Rappers Rap, Activists…Activate

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Last summer, I was criticized by another writer for taking too long to write about a change in my relationship status. (My then girlfriend and I went our separate ways in October of 2011. I didn’t mention anything about it online until the next spring.) Since I write about dating and relationship-related topics, she (the writer) felt I had a duty to inform our readers of my new singledom, and stated that not doing so was dishonest. She also implied that the dishonesty was intentional. Basically, I didn’t say anything because the assumption that I was still in a relationship gave my work more credibility.

As I explained to her, the real reason behind my decision not to mention anything publicly was that I knew my ex and many of her friends and family still read the site. I also still had (and still have) a decent relationship with her and many of them, and I just didn’t think that writing about the breakup so soon would be a good idea.

She (the writer) listened to my explanation. But, she still went away from the conversation believing that, in this case, the duty to my fans/readers superseded whatever was going on in my personal life.

Sounds crazy, right? A person having the audacity to criticize you and your work because what they think you should be thinking about and who they think you should be doesn’t match up with what you’re actually thinking about and who you actually are.

When thinking of someone feeling that way about a person like me, it does seem insensitive and rather selfish. But, for some reason, when the level of status is greater, it’s perfectly acceptable, encouraged even, to play passenger seat Geppetto and scold someone for not meeting your expectation of who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do…even if it completely obscures who they actually are.

We’re seeing this play out right now with the reaction to the increasingly bizarre feud between Jay Z and Harry Belafonte. Before I continue, I have to admit that taking Jay Z’s side in any dispute is like rooting for Wall Street, drone attacks, the bubbles in Pepsi cans, or the f*cking McRib. And, having the audacity to have a public tiff with someone like Harry Belafonte over something like philanthropy and activism makes the line separating right and wrong about as clear as it can be. Which brings up my next point. Where you stand on this debate likely depends on how you define right and wrong. Or, more specifically, which rights and wrongs you sympathize with more.

There is no doubt Harry Belafonte is “right” from a macro perspective. (Also, it cannot be understated that Jay Z is wrong for how dismissive of Belafonte he has been.) People like Jay Z and Beyonce should do more—”doing more” could be anything from donating more money to needed causes to using their statuses to affect more change—and them doing more would benefit the greater good. Aside from the Carters having a lighter collective pocketbook and a busier schedule, it’s hard to imagine any real negatives coming from that.

But, what those who believe Jay Z is completely in the wrong here are ultimately asking is for Jay Z to not be Jay Z. Basically, they want his presence, his influence, and his money, but they don’t actually want him. I mean, how could anyone with any knowledge of Jay Z’s history (and present) expect him to be anything but distilled capitalist? I get why people are upset about him stating his “presence is charity” in his interview with Elliot Wilson. But, really, what the hell else did you expect him to say? This is Jay Z. This negro just took a vacation to f*cking Cuba (Cuba!!!), and quickly recorded a very public “f*ck you” to anyone who had an issue with it. Just a month ago, he totally upstaged his protege and new BFF by basically saying “Yeah, I know your album is coming out in three days and needs all the buzz it can get, but it’s Samsung and the NBA finals, man.” He is going to sound arrogant and dismissive because arrogance and the ability to be completely dismissive is what made him him. You can put a suit on a shark and make him a salad, but he’s still going to, um, bite your neck off the first chance he gets.¹

I’m not saying that a person like Jay Z is unable to change. Just that we’re wrong for expecting him to and even more wrong for getting upset if he doesn’t fulfill an arbitrary expectation he never aspired to reach.

Getting back to the my “presence is charity” line, I actually don’t think he’s completely off-base there, either. Being an activist—a real activist, not someone who retweets Jasiri X and Maya Angelou once every other month—is a calling, a full-time vocation, and criticizing someone who just doesn’t have an activist heart or mindset minimizes the efforts of those who do. The people who are on the front lines have combined their inclination to do that type of work with years of developing the very specific skills and passions needed to be effective. Just as everyone can’t walk into a studio tomorrow and make a classic rap album, you can’t expect everyone to have the emotional capacity, stamina, and very specific sense of moral intelligence necessary to be a Belafonte.

You know, I actually did see where the writer who criticized my omission was coming from. She had no way of knowing my backstory. And, even with what was going on in my personal life, I still could have written about it. I mean, if I write and publish books about dating and relationships, wouldn’t a piece or two sharing details of my own personal break-up be very relevant? Thing is, at that point in my life, the lines between who I was expected to be and who I actually was were getting increasingly blurry, and I had to make a decision. Instead of choosing the expectation, I chose me. And, as much as I want to, I can’t really fault Jay Z for doing the same thing.

