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Spin: ‘Pariah,’ Finding Love and Loving Hip-Hop

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This week’s column is about Dee Rees’ movie Pariah, which is totally not Oscar-bait! The movie also has some smart things to say about rap music and hip-hop culture. I try to explain what it’s saying. Deleted thought: Rees cuts up and refashions black cinema with the same respect/disrespect that a beatmaker brings to a soul sample. Belly’s referenced, and Precious director Lee Daniels’ greasy hyper-realism’s there in the cinematography even as Pariah rejects that film’s sense that black living is at best, a beautiful hell. The nearly forgotten stirrings of the early 90s African American film renaissance are present thanks to Spike Lee as executive producer and it has the homespun sincerity of post-civil rights cinema like Ossie Davis’ Black Girl and others. Alike’s father seems plucked from Charles Burnett’s Compton neo-realist classic Killer Of Sheep. Go see it!

After only hearing about Pariah, Dee Rees’ smart, heartbreaking film of a young black lesbian growing up in Brooklyn, a friend of mine compared it to Boys Don’t Cry. Meaning: It’s obviously another one of those feel-good-about-feeling-bad, issue-heavy melodramas that pop up on the indie film landscape every few years. Pariah however, goes to great lengths to confuse and confound its potentially in-built audience of civic-minded, liberal cinema-goers.

Pariah begins in a strip club. Gritty, hyper-stylized shots of grinding dancers and dollar bills floating around are set to Khia’s raunchy early-2000s hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).” It looks like a scene out of Hype Williams’ high-contrast 1998 rap classic Belly. The club is girls-only, though, so here’s a strip club full of women enjoying themselves, joyfully objectifying one another, and acting as obnoxious as men. And the film seems fine with that, reserving judgment even as it gradually introduces Alike (Adepero Oduye), whose concern is her curfew, not grabbing as many girls’ phone numbers as possible…

Written by Brandon

January 28th, 2012 at 12:03 am

Posted in Spin, Spin column, film

Fandor: “A Fateful Trip, ‘Hofmann’s Potion’ Shows the Discovery of LSD.”


Haven’t you heard? 4/19’s the new 4/20! I wrote about the Canadian documentary Hofmann’s Potion–which traces the pre-60s history of LSD–for the film site Fandor. If you’re not familiar, Fandor is a streaming movie rental service that focuses on independent and hard-to-find older films. If Hofmann’s Potion (or anything else on Fandor) grabs you, you can watch one movie for free on the site by logging in via Facebook.

Today, all the run of the mill stoners are anticipating tomorrow’s designated smoke-up date of “4/20” (The date’s significance is appropriately hazy: some say it’s a police code, others trace it back to a ‘70s in-joke, but either way it’s the hallowed pothead holiday). Mind you, the true drug connoisseurs aren’t pre-gaming by stocking up on potato chips, killer tunes, and fresh hackie-sacks. They’re already glued to their recliner, or wandering the woods, straight tripping balls!

See, April 19th marks the day in 1943 that Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann “discovered” d-lysergic acid diethylamide, a.k.a LSD, while researching a cure for migraine headaches. He accidentally absorbed a small bit through his finger and took note of its well, evidentiary effects. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Hoffmann’s Potion revisits the early days of LSD, featuring a cast of now-elderly scientists (most in quite good health) who constitute a secret society privy to this new portal to perception…

Written by Brandon

April 19th, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Fandor, drugs, film

Village Voice, Sound of the City: “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States”


Here’s a discussion with Bertolain Elysee, one of the curators of the “Country Rap 2″ film event which kicks-off this weekend at the Maysles Cinema. In addition to all the films, G-Side will be performing this Saturday night. If you’re in the area, I’d strongly encourage you to check it out.

The Maysles Institute’s documentary film series “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States” and its accompanying program “Katrina: Five Years Later”–both opening this weekend–tie the rich spirit and deep history of Southern hip-hop to recent tragedies like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Films about Miami bass (2 Live Crew: Banned in the U.S.A), bounce (Ya Heard Me?), Southern rap (Dirty States Of America, The Carter), Delta blues (The Land Where Blues Began), and New Orleans jazz (Jazz Parades) stand alongside histories of the Black Panther Party (Lowndes County Freedom Party) and the Miami University football team (The U). Alabama up-and-comers G-Side will perform at the venue on Saturday. (And all of this in New York City, a/k/a the town that booed OJ Da Juiceman!) Via e-mail, we spoke to co-curator Bertolain Elysee about the event’s expansive intentions, why libertarians should love 2 Live Crew’s Luke, and Lil Wayne and Lil Boosie’s particular kind of political activism.

Written by Brandon

August 20th, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Pulp & History: Inglourious Basterds & District 9

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The intersection of movies wrestling with atrocity and the top-grossers of the week’s a rare occurence, but Inglourious Basterds and District 9 occupy the #1 and #2 spots respectively, while swiping some of pulp’s grammar to engage with the Holocaust and South African Apartheid.

