Bumpin’ E-40, three shorties in my 750, I’m 7-30, that’s twenty left, but no twenties on it
(6) Becoming King (2013) King Los
I’m usually a big fan of lyrics that are evocative or carry meaning, but I love when mcs make me pay attention to the way words sound in combination. Los starts with one of the best intros for a run (Killer Mike takes the gold with this one because it’s still Grind Time Rap Gang – Bang. Bang. Bang.). He tells the audience that “it’s not about how bad you want something, how bad you want something is meaningless/if how bad you’re willing to work for the thing you want/isn’t ten times as intense as how bad you want it/I can’t sell you desire, I can’t bottle up passion/And give it to you in the form of some magic potion”. Once the intro is done, he goes into high velocity battle rap mode. The lyrics aren’t particularly clever, but it’s fun to focus on the speed of his delivery, the density of his rhymes and his rhyme schemes on a run, especially if my energy is low. The references to the legendary rapper E-40, a BMW and an examination to determine whether a defendant in a NY criminal action has the capacity to understand the proceedings are all entertaining on their own, but the internal rhymes throughout the song make it a worthwhile addition to the mix.
(5) Moment of Clarity (freestyle) (2004) Lil’ Wayne
There’s a moment in any run when I need music to serve as a mantra. Moment of Clarity isn’t the most high-energy track in the world, but it helps focus the mind. Luis Resto and Eminem’s track pulses like a metronome. Wayne’s free associative style perfectly matches my mindset in that moment – I’ve forgotten about my goals or the pace that I wanted to keep – everything is focused on movement, on maintaining that sense of forward momentum.
Sound Bwoy Bureill, Smif-N-Wessun, from their debut Da Shinin’. I’ll be frank, the lyrical content of this song does not age well (hint: it’s the wildly homophobic lyrics). The production of this song is still top-notch. I’m not sure that anyone was better at blending hip-hop and dancehall than the Beatminerz. Smif-N-Wessun were one of the most underrated duos of the era. They had the darkness and menace of groups like Mobb Deep, but the horns and flutes in the background and haunting basslines suggest a world that’s slightly less bleak than Havoc and Prodigy’s Queensbridge. They created a sound and mood perfect for long subway ride.
2. Time’s Up, by O.C., from his debut Word…Life. One of the things I love most about O.C. is that he felt more like a working artist than a wanna-be celebrity or mogul. He rarely sounds like he’s trying to jump on a bandwagon or adhere to some trend. There’s a refreshing sense of honesty he brings to this track – insistent without being self-righteous. Time’s Up is the kind of jeremiad against hip-hop that glorified violence and misogyny that was extremely popular in New York at the time, but O.C. adds a personal touch (“I know your folks, you was a sucka as a kid”) that distinguishes it from songs like Jeru the Damaja’s Come Clean. Buckwild’s beat is unforgettable. I can listen to this forever.
3. I Got A Love, by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, from their second album Main Ingredient. This is just a perfect blend of beat, vocals and video. I still can’t believe that this duo only released two albums.
4. Rockafella (remix), by Redman, from his second album Dare Iz A Darkside. Whenever I hear (or read) people talk about the great producers of this era – Dr. Dre, RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Quik, Organized Noize – I want to interrupt to remind them that Erick “the Green Eyed Bandit” Sermon deserves to be in the conversation. And no one does a better job of riding a Sermon beat than Redman.
5. Release Yo’ Delf, by Method Man, from his debut Tical. When I first heard Tical, this was my favorite track. Love the epic sounding vocals from Blue Rasberry.
Bonus: It Ain’t Hard To Tell, by Nas, from his debut Illmatic. It’s hard to explain how it felt to listen to Illmatic in 1994, but it quickly became a barometer of quality introspective hip-hop. Nas’ lyrics on this track are abstract, but there’s a sense of purpose and precision to his delivery that separates him from his contemporaries. When I listen to this song, I’m reminded of a time when Nas was the best rapper alive.
