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When I think about Shawty Lo, I think about my youth. “Dey Know” came out during my first year of college. It’s marching band trumpet sample feels defeaning and Shawty Lo raps over it without a sense of urgency. He’s gliding,slowly taking in the moment; his raspy, dragged out rapping is melodic and easygoing. He raps like he’s enjoying himself. In the music video for it, he does his signature dance which involves running in place, arms pumping forward as if competing in a track race. This was my introduction to Shawty Lo as a solo artist, before this moment, before this I knew him as one of the non-Fabo members of D4L: a group that was a very big part of the Snap era in Atlanta and as a result, a big part of my high school years. I loved Snap and Shawty Lo’s music in this time of my youth but I don’t have the reverence for his discography the way I do a T.I., a Jeezy or a Gucci. I have a feeling that many other people probably feel the same way, including those in charge of writing about music for culture magazines. On Wednesday September 21st, Shawty Lo was killed in a car crash on the I-285 southbound ramp to Cascade Road. For many of these publications, Shawty Lo’s death is the first time he’d ever been written about. It’s appreciated that a man who played such a vital role in Atlanta and in rap music is being remembered by people but it’s a shame that it took his death for it to happen. There is this disconnect happening where a majority of the people who will tweet or discuss Shawty Lo’s death will focus on the hit songs he made (as I’ve done), but for others he meant something more. You don’t have to be from or live in Atlanta to know it but you have to be ingrained in that scene. The Bowen Homes Carlos repped Bankhead and Atlanta to the fullest. His music meant something to that community. He was their hometown hero.

The hometown hero doesn’t get the same glory outside of their city but inside, you’re almost like royalty. And for a city so closely tied to hip-hop and current pop culture, being beloved means a lot. T.I. will always get credit for representing Bankhead in Atlanta to the fullest but Shawty Lo was right there: funding and participating in a rap group ahead of their time. Making sparse, playful party music when the more rugged street style was getting most of the respect. Even when Shawty Lo made his more street solo albums and mixtapes, there was a joyful, exuberant energy to it. The music was thrilling and caused your body to move almost in spite of itself even while Shawty Lo rapped about real gutter shit. It was beautiful and it meant a lot to me especially at the time in my life when it came out but no matter how I feel, it doesn’t match how the people of Atlanta, more specifically Bankhead, feel about this loss. For all of the success and legendary things he accomplished, he was truly theirs.

 

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2015 BET Awards - Show

At the End of The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s merciless satire of the intersection between black culture and America, there’s a moment when the main character stands up in a room full of other black people and poses the question: what exactly is “our” thing?”

For much of 2015 we’ve seen a surplus of rappers grapple with their identity. From how they look at themselves to how they look at their people to what fame has meant to their lives within this context; the music has been a reflection of the internal conflict these artists face.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the most obvious example of this. Both for its obvious uses of symbolism to talk about fame and for its explicit college textbook insight on Blackness. Kendrick’s purposefully uncomfortable, erratic record finds him jumbling guilt and success and the concept of duty. “What does Kendrick Lamar represent” is a question that weighs heavily on his mind and it’s a question he is constantly working through. A song like “The Blacker The Berry” rages against systemic racism before confronting intercommunity violence by veering dangerously close if not right into respectability. And yet, you have a song like “Alright” that promotes the idea that no matter how bad it gets for black people in America, we will survive. It’s our “We Shall Overcome” and its usage in protests and parties signify such. Kendrick uses the desolate environment from which he came and his newfound fame as a springboard to express his turmoil, much in the same way that Vince Staples does in his major label debut: Summertime ‘06. But where Kendrick is ultimately motivated by religious faith and hope, Vince comes off mostly jaded and hardened; choosing to personify the various characters spiraling towards the same dead end that is urban plight.

On the album’s most melancholy track “Summertime”, Vince laments: “my teacher told us we was slaves, my momma told us we were kings/I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we’re somewhere in between”. These are lines that pierce the heart and get to the root at the tug of war between what blackness means to society and how black people have to counterbalance it. There is no benevolent God in Vince’s world. The moral arc of the universe bends towards chaos and Vince expresses an acceptance in this fact while still chasing after any beauty that may be left. Instead of hope, Vince gives you the stories of dealers, crackheads, gangsters and those who mourn to remind you that there are people living in ruin that deserve to be heard. There’s survivor’s guilt in these raps much as in the same way there’s survivor’s guilt hidden passed the decadence and thrill in most trap music. Maybe the biggest example of this in 2015 is found in Future’s music.

