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Archive for September, 2011

Independent Weekly: Chris Brown, the haters and how his F.A.M.E. is our fault

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Illustration by Chris Williams/Plastic Flame Press

In print, the title of this essay is “F.O.A.D.” (the title above is the subheadline), which was the dude Grayson Currin’s idea and I love him for thinking of it. Dunno, sort just love the idea that this is in a newspaper somewhere. So yeah, me telling you one more time why Chris Brown is an asshole. Enjoy!

To talk about Chris Brown is to talk about “haters.” America’s No. 1 female-assaulting R&B singer threw the word around on a personal webcam video, his first appearance after he assaulted his then-girlfriend, the singer Rihanna.

He’s followed suit in numerous interviews and quite often on his noxious Twitter account. His song “Beautiful People”—simultaneously the best and worst radio hit of the year—finds him belting out feel-good platitudes like “Live your life” and “Don’t let them bring you down.” It’s one of 2011’s numerous fist-pump pop jams, and it’s squarely directed at all the “haters.”

People have good reason to hate Brown: He punched Rihanna in the face a whole bunch of times, bruising her angular visage nearly beyond recognition. Still, he seems intent to pretend that it never happened, as if he were the victim of some great injustice. Brown’s latest album, and the first since his February 2009 beating of Rihanna, is titled F.A.M.E.—an acronym for “Forgiving All My Enemies.” Irony, it seems, has found a new home…

Written by Brandon

September 28th, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Posted in Independent Weekly

Ariel Pink, Jay-Z, and 9/11 Kitsch.

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There’s nothing sincere about Ariel Pink’s September 11th project Witchhunt Suite For WWIII. Not that it’s a farce or anything, just that it’s a musically clever, moderately ambitious though fairly obvious satire of the militarism that arose following that fateful day. It’s got a loose narrative, aided by news clips and delicate shifts in style that seem to soundtrack the increasingly clueless “shock and awe” approach to “the war on terror.” Breaking through Pink’s synth cheez are absurd clips of George Bush invoking the tough talk of old westerns (“wanted: dead or alive”); a sneering approximation of the ridiculous cock-pop of the Top Gun soundtrack drops down for a little while and parties; at one point, Pink in an evil grandma voice, hisses “get them!” referencing those Bush presidency attempts to find Bin Laden, who we were told at the time, was hiding in a cave.

Witchhunt Suite For WWIII makes a good, snarky case for how dumb the country and much of the Western world acted after the attacks, but that’s all it does. And well, no shit. Yet Pink’s approach also seems spot-on and maybe, we don’t deserve better. George Bush was an absurd figure, in cowboy boots (but afraid of horses), and referencing “wanted” posters as if he didn’t learn of it from old western movies just like the rest of us. Those liberals who stomped around threatening to leave the country were pretty absurd. And Ariel Pink’s pretty absurd too. Or maybe the whole thing is a joke? Pulled out of Ariel’s archives to clown Steve Reich’s ponderous WTC 911 or to try to sneak into wretched 9/11 music lineage that also contains the Tim & Eric-like 9/11 remix of DJ Sammy’s “Heaven” with melodramatic, creepy clips of a girl speaking to her dead “daddy.”

But there’s better 9-11 kitsch. Cam’ron and Vado’s Gunz N’Butta, its title taken from the economic term for the tension between defense and civilian spending and its best track, “American Greed,” awkwardly, brilliantly outlining the country’s decline at the hand of white collar criminals, actually feels cathartic. AraabMuzik’s screaming futuristic beats help. Jay-Z has, with a little help from people like Armond White, turned The Blueprint, his throwback soul-beat “masterpiece” that just happened to be released on September 11th, 2001, into some stalwart musical symbol of New York’s perseverance. The celebratory “Empire State Of Mind,” a genuinely awesome but very campy song off Blueprint 3 sealed the deal. You can now order a 10th anniversary, 36 dollar, blue vinyl edition of The Blueprint that looks like a crappy version of the blue vinyl edition I bought when the record came out.

James Ferraro’s Citrac, a 2009 double LP of menacing VHS drone, wrapped in a sleeve that mashes up screenshots from CNN, Lawnmower Man, and Left Behind with punk zine images of industry and a leather daddy, merges the Reagan-era action movie attitudes with the real-life Bush presidency’s mindless militarism. And perhaps you caught State department employee (soon to be former, no doubt) Peter Van Buren on NPR’s Fresh Air today. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about his role in “rebuilding” Iraq, details enforced waste of money and constant contrivances to keep up the appearance of progress. His tone, at least in the interview, could be described as “laughing to keep from crying.”

