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Misreading Rap: Fish Tank & “Life’s a Bitch”


Two things comes up in pretty much every review of Fish Tank, a British film about a troubled fifteen year old girl into “urban dance” and nothing much else (that is, until her mom’s new boyfriend shows up): The apparently stellar performance from “non-actor” Kate Jarvis and the use of Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” in a poignant scene between mom and daughter.

Whenever rap finds its way into a movie and it’s not as either source music or for a cheap laugh, it’s something of note, but what’s so cool about Fish Tank is how its given a bunch of film critics the chance to riff on the Nas classic. It’s a crucial part of the movie, so it’s sent critics previously unaware of the song to IMDB to figure out what it is and for most, a chance to throw in a sliver of rap criticism into their movie review. Unfortunately, most are misreading the song. Dana Stevens of Slate called it “unremittingly depressing”–AZ’s hook maybe, the song itself, not so much.

The biggest offender though, is Armond White, who lines-up the perceived phoniness of Fish Tank with Nas’ own “baby brother impudence”. Like most of White’s writing in um, the past ten years, his point is brave and valid (let’s reconsider Nas’ talents), he’s just building it all on a base that’s flimsy at best. Stevens’ descriptions and the many like it can be partially excused by the simplicity word counts often demand, but White’s just completely wrong.

The best explanation of the song, in connection with Fish Tank at least, comes from, of all places, Thinking Faith (the online journal for British Jesuits). Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher begins his review with a quote from AZ’s verse and quotes the hook later, but is quick to explain that, “Life’s a Bitch” is, “in spite of [the hook], a song of hope and of escape.” Exactly.

“Life’s a Bitch” though, isn’t even that hard to “get” which makes all the misreading all the more frustrating. If there’s a common strain in the “Nas kinda sucks” revisionism that’s been wandering around in the past bunch of years, it’s fueled by the relative simplicity–and therefore, perceived insincerity–of his work. That doesn’t make Nas a bad rapper or Illmatic any less of a classic, but there’s a “teachability” to Nas’ work, that you know, would lend it to short-hand poignance in art films or a pretty mindless book if you peeped that Dyson disaster Born to Use Mics.

There’s still plenty of room for complexity in something teachable, and a lot of the power of “Life’s a Bitch” comes out of its adherence to structure. Really, “Life’s a Bitch” hinges on structure. It’s a song built on pieces that complement and contradict one another. AZ’s verse and hook are apparently all that many people hear–really, just the hook–and it’s easy to see the song as “cynical” or “unremittingly depressing” through that lunkheaded lens, but that ignores the shifting context of that hook, Nas’ entire verse, and the joyful coda that is Olu Dara’s horn solo.

Really though, AZ’s verse isn’t even conventionally “depressing”, it’s beyond “fuck the world” and all that. His verse is not only a celebration of making money, but a quick mini-history lesson on why that’s all he believes in (“we were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters/But something must’ve got in us ’cause all of us turned to sinners”) and a clear acknowledgment that indeed, it’s a fruitless exercise: “As long as we leavin’ thievin’ we’ll be leavin’ with some kind of dough”. The depressing part isn’t that he desires money but that he knows exactly why he does what he does and has no interest in doing different.

AZ’s verse and hook though, are viewed as the contrast or set-up to Nas’ significantly more “hopeful” verse, but that’s too simple too. There’s the same amount of vibrancy and intelligence at work in AZ’s verse as Nas’, it’s just being employed for a different end. Both verses sound good and are perfectly put together pieces of rapping. They are equally persuasive in terms style–they sound awesome but Nas’ verse could not exist without AZ’s–this is literally true if you read the XXL making of piece–because it’s through AZ’s acknowledgement of just how fucked things are, that Nas can come to his 20th birthday epiphany. That oft-quoted, “That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto” comes from a guy who’s spent a lot of bucks on bottles, you know?