¹This sounded much better in my head.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”) 

Why I Can’t Really Get Into Magna Carta…Holy Grail

***The Champ’s latest at EBONY explains why Jay-Z’s new album has left him underwhelmed***

“With a household net worth of a billion dollars, MCHG is the first solo album where Jay-Z is actually the person he’s always rapped about being. When he raps “Basquiat in my kitchen corner/Go ahead lean on that shit Blue, you own it” and “Surrounded by Warhols/my whole team ball” on “Picasso Baby”, these aren’t colorful fabrications from a kid showing how far his imagination can stretch or even the truth-bending claims of a moderately successful rapper insecure he’s not bourgie enough. This is a man who can actually afford Basquiat bath mats and Warhol toilet paper.

From a technical standpoint, this is actually one of Jay-Z’s better albums. His subject matter and production is as complex and diverse as it’s ever been, and his flow hasn’t lost any of its signature effortlessness. Aside from his perfunctory forgettable track with his wife, nothing on MCHG is skip-worthy.

Yet, if I had to rank favorite Jay-Z albumsMCHG would finish last. As stated earlier, Jay-Z’s main draw has always been how good he was at convincing you he’s as rich as he currently is. But now, when the person finally matches up with the persona, the persona ceases to be as compelling, and the music ceases to resonate. The level of cognitive dissonance needed to be a serious rap fan is no longer necessary when listening to an album made by a person who no longer has any need for hyperbole. After at least a dozen listens, there’s no doubt Jay-Z is the only rapper who could have made MCHG. Unfortunately, there’s also no doubt that MCHG is the only album this Jay-Z—a maven salesman with nothing left to sell—can make. It’s not elevator music as much as it’s music made by (and for) people with elevators in their homes.”

Read more at EBONY

The One Where I Write About Magna Carta Holy Grail

JayZ_MagnaCartaHolyGrail_608x608Jay just released Magna Carta Holy Grail. Or at least he released it to Samsung phone owners and the rest of us got it from them. I’d like to say its an interesting album but it isn’t. In fact, by my estimation, it is his worst album.

Yes. I said it. His worst album. That’s not to say its a terrible album. A mediocre Jay album (Vol. 3, Blueprint 3, Kingdom Come) is still going to have some straight up gems on it…though rarely does he perform any songs from those albums. It’s just wildly underwhelming from both a lyrical and a production standpoint. In fact, I feel like nobody involved in this effort put their best footz forward. MCHG is what happens when a bunch of very accomplished, very rich, very talented, bored people get together to make an album because well, that’s what accomplished, rich, talented people who make music do.

I’m very sure many people will love this album. And that’s aces. The good thing about  Jay album is that it still maintains its cultural significance of being a thing. The idea of a Jay album is possibly more important than the output at this juncture. Same thing with Yeezus, at least Yeezus took risks and you keep listening despite telling yourself there’s no reason to. Timbaland stated this in a recent interview about MCHG and I was like, “yes honey chile boo boo…” Except I totally didn’t.

Anyway, after multiple (and I do mean multiple) listenings of MCHG since Thursday, here are 10 thoughts I have about Jay and the album:

1) Jay-Z truly needs a muse. Kanye West is Jay’s muse. While I felt like Jay-Z was also bored on Watch The Throne, at least he sounded like he was having fun and enjoying the moment. Kanye is a motivator for Jay. As somebody who has done everything one can do in hiphop, Jay needs somebody hungry to put a battery in his back. Kanye is forever hungry. Kanye is a battery. Jay feeds off his energy and its evident on everything they’ve done together.

2) MCHG = Rich Bored Nword Music. Real spit, I feel like this is the album that Stringer Bell would be listening to once he achieved whatever the f*ck he was trying to achieve had he left the dope game with his economics books and samurai swords and swanky downtown apartment with modern art and clean lines. Well, you know, if he ain’t catch a bad one at the hands of Brother Mouzone and Omar. And if that’s a spoiler for you, I feel sorry for your mother. It’s music created by rich bored nwords for rich bored nwords.

