Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kanye West, Jay-Z, and the duality of modern hip-hop

The divide between Kanye West and Jay-Z is one of the most meaningful things in pop culture at the moment. It may not seem that way because the amount that they work together suggests anything but a legitimate rivalry. However, a further look into the essence of each character represent completely different sides of the hip-hop spectrum, and I think that their relationship says a lot about why as a genre, hip-hop has grown to be so diverse and interesting over the past decade or so. Kanye is intense, emotional, erratic, and easily one of the most controversial figures in pop culture. On the other hand Hov exudes the calm, collected demeanor of a seasoned politician. What is most interesting is how clearly these different personalities come through in the way they rap.

Inherently, these personalities are in my opinion what makes Kanye West the most interesting of the two. Not the most popular, not necessarily the most talented, but the one who intrigues me enough to look deeper into his motivations. I tend not to flaunt my music tastes nowadays but when people start talking about Kanye West, I get pretty passionate. Usually because it's me defending him against the major flow of haterade. Kanye West is raw hip-hop; a culmination of some of the best aspects of the history of the genre. He's also the most compelling musician of my generation, and I will defend that to the end. It sounds like I'm on his dick but I think he's really that good. Every so often I feel like I overhype the quality of his latest solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but then I listen to it again and realize that I was an idiot for ever doubting it. But we'll get there.

I want to start by stating that every single Kanye West album has changed the face of hip-hop music, and by proxy, pop music as a whole. But even before The College Dropout came out in 2004, he was already notorious for being one of the best and most prolific producers in the business. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. But he was just beginning. College Dropout was the first album to unify the underground hip-hop scene and the mainstream. It's rare to find rap music at the time that acted as both poppy and personal. His appeal was universal, and it was so much more than rapping about the excess of the hip-hop lifestyle and the scores of bitches being drowned in cognac or something. Kanye invented nerd rap. It couldn't be more appropriate because at his core, Kanye is a music nerd. No one else in the business has such an understanding of sounds and beats that make his dozens of samples work that well. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find a Kanye-produced song where the sample is in the wrong place. In the context of all of recorded music, it's quite impressive to find a single sound that embodies the essence of a song. And Kanye does it time after time. Think about Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, Wale, Childish Gambino, everyone of those artists that fit in the nerd rap niche and it's clear what an impact College Dropout had on them.

In favor of brevity, I'm going to skip over Late Registration because it acts largely as a transition album for Kanye despite being equally, if not more brilliant than Dropout. Graduation is where his influence on modern music comes into play. Think about how fucking big EDM is in the pop charts right now. I would like to posture that the seed of EDM growth originated when Kanye released Stronger. Sampling Daft Punk brought new life into a relatively fading music scene, and look how big of a presence EDM has on popular music today. Over these past few albums Kanye has been inserting darker and darker undertones into his music, most likely because of a major accident that left his jaw wired shut for a while and the passing of his mother. Seriously, listen to Hey Mama and tell me that Kanye has no soul.

808's and Heartbreak is probably Kanye's weakest album, but it ultimately made it cool for rappers to talk about their feelings and introduced flaws in the usually invincible persona of hip-hop stars. Then the Taylor Swift incident happened, which is why I imagine most of the hate on Kanye exists today. What people don't realize is how apologetic he actually was, just not explicitly. Kanye's ego is a manifestation of his hard work. He strives for excellence and usually achieves it. This doesn't make him an asshole inherently, it just makes him misunderstood in the eyes of people who don't know him. In the song "Can't tell me nothing", one of my favorite lines is:

I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do? Act more stupidly

He's clearly willing to admit his mistakes and highlight his own vulnerability. People are just too stubborn to realize the depth of celebrities because we have this disgusting need to view them as caricatures of their public persona. All Kanye has done is be a normal person under a more public spotlight. Besides, an artist's personality should be considered separate from their art in my opinion. John Lennon abused women, but people still say he's a dreamer or whatever. Anyways, after the Tswift incident Kanye absconded to Japan, then interned at Fendi for a few months in Rome, then he went to Hawaii to record. 

And then he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Oh man this album. It's one of the few albums I can listen to all the way through without skipping a track. It's such a nuanced and well put together album that it feels like a movie scene or something. An unbelievable reflection on insecurity, celebrity, loneliness, and the temptation to drown out all the pain in drugs and women. It is the work of a perfectionist whose attention to detail is clear in every single instrumentation. It is the ultimate culmination of everything he's ever done and is told in a way akin to a Greek tragedy. But a majority of people don't get the message. It received near perfect reviews but never really took off on the radio waves. They harp on the occasional misogynistic lines that are also not only present, but the focus of countless other hip-hop songs. Kanye is an asshole, a petulant egotist. There's no way that he has something relevant to say. It seems like the pop culture world doesn't believe in second chances.

