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Screwed Down: How One Man and Two Tables Made a Slow City Slower

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It’s 7 o’clock in the evening on Slab Sunday on Martin Luther King Boulevard on the south side of Houston, Texas, two years before the turn of the century. Hundreds of slabs are swanging and banging down the boulevard in the South Park neighborhood. Slabs are tricked-out old-school cars with candy paint, leather seats known as “buck”, woodgrain steering wheels, poked-out rims called swangas, trunks that pop open at the flick of a switch to broadcast neighborhoods and phrases in neon lights, with a fifth-wheel on back and chrome grill and woman-replica emblem on the front. Any old-school car can be transformed into a slab, but the best slabs usually are classic Cadillacs, Chevy Impala’s, and Oldsmobiles.

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Traffic on MLK Boulevard is moving at school zone speed as the drivers show off their slabs, swanging up the block with meticulous speed. Swanging is when the slab-riders drive as slow as possible, alternating lanes while moving in a half-clockwise motion, making sure all bystanders get a full view and hear every sound banging out of the pimped-out car.

Banging is the boisterous sounds booming from the slab trunks. It isn’t a slab unless there isn’t a speaker system residing in the back that could rattle the streets and knock picture frames off nearby walls. Slab-riders competed with each other to see whose system could bang the loudest.

The slabs parade up and down MLK while each driver sips a large white cup of lean. Lean is an alcoholic mixture originated in Houston consisting of an active ingredient (promethazine with codeine cough syrup), a mixing ingredient (a Sprite soda) and a flavor additive (Jolly rancher candy). The lean is primarily drank out of two large, white styrofoam cups — two cups to keep the muddy beverage from seeping through and ruining the slab’s interior — and indulged while listening to a slowed down grey tape. The lean blended the slab-rider with the downtempo of the grey tape, with each word and mix on the screwed track being consumed at a heightened level. A hit of marijuana only enhanced the listening experience.

A different grey tape bangs out of every slab on MLK. The most prevalent grey tape heard is 1996’s classic 3 ’n The Mornin’, Pt. 2, which features the anthemic “Pimpin’ Tha Pen”, a freestyle by rapper Lil’ Keke that captured so much of what those slabs were doing on that Sunday. Drivers, riders and onlookers alike sing along with Keke as he proclaims that he’s “draped up and dripped out, know what I’m talking ‘bout” with his “hand on the woodgrain” and “ass on the tight white”. One line, however, tells of the man responsible for Slab Sundays and the lean and the sound that ultimately inspired it all: “My lyrics go together like a pair of socks and shoes, my flow is slow because it’s bolted down by DJ Screw”.

Over the course of a decade, DJ Screw originated a sound that would change and define the city, and would later become a staple in hip-hop nationally. DJ Screw almost singlehandedly pioneered a culture that would, for better or worse, would spearhead Houston rap’s uprising and ultimately lead to his downfall.

“Glass ’84’s, gleaming under my ride/A summertime vibe, it’s 1995/Back when, back when DJ Screw had the city slowed down/’3 n’ da mornin’, drank was pourin out” – Scarface, “Swangin” (2013)

In 1995, it all came together. Cars carrying customers from all over the Southern United States — Austin and Dallas, Louisiana, Arkansas, as far as South Carolina — would line up on the street containing DJ Screw’s home on Greystone Street in the northeast corner of Houston’s South Park neighborhood at all times of the day to get their grey tapes. A grey tape was the nickname given to the cloudy-colored cassette tapes featuring popular rap songs and improvised freestyles DJ Screw would slow down to a sluggish speed.

Screw would run instrumentals on his turntables and have members of his collective rap group, the Screwed Up Click, come over and freestyle on those instrumentals live in his house. Screw would record them onto a four-track tape, then take that tape and make a copy of it on the four-track recorder, slowing down the tape speed onto which he was recording, using 100-minute tapes to get the most recording space.

Screw would ten chop (scratch) the records up and add his signature shout-outs to friends he had met in various south side neighborhoods, his syrupy voice so inviting it felt like Screw was riding in the passenger seat. This process was all done live, and patrons would wait all day to get the real thing. It wasn’t enough to purchase a Screw tape from a bootlegger or copy a previously-bought version using computer technology; if you were going to jam a Screw tape, it had to be a grey tape.

The crowds grew so large that Screw had to install a large gate around his house (along with a .45 pistol) and keep a very large pit bull outside to keep prospective  customers off the front lawn. Screw also had to set up a specified time for business hours. Tapes would only would be sold between seven p.m. and 10 p.m. At $10 a pop, Screw would pull in around $40,000 a month through his front gate from the mixtapes he manufactured himself in his home studio, with no middle man involved. Screw was independent in the store1truest sense. An artist’s artist, he cared only for the music and getting it out to as many people as possible. In January 1998, Screw moved his operation to a mom-and-pop style building located at 7717 Cullen Boulevard in South Park, by Houston’s 610 Loop. Screwed Up Records and Tapes satisfied Screw’s business side, giving his customer base a one-stop shop for all S.U.C. records. The new shop served a higher purpose: keeping the Houston police out of Screw’s hair. The lines around Screw’s house were getting so outrageous that local cops began to suspect something illegal was going on inside the large, gated home. Police entered Screw’s home looking for drugs on more than one occasion and one time kicked in the door.

But while the shop legitimatized Screw as a businessman, his heart resided in the studio.

In 1995, DJ Screw released over 50 mixtapes, including Volume II: All Screwed Up, his first legit release, on BigTyme Records. 3 ’n the Mornin’, Pt. 2, also released on BigTyme, would enter into Houston rap lore, along with the next year’s June 27th tape, which featured the classic freestyle title track.

