence throughout. A thought that sat really awkwardly and(certainly on tumblr!) silently in my head was that if the CEOs of Chick-Fil-A are bigoted rightwing Christians and want to donate the money that they have legitimately earnt through selling fast-food chicken sandwiches to anti-gay marriage organisations then, well, that’s basically their decision and it’s not your place to say what they should do with the money that you’ve given to them, because that’s how transactions work. You didn’t pay for a chicken sandwich with a side order of equality and they never claimed to be giving you that. By all means, don’t buy their bigoted sandwiches because you disagree with what they’re doing with the money they make from them, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to demand that they stop.
As a far-left anti-capitalist, it’s actually always been one of the few perks of capitalism that in a free market I can give my money to the less awful businesses: maybe a local nonpartisan fast food place that’s committed to using free-range, locally sourced meats? One of the brands that I do feel a certain ‘loyalty’ towards is Lush, and that’s in no small part because of the founder’s commitment to donating profits to various political organisations - including some fairly radical environmental groups, and immigrant/refugee rights groups, which sit particularly close to my heart. If the same people who were so massively pro-Chick-Fil-A took it upon themselves to campaign against them for supporting ecoterrorism and illegal immigrants, as you could quite probably spin it, I would be annoyed at this apparent unwillingness to let the founders do as they please with their own money, and I would be even more upset if they caved and stopped said donations, leaving me with one less large company that I could feel represents my interests.
The fact that they caved and compromised does not say anything about a change of heart on the CEOs’ parts, only a lack of integrity (seriously, just commit to your gross principles) and following where profits are going. Starbucks may have issued a pro-same-sex marriage statement and made all of their coffee (in this country at least) Fairtrade, which is an issue I care about a hell of a lot more, but I still refuse to buy coffee from them because as a corporation they have established themselves as gross and profit-driven in a way that leaves me fairly sure those were empty decisions that it was in their favour to make, because unfortunately there are enough people out there impressionable enough to believe that if Kraft or Starbucks’ PR department say they’re pro-gay marriage, then buying those Oreos or that coffee is making a positive difference to the world and the fight for liberation. (it’s not.) Also because I can buy better coffee elsewhere that doesn’t make me angry.
I just occupy a mindset that under our allegedly “free” market, the people making money from a corporation are free to use it for whatever purposes, reprehensible, honourable or otherwise, they want, and the people choosing which businesses they give their money to have a responsibility to choose which companies they feel comfortable funding. I also really hope that nobody who got really fired up about that controversy - on either side! - has bought food from Chick-Fil-A since they stopped funding the “family values” lobby, because whichever way you look at it, it’s an unpleasant, equivocatory and profit-driven decision that was made with money rather than morals, left or right-wing, in mind.
Roughly 1400 words on how Shigesato Itoi’s Earthbound uses the player’s expectations of gaming and video game narrative to create an emotionally devastating experience that simply wouldn’t be possible in any other medium, and how miserable it is that so few games in the intervening eighteen years have realized the medium’s storytelling potential to the same extent. A lot less dry than I’ve just made it sound (at least I think so, it was a lot of fun to write!) and at some point intended as an item in a magazine edited by the lovely Jo Graham - watch this space for updates on that front, I guess!
While this is probably going to be most interesting to people already familiar with the game/Mother series, I’ve deliberately written it as spoiler-free as possible; events at the end of the game are referenced without giving details. I’d be delighted if reading this prompted anyone to seek the game out for themselves!