Two Thoughts About The Reactions To Pharrell’s GIRL Album Cover

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1. It’s been two years since Trayvon Martin was murdered. A couple weeks since a jury let Jordan Davis’ killer off the hook for murder. Eight months since I watched Fruitvale Station. These and other notable stories about the tenuousness of Black male life have dominated (and will likely continue to dominate) our conversations about what it means to be present in America. Black males are both endangered and dangerous. Threats and targets. Feared and scared. Policed and…privileged.

Yes. Privileged.

This (obviously) does not apply to all Black males. But, for many who’ve, by the grace of God, managed to make it to their 20s, managed to be employable, and managed to stay out of the system, the tides change. People will support and root for you just because you’re a living Black man with a job and a driver’s licence. Someone might even create a job for you. You have social capital. If you brush your teeth, tie your shoes, and can put two sentences together, you’ll likely have romantic options. You will always be included.

This privilege is also tenuous. You’re still a Black man in America, which means it can be lost forever at a traffic light. Or at a movie theater. But it exists. And the mental juxtaposition of possessing this micro-level privilege while existing in a hostile country can be jarring, comforting, and humbling. Sometimes all at the same time. It can also make you a prick.

I thought about this yesterday when reading some of the reactions to Pharrell’s GIRL album cover. More specifically, I thought about how, when I first saw it, I didn’t think anything of it at all. I clicked on a link, said “Oh, I guess Pharrell has a new album” and went about my day. The “Black male artist surrounding himself with racially ambiguous women…again” thing didn’t even register with me.

A small part of this is due to the fact that I don’t pay much attention to Pharrell. I like his music, but I like it the same way I like grapes and pillowcases. The bigger part is due to me just not being as sensitive to the context making that cover upsetting to (many) Black women. I looked at it and saw an artist trying to convey a sexy type of “fun.” Others saw another example of a prominent Black man shunning his sizable Black female fan base and promoting “other” women as some sort of feminine ideal.

Just as I didn’t intentionally overlook how potentially troublesome that image could be, I’m sure Pharrell didn’t consciously want to insult Black women. He’s probably laying in some hyperbaric chamber below a lake right now, shocked at the pushback it’s received. And both my lack of awareness and Pharrell’s lack of consideration is a result of privilege. It didn’t immediately register to me because I’m not as sensitive to those types of images, and I’m not as sensitive to those types of images because I’ve never had to be. Sure, when someone points it out, I recognize it. And, I’ll even join the “yeah..that’s effed up” chorus. But, despite whichever challenges I face as a Black man, having my sexual/physical/aesthetic value and desirability constantly dismissed (or even ignored) — often by the same people I love and support — is something I’ve never really had to deal with.

2. This conversation brings up another point; a point that makes you wonder if a person like Pharrell or Kanye is caught in a perpetual catch-22.

GIRL’s cover features Pharrell and three women in bathrobes. It looks like they’re in a hotel room. Maybe a private home or resort. It’s (somewhat) implied that they’ve either just finished a foursome, or they’re about to go have a foursome. (8:20 am edit: So, according to some comments here and on Facebook, the cover may also suggest they’re just headed to some type of spa. Which doesn’t negate my main point, but does prove I was raised on Cinemax After Dark.) If this is true, they’re his sexual props, and it would qualify as objectification. Maybe it’s not as explicit as “Tip Drill”, but the idea is the same: “I’m a cool motherfucker. So cool that all these beautiful women want to have sex with me.”

With videos like “Tip Drill”, the objectification was the problem. With the GIRL cover, though, the problem seems to be that Black women aren’t considered attractive enough to be objectified. But, sexual objectification is a bad thing. As is using women as sexual props. Right? Or is it only a bad thing when it’s not done tastefully by someone as cool as Pharrell?

I’d try to answer those questions, but I think I just gave myself a nosebleed. Where’s a hyperbaric chamber when you need one?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

An Arbitrary, Occasionally Objective, And Frequently Maddening Ranking Of Every Kanye West Album

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In the 10 years since The College Dropout dropped, Kanye West has gone from a guy whose name I used to pronounce Kay-Knee to arguably my favorite rapper (it’s either him or Ghostface) and inarguably the most important person in music today. He is, at this point in his career, cultural icon, cultural arbiter, cultural thermometer, and Kardashian concubine; a singular zeitgeist whose talent is matched by his talent’s ability to partition.

But which Kanye album is the best?

We know which is the most polarizing (Yeezus), the most universally loved (College Dropout), the most critically acclaimed (MBDTF), and the most likely to be re-released by Drake in 12 years (808s). But, if you had to rank each album (and yes, Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer count) which would be first? Or third? Or even last?

Fortunately, I’m here to ask the tough questions you never thought to ask and provide the gritty answers you never really cared to ask for.

