From Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka On the Shore”

This past Saturday after the evening’s whiskey, I was walking down Bedford in search of a sidewalk book vendor recommended by the Kiwi tennis enthusiast back at the bar on Jackson. I found the vendor and his three tables on N 6th. Among the books, a conspicuously quaint jacket puffed around Murakami’s Kafka On the Shore, priced to sell for $20. First edition U.S. hardback, the vendor tells me. Of course I bought it. Of course I’m halfway through it Tuesday morning. Haruki, you puppeteer.

“I’ve experienced all kinds of discrimination,” Oshima says. “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to. Like that lovely pair we just met.” He sighs and twirls the long slender pencil in his hand. “Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas–none of them bother me. I don’t care what banner they raise. But what I can’t stand are hollow people. When I’m with them I just can’t bear it, and wind up saying things I shouldn’t. With those women–I should’ve let it slide, or else called Miss Saeki and let her handle it. She would have given them a smile and smoothed things over. But I just can’t do that. I say things I shouldn’t, do things I shouldn’t do. I can’t control myself. That’s one of my weak points. Do you know why that’s a weak point of mine?”

“‘Cause if you take every single person who lacks much imagination seriously, there’s no end to it,” I say.

“That’s it,” Oshima says. He taps his temple lightly with the eraser end of the pencil. “But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Oshima points at the stacks with the tip of his pencil. What he means, of course, is the entire library.

“I wish I could just laugh off people like that, but I can’t.”

Recent Music Reviews: 07/12/14

While I may have failed editorial authorization to review the new Morrissey album, that’s only because hip-hop and pop are most of my business. (And anyway, Gary’s got you/him covered.) Alas, here’s my latest at Complex:

And your bonus: me and Insanul watched & dissected Holler If Ya Hear Me, a fledgling Broadway musical scored in the key of 2Pac. Feel me!

Lana Del Rey’s Retro, Western, Death-Defying “Ultraviolence”

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My first staff review for Complex is Lana Del Rey’s latest album, Ultraviolence, the follow-up to her critically divisive 2012 breakout Born to Die.

Ultraviolence is a blues affair, with moody innuendo spilling bloody and bold as the opening sequence to a vintage Bond saga. The album, more intimate than its predecessor, serializes an avid lover’s struggles with money, trust, expectations, and Other Women. This is the Marlboro-smoky backseat of a joyride that’s somehow turned to fists and tears; Ultraviolence is drunk driving.

“I’m Complex.”

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As of last week–June 3, 2014–I’m a staff writer for Complex, covering music. Shouts out to all the young media folk who’ve helped me leap to writing about hip hop for a (now relatively stable) living; namely Kiese Laymon, David Drake, James Harris, Max Read, Emily Yoshida, Emma Carmichael, Megan Carpentier, Adam Plunkett, Gene Demby and the entire PostBourgie. You rogues, you.

And thank you, dear reader, for reading.

“Where The Hood At?” On Hip Hop And Gentrification In NYC

Jay Shells' "Rap Quotes" project, here in Queensbridge

Jay Shells’ “Rap Quotes” project, here in Queensbridge

For Complex, I talked to hip hop activist LeRoy McCarthy, street artist Jay Shells, and the legendary Combat Jack about the whitewashing of hip hop history from New York’s pavement. The piece took me a month to report, if only because I’m new to all this and transcription is a motherfucker. Live; learn. It’s a long-ish read but it’s good, I swear. 

Gentrification and urban renewal have shuttered landmarks across the five boroughs — rainbow spray can mecca 5 Pointz in Queens being the latest fatality after the building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, whitewashed the 200,000-square foot factor complex, which is targeted for demolition to make room for two luxury condo high-rises. To New York’s surprise, one November dawn saw 5 Pointz’s walls entirely bleached. Wolkoff told The Wall Street Journal, “It was torture for [the artists] and for me. They couldn’t paint anymore and they loved to paint. Let me just get it over with and as I knock it down they’re not watching their piece of art going down. The milk spilled. It’s over. They don’t have to cry.”

As the rap scene retracts, the history dissolves, leaving only nostalgia among former Tunnel regulars and those already in the know. And yet another chrome tower or Connecticut Muffin displaces one of those old haunts that the old heads reminisce, and sigh.

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.

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.”