Grantland: Illmatic and Hip Hop Nostalgia

"Time Is Illmatic"

“Time Is Illmatic”

Just a couple days before the 20th anniversary of Illmatic’s release, I’ve got a few thoughts over at Grantland about the various Illmatic commemoration projects and concerts, Nas’ legacy overall, and what subsequent generations will likely make of Illmatic as well as Raising Hell, Aquemini, Straight Outta Compton, It Takes A Nation Of Millions, etc. An excerpt for dat azz:

“It’s so weird watching rappers becoming elder statesmen,” Zadie Smith wrote in 2012 of Jay Z and his peers. “Heavy responsibility lands on the shoulders of these unacknowledged legislators whose poetry is only, after all, four decades young.” Nas has lasted nearly three of those decades, and he’s prospered despite even his worst instincts. But he’s also stunted, in a sense: an elder, active statesman who’s most popularly envisioned as a boy. Whatever you make of Nas’s tepidness as a celebrity, or his occasional floundering as the rap game’s Philip Freneau, it’s no less amazing that hip-hop — by now a balding genre — is a wonder of undergrad syllabi and critical essay compendiums. Speaking to Dyson and Peterson, Nas said that as a kid, he dreamed of speaking at universities and winning highbrow validation of his art. That mission has been accomplished, clearly — not just with Nas, but with artists like Bun B and 9th Wonder who’ve joined university faculties as guest lecturers. Professor Dyson may be grayer than Nas, but they dig the same beats and rap the same language.

Peep the piece here. I’ve got just one more Illmatic retrospective coming out tomorrow, at Complex.

(5.) ‘Halftime’, “I set it off with my own rhyme.”

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley.

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

The newly relaunched MySpace assigned ten music writers, including myself, to draft a short story for each track of Nas’ Illmatic, which turns 20 years old this week. We done good, I think. R&B singer and former The Wire actor Mack Wilds pens the ‘Intro’. Shea Serrano trumps with ‘Life’s A Bitch’. Claire Lobenfeld tickles ‘The World Is Yours’. And as yours truly, I break you off at ‘Halftime’:

Man of the house, tall as the garage ceiling, bald as a walnut, nodding too cool with his chin cocked high, eyes glued to the cradle-mounted Panasonic. He’s my way older cousin, we call him Squirrel. Swilling a sip of Budweiser in his cheek, substitute for his wavering habit of chewing tobacco. Doggone-it! whenever time stops, slapping the icebox roof. He won’t sit down. I mean, it’s his garage, he’s hosting this buffet, no one’s gonna tell homeboy to have his own seat. Everyone’s supposed to break him off with a cash contribution eventually — but the thing about country folk is, they’ve always got a creek and some weeds to hide between the moment anyone starts tax collecting.

Read the series here.

The Occupation Of Chiraq

Photo Credit: Jim Cooke, Gawker

Photo Credit: Jim Cooke, Art Director, Gawker

A couple weeks ago at Gawker, I published an expansive criticism of how music press cover Chicago’s “drill” rap scene, focusing on two recent documentaries — Noisey’s “Chiraq,” and WorldStarHipHop’s “The Field. For sake of the bigger picture, I drafted in panorama – not just the music, but also relevant political history, socioeconomic realities, and the South Side’s relation to law enforcement and urban renewal. On some David Simon steez.

Many thanks to Max Read and Tom Scocca at Gawker for editing me into shape; and to David Drake and Mikkey Halsted guiding my “Chiraq” immersion.

Here’s a teaser excerpt:

Among elder rap fans and Chicago natives, there’s a certain angst about the music press’ hype of Chicago’s drill scene. Glorification of violence, tourism among the dogs, class exoticism, white saviorism: these are the crimes alleged by the critics who resent hip hop journalism’s click-baiting of a homicide epidemic. One North Side native accuses “outlets like Stereogum…and Pitchfork” of turning a blind eye to the “transgressions” of drill artists, “essentially pretending their violent rhetoric is mere fantasy.” The Chicago Reader disparaged the Noisey documentary in particular as “a tour of reaffirmation” bent on presenting a bunch of kids from the hoods precisely as any safe-harbored fan of gangsta rap might fantasize them.

And here’s the thing: The studio mics, the mixing equipment, the Steadicams—before the record label swooped in, someone had to finance the scene. So no, the gang shout-outs aren’t just fantastical posturing. The kids are indeed “about that life.”

Complex: My Review Of Rick Ross’ “Mastermind”


It was a downtown D.C. office space acquaintance, Jua Johnson, who first tipped me to Ross for real, in 2009. We’d already applauded Ross’ breakout radio smashes by then — ‘Hustlin’ and ‘Push It’ from Ross’ Port of Miami debut in 2006 – but Deeper Than Rap was a surprise delight then, and it’s a classic now. Gotta thank Jua for the 100+ hours I’ve spent listening to ‘In Cold Blood’ on loop. 

For Complex, I reviewed Ross’ new album, Mastermind. Mosey on yonder. Preview below. Choice cuts: ‘Rich Is Gangsta’, ‘Nobody’ feat. French Montana, ‘Mafia Music III’, ‘The Devil Is A Lie’ feat. Jay Z, ‘War Ready’ feat. Jeezy.

In the sense that 2009′s Deeper Than Rap marked Rick Ross’ shift into cinematic, charismatic storytelling, and widescreen appeal as a persona, Mastermind is Deeper’s rightful sequel. From jacking the synth flood of Brian De Palma‘s Tony Montana soundtrack to launching its first act through alternating Caribbean sunshine and .38 caliber hail. Traces of Trick Daddy and Young Jeezy linger—the former’s influence most clearly pronounced on Mastermind’s first single, “The Devil is a Lie.” Yet all Ross’ flows converge in tribute to Bad Boy‘s new jack soul and Drake‘s reconciliation of banging beats with R&B deceleration.

Revisiting The Bitter End Of Evangelion


Editor’s Note, 03/13/14: I published this post three+ years ago — August 21, 2010 — under the title, End of Evangelion: My Favorite Scene From Film. To date, it’s one of the most consistently visited posts of this blog. I revisited this past weekend and thought, huh, I’m a better writer now than I was then, but I was pretty astute back then, too, IMHO. So here I’ve trimmed a few sentences but otherwise let the prose stand as was, as testament to the archival wonder of revisiting a lapsed diary. For the past two years, I’ve been writing a fiction manuscript that grapples many of Eva’s themes. Let’s see where it leads us.

Evangelion is, at face value, the story of a young man and two young women who pilot giant robots to fend against alien invasion of post-/pre-apocalyptic Tokyo. The robots are standard for popular 1990s anime; the series is essentially about the growth and devolution and psychology of the three young pilots, and of the series’ peripheral characters.

Evangelion culminates in a feature-length film, End of Evangelion. For the purposes of this post, I won’t give much other background on the series, although I certainly encourage anyone reading this to read up further elsewhere, because Evangelion is definitely worth diving into if you’ve ever appreciated Catcher In the Rye, Pink Floyd, adolescence, pop psychology, anime, animation, or weirdness generally.

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Shaking Our Fists At The Grammys


This past week, at both Complex and The New Republic, I covered the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards Show. Yes, by now, like you, I’m exhausted by even minimal thought of Macklemore. And yes, I ride for Beyonce and Jay until the Maybach wheels fall off.


The New Republic

Gawker II

Surprise! (It was, in fact.) Last night, last minute, I hopped onto another Gawker shift and banged out a few news-y posts before bedtime.

Monday, January 13, 2014