Sometimes I need a boost of energy and a reminder of my home borough. In those times, I turn to Just Blaze, Jay-Z and the fine folks from the Mash Out Posse.
Lil’ Fame and Billy Danze bring an aggressive energy to their music that can’t be ignored, especially in small doses (How About Some Hardcore, Ante Up, B.I. vs. Friendship). I’m still not sure that their approach works for an entire album, but there’s no one better at getting you revved up within a short period of time.
Jay wisely avoids any efforts to match M.O.P.’s aggression, opting to complement their rage with something I like to call ‘anthemic Jay-Z’ – clever, slickly delivered lines designed to highlight his wealth and his street roots.
Just Blaze does beautiful things to the Bobby Byrd sample at the center of this track. He has produced countless classic tracks, but this is one of my favorite. He contorts Byrd’s voice until it sounds like an inhuman plea and transforms the brass and drum sections of the song into something magical.
(1) I Shot Ya Freestyle (2001) H Money Bags, Beanie Sigel, Freeway (intro by Jay-Z and Funkmaster Flex)
One of the best experiences in hip-hop is that moment when you first realize that you’re listening to a unique voice (or set of voices). It’s like the scenes in movies about pop/rock stars when everything finally gels and the band/star show flashes of their future as the next big thing, except stardom is besides the point in hip-hop. I still remember when I heard Royce da 5’9” and Eminem freestyle on the Stretch and Bobbito Show in 1998 and felt like I was watching the birth of a star and a legend. There are also the moments when you first realize the strength of a local scene or movement, like the Cam’ron/Dipset mixtapes from the early aughts, the Bad Boy freestyles from 96-97 (which introduced many of us to the LOX and the talent brewing in Yonkers) or the Clipse’s We Got It For Cheap mixtape series in the mid aughts. This track (and the longer one later in this mix) are from a mixtape that has elements of both – it served as an introduction to Freeway (who had a brief guest spot on 1-900 Hustler from Jay-Z’s Dynasty: Roc La Familia album a few months before) and the State Property crew from Philly. It was also the moment when I realized the true potential of Beanie Sigel.
The track starts with a classic Funkmaster Flex station id and some quick banter between the DJ and Jay Z. Flex puts on the instrumental for the I Shot Ya remix (from LL Cool J’s 1995 Mr. Smith album). H Money Bags’ verse is a great warm up – he says all the tough guy things that one might expect, from “side blocks and dumpsters, that’s where I leave niggas” to “put three in your liver, leave you leaking cheap liquor”.It’s entertaining but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from any other verse from the era.
Sigel and Freeway arrive on the track next. Sigel had that super clear ‘voice of god’ flow that conformed to my notion of ‘good rapping’ throughout most of the nineties and the early aughts. Freeway was the revelation. He had a strangely high pitched melodic flow that complemented Sigel’s aggressive percussion, particularly when the two exchange verses. The duo start with a dialogue about a robbery scheme (“man, I’m dying to see if my face still work in this mask…”) and transition to individual stories about their transition to adulthood. Beanie emphasizes every word in a way that helps me build momentum during a run. He starts with “sixteen, dog/and I ain’t talking bout years/I’m talking bout bars/I’m talking bout tears” and I find myself tapping into a reserve of energy that I didn’t know I had. Freeway follows with a truncated verse mirroring Beanie’s sketch of his teenage years. It’s a good verse, but it becomes great when Free pivots into a freestyle that is so impassioned that I barely notice when the beat changes. Check out the Youtube video here.
I Miss You (Come Home), by Monifah ft. Heavy D and McGruff (possibly?), from Monifah’s debut Moods…Moments. This is my jam.
The Things You Do (Bad Boy Remix) by Gina Thompson from her Nobody Does It Better album featuring a verse from the incomparable Missy Elliott. I love the cameos from Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy (Sean Combs will always be Puffy or Puff Daddy in my book).
