No Trivia

Archive for the ‘Uffie’ Category

Notes on Otherness, Part Two: M.I.A

one comment

Click here to download MIA’s ‘Paper Planes Remix’ featuring Bun B and Rich Boy.

I’ve held a strong dislike for M.I.A since the annoying ‘Pull Up The People’ and that mixtape that allowed kewl kids to listen to Ciara without really listening to Ciara (Jazze Pha > Diplo). It was mainly her smug politics, particularly her obnoxious tendency to claim third-world status and half-assed political sloganeering that passed for insight among back-patting progressive types. Then, a few weeks ago I saw her perform ‘Paper Planes’ on Letterman and really liked the song. It’s an easy song to like- looping the ridiculously great Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’- and it works, including M.I.A’s crappy “rapping” and the conflation of gunshots and cash register sounds with ‘Rump Shaker’ is clever and post-modern and really does say a lot…although it begs the question: Why is Uffie the most hated hipster rapper out there and M.I.A, a critical darling? Don’t answer that, I don’t care.

A little while later on one of Tom Breihan’s podcasts, he played a remix of ‘Paper Planes’ featuring actual rappers Bun B and Rich Boy. The song is really, really great, as Bun and Rich Boy destroy M.I.A on a technical level but also content-wise. Between this song, his really smart verse about out-sourcing on Devin the Dude’s ‘Lil Girl Gon’, and countless lines on ‘Underground Kingz’, Bun’s probably the smartest political rapper out there. Rich Boy’s verse is some particularly clever gun-talk delivered with socio-political anger that M.I.A is too cool to express. Breihan, on his podcast, talks about how M.I.A and Bun drop these sort of general verses about violence while Rich Boy is like, in it- which is half-right. The best that can be said about M.I.A is her verse is so general and her sloganeering so simple, it’s not too annoying. To suggest that she’s doing anything close to what Bun B does is a little offensive. I’m not sure who orchestrated this song but as a song, especially if you don’t think too much about it, is really great.

But on the topic of “the other”, ‘Paper Planes Remix’ reeks of exploitation. This is particularly fun to pick apart because it hints at some things that have always bothered me about M.I.A, namely, a certain hypocrisy when it comes to her discussions of colonialism, imperialism, and issues of the third-world. It’s cool that she took the time to pick out two smart, politically-engaged and still entertaining southern rappers, but another aspect of it just feels off. M.I.A, starting with ‘Piracy Funds Terrorism’ has shown a tendency to avoid more conventionally accepted “smart” American rap for Southern rappers. Recall that she declined working with Kanye on ‘Late Registration’ but has since collaborated with Timbaland, Three-Six Mafia, and others. Part of me think it’s wonderfully contrarian, a way to validate much-maligned Southern rap but another part sees it as similar to the moans about hipster celebration of crack rap over “smart” rap. Many blame this Southern rap fixation on collaborator Diplo and indeed, that makes some sense, but recall this moronic blow-up with with Pitchfork, where she minimizes Diplo’s influence on her music:”[It is] insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed [meaning Diplo].” To me, the situation reads more like M.I.A using Diplo. Indeed, many might credit Diplo for the southern rap influences but one another level, he will act as a shield for exploitation criticisms. The white dude will get the shit and not the British/Sri Lankan female. It’s convenient for M.I.A to lash-out against those who credit Diplo for her success after the fact; if what Miss Arulpragasam says is true, she used the white boy’s whiteness to gain acceptance: M.I.A is more successful and well-known than Diplo.

The weird issues of exploitation go further as her problems with the pretty much accepted producer/rapper relationship is just one of many examples of taking American rap and pop on her terms. The accurate and much-discussed conflict with European Americans in regards to their treatment of the other, be it individuals or a whole culture, is the expectation that the other should come to them or meet them half-way. In the case of M.I.A, it is she who expects the rap culture to accept her. Is there any rapper out there who does not suffer a little bit of credit due to collaboration? M.I.A just happened to choose a white collaborator, so she can invoke her gender or race when proper credit is not given; she doesn’t just accept it. In this Status Ain’t Hood interview, she complains about Timbaland’s interest in (gasp!) making hits and surprise, surprise…Three-Six Mafia suck at collaborating with women! Did she expect these production legends to bend over backwards because M.I.A showed up? She also sounds incredibly British (not Sri Lankan) when she condescendingly speaks of Three-Six’s limited travel experience and carrying around their Oscar (as if DJ Paul and Juicy J aren’t aware of why that is funny…).