“June 27th” became DJ Screw’s most famous song. During an impromptu celebration of a friend’s birthday at Screw’s house, the deejay sampled the teen duo Kris Kross’ “Da Streets Ain’t Right” into a 27-minute freestyle by several S.U.C. members that took the B-side of the tape. As a result of the track’s success, June 27th became an unofficial hip-hop holiday in Houston.

The Screwed Up Click’s slowed down music went from a niche style circulated around Houston to a full-on hip-hop genre on a national level. Port Arthur rap group UGK shouted Screw on “3 in the Morning” — off their certified-gold album Ridin’ Dirty — which took the name of Screw’s famous tape. Memphis rapper Eightball, of Eightball and MJG fame, joined Lil Keke on the remix to his Houston anthem “Southside”, a local hit record that was accompanied by an infectious dance. Several Screwed Up Click members appeared on Lil’ Troy’s 1999 smash single “Wanna Be a Baller”, Houston’s biggest crossover rap record since The Geto Boys released “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” eight years earlier.

By the turn of the century, Screw and other local artists dominated Houston music, thanks to a support system that allowed them to control how and when their music got released. Local FM station 97.9 The Box kept the growing number of Texas rappers in heavy rotation, devoting an hour of evening radio to a mix of assorted screwed songs. Southwest Wholesale, at the time one of the largest hip-hop music distributors in the country, helped Houston artists sell over one million albums in 2000, with a large majority of those coming from Screw’s coalition of South Side emcees. With no major label standing in the way of profits, the Screwed Up Click felt no pressure to compromise their music to make a living. That independent mindset and homegrown distribution system made it possible for many rappers to sell as little as 19,000 albums, often from the trunks of their cars, and make over $100,000. Big Moe, a rapper/singer from the Third Ward neighborhood and a popular Screwed Up Click member, sold over 100,000 units of his independently-distributed City of Syrup album.

Screw music would become larger than life in the coming years, transitioning from a provincial genre to a full-on cultural lifestyle. However, the music began to take a backseat to other aspects of the “screwed up” culture. It was no longer sufficient to just pop a Screw tape into the tape deck. The car you were jamming Screw in had to be a slab. The slab had to be candy-painted — red for Southsiders, blue for Northsiders. The rims had to be swangas, ’83’s or ’84’s to be exact. ’83’s and ’84’s are 30 spoke wire wheels that were a chosen upgrade option available on 1983 and 1984 Cadillac Eldorados. The grill had to be chrome-plated and the trunk had to be ready to be popped high to show the trailing car or any bystander what hood the driver was representing.

And there was the lean. There was no Screw without the lean.

DJ Screw had been drinking “lean” since the early ‘90s, mixing codeine cough syrup with an alcoholic or fruit (or both) beverage of choice, all while smoking marijuana and mixing and listening to his tapes. Screw found that lean enhanced the listening experience of the slowed down music he was making. The phenomenon began to spread throughout the city and seep into the music. On “Sippin’ Codeine”, off the 3 ’n the Mornin’, Pt. 2 album, Big Moe sang about how codeine “makes a South Side playa lean”.

On the City of Syrup album cover, Moe pours a cup of purple codeine over the Houston skyline, symbolizing the imprint of the screwed up culture, and all that came with it, would have on the city.

 

That culture would go on to transcend Houston, as well as the South As hip-hop f567edfefa972b04faf2516e9b374839-769x768x1abandoned the regionalism that defined the first couple of decades of its existence, artists from different parts of the country, including a half-black, half-Jewish child-actor-turned-rapper from Toronto, Canada (Drake) to an MC  from the fast-paced birthplace of hip-hop (A$AP Rocky) began to assimilate themselves into Houston’s slowed-down culture. Cities that once abhorred Houston rap and its slow pace began using the slang originated by acts such as the Screwed Up Click and UGK, wearing gold grills (detachable gold teeth worn as jewelry) similar to those down South, slowing down the tempo of their songs, screwing the choruses, and rapping about slabs and candy paint. Chopped and screwed versions accompanying standard versions of released major label albums became the norm in hip-hop, though DJ Screw would not live to see his work become a national staple.

As the Screw sound began to take off in the late ‘90s, the deejay saw many opportunities to capitalize off his style’s growing popularity. Many of the artists affiliated with his Screwed Up Click brand were ready to take the next step in their careers. Screwed Up Records and Tapes had been open a year to overwhelming success. But Screw’s passion was never the money he could make. Screw lived for helping others, getting young men off the streets of Houston to come hang out with him at his house, smoke weed and sip lean with him and rap on his tapes. Others would come and go from the studio at all times of the night, and there would be Screw, high off marijuana and prescription pills to stay awake and keep cranking out tapes. Screw would fall asleep in the middle of a mix while under the influence of weed and codeine and wake up from his temporary slumber, right on cue, and pick up where he left off. Never missing a beat.

DJ Screw had conquered the big city, infected it with slowed down music and lean that made it even slower. He had ingrained himself into Houston lore through his charitable personality and a prodigious talent that was fostered over 25 years earlier in a small town in Texas most had never heard of.

Robert Earl Davis, Jr. was born in Smithville, Texas,  a town two hours from Houston with a population of less than 4,000, on July 20, 1971 to Robert, Sr. and Ida May Davis. After Robert Earl was born, his mother moved him and his sister to Houston to live with his father. When Robert Earl was nine, after his parents separated, he, his mother and his sister moved from Houston, doing a two-year stint in Los Angeles, California, before briefly moving back to Houston and finally settling back in Smithville.

