Monday, November 29, 2010

Tasty Treat: Jean Grae

By Scott Tre

Every B-Boy needs a B-Girl.  I like my women as feminine as possible, but every now and then I get the craving for a tomboy.  Maybe it's just my inner child, then again maybe my taste in women is as weird as my taste in just about anything else.  Ms. Grae knows how to pull off that tomboy swag with just the right touch of girlishness.  No matter how rough and rugged (or downright weird) she tries to come off, she can't keep that "girly girl" from bubbling to the surface.  On the mic she goes just as hard as any guy, which actually adds to her appeal (rare for a female rapper in my humble opinion).  Unlike most of the "dictionary" rappers she is often unfairly grouped with, her music is appealing and her punchlines are actually witty.  Her looks grab your attention, while her talent and intelligence keep you around beyond the length of a gaze.  She's everything I need.  Too bad she's married.  Maybe there's a colony of petite, cute little B-Girls like her in some far off hip-hop fantasy land somewhere.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: Jay-Z Allows Both His Life and His Art To Be “Decoded”

By Scott Tre

Jay-Z’s rise to prominence as arguably the premiere rapper and hip-hop entrepreneur of his generation is perhaps hip-hops greatest rags to riches story.  Raised by a single mom in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, he hustled in the streets during the gold rush of the crack era.  He then applied and adapted the lessons he learned in those streets to the music industry.  In the process he became millionaire hundreds of times over and married one of the most sought after women on the planet.  One of his raps could not be anymore fantastical or complete.  It is the ultimate hip-hop dream.

Jay-Z’s new hardcover book Decoded lays that story out in a rather unconventional way.  It is not a straightforward autobiography, but a collection of thoughts and musings that precede intricate breakdowns of some of his most famous verses.  Also included are pictures and artwork that help to tell the story.  To say the tome is of the coffee table variety would not be too far from the truth, but it is considerably more substantial than that.  This isn’t just a bit of fan service for Jay-Z devotees, but a conversation with one of raps most gifted songwriters.

Jay explains one of the most pervasive themes in his work, the many parallels between hustling/drug dealing and rapping.  This is a well worn cliché that has become part of the shtick that rappers use whenever confronted about the profane and lurid images that saturate their work.  It’s about as tired as the old adage that gangsta rappers are merely street reporters or Chuck D’s famous quote that rap music is the CNN of black America.  In Decoded, Jay offers perhaps the most thought out and valid version of the rap game/crack game dynamic that I have ever seen.  It is as clear and logical an explanation as any skeptic could hope for.

 Jay talks of how Hip-Hop was birthed during the heroin soaked and cocaine sprinkled haze of the 1970’s and entered its much fabled golden era during the same period of time that crack cocaine was fostering a new kind of entrepreneurial spirit.  To an extent, rap music has always been a product of this sentiment.  Both the drug dealer and the rapper represent a way out of a desperate situation and change to fit the times.  How could a rapper present a truly honest portrait of the surroundings that birthed him if he did not mention the dope peddler as one of his primary inspirations?  The speak of the drug game from a purely cautionary stand point, or to ignore it altogether, is as disingenuous as the reckless glorification that rappers are often accused of.

The breakdowns of Jay-Z standards such us “Regrets”, “Meet The Parents” and “Can I live” reveal a side of the performer that has always been present but often ignored.  There has always been a strong theme of regret and sadness that undercuts the tales of hood super stardom...the guilt that comes along with ill gotten gains, the nagging awareness of the lives one has helped to ruin.  There is also the impending feeling that Satan is dogging your every move and eager to collect on his bounty.  Jay has always noticed all of these things, and often incorporates them into his lurid Donald Goinesian tales.  He never gets much credit for it, but the picture he paints of the hustler is perhaps more realistic and emotionally honest than any other rapper ever.

From another stand point, we are finally allowed to assess just how witty and crafty Jay has always been.  He uses simple language and song construction to convey ideas, offering witty punchlines and couplets that have layered meanings that likely won’t be grasped by the causal listener upon first listen.  This is through no fault of his own, as Jay has always eschewed the tendency to confuse his listeners with a needlessly elaborate vocabulary or baffling wordplay.  His raps are deceptively complex and yet still not beyond the grasp of the layman.  He wants everyone to “get it”, but he also wants them to listen.