I’d argue that there isn’t anyone in music who had a more eventful year than Future. For Future, his 2015 started in October 2014 with the release of his Monster mixtape; a tape that saw him backtrack from that pop direction of his last album Honest and return to a grimier, street aesthetic while still maintaining just as much vulnerability. “Throw Away” is a breakup song in the truest sense: full of anger, defensiveness, passion and tears. It’s at one moment completely ridiculous (“fucking these hoes mean too damn much to you”) and the next extremely open-hearted (“if loving me in public ain’t safe, you can take my love and hide it”). “Codeine Crazy” is just textbook depression: an open admission to taking drugs to feel better about life. Future followed Monster up with 2 more great mixtapes (Beast Mode and 56 Nights) that follow this same trajectory before releasing his 3rd album, Dirty Sprite 2. DS2 is one long sad party: the musical embodiment of being in the coolest place imaginable: bottles popping, money being thrown around and beautiful people everywhere and yet still feeling like shit because you realize you’re still empty inside. What separates Future the most from the other artists mentioned in this essay is that his feelings are rarely explicit. They come out in fragments and bursts during songs that on the face feel like party records or drug glorification. When Future raps that he’s “an addict and I can’t even hide it”, it’s nothing short of a cry for help hidden in your favorite chest pumping, turn up song. This is even more apparent in his collab record with Drake, What A Time To Be Alive. Both rappers more often than not, seem to be recording two different albums.

Future isn’t even hiding his depression most of the time here: going from heartbreak and sadness in “Digital Dash” to survivor’s remorse in “Live From The Gutter”. WATTBA is not a great record but it is an interesting one full of more pain that was probably expected from casual fans of Future (and from the album title itself). A fun activity that many people who are charged with writing about music seem to be engaging in is the contrasting of Drake and Future as the story between an opportunistic, vain sycophant (Drake) and a nihilistic, pure street rapper (Future) but these labels are unfair to both men. Drake has spent an entire career wearing his heart on his sleeve for better or for worse. Regardless of whether or not you think the music is good, Drake is an artist who expresses everything about himself. He’s an open book: we know when he’s in love, when his heart aches, when he’s being passive aggressive or condescending and when he’s just committing to the “business of rap” in order to sell himself as a product.

Drake’s album/mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late didn’t signify a change so much as it allowed Drake to fully embrace the Jay Z lying inside him. Full of calculated bangers, cockiness and joie de vivre, the album felt different from Drake’s previous work in that it focused less on emotions and more on the moment. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of insight, one of the best lines of the whole record comes from “You & the 6”, a personal conversation between him and his mother, where he raps “I used to get teased for being black and now I’m here and I’m not black enough”. There’s always been an inherent whiff of this attitude in the criticisms levied at Drake, whether it’s about his persona, his musical acumen or his brand. Drake’s blackness for whatever reason (be it how he carries himself or his racial makeup) is allowed to be dissected and, at least for this year, Drake has addressed it at many points in his music this year. Drake may be Disney at this point but it seems silly to pretend he’s never exposed his soul for his audience.

For my money, the best exploration of blackness in terms of fame and inner torment was made by Earl Sweatshirt. Earl’s third album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, picks up where Doris left off: exploring a celebrity that Earl never asked for and resents while trying to figure out what kind of person he wants to be. I Don’t Like Shit is filled with the ghosts of personal demons floating throughout. It is everything that To Pimp A Butterfly is without the pretense or the theatrics; punch your soul music over punch your face beats. Earl is the most fascinating person in rap to me because he seems to openly hate being a rapper while loving rap. His music is guarded and purposely uninviting in order for him to feel comfortable enough to actually share himself.  Celebrity is hell and for a black artist, it can feel even more intolerable; if there was a theme amongst many rappers in 2015 it was that music could allow for a way to cope in this prison. More important to that blackness, these artists proved that the question of what “our thing” is is more prescient than ever.