Never was much of a romantic,
I could never take the intimacy.
And I know I did damage,
'cause the look in your eyes is killing me,

The thing that bothers me most about all of this is the double standards that exist in today's society. Kanye if nothing else, is authentic. To the very core, you get all or none of him. According to how much people hate hipsters nowadays, authenticity is literally the most important attribute ever, since degradation of hipsters is based solely on perceived unauthenticity. On the other hand, there's nothing real about Lady GaGa. Everything about her is manufactured, and people know it, and they eat it up. So what the hell? There is a man whose personality shines through on every single one of his tracks and is ultimately very much a human being. But no, we'll take this fake chick who wears meat dresses to garner attention.

I went on this rant when I was drunk following the Kanye set at the 12.12.12 benefit concert so I kinda forgot about talking about Jay-Z. I'll get to him later.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Oh fuck I'm 22

I never really loved the ideas of my birthday. Call me a cynic (many people do) but there's nothing that inherently changes once it hits that certain date every year. I love other people's birthdays because giving presents is fun for me but for some reason I feel this unnecessary pressure that something fun needs to occur every time it hits. Now of course I understand certain milestones in one's life, 16, 17, 21, etc, but there is some point where birthdays reach a level of diminishing returns. It does seem odd when I think about how quickly this past year has gone by though. This time last year was kind of a strange time in my life mentally and emotionally.

On one hand, I had just gone through a breakup that might have been one of the most mentally taxing experiences of my life. It was made worse by the fact that it wasn't really facilitated by much other than us simply falling out of love with each other. By nature, this made it much more difficult to deal with than if either one of us had horribly wronged the other. Of course I was blind to this at the time but no one sees clearly in these situations. On the other hand, I had just been offered a full-time job right out of college. I doubt there are very many things better than being grossly overpaid for actually doing something you like so there really wasn't anything I could complain about on that end. But looking back, I've had a really good year. My friends are awesome, my life is good, but I'm kinda worried that someone is gonna find out I'm not really all that smart and the wave function of my life will collapse.

So here's to that.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yay Thanksgiving and my mind wandering.

At the time of writing this I'm still recovering from the feast and basking in the familiar sunbeam of Long Island. Though it did take a record of 4 hours for me to realize how much I dislike the people around here. Maybe the distress of the 9 hour work day has destroyed my patience with idiots. I don't really care much for most of the people I went to high school with because I think my disdain with the way that teenagers treat people has grown as I've gotten older. In reality, it's probably not very fair since I'm certain at least some of them have changed over the past 5 years or so but that's hardly reason for me to go out and seek their approval now. This seems especially stubborn considering how profoundly I feel like I've changed since high school. Looking back, I'd have been pretty OK of where I am today all things considered.

I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace lately and I'm not sure if he's a certified genius or his thoughts just articulate my feelings way more than I ever could. It's rare to find someone with such a refined literary and mathematical mind and to realize how much he suffered due to this is extremely disconcerting to the nature of human psyche. Hemingway himself said "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." Unfortunately in the context of DFW's life, that remains alarmingly true.

They say that ignorance is bliss, but I can't imagine a world where I wouldn't be compelled to at least try to understand my surroundings or where I curb my awareness on the off chance that it makes me happier. Anyways, here's a passage from DFW's unfinished book The Pale King, possibly the last thing he ever wrote. Dem words, man
“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the AM heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine-cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why I'm OK with Google taking over the world

Sergey Brin himself told an interviewer in 2002 that the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was "what (they're) striving for" with Google. Now that shouldn't really strike the best chord in a society where sentient machines as the catalyst of apocalypse form the basis of some our most iconic Sci-Fi stories. People never really take the threat seriously though, because in reality without Google our world would be drastically different pretty much across the board. The sheer volume of data and information lost if Google disappears is roughly equivalent to a modern day sacking of the Library of Alexandria. I'm still bitter about that by the way. But anyways, is it really OK to trust a single entity with so much of our information? In a world run by algorithms, whoever holds the data is king, and Google looks pretty good with a crown.

There are people who believe that we have nothing to fear from Google, they think that they serve us because we consume their products and we keep them running. But when you think about it, do we really? If you're getting something for free, chances are you're not the consumer, you're the product. People don't like considering themselves as products of course but I think humans inherently make the greatest products of all. We waste so much time on really unimportant shit. And Google is staggeringly good at making use of seemingly mundane things humans do and turning them into something productive. It's no wonder that Google is so universally trusted; it gives these great free services to people under the illusion that it's completely one-sided. However, in reality they have an uncanny ability to make these services mutually beneficial by convincing millions of people to build datasets for them.