In the same interview, she has a similar tone discussing Baltimore Club producer Blaq Star (“He’s really really soulful”) which brings us back to Diplo. Diplo has, rightfully, caught a lot of shit for what many in Baltimore see as an exploitation of the city’s music. I guess it’s cool that now M.I.A is going straight to the source but I don’t see how that’s any different from vaguely uncomfortable genre-hopping experiments from Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. On the topic of that ‘Graceland’-level of exploitation, there’s M.I.A’s use of a Nigerian refugee named Afrikan Boy. When she describes the part of England from which Afrikan Boy comes, she sounds like some Long Island Jew who ended up in the wrong part of New York: “He’s this Nigerian kid, and he’s a refugee who lived in Woolwich, which is the worst neighborhood in London. I went there once in my life accidentally when I fell asleep on a night bus, and it was like the worst day of my life.” Besides the uncomfortable aspects of her description, it’s weird the way she uses conventional appeals to essentially “street cred” when describing the rapper. There’s also her use of Aborigine Kids on another track and the off-handed comment that now two of them are “in a young offenders’ institute.” I get the icky feeling that if M.I.A weren’t exploiting her own Sri Lankan heritage, she would be called-out for exploiting these kids and you know, not helping them out for anything beyond sticking them on her album.

What seems to excuse M.I.A’s cultural exploitation is her own minority status which, if she didn’t seem to constantly flaunt and address it, would be a little more acceptable. She was born in England and went with her family to Sri Lanka; her father was some kind of revolutionary. I would not disagree that her life was tough, but she was never as “third-world” as the people she speaks-up for. She eventually came back to England thanks to Western programs that aid refugees, got an education, became an artist and musician. Ultimately, her rather questionable connection to the third-world is fine but since it is she who plays games of “I gotcha” identity politics, she deserves to be called-out. She subscribes to and/or takes advantage of the rather weak assumption that all “oppressed” peoples share some kind of weird connection; Stanley Fish called this “boutique multiculturalism” meaning,: People weave in and out of differing “foreign” cultures, picking and choosing which aspects to embrace and which to ignore (like shopping in a boutique).

There’s a wonderful anecdote Fish uses to exemplify this kind of thinking and it comes from (I think) a Paul Theroux travel essay. In the essay, Theroux recounts traveling through a Muslim country and chatting it up with a cab driver who happened to have a Literature degree (this is off the top of my head, so the exact details may be off). Theroux and the cab driver waxed poetically about classics of literature and then Theroux, thinking he with a completely like-minded liberal-arts type, asked the driver his opinion on the Rushdie fatwa. Much to Theroux’s surprise, the driver slammed on his breaks and angrily ranted murderous threats against Rushdie. The point being, this moronic assumption that people all over the world who share certain qualities, be it oppression or education- are “just like us”, is wrong! One can imagine M.I.A in the foolish spot of Theroux and not the Muslim cabbie, as she sat in Three-Six Mafia’s studio and heard them preach “backwards” expectations of female rappers or stand in shock when Timbaland drops “baby girl, go to your teepee”…

Written by Brandon

October 4th, 2007 at 9:19 pm

8 comments

In Defense of Uffie.
For those who don’t know (or don’t care), Uffie is the 18 year-old, white, female, pretty-much universally disliked “rapper” for the infamous Ed Banger records. I put “rapper” in quotation marks not to demean Uffie’s rapping skills (although they are almost non-existent) but because Ed Banger records is a French electronic music label with little to no connection to mainstream or even underground rap. It specializes in wonderfully aggressive and contrarian dance music. So yeah, this is some goofy-ass uber-white person shit but I promise, it does still relate to the rap music I generally talk about…

On the track ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, from Justice’s album ‘†’, Uffie raps in a light, girlish but aggressive attempt at the Roxanne Shante style. The topic is well, partying and she drops such polarizing lines as “Out on the streets all the taxis are showing me love/Cause I’m shinin’ like a princess, in the middle of thugs”. The song seems to interrupt just about every critic’s enjoyment of the album and the consensus seems to be that Uffie is a complete idiot. I could explain why she’s an idiot (if you haven’t already figured it out), but this Pitchfork review of Uffie’s single ‘Pop the Glock’ does it pretty succinctly.

Let the hipster-hating polemic begin, right?