(In reverse order)

8. 808s & Heartbreak 

Having an album rate last on a list insinuates you either hated it or thought it just wasn’t any good. Neither is true with 808s, an album whose biggest crime was it being released a year after Graduation. It was such a contrast from what we expected to — and wanted to — hear from him that it became impossible to objectively assess. So we all collectively decided it sucked. Which is a shame because it paved the way for the “Wait, is he singing or rapping? And, wait. Is that even a song?”-style that’s dominated the last five years of pop culture.

7. Watch the Throne 

Easily the most paradoxical album in Kanye’s career.

To wit, Watch the Throne would have been better if it was a Kanye solo album…but the album’s best track (“Who Gon Stop Me”) is dominated by Jay-Z…but the best line on the song ( “Heard she f*cked the doorman/Well that’s cool I f*cked the waitress“) is Kanye’s.

Also, it’s Kanye’s most expensive sounding album…but it sounded rushed…but each of the bonus tracks were hot…but they sounded like they should have been on a separate album.

6. Graduation 

The most overrated album of Kanye’s career, Graduation is the anti-808s because it’s remembered favorably for effectively ending 50 Cent’s career. Which made it impossible to objectively assess. It’s still a very good album with a couple great songs — “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” are two of the top 20 songs Kanye’s ever created — but it’s not great, and anyone who believes that needs to get their heads out of Angel Melaku’s ass. 

5. Cruel Summer

I know, I know, I know. It’s more of a crew album than a Kanye album, the four best songs were already heard by everyone months before the album was released, and there’s too much Big Sean — the charter school gym class of rap music. And while I could argue that it doesn’t matter when individual singles were released when assessing a collective album, I’ll concede each of those points.

And, while I’m being all conciliatory, I’ll also admit that it only places this high because of my completely irrational and borderline insane white-hot passionate love for “Higher” and “Sin City.”

4. Late Registration 

While (somewhat) neglected historically, Late Registration may be Kanye’s most important album. Not the best, but the most important. It was the follow-up to The College Dropout, an album that while critically and commercially lauded, still felt gimmicky. It wasn’t Kanye’s rapping that made the album. It was the production, the features, and the concepts behind some of the songs. His actual rapping, though, was more “I guess he’s not that bad” than anything else, and there was still a bit of skepticism over whether he could repeat that success.

And while Late Registration had its flaws, it ultimately proved Kanye needed to be taken seriously as a full-fledged rap artist. It also had a video with Nia Long and Tracie Ellis Ross in it, a shout out to Bougie Black Girls everywhere.

3. The College Dropout 

Although Complex already said everything that needed to be said about this album, I’ll add one more thing:

The five song stretch from “All Falls Down” to “Spaceship” to “Jesus Walks” to “Never Let Me Down” to “Get Em High” is the best five song stretch on any rap album, ever.

2. Yeezus 

One of the reasons why Lebron James remains the most fascinating player in NBA history is that he’s completely impervious to prediction. While he manages to maintain his usual 25-28 points, 6-8 assists, and 6-8 rebounds per game average, when watching him play you have absolutely no idea if you’re going to get “oddly disinterested” Lebron who’ll give you a half-assed 17, 6, and 4 or “vengeance” Lebron who’ll have 30, 8, and 9 by halftime. 

My appreciation for Kanye follows the same thought. If Jay Z or Drake or Rick Ross or Beyonce released a new track at midnight tonight, you’d have an idea of what it was going to sound like before you’d even hear it. You’d have even more of an idea after seeing the title of the song and who was featured on it.

I’ve listened to Kanye for 10 years now — hundreds of Kanye-produced and/or Kanye starred tracks. And I still have no idea what new Kanye tracks (and albums) are going to sound like. None.

No album better exemplifies this imperviousness than Yeezus (our clearest journey into Kanye’s id), and no track better exemplifies this than “Hold My Liquor” — a song that features Chief Keef on the hook, Justin Vernon, a minute-long electric guitar solo, references to “Deepak Chopra” and “skinny bitches with no shoulders”, and also somehow happens to be the most beautifully melancholy song I’ve ever heard. It sounds like something Radiohead would have created if Radiohead was from PG County.

1My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I really wanted to put Yeezus first. Like, really, really, really wanted to. And then I listened to “All Of The Lights” again. When done, I listened to “Gorgeous” again.

And then I remembered that Kanye’s single best song, “Hell of a Life”, was also on this album.

And then I came back to my senses.