A recent, rather epic Comics Journal interview with cartoonist Johnny Ryan slows down to focus on two of the ruthless satirist’s comics, both dealing with 9/11, using the very old-fashioned form of the gag strip. One is an image of the anthropomorphized twin towers having sex with a an airplane (a bird jerks off in the right corner). It’s labelled “69-11 Never Forget” and the joke seems to be just how unfunny it is. The other drawing shows a bloodied, detainee, eyeball hanging out, diarrhea dripping off the seat he’s tied to, as a cornfed soldier shakes his hands, upset. The caption reads: WHOA! WHOA! WHOA! That’s TOO MUCH information!”

In Michael Azerrad’s Wall Street Journal review of Retromania, the music historian observes that Simon Reynolds’ book curiously skips over September 11th: “Another big thing that Mr. Reynolds is forgetting: 9/11. That happened at the dawn of the 2000s, precisely when he believes pop music really began to atrophy. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the only people sanguine about the future were manufacturers of airport-security equipment.” That sounds like a strange, even cheap nitpick at first, but it gains traction the more you think about it.

Curiously, Reynolds doesn’t even bring up 9/11 when he discusses William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops! It’s as if he knew that even a simple reference to September 11th would require another chapter or at least, 40 more pages and so he just said, screw it. Following the attacks, there were plenty of pronouncements about the “death of irony” but for much of the decade, artists seemed content to hang out, ponder, replicate, and recontexualize the past and call it a day. Ariel Pink’s Witchhunt Suite For WWIII, a typically in-quotes composition from the chillwave inventor, sounds like that post-9/11 retro impulse being birthed before our very ears.

Written by Brandon

September 27th, 2011 at 3:33 am

Posted in Jay-Z

Spin: Blowfly, Hip-Hop’s Dirty, Weird Uncle.

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This week’s column is on the dicey issue of who “invented” rap, the great Blowfly, and the not-so-great documentary on the dude, The Weird World Of Blowfly.

According to the costumed, foul-mouthed parodist Blowfly, he “invented” rap music almost 50 years ago. He reminds viewers of this fact throughout Jonathan Furmanski’s documentary The Weird World Of Blowfly (in select theaters, and streaming on Amazon and iTunes), even dissing some early rappers (he refers to Kurtis Blow as “Kurtis Blow Job”) while receiving co-signs from a couple of legendary MCs. Ice-T calls Blowfly a “master” and Public Enemy’s Chuck D praises the filthy Miami soulster’s trangressive comedy as “futuristic,” even citing it as partial inspiration for “Fight The Power…”

Written by Brandon

September 24th, 2011 at 4:57 am

Posted in Spin, Spin column

Burning Ambulance: Review of Drive

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Phil Freeman was kind enough to let me rant about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive for his site, Burning Ambulance:

Quiet, kind, possessing a propensity to kick your fucking head in if need be, and sporting a bad-ass satin jacket with a big scorpion on the back, Drive‘s nameless hero, played by Ryan Gosling, is an anomaly on the current action movie landscape. The thing is, though, he doesn’t quite work within the niche of smart-dumb action flicks of the past that Nicolas Winding Refn‘s film fastidiously mines either. See, Drive isn’t chillwave applied to action movies, it’s a clever, contemporary riff on existential tough guy cinema, referencing the right seventies and eighties cult classics, building up the syllabus of nihilistic action flicks only to later reject their deathwish narratives…

City Paper: Best Of Baltimore 2011

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photo by Frank Hamilton

With a whole bunch of other awesome people, I helped put together this year’s “Best Of Baltimore” for the City Paper. Lots of stuff I co-sign: Future Islands, DDm, DJ Booman, DJ Pierre, Issue producer Schwarz, Ultra Nate’s Deep Sugar party, The fucking Paradox, James Nasty, Atomic Books, Soundgarden, Celebrated Summer, Andy Nelson’s Barbecue, Shapiro’s Cafe

Written by Brandon

September 21st, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Posted in B.O.B, City Paper

Spin: Drake, Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Conscience

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In which I begin wrestling with the fact that Drake’s been making some incredible shit lately. Probably too harsh to Future in this one, but “Tony Montana” is retarded and the Lex Luger sound really needs to end.

