1. Octopus Pie vol. 1-4 – Meredith Gran
2. My Favorite Thing is Monsters – Emil Ferris
3. The Best We Could – Thi Bui
4. Mister Miracle – Tom King, Mitch Gerads
5. Prince of Cats – Ron Wimberley
6. The Mighty Thor – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman
7. My Pretty Vampire – Katie Skelly
8. Giant Days – John Allison, Lisa Treiman, Max Sarin
9. Seven to Eternity – Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Matt Hollingsworth
10. The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal – E.K. Weaver
11. Invisible Republic – Gabriel Hartman, Corinna Sara Bechko
You see I’m searching for a real love and I don’t know where to go I been around the world and high and low And still I’ll never know How it feels to have a real love Cause it seems it’s not around I gotta end it in this way because it Seems he can’t be…
(9) Real Love (Hip Hop Mix) (1992) Mary J. Blige, Notorious B.I.G.
I love every version and mix of this classic, but this is my favorite version for a jogging mix. I first added this song for this year’s Faxon Law New Haven Road Race.One of the reasons that I like running in races is that it forces me to push my limits – to keep running at top speed when I would otherwise be inclined to slow down. Music helps me keep up my energy throughout the race. Unfortunately, I ran a bit before I started the road race and had burned through most of my playlist. By the time I was in the last quarter of the race, I felt drained and was concerned that I ran out of music. There was silence after DNA ended. All I heard was my steady breathing and the sound of my sneakers on the road. And then I heard Mary. There’s no beat, no accompanying instruments, no guide tracks or other obvious studio wizardry. Just her voice. She sings that she’s searching for a real love and a faint chord can be heard in the background. She tells us that she doesn’t know where to go and it feels so honest, so powerful, that I find another gear.
There is a sense of endless anarchic possibility, that things can end with pleasure and joy or pain and regret. There are endless alcohol fueled narratives mixing and colliding against a soundtrack of rhythmic music. The tone shifts from the comic to the tragic based on time and location. There are the friends who are catching up after a long time apart, the people trying to cheer themselves up with liquor and uptempo music, the schemers, and of course, the folk of all genders looking for companionship. You can find the teetotalers high on life and people who are on different parts of the intoxication spectrum – the comic, the tragic, the stoic. There are suggestions of romantic interludes and flashes of harassment.
Blake Edwards and Miriam Nelson (who choreographed the scene) capture the feel and emotion of a party perfectly. The camera moves between stories (that complement and comment on the relationship at the center of the story. They range from a handful of people engaged in some personal or intimate activity to a shifting mass of people trying to dance, move to another location, chat, get their drink on and hook up. As with all good parties, the cops make a surprise guest appearance towards the end. I wasn’t surprised to read that Edwards cast actors in this scene – each one seemed fully invested in playing characters who were fully realized and had complete lives, even though we would never see them.
I think this was the first movie that made me appreciate Audrey Hepburn as an actress. I loved her in Roman Holiday, but I wasn’t sure if she could play someone who was a bit more of a morally complicated character. Audrey’s not playing the Holly Golightly we see in Truman Capote’s novel, but she was still a complex character who retained some traces of the original. She was not a sex worker (or at least she wasn’t a traditional one), but she was a far cry from the kinds of sexually inexperienced characters that Doris Day made famous. In the scene above, Hepburn shows us different facets of the Hepburn character – shifting from coquettish to vulnerable to plotting. We see the undercurrent of cynical cunning underneath her naive facade. Her rough edges are hidden to public view, but they are very real.
We’re supposed to believe that Paul (the male lead portrayed by George Peppard) is the one who gets her, but I’m skeptical. There’s a bland emptiness behind his eyes that betrays his essential ordinariness. All he sees is a kook that needs to be rescued and domesticated. The audience sees more. They see that she doesn’t need to be saved.
Edwards also uses the scene to show us the absurdity beneath the superficial glamor of Holly and her circle. They all seem hip, urbane and worldly when we first meet them, but the party scene shows us that these are performances. In Fifth Avenue, 5A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Sam Wesson argues that the scene illustrates the obliviousness of the partygoers, a joke at the expense of “nuts who may be glamorous but don’t have a clue”. He suggests that this mirrors Holly’s own cluelessness about the “empty frivolity of the life she leads”. I’m sure that he’s correct about Edwards’ intentions, but I read the scene in a slightly different way.
I see the same hip dinner party scene told through slapstick, but where Wesson (and possibly Edwards) see clueless socialites (or frauds), I see intentional performances from people who know that they are playing roles. We don’t see any discomfort or awkwardness when the illusions are disrupted. The woman talking to the man with the eye patch doesn’t blink an eye when he moves it to cover his other eye. The nuttiness is strategic – used as part of a courting ritual or for fun or to hustle someone. There’s not a naive person in this room. Everyone knows that they’re part of The Game. As my wife likes to say, Holly’s frivolity was her hustle.
There’s nothing empty about something that helps you put food on the table.
My second nod towards hip hop from this decade from an artist who could have come from my personal golden age (like many hip hop listeners, my golden age is almost perfectly aligned with when I attended high school).
Kendrick’s famous for his complex and immaculately constructed rhyme schemes, but it’s his use of straightforward internal rhymes and repetition combined with Mike WiLL Made It’s ferocious production that make this track a perfect choice for the last quarter of a run.