When the hook returns after Nas’ verse–again, all about structure here and how structure highlights meaning–it’s nearly “ironic” because Nas has just rejected it or at least, found a way to not believe that “life’s a bitch and then you die”. This is the inverse of most songwriting wherein the “happy” chorus is undermined by the verses or a sad chorus is sung happily–there’s a real give and take going on here. Then it’s punctuated by Olu Dara’s horn solo which is happy, but hardly glorious.

And “hardly glorious” is precisely the kind of minor victory joy director Andrea Arnold’s at least trying to employ in Fish Tank: That good-bad, good enough, tension of the song transported into her film. Not sure where it falls in the white people/black music poignance meter–The Big Chill and Motown as a “1″, Schooly D in the Bad Lieutenant as a “10″–but there’s an attempt to wisely engage with the song’s tensions, which is more than what a lot of critics are doing.

further reading/viewing:
-”Automatic Pity for the People” by Armond White of New York Press
-Fish Tank by Dana Stevens for Slate
-Fish Tank by Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher for Thinking Faith
-XXL’s Making of Illmatic
-”Deconstructing Illmatic” by Dan Love for Oh Word

Written by Brandon

January 18th, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Illmatic, Nas, movies

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Long-Lost Siblings: ‘Illmatic’ & ‘Loveless’. By Christopher Adams.
1. Introduction
I’m new to rap. New in that I’ve only very recently been listening to it actively. When I was younger and the boat came and Puff Daddy was the captain I missed it. Missed it intentionally. Wasn’t this just bad Sting (as though there were good Sting) made worse? Or some kind of funeral karaoke in poor taste? I admit that the novelty was lost on me. I wrote it off and sat on the shore even as other better ships came in. I suppose it’s easy to abstain from things you haven’t had much to do with. Then as the years went by and I had friends other than television and the school bus radio I heard some things which caught my attention. But since I’d been out of the mix so long I never pursued them. This past September, I finally decided to pursue them and bought my first CD, the one that had meant the most to me, the one which seemed the strangest and most visceral of those I’d heard: ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’. It was weird and human and for me, the best place to start. A good pivot. In listening to it and other albums over the following months, I found myself applying a kind of theory I’d thought of for some time. Basically that creative works tend to have long-lost siblings, related works which have peculiar tensions and connections somewhat beyond the surface similarities of typically similar works, the objects of most normal, run-of-the-mill comparisons. I find that the more incongruous the works are superficially, the more insightful and helpful the correlation.

I listened to ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ by Clipse, an album I’d been aware of because it was something of a critical favorite. After I’d listened to it, I immediately thought of one of my all time favorites: ‘Songs From A Room’ by Leonard Cohen. In addition to the seeming ease of both albums and also their minimalism and matter-of-fact tone, I discovered a certain unifying principle, a concept which held both together and related them in my mind: the refusal of remorse as vindication. This seemed to me the underlying theme of each, something emotionally complex, something inexhaustible, something odd to write songs about. Doesn’t it make us feel good to feel bad for our sins? Well, these albums deny themselves such justification and in doing so, become unique yet comparable works about reality and responsibility. Having said all of this, and I hope having established a reasonable context for the main of this post, I now present you with my reaction to ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, comparing it to ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine to best express how it struck me.

