I got a hypochondriac flow that get real ill, get nauseous to the beat, I spit sick at will.

My 13 Favorite Pop Culture Moments of 2013

I don’t have a long preamble for this. This list is just my way of trying to pull together a lot of disparate pop culture moments that struck me in some profound way during the year. I think the more you engage with pop culture the more it can feel like you’re always having the same conversations, with the same people, in the same way. So when something disrupts that monotony, frustrates the dominant ways we think and talk about our relationship to one another, I think it’s important.

Here are the 13 moments this year that made me sit up and look at the world just a little bit differently.

 



Posted on December 31st, 2013 - Filed under Best of 2013,Culture,Film,Music,Television
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Best Songs of 2013

For the third year in a row, I felt like this was a better year for individual songs and singles than it was for albums. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense in a digital era that the industry has returned its focus to singles, rather than albums. But it continues to make for a very frustrating listening experience.

This is not to diminish the great work that I’m about to highlight. It is incredibly difficult to make a great song. Can’t forget that just because most artists today are unconcerned with making complete album experiences.

So without further ado, hit that jump for the 15 songs that I consider the very best songs that I heard in 2013



Posted on December 30th, 2013 - Filed under Best of 2013,Music
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Defining Gay Hip-Hop: Reviewing LastO’s ‘Where’s Vivian’

where's vivian cover photo

 

“I don’t want to spend my time on earth performing, yelling “Look At Me” or “Confirm My Humanity, Please” in various tongues. I have problems of my own.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the things that I’ve found most difficult to navigate as a black same-gender-loving man is the way it is assumed that “blackness” and “homosexuality” are supposed to be somehow mutually exclusive and in conflict with one another. And the temptation is to choose one that controls. And while it is certainly true that the “gay” construct is a largely White one, my race and my sexuality really do work in concert. They inform one another.

So you do have to move through life aware of these boxes – “black,” “gay,” “SGL,” “homosexual,” “man,” etc - but constantly finding ways to not have to tell everyone else that they aren’t necessarily your boxes. And that anxiety does, in some ways, become part of the experience. Not necessarily because you are confused or self-loathing, but because there is real work in operating in a world where you have to always be conscious of people trying to categorize you.

Add to that trying to be an emcee when “gay rapper” is seemingly more a contradiction in terms than “black gay” and you understand I think why so much of gay hip hop feels like it’s always trying to decide whether to be “gay” or “hip hop.”

LastO’s Where’s Vivian is the first hip-hop album by a black homosexual man that really gets that all of this shit is just a false choice. It feels like the first time that a gay/SGL rapper is aware of all the traps that being a “gay rapper” has – and falls into none of them, primarily by having clear-eyed view of who exactly he wants to be as an artist. There’s anxiety here. There’s confidence. There’s also tremendous vulnerability. And, perhaps most notably, there’s a sense of self that is more present than it ever was before. And that’s saying something, because Run A Lap is one of the single best opening salvos I’ve ever heard an emcee make. It’s nearly perfect (I’d have left off So Magical, to be honest) and, for me, made me think “Oh, so this is what gay hip-hop can be.”

Where’s Vivian ups the ante by being more personal, more open — and yet forthright about the anxiety about doing so. That anxiety is really a running theme throughout the album, from the intro Bitches Be Like… all the way through to the tongue-in-cheek boast of I’m Ur S​.​s. Pt. 2, that actually draws you in because it is so often the underside of the confidence that an emcee is supposed to feel. As he says on the opening track, 34th and 42nd: “Truth be told/I might not be/Who they was rootin for/Who they would like to see.” Or take Dream Wild, which features the talented Sony Cobain, where Lasto explores why his desire to be an emcee is so powerful, asking: “Like it’s a dream that a nigga can’t get?/But I’m here though/Weirdo/Been did the shit 4 years ago.”

Because the conversation around gay hip-hop to date has been about whether or not there will be an emcee that the broader hip-hop community can embrace – and if that individual would have to not be “too gay” in order to feel that embrace – it’s quite refreshing that LastO doesn’t shy away from sex at all. It is certainly true that there are less explicit discussions of sex on Where’s Vivian than there are on Not For Non-Profit, but it is also true that what is discussed on Where’s Vivian is far more mature and, to my mind, representative of black gay men. Nearly every reference to sex also includes a reference to HIV, which is important given the rates of HIV in black gay communities and the anxiety that causes in the community. Even his love song to his boyfriend, For Tonight, is tinged with the always-present concern about the repercussions of sex:

And this consensus that love is for a nigga who acts like a bitch
is to keep niggas doing shit that kills us
Cause you know where ya dick is
Can you tell by looking exactly where that HIV is?

Perhaps the most amusing expression of Lasto’s anxiety is his ambivalent relationship to his beauty. On the album’s standout track, its centerpiece, Barcelon, Lasto laments: “I was told to undress; had to haggle to keep the hat and shit/Management wanted me to be a woman wearing Mac on lips/Ya’ll know that’s a Manolo slingback that I just cannot fit.” And then builds a whole song joking about how he’ll begrudgingly accept being a sex symbol on I’m Ur S​.​s. Pt. 2. and admits “Flaunt it?/Fuck it that’s in me.”