Nope, sorry. I think Uffie is much more interesting than anyone is giving her credit for. She complicates knee-jerk responses to hipster-ism by developing a persona that is almost too-easy to goof-on. Nearly everyone who encounters her, especially as the annoying chick on Justice’s album (Personally, I find ‘DVNO’ way more annoying) seems to take her bait. The same people who celebrate Ed Banger’s contrarian dance music miss the contrarianism of Uffie’s chick-rap-hipster persona.

She baits and confronts anti-ironists like myself and that is quite different than if she were just a plain old hipster ironist. In certain ways, her persona is constructed similarly to the “gangsta” rappers she ironically mimics and finds inspiration in. She fully understands the weird dialectic of rapper; one that moves between a self-created, semi-sincere persona and a detail-oriented reporter of their lifestyle. Recall that oft-quoted line that rap is (or was…) “the black CNN”. Just, Uffie documents the realities of Parisian club-going hipsters instead of inner-city plight and violence…

The “black CNN” metaphor is inaccurate. Originally used to explain the social importance of rap music, it simplifies the rapper’s complex stance to their environment. The rappers documenting the “reality” of their lives were almost always involved in that “reality” (or fronting like they were involved), so they were more like the black Truman Capotes or Hunter S. Thompsons or something. Most were not “reporting” in a conventional, objective sense but doing a strange, hyper-complicated mix of first-person, subjective storytelling and a brutally honest, few-steps-back-from-it-all-but-still-rich-in-detail objectivity. Even N.W.A at their most cartoonishly over-the-top, do not completely vindicate the violence they enact in song. The dirty, hilarious, gross, messed-up, ecstatic details still seep through and any thinking listener won’t leave the song only wanting to jack a cop. The compulsive need to tell the truth among even the most “ignorant” of rappers outweighs attempts at idealization and justification. This chick, Uffie does that too. She too is profiling a “scene” and its attitudes, but she renders that scene realistically, almost anthropologically.

On the song ‘‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, in her purposefully-wack rhyming style, Uffie describes the night’s partying as it moves out of the club: “You and me, c’mon lets take it to the next level/Let’s all go to the hotel pool as we finish the bottle/Maybe kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here/You must have put me under a spell, I lose control when you’re near”. The first line, where she asks some kind of male suitor (probably with an ironic moustache, no?) to “take it to the next level” is undercut by the second line, where the “next level” is partying at a fucking hotel pool! Finishing the bottle, hotel pool, and her little-girl delivery of these attempts at sexual provocation add a sort of gross, realistic feeling to it all. It’s decadent in the worst sense of the word. R. Kelly songs have a similar feeling. ‘Ignition Remix’ or that ‘Make It Rain Remix’ where he compares his taking-of-women to his room to a cavemen dragging a woman to a cave…Not exactly glamorous!

Adding to this lame-ish decadence (because its 2007, so her decadence is passé), she adds the come-on of making-out, but with an unsexy qualifier (“maybe”) and explicitly referring her actions as basically, predictable: “Kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here.” There are rules to her decadence! The making-out is also empty because it is “kiss and don’t tell”, temporary; something kept-quiet. Then, at the end, either complicating or conflicting with her assertions that this is just some kind of brief fling, she tells the guy “I lose control when you’re near”. That line, along with the “next level” line seem like the meaningless ideal dialogue Uffie and friends engage in to get what they want and sandwiched between it, the reality (we’re just going to a pool.this means nothing.don’t tell anybody). When it comes to sexual behavior, “hipster” and intellectual types have a way of presenting their sexual irresponsibility as “with-it” or “open-minded” but here, Uffie presents it in a way that does not represent freedom or open-mindedness, it’s just the norm. She deals with sex like a rapper; doing whatever she can to get a nut.

Hipsters’ strange embrace of hip-hop culture as ironic performance only applies to Uffie in part. While Uffie more than indulges, adopting hip-hop slang and clothing (see above) it is rooted in appreciation. Naïve, delusional, retarded, misdirected ,WHATEVER- it is developed into something more than ironic appropriation.

She’s stolen a lot from the image-creation of rappers. Like a rapper, she has a distinct and polarizing personality, part-real and part contrived, which is used to portrayal the realities of her life. Check-out this interview; the difference between her musician persona and real-life personality is clear. She is not the goofy, obnoxious brat she plays on ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’ but an articulate, aware, unpretentious artist. It was jarring when I saw this interview, the same way it is jarring when the scary “gangsta rappers” revealed themselves as really fucking smart, “articulate” dudes.