“I got…” and “inside my DNA” feel like forceful mantras. His first verse is all controlled aggression, unraveling the contradictions of heritage and legacy. Kendrick shifts to the present in his second verse, giving us a glimpse at the experience of living a life of earned luxury as a black man in America with anxiety about how his material success has changed him (even softened him) with dark days ahead. If you grew up in rough circumstances, an easy life just might feel like the Matrix and raise concerns that you were less prepared to deal with the threats of the future.
39. Love. One of my favorite Tupac lines was always “last year was a tough one, but life goes on” – it always feels true. I turned 38 during a tough time in my life. My career was going well, my personal and professional relationships were solid, my kid was healthy and happy and my marriage was a good one. I should have been content. I was still in shock from a national election that seemed to foreshadow a dark future. It was a reminder that the past was not past.
I ran ten miles on my birthday that year because I hoped that I could outrun what was starting to feel like more than a standard post-election funk. There was a quote from an old Radiolab podcast that stuck in my mind – “if love and mercy are good things, why are they missing so much of the time?” I found myself listening to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker on runs. When he referenced the binding of Isaac in the chorus “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready Lord”, I was moved. I was ready to serve, but felt lost.
The running worked for a little while, but I didn’t really start to feel better until family came by for Thanksgiving. Cooking and talking to my extended family helped me feel balanced. I shared the story from the podcast with my family – how Robert Krulwich struggled with the meaning of the sacrifices that Abraham and Noah were asked to make in God’s name, about how much can be read into the silences of the Old Testament narratives. I told them that we all needed to find that love and mercy in one another. We were all we had. In the months that followed, the reactionary resurgence in this country was met by a wave of progressive activism led by an awe inspiring range of people from different backgrounds and cultures, with different experiences and gender identities, from a wide range of groups that could be defined as ‘left’. There have been a number of setbacks, but there have been some hopeful moments. I’m not under any illusion. The next few years will be extraordinarily difficult and we will all have to endure some challenging times. But we’ve got a chance.
I ran 11 miles this year for my birthday run. I originally planned to run to the veterans memorials on Long Wharf to briefly pay my respects, but I just felt compelled to keep going. I only stopped when my phone flashed a signal to inform me that it had 10% battery life and was going to shut down. It felt different this time. I felt content. I didn’t have anything to outrun.
This is all about the tension between the sample of Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Cher’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), the sample of the Diplomats’ anthemic Ground Zero and Wayne’s vicious abstract boasts. This song is from the era when everyone almost thought that Wayne was the best rapper alive. He made his case for the throne by overwhelming us with albums, remixes, freestyles and random tracks that never made it on an official release. Wayne seemed to have an inexhaustible reserve of energy. Wayne’s best songs begin in media res, filled with lines that were uneven in quality but which always felt spontaneous. There’s a thrill that comes from the feeling that you’re listening to someone in the midst of the creative process.
On a separate note, I’m still waiting for a rapper/producer to sample Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) in a way that comments on the meaning of the song. Bang Bang is a 1966 song written by Sonny Bono for Cher’s second album and covered by Nancy Sinatra in the same year. To my ears, it sounds like a torch song from the prior decade.
Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) is a song about how a man harms a woman (and about how men harm women) through rituals that appear safe and ordinary. It starts with a woman recounting a children’s game she played with an unnamed male friend, a pretend battle between good and evil cowboys that always ended with his victory. It’s a game played for ‘fun’, but there are echoes of real conflict beyond the reference to unrest during America’s westward expansion. She describes the sound of imaginary gunfire as awful and the listener isn’t just reminded of the jarring sound of actual gunfire, but all of the ways in which we sanitize the terrifying sound of a firearm discharge. The woman continues with a scene set later in her life. She is romantically involved with the male friend, who frequently reminded her of their childhood game that he always won. He seems to acknowledge that the game was more than play when he echoes her comment about the awful sound. The third verse takes place some time later after she married the man and he left her for mysterious reasons. The uncertainty is painful. When I first heard this song, I thought that he died. Maybe it was all the violent imagery that preceded that moment or the plaintive “never had a chance to say goodbye” line earlier in the verse that made me think that she had become a widow, but the line telling us that he didn’t take the time to lie removed much of the doubt.
I first encountered Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Bang Bang in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1, when he used it to accompany a silent black and white flashback of the Bride’s wedding day that ended in a brutal betrayal and assault – transforming emotional betrayal into an ugly, physical reality.
The songs that sample Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) tend to use the song for a similar purpose. The producer/artist typically sample the chorus to accompany or introduce violent stories that involve firearms. The resulting song highlights the darkness in the original by transforming the violent metaphor at the heart of Bang Bang into literal text. The blend of two incongruous works with superficially similar lyrics can also inspire some interesting, possibly unintentional interpretations of the finished product. Sometime the references to guns in the sample and the hip-hop song feel like a sly reminder that gun culture has always had a place of prominence in the American popimagination. America’s love affair with guns predates hip hop. In some songs, (like Dedication 2) the sample suggests that the violence referenced in the hip-hop song is as imaginary as the make-believe gunfight between two children. More than anything, I’d love to hear a hip-hop song use it to explore the kind of relationship like the one suggested in Bang Bang – defined by power struggles and betrayal.
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.