If either of these movies actively worked within pulp traditions properly or respectably, this would actually be an advance from the usual Oscar-bait historical tragedy movies that are way more apt to gross big money. Paradoxically, there’d be some sense of sophistication and breaking down of categorical thinking if lots of people were going to see artfully trashy concept pictures about history. Thing is, Basterds and District 9 run on the same “historically important” fumes as Schindler’s List or Cry, the Beloved Country. Namely, a kind of sleight-of-hand trick that grabs lots of chin-scratching, simply because it tries to take-on the most taken-seriously events of the last century.

And because both offer some kind of “clever” flip on the expected, they’re celebrated for basically being particularly egregious. Basterds removes all the the confusions–the how’s, the why’s, the what the fuck’s–of history for a loaded “what if”, while District 9, sets real-life history next to made-up history, devaluing the former and gaining “clever” points on the latter. District 9 though, is pretty easy to dismiss. In short, the sci-fi metaphor–maybe the only sci-fi metaphor, aliens=outsiders/immigrants–makes no damned sense when you set the movie in the very place that doesn’t even need a metaphor–because it all really happened there. Aliens as shit-class citizens along with entire groups of people also marked as shit-class citizens sorta moots the point. These movies are “compassion fatigue” flicks, wrapping important things around too-clever so they’re stupid conceits and pretending it’s insight.

Tarantino’s WWII pulp-epic/cinematic essay is far more respectful and healthily problematic–that’s to say, you’re not a dolt if you defend it on thematic terms–but it does have that one “District 9 moment”. It’s the aspect that Jonathan Rosenbaum cited (see “further reading” at the bottom, a new tiny feature I’m trying out) and it has to do with carving swastikas into the heads of that one Nazi they don’t kill (so that he may spread the word of the Basterds).

A kind of reversal, though really a parallel, to Nazi perversity, it has the effect of over-extending something that totally doesn’t need to be over-extended to resonate. Like the aliens in District 9, swastika carving is beside the point, not a reinforcement of that point. When the reality of the Holocaust is as equally horrifying as carved-on skin and one can pick your favorite fucked-up detail of death (Mengele’s experiments, gas chamber concrete walls scratched by fingernails), there’s no need to up the ante any.

Of course, excess is a big part of Tarantino’s movie–District 9 however, grows more confusing the more you try to parse it out–and so, this critique and those like it are valid but nearly besides the point. Still, the whole sense of essentially turning Jews into Nazis and Nazis into Jews, despite being mindfully uncomfortable, doesn’t so much wrestle with “revenge” as it just totally advocates it–something even the pulpiest of pulp rarely does. Undoubtedly, the best movies or “films” about revenge are well, about revenge: What it does or doesn’t bring, the time spent and wasted enacting it, etc. Flat-out, this refusal to embrace rarefied Nazi evil is a key to something resembling solace for many Holocaust survivors–and you just can’t push that to the side…and you can’t lean on the implicit thick-headedness of pulp to skate by either.

further reading/viewing:
-Adam Katzman on District 9 vs. The Host
-”Film Threats” by Bret McCabe of City Paper
-Jonathan Rosenbaum on Inglourious Basterds
-”Blues in More than One Color: The Films of Quentin Tarantino” by Stanley Crouch
-Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1985)

Written by Brandon

August 26th, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in Tarantino, film, movies

Moving Image Source: The Devil’s Spawn, the MTV Legacy of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising

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So, over at the Museum of Moving Image’s website, a video essay by Kevin Lee and myself that investigates sixties underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s immeasurable influence on music videos is up. From Anger’s weirdo, Manson-family member scored Lucifer Rising to Hype Williams, back to 90s alt-rock and Wu Tang, to Hercules & Love Affair–all in nine minutes. Partially narrated in my fruity-ass voice. This video essay’s been awhile in the making and I’m glad to see it up and ready for viewing. Hope you enjoy it.

Big thanks to Kevin Lee for thinking of me and brilliantly editing and organizing the whole thing. You can watch it above or go to the website and watch it and read along. If you’ve never seen Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, well it is on Google Video.

Written by Brandon

August 17th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Bay’s Transformers 2 vs. Abrams’ Star Trek

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Even before the absurd racism rushing through the movie (A jive-ass robot…with a gold tooth…really?), Transformers 2 was problematic. We can start with the simple snobby point that it’s directed by Michael Bay, he of jingoistic characterization and imagery, or that it was based on a childhood cartoon that itself was pretty racist (something people keep forgetting) just now stretched to marketing-synergy extremes.

Still, simply by being so awesomely explosive and transparently, the party-dude of popular cinema, running down a checklist of audience-pleasing turns and self-justifying thematics, Bay is often sorta celebrated. Armond White’s review summed up a near healthy contrarian take on Bay–his review begins “Why waste spleen on Michael Bay?”.