Take for example, Google Voice. When it was released in 2009, it was some weird ass shit for a company so web-focused to enter the voicemail market. Not only did they make innovations to a seemingly antiquated industry, but that probably wasn't even their goal. Today Android's voice recognition transcription is by far the best around (nothing's ever gonna bring it down). They used the data they got from us using Google Voice to build a voice recognition system that blows all others out of the water. It even works with different accents and languages! You can speak Mandarin in that shit and it will translate and transcribe it for you. Google managed to create a symbiotic relationship between us and itself by taking advantage of our human computation power that would have otherwise been wasted. The human cycles that we unknowingly use up on a daily basis are utterly ridiculous. It took 7 million human hours to build the Empire State Building. 20 million to build the Panama Canal. In 2003, human beings spent 9 billion hours playing solitaire. Ignoring the fact that solitaire is profoundly inferior to Minesweeper, THAT'S SO MUCH TIME. So I have no problem with Google doing what they're doing as long as they don't use the data maliciously which, to my knowledge, they haven't yet.

The main reason why I bring all of this up is because of Ingress. THEY FUCKING MADE LIFE A GAME GUYS. Is that George Clooney talking in the trailer too? It's a game that gives people points for exercising and going to museums and shit. That's so smart I can't even handle it. In a culture so engrossed with the idea of instant gratification, something like this integrates so well into our technological landscape. But the real question is what Google is aiming to use it for on their end. Google Maps' walking directions feature is reportedly still in beta. I'd imagine there really aren't better ways to improving walking data than a virtual reality game that forces people to walk. So there's that. Maybe they're trying to gather information on the most commonly taken roads so they know the perfect place to strike in case we ever stop giving them data. I'm kidding of course. Like we even have a choice anymore.

In all seriousness though, a company as big and efficient as Google that's also well-regarded is unique and rare. Like a unicorn or Roger Federer's backhand. As long as it focuses on optimizing human efficiency, I'll have no qualms about it mining our data. You can keep my search history, my porn isn't that weird anyway. And you don't really have to worry either. Google can't become Skynet, it needs us too much in the end. But we need it too. It's confusing at times, scary at others, kinda like an actual relationship. Fortunately I don't see Google going anywhere soon, so batten down the hatches and open the pod bay doors, HAL

Monday, November 12, 2012

Music or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nickelback

I'm kinda kidding about the last part of the title but I'll get to that. First off, that's a picture of Rick Ross wearing a chain of Rick Ross wearing a chain of Rick Ross. That is some next level excessism and would be a cautionary tale for materialism in modern hip-hop if we didn't already go through a phase where putting diamonds in your teeth was totally a real thing. But what I actually wanted to talk about was music as a whole and try to articulate the way that I feel about it. This is just me putting me thoughts down so it's likely not to make sense but bear with me...

In my younger and more vulnerable years I was a naive little shit who thought he knew everything about music. Turns out, I really didn't. I don't really know what the point was when music stopped being just something I listened to and turned into kinda a big part of my life; maybe if I did I'd have a better idea of why I thought that I knew better than everyone else. It may stem from the fact that all of my knowledge was self-taught. My parents never really listened to American music, and never really assimilated into American pop culture at all, so I was forced to learn everything on my own. Looking at myself now, I may have gone a little overboard in that respect.

But that doesn't really answer the question at hand: Who was I to make judgment on things that other people listen to? I guess it was that false sense of superiority I got in 10th grade when I thought listening to The White Stripes made me the coolest person on the planet. What I've come to realize is that it doesn't matter because nobody cares. You could be a fucking connoisseur of post avant-garde indie rock but no one will care because it's not something that people talk about. Opinions don't really mean anything, and should only really be used to judge yourself, not other people. But I didn't know that.

There's a strange cultural understanding where people think it's OK to belittle other people's interests because of an innate human desire for competitiveness, even when the opportunity for it isn't there. I like A, you like B. A is better than B so therefore I am better than you. Not only is this a logical fallacy but it also makes you an asshole. Of course I'll admit, I've been guilty of this in the past and probably will be again sometime in the future but that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge that it's wrong. I think a big part of the problem is that people tend to feel the need to have an opinion on everything, even when they aren't the least bit informed on it. Now there are subconscious ways for human beings to make judgments on almost anything: things work or they don't work, food tastes good or it doesn't, etc. But these judgments exist for personal use only. Without the underlying details to articulate what the problems really are, they're meaningless in the cultural landscape. In the context of music, most people (myself included) don't know all of the details to really make effective judgments on what's good to anyone but ourselves.

All criticism should really act as a form of conversation anyway, which is why you should never let anyone really get away with saying something unconstructive. When someone says "Man Nickelback/Creed really suck", why leave it at that? Well most people can't articulate their visceral responses to music and that's fine, but hating a form of media for the sake of hating it isn't really productive, there's always something to learn from even the most poorly executed music.

