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Beats, Rhymes, Life to Bling-Bling-Bling.

“Whereas ‘My Adidas’ highlighted consumer items, ‘Picasso Baby’ is all about unattainable luxury, fantasy acquisitions. Within the first ten words of the song, Jay Z ensures that no one in his audience can identify with the experience that he’s rapping about…hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage…[I]t’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.”

In a six-part-series for Vulture, The Roots‘ Questlove explains, in his view, how hip-hop has failed black America. [Part 1.] Only two parts in, but so far he’s dead on. I know I’m turning forty this year, so there’s probably no small amount of Get-Off-My-Lawn involved. But, imho of course, something went wrong when commercial hip-hop took the hyper-consumerist turn awhile ago.

Back in the day, you had East vs. West coast (if I got to choose a coast, I got to choose the East — I live out there, so don’t go there), the Pan-racial, regular guy optimism of the Native Tongues; the history- and political-minded hip-hop of Public Enemy, Gangstarr, X-Clan, KRS-One; the skewed pop-culture funhouse of the Wu-Empire, rappers like Slick Rick, Nas, & Rakim working their own unique thing.

Now, some of Kanye’s experimenting aside, the hip-hop mainstream — from my admittedly limited perspective — seems to be mainly concerned with needle boats. “Who’s to blame? It’s hard to say. Certainly, Puff Daddy’s work with the Notorious B.I.G. in the early ’90s did plenty to cement the idea of hip-hop as a genre of conspicuous consumption.”

Then again, as a few people pointed out in the comments, the evolution of hip-hop from diversity to commodity isn’t happening in a vacuum. The music world, in most any genre, seems to be in a really bad way these days. But again, this is always the aging person’s lament. Now Get Off My Lawn.

We Can’t Stop…Hrm, Wait, We Can.

It’s my blog, I can do what I want: As making the rounds today, Miley Cyrus, Jimmy Fallon, and The Roots perform an inordinately catchy acapella version of “We Can’t Stop”, so far the minor-key pop anthem of the year. I have to say, leaving the embarrassing VMA performance, Sinead-feuds, excessive tongue-wagging, and whatnot aside, Miley now has two certifiable earworms to her name — this and “Party in the USA.”

I just wish my brain didn’t keep inserting the John Boehner drawl in to the song now (“The Government!“), on account of last week’s Saturday Night Live. But glad to see pop culture reflecting that this is a Republican-induced meltdown happening here. (SNL Link potentially NSFW, tho’ apparently SFSNL, so your Mileyage may vary.)


A very Happy New Year to you and yours. (FWIW, in keeping with a resolution to get out more now that the old dissertation is tagged and bagged — defense date, January 18th — I spent a fine New Years Eve-ning with The Roots in Silver Spring.)

Also, just to let you know, I’m working on the traditional annual movie review post, but it probably won’t go live until mid-month, since two of the better-reviewed films of 2012, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Michael Haneke’s Amour, don’t arrive here in the Beltway Styx until 1/11. That also gives me another week to plug a few other holes via Netflix, like last night’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (dopey, but not nearly as terribad as I feared) and The Deep Blue Sea (a definite list contender).

In any event, happy 2013 everyone. Since we’ve made it through the Mayan gauntlet and are already living in The Future, it’s all extra time from here on out. Let’s make the most of it! Onward and upward.

The Axon Effect.

Squids (like many other cephalopods) can quickly control pigmented cells called chromatophores to reflect light…We used a suction electrode to attach to the squid’s fin nerve, then connected the electrode to an iPod nano as our stimulator. The results were both interesting and beautiful. The video below is a view through an 8x microscope zoomed in on the dorsal side of the caudal fin of the squid.

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming…the ultraviolet dream, that is. Via Boing Boing, a squid’s chromatophores groove to Cypress Hill…Science! (Just don’t show it Oldboy.)

The Mic Passes.

I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got gray hairs, and that’s a lot because I’ve got my share.” —
Beastie Boy and founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories Adam Yauch, MCA, 1964-2012.