As cool as it is when a notable part of the media jumps on some actually racist shit, it’s as much because Bay’s an easy target as it is actual social/cultural indignation. That Transformers 2 was vilified for its racial hard-headedness and Star Trek not celebrated for its pop-racial sophistication on this front, sorta negates any “searing” critiques of Bay’s directorial choices. Had Abrams’ Star Trek–written by Roberto Corci and Alex Kurtman (the same two guys behind Transformers 2) and the big, dumb, franchise blockbuster before Transformers 2 stomped onto the scene–not arrived just two months ago, White’d be right. But he’s not.

The differences between the movies are clear and fun to list: Meghan Fox’s bland beauty vs. Zoe Saldana’s rarefied allure, Bay’s leadfooted action cutting vs. Abrams’ embrace of hand-held chaos and roving single takes, the tension of saying “I love you” between Spock and Uhura vs. Mikaela’s cunty frustration with Sam for not uttering those words, the dopey slapstick of Transformers vs. the from the original series dead-pan weirdness. All of these show Star Trek to be both more artistically and socially sensitive than Transformers 2.

In part, this begins with the original show’s conceit and the decision to comment or not comment on it. In fact, both directors are essentially “faithful” to the original properties. Bay decided to continue the selfish excess of the 80s (it makes sense as little kids, we loved Transformers, we were 5 yr. old selfish pricks) and Abrams kept-in all the goofball sincere multi-culti 60s stuff of the original Star Trek. When it’s 2009 though, and you’re doing this, recontextualizing an old time-capsule piece of popular culture, it becomes political. It just does.

There’s a scene in Star Trek in which Kirk (at this point a stowaway on the ship, and a total jerk) and Sulu, along with a particularly gung-ho crew member, sky-dive (or something) onto the Romulan’s ship. Waiting to leap down, this gung-ho third member is bouncing up and down, full of adrenaline and hubris–in short, he’s a character from a Michael Bay movie–as Kirk and Sulu look at him strangely, maybe even sadly. Once they leap, he continues shouting extreme-sports platitudes, and eventually, misses the intended target and gets burned up in the Romulan ship’s jets. This scene illustrates what would happen if a Michael Bay character got dropped into Abrams’ more studied and realistic (for an action movie) world.

Abrams’ perspective in this scene is of course, made more complicated by the character of Kirk, ostensibly the movie’s main character and one defined by his daring and arrogance. That’s to say, a lot of the time Kirk acts like a Michael Bay character himself and so, having a scene in which a complete arrogant goon vs. a kinda arrogant goon is destroyed by his arrogance is brilliant. It’s all about the tiny little details.

Early in the film, we see a very Bay-like flashback to young Kirk stealing his step-dad’s car and speeding across a golden, Mid-West vista (it’s essentially awful, like, right out of a Bay movie) and it’s followed up by a later scene in which a drunk Kirk hits-on Uhura and gets in a fight. What would happen in most movies is that this early awkward assholism would be rectified or shifted to something resembling sensitivity and Uhura, despite her initial disgust for Kirk, would grow to love him…or at least sleep with him.

Not so much in Star Trek, as Kirk never gets “the girl”. A scene in which he’s shown making-out with a girl at Starfleet Academy is presented as fairly loathsome, sad, even robotic. Even more crazy is that it’s Spock who “gets the girl”. This shift is not only a “clever” re-up of an old series, but a mindful shift in sensibilities. Abrams’ Star Trek rejects Kirk the jerk in favor of Spock’s hyper-sincerity. When the movie ends with the famous “Space…the final frontier” and it’s spoken by the aged voice of Leonard Nimoy–we’re not working with clever revisionism but an ethical improvement on the past.

To base the movie around poetry-reading, In Search Of…-hosting Nimoy vs. the chintzy, hair-pieced, ego-tripping Shatner (the movie’s Kirk, when he’s at his worst, most selfish, acts Shatner-like) is fascinating. Cynics might chalk this up to some kind of “wussification” of American culture or something, but they’d be missing the nuanced evolution of Kirk’s character–both a core decency he clearly gleaned from his father (who we meet before we meet Kirk) mixed with a fuck-it-all sense of confusion a very specific kind of American radical individual feels.

Even at his worst, Kirk’s never the gung-ho asshole incinerated by a Romulan ship, but it’s through experiences on the Enterprise and the interaction with the ethnically diverse crew that he (and all of them) come together. This is where Star Trek’s wizened and realistic understanding of patriotism usurps Michael Bay’s U.S of A. belligerence.

Where characters and images in Bay’s movie act as short-hands to re-instill played-out, long-internalized values, Star Trek seeks to remind Americans of the importance of plurality and understanding–the rejection of black and white for grey. The Enterprise begins as a sort of “Team of Rivals” and they slowly come to realize their similarities. The merger of Spock and Kirk is, when it finally becomes civil, simply pragmatic, but from that pragmatism it spins into something lasting, true, and worthwhile. Differences are more than accepted, more than celebrated, they’re seen as vital.