2. ‘Illmatic’ and ‘Loveless’
First off, the colors of their respective covers pretty much sum up the overall feeling of the records. ‘Loveless’ is the fairly obvious womb-like pink, and the album is very violent and physical, but also very warm and gooey. ‘Illmatic’ is orange-brown, butterscotch if you will, and sounds orange-brown, the production, the mixing, etc. It is also much like a butterscotch candy. It is hard and very specifically of it’s own flavor though not terribly different from other sweets, if maybe slightly more refined, and less of an intense tasting experience. Once you enter into the record, past the cover, you find that they both very quickly establish a mood specific to the record itself, and not to be found exactly elsewhere, but once again not terribly far removed from other things, and doing so with more or less conventional elements, at least for their genres. Though the mood and feel, etc., is the same through, their are subtle differences within each song which keep the songs separate, but almost more so as they are in order, in sequence, than they would be in isolation, meaning, if you heard the songs individually, you might not be able to immediately say which song it was and which it wasn’t, whereas, when they play as a whole, they don’t necessarily sound the same. The mood, though specific to the record, is also in general, vague. A very individual vagueness. This leaves it open to interpretation, but also hard to find an opening into. This might be where part of the overall emotionlessness comes in: they’re more about a feeling than emotions, if you can make that distinction. To continue with something else, the vocals, oddly enough, are treated very much in the same fashion, although it may seem odd for such an MC-based record as is ‘Illmatic’. When you listen to Loveless the vocals are just another instrument in the mix. Strangely, the vocals on ‘Illmatic’, not because of volume, as they are in ‘Loveless’, but because of a certain seamlessness seem to blend in almost too well with the music. When you listen to it, the production seems to take up the same amount of attention as the vocals, and not because it is intrusive or draws attention to itself. I think it just may lack a certain necessary tension between the two. Also, while in ‘Loveless’ the vocals tend not to stand out because the lyrics are unheard, and therefore they are abstract, on ‘Illmatic’ the lyrics are clearly heard, but are in fact mostly abstract. This aids their slipping into the music more, but also in keeping the listening out of the experience completely. Both records keep their distance. They seem a little un-human despite being warm, and violent, though the violence is very much contained. All vibrant color but very much the same color, though altering shades and tints, but also very much within the lines. Still talking about the music, and to be more specific about similarities, though it’s more pointing out coincidence, certain tracks seem like parallels. ‘NY State of Mind’, the first proper song on ‘Illmatic’, and ‘Only Shallow’, the first song on ‘Loveless’ are both the most dangerous and ominous sounding. The middle songs on both also add more instrumentation than the beginning songs, but in somewhat same sounding patterns, like the strange feedback melodies in the middle of ‘Loveless’, and the electric keyboard and vibraphone sounds on ‘Illmatic’. Also, the last songs on each are these slightly lighter-sounding, dance-music influenced songs, not so much in the foundations, the beats, and drums and rhythms so much as the strange samples and vocals and strings added on top. Kind of airy and cotton candy-sounding compared to the earlier songs. I like both though. Very strange songs. The main thing, which all of this adds up to, is that both are records which it seems impossible to have a personal connection to.They don’t seem to be any different for having an audience. I think they’d sound the same in an empty room. They are complete in and of themselves, which makes listening to them weird.

Aside from the covers, presentation and music, the records both have similar, monolithic statuses, which once you listen to them you might not completely think of them as having yourself but you can certainly understand why others might. Both are considered impossible to better, that is impossible for their makers to better. But having said that, both seem despite their certain perfection, somewhat minor. This is probably due to the emotionless stuff. A lot of work was involved in both but to the point of squeezing out any heart that isn’t recognizable in terms of signifiers. Nas raps about sad stuff and angry stuff but doesn’t come across as sad or angry really, and the guitars on ‘Loveless’ are loud and screaming and violent but don’t really convey those feelings. All very odd. But I think as far as their reputations and statuses go as far as being “classics” is considered, unlike most “classics” which kind of disappoint because they are less well-made, or more inconsistent, or simply more half-assed than you’re led to believe before hand, they are almost exactly what the details you read, not what the “praise” say they are. If that makes sense. They are both somewhat conventional in that they use conventional elements, but are different and specific enough to be unlike other things, but create a noise and feeling which, while unique, isn’t necessarily something you have a great desire or need to return to very often. Like I said above, almost because they seem not to need you to listen, and not because they’re unmelodic or too hermetic.

-Christopher Adams on MySpace.

Written by Christopher

April 2nd, 2007 at 5:20 pm