The reader is also treated to Jay’s views on world events, as well as stories about conversations and meetings he has had with the likes of the Notorious B.I.G, Quincy Jones, Bono, Oprah, and President Obama.  Some of these people have even become friendly acquaintances.  Through these stories it becomes clear just how far Jay-Z, and by extension hip-hop, have come.  In many cases these people were already aware of, and fans of Jay before they ever met him.  President Obama arranged a meeting with Jay before he became president.  That is the extension of Mr. Carter's reach.  His lurid tales of cocaine dealing and the high life managed to touch the leader of the free world.  Amazing.

If there is one complaint I have, it’s that Jay remains rather vague about his days as a drug dealer.  We mostly see them through the prism of his music, and in that regard they remain broad and mythic.  The true crime aficionado in me craved something a bit more detailed and epic...a large portrait narrative with a beginning, middle and end.  While it is silly to expect that Jay would go into great deal about his criminal past, some specifics may have added a bit of validity to his observations.  Hard as it is to believe, there are many people that doubt Jay’s criminal past.  It would have been nice for Jay to finally provide the ammunition to shut them up, but that has never been Mr. Carter's style.

Decoded is a fun and inspirational (if sometimes lightweight) read.  It doesn’t purport to be a tome of epic significance.  Jay isn’t looking to change your life so much as he is giving you a glimpse into his.  Like many of jay’s best songs, the deeper meanings hidden in the musings of Decoded kind of sneak up on the reader, even when they are presented in a plain and obvious way.  After the final page is turned, you consciousness has been touched.  Say what you will about Shawn Carter,  call him materialistic,  arrogant or shallow.  The one thing you cannot call him is vapid.  Like the generation he represents, he is more than he appears to be. 



Saturday, November 27, 2010

TV Review: Misfits Season Two Episode Three

By Scott Tre

As expected, life grows ever more complicated for everyone’s favorite super-powered screw-ups.  After a run-in with the elusive “Superhoodie”, Alisha is intrigued in way that demands her curiosity be satisfied.  Curtis also searches for answers, but of a different sort.  After locating the women that appeared in his drug addled vision, he begins to visit her home regularly.  Nathan and Simon accompany Kelly to the shop of a tattoo artist with rather unconventional methods.  During the visit, something strange happens that inspires Nathan to explore an underdeveloped side of his character (much to Simon's chagrin).  Meanwhile, Alisha's quest to solve the mystery of Superhoodie uncovers much more than she is ready to deal with.

As Misfits slowly morphs into a full on superhero story, it continues to explore a number of challenging themes.  Given the shocking bit of information we receive regarding the mousy and introverted Simon, his character arc seems to be a variation on the sort of nerd wish fulfillment represented by more popular super heroes such as Spider-Man.  Alisha’s superpower (or ailment, depending on how you look at it) plays like a long, hard lesson on valuing the looks and irresistible sexuality she has been blessed with.  The first season showed us just how flagrant and manipulative she was with those gifts, using them as a get out of jail free card.  The incessantly juvenile and grating Nathan learns that whatever barriers are keeping him from consummating his relationship with Kelly may have more to do with latent desires in his own heart than mere personality differences.

The Mysterious "Superhoodie"

More than anything else, the main theme that seems run through the duration of this season is following ones desires and having the courage to shoulder the consequences that come with that.  We all want the answers to leading a happy and content life, to know what “purpose we serve.”  However, we are reluctant to seek these things out when given the chance, clinging to the facade of normalcy like a security blanket.  Even if we find said answers, they just lead to more questions as opposed to stability.  The facades and masks we have developed offer a comfort that the “truths” we seek cannot.  Becoming what you are meant to become, or coming into your own, requires the willingness to grow and mature.  No one among The Misfits has displayed that ability as of yet.  Thus, they are not ready to accept the mantle of heroes, if indeed that is what they are to become.

