Sunday, October 19, 2008

Happy-go-lucky, Higher Education and Hyphy Hyphy Hyphy
I barely cracked a millimeter in Infinite Jest but I did read David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech at Kenyon University. Watching Happy-Go-Lucky at a film festival today that's all I could think about. Addressing a pantheon of liberal arts students about to break out of abstract sociological deconstructions into the harsh and concrete reality of what they already transcended mentally, Wallace attempts to prepare them to lift the banal rock of proverbs and platitudes to find the wondrous ant colonies sustaining themselves underneath.
He warns of a certain unconscious mode of thinking that's only critical in the sense that it exists for purposes of survival. Working a dreary white collar job, an upper echelon quadrant afforded by one's degree, won't mesh well with getting home and having to do even more menial work like grocery shopping. Getting stuck on the highway in bumper to bumper traffic can lead to automatic rants about the environmental damage of oil and the generational damage its going to cause. Being stuck with Lynchian blandness in a checkout line, confronted with quarreling families, assumptions are made about the way they carry themselves:
"But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options."
As a fiction writer, that makes sense, but he also graduated summa cum laude for a thesis in modal logic. One doesn't qualify the other, but what he's getting at is not that you can possibly exploit these situations with your notepad with a booker prize on the horizon, but that merely because you've liberated your consciousness to a new mode of thinking doesn't mean you can't slip into the dreary drugde of an automaton, what is important is that your critical thinking is used to remind you of not just your reality but that of your surroundings and I won't sum up the rest for fear of my turning this into some deepak chopra nonsense about the spirit and whatnot, but the point is that the liberating part of the liberal arts education should teach one to be alert and insightful not just on "issues" and "constructs" but on life.
Considering Wallace's recent suicide, this bit is sadly ironic, but not delegitimized in any way by his ultimate action.
"Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."
And that's what I was thinking about while watching Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh's new movie about a frustratingly optimistic schoolteacher facing tons of societal woe without her features sagging like an outdated cosmetic job!
Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, who at 30 is the oldest of three siblings, but as Aaliyah circa 94 could testify, your birth certificate don't mean squat (p.s. I just looked at the lyrics for that song, 1994 was crazy!). Of course here there's no cougar manifestation or taboo transgressions that figure into her character, unless you count Poppy's inability to wallow in stalwart regard of everything that's wrong and wear her downcast conscientiousness on her sleeve. Instead she weaves the habitual Brit colloquialism that turns every phrase into a question considerate of the other person's opinion on it, even though she doesn't really need to ask because her every response subtly suggests (without her subtly suggesting) that she knows exactly what the other person is talking about. She's a kindergarten teacher and her wardrobe is halfway between the Vice Do's section and the LSD-toting 1st grade teacher in Billy Madison. Her personality supports it, too.
The way Hawkins plays it Poppy is the kind of halfway ditzy, pallishly goofy, but irrepressibly bouyant person that would make any Chomsky & Kafka reading paranoiac want to pull her out of her shell and tell her how things are and that her lifestyle is tantamount to ignorant, and therefore inadvertent, nihilism. What's great about the arc of the story is that she doesn't have a wake-up call, the film isn't her learning all the ills of the world, with head above water moments in which she decides to become a social worker or open a newspaper because she already did and is responding to the world as she knows how. Everything that happens to or around her merely confirms what she already knows.
There's a stark contrast made between her and her driving instructor who, despite having abandoned the school system (because it "didn't agree" with him) and the oppressive societal structures that keep him at bay (layed out hilariously between tense and terse bits of instruction as a series of increasingly outlandish and disconnected conspiracy theories), is virulently upset with black street culture to the point of becoming a paranoid racist. Poppy on the other hand doesn't have a black friend to fill her racial sensibility quota, but she gets on well with her predominantly black students and with another teacher who so happens to be...and doesn't drop into self-righteous and ultimately futile rant every time she has to think about what will probably happen to her predominantly black students once they move on up the educational system.
Instead, with a sherry in hand, she lays it out quite adequately without ever losing a smile, and not a spiteful smile, but one in which she knows the limitations of her abilities but isn't particularly concerned with what barriers she has to transgress! When her driving instructor tells her to lock the car doors when a black kid on a bicycle passes in front she responds in a dumbfounded "are you serious?" tone of mock indignance but doesn't lose her shit and storm out on him, instead laughing on to the next stop. She doesn't wear an anti-racism patch on her arm like the Clash but has an internal clockwork that would suggest she doesn't need one.