Soon As I Get Home by Faith Evans from her debut Faith. This is still my favorite Bad Boy r&b album – a gentler, soulful take on the early New Jack Swing sound that dominated the genre (and the era).
What Kind of Man Would I Be by Mint Condition from their classic Definition of a Band. It’s hard to do a song like this without striking a false note, but Mint Condition finds a way.
Lady (remix) by D’Angelo with AZ. I love the original more (AZ’s verse is good, but doesn’t really fit the song), but this video, featuring Faith Evans, Erykah Badu and Joi Gilliam is everything.
Tell Me, by Groove Theory, from their eponymous debut. I love the elegant simplicity of the production and the lyrics.
Sunshine and the Rain, by Joi, from her criminally underrated debut the Pendulum Vibe. I can’t say enough about this album.
I’ve spent most of the last six months thinking about trauma. In my day job, we’re investing a lot of time and effort to identify the ways in which the traumatic experiences of our clients (individuals from vulnerable populations with some involvement in the justice system) affect their lives, with the goal of developing interventions that can help them process those experiences and clear obstacles to a successful, independent life in the community. I’ve also thought about this in a more personal context, as the cycle of life and death has hit pretty close to home lately.
good kid is a soundtrack for trauma that evokes the experience of being a young black man in the inner city. A narrative about the intangible rents extracted by two forces struggling to establish a monopoly on the use of force in the community. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing that always strikes me about this song is how Kendrick uses his cadence to convey emotion. Kendrick finds different ways to build momentum throughout the album, from using a progressively more complex flow to shifting from soft to more percussive words or simply increasing the pace of his delivery. On good kid, he layers his vocals on the last third of each verse so that you feel the pressure build until you almost feel the foot on your neck.
The references to a foot on the neck evokes Orwell’s 1984(“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”) and serve as a visceral reminder of the physical brutality behind the metaphors. The phrase also helps puts the listener in the position of a victim of neighborhood violence and terror, someone who might think that the line between corrupt police and organized crime is gossamer thin.
Radicals have argued that badges are the only difference between police and gangs for decades, but good kid focuses on the psychic impact of this toxic dynamic on noncombatants. It’s the feeling of being stuck between two minority groups that make you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. When I was a young man, it felt like they were in an abusive, yet oddly symbiotic relationship. Even though both groups sincerely hated the other, it seemed as if police and gangs were invested in a vision of the poor/working class community as war zone/occupied territory, a narrative that crowded out competing views of the neighborhood.
I was uncomfortable with both narratives. Neither seemed to capture the messy contradictions of inner city urban life. If you drove by my grandparents’ neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant in the late 1980’s, you might assume that it was the kind of wartorn dystopia that Charles Murray warned us about in the previous decade. This ‘truth’ lost its power if you entered the brownstones or saw the people who filled and emptied the subway during rush hour. Maybe it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative in communities where mature gangs were deeply entrenched (and in small scale long wars with the local police department), but I imagine that in areas where mature gangs were deeply entrenched in the community, it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative, but even though the corner boys in Bed Stuy were pervasive, they weren’t part of mainstream culture like the Bloods, Crips or Folk, and most folk I knew from the area didn’t mistake their neighborhood for a literal war zone.
I was lucky. I had the right friends, knew when to appear tough and when to seem invisible, managed to avoid the wrong conflicts with the wrong people. My adolescence wasn’t traumatic, but it was emotionally draining. I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until I moved away to college. I had become so used to being guarded all of the time, to the pressure and stress related to maneuvering through neighborhoods, that its absence felt almost alien. There’s this moment in good kid where Kendrick says that he got ate alive the other day, and while he might be talking about getting jumped, I remember having that feeling at the end of the day without anyone laying a hand on me. I guess that’s why the third verse (which explicitly references drugs) feels inevitable. The ever present threat and reality of violence has a traumatic impact on the body, the mind and the spirit. It fills you with despair and animosity. It’s only natural to search for an anesthetic, something to numb the pain, ease the pressure. A little drink, a little smoke, a handful of pills. The only problem is that the cure is worse than the disease, an illusory balm that “release[s] the worst out of [your] best”.