3) MCHG is basically Kingdom Come 2. KC was an album that people listened to then stopped listening to altogether. Nobody that most of us know as listened to KC in at least five years. It was full of pseudo attempts at depth and social relevancy (the gawdawful “Minority Report” specifically) and faux metaphorical depth like “Beach Chair”. Though I really did like “Beach Chair” but that’s mostly because I like telling people that life is, indeed, like a beach chair. Nobody will be listening to this album in a year. Hell, I know folks who have forgotten JT released an album recently and that sh*t Ricky Martins.

4) Jay-Z only seems to make good songs with Beyonce when they are on her albums. Thus far, he’s striking out with Bey songs on his albums, and “Part II” is no exception. “Upgrade You”? F*cking rocked. “Hollywood”? Not so much.

5) Hearing Jay sound so bored and lazy lyrically is a thing of wonder. The words are there. The flow is there. But for some reason, it just sounds like he’s saying what he’s supposed to say because, what else would Jay-Z say? One knock against Jay has always been his lack of diversity of subject matter. Now generally that doesn’t matter because if you do one thing that much better than everybody else, and you keep doing it better than everybody else, on super dope production, nobody has anything to complain about. But when you lose a step lyrically – even if you’re still on your grizzly just not as grizzly as before – and the music isn’t as exciting as its been in the past or as exciting as other music out, you end up making MCHG, an effort where the most exciting part of it is the marketing campaign. Case in point, “Pop That” made French Montana sound good. Don’t read too much into that sentence.

6) The marketing campaign was brilliant. Totes. “I’m not a business man, I’m a business, man…” And I’m exciting to see these artists cut out the middle men. Timbaland alluded to this in his REVOLT interview where he lauded that this is Jay’s best album (wrong) when he mentioned that he has one album left for Interscope then he can do something similar. Take the music directly to the public without the companies. Brilliance.

“…love to see young Blacks get money…” ~Dr. Dre

7) I also like how often Jay likes to reference Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hopefully he urges some young folks to look into the man’s work for educational purposes. This brings up an interesting tangent. I was remarking earlier today that I’ve learned more about fashionable brands and high end boutiquery via hiphop than anything else. I’m not sure what this says about me. But it’s possible that it says that I drink moscato because I like it. I don’t. It’s possible that you’d assume this about me. And I’d have to understand. I don’t like moscato at all by the way. Sh*t tastes like distilled Kool-Aid. Not that I’d never heard of Basquiat before Jay and Kanye decided to make him their cause or anything. I’m cultured. I pull up to the gallery with my ceiling missing.

8) I feel sorry for Ice Cube. If Ice Cube had released two more solid albums into the mid 90s, he’d definitely be in the conversation for GOAT. But he released shit like War & Peace. And now nobody remembers that for a solid 4 years Ice Cube was the scariest ninja alive AND the best rapper period. Socially conscious. Angry. Mobilizing. A brilliant wordsmith and storyteller and able to put together great albums. Oh, what does this have to do with Jay? Well luckily, Jay waited until he was almost 20 years into the music game to start making forgettable albums. Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.

“…you’re a white guy and you make tacos like a Mexican…”

I just wanted to write that line.

9) The fact that Rick Ross sounds more believably convinced of his own excesses on “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” is not lost on me. He also sounds better on the song than Jay. This bothers me. I’m not sure what to do with this information but there’s a really good chance that I’ll just sit down with a crumpet, dip it in a delicious jam or jelly and scratch my pinky toe with salmon. Don’t judge me. It’s possible.

10) It might really be time for Jay to hang up the gloves. I mean, hell, it WAS time after The Black Album. But at this point, rapping is just one of the many things we know Jay does. He seems more popular for his mere existence and other endeavors. He’s possibly the only other rapper aside from Kanye who can maintain complete hip-hop relevance without releasing another album. That is how you know you’ve made it.

Those are my thoughts on MCHG and Jay right now. And because you care and its important, here’s my ranking of Jay’s studio albums (non-collab joints):

1. Reasonable Doubt

2. The Blueprint

3. The Black Album

4. American Gangster

5. Volume 2

6. Volume 1

7. Blueprint 3

8. Dynasty (does this count? I think we consider this a Jay album)

9. Volume 3

10. Kingdom Come

11. Blueprint 2

12. MCHG

So, have you heard MCHG? Thoughts? Should artists continue to art sh*t if its totally clear that they’re not nearly as invested as they used to be (this could be me calling the kettle black, btw)? How would you rank Jay’s discography?

Welcome back.

-VSB P aka THE ARSONIST aka GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRL HE A 3

Who’s Winning: Jay-Z Or Joe Budden?