She doesn't come at it from some false hippie spiritualism, there's no rewards system or framework which will patly fill out a self help book, she just kind of exudes and this lends itself to the film's amiably shambolic structure. Unlike Amelie or one of the twee life-affirming bubbles of quirk sundance seems to pump out mechanically every year, her wondrous infectiousness merely plays out of her every gesture, the way she fits into conversations or the ways in which others react to her. There's no artificial CGI scape of London with Poppy popping in for a voice-over filled with easily digestible whimsy pointing out the cracks in other people she finds amusing, you pick it up as she goes along, no externalized signifiers.
If there is any wake up call it's merely a slight corrective to the extent in which her good natured internalizing of external conflict, much the way trees spit out CO2 as oxygen, actually lends itself to other people. The only thing I can compare it to is the Prez's story arc in season 4 of the Wire and the way his good-intentioned dealings with Dukie eventually prove unfruitful. Happy-go-lucky doesn't provide an easy fatalist defeatism to its various outcomes, though, it just goofily pals on.
I've not seen Mike Leigh's previous films, one concerning a leading figure fighting for abortion rights while sticking it out doing dangerous backyard work, and another in which David Thewlis apparently makes everyone feel gross. Reacting to critics who claim the movie is just Sunny D chemical sugars in the face of a Bhopal disaster he insists:
"If anyone wants to say that Happy-Go-Lucky is devoid of social comment, that's stupid, as it has plenty to say about how we live, that is the way we teach, the way we learn, the way we have relationships, the way we interact with people, the way people accumulate ideas and don't know what to do with them, surviving and dealing with problems. It's rooted in social issues, and in that sense, it's political if you like. But it's not tract, it's not a piece of propaganda. A film can only be interesting if it's rooted in reality in some way, things can only be funny if they're rooted in reality, and they can only be tragic if they're rooted in reality. It's overall a bright, energetic positive experience and I hope it makes you feel it's worth living. But within it are darknesses and sadnesses of various kinds, which are there for Poppy to react to, deal with, feel about and care about. As such it's hopefully a complex film that has its comic and celebratory side."
I also thought about Hyphy, the Bay Area rap juggernaut that announces itself like a bio-dome of self-sustaining gas and plant culture. E-40 and a gaggle of others have basically taken all of rap's supposedly regressive and embarassing aspects and turned into categorical emblems of nobility. Spinning lexicons whose rapidity would make Shakespeare blush they wear their stupidity on their sleeve, blow their aesthete out their speakers, and rove like the fearsome packs they're made out to be. What's great is their connection to the conscious sphere. For all the getting dumb, putting your stunna shades on, and general defiance of selfish ass-saving logic (by Dawkins' definition) by ghost riding the whip, they're intrinsically linked with acts like the Coup. While in promotion and content there's no direct connection, they kind of complete each other. Perhaps I should phrase it with Boots on the diplomatic end but it would only undercut keak and the rest of the gang.
In rap it's generally frowned upon to indulge in excesses if they're not cut along a strict moral grounding, IED's of explosive righteousness about your position in relation to the radio or mainstream conception. For all of the lyrical populism I can't really understand the lack of embrace for what pops out of a large portion of the population's speakers. To an extent there is a corporate commodification of what was once a communal property, but it's too easy to systematically dismiss something more than tangentially linked to its golden age on the streets. There are producers and writers who come in and do behind the scenes work to prop up artistic merit on the face of the album cover, that doesn't necessarily delegitimize the work that's being pumped out. Hollywood in the 30's and 40's was filled with supposed stoolies and toadies rung in to do a fix-up job and cut a studio picture for a paycheck. That doesn't necessarily mean everything they churned out was thinly spread butter. Some, like Preston Sturges, cut their reputation fitting in wildly variegated romps with personal stamps in between their bouts for creative control. Some, like Seijun Suzuki, transformed their contractual obligations into abstract art exhibits meditating on alienation, repression and violence while endlessly playing with convention.
It's too easy to conflate the artists whose product is being hawked and the industry that's hawking the product. There's the sociological, overarching framework which can be analyzed, but if you consistently lob the individuals working within it then the result is almost tantamount to the statistical outputs of opportunity costs in low-intensity conflicts. So, take the time to get dumb, put your stunna shades on, because the world being dark already doesn't necessitate you remind it of itself on a regular basis!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Peedi Crakk's Sweet Dreams (Jay-Z) and G-Side's Speed of Sound + Slow Motion Soundz