At ten years old, Robert Earl caught an ear for music. He initially started off playing the piano. Though not formally trained, Robert Earl would learn to play by ear. After the breakdancing film Breakin’ was released, Robert Earl began playing with turntables. He loved rummaging through his mother’s record collection, spinning her old R&B records and exploring the different sounds. After learning of Robert Earl’s new hobby, Robert, Sr. bought his son his first turntable set from Smithville’s Western Auto Store. Robert Earl soon started saving up enough money to buy records of his own to mix in his room. While Robert Earl was in his room, practicing his mixes until late at night, his mother was working two, sometimes three jobs to support two children.

With few job opportunities for young black men in rural Smithville, Robert, Sr. moved his 14-year-old son in with him in Houston. The bigger city offered Robert Earl much more opportunities to hone his deejaying skills than Smithville, a one-club town where everything closed at 11 p.m. By the time Robert Earl was 15, his life revolved around the turntables. Nothing else mattered. He dropped out of Sterling High School as a sophomore, selling drugs on the side for cash. “Just hustlin’. Tryin’ to make ends meet,” said Robert Earl, in a 1999 interview. “Feed our families. Studio time.”

When he was 18, Robert Earl got his first deejaying gig at Almeda Skating Rink, on the city’s south side. He had moved into the home of another young deejay named DJ Chill that he had met while spinning at Club Boomerang, where Robert Earl had been deejaying full-time. One night, while spinning and mixing records with his cousin, Robert Earl began taking the screw out of the record player when he didn’t like a certain record or he couldn’t get the mix exactly the way he wanted. As a result, the record began slowing all the way down to a halt, the voice and the tempo on the record taking on a snail-like pitch.

Robert Earl’s cousin, with a sarcastic tone, asked him, “Who do you think you are, DJ Screw?”

The name stuck. He was DJ Screw now. The sound stuck as well. A friend, who heard about the new, slowed down sound Screw stumbled upon in his room, asked the deejay to personally “screw” a list of songs to put on a tape for him. Word of mouth spread and hundreds of people were knocking at Screw’s door, with lists of songs that needed DJ Screw’s personal touch.

But although DJ Screw originated his own specialized version of the slowed-down sound and took it to a level no one before or after him would reach, he was not the first to experiment with slowing down the tempo on records. DJ Darryl Scott was the first Houston deejay to rise to prominence in the 1980’s. Scott released a mixtape with a couple slowed down songs in the late 1980’s as a result of his audience’s enthusiasm when he accidentally slowed a song down during one of his live sets. Screw, along with Scott protégé Michael Price, adapted the sound to their own styles after hearing and liking it.

Screw had been making tapes for a few years, developing a trademark for shouting out on the tapes guys from different neighborhoods around the South Side that he had kicked it with, guys he went school with, guys who were locked up in prison. Some guys were rappers. Some were not. Screw would invite guys to his house to hang out, smoke weed and sip lean with him. Some began to rap on Screw’s tapes; in 1992, rapper C-Note of the South Park group, The Botany Boyz, was the first. Fellow South Park rapper Fat Pat — who knew Screw from their days at Sterling High — became the next, and so set off a pattern of South Side rappers from various hoods meeting Screw and appearing on his Screw tapes. They freestyled over well-known beats about random subjects — the cars they were or were not driving, how much marijuana they were smoking, how potent the cup of lean they were drinking, what kind of slab they were coming down in — until the freestyles became more refined and the collective became more of a fraternal brotherhood.

Screw named them the Screwed Up Click.

In ten years, the Screwed Up Click released more than 250 mixtapes, making Houston synonymous in the hip-hop world with “screwed up”. Screw was responsible for over 1000 mixtapes in just one decade. In 1998, Screw released more than 100 tapes, at a rate of about two a week. Screw was putting out material at a break-neck pace, while running Screwed Up Records and Tapes, working on new mixes for his next mixtape or official album to satisfy the demands of his persistent fan base and traveling across the South as the deejay for his Screwed Up Click artists. Screw was staying up in his studio at all times with little sleep, if he slept at all. “With Screw,” one producer said in a 2001 Texas Monthly interview, “your days turned into nights and nights turned into days.”

Screw started taking prescription drugs, along with his usual consumption of lean and marijuana. To keep pace with his heavy work load, Screw also began adding various other drugs, like Valium and PCP, to the codeine he was drinking. The lean, which began as a complement to the slowed down music he was making, became an addictive substance that started to consume his lifestyle.

By 1999, those around Screw could see the toll his drug-heavy lifestyle was causing him. His output that year was lower compared to previous year. Screw only released a dozen mixtapes, a considerable decline from the 100 tapes he released the year prior. He weighed over 230 pounds, a result of the drugs and alcohol he consumed, as well as the large amounts of fried chicken he ate on a daily basis (Screw liked Hartz Chicken in Missouri City) and lack of rest. In early 2000, while deejaying a show with fellow Screwed Up Click members, Screw suffered a seizure on the side of the stage. The show had to be cancelled and Screw was rushed to a nearby hospital.

On October 28, 2000, Screw sat down to film an interview for an upcoming DVD titled Soldiers United for Cash, which chronicled the history of DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click. A segment of the interview showed the deejay reclined on a sofa, wearing a brown and white checkered shirt, sporting a bald fade with his trademark side part, and a large gold chain with a black and gold emblem swinging from it — DJ Screw in the middle, SCREWED UP CLICK surrounding it. Screw looked into the camera with the slow regard of a man with nothing but time on his hands, with a drawl that combined  small-town Smithville and syrupy-slow Houston.