Drake and Future have been teasing the idea of a joint mixtape for awhile but, like any promise of a joint tape, it was mostly disregarded as a fan service-y tease. Then it was announced that there was indeed a record that had been put together that was expected to be released soon. Despite this, there was a feeling that this album was just a troll and that it wouldn’t actually come out; there was even a countdown website for it that froze once it got to 6 seconds and never materialized into anything. It was starting to look like a sure bet that this record wasn’t going to happen and a not-insignificant number of people were pretty ok with that. But then Sunday night happened and Drake premiered songs from the album on his Beats1 radio show OVOsound. So now we have an album: What A Time To Be Alive; an album that I’ve listened to about 4 times now that I’m mostly pleased to announce is pretty good.

Part of this favorable feeling has to do with the fact that I came in with low expectations. Future is on a tear right now: since October 2014 he’s released 3 great mixtapes and a great album but better than that is he’s actually being appreciated for them while they are happening. He’s been the wave for 2015 and Drake, like his true mentor Jay Z, was absolutely guaranteed to find a way to surf along it. Drake is the biggest star in the game right now, possibly more so than Kanye, and (possibly as a result) is also the biggest opportunist. Jumping on hot songs or potentially hot songs or songs he wishes he had made first and “boosting” them with the Drake effect™. Who benefits more from the Drake effect is of great debate, a lot of the time though it feels like a platform to promote Drake as relevant while another artists gets as much shine as they can before the crowds disperse.

With that being said, the most pleasant surprise about this album is that this album is mostly on Future’s terms. Metro Boomin is a co-producer on all but one song and Future takes the lead on the majority of songs. On most Drake-featured songs, everyone is just an opening act for Drake but here Future gets to be Batman while Drake plays… well not Robin but, I don’t know Catwoman or something. The album is better for it and goes on to further prove that nobody is seeing Future and his reliable cast of producers, particularly Metro Boomin. So with that said, let’s rank these songs:

1   Jumpman

This is the one. This is the crash your car into a tree on purpose because the drugs made you do it record. CHICKEN WINGS AND FRIES, WE DON’T GO ON DATES; come on son. Fuck your candlelight dinner and your Netflix and chill, you better come get this 5 dollar box from Popeye’s with me. Future is the star of this tape sometimes, seemingly, by design and the album does its best to keep up with his energy and his sound. Metro Boomin showed out all over this record and on this song, Drake has his best “trying to keep up with Future’s energy” performance here. This is the soundtrack to Actavis suicide.

2.   Diamonds Dancing

This is probably my personal favorite song on the record and I’m kind of a little bit ashamed of this fact. Out of all the songs on this record, this feels the most on Drake’s terms –mostly, in that, this is his crocodile tears beta man song about whatever girl pissed him off by being independent this week. But, once again, Metro helps put together something really special for this record and Future is one of my favorites at melding introspective sensitivity and greasy aggression. The Drake tirade at the end should bump this down a few spots but somehow it doesn’t; this is his best performance on the album honestly. He’s in his comfort zone, plus him and Future get to harmonize on the chorus like fucking Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on this shit. It can’t lose.

3.   I’m The Plug

“I’m The Plug” is such a good Future song and I wish Drake wasn’t on it. But sure go ahead Drizzy tell us about how you’re really the plug. Like really. I mean that’s what all those Paulie from Goodfellas tracksuits were about right?

4.   Scholarships

Drake probably paid for so many stripper’s degrees. I mean it’s a good thing; education is important. Speaking of which:

5.   Plastic Bag

Come on, you didn’t think you were getting a Drake and Future album without a strip club ballad. You know, something to serenade your favorite dancer with at the booty club of your choosing. Let her know it’s a good night to dance on you. You gonna go broke by the time this song is over and it’s only like 4 minutes long. It’s all good though, she deserves it. “Magic City on a Monday/We worship there like a Sunday” needs to be framed somewhere in your home immediately.

6.   Jersey

This is the solo Future joint and he’s in full-victory lap mode. “You do what you want when you poppin”, you damn right bruh! Talk yo shit! Future has had an incredible run this year and plenty has been said about the fact. I wasn’t in love with Honest but I felt like it’s outright dismissal was pretty unfair. This attitude served as solid motivation for him though and look where we’re at now. He really did catch the wave.

7.   Change Locations

“Me and my friends we got money to spend”

8.   Digital Dash

The albums hits the gas right from jump, making you already second guess your fear about this album coming to fruition. That’s hot takeish sure but we live in the age of the instant reaction, which, if it’s done nothing else good, it’s at least caused an influx of good album intros. “I might take Quentin to Follies” is peak-troll Drake by the way, that guy is adorable sometimes.