Also, ironic hipster or not, Uffie knows her music history. She is well-aware and indeed, in her own way, sensitive to that which she quotes, copies, parodies, and steals. On ‘Pop the Glock’ (the most immediately egregious of her songs) she swipes her flow from Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin’ and paraphrases when she punctuates her verse with “and if you understood, would you?”. There are also references to Miami Bass, Crunk and Grime, all of which share a lot of sonic similarities. Her being from Miami does give her some regional “credit” if indeed, that’s your litmus test for whether someone is bullshit or not…

While it is her most problematic song, ‘Pop the Glock’ also shows the extent of Uffie’s relationship with rap and hip-hop culture. The song is exactly the kind of retarded hipster-ism so many of us are chomping at the bit to rip-apart, but the actual song isn’t what you think. Yes, the chorus is “pop the glock” repeated over-and-over and the song is punctuated with gunshots, but the topic of the song isn’t anything about popping glocks or any thug referencing, parodied nor appropriated. Uffie just raps loosely connected braggadocio that always loops back to her sing-talk “pop the glock” rendering the titular line, the one you’re just waiting to get pissed about, into nonsense. Did I mention she raps this song and only this song in a faux-British accent?

So… she’s a white chick who has lived all over the world, born in the American South, currently residing in Paris, making music that is a mix of old-school rap music and electronic music (itself rooted as much in the sounds of Mantronix as Aphex Twin), rapping in an unabashed girlish voice (no contrived rapper drawl) in a British accent! So yeah, I mean the levels of irony are mind-boggling and for that, I could criticize her but I think the weird, double-binded irony mixed with explicit inauthenticity ends up sincere.

Maybe it’s the British accent but I immediately thought of Mick Jagger, another white musician who flirted with levels of racial and cultural irony. Jagger often falls into a near-Minstrel black affectation and is equally willing to drop an over-the-top redneck voice, but it’s done in some weird over-the-top way that is ultimately, homage. It’s complicated, but in his 33 1/3 book on ‘Exile on Main St.’ Bill Janowitz makes a pretty good attempt at articulating Jagger’s complex stance in relation to his influences:

“The narrative voice operates on multiple levels. Some critics might have considered the Rolling Stones’ history of copping African-American music as a kind of cultural exploitation, similar to that practiced by all-white minstrels companies. But Jagger is in on the joke; the Stones themselves could be misconstrued as an updated minstrel show …[but] Jagger would certainly have been sensitive to such matters [of minstrelsy]. He does not let any self-consciousness impede on ‘Sweet Black Angel,’ though; rather, he displays a solid confidence in his own motives.” (113)

Uffie too, subtly informs her listeners of her motives by wrapping it in a great deal of sub-text and history. Like Jagger, the confidence comes through because she isn’t afraid of misinterpretation. No one would mistake her for a “real rapper”. Her voice contains no rapper-like affectation of either “hardness” or “blackness” and on ‘Pop the Glock’ she tries to get even whiter with that British accent. Her rhyme style too, is purposefully poor, avoiding any attempts at being “lyrical”. The electro and IDM-sounding production avoids condescending attempts at actual rap beat-making. The aggressively avant-garde “beats” of the Anti-Con guys or even El-P, especially in his blasphemous invocation of the Bomb Squad is waaaaaaayyy more offensive than Uffie.

This is all really-fun to break-down and analyze, but is Uffie any good? Well, no. Other than her track on the Justice album, which works because of its sequencing on the album, Uffie would probably best work as some kind of like, weird, Undergraduate thesis or independent project for a ‘Women’s Studies’ class or something. Pretty fun and engaging to talk about, but not music that will last. However, that too fits with Uffie’s persona of making music for parties and clubs. It is only her connection to the indie and experimental world that somehow “demands” her music be significant. Most of do not ask Cassie or Rihanna or even “rappers” like Jim Jones to be relevant, why must Uffie? Just as we praise the best mainstream artists, especially rappers, for injecting the cold, cold world of mainstream music with some heart and honesty, we should praise Uffie (and the Ed Banger crew) for injecting the “hipster” world with “meaningless” music. Be it the pseudo-literary world of the Decemberists or the intertextual, faux-clever mash-ups of Girl Talk, hipster music needs to stop trying so hard or try hard at not trying hard.

-Janowitz, Bill. ‘The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.’ Continuum: New York, 2005.

Written by Brandon

July 16th, 2007 at 8:13 am