Category Archives: Music

With ‘The Blacker The Berry,’ Kendrick Lamar Issues a Challenge to Black America

I wonder if people’s reaction to “The Blacker The Berry” will change once the song’s meaning sinks in.

Because Kendrick Lamar hasn’t created an anthem, at least not a traditional one. He isn’t merely reflecting the moment or the burgeoning #blacklivesmatter movement. He’s asking questions that lie at the root of Blackness in the United States. Questions we often ignore, find too painful, or don’t quite know how to address.

The ways white supremacy gets in our head…

Church me with your fake prophesyzing that I’mma be another slave in my head

…The war between self-determination and self-hatred that every single Black person in America faces…

You fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.

You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me

…So that when you get to that final verse, you realize that the song is not merely a war cry. It’s actually a direct challenge to all of us – those who are becoming radicalized in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown and those of us who think we’re already radicals – to understand the ways in which our efforts to fight racism are incomplete.

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

That last couplet lands hard because of everything that comes before it. We don’t respond to it as “blame the victim” because the song so effectively explores the ways in which we’ve internalized oppression, which in turn compromises any effort to address white supremacy despite our best efforts. As a result, Kendrick reminds us that before we can truly be free, we must divest of the ways we – daily – hate ourselves.

In this way, “The Blacker The Berry” takes “Self-Destruction” one step further to the root of where that self-destruction comes from. It’s an empathetic challenge to do very difficult work where the earlier song was merely a lecture, if a beautiful one.

On the Devolution of Music Journalism

This piece on the devolution of music journalism by Ted Gioia on The Daily Beast is really great. And I think it’s right.

But the lede…

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

…actually raises two issues that the piece doesn’t really consider: 1) the audience for music and 2) the fact that music journalism has always been largely a niche endeavor.

Continue reading On the Devolution of Music Journalism

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.


Continue reading My 13 Favorite Pop Culture Moments of 2013

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

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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.