Tag Archives: Jay Z

4 Reasons to Love 4:44

These have been hard years for black people.  Every woke person I know is spiritually exhausted from the sheer effort of bearing not the burdens of our ancestors but the current load of racism that confronts us every. day. in America.  Trump and his Whisis army of lone shooters perpetrating a race war, killer cops who walk and the pain of daily witnessing our fellow citizens, friends, or even lovers wonder why we’re so upset.  I really wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to lay down and eat ice cream forever but fuck it if even lactose is out to get black people.  Instead, black artists like a black ocean, leaping and wide are rising to the times and making art that matters.

Jay-Z.  If you thought I was on some ballet when I said art, let me back up.  Hip Hop is arguably the most critiqued genre of music, reviled for its misogyny, hyperconsumerism, and violence.  Even the album I am about to praise will be torn down in the coming days beat by problematic beat to convict Jay-Z and his dirty, dirty hip hop of all the bad things.  Is he threatening me/ all white people/cops? What will the children think? What are they selling us? What the hell is Tidal? I get it.  It’s probably problematic.  But in a world where Trump is the President, problematic is standard.  Too often the critique of hip hop stops there without critics actually listening to the album.  If you are this kind of critic, I have news for you: beyond the lean-bop candy-pop mumble rap, art is being produced to challenge old ideas of misogyny, consumerism, internalized racism and homophobia that were mainstream hip hop’s bread and butter. Let’s look at Jay-Z’s 4:44 for proof.

4:44

The title track of the album is an apologia to Queen Bey, Blue and the twins, Solange, women and basically the earth for all Jay-Z’s shitty behavior.  Don’t expect hearts and violins, promises of walks on the beach or plaintive wailing.  The track sounds like what it is: the haunted 4 a.m. thoughts of a man who has deeply hurt those he loves, honest and raw. Now I’m not advocating that men get a cookie for correctly identifying an emotion, but it matters that Jay-Z provides a blueprint for taking responsibility.  Just as rap has been roundly critiqued for saying terrible things about women, and rightly so, there is increasingly a trend of rap’s biggest stars talking frankly about the hard work of relationships.  Jay Z’s apology in 4:44, Kendrick’s These Walls or J Cole’s Folding Clothes all put words to the complex experience of navigating real life relationships.  I don’t know another place in our pop culture where men are engaging frankly in real talk about the mechanics of making egalitarian relationships work.  As rappers themselves age and engage in family life, they could choose to still play gangster to the world.  But Jay-Z’s vulnerability signals to other men that there is life beyond hypermasculinity: that being open and vulnerable is necessary for personal transformation and growth, that successful men do desire and choose women who will require them to be accountable and respectful, that when wrong, one can and should take full responsibility.  Songs give voice to things that are hard to say. Need to say sorry?  Let Jay help.

Story of OJ

My favorite on the album at this early date: the Story of OJ tackles racism and its roots in capitalism and slavery.    On the chorus Jay-Z Breaks down the parsing of the black experience: Even super-rich Jay is stuck in the loony tunes land of racism which he reconstructs for the video from scenes recreating racist cartoons like Scrub Me Mama and What Up Doc.  Set to a beat sampling Nina Simone’s mournful Four Women Jay-Z describes a pathway to liberation through generational wealth and cooperative economics.

In the absence of the dismantling of the system of capitalism, power without wealth remains a myth. Black people can’t be satisfied with the trappings of wealth like bottle service and cars.  “You know what’s more important than buying bottles in the strip club? Credit.” Jay-Z advocates real wealth–real estate, and art.  It may seem incongruous to tell blacks no matter how rich they are they’re still marginalized and to tell blacks to get money–but in fact connecting these ideas is important.  Jay-Z reminds us that individual wealth, especially when poured into consumer goods is death while, investing in generational wealth and purchasing property is about power.  He reminds us that immigrant groups before us used this same pathway–think the Kennedy’s who rum running money soon enough had them running the country.  In a few bars Jay -Z flips our understanding of race and money to focus on neither money nor race but power–the key to ending oppression.  And the video deserves its own frame by frame analysis–soon come.

