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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

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Watch The Throne: “Why I Love You”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled”

And so, “Why I Love You,” the darkest, most twisted-up song since intro track “No Church In The Wild,” is where this weird, money-burning yet socially-conscious hip-hop event wraps up. Jay is “alone” in “Rome…burning,” asking, “why does it always end up like this?” He lashes out at old friends who don’t think he’s done enough for them. Kanye’s at his side, playing hypeman but coming off more like an annoying crony. The way Kanye pronounces “Huh?!” like it somehow has an “N” in it somewhere is especially grating — and it’s supposed to be.

Here are two guys, obnoxiously gassing themselves up like they’re the only ones left in the whole world, which given the rarefied air they breathe isn’t that far off. Kanye’s “I never been a deep sleeper” interjection — part boast, part confession — is touching, and the way their voices meet up on the word “paranoia” says just about all you need to know about the Throne. But Jay’s also willing to admit that he’s more than a little bit hurt by all these supposed betrayals. In verse two, he tells listeners that the stuff said about him by former friends like Dame Dash and Beanie Sigel really stings, and he expresses it in melodramatic terms, like he’s penning a post-hardcore break-up song: “You ripped out my heart and you stepped on it…”

Written by Brandon

August 25th, 2011 at 2:17 am

Watch The Throne: “Made In America”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “God, Law”

If the Throne’s fiscal theories don’t creep you out a bit, then perhaps this big, dumb ode to the United States of America will? “Made In America,” however, isn’t Glenn Beck rally nonsense; it’s more like those goofy-ass MSNBC “Lean Forward” ads celebrating America’s greatness while making it quite clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. This song was Jay-Z’s idea, right? He’s the capitalist cornball and Kanye’s the cynic (the child of a college professor and Black Panther), who’s much too worried about speaking truth to power, be it about George W. Bush or Taylor Swift, to buy into this idea that success means anything more than an escape from having to be so fucking regular.

Kanye’s up for the ride, though, along with Frank Ocean, who is probably biting his tongue a bit during the mind-bogglingly unironic hook, which conflates Civil Rights leaders with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Despite all the bullshit, the Throne explain, they’ve made it in America. Jay maintains this approach, rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance as a dedication to his grandmother and “all the scramblers,” rather than the United States of America, which really hasn’t done all that much for him. Still, he acknowledges, through the country’s combination of freedom and corruption, it has allowed him to go from a kid in the Marcy Projects to a cultural force…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Watch The Throne: “Murder To Excellence”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Horn Players”

Jay-Z dedicates “Murder To Excellence” to Danroy Henry Jr., killed by police gunfire in 2010. Later, he says he’s the reincarnation of Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the FBI, in his sleep, on December 4th, 1969, the day Jay was born: “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / I guess real niggas multiply.” That line sounds hot, but when it’s placed alongside Kanye’s declaration that “it’s time that we redefine black power,” it elucidates the Throne’s vision: Political rhetoric and action, particularly “by any means necessary,” must be replaced with simpler, pragmatic goals of economic success and independence. It’s a continuation of the sentiment from Jay’s infamous verse on The Black Album’s “Moment Of Clarity,” where he confesses that he “dumbed down for [his] audience to double his dollars,” while at the same time kinda dismissing conscious hip-hop by explaining that he “can’t help the poor if he’s one of them…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Watch The Throne: “Who Gon Stop Me”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Masque”

Sampling Flux Pavillion’s “I Can’t Stop,” the Throne grab hold of the same music that so many regular-ass young dudes in America are using to express rage and catharsis right now: dubstep. Yet, there’s a tangible menace to this beat — the subgenre’s signature, hard-partying drop refashioned to score Kanye’s provocative yelp about inner-city violence and Jay-Z rhyming about his criminal past and current “fuck you” success. Like his verse on “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay flickers between two divergent paths — legal and illegal — and sometimes blurs the two. When he paints a scene at Las Vegas’ Wynn Casino, all eyes are on him. Because he’s a rapper or an uncouth drug dealer who doesn’t belong? Both, it seems. He’s in “all-white wearin’ no socks,” like a retired Jay of the next decade, but he also observes, “they know I’m a dope boy.”

The entire verse bounces between past and present, and as his rhymes pick up speed, the pressures of fame and memories of a past life rush out; synths whirl, sirens wail, and that Flux Pavillion sample stands up straight and collapses again and again, fitting the overdose of emotion. There’s a great moment where Jay tells engineer Noah Goldstein to “extend the beat” and you hear it rise back to life like a reanimated sci-fi robot, ready to stalk around for a little while longer. By the end, he’s reconciled his contradictions: “Street-smart and I’m book smart, could’ve been a chemist because I cook smart…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Watch The Throne: “Welcome To The Jungle”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Defacement (The Death Of Michael Stewart)”

A simple, abrasive beat that, every few bars, sounds like it’s about to malfunction, angrily pumps until a mournful synth enters the mix at the very moment Kanye shouts, “I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and said ‘alive.’” He’s referencing OutKast’s “Da Art Of Storytellin Pt. 1,” and specifically, he’s referencing Andre 3000’s description of a scene from his teenage years, when Three Stacks talks about a young girl named Sasha Thumper who, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up answers, says, “alive,” throwing Andre for a loop (“I coulda died,” he admits).

