olympus in the jaw of wolves
wolves draped in the fleece of lambs
coyotes dreaming the desert
past lives rotting under a synod of flies
jinn dancing through mirages
banquets laid upon sun dials
warpaint whoops of joy
feast days among the tombstones
low rider chrome chariots
slunk amidst shanties
carapaced in aztec filigree
huddled beneath a fallen sky
an alcoholic vow
spills from rusting penitent lips
and your cold ears drink…
fingers of indifference reach into me
curling through the strands of my self
guiding me to your drowning rivers
your cataclysms and volcanic fissures
dust grinding dust
broken dogs panting in a wet room
the exact dimensions of hypomnesia
cocaine blunted extremities
throbbing in the futile dawn
nothing comes next
nothing comes next
nothing comes next
I should admit from the jump, I’m not a huge Action Bronson fan. I don’t know any of his lyrics by heart or keep a poster of him on my living room wall, but as far as white rappers go, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, which goes a long way. Personally, I’m still rinsing out the taste of Macklemore and Iggy Azalea’s two-person colonization of hip-hop in 2014. It’s not that I don’t like white rappers—Eminem is clearly one of the most skilled practitioners of the art—but there is a deep-rooted sentiment most recently trumpeted by pop vixen/cultural agitator Azealia Banks that hip-hop is our shit and this renaissance of white rap (we should really add r&b as well) is really just erasure by another name. There isn’t an American music form that didn’t originate in some way from the experience of Black people in America—blues, jazz, rock, and all the children of the pentatonic scale owe a debt to the field hollers and religious music of former slaves and their descendants—yet those forms are largely dominated by white artists today. It’s the rare white artist that can navigate this racially volatile history of appropriation and extract what feels like a uniquely genuine voice.
Action Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful accomplishes this by delving deep into the personal idiosyncrasies of the creator himself. Physically Bronson is a husky, bearded white man who wears his girth with confidence and swagger, recalling his predecessors Big Pun and Notorious BIG. Lyrically he doesn’t compare to these legendary wordsmiths (he’s no slouch, but far from GOAT material), but what he lacks in sheer bars he compensates for with a wackiness that borders on the absurd. Absurdity we find is the currency of Bronson’s imagination. He rhymes in non sequiturs involving girls, food delicacies, and guitars with equal gusto. The latter festish also shows clearly in the album’s instrumentation. Electric guitars, Harley Davidson cycles, and archetypal Americanisms resonate throughout the work, evoking another white former rapper, Kid Rock. But whereas Kid Rock’s America is all ego, testosterone and double-D bikinis; Bronson’s Americana is wistful, reflective, though ultimately no less a fantasy.
New York is the other unspoken character in Bronson’s major label debut. His delivery recalls not so much a particular rapper, but all the New York rappers of bygone times, a style which has largely been supplanted in the mainstream by one owing more to Master P and Lil Wayne than Nas or Biggie. There are traces of Ghostface Killah in his delivery, but Bronson is far from imitating; more practically, it’s just the coincidence of a common regional flow and his affection for loose, train-of-thought lyrical hijinks. His content and delivery—breaking down in the middle of an opening song to chastise himself—are more in line with Eminem’s self-effacement and play into Bronson’s real superpower: likability.
Bronson clearly situates himself in the tradition of hip-hop as a party emcee. In his playfulness and excursive transitions, he is reminiscent of the Native Tongues style of whimsical production. He spends an entire track on his debut album singing almost unintelligibly over a psychedelic groove that sounds like a lost Nuyorican symphony. He shouts out his mom, features Chance the Rapper singing a hook, and just about completely eschews any other marquee feature. This smacks of a man who is either supremely confident or utterly indifferent to mainstream demands. My suspicion is the former, but then again—Bronson represents an evolving cross-section of hipster and hip-hop appreciation (hip-hopsters?). Predominantly white rap nerds scour the zeitgeist for projects like this, that recall the freewheeling sampledelic culture of the 80s and early 90s, before hip-hop became the modern day version of hair metal complete with drug-addled rock stars, barely clad women, and conspicuous consumption—before radio playlists condensed into nationally syndicated products incapable of breaking new regional artists.
Perhaps this is why this album seems to contain no obvious hits or urban radio plays. I have a suspicion white rock radio will embrace him, followed by urban formats. If this idea of white radio leading urban markets, or 2014’s trend of blue-eyed British soul singers dominating US charts and award season, or Mary J. Blige having to go to the UK to get her props, lights up your spider sense, you are not alone. White artists seem able to stretch the boundaries of genres without penalty regarding radio play in a way that only Kanye West and a few other Black artists like Jay-Z, Beyonce and Rihanna have.