Smile

As I mentioned in the opening, these years are full of pain for black people.  One of the most powerful skills black people are demonstrating in the face of unrelenting oppression is the ability to still find joy.  Resilience. Strength that comes from the soul.  The kind of happiness called #blackgirlmagic or #blackboyjoy which is created in response to cultural trauma. The rose that grows from concrete.  Hip Hop in the gangster rap days was smile free: every issue of XXL was full of angry faces, sadness and pain was the mask the world put on black men, and they embraced that mask.  Jay-Z reminds us to smile at the transformation wrought by our challenges.  He’s not alone: other artists are also reminding us to embrace joy in these dark time: Lil Yachty’s I Spy, Buddy’s Shine and Pharell’s Happy are odes to joy.  Far from being disposable pop, these songs are reminders that black people deserve joy.  They are songs that help us summon joy from this painful chaotic world.

Not insignificantly, the song talks about Jay-Z’s mother struggle living in the closet for most of her life.  One of the strongest criticisms of rap is the rampant homophobia.  Like sports, it was considered taboo for rappers to embrace people of different sexual orientations.  You may say that rap is late to the game recognizing the importance of gay rights, but remember that Michael Sam only played one season before they Colin Kapernicked him.  Male discourse in our culture around gay people still remains highly problematic but Jay-Z embrace of his mother signals a long overdue change. Jay-Z’s mother Gloria gets to tell us herself the pain of living in the shadows.  “Love who you love because life isn’t guaranteed”.  Her story reminds us that smiles hide a multitude of pain, but they are more than masks, they are aspirations.

Legacy

The final song of the album starts with the voice of little Blue Carter: “Daddy, what’s a will?”  Bookending the album with songs that focus on generational wealth provide an important reminder to listeners of the role that cooperative family economics play in supporting the culture.  Yeah, I get it, Jay-Z is so rich he can afford to invest and most people in America are broke, but decades of rap songs have young boys buying Bugatti’s and bottle service so are bonds really out of the question?   Jay-Z’s Legacy gives listeners something else to work hard for–foundations and inheritance.  He muses that the stacks of cash he has acquired be used for things to uplift the race

TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSÉ, I’d like to see
A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we
We gon’ start a society within a society

The idea of using economics to combat marginalization is not new–in fact, MLK’s war on poverty was so threatening to established power that he was killed (cough, cough, by the government).  What Jay-Z does on Legacy is use his power both as an artist and as a philanthropist to create an aspirational pathway.  While we’re fighting for the rights of black people in the voting booth, or the cultural sovereignty of black people in debates over cultural appropriation, Jay Z reminds us of the power of generational wealth as a path to liberation from centuries of oppression.  You may not be able to buy a place in Dumbo, but even you can have a will, buy some bonds, and think about what you are leaving behind for your family and your people.  That’s radical.

Nobody ever told Picasso stop painting nudes because the kids might see.  No one stopped Pollack because his work was too aggressive.  Van Gough cut off his own fucking ear and his paintings are worth millions. So forget your critique of Hip Hop and appreciate Jay’s latest for what it is:  4:44 is art.  Art provokes, it makes us question, it reflects both our darkness and our shallowness. Like Picasso or Van Gough, Jay- is a grown man, not an empty headed thug or a disposable fuck boy addicted to lean.  His experience, his poetry, and his flow combine to create a piece of art that we can unpack, reflect and meditate on, art that will provoke us to keep on in the face of America’s unrelenting hate of black people.  He reminds us that raw vulnerability is worth something more that the mask of hypermasculinity. He reminds us to build and to grind, to love and to let others love, to smile.  He reminds us to rise.

 

 

Five Sips of Lemonade

Two weeks ago Beyonce released her visual album Lemonade like a Kraken, instantly flooding the interwebs with thinkpieces dissecting everything from the symbolism of Nigerian facepaint to the marriage of her parents.  She was even able to crowd Trump out of the headlines for a few hours, and make MSNBC question if they ousted Melissa Harris-Perry too soon.

By the following Monday Lemonade was spiking downloads at Jay-Z flagging music service Tidal.  A day later, traditional release of the album propelled it to the top of the charts.  After sipping this instant classic for a few weeks, it seems unimaginable that we ever lived without it.