In this sense, Star Trek indeed, functions like a product of filmmaking or television from the progressive 60s or 70s–what Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty called, “platoon movies” (100). Platoon movies, Rorty explained, were a byproduct of the pre-60s (pre-P.C) left and “showed Americans of various ethnic backgrounds fighting and dying side by side” (100). About the only other successful “platoon movies”, that’s to say, not movies simply playing on this trope of an ethnically diverse crew working it all out, but really internalizing it, that I can think of in recent years would be Wes Anderson’s movies–especially The Life Aquatic.

The movie itself is pragmatic, both giving viewers what’s necessary (a ton of action, Saldana in her underwear, bad jokes, old-show reference irony, ethnic jokes) and flipping the script in weird ways, as to never topple over from the unfortunate stupidity necessary for a big-budget movie. Notice the way it glosses over the alien races or nearly pushes all characters not Spock or Kirk to the side, all the while maintaining their humanity…not in a quest to maximize whiteness on the screen, but to treat diversity as a foregone conclusion of life. Abrams is not interested in “other”-ness, even the villains though darkened and evil-ized, get a decent enough reason for their actions beyond simple “evil”–precisely the kind of primitive value system that is literally Bay’s meal ticket.

Just as Michael Bay’s Transformers 2 begins its second week of hyper-visibility, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek makes its way to your city’s “dollar” theatre. The decision to see Star Trek maybe again, maybe a third time, over Transformers 2, is not only financially savvy and aesthetically wise, it’s ethically prudent too.

-Rorty, Richard. “Achieving Our Country”. First Harvard University Press, 1999.

Written by Brandon

July 1st, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Posted in film, movies

James Toback’s Tyson.

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Tyson is a men’s film. That doesn’t mean women won’t like it or that it’s rife with self-justifying bro-talk, just that it’s a 90-minute dive into male psychology warts and all, with a radical disinterest in apologizing or softening much. You gotta come to Tyson, Tyson doesn’t come to you.

The movie’s “masculine” the way Peckinpah films are masculine–indeed, Toback’s multi-screen effects seem a homage to Peckinpah’s opening credit sequences–in that they’re really figuring out and working through the reality of being a typical male, concerned with issues of dominance, regret, paranoia, revenge, and love, and how all of them usurp and feed one another.

In one of those Peckinpah-ish interludes, Toback stacks image upon image and snippets of audio atop itself as Tyson talks real frankly about his attraction to “strong women” that he will then dominate, the joy he gets when a girl tells him, or he tells them “No”, and his want to provide love but receive none in return. For those remain upset because the movie doesn’t dive deeply into Tyson’s rape conviction, all you need to know or think or feel’s right there, short of Tyson providing some kind of “confession”–which he won’t because it’s clear he doesn’t feel he raped anybody.

Toback takes Tyson’s life and spins an ethical reevaluation of events, not towards some apologia for Iron Mike, but because well, we’ve been swimming around in all the reasons Tyson’s a violent fuck-up rapist for twenty years now and Tyson’s the first to take most of the blame for most everything he’s done anyway. And so, the movie takes quiet aim at those like, slept-on villains in Tyson’s life, with a deep disgust towards their hypocrisy and manipulation. Note, it isn’t Tyson who does this so much, as it is Toback.

The ear-biting incident is recounted with Tyson still expressing no remorse for his actions, but you leave the anecdote realizing Holyfield wasn’t exactly playing fair either, and there’s even a hard-headed respect given to Tyson for going all the way with his lack of ethics. Despite Tyson expressing nothing but goodwill and respect towards ex-wife Robin Givens, those clips from the bizarro Barbara Walters interview/publicity stunt where she talks about how much of a mess he is, right in front of him, are stomach-churning, more because Givens is really selling it than because Tyson’s a nightmare husband.

As Tyson wisely points out, Walters and Givens were waiting for him to freak-out, to scream, and throw things and he didn’t. That’s a key part of the movie–especially as “man’s movie”–because the reason Tyson didn’t freak-out wasn’t because it was a bad idea, but because it’s what they wanted him to do and to give in would be another way he’d be dominated.

The concern for Tyson is things be done on his own terms, that he believe the sequence of events to be authentic or sincere, and its why, upon the joke of a fight with Kevin McBride, he first announces he’s not gonna fight anymore, feels the room out, admits he just doesn’t have it in him anymore, verballs throws his hands-up like “What am I doing”, and then just confesses that he fought to pay his bills. Those are not the actions of someone concerned with how they look, but rather someone who wants the opportunity to breakdown when they want to breakdown…and that’s why Toback’s decision to hyper-subjectivize Tyson is not only a good idea, but the only way the movie could’ve been made.