Along with being quite possibly the only place on Earth (well, the only place on Earth outside of prison) where you might able to purchase Kevin Hart DVDs, lobster rolls, sneakers, lightly-used cocaine, and insurance all in the same day, the barbershop is one of the few places that consistently manages to at least whelm. Perhaps you wont be overwhelmed, but you won’t be underwhelmed either. While other entities sometimes have a mystique that surpasses the experience, no one ever visits a popular Black barbershop for the first time and leaves thinking “That kinda sucked. Don’t know what the big deal was.”

This experience is largely due to the fact that the barbershop’s dynamic ensures that there will be a diverse group of men—students, garbagemen, drug dealers, teachers, lawyers, bloggers, etc—of all ages. And, when you sit a diverse group of men in the same general area—with no women around—conversations happen. Interesting conversations. Conversations that you may not be able to have anywhere else.

For instance, last week the discussion was centered around the new season of Love and Hip-Hop. And by “the new season of Love and Hip-Hop” I mean “Tahiry Jose’s religion-inducing ass.” For the uninitiated, Tahiry Jose is the ex-girlfriend of B-minus-list rapper Joe Budden. She was made internet famous a couple years ago when Budden would occasionally release mundane home videos of him and Tahiry doing things like “making dinner,” “arguing about soap,” and “sitting on chairs.” In each video, though, Tahiry’s, um, assets were the protagonist, antagonist, climax, rising action, and exposition, and this exposure led to her being featured in numerous Black magazines, several videos, and now Love and Hip-Hop.

Anyway, the conversation then segued to Joe Budden’s dating history. Now, despite the fact that I’m sure there will be a few of you who are hearing Joe Budden’s name right now for the first time ever, he has two very notable claims to fame in certain segments of the Black male population.

1. He’s one of the best mixtape/freestyle rappers ever. (And, to be clear, not freestyle in the “top of the dome” sense, but freestyle in the “spit 16 or 32 written bars over someone else’s hot beat while you’re in the studio on Shade 45″ sense)

2. His dating history.

From Esther Baxter and Gloria Velez to Yaris Sanchez and Tahiry Jose, Budden has been romantically linked to a dozen or so of the most famous (and unfortunately named) video vixens and internet models ever. While none of these women are household names, any male (Black, White, or Laker Fan) familiar with any of the popular urban magazines (King, XXL, Smooth, etc) definitely know who each of them are.

(There’s also a popular sub-conversation about Budden’s history that basically asks “How the hell is he able to bag all these sought after women?” There are a few theories—he makes great use of social media, he’s well-endowed, etc—but mine is a bit less flattering. I think the only difference between ***insert random rapper or ball-player*** and Joe Budden is that while ***insert random rapper or ball-player*** may sleep with these women on the low, Budden lets everyone know who he happens to be dating. Basically, for people in those circles, these women aren’t really sought after at all, and he just makes public what others are doing privately)

This knowledge prompted one of the patrons in the shop to remark “Budden is f*cking winning! Don’t no one have a badder batch of bitches than he does.” While I was appreciating the unexpected burst of alliteration, the entire shop predictably co-signed. Emboldened with confidence, he took it a step further.

“Shit, Jigga aint even f*cking with him right now.”

The utter audaciousness of that statement quieted the chorus of co-signs. One of the barbers made a face so stank it looked like buffalo just pissed in his beard. Undeterred, he continued.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Beyonce is the baddest chick in the game and all that. But would you rather have Beyonce or a different Beyonce every month?”

Surprisingly, he was quickly and vehemently shot down. (I honestly was surprised how unanimously that particular population of men disagreed with him.) A statement made by one of the older barbers summed up the general sentiment.

“That’s your age talking, yo. Beyonce is a dimepiece worth a billion dollars. The point of the game is to end with the best chick possible and build something with her. Game over. End of discussion. You a f*cking fool if you think otherwise.”

Regardless of how you may personally feel about Beyonce, I’m assuming that the vast majority of the people reading this agree with the barber. While a revolving door of King cover girls may seem appealing, ultimately the best, the most mature, and the smartest thing to do would be to find one woman to build with, a woman who brings her own considerable goods to the table. In the game of life, Jay-Z is beating Budden so badly that they’re not even keeping score anymore.

But, if you remove Beyonce, Budden, Jay-Z, and the video vixens from the discussion, the conversation changes. If given the choice between A) meeting the person of your dreams and spending the rest of your life with that person or B) meeting, dating, sleeping with an assembly line of unfathomably attractive mates, which do you choose?