The visual album is an hour-long piece that is more visual poem than music video.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the time–beautiful, lyrical and rich in every way.  It is a full meal, not meant to be captured in a few screen shots, that walks us through the stages of a relationship in crisis from intuition through anger, apathy to hope.

giphy-2.gif

What has made the video such a breakout piece is the powerful pro-black woman story.  Rarely are black women represented in complex ways that allow their full humanity to show through.

Following the monster release comes a wave of products, tours and gossip magazine covers. Now we’re left with the fallout, the dregs of the hype, the parodies.  This is the perfect time to look at Lemonade not for the hype of what it was to be, but to see what it really was.  Pop culture is a dish best served cold.

Beyonce has been a star since she was a child,and her discography as a solo artist has helped her achieve megastardom.  She is a talented singer and dancer.  Her albums celebrated independent women, then she  became Sasha fierce, fell drunk in love, sipped watermelon, and  turned into Mrs. Carter in that order.  Until recently she was not particularly woke, so even though Lemonade is powerful, and recent times have changed many of us, it’s worth a careful critique of Lemonade before we make Beyonce the head of the black feminist movement.

  1. Lemonade is for Black women

Mainstream media is made for mainstream audiences–and in America, that means white audiences.  When we see diverse faces in media, that doesn’t mean that the story comes from diverse voices.  Even ABC’s multicultural programming is inclusive of white audiences–think the president in Scandal or the whitewashing of Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Lemonade creates a space for black women that is about, for and starring black women with tons of diversity throughout the extensive credits for the album.  The representation in the video celebrates black women in all their diversity, from the mothers of slain boys to the new breed of pop culture superheroes like Amandla Stenberg.  Seeing a range of women like this beautifully and powerfully represented definitely gives me life.

That doesn’t mean that it is ONLY for black women.  It may be created for black women but anyone can consume it. Like Vogue, or America for white people.  If you want to comment on it, just make sure you check our own privilege (this may be time-consuming if you haven’t thought of it before, Piers Morgan), do your research (I’m looking at you, Fox), prepare for clapback and absolutely avoid telling black women what they should or should not do and stick just to your point of view on the video.

2. It takes a village to make lemonade

The visual album to Lemonade is a powerful and beautiful piece of work crafted by a team of young artist and creatives.  remember, even Michelangelo didn’t paint that whole ceiling alone.  While Queen Bey reigns as the artist, like lots of famous artists, she farms out the massive work here.   On the visual album, Kahlil Joseph is listed as co-director with a classroom’s worth of amazing directors and cinematographers taking on parts of the visual album.

giphy-1

In addition to the music of lemonade, poet Warsan Shire is heavily featured in the visual album.  I must admit the most moving words of Lemonade for me belonged to the poet. Her language is powerful and spare, leaving no words to hide behind.  Here’s hoping we hear much more from this young lion.

Let’s not forget the fashion that made the video a feast for the eyes.

From the streets to the spirits to the days of the old south Lemonade proves the power of Bey and associates to slay…..as long as you don’t want to wear pants, not a lot of pants..just a few, but not really about pants.

Lemonade’s look is a world of black girl magic with nary a press and curl in sight.  While many of Bey signature looks are from high-end designers like the Roberto Cavalli Dress, the whole is interspersed with street wear and plenty of African wax prints to render the style  her own.  Be careful of spreads that promise you the look for less–

Not sure any of these will really give you the look of a $4000 gown.  While Bey’s original look is beautiful, like all things associated with Lemonade, this look takes long cash.

3. Lemonade isn’t cheap

As amazing as Lemonade is as art, when we I to check the price tag, I notice committing to Lemonade fully is going to cost you.  Lemonade premiered on HBO with solid ratings–though notably behind Dragonball Z.  Initially, the album could only be downloaded via Tidal.  Guess she wasn’t too mad at Jay to throw a bone to the company the couple took a hit on last year.   The album sold nearly 654,000 copies the first week and all 12 tracks made the charts, breaking Taylor Swift’s record.  Seems like breaking up is good business for Bey.

IMG_3510

The Queen is also launching a 40 city tour with tickets priced like used cars that’s selling out and adding shows.  Before the tour gets hot she’s already grossed 100 mil. Can’t make the show?  She had updated merch on her website that is sure to sell out just like her athleisure line.  All in all, this stands to be one of her most lucrative year in years.  Maybe she should be thanking Becky with the good hair. Hmm, is there a Lemonade weave line potentially?