“What’s up TV world? Most of y’all out there don’t know me. I’ve been in y’all tape decks for years. My name DJ Screw. You know’m sayin. DJ Screw. Screwed Up Click for life. S.U.C. Soldiers United for the Cash. Year 2000. We just some young ghetto superstars, representing Houston, rapping what we do, our lifestyle. Cars we drive. Press record and put this out on the streets, you know’m saying?”

Two and a half weeks later. DJ Screw was dead.

On the morning of November 16, 2000, DJ Screw was found on the floor next to a toilet stall at his home studio. Two months later, an autopsy confirmed that Screw died of a codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication. Valium and PCP were also found in his system.

The funeral for DJ Screw was held nine days after his death in Smithville. Over 500 people filled into Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church to pay their respects to the deejay. Attendees included his parents, members of the Screwed Up Click, older folks who knew him as a youngster in Smithville, and many people there simply because they were touched by his music and the impact he had.

As Screw’s casket sat in the middle of the church, one sign on sign of him read, “No Hating”. Another sign on the other side of him featured a giant $1 bill, with a picture of Screw in the middle. As Pastor L.K. Williams officiated the ceremony, a convoy of parked candy slabs gathered outside the church, banging Screw tapes. Each car playing a different tape.

The legend of DJ Screw has produced both positive and negative results in the 12 years since his death. Slowed down music is no longer a novelty act, an acquired taste enjoyed only by those from the South. Screw’s style is entrenched in the mainstream, with a new generation of hip-hop stars like Drake and Kendrick Lamar showing appreciation for DJ Screw and the Screw culture. Fellow Houston deejay Michael “DJ Michael 5000” Watts took the formula Screw set with his South Side Screwed Up Click outfit and slowed down sound and applied it to his North Side Swishahouse imprint, taking advantage of the same business opportunities Screw passed on years earlier. Watts inked a multimillion dollar deal for his Swishahouse label through national label Asylum Records in 2004, which served as a base for rapper Mike Jones’ platinum-selling album Who is Mike Jones? in 2005, which featured the national hit, “Still Tippin’”.

Though Screw is touted as the originator of Screw music, his passing allowed for Watts to take the sound to a national level. Houston is now filled with many chopped-and-screwed deejays ready to assume the mantle DJ Screw held before his death.

Coincidentally, the lean that Screw popularized would cause a few of his disciples to suffer the same fate as him. On October 14, 2007, Big Moe died at age thirty-three after suffering a heart attack as a result of heavy codeine use. Almost two months later, on December 4, rapper Pimp C of UGK — who were affiliates of the Screwed Up Click — died of an overdose of promethazine and codeine.

Screw’s impact on Houston rap has become apparent through the years. In his absence, a city that became so dependent on DJ Screw’s sound has struggled to find a new musical sound distinct from the Screw sound that so many artists capitalized on. “Houston hip-hop will never recover from Screw’s death,” says JaMorcus Trayham, a long-time listener of Screw’s music. “Countless Screw tape samples have been used on hooks and everyone with some sense will reference and pay homage to Screw in their music.”

Ultimately, DJ Screw’s influence on music lies in the measure of his work ethic and heart. Screw brought together men from different neighborhoods to make music that united the city of Houston. While The Geto Boys were pioneers in Houston rap, DJ Screw put Houston on the hip-hop map.

When others think of Houston hip-hop, after the candy-painted slabs, swangas poking out the side of old-school cars, gold grills, and purple drank, there will still be DJ Screw. One man. Two turntables. One sound.

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Reasonable Fiction

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“Whoever said illegal was the easy way out, couldn’t understand the mechanics, and the workings of the underworld, granted…”   – Jay Z, “D’Evils” (1996)

I recall reading an interview in Vibe Magazine from somewhere in between the years 1998 and 2000 – I’m much too lazy to look it up, so you’ll just have to trust me – in which the interviewer asked Jay Z if, in his previous profession as a drug dealer, he had ever killed someone.

Jigga, in response, answered (paraphrasing), “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Of course, there is nothing unreasonable (no pun intended) about Jay’s answer, if you believe it plausible that the former hustler may have committed an act commiserate with that line of work. But when viewed within the prism of the album that vaulted Jay into rap stardom, the retort fits ever so perfectly in the narrative the MC tried to cultivate on 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, which turns 20 today.

The album, released independently through Roc-A-Fella Records, the label co-founded by Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Damon Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, highlighted its author’s inner struggle between the spoils and evils of his former hustle – the drug game – and the relatively less predictable, but safer hustle – the rap game. Within this juxtaposition, Jay navigates between both fiction and non, in an attempt to pen an exposé of the first quarter-century of his life, without exposing enough of himself to be fully vulnerable.

Reasonable Doubt, on the surface, thematically is not dissimilar from the popular LPs of its time. Its drug tales of fast money, fast cars, violence and women isn’t far off from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx; its revelations of regrets of the downfalls of crime reminiscent of UGK’s Too Hard to Swallow and various Scarface collections. A week after Reasonable Doubt‘s launch, Nas would release It Was Written, his long-awaited follow-up to Illmatic, considered by many the greatest debut (and maybe album) in hip-hop history. IWW would continue the rapper-as-mafioso trope, though not quite as critically-successfully as its predecessors.

Jay’s opus set itself apart from its peers in its attention to detail, the eloquence of its prose, and the broad scope of its protagonist’s characterization. Reasonable Doubt is part-autobiography, part-fictional novel; part-Go Tell It On The Mountain and part-Invisible Man. This is no love story, no happy endings at the end of the story, only “Regrets”. Mothers don’t just fear for their son’s safety out on the streets, they dream of a “sniper hit me with a fatal shot” (re: just nightmares, mom). Friendships aren’t just fractured, baby mothers are kidnapped and fed fifty-dollar bills until confidential information is transferred. There’s a huge distinction between watching a comrade fight for his life after being shot, and noting the “pray for me”in his personified eyes.