Killer Mike comes at this from a different angle in Willie Burke Sherwood, his autobiographical song from last year’s classic R.A.P. Music.
In the brilliant first verse, Mike breathlessly recounts the string of violent tragedies that led him to adapt to the realities of violence in his neighborhood by creating a persona that would be respected in the streets. An identity equally informed by the Lord of the Flies and the music of Tupac Shakur – narratives about the anger that fuels an endless cycle of violence and trauma. While Kendrick hints at escape through narcotics, Mike copes by becoming harder, by becoming “like an iron man“. In real life, Mike went on to become a working class guy before going into music, but it’s easy to imagine how his decision to become hard could’ve had tragic consequences. Prisons and graveyards are filled with men who decided to become hard in the narrow way that garners respect in the street. Although Mike’s choices were different than mine, there’s something about the “and I bought my first tape by Tupac and I got hard” line that reminds me of how effective Tupac was at articulating the righteous anger that I felt through most of my teenage years. I distinctly remember what struggling to control my anger felt like. How hard it was to not overreact to every perceived slight. It starts as a defense mechanism, but ends up as a crutch, especially once I realized that I was carrying those feelings around with me where ever I went. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “even if you are not out in The Street, it’s very hard for none of The Street to live in you“.
Kendrick suggests a number of ways to resolve this conflict (or ease the tension) in Good Kid m.a.a.d. city, most notably in Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Black Boy Fly and the skit at the end of Real. But the solution that resonates the most right now is Freedom, by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. The need to escape implicit in good kid is brought to the surface in the gospel tinged duet from the Django Unchained soundtrack.
Freedom was one of the many perfectly placed (if on the nose) sonic accompaniments to the film. The song’s power grows on repeated listening. When I first heard it, I thought that it helped situate Django within the legacy of American folk heroes and the African American community’s long struggle towards freedom while reminding us that his struggle was an intensely personal one. It’s a song about desperate hope in the face of impossible odds, a brief intrusion of reality into Quentin Tarantino’s heightened fantasy.
Freedom is painful, but there’s something about the song that fills me with optimism. It’s the slight tremor in Boynton’s voice when she sings that the sun’s gonna shine on her nicely. Hamilton’s confident declaration that there’s got to be a winning in his bones.
The echoes of spirituals and freedom songs in Freedom serve as a reminder that in some small way, my generation’s struggles for inner and outer peace mirror those of earlier generations. The block presented its own challenges to my parents and grandfather as young people. My father spent his youth trying to embrace his neighborhood without being confined by it while my mother gingerly navigated the invisible land mines of her neighborhood as a young woman. In contrast, my maternal grandfather was determined to abandon it for the suburbs. That reminder of a greater struggle helps fuel the hopes and dreams that give us the power to process our pain.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about legacy in Philadelphia.
I spent most of last week in the city, my second visit as an adult. I was there for work, to attend a professional conference for people in higher education who work on issues related to gender equity. I stayed in appropriately generic hotels in downtown Philadelphia that featured good room service, warm staff and chilly conference rooms. I learned and networked during the day and wandered the streets in the evening.
During my first visit, I visited the Liberty Bell and walked by the Christ Church burial ground and Elfreth’s Alley. The city is filled with reminders of Philadelphia’s role in early American history, nods to the men and women who fought and sacrificed to win their freedom during the Revolutionary War. I felt like I was surrounded by America’s origin myth. On my second day at the 2016 conference, I learned about about institutional betrayal and Prof. Jennifer Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory.