There’s a few points where Tyson chokes-up and cries, most notably when he speaks on the death of his first trainer, fathe-figure, and only dude that ever gave much of a fuck about him, Cus D’Amato, but Tyson really tears-up (as did I) when he describes the point in his life where he realized no one would ever physically take advantage of him again, that he not only had the capacity to destroy but the will and physicality to do so.

Tyson’s weeping because he achieved something powerful rooted in childhood trauma (severe bullying) but also because he’s fully aware of the damage he can cause and it weighs heavy on him. The first cry is emotional but also typical, the second is Tyson crying from some odd awkward mix of joy from accomplishment and some deep fear of his own power. That’s “men stuff” and it’s the kind of thing that’s not exactly P.C or fun to base movies around, but it’s vital and it’s what’s racing through every frame of Tyson.

Written by Brandon

May 19th, 2009 at 9:52 pm

The Importance of the "Genre Rapper": Scarface’s Emeritus


The connection between crime movies and hip-hop’s long been established, but a recent reading of Manny Farber’s essay “Underground Films” coincided with plenty of listens to Scarface’s latest, Emeritus and it seemed that so much of what Farber’s talking about, could easily be applied to Scarface’s music, for simplicity’s sake: “gangsta rap”. Farber’s essay touches upon a group of action films (mainly Westerns and gangster/crime movies) of the 1930s-1950s and celebrates them for their defiant quasi-accidental anti-Hollywood-ness. The way they function as both obvious genre films and finds all kinds of ways to do smarter, cooler stuff than the kind of movies that win awards and get written up in “Life Magazine”.

In film, many of the classic exploitation or low-budget directors are referred to as “genre directors”. I’d like to throw in the term “genre rappers”. Obviously, it’s a muddled term because rap’s a genre already but “sub-genre rappers” sounds sort of stupid and I think it’s clear what I mean.

Basically, there are the rappers that go beyond the expectations of their sub-genre, there are the rappers that sort of just wallow in the expectations, and then, there’s the “genre rapper”; the rapper that obsessively mines the same territory and creates a kind of outer-shell of cliché within which they are allowed to say and do pretty much anything. While conventional, smart-guy attitudes about “serious art” would praise the expectation-expanding rapper the most, it’s important to see the vitality of the genre rapper.

While the parallel between the movies Farber’s celebrating the music of Scarface is clear, I think the “genre rapper” exists in all of rap’s sub-genres. Take the so-called “conscious rap” sub-genre.

Groups like De La Soul or even Little Brother are groups that go beyond genre expectations (or in LB’s case, think they do) while say, Common on Resurrection, post-Dilla Slum Village, or dead prez only on R.B.G become genre rappers. They make albums that bask in the clichés but use them as a jumping-off point for odd, unconventional personal details and stylistics.

“…perfect examples of the anonymous artist, who is seemingly afraid of the polishing, hypocrisy, bragging, fake educating that goes on in serious art.”

Still, there’s something especially applicable about Farber’s quotes—especially the one above–and so many classic, gangsta rap minor epics. Namely, even the weirdest or dullest of “conscious” rappers occupy a place of protection and praise amongst rap fans and critics. They can always fall back on their positivity, no less or more of a cliché than gangsta talk of “keepin’ it real” but one that gets you a certain kind of praise amongst intellectuals and non-rap rap fans.

“The sharpest work of the last thirty years is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists”

This could easily be a comment on hip-hop as a whole, but it’s especially pertinent to the kind of rap originated by Scarface and others in the beginning of the 90s. Rap that seemed to only be in conversation with itself and the few people who fucking got it. That it inexplicably turned into a big, sub-genre—and one that became “gangsta rap” when it could be exploited for trashy news stories—only makes sense because we’re all so used to it. What came from “gangsta rap” is the disinterest in the outside.

That’s to say, if you couldn’t get over the “foul” language or the violence and see the emotions and commentary going on in the music, you weren’t listening hard enough. Of course, there’s the additional point that the brilliance of the music comes through it’s plurality; the way it’s able to mix and match insight and tough-talk and never fall back on one or the other.

“the action directors accept the role of hack so that they can involve themselves with expedience and tough-guy insight in all types of action”

When the scratchy 20-dollar Timbaland beat of “High-Powered” drops and Scarface is on some more shit about snitches, he’s both expressing his beliefs and walking into a pit of cliché that indeed, he helped develop, but is a cliché nonetheless. That the beat’s produced by N.O Joe adds another level of weird “realness” and pop-rap concession to the whole thing.

For Scarface to continue spouting these hood mantras is a sign of confidence. A disinterest in hyper-originality, Scarface bases his observations or anger around the expected “gangsta rap” concerns and then, spirals out from there.