Or maybe the impending total colonization of white rappers is overblown and rooted more in visceralities than truth–these moments in music are easily overblown. On last check, first week sales of Mr. Wonderful are projected at 35-37k, just above Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit… at 30-35k. Both below projected sales of 40-45k for kid’s cover franchise Kidz Bop, while Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly remains perched atop the Billboard 200 like a crow feasting on the carcass of discarded erasure.
What if anything is to be gleaned from the recent news that within the first three months of 2015 no less than 3 rappers have topped the Billboard 200 list? If you’re keeping track, that would be Kendrick Lamar in pole position with To Pimp a Butterfly, Drake with If You’re Reading this…, and Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise. Clearly this is a stellar first quarter for the perennially “dead” genre of hip-hop, illustrating that those incessantly ranting of its demise are in essentially the same company as climate change deniers. Hip-hop, like its guitar-driven cousin metal, appears to be settling into the global landscape as an eternal window into the soul of testosterone fueled young men and the women who love and emulate them.
Now clearly, public infatuation with certain genres shifts. The “Year of Rock” is inevitably replaced with the “Year of EDM” or “Year of Hip-hop” or “Year of Country” or whatever fashion surfaces from the primordial ooze of the zeitgeist. But why do certain genres come into fashion to begin with? What can they tell us about our present state of mind and cultural trajectory?
Over the last year we’ve witnessed a rebirth of Black consciousness after the stupefied post-racial haze following Obama’s first election. For a moment, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief as centuries-old tensions appeared to evaporate within the span of a single political cycle. Cracks in this facade began to materialize almost immediately but such was the strength and naïveté of the recently dubbed “coalition of the ascendant” that we were willing to overlook them.
Then Trayvon Martin’s killer was exonerated despite overwhelming evidence of culpability. We watched a man beaten to death in NYC by cops and get off without so much as a slap to the wrist. By the time Ferguson arrived, we were ready to throw our hands up, facts in hand or not, and take it to the streets to protest the simple assertion that black lives matter.
Over that time, I have seen two distinct reactions from the Black artistic community. On one hand, you have those representing the New Blackness—those post-racialists clinging to the fiction that systemic racism has been supplanted by, at worst, a pernicious classism; ignoring entirely the volumes of evidence, some released as recently as last week, that collective disparities between blacks and whites are still as chasmic as ever. The other side, largely marginalized over the last decade, has remained unconvinced. The artistic offspring of Public Enemy, Tupac, and the Native Tongues movement—best typified by the hyper-fluency of a Kendrick Lamar—are increasingly finding an audience eager to wash the taste of indifference and false equivalence from their pallets.
The reason for this new hunger for reality-based rap cannot be limited to purely domestic causes. All around the world, movements forged from the frustration of the ignored, the marginalized and oppressed are upsetting the long-held balance of power. The Arab Spring, initially hailed for its promise of non-violent change in the Middle East, has given way to ISIS, Boko Haram, and bombings in the very streets where peaceful protesters once marched. From all over the world, young people exhausted with stasis have chosen violence and upheaval in preference to the droning platitudes of a one-size fits all New World Order. Domestically, millennials bashed over the head with dwindling hopes of advancement in the corporate world are creating their own paradigms, disrupting established industries, confronting previously impervious institutions, and all around raising hell in the name of a broken promise.
Is there any doubt as to why an art form like rap, with its origin in poverty stricken black and latino neighborhoods, resonates so strongly? Is there any doubt why Big Sean’s aspirational Dark Sky Paradise, its very title drenched in conflict, resonates as a battle cry for anyone who has longed for the fabled good life—even at the potential expense of one’s soul. This theme recurs in both Dark Sky as well as TPAB—this sense that success is inherently problematic. It’s a reiteration of the old rap adage, “more money, more problems,” and even older, “money is the root of all evil.” Success in the context of Dark Sky is passage out of soul-crushing deprivation, but also a removal from the context that made such success possible. It’s the loss of trust, family and identify. You can practically here the desperation in Big Sean’s voice when he concludes in “Outro.” “Say I’m hard to get in contact with/oh, is that true/But what about now?/ 313-515-8772, bitch, call me”
The same desperation is even clearer in Kendrick’s latest opus, weaving throughout the entire tapestry and perhaps most poignantly in “u” where K-Dot assume the role of a forsaken homie. Even Drake, who largely eschews direct political commentary, seems obsessed with establishing his geographic bona fides and the criteria by which trust—whether to friends, business associates or women—can be extended. His world is an insular one framed by an absent father and a maniacal desire to be viewed as a man, even as he is dogged by boyish vices and insecurities.