9.   Big Rings

I’m not a fan of Drake’s chorus but whatever. It’ll be fun to scream out whilst drunk in the club spending money you can’t afford to be spending. We blowing the whole rent check at the strip club for our tings. Sidenote: “You just a battle rapper, I’m an official trapper”, who’s that for Future? Because I know of a particular battle rapper right now who seems to be having a misunderstanding with your album partner  right now. Are you choosing sides bruh? Being a little bit of a shady boots or nah?

10.   Live From The Gutter

Honestly, this would be higher but I enjoy the Young Thug version of this Metro beat more.

Future’s good on it too though and also lol at Drake being on a song called “Live From The Gutter”. Get your authenticity points like Pokemon my guy.

11.   30 For 30

This is the Drake solo song. It’s fine. Drake does his Drake thing that he’s been doing for long enough that it barely even registers with me much anymore. It’s all just… fine. He’s the Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback of rap.

And that’s it. Something that could’ve been awful turned out alright. However you feel about these two artists, they provided for a fun night on the internet that will probably go on for at least the rest of the week. Thank God for Metro Boomin, and, despite all the players in this, somehow one of the biggest winners in this whole thing will probably be Ernest Baker. What a time to be alive indeed.

The Music Video Sartorialist is a new column in which I will review the fashion of various music videos. First up: the 2000 masterpiece “Country Grammar” by Nelly.

Before we even get into this, let me just say that the music video for “Country Grammar” is pure love. There is not one bad thing I can say about it. It’s a celebration of everyday people and it is joyful, which is way better than being cool or weird for the sake of weird. Also, as a nigga from Tallahassee, FL, it absolutely appeals to my heart to see country and ratchet folks taking part in a celebratory occasion. Nelly put on for his city here and, if you from the country or really the south period, you can’t help but see your own home in this video.

Now on to the fashion:

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You’re gonna see Nelly put on a lot for his city through jerseys in the video because throwback jerseys were everything in the 2000s. You got the biggest sizes that were still attuned to your body and you got the matching hat and shoes and you were the dopest nigga at whatever party you went to. One thing about this I don’t want you to lose sight of though is that behind Nelly is a plethora of grade-A, quality birds. I mean the type of birds that are specific to your city and were always dressed in a way that was just trashy enough. It is a true high-wire act pulling off a quality hoefit and these women were scientists. God bless them.

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I mean look at em: Charlie’s Hoodrats ready to save the day. The Hoochie Justice League. The woman up front is especially noteworthy because she’s wearing a dinner napkin as a shirt and it is fantastic. The gold is shimmering against her body and she’s got the shades to go with it because she ain’t checking for you, nigga.

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Nelly is committed to showing out for every St. Louis sport in this video. Here he has an immaculate St. Louis Blues hockey sweater with the matching hat that has his name on the back which, again, so perfect for that time period. The video girl in this scene keeps it simple with the tank and the bandana round her head like she 2pac. She seems to be waring a collar around her neck. The accessories here are pretty great: Nelly’s wrist is covered in an almost irresponsible amount of diamonds and this woman’s collar gives off a hint of danger to her, like she might be down for some wild shit and you will have no say in the manner. Of course that could just be me revealing more about myself than necessary. And don’t think I don’t notice that this is happening in a rims shop, one of my favorite former set pieces of old music videos.

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Everything I could say about these jeans have already been said: https://twitter.com/Sixfever/status/634062109953888256

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The fellas to the left are wearing Vashon jerseys, as in Vashon High School in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s some real deal representing. That’s on some 2015 hypebeast kid at a music festival streetwear moves. “Country Grammar” really is ahead of its time.

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This guy is just everything. This is who I wanna be: the older dude who brings the grill to the block parties and the HBCU tailgates. He’s dressed like a Que that pledged 20 years ago. He’s got the pink apron, the baggy, military-like coat with the “hata blocka” shades on and, my nigga, look at all that damn hot sauce. Everything is lit.

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Speaking of life goals, here are some fatherhood goals. Not only is my mans shining with the Big Daddy Kane jewelry but he got himself a championship belt and a tiny championship belt for his son which is THE GODDAMN CUTEST THING EVER AND I WANT IT. BOTH THE CHILD AND THE CHAMPIONSHIP BELT FOR SAID CHILD. This is incredible parenting; as the bible says, train up a child in the way they should go.