“Tony Montana” seemed even goofier after Drake deigned to make an appearance on the remix. In his characteristic nasally flow, Drake weaved around Lex Luger’s sonic histrionics, asserting his Tony Montana-ness while avoiding big, dumb proclamations about impossible success. He simply claims that he has indeed made it, observing that “young women are lost these days,” like a bored, aged lothario even though he’s only in his twenties. Drake’s verse isn’t brilliant or anything, but it feels so much more lived-in than Future’s, which is full of artifice and exaggeration, tools that were once effective and maybe even necessary for rappers, but now just feel pathetically delusional and out of touch.

There’s even a strange, very unofficial-looking video for the “Tony Montana” remix, furthering the sense that Future, a clueless guy chasing an earlier era of funny-money rap, is ironically named. Jammed between cheapo shots of Future partying like he wants you to buy into his hype, there are shots of Drake in a blunted, Weeknd-esque scene, wandering, dream-like, around the club. The sequence is lifted from the video for his own single, “Marvin’s Room,” and it’s quite telling that this dejected version of clubbing is so closely associated with Drake. Dropped into the middle of this middling song that’s so desperate to be a hit, with a video intent to convince viewers of Future’s importance and street-level success, there’s Drake wandering right through that desired success like a ghost…

Spin: Danny Brown’s Geeked-Up, Freaky Tales

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Danny Brown, shot for SPIN’s October 2011 issue by J.R. Mankoff

“That’s Danny Brown?” a friend of mine asked as a skinny dude with an asymmetrical haircut — one side shaved, the other side, impossibly, awesomely voluminous — stalked the front of the stage at the Fool’s Gold Day Off party Monday evening. Throughout the Detroit rapper’s manic performance, he struggled with a sound system that threatened to overpower his vocals, but Brown’s sheer presence sold the songs even when you couldn’t hear what the hell he was saying. He threw around pointy elbows and emphasized goofy punch lines (“Rep my set / Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet”), his eyes falling back into his head when he dredged up some ugly detail from his life (“Mommy gave me food stamps to buy Wonder Bread / On the way, these niggas jumped, left me with a knot on my head”)…

Independent Weekly: Remember the Province, New Musical Visions of the South

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Illustration by Chris Williams/ Plastic Flame Press
I was fortunate enough to contribute to the guide for the second Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, NC, which begins tonight and runs through the weekend. The piece I wrote is something I’m pretty proud of because I’m just unabashedly shilling for the fest’s really sick line-up but also because it’s something of a tribute to my two years living in Raleigh. I learned a lot there and figured out how to chill out about lots of things and met a ton of great people and well, in a lot of ways I still wish I was there. This sorta explains why.

One theory often floated says that the best art rarely ever comes from a major cultural center. Shakespeare was from the small-ass town of Warwickshire. Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan? Both Midwesterners. Sure, provincials eventually end up in a supposed hub of culture, or their brash styles leach into hipper (but, paradoxically, less interesting) locales, but that isn’t where the really excellent, lasting stuff seems to get its start.

With its focus on the local and regional, a citywide music festival like Hopscotch makes a strong case for this pro-provincial theory. More specifically, the second Hopscotch celebrates the full spectrum of the South, flipping the frustrating stereotypes and played-out clichés that don’t need to be explained to anybody kicking around in the Triangle but that, nevertheless, persist elsewhere whenever the area’s invoked…

Written by Brandon

September 8th, 2011 at 4:50 am

Spin: Hip-Hop and the Man of a Thousand Scarfaces

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Scarface has had a massive influence on hip-hop, but the way that the movie has wormed its way into the culture is far more complex than a simple, aspirational narrative. Namely, a huge part of the movie’s appeal lies in the final act, wherein Montana, coked-up and paranoid, alienates everyone until he’s ultimately killed. That twisted, deathwish intensity is common in hip-hop, even weirdly desired (or at least and understood as the logical next step when you’re successful). It is as pointed and real as rock’s baffling concept that it’s “better to burn out than to fade away,” authored by Neil Young and quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note.

See, rappers haven’t only kept the movie alive, they’ve vastly improved it and retrofitted various aspects to keep it vital. Nas’ “The World Is Yours” takes its mantra from Tony’s Goodyear blimp epiphany, but the song, which begins with the Queens rapper boasting that he’s “sippin’ Dom P” and watching, not Scarface, but Ghandi(!) is a far more complex vision of ruthless success, tempered by friends’ deaths and a palpable sense of loss…

Written by Brandon

September 3rd, 2011 at 6:18 am

Posted in Spin, Spin column