This may very well be another Year of Rap, but there are still three more quarters to go. Nevertheless, even at this point, there’s very little risk in asserting that this latest crop of work from rap’s currently senior class is a complex mural of masculine ego, fear of erasure, and a desire to reconnect with a community that they fear may have deserted them. Or worse, may not be up the challenge of following them into the stratosphere.
From the opening notes of Kendrick’s already critically acclaimed third album To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s clear that the West Coast’s heir apparent is following the beat of his own drum (with a little help from the Top Dawg in-house production team and neo-funk luminaries Thundercat and Flying Lotus). The instrumentation of the album hearkens back to the 70s, full of live instrumentation, rich bass lines and psychedelic melodies that zoom in and out of consciousness. For subject matter, Compton’s young poet laureate serves a sumptuous buffet of morality-tinged tales of rags-to-riches, further distancing himself from the braggadocio and glitter-fueled lyrics of many of his peers. This distancing is intentional, a reflection of Kendrick’s self-conscious assumption of duties as the presiding moral compass for hip-hop. His rhymes employ their share of “niggers,” “bitches,” and assorted vulgarities, but never without a sense of irony, and rarely without a sense of regret.
It’s natural to compare Kendrick to his peers and predecessors. J-Cole is no stranger to politically charged lyricism, but he cannot speak to the nuanced facets of street life with the same fluency as K-Dot. You have to go back to Nas for an accurate analogy. And like Nas, Kendrick rarely revels in street life, but presents it cinema verite. Like Nas, Kendrick delivers blow by blow, detailed accounts of urban reality, but now from the perspective of a burgeoning star whose success threatens to separate him from the wellspring of his very creativity. Throughout the album, laments follow about losing touch with family, mis-use of his new power, and the desire to be good in an overwhelmingly evil world.
This evil at the heart of success is personified as none other than Lucifer, abbreviated as Lucy, and portrayed as a seductress with all the riches of the world at her disposal. Opposing her is the spirit of Tupac, invoked throughout the record and finally in an imagined Q&A closing the record. Tupac is portrayed as a conflicted guide, struggling with temptation, perhaps even ultimately a failure by his own standards, but the inspiration and spark of Kendrick’s odyssey. Tupac once famously predicted that not he, but one of his successors, someone sparked by his own work, would succeed where he had failed. Kendrick seems eager to step into this role and play Messiah to Tupac’s John the Baptist.
Interesting comparisons can also be garnered from Lupe Fiasco’s also recently released Tetsuo and Youth, an epic piece of work, equally conceptual, even sharing some musical DNA with Butterfly. Both works fall into the category of “conscious” rap—material not excluding the consequences of immoral behavior—but where Lupe’s work is intellectual, cerebral, hyper-syllabic and grounded in the of-the-moment sound of trap music, Kendrick delivers a more visceral kick. Whereas the former evokes emotion through analysis, the latter is pure emotion. Kendrick literally weeps into the mic in character as a former friend chastising the rapper’s absence from the on-going realities of street life. Serving this is Kendrick’s inimitable vocal range. He goes from monotone to leonine growl to high-pitched yapping in the span of a single verse, sometimes within a single line, yet never seems to over-do it, always with his characteristic masterly restraint and punctuation. This loud-soft dynamic borrows more from rock music than rap and cannot help but evoke the ghost of another highly regarded iconoclast, Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana essentially shut the door on the narcissistic, egocentric, cheap thrills hair metal scene that had dominated rock for almost a decade. Much like popular rap today, in particular it’s guns and drugs glorifying sub-genre trap, there is a growing sense of unease with the casual degradation of women and exaltation of personal gratification. Issues of cultural appropriation aside, the thunderous elevation of artists like Macklemore for providing a break from the monotonous slander of gays, bitches and wack niggas proves there is a hunger for more substantial content such as Butterfly. That Kendrick succeeds with this while bringing back a sound we haven’t really heard since the early 2000s, when Outkast ruled the airwaves with savvy and empowering narratives delivered over essentially funk music, is a testimony to the creative rigor of Top Dawg itself, a modern Motown housing artists, producers, musicians and lyricists under one roof.
Some in the Black community have recently begun circulating the meme of New Blackness—a less angry, less confrontational version of Blackness aimed at smoothing over the rough edges of integration with the mainstream. This New Blackness is about wealth, success and affluence—an affluence unfortunately not shared by all. Butterfly seems to take square aim at this bugbear, forcing it to confront its dark reflection. Big lips, dark skin, red eyes, “a proud monkey,” as Kendrick spits, are all accoutrements of our greatness and not shackles to be discarded. He flips the word “nigger” by going even further back in our past to the glories of the Ethiopian empire where regents were called “Negus.” Butterfly challenges us to re-integrate with ourselves, to come to terms with the bitter fruits of Black history in the US, as well as recalling our original glory and potential redemption.