—Damon Young (aka The Champ)

***At 12:30 today, join John Legend and other special guests (me included) for #DreamRiseDo – a conversation about why we need more Black men teaching***

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On Wondering If You Might Be Too Old — Or Too Smart, Too Responsible, Too Feminist, etc — To Still Love Rap

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I took my fiancee’s nephew (“Derek”) to the YMCA to play basketball. He’s 12. On the way to pick him up, I listened to Fabolous’s Soul Mixtape. Usually, when anyone much younger (nephews, nieces, etc) or older (parents, aunts, uncles, etc) gets into the car with me, I’ll listen to the radio. That day, though, I forgot to make the switch. And, as soon Derek got into the car, a very aggressive chorus of “fucks” came through the speakers. Embarrassed, I quickly turned the music down, and we started talking about Kemba Walker and left-handed layups.

I know I’m not the first person to recognize the unique dynamic of being a rap fan. Well, unique in comparison to other popular genres. When my dad would drive me to school and basketball games when I was a child, we’d listen to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and Miles Davis and other artists he grew up on. People who grew up on rap—specifically, the ultra vivid and ultra violent rap music from “my” era—will not have that luxury. I can’t image a parent (well, a responsible parent) breaking down “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” the same way my dad broke down “Trouble Man” to me. While not embarrassed (at all) that I’m a fan, part of being a responsible rap fan is acknowledging and understanding that some of the music can be embarrassing if heard around people who don’t happen to be your peers.

Something else recently dawned on me, though. Something that adds another layer to the cognitive dissonance needed to be a fan of a certain type of rap music. The first rap album I owned was LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad.” But, I didn’t become a “hip-hop head” until maybe 1995, when Raekwon and Mobb Deep and Biggie and Big L dominated the airwaves and the homeroom conversations. And, while I know a part of me appreciated and admired their creativity and lyrical dexterity, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this anti-social and nihilistic music most resonated with me when I was a teen—the time when I was the most anti-social and nihilistic. Although I wasn’t outwardly rebellious, the music connected to the latent rebellious spirit I, like most other teens, possessed.

Considering the content found in most popular rap—and most rap I currently listen to—I doubt I’d be a fan if I was first introduced to it as an adult in 2013 instead of a teen in 1993. Maybe I’d appreciate The Roots and other acts with more conspicuous connections to jazz and/or R&B. But, I’d likely find most of the rest to be noisy, vulgar, and embarrassingly misogynistic. Basically, I’d be my dad.

The preceding passage is from “Hey Young World: You Don’t Have to Be a Kid To Fall In Love With Hip-Hop, But It Sure Helps” — a piece I wrote for Complex earlier this week.

Although I made it clear that I’m still very much a fan of some very vulgar and very violent rap music — and I don’t feel bad in anyway about that status — I do sometimes wonder if I should feel bad about itBasically, should I be more bothered by how easily I do the mental gymnastics needed to compartmentalize the music I listen to as just music?

Also, although I can be a bit robotic, I’m not actually a robot. (Surprise, right?) And, because I’m not a robot, I can’t say with 100% certainty that the music I listen to doesn’t have an effect on both my psyche and my personality. Who’s to say that 20 years of listening to violent, vulgar, and misogynistic rap music hasn’t made me a tad more violent, a bit more vulgar, and a little more likely to have negative feelings about women than I would have if I’d never been exposed to it?

(And yes, everything I just said could also be said by someone about TV and movies. But, music tends to be experienced on a more intimate level, and, generally speaking, I think it has more of an effect on you than something on screen does.)

Anyway, am I alone here? Any other long-time hip-hop heads (or just casual fans of rap music) experiencing the same type of ambivalence? Do you ever wonder if you might be too old — or too smart, too educated, too responsible, too feminist, etc — to still love rap as much as you do?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Non-Conventional Gifts That Make Me Happy During This Holiday Season

Black and yellow black and yellow black and yellow black and yellow.

Black and yellow black and yellow black and yellow black and yellow.

Or any season really…

With Christmas right around the corner, I’ve been a bit reflective lately. It’s important to sit back and take the time to realize the little things in life and the tiny blessings that have been bestowed upon from out yonder and up above. If you take a second to truly look at life in all of its glory, you will realize that there is evidence that whoever you pray to was busy leaving little easter eggs all over the place. You know the kind of places where compromise has come full circle.

Yes, that higher power, what a great person. So it is in this season that I thank 8 pound, 6 ounce baby Jesus who don’t even know a word yet (though I happen to prefer mine with a mullet) for the bevy of good tidings he brings for me and my kin. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

With that being said, here a bunch of little blessings to be thankful for during this holiday season.