Misfits is such an odd but satisfying series.  It’s chock full of juvenile elements as demonstrated by its crass sense of humor and sexuality.  Its also deceptively insightful and dense, able to contain a considerable amount of plot machinations and character development into a single episode.  While it caters to our base instincts, it also engages our psyche.  We all share the same flaws and desires as these five, yet the show encourages us to see them as deeply troubled.  It also invites us to laugh and gasp at their mishaps.  Then, it throws us a series of sucker punches that cause us to realize that they are none too different from ourselves.   As the show inches closer toward traditional superhero territory (as evidenced by certain developments in episode three) I can only hope that it maintains the ability to shock and surprise the audience.  I have a feeling that when all is said and done, Misfits may end up as a contender for the best super hero television series ever.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Damian Kenow Leads Us Down The 'Paths Of Hate'

By Scott Tre

Animation has the ability to make the terrestrial seem otherworldly.  The mundane can become an odyssey through the unknown when rendered by an artist's pen as opposed to being filmed in live action. Likewise, a fantastic historical event that has lost some of its wonder over the years can feel new and fresh when viewed through the prism of CGI or traditional cell animation.

Whether it's WWII fighter planes above Europe or X-Wings in the furthest reaches of space, cinema has seen its share of aerial dogfights.  Though thrilling, they have become quite familiar.  Well, Polish animation studio Platige looks to make the familiar fantastic again with Damian Kenow's animated short film Paths Of Hate.  It revolves around an aerial dogfight for which very little context is given.  Its makers tout it as an examination of that most primal emotion that drives humanity headlong into the chaos of war: hatred.

The animation itself has the quality of a highly detailed motion comic, or an example of the rotoscoping process at its highest state of refinement.  It could even be a cell shaded cut scene from a flight simulation video game.  While all of the aforementioned comparisons might seem like belittlement, they are not. What this trailer does is offer an interestingly stylized take on an old standard.  We see two pilots doggedly pursuing each other over water and mountainous terrain.  The close ups of bullets being fed into guns and spent shell casings being discarded speak to the vast amount of energy and resources being expended by these two men for the sole purpose of killing one another.  They most assuredly do not know each other, and likely have no quarrel beyond the different nations and ideologies they represent.

The trailer ends rather abruptly, but leaves the viewer wondering how this clip fits into the context of the entire piece.  Bottom line is it leaves the viewer wanting more.  It's also a good example of how images by themselves can convey ideas, be it close-ups of the eyes or of machinery.  Amazingly, the medium of animation continues to expand to accommodate not only various themes and subject matter, but various styles and methods through which to make the real surreal and vice versa.  As the line separating the animated world from the real world becomes increasingly blurred, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? suddenly feels a lot less like a fantasy.  Then again, maybe that's just me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Words From The Desolate One: A Phone Conversation With Just-Ice

Just-Ice: Still Desolate After All These Years.

By Scott Tre

Never underestimate the importance of having the courage of your convictions.  Tough talk is worth zilch if one hasn’t the stones to back it up.  Rappers would do well to remember this, as Hip-Hop is now going through a phase where words and history are not valued.  MC's no longer have to worry themselves with walking the walk, so long as they talk the talk well enough.  Fans these days are as concerned with artistic integrity and honesty as they are with actually buying CD’s...that is to say, not much.  Such an environment can be extremely dismissive towards an old head with the balls to call it as he sees it. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Return To The Rock House: A Phone Conversation With Tony M.F. Rock (Part 1)

By Scott Tre

At a time when Atlanta hip-hop was mostly known for "booty shake", Tony M.F. Rock was perfecting an entirely different template for his fellow ATLiens to follow.  His 1990 debut Let Me Take You To The Rock House had the requisite amount of uptempo club bangers, but also showed considerable artistic range.  Its influence begot super lyricists like Andre 3000.  Tony also exerted a certain level of influence on the emerging Miami bass scene, having contributed verses to the 2 Live Crew's infamous classic As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

TV Review: 'Misfits' Season Two Episode One

By Scott Tre

The misadventures of every ones favorite group of gifted though misguided youth continue with the second season of Misfits.  The season opener shows the gang being stalked by a mysterious helmeted figure.  

Misfits has been such a thoroughly entertaining show that it's hard to find fault with any single episode.  It gives you everything you want from a superhero themed show, with more food for thought than any number of "adult" superhero comics could ever possibly offer.  It also flirts with our mischievous side, openly exploiting the secret desires of it's openly male fanbase.  That is the secret of the shows success.  It combines solid storytelling with a juvenile sense of humor and titillation.