It was fascinating stuff, but everyone was too busy talking about the Presidential campaign. A recording of one of the candidates talking frankly about some of the awful privileges that come with power had surfaced, and everyone was either frightened about what might happen if the candidate became President or confident that this revelation would doom his candidacy. I wandered by the President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of A New Nation exhibit later that evening. It was a profoundly moving experience that I was eager to replicate on my second trip to the city.
I spent some time in Philadelphia this week in order to think about gender equity in a time of uncertainty and regulatory change. I learned a lot, and left energized by conversations with brilliant colleagues who use their skills as educators and advocates to help make a better world.
The conference reminded me that this moment is an opportunity for all of us to demonstrate commitment to creating a welcome environment for people of all genders and to ending violence and harassment on our campuses.
The experience also helped me realize that the hard working folks in my field need to shift our focus from training models designed to help people understand policy and procedure (message: obey!) to a learning one where we help people learn about healthy relationships (with scaffolding strategies) and persuade people who aren’t inclined to care about our work or listen to us. It was a timely reminder that compliance isn’t enough – we have to get up off the floor and reach for the ceiling.
When I wasn’t doing that work (or dong other work), I used the time as an opportunity to sample some of the amazing cuisine and art in Philadelphia.
The food was uniformly delicious – from Bridgid’s delectable trout to the oyster po’ boy at Beck’s Cajun Cafe and the bialy and lox at Hershel’s East Side – but the highlight of the trip was a lunchtime visit to the Rodin Museum in the Fairmount neighborhood. The museum is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, on the path to the Philadelphia Art Museum.
A replica of Rodin’s Thinker welcomes visitors and passersby at the entrance. I’m familiar with the famous sculpture, but I never spent much time thinking about it, except as a symbol/shorthand for deep contemplation. I marveled at Rodin’s ability to capture such a fundamentally internal process in a statue, but didn’t think about it as a representation of the human figure. When I stood in front of the statue, I found myself focusing on its physical characteristics – the knuckles, the tendons, the obliques, the body language.
The museum is located in a building that evokes ancient Greece. The museum’s website helpfully shares that it’s a Beaux Arts style building, a style of architecture from the 19th and early 20th century derived from France that blended ancient Greek and Roman designs with ones from the Renaissance and Baroque era. There’s usually a sense of grandness with buildings in this style, but the museum feels quiet and intimate. The garden and reflecting pool immediately outside the museum complements this effect – once you pass the two columns at the front of the museum, you feel like you’ve entered a different world.
The museum features over 140 pieces of Rodin’s work scattered throughout the building and in the garden area, with samples from every phase of his career. I found myself drawn to Rodin’s hands and faces. I love the way that he depicts emotional extremes, from the anguish of the Burghers of Calais walking towards their death and the gates of hell to the passion captured in I Am Beautiful and the exuberance of Youth Triumphant.
Rodin’s hands are expressive and beautifully rendered. They add layers of meaning to his sculptures. The hands of the burghers – both in the Burghers statues and in the Clenched Hand (an early study for the former) – complement the sense of hopelessness that one gets from Rodin’s faces.
His Cathedral suggests an intimacy between lovers that is a quieter counterpart to the more demonstrative I Am Beautiful or the powerfully passionate the Damned Women.
I was also struck by Rodin’s efforts to grapple with the ineffable through his Hand of God and Gates of Hell sculptures. The Hand of God draws a parallel between human and divine acts of creation, with God as divine sculptor, shaping humanity from a barren rock. The contrast between the hyper-real sculpture of a human hand emerging from a block of marble and the impossible image of the partially formed figures materializing from the rock is striking, almost magical. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the creative process.
The Gates of Hell are a powerful monument to the human experience. It contains figures in agony and ecstatic abandon, along with images suggesting compassion and love (both sexual and maternal).
The Thinker is perched near the top of the gates, surrounded by figures in all manner of embraces (some of which look passionate, others of which almost look torturous).