- unattractive men with big bank accounts

- unattractive women with great bodies

- multi-colorway Jordan’s

- Honey Jack Daniels Whiskey

- short men with great personalities

- overt racism

- Duck Dynasty (even despite the recent comments which to me is just like the Chik-Fil-A kerfluffle a few years ago)

- White Hennessey

- Black Twitter

- White Wegman’s

- Hybrid SUVs

- Cuffin’ season for the cold months

- Summer dresses for the hot months

- Strobe lights for drunken nights at the club

- Sweet & Sour Gummie Bears

- Boxer briefs

- women in wife beaters

- Black Santa

- White Jesus

- White Santa

- Black Jesus

- Beyonce albums when you least expect them

- Beyonce albums when you do expect them

- HBCU pride

- PWI ambivalence about HBCU pride

- Allen wrench drill bits for IKEA furniture

- Kanye West rants

- Answers to questions that Kanye thinks there are no answers to

- All Black everything

- Racks on racks

- The intro to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Foe Tha Love Of Money”

- The intro to Mint Condition’s “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)”

- non-Black women with big ole booties

- big ole booties

- brown paper packages tied up with string

- 2 Chainz

- The reaction of people when you yell 2 Chainz in a crowded room

- Finding dreams that were deferred

- Asinine opinions on music

- Pet rocks to throw at people with asinine opinions on music

- naked cartwheels on hardwood floors

- The Willie Warmer

And with that…I’ll stop. So what are some non-conventional gifts that you are thankful for this holiday season?

-VSB P aka THE ARSONIST aka MR. WARM WILLIE aka GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRL HE A 3

The Nerd Rapper Revolution

(The Champ’s latest at Complex on how nerds and nerd culture have dominated rap culture this year)

The most important person in rap today is a kilt-and-leather-sweatpant-rocking son of a college professor. The Best Rapper Alive was a straight-A student and belongs to a collective called “Black Hippy.” Some of today’s most controversial and cringe-inducing content comes from a skateboarder from the Black Beverly Hills. The last rap album I listened to was created by an Asian-fetishizing comedian who has been employed by two separate NBC shows.

The nerds—the kids without traditional street cred, the guys who don’t look and sound like the type of people we’ve always associated with hip-hop influence and relevance—are no longer obscured by the cool kids. They’re not even competing with the cool kids. Now, the nerds are the cool kids.

Attributing nerd culture’s dominance in hip-hop culture in 2013 to a soon-to-be 10-year-old Kanye West album seems like something someone who doesn’t really listen to rap would write. It feels lazy. Perfunctory. Still, it is true. Well, kinda true. The College Dropout is not the best rap album of the 21st century. But it has already proven to be the most influential. What made Ye’s popularity so astounding at the time wasn’t the fact that he wasn’t a street guy who didn’t rap about street shit. The same could be said for OutKast, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and anyone else who found space and grew popular countering rap’s dominant street culture.

What made Kanye’s coolness “cool” was the fact that he wasn’t cool. He was awkward. He wore pink Polos. He was (and still is) a spaz. He talked funny. He didn’t seem to fit the hyper-heterosexual image expected of Black male rap stars, so he was considered soft. Some even derided him as gay (NTTAWWT).

The acceptance of and embrace of Kanye’s lack of cool didn’t exist in a vacuum, though. He didn’t create the wave. He just was lucky enough to get on it. A nerd (Bill Gates) already controlled the way we worked. A nerd (Steve Jobs) was beginning to control the way we consumed culture. A nerd (Mark Zuckerberg) soon found a way to control the way we interacted. A nerd (Sean Parker) forever controlled the way we listened to music. This wasn’t Revenge of the Nerds. It was—and still is—the nerds ordering everyone else to bow the fuck down. Jack Dorsey is no different than General Zod.

Hip-hop’s embrace of nerds was slow. Very slow. Which was expected for a genre built on braggadocio and brawn. The qualities associated with nerdiness contradicted what we expected to hear when we listened to rappers rap. Even if we were intellectually aware that some of rap’s biggest “bullies” were featherweights we could probably take in an actual fight, we still wanted to be bullied by them.

But, as the aughts continued, the nerd takeover became inevitable. Kanye showed us it could be done, and the other nerds were busy shifting culture in a way that changed the barriers to entry and relevance. Soon, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, and 88 Keys started happening. ?uestlove, the “nerdiest” member of the world’s coolest rap band became its most popular member. Street cred and hot singles were still important. But social-media strategy and SEO savvy were even more important. And it wasn’t just that nerds and others outside of the traditional rapper archetype were being let in. Nerds were becoming the cultural arbiters—the ones giving Tyler the Creator and Kendrick Lamar millions of views and Wiki pages before they released any major-label albums and the ones downloading Chance the Rapper’s and Childish Gambino’s mixtapes.

Any doubt that nerd culture has reached a critical mass this year would be quelled by a visit to any inner-city high school. You’ll see jeans too tight to run in tucked into multi-colored sneakers. Oversized and occasionally lensless glasses. Intentionally ironic t-shirts. Suspenders. Bow ties. Knee-high socks with Disney characters on them. I saw these things when I was in high school, too. But the kids with them were getting stuffed into lockers, smacked with spitballs, and friend-zoned-ed by Laura Winslow. Not looking and acting exactly like the most popular rappers and NBA players.

(Read the rest at Complex)