In a year when a lot of really talented artists put out uneven, messy albums, it’s really remarkable that Where’s Vivian is such a stunningly complete album experience. It’s not fair to pick a favorite because you really should always listen to the album all the way through, but Barcelon (easily the best song on the album), 34th Or 42nd, and both I’m Ur S.S. are brilliantAnd while 17 tracks for $6 is quite a deal, I might not have added Hunnid-Yard Stare at the last minute and can kinda do without Candy Clouds.

Ultimately though, Where’s Vivian fulfills the promise of Run A Lap spectacularly, reminding us again that if there is anyone defining what it means to be a gay rapper in all its messy, complex humanity, it is LastO.



Posted on December 29th, 2013 - Filed under Music,Sexuality
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On Kelly Rowland’s ‘Dirty Laundry’

I think if you’ve followed Kelly Rowland’s career, you’ve always gotten the sense that she was holding something back. Like she was afraid to be as magnificent as we all know she can be. There was always the sense that we weren’t getting the full extent of her artistry. And not because it wasn’t there, but because she didn’t quite believe in it.

Every album had magnificent moments – Beyond Imagination, Haven’t Told You, Love, Like This, Motivation, Keep It Between Us - but they seemed incidental. Accidental. There didn’t seem to be much effort behind anything she was doing. The background singer destined to be a star, but never quite comfortable anywhere but in the back seat.

So when I listen to Dirty Laundry, it plays as a stunning admission of her crushing insecurity more than anything else. Sure, we learn about Kelly having suffered domestic abuse and that she has complicated feelings about Beyonce’s solo success, but that’s just not what the song is telling me emotionally.

“who wanna hear my bullshit?”

It doesn’t feel like we’re reliving something she’s moved through. We’re living something she’s still in…with her. The song doesn’t turn on an awakening. It doesn’t turn at all. We are sitting in her insecurity with her.

Those five little words are almost an aside in the structure of the song. As if she’s still not quite sure. Even now when she’s being as revealing and honest as she’s ever been, I still get the sense that she’s struggling against a profound sense that no one cares at all about Kelly Rowland. It’s riveting, but I have to wonder what is next.

I want this song to represent a turning point in her career. A point that we’ll all look back and say “that was the moment Kelly Rowland started to become a great artist.” But I worry that this will be the only song on the album that gives us something uniquely Kelly.

I sincerely hope she doesn’t think one song is enough.



Posted on May 18th, 2013 - Filed under Kelly Rowland,Music
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Thinking about Janet Jackson’s (Alleged) Retirement

Janet with her new husband

Photo Credit: Marco Glaviano, People Magazine

I’ve been thinking a lot about the news that Janet Jackson is allegedly going to retire from the entertainment industry for a minute now.

I think if I were honest, I’d feel the need to say that Janet Jackson has run out of things creatively to say and that she’s been spinning her wheels at least since 20 Y.O, if not earlier. I don’t think it’s an accident that she’s spent the last decade doing more acting than she has really focusing on recording trailblazing music. I’m not sure she was well-served by Tyler Perry films that squandered her natural warmth on weirdly cold characters, but I could imagine how from her perspective there was something interesting about essaying characters so dissimilar from who we know Janet Jackson to be.

I could see how she might feel like her life’s work as an entertainer is complete, even though selfishly as a fan I’d like to get another album or two from her.

But I wonder if there’s something more deeply profound at work here.

Let’s remember that Janet Jackson has been performing since she was 7 years old. She’s 46. That’s 40 years in the public eye. Forty years as a member of perhaps the most celebrated, yet maligned and misunderstood, black family on the planet. Forty years being told she’s the (relatively) sane one. Forty years under an incredibly oppressive microscope. Forty years giving her life to our enjoyment.

I don’t know that we think enough about the health of black people who have to live their lives in the public eye. Michael died at 50. Luther died at 54. Rick James was 56. Whitney was 48. Marvin Gaye was murdered at 44. Both Gerald and Sean Levert died at 40.

These were preternaturally gifted black people who gave their lives to art and music. They were not always loved and adored for it. They were still black. In America. Let us remember that the life expectancy for black people is lower than for white people.

So I think there’s something profoundly healthy about Janet Jackson at 46 saying she wants to step away from all of the pressures of being a black public figure – as much as she can – and just live her life. It’s a powerful gesture of self-preservation that I don’t know black artists always feel so empowered to make.

Read this way, of course the woman who gave us Control would end her career on her own terms. Of course the woman whose masterpiece, The Velvet Rope – a dazzling treatise on the struggle to love oneself amid all the crazy of a life as a Jackson, as a black woman – would decide when she’s had enough.

In her own way, if this retirement is indeed real, Janet Jackson’s decision feels to me like a fitting cap to a career that was, in its best broadest strokes, about black self-determination and black self-love.



Posted on April 4th, 2013 - Filed under Music
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