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Here is your introduction to Vokal. If you didn’t know, Vokal was started in 97 by Nelly, his cousin Yomi Martin and Nick Loftis. Like any other fashion brand you and your friends start, they used to sell the shirts around town, particularly at concerts for Nelly’s rap group The St. Lunatics. Vokal had success because Nelly had success, which is good for them since the clothes weren’t that good. Nelly, if nothing else, was a visionary about his career and it really shouldn’t be a surprise that he blew up the way he did.

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More jerseys! Nelly’s gotta be a real sport’s nerd to rock a jersey of offensive lineman Orlando Pace. That’s some serious football fandom. Also I love that he’s wearing the jersey backwards. Football jerseys will be back in style eventually and when they are, I’ll be rocking all of mine backwards I can promise you that. And don’t think I forgot about you bruh with the Kurt Warner joint and the golden durag flyin’ high in the friendly sky, ready to save the world and get ya waves.

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My dog in the back got on picasso on the shirt with the matching durag. Jesus wept.

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Boy, that’s a shiny, shimmy ass jean jacket. That shit might blind me more than the jewelry my guy. Does your durag say “SQUAD” because I might forgive the jacket if it does.

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Is that Sean John? I bet that’s Sean John. Sean John used to make them hot ass, living carpet plush track suits like they were bout to kill the game. They did kill the game though, from dehydration from wearing those shits for too long.

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You can’t tell from this picture but if you watch the video you’ll see that dude is hitting a jig while he cuts hair, which, no. You stand perfectly still while you line my fade up fam. I’m not trying to look fucked up just because your giddy ass wanna “bounce to the beat” in front of cameras. I don’t play that shit. Another red flag, he’s get the Ne-yo fedora on. I don’t trust barbers who’s haircut I can’t see, that feels too much like a setup. Look at lil homie’s face –see the stress in his whole demeanor. He know and I’m so sorry it had to be him.

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I want this woman’s shirt on the right. It is dope, It’s colorful but not too gross or busy. So many wigs in the back by the way. I’m pretty certain I can pull off at least 3 of them.

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She got the African print turban and this orange scrambled porn pantsuit. She was tumblr before tumblr was around to appreciate her style. Please retroactively give this woman 500 million reblogs.

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Oh man here to begin. I’m almost certain homie in the middle got a burner on him. That’s the official jacket of niggas holding a piece. Homie on the left fit so big he can’t even fit his left hand through –nigga looking like hood mega man. And my dog got the fitted cap barely holding onto his bandana-covered head. T.I. stole his whole swag and I’m inconsolable. My brother on the right with the heavy jean jacket reppin one time for FUBU. YOUR RE-RENNAISSANCE WILL SOON RETURN FUBU I PROMISE.

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In the black version of “Where’s Waldo”, everybody feels like Waldo can stay wherever the fuck he at :(.

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A fanciful scarf and a Jason hockey mask even though he’s not a deranged psychopathic killer (assumedly), this is our one hipster for this music video. Also, I see you in the back with the ultimate urban fashion marker, the negro cartoon shirt.

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More urban fashion markers: the combination Jeans and Jean skirts. And they’re even ripped to immaculate perfection. We’re so fucking innovative, I can’t stand it.

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I don;t know why I’m so drawn to this woman. Something about her sequin hand towel disguised as a shirt has set off all my internal alarms and I’m turned on by it in a way that makes me ashamed of myself. The hood girl fashions in this video are all wonderful in different ways and I just know I would see this outfit on someone at the local hole in the wall club and I’d probably be drawn to her all night. Something must be matter with me. Something isn’t the matter with this video though. It is perfect and we don’t appreciate it enough.

Very few artists are as good at dismissing fame as Earl Sweatshirt. He spent the prime years of Odd Future’s unlikely ascent in a therapeutic retreat school for at-risk boys because he kept fucking up at home. He was unable to enjoy the success of the crew as well as his own personal success after the release of his first album Earl in 2010. In a 2013 interview with GQ, Earl talked about life in the skill and the hopelessness that he felt for that first year and how ultimately, he had to work his issues out from within:

After that year happened, I convinced myself that home wasn’t real, that it was a figment of my imagination – that I was going to die there. Because as far as I was concerned, I was like, “What the fuck can you show me of home?” When I closed my eyes and opened them, all I see is the palm trees.”