Bey assured us in Formation that the best revenge is getting your paper and she sure seems hell bent on massive revenge.  Seems like her fans are willing to pay to make it right. Even Jay-Z  will get a cut with his credits and a boost to Tidal.  Who said cheaters never win?

4. Lemonade is problematic (great, but problematic; chill please, Beyhive)

I watched the video, and I listened to the album and surprise : they are not the same.  The visual album is rich with the words and work of a whole host of people and seems to tell a big story about being a black woman in this world.  The musical album, by contrast, seems a more intimate and personal story.  Stripped of Warsan Shire’s poetry, and the powerful visuals that call  up our ancestors from West Africa and the south, the album is the personal story of a woman scorned.   Fox News criticized Beyonce for being angry and militant in her new work but [with the exception of Formation which stands as its own piece separate from the narrative and I think is not part of the visual album. It seems much newer than other work, just tacked on at the end] the album is apolitical. Nowhere in the album are any words that directly address the storms being weathered by Black America nor the women shepherding us through it.

Instead, Lemonade is full of emotions, the pain of love lost, and the fight to get it back. These emotions are deeply relatable for anyone cheated on, not just black women. That’s important because a large part of the buying Beyhive is not young black women fighting for justice. The album speaks to her wider fan base. If you have a broken heart, this will help you for sure. If you are down for fighting patriachal oppression and systemic racism…umm…the vibe is there but the ablum lacks any substative take on today, unlike to Pimp a Butterfly or Talib Kweli’s collective Indy 500. What has been roundly hailed as an ode to black female empowerment seems to contain very little liberation.

Instagram-Savageeeeee-be60d9.png

In Lemonade, Beyonce tells a story where she discovers him cheating (Pray You Catch Me), tells him he done her wrong (Hold Up and Don’t Hurt Yourself), and goes out without him (Sorry).  But then the storm has passed and the rest of the album is devoted to the work of getting back with Jay.  All of the righteous anger turns into acquiescence, and acceptance.  If even Beyonce puts up with doggish behavior, then what chance do any of us have to be women free from disrespect? Here is the first time in the piece that we see Jay Z, just a hand to cover her mouth, much it seems to her pleasure.

For sure relationships are complicated, and marriages even more so, but young women intent on overturning harmful structures could use a roadmap that includes some truth with the reconciliation.  They are looking for new options, not a romantic return to gender roles.  Detrmined to have their cake and eat it too, why not use the fantasy of music to show how liberated women get themselvs–and their men, if they choose –free.  Romance? Cool, but could you put some respeck on it?

5. Lemonade is supposed to have a bite

Beyonce opens up a can of whoop-ass fueled with the pain of black women only to sweeten it with love songs and finish with sweet love all night long.  How is this supposed to gel with the powerful women fighting for freedom that she shows in the film?  Should Zendaya look to forgive people that said she smelled like a dirty hippie?  Should Mike Brown’s mother’s “torturer become her remedy”?  That certainly wouldn’t look like the freedom Beyonce sings about.

Like most stories about revolution these days, the revolution always seems to have a simple happy ending.  Nice as that may be to end an album, it does little to help us envision a world where we’re truly free.  If we tear down the culture, we have to build something else in its place.  If the new something is the same as the old something, then the revolution failed.  As exciting as it is to see black women represented in different and complex ways unless we have new endings, its all bullshit.

Black female empowerment isn’t a music video or a gap ad, but a real shift that is going to take a baseball bat to existing structures without a neat end to the love drought just two songs away.

The power of the best artists lay not only in their ability to show you the now but their skill and imagination to show us what’s next. There can be no doubt that Lemonade shows us a more sophisticated and woke Beyonce.  Her careful read of her audience and the culture give us an exciting companion to other protest works like To Pimp a Butterfly or Indie 500.  Here’s hoping that she keeps developing as an artist and blazes us a trail to better endings full of Freedom instead of swag.

 

The Deadliest of Chambers

Wu Tang Clan, rap royalty and cultural icons, recently put out their first single in 7 years, Keep Watch.  The album is from the promised sixth LP from the group, Better Tomorrow.

If you’re a Wu Tang Fan–and who isn’t–you’re looking forward to hearing some new material.  Wu is hoping one fan is willing to go the extra mile to get that fresh stuff.