Peedi Crakk - Sweet Dreams (Jay-Z)

This has to be one of the most endearing manifestations of a rap beef ever. Peedi has a few tracks out in which he freestyles discontent over Jay beats, but this one hits harder by being genuinely touching. The video plays like an abandoned projector reeling from memorial fragments of a bygone era. It's funny because Jay Z and Peedi obviously grew up in different hoods but their mutual mining of street weaved nostalgia leads them to the same school of hard knocks. Peedi, with kids in tow, bikes towards the camera with a graffiti typeset bounced on by a sing-a-long ball. Apparently Jay had set up one-on-ones to discuss the future of daf jam/roc a fella and instead sent over an A 'n' R rep to Philly to shitcan Peedi, Beans AND Freeway. Thus, the kids in tow is less a "remember these streets you abandoned via private jet," but "the entire region you took under your wing and then dropped from the nest." Peedi claims his new Amalgam Digital distribution set up for a Night in the Life is ideal, so maybe they'll have an awkward encounter at an airport lounge some day soon. Does anyone know where the guitar comes from, i've been searching through Queen songs for the last hour and can't find it!

G-Side - Speed of Sound (produced by Block Beataz)
This is, like, the most perfect aural realization of some euphoric physical dissociation from the material world. Head nesting in the clouds, these rappers enunciate every syllable slowly, the beat subtly resting beneath them, in complete contradiction of their flow charts and the supposed titular trajectory. Nothing about their flow suggests they're breaking any barriers, but quite possibly they've broken one and now they're simulating floating in the aether. NASA's lost contact, they've made contact, through a handball richochet with alien satellites our ear canals are picking up on transmuted static. My tear ducts cry India when this comes on.

G-Side- on everything
Wow, okay, aside from Stop Tha Violence, which is either harsh sarcasm or has nothing to do with its title, pretty much every song hits like speed of sound. Apparently G-Side is Stephen Harris aka ST 2 Lettaz and David Williams aka Yung Clova whose backstories go beyond those of hood figgas or drug dealers caught up in the game with a story to unload over some fresh beats. Their stories have that institutional neglect the Wire's naturalist plot mechanics strived for demystifying. By the time they met at the Boys and Girls Club in Athens, Alabama, one had been through foster care and straight up homelessness while the other got stuck with drug abuse in the family unit. So yeah, I'm white and my only point of reference is Dookie and Michael, but apparently their mission statement is to hit up the wishbones of their listeners with empathetic dustbins, sweeping up everyone's miserable past in a semantically sweetened street sweep.