The “obvious” answer, the politically correct answer, and my answer are all the same: Finding the person of your dreams, and maintaining a good to great relationship with them is the easy choice. But, this choice isn’t so obvious to everyone. George Clooney, Derek Jeter, John Mayer, and, shit, Rihanna—all people who have the ability to date pretty much whoever they want and have been romantically linked with dozens of different extremely attractive mates—might argue that option B is better, and they’d each probably have a very convincing argument.

There’s still no doubt in my mind that when comparing a Jay-Z (a person who has met and married the “person of their dreams”) and a Budden (a person who meets and “greets” a different woman of a hundred thousand wet dreams every month), the Jay-z is definitely “winning.” But, I also have to admit that not every one plays the game the same way (or for the same purpose), and just because I think you’re playing wrong doesn’t mean you’re not “winning” too.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

The Problem With Wanting It All

Two things dawned on me the other day while driving around and listening to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”

1. This song is nine f*cking years old. Nine. Nine!

Nine years (Nine!) seems like a long-ass time when I say it aloud, in no small part because it seems like the older I get, the shorter the distance between events I’ve experienced seems to be. For instance, it was 2003 nine years ago. I remember 2003. I was (only) 195 pounds, I could still dunk without having to stretch for 37 minutes and juice the night before, I’d rap any voicemail message I left after 11:30pm, and I had an inappropriate obsession with Esther Baxter. And, in 2003, 1994 seemed like it happened a long-ass f*cking time ago. But, today, in 2012, 2003 doesn’t really seem like that long ago. And, if I’m lucky enough to make it to 2021, I’m sure the distance between now and then will seem even shorter.

I’d continue trying too deconstruct the meaning of all this, but the nosebleed I just developed is making it difficult to type.

2. I have exactly 98 less problems than Jay-Z.

Admittedly, what exactly constitutes a “problem” is relative. Things that may be considered problematic for others don’t necessarily rate as huge concerns for me. For instance, if Jay-Z woke up tomorrow morning with a bank balance that mirrored mine, that would (probably) be a big problem for him. And by “that would (probably) be a big problem for him” I mean “he’d likely consider suicide.”

With all that being said, although I don’t have as many problems as Jay-Z claims to, my problem, although singular, is a f*cking doozy. It affects each of my actions, permeates each of my thoughts, and has managed to infiltrate (and, occasionally, sabotage) every plan I’ve ever had. It mocks, teases, taunts, and torments me with a steely relentlessness that would even make Bryan Mills say “Damn, dude. Chill!”

What exactly is this problem?

I want it all.

Now, wanting it all doesn’t mean that I want everything. I don’t want everything. I don’t even want most things. If there are, I don’t know, 57 trillion things I could possibly want, I can safety say that I don’t want (at least) 56,999,999,999,900 of them. I do, though, want to be able to do everything I want to do exactly how I want to do it. And, since this is not possible, this is a problem.

How so? Well, I want real intimacy, but only on my exact terms.

I want to write with the same sense of “I’m saying this because I think it’s right (and funny), and I really don’t give a f*ck if it makes you uncomfortable”-ness that make Louis C.K. and the late Patrice O’Neal my favorite comedians, but I really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

I want a New York salary, a D.C. community, and a Pittsburgh standard of living.

I can continue, but I think you see the point. I want things that, in the physical universe that we currently inhabit, are just not possible to achieve. In fact, not only is much of what I want impossible to achieve, they directly contradict. It is literally impossible to stuff yourself with food at a buffet and not feel the effects of being full some time later, and wanting to cultivate a truly intimate romantic relationship without making some sort of personal sacrifice is just as absurd.

Yet, I still want that. I still want the ability to make choices without possible negative consequences, and this want becomes problematic when it turns into an action (which it has). I think I’ve led a (relatively) decent life so far, but each “problem” I’ve had in the past and have today stems from me attempting to do things that just can’t be done. I guess this makes me (slightly) insane, but I don’t seem to find that to be too problematic either. Hmm. Maybe I have more than one problem.

Anyway, people of VSB.com, has “wanting it all” ever been a problem for anyone reading this? Not necessarily wanting everything, but wanting to have and/or do certain things that just don’t seem to be possible? (i.e.: wanting to work your dream job and make your dream salary, hoping to find a man that’s equally ambitious/competitive and compassionate, etc) If so, how did/do you reconcile yourself with the fact that you’re chasing something that just can’t happen?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)