A second album has been recorded by Wu Tang in secret.  While that may have you scraping your bitcoins for a download,  chances are you won’t hear it unless you are lucky enough to attend one of the art gallery events previewing the album, titled Once Upon A time In Shaolin, before its sale.

imgres-3Wu Tang has decided to release only one copy of the album to the highest bidder.  Wu Tang has always been enterprising, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that they are thinking about a unique way to distributetheir work.

wu-tang-clan-once-upon-a-time-in-shaolin-album-3

The reasons for this revolutionary record release are perhaps not (totally)so materially driven as you may think.  Hip Hop has been little more than product in America for some time now, and Wu Tang hopes to get people to conceive of Hip Hop as the art that is has been and could be again

“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” says RZA.  “And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”

But releasing the album to the art world instead of the airwaves means that unless a corporation steps in and snaps up the album to give to its customers for publicity, the album could go to a collector, never to be heard by the public.  Neither buyer guarantees elevation of the work to art status.   Either way, Wu Tang stands to make millions and challenge the traditional boundaries of the genre.  Both ways leave long time fans behind.

Somehow, having a single wealthy collector or worse yet, a corporation owning a seminal masterpiece from a classic hip hop group seems to continue the commodification of hip hop in a new sphere even as it limits its availability to loyal fans.

1379466713_cash-rules-everything-around-me-c-r-e-a-m

This is only the last in several experiments in music releases.  With digital music threatening the ability of artists and companies to tightly control the sale of its products, artist are getting creative.  Beyoncé’s album Beyoncé surprised everyone, while her hubby’s Magna Carta was given as a gift to a million Samsung users.

Do you think Wu’s limited release will spark widespread appreciation of hip hop as art, or will putting  Wu Tang on the auction block make it chattel music?

 

 

 

 

The Grammys They Missed

Well, the 56th annual Grammy awards are all done but the hangover.  In case you couldn’t stay up to catch them all, you may have missed a few awkward moments, some aging rockers and a truly touching wedding a-la Moonies.  You also may have missed these award-worthy standouts.  Ladies and gentlemen, the first ever smntks celebration of the Grammys–the Sammy’s!

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Award

Pharrell and Daft Punk...or and angel with a thank you note from heaven
Pharrell and Daft Punk…or and angel with a thank you note from heaven

This year’s Hand That rocks the Cradle award goes to Pharrell Williams.   He hit the stage so much you might have thought he was escorting the guests…but no, he is stirring the pot of pop music behind such hits as “Get Lucky” and  “Blurred Lines” as well as his own “Happy”.

Thong of The Year

Putting to rest the argument about Beyonce being the face of black feminism, Queen B tore open the Grammys with her Drunk in Love Duet with hubby Jay Z.  She may not have taken song of the year, but this shot shows she may in fact break all laws of physics…or she has some spanxs like you wouldn’t believe.

Most Awkward Unscripted Tribute

Steven and Smokey

Steven Tyler belts out a few bars of Smokey Robinson’s   You Really Got a Hold On Me as Smokey looks on.  Maybe it’s that smooth skin you could bounce a quarter off, but Smokey looks less than impressed.

The Kanye Award

And the guy behind her? Oh, he is crushed!

Sure she’s a winner…but not last night for album of the year.  Taylor Swift had to check herself to not jump up when Daft Punk scooped up for best Album.  She would have gotten extra points for actually storming the stage and telling Daft punk that she deserved it.

Best Natural (?)

Look real...and real nice
Look real…and real nice

Beyonce takes a second Sammy for going yaki-free and sporting what looks to be her own natural hair.  Now she had a pixie not too long ago as my buddy T pointed out, but until we know otherwise we thank the Queen for showing up with hair that looked real and elegant

Hat of the Night

The winning hat
The winning hatThe second place hat...womp womp
The second place hat…womp womp

Hands down this award goes to Pharrell for his signature 2013 Vivian Westwood Hat.  Madonna tried to make a play for this award at the end of the night, but to no avail.  You can hate Pharrell’s hat–or make a funny meme out of it–but you cannot deny that it took a lot of confidence to rock that bad boy all year night.

Did we miss an award?  Hit the comments with your best Sammy.