With this, the main character in Hov’s debut is not just him, but his life’s experience as well. Shawn Carter had 26 years between birth and the grand opening of his rap career, with so many anecdotes of poverty, happiness, heartbreak, malevolence, rejection and perseverance sprinkled in, as well as a real-life hustler background check. No, Jay was not hailed as the prodigious heir to Rakim when he released his debut, as Nasty Nas was at basically 20 years old, but Jigga was able to approach his introduction from the narrative point of view of an actual adult who had seen and lived the true hustler life, lived to tell about it and testify to its evils, both external and internal. Jay didn’t just bag the bad chick, he lived with her and almost got cut within an inch of his life for staying out too late one night too many.

Therein lies the beauty of Reasonable Doubt: autobiographical enough to lead you to believe that you have a hold on Shawn Carter the son and the hustler, inconceivable enough its storytelling to foster the belief that Jay’s story was simply a fictional vessel for the larger themes of duality and survival. 20 years has certainly not adversely aged the product, but has allowed for the fictitious and factual aspect of Jay Z’s story to blend in more cohesively.

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5 Years Later, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Still the Decade’s Most Perfect Album

 

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“Can we get much higher?”

Kanye West’s fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, came out five years ago today, amidst a whirlwind of controversies that included  the death of Kanye’s mother, Donda, Yeezy committing America’s ultimate sin of upstaging a beautiful white woman in public, and a high-profile break up with starlet Amber Rose. It seemed at the time that West’s public and private life was in shambles, and had it not been for LeBron James’ notorious departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kanye would have won 2010’s Most Hated Man Award by at least two touchdowns.

But, as they say…winning cures all. And, like James, Kanye redeemed himself into the public’s good (re: fickle) graces with a masterpiece of an album that is the musical equivalent to having a unanimous MVP award while leading the team to a record number of wins and victory in the Finals.

In MBDTF, Kanye presented a 12-song collection full of grandiose, stadium-ready tracks that aimed to stretch the limits of its parent genre. Each verse on the album is meticulously placed on beats produced down to a T. The production itself a far cry from Ye’s past chipmunk-soul classics of the previous decade. Having his career left for dead after the Taylor Swift/VMA’s incident brought forth a lyrical defiance and a renewed ambition in his need to take chances in his music, as well as what seemed like the death of Kanye’s celebrity naiveté and a birth of his more cynical view of his place as a public figure. Simply put, there’s no “Power” without the chaos that surrounded West from 2008-2010.

That chaos is perfectly reflected in Dark Fantasy‘s verbose title, which shows the duality of West’s “fantasy”, as well as the raging inner turmoil he found himself in during the midst of both private and career adversity. The album’s title works both as a self-reflective release of inhibition – a “fuck you” to America’s neoconservative ideologies and its shallow views toward him – and an admittance of a less-than-stable mind state that was undoubtedly relatable to West’s fans and detractors alike. An album that opulent would not have worked with a Good Ass Job title.

MBDTF‘s most iconic songs – “Power”, “Runaway”, “Monster”, “Devil in a New Dress”, “All of the Lights” – all feature imposing production quality that demands a kinetic response. It’s a different style of soul when juxtaposed against the style made famous on The Blueprint and College Dropout. There’s so much of an art gallery feel to Dark Fantasy‘s sound that still does not sacrifice Kanye’s rebellious, anti-establishment ethos. “Power” is West’s triumphant return to the outer wing of hip-hop after the gloomy, alt-rap that was 808s and Heartbreak. “Runaway”, surprisingly, is Kanye at his most self-aware (and Pusha T at his most diabolical, romance-wise). “Devil in a New Dress” and “Monster” feaure two of the game’s best guest verses of the last 5 years and, in “Devil”, the single-best rap beat of the last half-decade.

In an album that does so much in 12 tracks, Dark Fantasy never seems too jam packed, either in its features or message. There are two perfectly-placed Wu-Tang-member appearances, a song (“All of the Lights”) that features Rihanna, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Drake, The-Dream, and Elton fucking John…and still manages to be completely all about Kanye. There’s an 8-minute track (“Blame Game”) dedicated to ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, complete with an almost-three-minute Chris Rock skit that never seems to distract from the facetiously-amiable vibe of the song. Hell, MBDTF even ends with a stellar Gil-Scott Heron sample. The album really is a tour de force in blending in various forms of music, synthesized into one cohesive sound.

The 2010’s have witnessed hip-hop’s dethroning as pop music’s reigning genre, with R&B following suit after seeing its popularity in the mainstream. Your top soul artist: Adele, who sells albums at an iPhone pace. Macklemore’s The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar’s classic good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Justin Timberlake came back from a seven-year hiatus to effectively go back to dominating male R&B. The Grammy’s have increasingly become a celebration of white music, with black artists sprinkled in as overlooked bit players, as evidenced by Beyoncé losing out to Beck for Album of the Year in 2014. Black music is given less credibility as the years go on, despite its obvious continuous influence on music in a macro sense.

However, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains the crown jewel of pop music in a completely artistic sense (with Adele’s 21 and Beyonce’s self-titled masterpiece right behind). It was an amazingly aspirational album from music’s most aspirational artist. It is THE perfect album, in spite of its imperfections (I could do without “Hell of a Life” most days). MBDTF has survived the divisive beehive that is social media, even its creator’s own ambivalence toward the record’s success. Dark Fantasy has surpassed most of hip-hop’s classics, and deserves a place among the annals of pop music history as one of the greatest albums ever, regardless of genre.