Like the hook’s update of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (“It’s like a jungle sometimes…”), the somber hook of “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pt. 1″ (“It’s like that now…”) is a clever, stiff-upper-lip twist on Run-D.M.C,’s state-of-the-nation rap “It’s Like That.” The Throne reference both songs here, employing socially conscious reality raps from the ’80s and ’90s to underline their point: Nothing has changed all that much. In his first verse, Jay implicates himself in “the jungle,” outlining losses early in his life (“My uncle died, my daddy did too”), while Kanye attempts to empathize, referencing the problems he’s mined for a few albums now (“Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all”) and then, it’s right back to Jay who drops a fascinating virtuoso verse mixing street violence with “fame is fucked-up” freakouts…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:27 am

Watch The Throne: “That’s My Bitch”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Mona Lisa”

Justin Vernon, stand the fuck up! His uncomfortably funky, mid-song part is so good. Anyway, ignore this song’s title, or don’t cringe as you read it, because the Throne are doing a “99 Problems”-like investigation of the word “bitch” here. Even the hook by Elly Jackson of La Roux, with its celebration of autonomy from the work-a-day grind, kicks against the lunkhead title and the Throne’s possessive, sorta-sensitive raps.

Jay-Z’s all twisted up, though, no longer able to simply admire a girl without getting upset about body image and the way white standards of beauty have been branded onto our brains. “Why all the pretty icons always all-white?” he asks, and then demands that we “put some colored girls in the MoMA,” shouting out a character from Good Times: “Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Willona.” Jay spends a lot of his time on “That’s My Bitch” making art references that may or may not click for a lot of rap listeners, so it’s refreshing to hear a nod to a classic black television show…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:15 am

Watch The Throne: “New Day”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Asskiller”

Legacy and influence obviously matter a great deal to the Throne. That’s why there was all that hard-to-stomach, pre-release, we’re-making-history talk; and it’s also why Watch The Throne’s in a constant conversation with black music’s past. On “New Day,” however, Jay and Kanye approach the idea of legacy from a more down-to-earth perspective: How will they raise their kids? The genius of this song is not its concept, but how tasteful this quite-shticky song turns out to be.

Kanye views his future child — actually, the song’s conceit — as a chance to right his wrongs, because he can’t imagine or face the realities of raising a kid. He’s still growing up himself, and still stupidly upset about things that happened more than a year ago (or as long ago as five years ago). But he’s also still mourning the 2007 death of his mother, Donda West, which he can’t get over. The line, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray,” which ends his verse, really stings. Also: Given the questionable fiscal ideals running through this album, Kanye’s quip about raising his child to be Republican (“so everybody know he love white people”) is worth highlighting. It’s also very funny…

Written by Brandon

August 19th, 2011 at 5:38 am

Watch The Throne: “Gotta Have It”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Five Thousand Dollars”

A James Brown sample is cast in the role of the Throne’s hypeman on “Gotta Have It,” cheering them on, and shouting over a classic Kanye chipmunked vocal and the Neptunes’ minimalist synth-funk. There’s been a lot of controversy about “Otis” being credited as “featuring Otis Redding” (Curtis Mayfield is similarly credited on bonus track “The Joy”), but Watch The Throne is, in part, an investigation of “black excellence” (Jay’s words), and the Throne position themselves in this continuum, so it’s only right that they treat these musical gods like peers.

The bar-for-bar, back-and-forth rapping, a tribute to not only old school hip-hop, is retrofitted to play out like a dramatic dialogue between Kanye and Jay-Z, which actually makes sense, given the Socrates shout-outs on “No Church In The Wild.” Kanye takes the lead, and Jay tags along, asking him questions (“Ain’t that where the Heat play?”), keeping the flow moving along. Halfway through, Jay steps up and enacts a scene where he threatens a guy who hasn’t paid his debts: “Wassup, motherfucker, where my money at? / You gon’ make me come down to your house where yo’ mummy at? / Mummy wrap the kids, have ‘em cryin’ for they mommy back.” It’s vicious, and shows just how easy this CEO/rap superstar can resurrect the anger and scrappy aggression of his past….

Written by Brandon

August 17th, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Watch The Throne: “Otis”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Red Kings”

“Otis,” which samples “Try a Little Tenderness,” features the Throne rapping Run-D.M.C.-style, and in the last verse, nods to Audio Two’s “Top Billin,” begins a mid-album suite of nostalgia-tinged production. The soul samples really get to breathe in this section (Nina Simone on “New Day,” James Brown on nearly every track) and all these rap-nerd details (quoting Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces” on “New Day,” updating “The Message” on “Welcome to the Jungle,” using “Apache” on “That’s My Bitch”) ground WTT in hip-hop history and precedent. Given the album’s focus on black success and influence, this nostalgia trip is conceptually necessary.

Kanye’s masterful, sideways chopping of Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” reducing the Memphis legend to a loop of visceral grunts and hollers, references the soul-beat tradition that started the Throne’s friendship, while cleverly updating it, as well. When Jay-Z threatens, “Run up on ‘Ye, I might have to murk ya,” he’s also commenting on their relationship, reasserting that which hasn’t changed. Namely, that Jay was and is the heavy, and Kanye is the normal kid for whom violence was never a way of life. “Big brother” Jay’s still there to protect Kanye…

Written by Brandon

August 16th, 2011 at 9:37 pm