Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thomas Chatterton Williams: America's New Worst Music Critic

Let's start out with the obvious: The Wall Street Journal editorial page, like its partner in quo-maintaining The Washington Post, doesn't often feature unadulterated Obama praise (or even checkered praise, at this point). As well it shouldn't, I guess--a healthy skepticism of those in power was once a critical component of American journalism, a long, long time ago. But a funny thing happens after weeks of running one editorial after another poking away at our president's supposed character deficiencies and deeply-held radical views. Vibrant, legitimate criticism leads to slightly more suspect criticism, which leads further down the rabbit hole into articles like "President Obama's 'Rap Palate'" (note the "rap palate" in scare quotes--scary!) by Thomas Chatterton Williams. The points raised by Mr. Williams are about the opposite of what anyone would call a "reasoned, rational political argument." I would call it "bitching for the sake of bitching/traffic."

Williams is responding to Jann Wenner's latest long-form "interview" (this time the scare quotes are justified) with President Obama in Rolling Stone. Wenner's panegyric intimations lie more toward using RS as a soapbox to insist how hip Democratic politicians can be, and the results are at least as embarrassing as the John Kerry interview in 2004. The difference is that in addition to questions about what Obama thinks of Bono or Bob Dylan, the subject turns, temporarily, to hip-hop. Says the B-Boy-In-Chief:
Thanks to Reggie [Love, the president's personal aide], my rap palate has greatly improved. Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I've got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert. Malia and Sasha are now getting old enough to where they start hipping me to things. Music is still a great source of joy and occasional solace in the midst of what can be some difficult days.
Obama also mentioned being a big fan of Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and classical opera ("There are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need"), but his comments about rap being acceptable and even fun to listen to were what got the Fox Nation's goat (though Obama had noted even before he was president that he was a big Jay-Z fan). And then Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the memoir Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, became so appalled by the mere mention of Lil Wayne in the Oval Office that he started his column thusly:
What's on President Obama's iPod? A wide range, he told Rolling Stone magazine last week, from the jazz of John Coltrane to the ballads of Maria Callas. And more: "My rap palate has greatly improved," Mr. Obama noted. "Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I've got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert."

Expert or not, that's the wrong message for the president to be sending black America.

The "wrong message": being passingly familiar with one of the dominant forms of African-American music, which is somehow insulting to the character of all African-Americans. The subtext: yes, Obama is indeed a Scary Black Man. Continue:
Does Mr. Obama like Lil Wayne's "Lil Duffle Bag Boy"? In that song, the rapper implores young black men to "go and get their money" through round-the-clock drug hustling. And with Lil Wayne, it's not just an act: The rapper is currently serving a one-year term on Rikers Island after being caught in New York with drugs and guns stashed in his Louis Vuitton overnighter.
Mr. Williams happens to be correct about Lil Wayne serving at Rikers, but I have no idea why he chose as his example a song that a) is by Playaz Circle, and only features Lil Wayne, b) is called "Duffle Bag Boy" (no "Lil") and c) being about drug-running, has no connection to the weapons charge that landed him in jail. Let's be clear: by "drugs and guns," Mr. Williams is trying to imply a great deal more than one (1) .40 caliber pistol that was registered to his manager and happened to be in a bag close to his person. Hell, let's be crystal: Mr. Williams is trying to imply that any black man who goes to jail is never to be trusted or admired again, even if he has served his time, even if he seems repentant about the issue, even if he's on suicide watch--never mind that. Jail! Drugs! Guns! Hippity-Hop!
Lil Wayne is emblematic of a hip-hop culture that is ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent. A self-described gangster, he is a modern-day minstrel who embodies the most virulent racist stereotypes that generations of blacks have fought to overcome. His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass.
I understand and sympathize with the argument that hip-hop artists are given a free pass when it comes to issues of misogyny, casual homophobia, violence and general gangsta cliches. Modern pop radio is partially responsible for generally spurning lyrical and musical innovation in exchange for vacuous celebrity self-worship and lazy, repeatable innuendo. It remains in my mind of the utmost importance for music journalists to develop new modes of critical vocabulary when it comes to the discussion of hip-hop, to avoid endless valorization in terms of "flow" and "skill" when many popular rappers assert themselves as brands as opposed to musicians.

But calling Lil Wayne a "modern-day minstrel," with no qualifications, is beyond the pale. In order to believe something like that, you need to buy in, heavily, to these "virulent racist stereotypes," as if black hip-hop fans lack the agency to appreciate the music without buying into the lifestyle. A clue can be found in his last sentence: "His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass." This makes perfect sense, if you believe that these "pathologies" are inherent in black people and entirely the fault of a monolithic underclass. Never mind institutionalized racism and the pitiful job prospects of post-industrial America: if only popular musicians would stop talking about bitches and hos, all those nagging pathologies would stay nice and dormant.