To the disinterested or cynical listener, it’s tough-talk and “stop snitching”—and therefore unoriginal and originality is highly overrated in capital-A art. To the attuned, sensitive listener, this is simply the canvas or the beginning, the jumping off point for Scarface’s deeper concerns, which he will weave throughout the expected boasts and threats of the gangsta rapper.

When you get to the third verse, Scarface has roped you in with the clichés and then, rattles off a deeply detailed outline of how snitching works on a personal and institutional level; the radical honesty and creativity of the genre rapper pops-out and we move a little further from the sort of thing rappers that make Blender’s year-end lists do.

“the virtues of action films expand as the pictures take on the outer appearance of junk jewelry”

When the dusty chipmunk soul of “Forgot About Me” comes in, a smile should come to any familiar listener’s face because “High Powered”, although complex and full of reversals, is very much operating in some attempt to meld rap trends—quasi reggae hook, electro synths—with Scarface’s style. It’s about as “pop” as someone like Scarface can get.

It’s the film noir director starting the movie—think of J. Prince’s “Intro” as a really cool and odd opening credits sequence—with the genre’s clichés but shooting them from a different angle or something. “Forgot About Me” though, is in the style we expect from Scarface and in that way, moves into the kind of hard-ass, single-minded focus that the rest of Emeritus follows.

Interestingly, “Forgot About Me” features rapper of the year(s) Lil Wayne and in that sense still keeps some of “High-Powered”s acknowledgement of current hip-hop—and critically acclaimed rap—even as it moves further into the hermetic territory that only Scarface and a few others can occupy.

“The important thing is not so much the banal-seeming journeys to nowhere that make up the stories, but the tunneling that goes on inside the classic Western-gangster incidents…”

“Can’t Get Right” stops having anything to do with rap music and mines the territory exclusively owned by Scarface and a few others (some of which guest on the album like Z-Ro or K-Rino). A dive straight into darkness but one that’s still wrapped around the hood, violence and all the stuff that closes the ears of certain listeners or makes them cry-out “unoriginal” even as it’s also—and more importantly–this multi-directional focus on how and why shit’s fucked the fuck up, starting with Scarface’s problems (“My momma’s pregnant with a son she should abort”) and ended up in Baghdad, having touched upon community violence, economic strife and just about everything else.

“Unfortunately, the action directors suffer from presentation problems.”

Say, instead of aping the cover of Power, Corruption, & Lies, it’s sort of this cheap-o, goofball, trophy cover or an almost powerful if not for some unfortunate photoshopping, image of Scarface staring harshly into a mirror. There’s an oddball brilliance to these kinda bad covers though and it comes to mind every time some douchebag hipster or serious rap fan makes fun of say, the CASH-MONEY covers.

Their ugliness, their formula is an affront, alright? An affront to capital-A art albums that refuses to admit they’re still corporate product and affront to polite taste. Just as pretty much every Rap-A-Lot disc is about not giving a fuck, those covers are about not giving a fuck too.

I’d prefer the cover of Emeritus to be some recreation of a plaque with ‘Face’s name on it photographed and put on the album cover. Why Scarface didn’t just walk into his bathroom, stare at a mirror, and have someone take a shot of it for Made, is frustrating but logical. It would suggest a concern about presentation that Scarface isn’t really about. Those early Geto Boys records were triumphs of design as well as music but now, the design represents too much and so, it’s been abandoned for the expected photoshop shit-job or something just generally underwhelming.

These photoshop covers connect to a low-budget, made-cheap, keep-it-real aesthetic that needs to not be forgotten. And, in a fascinating reversal that says as much about regional rap’s impulse for real-ness sincere or performed, the simple font atop a fucking bad-ass, off-the-cuff picture’s long ago been co-opted as another thing you learn in graphic design and so, they’ve moved onto the kind of image that’s never going to be lifted…a style that dares you to not take the music serious. Self-destructive indeed.

“The small buried attempt to pierce the banal pulp of underground stories with fanciful grace notes is one of the important feats of the underground director.”

“Grace notes”?

The way the talking for way too long “Intro” track of so many rap albums is turned into a rarified, political, personal, social, and everything else statement by J. Prince.

How “Who Are They” features guest verses from S.P.C veteran K-Rino and Slim Thug, the kind of rapper that like, girls in sororities probably associate with “dirty south”. It’s both an acknowledgment of rap’s changing landscape and a hard-ass attention to friends and fellow legends.

The minor detail on “Still Here” that apparently Scarface’s ring-tone is a Donny Hathaway song, which reminds us that he’s still just this awesome old dude who digs blissed-out soul classics, and maybe some kind of quick comment whether it’s supposed to be or not about ringtone rap. And this detail’s a preamble in a song that outlines the tragic murders of friends, family, etc. with novelistic detail!

There’s all this shit talking and assertion of importance (“High Powered”, “Redemption Song” the title of the album being Emeritus) in the rap game by ‘Face, but he also gives up the album for extended periods of time to the guests. The female hooks are longer and often turn into R & B outros, he often raps last after a guest or two, or giving up the intro of his album to J. Prince.