This sort of pushing away of reality informed a lot of Earl’s follow-up record Doris, and now, his latest record: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. I Don’t Like Shit is very good, very small record that feels very labored over, obsessed about, planned thoroughly but still rushed through. It’s a special kind of underground hip-hop that somehow accidentally got thrusted into the limelight. The first three times I listened to it, I felt yanked into its embrace only to be let go before I had a chance to fully get comfortable. In some ways, this is probably the intention: what made Doris so great (and so underappreciated) is it diverted away from the shock-Rap of Earl that brought so much attention to him and Odd Future in general, and instead made an insular, abandoned-basement grimey, rap album full of self-loathing, introspection and blasé attitudes towards fame.

I Don’t Like Shit doubles down on this while showing a growth in his writing and production (Earl produced all but one song under the pseudonym randomblackdude). Earl seems to be diving into this zone of purely idiosyncratic rap music that feels hopeless and depressing on the surface, but is always undercut with a irreverent attitude towards everything including his own sadness. I don’t find this album as bleak as others have claimed. There is a lot of the record that is about the loss of his grandmother and a recent breakup, but it does stand as more proof that Earl would rather make rap music for himself than for anyone else –even his own friends.

The music feels closed-off and uninviting: the rambles of a young man annoyingly navigating through fame like it’s rush hour at the train station. I think Earl Sweatshirt is the most fascinating rapper to me at the moment because he genuinely seems to resent the popularity he’s gotten and looks at maintaining it as a burden: “they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick, and they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”, he raps on “Mantra”.

It’s not any real disdain but a feeling of weariness at having to always be on whenever he’s in public. The introvertedness of the record almost works in inverse relationship with his responsibilities as a public figure, and allow him the opportunity to pick at his own psyche and make sense of the things around him. He also seems to find the whole experience dull and unfulfilling. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside could be evaluated as both serious depression or just jaded eye-glazing at a shallow industry; for sure, it’s the musings of a young man looking for home.

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This morning, Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover dropped a new mixtape hosted by Gangsta Grillz/DJ Drama titled Stone Mountain. It’s… not horrible, but it’s also not very good. From the opening line “I had a dream I ran Atlanta” to the jacking of popular beats to songs like “Money Baby”, “Move That Dope” and “Go DJ” , it’s another exercise in Gambino trying too hard to prove something. Some of the songs sound good, some don’t, DJ Drama feels awkward and shoved in and at no point do you believe in anything being said on this record.

I’m a fan of Childish Gambino. I enjoyed Camp when damn near nobody else in the music blogosphere did. I thought Royalty was strong even if that tape also felt false at times. I think that Because The Internet was the strongest record of Gambino’s career. The production was elite and ambitious, the raps weren’t groundbreaking but the music felt soulful and personal. Despite this, the album felt too neat and incomplete; once again I was left with the feeling that I often feel after listening to every Gambino record, “he’s getting better but he’s still not there.”

Childish Gambino is a rapper that seems permanently on the cusp of puberty. He gives you enough flashes to believe that there’s a great musician hiding there but those flashes come out inconsistently enough to ever really enjoy him as an artist. The last song on BTI, “The Biggest Troll”, includes Gambino in a moment of quivering, naked emotion whispers “I don’t know who I am anymore” and it’s an easy thing to believe when all of his songs reveal that same truth.

One of the things that drew me to Gambino was his lost and depressed rap persona. As a lost depressed adult myself, I could appreciate someone who reminded me of my own feelings. I saw myself in him but, the one thing that acted as a deterrence for me has been how in flux he always seems on record. As an artist, if you can only accomplish one thing I would hope that thing is knowledge of self. More than not knowing who he is, Gambino doesn’t seem to know who he wants to be. It’s clear from his tweets and his interviews that he cares a lot about what people think of him and it bothers him the way people question his blackness. These are understandable concerns but at a certain point if you let everyone else tell you who to be you’ll become nothing.

I listened to Gambino’s Kauai EP. I enjoyed it for the most part even though a couple of the songs were a bit soggy. Gambino feels the most at home when he’s singing. You can hear his vulnerability and bare soul, while his raps feel like a mask put on to make himself more comfortable around other people. I’d like to here the vulnerable Gambino more: it’s a shame that he feels the need to posture and present himself as tougher than he is. It’s understandable though–rap was built on that sort of posturing–not everyone is believable at it though.