Thus President Obama has conveyed his taste for the rapper behind lyrics like:

Put that white widow weed in the cigar and puff

look, ma, I'm trying to make a porno starring us

well not just us, a couple foreign sluts

Naming thuggish rappers might make Mr. Obama seem relatable and cool to a generation of Americans under the sway of hip-hop culture, but it sends a harmful message—especially when, in black America, some 70% of babies are born out of wedlock.

Why not stop there? Obama has also conveyed his taste for (and therefore must endorse everything ever said by) the artists behind the following:
White girls, they're pretty funny
Sometimes they drive me mad
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don't have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They're really such a tease
You never know what they're cockin'
Inside those silky sleeves.
She takes, just like a woman
She makes love, just like a woman
And she aches, just like a woman
But she breaks, just like a little girl
Racism. Misogyny. And how can he admire a woman who shacked up with Aristotle Onassis when so many black children are born out of wedlock? Miles Davis and John Coltrane were both addicted to heroin--does Obama believe casual drug use is okay for musicians? I'm just asking, yo! you decide.

(I would have loved to witness Mr. Williams' Google search for rap lyrics terrifying enough to alarm the boomers but also excerptable in a major newspaper).

The article goes on to quote similarly suspect lyrics from Jay-Z (Nas gets the shaft, due to space restrictions I guess), who is described by Mr. Williams as a "rapper and unrepentant ex-drug dealer" who has "been photographed sitting in Mr. Obama's chair in the White House Situation Room." This of course begs the question: "What president would ever let Marilyn Manson drop by the White House? Is Jay-Z any better?"

Good question. Would Mr. Williams be writing about it? Obviously not, because of course Marilyn Manson does not represent the pathologies of "white culture" in the way that Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, being official representatives of their race, do. Also, it's 2010.

I've known a few ex-drug dealers, some of whom remain unrepentant, and I can tell you that neither they nor Marilyn Manson have committed anything close to the sorts of heinous activities perpetrated by certain Washington lobbyists and Wall Street bankers in the last couple years. Not even close. These are the power players that are invited to the White House on a daily basis. In order to believe that Jay-Z's White House visit represents a lowering of Presidential standards, you must honestly be convinced that African-Americans who once dealt drugs aren't fit to grace the same halls as Jack Abramoff and Bernard Kerik, to say nothing of the actual war criminals who once occupied significant portions of our Executive branch. It requires turning a specific kind of blind eye--a kind that would have to be inured to all the horrors brought about by exporting American culture--with the exception of black people rhyming, over beats.

Williams, by the way, is black, not that such a fact would change my consideration of his essential cluelessness regarding rap music and race. Check out his absurd bio:
Like many young men in America, Thomas Chatterton Williams grew up in awe of Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and the parade of bling-bedecked rap stars he saw on Black Entertainment Television. Williams emulated their lifestyle - sporting chains and expensive designer clothes purchased for him by his girlfriends, who were themselves little more than accessories to Williams.
Williams' bio is candid about the fact that he used to be a pretty big asshole. Judging by this description, I agree: he was a prick. Treating women like "accessories" is, yes, a bad thing. Young Mr. Williams really does sound emblematic of everything terrible in hip-hop culture. Myself, I generally stop paying attention whenever cultural conservatives start to say "I used to have so many girlfriends," before going on to lament modern sexual permissiveness, but let's continue.
In LOSING MY COOL: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture (The Penguin Press; May 2010; $24.95), Williams describes how he managed to juggle these two disparate lifestyles--"keeping it real" in his friends' eyes and studying for the SATs under his father's strict tutelage. Pappy grew up in the segregated South and hid in closets so he could read Aesop and Plato.
Being able to "keep it real" while simultaneously studying for one's SATS--it kind of is like the segregated South! Especially given Young Williams' father had to deal with the pernicious influence of Tupac's famous anthem "Plato and Aesop Iz Gay (Don't Ever Read That Shit)" or Biggie's "Make Sure To Treat Your Multiple Girlfriends Like Accessories (Make Them Buy Your Clothes Also)."

Well, I kid. Having not read Losing My Cool, I can't know for sure, but I'm sure the message is that if you're a young black man, if you manage to make it through high school without the demon Hip-Hop turning you to a life of drug-dealing and ho-abusing, you may one day use all the knowledge acquired from reading 15,000 books to selectively quote scary rap lyrics you've obviously never heard before, in the interest of making sure a public figure can never again exercise his or her aesthetic judgment when it comes to personal music preferences. Or alternately, I guess you can listen to all types of music, even if the subject matter is sometimes troubling, and focus on more important issues than whether or not a particular artist makes your race look clean and law-abiding. Maybe then you could be president, and not a tiresome moralizer who is obviously uncomfortable with how much of an asshole he used to be as a teenager. It isn't the demon Hip-Hop, Thomas: It's YOU.