The mournful but confident “Outro” that’s really kind of inexplicable and odd for a rap album and only sort of makes sense because this isn’t the first time a Scarface album’s ended in this way.

Written by Brandon

December 7th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Posted in Scarface, film, movies

Judd Apatow Thinks Rap Music Is Really Funny!


Last night, I caught some of ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ and was particularly annoyed by a scene late in the movie, where a rapper called Lil’ Nutzzak is introduced to an aging Dewey through this a video clip. Nutzzak’s rap samples a single-word from Dewey’s classic song ‘Walk Hard’ and the plan becomes pairing Dewey with this up-and-coming rapper (there’s some wonderfully shameless Cox and Nutzzak jokes in there too). It’s a moderately clever parody of total sell-out, music exec retardation but writers, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan’s disdain for rap comes through way more than a genuine disgust for corporate synergy- and it’s weird.

While the rest of the movie sends-up musical tall-tales like Brian Wilson in the sandbox and appropriately cuts-down Hollywood’s hubris for reducing a country legend’s ups and downs to a single event involving his dead brother– in ‘Walk Hard’ the brother is sawed totally in-half during a machete fight– there’s no begrudging respect or polite joshing when it comes to hip-hop’s excesses and absurdities. When Ghostface- pretty much as ethical and moral of an rapper as there’s ever been- comes out at a Dewey Cox Lifetime Achievement Concert, it’s got none of the vague absurdity of Jewel or Lyle Lovett being there, it’s just, “Ha! A rapper’s on the stage saying some dirty-words! Oh how far music’s devolved!”

Apatow’s producer/director/writer filmography contains a weird trend of using hip-hop as either a quick throwaway joke or as a way to reduce a character or scene to absurdity. Recall the intro to ‘Knocked-Up’ which uses Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s classic ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ (Armond White: “white boys clowning to Old Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”) with emphasis on Dirty’s “Ooh baby I like it raw” hook to make it really obvious and funny what this movie’s already going to be about. Think of the constant hip-hop slang used by everyone but Steve Carrell’s character in ‘The 40 Year-Old Virgin’ and how it’s essentially used to represent just how vulgar and crass everyone’s become and how stupid white people are for adopting any part of this culture.

Leslie Mann’s bar-slut in ‘Virgin’ is speeding home, too drunk to drive, blaring and singing along to Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’, which is sort of real- drunk white sluts love Missy Elliott- but it’s sort of the icing on the cake for why this girl’s so terrible. It’s not presented with any of the sympathy given to a whiny loser who collects action figures, rides a bike, and hasn’t ever dropped his dick in a pussy. Contrast this disdain for hip-hop with the ‘Superbad’ kids. The movie’s James Brown-referencing title, constant funk soundtrack, and actor Jonah Hill’s Richard Pryor T-shirt (now sold at Urban Outfitters, by the way) are all used to invoke the characters nerdy, outsider-ness. They are characters wonderfully out-of-step with the rest of their peers because of their interest in 70s funk and soul. I won’t even begin to understand that one…

In the Apatow and company universe, which is one that despite all the blowjob and weed jokes is incredibly conservative- dumb critics say this is why his movies “have heart”- rap music and culture are one of the biggest signifiers of how low things have sunk and how distant people are from their “real” emotions: Rap as ruiner of everything. In previous Apatow movies, this was just sort of irksome, but because ‘Walk Hard’ is a movie that sets-out to make fun of just how most music biopics just don’t get it, it’s even more apparent how little Apatow and Kasdan themselves “get” about pop-music history.

The obvious contrast is between Lil Nutzzak’s inarguably offensive interpolation of ‘Walk Hard’ and Dewey’s innocuous but somehow riot-causing, priest-punching ballad ‘Take My Hand’. It seems in many ways, the movie is saying, “Here’s actual dirty stuff, here’s actually reprehensible music” with little understanding or sympathy for the mores of previous generations. It’s probably quite hard for a guy like Apatow, so clearly stuck in his own head, to think of the freedom and excitement music could and still does possess- in part, because he’s decided to skewer it in this big, dumb movie- but anyone with a working knowledge of pop history should be able to fall-back a few decades and realize just how rowdy Elvis Presley, or Jerry Lee Lewis were and frankly, still are. Lyrically of course, the songs only appeared innocent and were full of double-entendre and even when they weren’t, the songs were brimming with anger, angst, and depression. One of my go-to records is Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ LP. There’s a song on it just called ‘Misery’ and it’s about some other dude fucking the girl you used to fuck and how fucked-up that is! And even the music is only safe and cute if you’re not listening close enough. Plonking horns, a hard-as-fuck drums, and the limits of early 60s recording gives this an incredible raw, anarchic sound. Oh yeah, and the creepy organ solo by an under-discussed electronic music pioneer named Max Crook-Crook rewired a bunch of instruments to create a hybrid synth, shit is real!- pretty much solidifies how this music’s supposed to make you feel- less happy and cheery, more creepy, which is the same feeling Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’ gives you and something Dewey’s ‘Take My Hand’ is directly aping. If you can’t see why an entire generation of kids in the 50s and early 60s weren’t totally ready to explode after hearing this shit, you’re not really listening.