The wonderful thing about living in today's society is that if we don't like something, we can merely turn it off and there's always something else we can turn on. It says something about us when we're willing to bear something we don't like just for the sake of saying we don't like it. Weird. But for now, I think I'd like to stay away from the whole awesome/sucks cultural dynamic and embrace things as they come. With arms wide open.*

*I totally didn't write this blog post around that awesome Creed punchline at the end, though that's totally something I would do.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Skyfall and the importance of stakes in movies

Hey. This is my first post but instead of spending the whole thing introducing what my jam is, I figured I would rather just give you content and let you learn about me through my brilliant insight and cynical worldview. Brevity is the soul of wit so I'll try to keep it short but I also like rambling. It's quite the Catch 22. I'm planning on using this to just write down my thoughts on everything so every post won't just be a movie discussion but I just saw Skyfall so I think I'm going to talk about it and my thoughts on movies in general.

I'm going to preface this by saying that I'm not a movie critic, but I love movies in all shapes and sizes and I think understanding them gives us an insight into the human condition that is more comprehensive that nearly all other art forms. Now I understand at first glance this all sounds like pretentious gobbledy-gook but just think about it. Think about all of the John Williams scores that have given you chills. Or the movie quotes that invoke memories of a rainy day past.  The shots of sweeping landscapes that instill us with an implacable feeling of wanderlust or the love stories that reflect a part of us we're not entirely comfortable with. It's hard for human beings to contextualize life because we only see it from one perspective. Movies put life into a new perspective, and sometimes that suspension of disbelief is what we need to articulate the complexities of the way we live. Whoa that got deep fast. I'm sure I'll get into it more later on but lets get back to Skyfall.

Now I'm not the world's biggest James Bond fan but I absolutely acknowledge the scale of his phenomenon across the world. Though I'm not entirely convinced that he's Britain's golden child, (as you'll inevitably find out, I'm a pretty big Doctor Who fan) there's no denying how iconic Bond is to the cultural landscape. Skyfall is the 23rd installment of the franchise and Daniel Craig's 3rd Bond movie. Casino Royale is my personal favorite Bond movie and Quantum of Solace is probably my least favorite. So I went into Skyfall with pretty confused expectations. Then again I go into most things in my life with confused expectation so I was actually quite in my element here. Thankfully Skyfall was much, much better than QoS. However, despite being a great Bond film, Skyfall falls short from being a great film overall.

At this point, be warned as there will be some plot spoilers so ideally you're reading this after you've seen the movie. Skyfall begins in classic Bond fashion as we see Daniel Craig chasing some vaguely eastern European bad guy through the streets of Istanbul; a tried and true element that's always fun to watch. Here we're introduced to the MacGuffin that drives the plot and a scene that begins the inevitable downfall (or Skyfall hurr durr) of the movie in general.

Before I get to the movie's faults, I want to point out what I thought the movie did exceptionally well. There were some goddamn pretty shots. This movie is like if Jason Bourne made a baby with Planet Earth and I would have been perfectly fine with watching Daniel Craig standing in front of foreign landscapes for 2 hours. Sam Mendes' pacing was also on point. Almost to the level of Christopher Nolan, and that is what really keeps this movie afloat the whole time. This frenetic style of action balanced with tense emotional scenes distracts the audience from the plot holes that would otherwise be quite apparent. There were no major stumbles performance-wise but Javier Bardem undoubtedly steals the show once he gets on board. Now here's where the movie kind of falls flat for me.

What a movie needs in order to stay compelling is a set of stakes that are high enough that we want the protagonist to succeed, or rather we don't want them to fail. Something like Luke and the Death Star or Frodo with the Ring. Those two things aren't just a means to an end or something to drive the plot. They provide avenues for the audience to relate to those characters and gives them something to lose. I never once had a feeling that Bond had something to lose in this movie. The main villain, played by Bardem, has one of the most interesting and compelling intro scenes to a villain in recent memory but ultimately ends up feeling generic, mostly to the fault of the writer. The story arc of the "Bond Girl" showed promise but never got a chance to flesh itself out before she was unceremoniously ripped from the screen. And when the movie tries to delve deeper into Bond's past, it does so with only a passing glance and never really adds more to the character.

This is all because the stakes are not high enough. You can spend $300 million on Lord of the Rings but it's Sam carrying Frodo that really takes. I don't care enough about the characters to worry about if Bond succeeds or not. I know he's not going to die, and M is not likable enough a character for me to be concerned over. So what does that leave? Skyfall is still an intensely fun and suspenseful (for the most part) movie, but without any real emotional resonance in scenes that are supposed to strike a chord with the audience, all we're left with is an action film that rests on its (very well-established) laurels.