YOU had a hard time treating women with respect. YOU were the one who decided the general takeaway message from hip-hop was wearing designer clothes and huge, ungainly chains. And then, when you must have realized what a ridiculous cliche your life had become, instead of choosing a more enlightened path YOU decided to latch onto another polarizing cliche, that rap music was the thing keeping you down all along. For every example you can bring up of lyrics that "diminish blacks," I can provide three or four counter-examples. Others could probably provide a lot more. Hell, I can show you stories of legit, card-carrying African-Americans who have indeed been empowered by a particular rap song, as have I to a certain degree.

Here's one:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round Ten

Brian Eno, "2 Forms Of Anger"
AM: The increasingly busy first minutes of "2 Forms of Anger" sound like generic dystopian stuff--with a great drum sound, sure, but disconcertingly anonymous . The guitar at 2:08 lands with impact, but everything about "Anger" makes me wish for the joyfully experimental Eno of old, instead of this self-serious electro-gruel. 2.5/5

NS: In retrospect I should have tempered my enthusiasm for Eno first's Warp release, given that nothing that Eno had done lately, on Warp or otherwise, has interested me greatly. "2 Forms" has an exciting pulse and a number of enterprising new guitar sounds, but at its core it's basically a non-song, more in tune with the musician's ambient oeuvre. 2.5/5 

Pimp C feat. Bun B and Drake, "What Up"
AM: Essentially a Drake song featuring the members of UGK, albeit one where everybody holds their own. It's pretty awesome--the exuberant production of Drizzy acolyte Boi-1da recalls "International Player's Anthem"--I just wish Pimp C was more of a presence on his own jam. 4/5

NS: The Naked Soul In Sweet Jones may ultimately be an exercise in poor judgment, but there's no denying that tracks like this are a lot stronger than anything Bun B's recent album Trill OG. Drake's verse in particular is stronger than anything I've heard him do in a while, even as I'm guessing that Pimp C would have never heard of the guy, unless he happened to be a fan of Degrassi... 3.5/5

Mark Ronson feat. D'Angelo, "Glass Mountain Trust"
AM: D'Angelo sounds haunted--probably by that synth pipe organ--and increasingly determined, as he escapes, breaks out, and busts through the glass, only to find himself still trapped. Why he's warbling out of the side of his mouth, well, your guess is as good as mine, but it's nice to have him back for these four minutes. 4/5

NS: Ronson deserves credit for wresting a decent performance out of a man who seemingly Sly Stone'd his way out of the business a full decade ago. He deserves significantly less credit for electronically treating D'Angelo's (basically tuneful) bleatings. Or has D's voice just changed that much? Either way, vintage synths only count for so much with such a canned drum sound. 2.5/5

Willow Smith, "Whip My Hair"
AM: "Whip My Hair" stands as a testament to that most American of ideals: that we could all make a credible Rihanna song if our parents were rich enough. One need not know anything about haters and getting the party started to sing about them. 3.5/5

NS: On some level, it's fascinating. At ten years old, she represents the first American generation to have no institutional memory of 9/11--or, to put it another way, it's possible she was conceived at around the same time Voodoo came out. The song is otherwise screeching, repetitive junk, but at least the subject matter is blessedly ick-free. 1.5/5 

Neil Young, "Walk With Me"
AM: The 64 year-old rock god may be inconsistent these days, but that doesn't mean he can't still bring it. Lyrically, "Walk With Me" is Harvest material, but the sharp bite of Young's electric guitar has that Rust Never Sleeps crunch.  Good stuff, Lanois' production even gives the song a foreboding sense of atmosphere, though the outro could be trimmed. 4/5

NS: Unlike Brian Eno, I'll basically follow Neil's career wherever it goes, even as the prospect of a team-up with Daniel Lanois doesn't exactly excite this non-U2 fan. But with Lanois keeping his trademark electronic textures at a minimal level, Young's unadorned guitar-playing sounds as spirited as it would have in a different context 30 years ago. Would this be better with bass and drums? Maybe, but it's already a high-level Neil Young song. 4/5 

John Legend and The Roots feat. Common and Melanie Fiona, "Wake Up Everybody"
AM: John Legend one of those guys whose formal perfection as a vocalist makes him really boring, and his voice sounds too thin and passionless here to carry a wake the fuck up people-type R&B number. 2/5

NS: If this was 2008, "Wake Up Everybody" would have been a considerable step above what accomplished in his Obama speech-in-single "Yes We Can." But now the 2010 midterms are upon us and "Wake Up Everybody" seems not only silly, but kind of sad. Common is a shot in the arm, but only in comparison to the sleepy-by-nature Legend. 2/5