There’s a rough, energy to that music that was mostly sucked away in the supposedly “free” 60s– and continues through pussified 60s pop-influenced indie rock– but is still alive and well in hip-hop, dance, and club culture, all of which are very scary and silly to guys like Apatow. In David Foster Wallace’s ‘Signifying Rappers’ he discusses the significance of pop lyrics and connects it to rap in a way that Apatow’s totally blind to seeing:

“It’s well-known in pop history that slang and double entendre and even the tacit neologizing of innocuous words were used to make rock lyrics at once explicit and shocking enough to ‘rock’ and suitable enough for the radio airplay rock needed- e.g. “Baby here is my love/I’d love just to love you” equals “Baby, here is my dick/I’d just love to fuck you” (75).

What rap, in a lot of ways has done is sort of flipped this and uses very explicit lyrics to sometimes say polite, innocuous things (a lot of the time of course, it’s straight-forward but still-). Rap uses the relative freedom to say anything to chip closer at honesty because really, if you love someone you also want to fuck them, so why not say it? Stuff’s complicated Judd, think about it. In a way, it makes sense that the two most offensive and pop-culturally off parodies in ‘Walk Hard’ would be about 50s rock and contemporary rap.

-Costello, Mark & David Foster Wallace. ‘Signifying Rappers’. Ecco Press, New Jersey: 1990.

Written by Brandon

May 14th, 2008 at 7:19 am

The Worst Thing About Stanley Crouch Is…

one comment

…how dude’s late on everything. His article ‘Why We Line-Up For Tyler Perry’ is an interesting defense of the much-maligned and mocked Tyler Perry movies. He provides the black comedy precedents for Tyler Perry and wisely confronts the elitism and lack of perspective many have when they critique stuff like ‘Meet the Browns’: “Those black people who are not so estranged from Perry’s kind of humor that they even find the inanely narcissistic “Seinfeld” sophisticated…” He adds–and rightly so– that part of what makes Perry’s movies not only very successful but quite good and affecting is their heart. It’s a good point, but this late in Perry’s career, Crouch’s opinion one way or the other on something like ‘Meet the Browns’ means very little. Early on, when every smug critic (black and white) laughed-off his movies and success as simply dumb or worse, invoking words like “coonery”, Crouch’s nuanced perspective could’ve done some good.

NYPress brilliant mind Armond White’s been defending and defining Perry’ artistry for a couple of years now. A personal favorite was this review of ‘Why Did I Get Married?’, which wisely contrasts it with the smug, knowing, white buffoonery of Judd Apatow: “Nothing in Knocked Up is as meaningful as Perry’s spectacle of men who must restrain their anger physically or his politically incorrect fashion show of women proudly, luxuriously wearing furs as signs of pleasure and achievement.” I won’t complain about one more critic however late, being genuinely discerning, but Crouch’s oscillation between old-man curmudgeon and quasi-post-race idealist is not only inconsistent, it’s cowardly. One of the recurring issues of the anti-identity-politics baiting of Crouch is his persistent frustrations with the Al Sharptons and Spike Lees of America who’ve made careers and developed followers because of their infatigable cynicism, but it’s rare that Crouch will go out on a limb and praise anything himself. And when he does, it’s often something already established. Another good example is his very-late discovery of BET’s ‘American Gangster’ which he only praised during it’s significantly higher-profile Second Season and in contrast to the obviously-goofy ‘American Gangster’ movie. Even this stupid blogger knew BET’s ‘American Gangster’ was smart early on: You Should Watch: BET’s American Gangster’.

The worst thing is other than his sadly misinformed take on hip-hop, Stanley Crouch can actually be a pretty brilliant mind. His book ‘Notes from the Hanging Judge’ is a contrarian classic and his kinda recent book ‘The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity’ has probably the best take on Quentin Tarantino and race out there. But between a certain vested interest in being the insider’s outsider and his obsession with hip-hop’s “negative effects”, Crouch nuance stumbles into muddled argument and ideas. It’s hard not to throw his argument out the window when he contrasts Perry’s populist and arguably negative appeal with “the mush-mouthed posturing of hip hop’s thug icons” but ends his article with a concession that perfectly defines hip-hop’s appeal: “He [Perry, but also hip-hop] knows how to bring trash and soul together in a way that doesn’t make one get in the way of the other. Like it or not, that is some form of genius.”

Written by Brandon

April 8th, 2008 at 9:09 pm