Tricksters on the Borderlands, on the Throne.

A few days ago I was watching Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ fevered monument to America’s fear of and fascination with the Border, which opens with that famous three-minute tracking shot…It hit me (weirdly, I guess, but I spent way too much time thinking about sports) that this shot contained everything you needed to know about the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.

In Grantland, Brian Phillips looks to the border for insights into the US and Mexico soccer teams. To be honest, I’m not really sold on ESPN’s Grantland experiment just yet. Too much of the site exudes the terrible taste and fratgeek sexism of its editor-in-chief, “Sportsguy” Bill Simmons. Frequent contributor Chuck Klosterman is another red flag to me, for the same reasons. Both consider themselves pop culture arbiters and both are compulsively readable but – Simmons on the NBA notwithstanding — they’re also usually irritating and often wrong.

Still, Grantland does publish worthwhile culture pieces now and again — Hua Hsu on Watch the Throne today is another good one. And, speaking of good Watch the Throne commentary, Matt at Fluxblog has a particularly keen observation on it: “Kanye can’t help but project his intense insecurities – he’s emotionally transparent at all times, and it’s part of what makes him such a fascinating and magnetic pop star. Jay-Z, however, is the radical opposite – his every word and movement is focused on controlling your impression of him…In this way, Kanye is analogous to the Marvel Comics model of whiny, introspective, persecuted superheroes [Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk] and Jay-Z is more like DC Comics’ Superman and Batman, who thrive when creators trade on their stoic, iconic qualities.

The Guru, the Visionary, and the Matriarch.

“Leaving school to pursue a rap career flummoxed his family, said Guru’s brother, Harry Jr. ‘I was on my way to becoming a professor, and my brother is dropping out of grad school, and I’m saying, ‘What are you doing?’ But he believed in it and followed it through.” Activist and hip-hop pioneer Guru of Gangstarr, 1962-2010. (Now who’s gonna take the weight?)

“The opening of ‘Dog Day’ is about what Sonny lost, and the rest of the film is about how he lost it. This sequence is about the necessity of recognizing and appreciating the beauty of life itself. A better tribute to Dede Allen’s artistry is hard to imagine.” Groundbreaking film editor Dede Allen, 1923-2010.

“‘If the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times,’ she liked to say. It was important, she said, to dress well. ‘I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.'” Matriarch of the civil rights movement Dorothy Height, 1912-2010.

If that’s your man, then tag him in.

“I think were seeing the life of hip-hop coming back with songs like ‘Aunt Jackie.’ It’s the kids acting like kids used to act when I was growing up, and I love it because, to me, hip-hop has been too cool for school lately.” While I’m linking to music on YouTube, I meant to post this while in Seattle and forgot: Slate‘s Jody Rosen examines the Aunt Jackie phenomenon. Who’s Aunt Jackie? She’s “new rap music with an old-school flow,” i.e. a goofy, ridiculously infectious throwback jam that’s been blowing up on the Tube over the past six months. No gangstas, no bling — just old-school beats, rhymes, and b-boyin’ invoking the early days of NYC hip-hop. (NSFW, due to language and the fact that you’ll likely try to imitate the Aunt Jackie after awhile.)

Oldboy, Old Boys.

In the past week, I have seen two things that made me want to claw out my eyes Oedipus-style and run screaming down Amsterdam Ave. One was the live octopus scene in Oldboy, a movie that’s worth seeing for the hallway fight sequence alone but, lordy, is hard to watch. (The tongue and teeth parts ain’t much better. I’m learning I just can’t hang with the edgy Korean cinema, but I still find it preferable to grotesque Miike stuff like Ichi the Killer. That film is just plain sick.) The other: Karl Rove rapping. Is it the token black guy standing next to him? NBC’s David Gregory forced to bob up and down in the background? The porcine lack of rhythm and gesticulating of Mr. Rove himself? Or the whole sheer staggering whiteness, bordering on minstrelsy, of the scene taken together? (Paging David Roediger.) Whatever it is, it is straight-up cringeworthy.

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