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Between the World and Me: A Reflective and Sobering Classic

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

In the past few years, Americans have been witness to a broadcast of both proverbial and literal assaults on the black body. The ubiquity of social media means that even a casual perusal of one’s timeline often enlightens us to some major injustice being done to the African-American body or psyche, through the form of police violence, gun crimes, or the justice system’s vanquishing of the black body, or its exoneration of the plunder done against it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his new book Between the World and Me, encapsulates both the anger of a population of people determined to overcome the deep legacy of racism, and resignation of those like himself that have studied the history of the world and, specifically America since (before) its inception, and have come to terms with the intractability of race-based plunder, in all its many forms.
Between the World and Me, written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old son, Samori, works as a extension of the author’s memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, which explored his upbringing in the streets of West Baltimore as the son of a former Black Panther Party member. Coates rehashes the memoir’s themes in his newest scribe, as he extolls the mental and physical pains of growing up under the constant threat of violence done against his body, and how that threat is not an anomaly, but the very result of historic policies designed to subject the inhabitants of urban residential traps to said violence, places where, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “violence is the rhythm”.
Coates contrasts this reality with the American dream (or “Dream”, capitalized for emphasis). The “Dream” is, by TNC’s definition, a conflation of white people’s desires for utopia, a fictional state of being where Italians, Germans, Irish, and Jews aspire to become white, in order to wash away the inferiorities of their ethnic pasts. The “Dream” also states those of perceived lower class be kept far away as possible from this suburbia utopia as possible, and the “Dreamers” (as Coates views the American majority) have enlisted a totalitarian police state to enforce this separation through whatever means necessary. Police brutality, TNC argues, is not the officials we elect and pay taxes for acting as rogue agents, but as the will of its citizens, who desire order among its lower class.
A major impetus for Coates’ despondency with the state of racial progress in America stems from the death of his Howard classmate, Prince Jones. Jones, son of a renowned radiologist, who had lived a relatively privileged suburban life. That privilege couldn’t save Jones, however, as he was gunned down by an undercover cop who had mistaken Jones for a drug dealer. Jones’ death shows how determined racism is, and who amorphous the concept of race is, by the fact that the officer that killed Jones, was black.
Thematically, Coates is insistent on letting his son know how vulnerable his body (his most valuable possession) is in the land of the free. Selling loose cigarettes can cause the destruction of the black body. Being black and seeming strange in a subdivision can cause destruction of your body. Playing music too loud, playing with toy guns, holding a gun at Walmart. The slightest threat to the “Dream” can end your life in ways people of other skin tones never in their right mind would fear.
Between the World and Me is an essential reading, the likes of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. It’s unapologetic, unrelenting, and lacks for the myth of optimism that clouds mainstream intellectual thought on racism. The tentacles of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining are still long, and still just as effective in creating different worlds, even under the auspices of the same rules.
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“Momma”: When the Butterfly Comes Home

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Much has been said — and written — about the exigent thesis of black insulation of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s follow up to 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city — K. Dot’s oft-cited debut classic LP. The past three years since GKMC’s release have seen the concept of blackness pathologised, victimized, and targeted on an almost daily basis, a fierce rebuttal to the the common fallacy that a twice-elected Black president cancelled out the country’s prevailing racism.
While GKMC focuses on the story of a young man overcoming the various obstacles that typical the urban environment he feels confined to, To Pimp a Butterfly narrates the interrelationship between one’s environment, the varying degrees that one defines success by escaping said environment, and how both ideas affect self-construction. The album acts as an 80-minute, extended metaphor for his relationship with Compton and where he and his newfound influence fit into it.
No song better crystallizes this theme than TPAB’s ninth track, “Momma”, which, in the schema of the album’s narrative arc, sees Kendrick return “home” (a connotative term in the sense of the song and Kendrick’s message), after achieving fame yet still finding his soul unfulfilled.
“Momma” blessed my headphones yesterday as I was in the middle of a bench press set, and the track’s contextual essence hit me like a shot of Hennessy. Though I’ve accomplished nothing close to a classic debut hip-hop album, and the neighborhood from which I rose differs far less from Compton in its dystopic nature, in the modicum of achievements I’ve accrued over the course of my (near) 30 years, like Mr. Lamar, I’ve learned that the joys of those successes are no match for the vital lessons learned along the destination.
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“Momma” functions as a story within the larger confines of To Pimp a Butterfly’s anecdotal tale — ironically, Kendrick here returns to the source of his original strife looking for a panacea for the stresses of fame, personified as Lucy (Lucifer) on the previous song, “For Sale?”:

“The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running’ for answers
Until I came home”

The song begins with Lamar detailing his destination, from a kid whose “innocence limited” his experience as a “literate writer” to the “master that mastered it” and “live in a stadium, pack it the fastest”. Rap has taken K. Dot from the depths of poverty — a “welfare case” that now carries a voice that illuminates arenas, elicits a guest verse from Jay Z, and draws admiration from pop stars such as Taylor Swift. But with this newfangled influence (or rather the thirst for it) established a strain between the new world and the old trappings of the hood, of “home”. That strain caused a chasm between Kendrick’s reality of celebrity, fit with all the temptations Lucy could offer, and his sense of self. Understanding this fissure became the impetus to send Kendrick back to his roots.

“Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque
But what’s better than that?
The fact it brought me back home”

The second verse features a load of juxtapositions centered around knowledge, or at least what Kendrick thinks he “knows”. Growing up in Compton has exposed him to all ills and pleasures alike consistent with tough neighborhood environments. The motif of “I know” represents Lamar’s supreme confidence in the lessons of Compton, California and that those lessons have properly equipped him for survival post-“escape”. What the last three lines of this verse show is that that arrogance in what Kendrick “knows” is rooted in bullshit.