As with the Hand of God, the title of the piece suggests a straightforward religious interpretation, but the sculpture feels like a tangible representation of a doorway to the human mind, complete with chaotic and contradictory emotions and experiences.
The statues are impressive in photographs and art books but gain a magical quality when viewed in person. The interplay of light and shadow over the curves of the statues spark the imagination and add layers of mystery and meaning.
The hand in the Hand of God felt majestic and awe inspiring upon first view, but after looking at it for a few minutes in the midday light, it almost looked tender.
I like Finch’s character work on this page. The three young men in the second panel are Batman’s progeny – two surrogate sons (his oldest and the prodigal one) and his only biological son (the youngest). Finch conveys who they are and their relationship with each other through facial expressions and body language.
Dick (Nightwing) is the one sitting alone in the booth, the one who is relaxed and comfortable in his own skin. The one who comes closest to being a well adjusted person.
Jason (Red Hood) is the angry one, the rebel without a cause. He communicates through sarcasm and provocations.
Damian (Robin) is the young one, one who pretends to be an entitled jerk but doesn’t want you to know that he’s just an adolescent boy.
Bruce (you know who…) is the father figure and a man who is not comfortable in a fast food restaurant.
The dialogue sharpens the distinctions between the men (and boy), but you’d get it without reading a thing.
The four are meeting in a “Batman” themed fast food restaurant, which gives Finch the opportunity to add humorous elements in the background that lighten the tone of the story. There’s something extremely ironic about the panel in which the three proteges banter in front of a Joker themed wall decoration.
This was a fun read. I find that I appreciate superhero comics more when I read them the same way I did when I was a kid/adolescent – with enthusiasm and a sense of generosity.
I had a mixed response to the parts of the story focused on the conflict between Bane and Batman. I was intrigued by the broad strokes of the story, in which Batman is trying to defeat a foe who was not only stronger than him, but had successfully broken the body and mystique of Batman in the past. In the first two volumes, King and Finch explored the nature of the character through stories exploring his role as a mentor to other heroes (who were not sidekick/surrogate child figures), a tactician and leader of a group of amoral adventurers and as a failed/tragic romantic figure in his relationship with Catwoman. In this volume, Finch and King use a physical conflict between Batman and a superior foe to help the reader understand a man who would dress up as a bat to fight crime. There’s a long buildup to the battle in this volume. We see Batman prepare for war and Bane dispatch all of the other members of the cast (hero and villain alike) with ease.
The conflict between the two takes up most of an issue and feels pretty anti climatic on the first read. Finch and King mix sequences of Bane beating Batman senseless (while the two verbally spar) with an imagined monologue delivered by a figure from Batman’s past that helpfully summarizes the plot and transforms the subtext into text. Finch alternates between panels illustrating the combat and ones which complement the monologue (e.g., a panel featuring Catwoman accompanying a passage about doomed love). The fight ends as one might expect (hint: we’re not reading the continued adventures of ‘Bane‘). It was a bit anti-climactic – I wanted a perfectly choreographed martial arts inspired battle between two skilled combatants, but I got a brawl with a pretty implausible conclusion.
On a second read (with more sleep), I had a better sense of things. The story inverts Knightfall, the classic Batman story by an army of creators including Denny O’Neil, Chuck Dixon, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle that introduced Bane a quarter century ago. In Knightfall, Bane defeats Batman by pitting him against a gauntlet of his most dangerous foes (he stages a breakout at Arkham Asylum, the residential facility/hostel for Batman villains) and viciously attacking him when he is at his weakest. Finch and King have Batman borrow Bane’s old technique by using the tools at his disposal (including his enemies) to drive Bane to mental exhaustion and use a ‘rope a dope’ strategy (which involves letting Bane pummel him into oblivion) to further exhaust and distract him.
Although the experience of reading the scene is still a tad unsatisfying – I would have preferred more visual cues hinting at the strategic planning behind the physical conflict – the final moment of the battle does feel more powerful.