Paper Route Records
“I ain’t going to lie, sometimes I hate the fuck out of Huntsville,” Money Addict says. “Any time you dig a hole and you stuck in some shit, you just want to breathe and be somewhere else.” - from the profile in The Fader.
Okay, here lies pretty much the most emotionally vulnerable - scratch that, hard front pulverizing sound factory I've been on a tour of recently. I mention the aural aspect because it completely transforms the words from spiteful slugs and bitch dumping in a song like Soul Glo into a window seat take off reflection. Which is weird, because while all their music seems to suggest transcending place, the crew apparently have no interest in leaving their spot in Alabama, spending their days myspacing, chess playing and breaking studio walls down like they're setting off in the NASA space shuttles grounded in a nearby park.
The Urb article makes note of the screw connection, but this is kind of like if screw left the vocals alone, creating a genuinely disorienting disconnect between the words and their propulsive engine. Instead of feeling down though that rift between the two is this unusually pleasurable zone of free-floating moonshine. Despite it's assurance that I should sit back and relax I'm so excited right now I might need to call NASA to calm me down.

(click to enlarge!)

Further reading -

Monday, October 13, 2008

My President & Rich Folk

Young Jeezy - My President

Unfortunately Jeezy calls himself out on and of this one before it even starts showcasing any lyrical depth. There's been a strain of political semi-awakenings in the rap community in the wake of Obama's presidential nomination. Or, not necessarily political awakenings but the entrance of rappers into the conventional framework of what constitutes political consciousness. Will. I. Am with the Yes We Can theme song, Big Boi and Mary J. Blige's collaboration for an Obama themed song. This unfortunately makes a distinction between rap's previous examination of politics as an external force entirely neglectful of their immediate surroundings. Or at least the immediate surroundings of their fictional manifestations, the throwbacks to their alleged (and most likely historically true) lives on the streets. For me these were far more important than an endorsement of any particular candidate as hood politics were emblematic of the general disillusionment with the political system that rampant police corruption and funding cutbacks caused in the inner cities. I would love to see young rappers just write about going to an impoverished school, basically confirming the quotes in Jonathan Kozol books.
Here though we have Jeezy making what seems to be an obvious endorsement of Obama. Instead what we find is an examination of the economic and social factors that would lead a member of the underclass' reliance on the voting process to solve their problems. First he offers a series of polemics in which the current situation under the present administration is painted as fraudulent, deaths over crude oil, voter manipulation and so on. But some lines are laced in there that are just inquisitive of the political process in general
"Just Cuz You Got An Opinion Does That Make You A Politician?"
"I Say And I Quote 'We Need A Miracle'
And I Say A Miracle Cuz This Shit Is Hysterical"
But my favorite part comes in the beginning of the second verse, in which the long tradition of focusing on street level react quotes as opposed to abstract thematic concerns comes into play. With a seemingly overblown response undercut with a sly sense of humor Jeezy raps from the perspective of someone between the choice of drug dealing and I guess voting, which is an unfortunately false dichotomy but it stresses the desperation that would cause someone to buy into Obama's hope for change slogans instead of endorsing them wholesale.
"I Said I Woke Up This Morning Headache THIS BIG!
Pay All These Damn Bills Feed All These Damn Kids
Buy All These School Shoes Buy All These School Clothes
For Some Strange Reason My Son Addicted To Polos "
The song is almost subversive in that regard, suggesting the political process is really just a last resort and not necessarily the first thing required to improve upon the immediate problem OR the long run. I have no idea if the lambo and the rims being blue is something about an alignment with democrats and specifically blue-blood democrats.
What's great is the Nas verse continues that concern, and instead of stressing that voting for Obama will change that situation he holds up the historically cynical negation of the voting process as a means for change in the inner cities/poorer districts. Not only that, but this won't be any exception.
When Thousands Of People Is Riled Up To See You
That Can Arouse Ya Ego You Got Mouths To Feed So
Gotta Stay True To Who You Are And Where You Came From
Cuz At The Top Will Be The Same Place You Hang From

Instead of giving a mandate via song and verse this is an ultimatum, a binding contractual agreement, now that an endorsement has been commodified by an album called the recession, you can't just go around stoking people's hopes via skin color and rhetorical strategies. Unfortunately this still stresses reliance on the system to fix itself so it can serve the community while maintaining that hierarchical imbalance that created the need for welfare. At the same time though it's still cynical of the process as a whole. This song is great because it totally sees through the slogans and understands why someone would come to see a vote as something greater than it is, not because it actually is, but because they feel like they've got nothing else. It comes to the point where Obama is just as viable as Bill Ayers.