“I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget
Until I realized I didn’t know shit
The day I came home”

The root of that realization remains ambiguous: does he come to the conclusion that he doesn’t “know shit” prior to coming home, after seeing the pitfalls of fame and celebrity? Or is the greatest lesson learned after touching back into familiar territory?
“Home” takes on a new meaning as Kendrick narratively takes the story from the West Coast to the Ivory Coast, recalling lessons learned from a little boy in Africa — the “homeland”. The little boy encourages Kendrick to fully explore his roots, that home extends far beyond swap meets and palm trees. Once he understands where he truly is from and the origins of the blackness he is looking to affirm, the next step is spreading the good word to the homies: that the world is bigger than what is given to them. Ultimately, that’s the message Kendrick is trying to convey here, that home is a broad term, so escaping it is not a easy task.
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To Pimp a Butterfly thematically is self-reflection in the face of self-doubt and the factors that color an upward change in lifestyle and status: frivolous spending habits, the symbiotic connection between past acquaintances and present responsibilities, sex, self-hate, (hood) politics, survivor’s guilt, and ultimately, self-love. But all these concepts are centered around the base of “home” and Kendrick Lamar’s feelings about and relationship with, “home”.
Gil Scott-Heron once said that “home is where the hatred is”, but it’s more than that. Home is the launching pad for how we view the world. Home is the difference between feeling protected by law enforcement and hating po-po. Status doesn’t change where home is, or our interactions with it. If we’re lucky, success should make us appreciate home a lot more.
This past semester, I taught a lesson to my AP English kids that used Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city album as a parallel to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — both K. Dot and Ellison’s narrator as heroic protagonists overcoming the environment placed around them through no fault of their own (Compton for Lamar; Harlem for the narrator). If continued, TPAB would be equivalent to the narrator in Invisible Man returning back to the South, the region he so fantasized about leaving, armed with the knowledge that as far as he traveled to become who he wanted to be, he could never get right with himself and his destiny until he got right with home.
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Home is Where the Heart Is: An Analysis of J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive

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I became aware of one Jermaine Cole in the summer of 2009. I was working as a bank teller and finishing up the bachelor’s degree I was supposed to have finished the year before (technicalities). J. Cole – Jermaine’s rap moniker – had just released his critically acclaimed mixtape, The Warm Up, a stunningly refreshing collection of self-aware poems, exceptional, heartfelt  storytelling and Sallie Mae-aimed diatribes. Over 22 self-produced and well-rhymed tracks, Cole laid the foundation for a prolonged, potentially great, career, and began to set the personal narrative that now defines his now five-year existence as a hip-hop star.

J. Cole now exists in a strangely medial position in the structure of today’s hip-hop. Too smart to be considered street, yet not enough star power to be considered among rap’s giants, Cole is firmly entrenched in hip-hop’s middle class lane, one flop away from the working poor (the underground), and a few more hits from reaching the upper class. This distinction helps to explain the lukewarm reaction he gets from the masses, and why he hasn’t exactly mastered capturing the hearts and minds of the mainstream, despite his impressive commercial success.

One thing Cole has mastered, however, is developing a bond with his growing fan base, in which his fans feel as if they have a communal stake in J. Cole’s success. With that stake comes lofty expectations , concocted not only by Light Skin Jermaine’s body of work so far (and the class of new breed MC’s he came into the game with, Drake, Wale, Kendrick Lamar, etc.), but the narrative arc that has encouraged his music.

We’ve watched Cole’s music evolve from prodigious Summa Cum Laude with a (dollar and a ) dream, to dealing with the pressures of not only being the first signee of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label – producing hit records when the concept of a hit record is both ambiguous and ubiquitous, celebrity women and new money –  but keeping pace with the talents of his era. The question of whether J. Cole can take the next step and capture the essence of superstardom – ala Kanye West, post-College Dropout – has been a recurrent theme in most analysis of Cole’s music since 2010’s solid yet forgettable Friday Night Lights. Could Cole finally shed the looming “boring” label and close the gap between his counterparts with stellar-to-downright-classic albums on their resume (Kendrick’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city; Drake’s Take Care)?

Cole’s recent release 2014 Forest Hills Drive attempts to answer these questions without directly addressing them. Forest Hills sees Cole engage in a conflict between his roots and the inevitabilities of his dreams, all along the backdrop of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the address of the home he spent the best years of his adolescence dreaming of leaving, and ultimately the place he had to return in order to find true inner peace.

“Do you wanna, do you wanna be, happy?”, Cole repeatedly asks on the album’s “Intro”, presumably to himself. “Do you wanna be, free…from pain…from scars…from bills…pills?”He’s rhetorically pondering questions that speak to a past life, one far removed from parties with Hova and Steve Stoute, but close to enough to reminisce on with pure authenticity. The track features Cole’s harrowing singing over mystic keys; coincidentally, that singing voice was also used on Cole’s “Be Free”, an impulsive song inspired by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri this past August. The intro acts as a prologue to Forest Hills Drive‘s plot of going from rags-to-riches, yet looking back and appreciating the rags. Dreams can come true. You can be happy. The two things may not always be mutual.

2014 Forest Hills Drive dives into the stories born out of the album’s namesake, from his initial forays into sexual exuberance (“Wet Dreamz”), misdirected envy (“’03 Adolescence”), as well as a ironic appreciation for his hometown (“Tale of 2 Citiez”) in which Cole has “a bad dream” that he was trapped in the city he calls home, the same city where a nice watch can result in a pistol to your dome at a red light.