I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life. It’s a disease that seeps inside of you and takes over; you begin to believe that everything you are is wrong and negative and you cling to anything that will confirm the opposite. Everything I’ve read about and listened to from Gambino tells me that he’s cling to an idea of him being something worthwhile–anything but himself. As an artist, my hope is that he can get a better grip of who he is and make music that feels full and engaging. As his BTI tour has proven, he’s a huge artist with a huge fanbase. He doesn’t need me or any other blogger to tell him how to be. Despite that, I can see him and hear his music and know his truth. He’s still looking for himself as an artist and until he embraces this fact, he’ll always be in flux. At the end of Camp he talks about how he never got off the bus, maybe it’s time for him to make that first step out.

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Rap music and I have a tenuous relationship. As time goes on, I’m increasingly puzzled as to whether rap wants me to love it. Maybe these are the symptoms of getting old and washed up; when I was young, rap is all I cared about. The music consumed me at my most pretentious years and I both cherished and defended it. Today, I find myself more interested in revisiting older music–from both my youth and before my time–due to a growing disinterest in what’s happening now. All of that being said, rap has always been ridiculous and fodder for comedy. The most self-serious rapper out is just as humorous as many gimmicky artists; it’s entertainment at the end of the day and the inherent humor in the outlandishness and boisterousness add to its charm.

CB4 is a silly little film that involves people who love rap making fun of it. Directed by Tamra Davis, a music video director for rap and alt darlings like NWA and Sonic Youth, CB4 is the story of Albert (Chris Rock), Euripides (Allen Payne) and Otis (Deezer D) and an obsession with rap their families just don’t understand. The three boys are desperately trying to find a gimmick that’ll give them the opportunity to get a slot at a famous nightclub run by a drug kingpin named Gusto (Charlie Murphy). One day, Albert heads to the nightclub in the early afternoon to beg for a timeslot for him and his friends to perform and ends up inadvertently helping the FBI bust in on Gusto and his crony, 40 dog (Ty Granderson Jones), in the midst of a drug deal. Naturally, Gusto thinks he snitched on him but it doesn’t matter; he’s going to jail and Albert realizes that the best move for his rap career is to embody the tough guy gangster as a character. He convinces Euripides and Otis to follow his lead and Cell Block 4 aka CB 4 (named after the jail cell Gusto was thrown in) is born, with Euripides as Dead Mike, Otis becoming Stab Master Arson and Albert becoming (what else) MC Gusto.

Calling CB4 a sharp critique of rap in 1993 is probably giving it too much credit, but it is very obviously made by people who enjoy rap music a great deal. It’s filled with plenty of gags and references to what was happening at the time: from gimmick rap and silly dance music to record industry execs trying to cash in to political candidates making anti-rap a platform. CB4 themselves are a parody of NWA and the impact gangsta rap had on rap at the time as well as the critiques about it. Within the group, Dead Mike played the role of the militant black Brand Nubian type while Stab Master Arson was the uncle Luke type woman-obsessed DJ (naturally he was the one with a hundred little sisters).

CB4 is pretty easily the highlight of Chris Rock’s career as a writer or filmmaker–he wrote it along with Nelson George and Robert LoCash–and that’s kind of a bummer. Of all the black comedians who should’ve made that Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor transition to making great film work, Chris should’ve been the one to do it. The problem I’ve long suspected, is that Rock needs to be reigned in by other great writers. Left to his own devices, he tends to get trapped in this mode of taking movies he loves and turning them into one-liner heavy caricatures. With a Nelson George (or a Louis CK or Wanda Sykes), he can be utilized in a constructive way.

For as silly as CB4 can be, it’s a very controlled and focused film. The jokes may not always land, the story may have some cheesiness to it but all of it works. It’s a film that’s been vindicated over time but still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I’ve often wondered how a film like CB4 would look today: is rap (music in general really) might be too niche-ified and vast for it but CB4 proves that a lot of the same things that are ridiculous now were ridiculous then, which puts a damper on all that nostalgic rose-tinted waxing about the good ole days. As I type this, a number of MC Gustos have popped up on Datpiff and that’s probably how it’ll always be. Rap music frustrates me deeply but I hope it never changes. Keep pumping out that music straight outta LoCash.

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