Plies - Rich Folk/A Hundred Years
I was on my way back from the dentist when I heard Rich Folk on satellite radio and it reaffirmed my belief that Plies is one of the most endearingly honest sounding rappers no matter what he's talking about. A while back I had caught the hundred years video of Plies testifying in a courthouse looking like he was on the verge of tears as shiny as his mouth. One, it was the best usage of puss ass cracka I had ever heard, turning into a chorus suggesting such serious emotion that it obviously came from being personally affected by puss ass crackaness. In the courthouse a black person is sentenced to an irrational sentence, life taken away by an uncaring judge. My confidence in Plies was shaken when I read that his bodyguards shot up some audience members after a brawl broke out because his mic was cut for Lil Boosie to cut in on his overtime.

Sometimes though, you have to separate the art from the artist, and sometimes that emotional instability (which seems to have come from a poor choice in protection) actually strengthens a song's statement. Seriously, the facial expressions put on display here are the stuff of verite acting methodology, video recordings in a bomb shelter with last word expectant improbability.
Rich Folk on the other hand is basically my president's politics without a solution, especially not a political one. Unfortunately the song espouses the kind of individuating libertarian impulse of abandoning a community's groupthink to pursue riches. But the problems with this aren't really the individual choice, not everyone can afford to bring up the community with them. When white people tout Oprah and Cosby and various black business leaders as examples of success their brethren should follow they completely bypass an understanding of the factors that allowed for individual advancement as opposed to community transformation. There's the COINTELPRO's sabotage of every effort for community organizers to create self-sustaining healthcare, education and food distribution within ghettoes for fear of a disruption in the food chain, as well as spending cuts that followed in the wake of that perpetuating impoverishment in poor areas. Basically, it's when a statement like one that Plies makes here is used in a derogatory context that it becomes dishonest.
But why does one deal? To pay bills. While rappers talk about riches and how the game saved their life, or that of their fictional counterpart in the first person, they neglect to discuss the chain of command. Footsoldiers don't get the same respect, there's still a disparity in the distribution of wealth. In creating an unlawful hierarchy out of being disenfranchised by the lawful one, the drug business maintains disparities in wealth. They can afford cookouts at the local church, but it's still a service industry that places their organization in control.
So, here is this song where Plies plays someone vying for a better life. Not wanting to rely on drug dealing to pay the bills, knowing that being on the grind actually involves grinding, and grinding isn't always an alchemic process. It's also not just a matter of personal growth but posterity for future generations. This might not be just in response to people so embedded in the game that they despise you for making attempts at joining the bourgeoise negro elite that consistently looks down upon its less successful brethren (in accumulation of wealth and assimilation into the white capitalist power structure), this could also be in response to conventional rap wisdom of how it's necessary to survive. So yeah, it kind of denigrates others making decisions that don't have upward mobility written all over them, but it comes from being mired in those decisions on a daily basis.
"Fuck hood rich, I wana be rich for real, I don't want no gun I want a million fuckin dollar
bills, be in mind it's brand new and sit it on da edge, walk into my sons room, and you can't
tell if it's mine or his, I want my son to be the first one with a wheel, I want to send my son
to college and pay it up for four years, let the streets be mad and tell em he anit real, the
motherfuckers hate you when good is how you live, cus nine days broke is wat da streets call
real, the same mother fuckers who can't pay there fuckin bills, take it from me bein broke,
that ain't trill, it feels even better bein worth a couple mill"