“Fire Squad” provides one of the rare instances of sustained exhilaration, though a demerit must be placed on Cole’s much-needed candid third verse – aimed at the over-assimilation of white artists into black culture, and the absurd notion of rappers arguing over a crown that has become more irrelevant as years pass and hip hop becomes more diluted by the Macklemore’s and Iggy Azalea’s of our time – when he walks back the entire verse by announcing “I’m just playing”. Even Cole’s most aggressive moment manages to made impotent.

And from there, it’s off to Hollywood, as Forest Hills Drive takes a plane ride to stardom, and all its tensions. J. Cole is on his way to the bright lights and big dreams by way of “St. Tropez”, a smooth, introspective track that plays like an interlude between the insecurities left behind in North Carolina, and the new life ahead in Hollywood, or what Hollywood represents. “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz” are, at times, clumsy and repetitive, though both have their moments and neither takes away from the overall holistic quality of the album. Cole strangely delves back into the misogynic tone on “No Role Modelz” that muddled much of Born Sinner for me. It’s just lazy and unnecessary, especially for someone as smart as Cole.

“Hello” and “Love Yourz” are solid, but ultimately forgettable. Cole breaks through with the standout “Apparently”, which shows the cathartic moments so many have been clamoring for from him since forever, and may be FHD‘s catchiest tune.

The problem with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and with J. Cole himself, is that moments like “Apparently” and “Fire Squad” aren’t sustainable, and, when dissecting the depths of Cole’s career so far, fans are forced to take stock on our expectations of Jermaine. Cole’s personable nature, social fortitude and undeniable talent make us root for him to be among his greats, though commercially he has as much a case as anyone this side of Jay-Z, Kanye and Drake. Cole has consistently put out good material, and Forest Hills Drive is really good, but to keep expecting a certain level of excitement from him at this point is an exercise in futility.

He may never put out a thrilling, yet deep record that changes things, like GKMC, or captivate the world through persona alone like Drake. But J. Cole is a definite star, and his vision, as well as the lane in which he operates in hip hop, is as necessary as anyone working today. We will always be guaranteed a quality collection of personal and precise songs from him, and, in a world that lives in extremes and demands everything be great, less it be deemed trash, that may be enough.

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NFL

The NFL Does Not Care About Domestic Violence

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This coming October, the National Football League will begin its annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month – featuring its players wearing pink ribbons on their jerseys, as well as matching socks, shoes and gloves. The NFL will undoubtedly use the breast cancer awareness to broadcast its dedication and concern for its ever-expanding female audience, and the league definitely does good work in raising money for the very serious cause.

The problem is that the NFL, particularly its patriarch-in-chief Roger Goodell, undermines its efforts in appeasing to the opposite gender when it offers way too much leniency, if not outright dismissal, of the domestic violence issue that has been extremely prevalent in recent years.

The latest episode in the NFL’s tone-deafness towards domestic violence comes as Baltimore Ravens Pro-Bowl running back Ray Rice received his long-awaited judgment from the league for his role in a February mutual assault case involving he and his then-girlfriend (and now wife) occurring in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Rice’s lawyer called the incident “a minor physical altercation”.  A video obtained by TMZ shows Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of the elevator after the altercation. Both Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer, were arrested, and Rice was indicted by a grand jury in March on a third-degree assault. Rice and Palmer married later that month.

The NFL on Thursday suspended Rice for a grand total of two games.

Goodell and the league have been rightfully lambasted by the media in the days since, not just for the ridiculous leniency shown a man who clearly knocked a woman (let alone the mother of his child) out cold in a public setting – where there is substantially less ambiguity in deciphering the damage done than if the incident had occurred in private – but for the overall lack of consistency and transparency in the matter that the NFL doles out punishments for off-field (and on-field) offenses.

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A quick look at punishments handed out by Commissioner Goodell shows an obvious patternless policy towards suspensions, which is clearer after noticing that certain crimes deemed as more reprehensible than assaulting women (on camera) include: stomping on a player on the field, assaulting a male roommate, and getting paid for tattoos – IN COLLEGE!

Adding to the incredulity of the  league’s insufficient punishment of Rice is the efforts by theleague and its partners in downplaying Rice’s transgression and overplaying the suspension as anything but a tragic example of ignorance in addressing its domestic violence problem. This was clearly demonstrated by the circus that was the press conference held by Rice and the Ravens organization as Rice apologized for the assault. The Ravens organization not only rushed to stand by their star player, but made sure to highlight the new Mrs. Rice’s admission of wrongdoing in the incident on its Twitter, in the second “Dude, what the fuck?” episode of the entire ordeal.

The fourth would come to be ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith’s First Take comments on Friday, as he passive-aggressively implored potential victims of domestic abuse to try better ways to prevent said abuse, but that’s an entirely different article. A quick aside: the burden of preventing abuse should never fall to the victim. I believe that’s a reasonable rule of thumb going forward.

An argument could definitely be made for the NFL as a private enterprise leaving the matters of harsher punishments to the judicial systems, though the league has undermined that side of the debate with its role of judge and jury in previous incidents. If Goodell was going to punish Rice, than he should have chosen a punishment that more properly fit the crime of a 212-lb professional running back striking a weaker (in terms of weight) human being to the point of unconsciousness and dragging her body as if she was a rag doll, no matter the provocation.

The game of football already carries a misogynistic tone, as players are expected to always carry a warrior-like mentality and never do anything considered to be remotely “unmanly”. Between the numerous allegations, and convictions, of sexual assault and the long history of domestic violence, the NFL clearly has a gender problem, and its latest ruling does nothing to disprove that.

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