Broken Language
Is Sky Ferreira’s “I Blame Myself” Video Racist? Ask A Black Person!

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This week Sky Ferreira released the video for “I Blame Myself” off her debut album Night Time, My Time. You might want to head over to the SSENSE page to check it out if you haven’t already. The clip features Sky mugging around what looks to be Compton and meeting up with a bunch of black men who turn out to be the backup dancers in a Michael Jackson-esque Ridiculous Situation Magically Morphs Into Synchronized Dance Sequence scenario. Sky may or may not be a drug dealer, and she definitely gets arrested and, in what has to be a nod to her drug arrest last year, pulls a black widow maneuver on an officer interrogating her at the police station. It’s a mess, but the song’s killer, and she looks stunning culling all those latent Madonna and Joan Jett vibes. I could immediately sense it was going to piss people off, though. Sure enough ‘n’ yes it did.

Some accused the clip of “accidental racism.” Others defended it. Sky herself took to Facebook, incredulous that the video has trudged up the reaction that it did. She notes in a lengthy post that the dancers were chosen for their skills, that it was never her intention to use them as props, and that, oh yeah, she’s not even white. But Sky’s I’ve Got Black Friends defense and a behind the scenes video featuring a director clunkily describing the setting as your “quintessential American ghetto” and the dancers as “thuggish” didn’t help matters. These are serious allegations and certainly worth exploring in a public dialogue. It’s too bad that in the rush to chastise Sky’s team’s supposed insensitivity, no one bothered to ask any actual black people about it.

I realize an internet accustomed to its primary voice being white and bro often lacks the patience/moxie to seek out minority voices to the point where it’s my basic mission to be Actual Black Guy out here, but please, please stop and listen for a change every now and then. Sky’s point about it being bullshit for white (or in her case, white-looking?) artists to avoid black dancers for fear of the racial implications is spot on. Harping about props and appropriation every single time someone calls in a team of black backup dancers is only going to scare off jobs for dancers of color, and I can only imagine what fuckery would’ve commenced if something as clumsily rattling as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video dropped into this crowd of perpetually incensed freedom riders. “I Blame Myself” doesn’t even scratch the surface.

I actually dug what the clip was trying to do. It’s a puckish play on expectations: you see a black-clad figure stalking a brokedown inner city street, and your mind tells you it’s a man. It’s not. You see a group of somber looking black men and your mind tells you they’re up to no good. They’re just here to dance. As someone who deals with strangers’ preconceived, race-derived notions of what I’m like every day offline and fields disbelief that I could be black based off my writing online, I appreciated “I Blame Myself” for turning precognitive American race and gender junk in on itself. It’s a curt “Fuck your feelings” I’m too cordial to deliver to everyone who deserves it in my day-to-day. I wish any of those outraged by proxy had consulted me or anyone else with a minority perspective before sabers got to rattling. So it goes. Talk to us, not for us, internet.

Advanced urban sociological studies addendum: The automatic assumption that a white person doesn’t belong in a predominately black neighborhood is some bullshit too. If in 2014 you see a white person In The Ghetto and immediately assume they’re out searching for the cool on urban safari and not just, I don’t know, luxuriating in all the affordable housing, you’re telling me you haven’t been to the hood in a while, and you’re quietly invalidating everything you say to me on the subject of the inner city.

How did you get to be so influential in the hip hop community?

Am I? I really don’t think I am lol

Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Drake all make wack music, pop or otherwise, with rare exceptions (or in Perry's case, no exceptions.) if those're the examples you're gonna use for your women/POC argument, get better examples
Anonymous

You need more people.

Consider the Audience: Poptimism vs. Rockism vs. Chilling the Fuck Out

Ten years ago this summer David Foster Wallace wrote a now-legendary essay for Gourmet Magazine titled “Consider the Lobster” questioning the morality of seafood culinary techniques. As I recall he used a gang of circumstantial evidence to try and give the lie to the prevailing assumption that crustaceans don’t feel anything when they’re being boiled alive for our dining pleasure. I’ve been reminded of the story throughout this month’s music journalist in-fighting, as storied jazz critic Ted Gioia took to The Daily Beast to lament the collapse of music criticism into lifestyle reporting and writer Saul Austerlitz piggybacked him in a NY Times editorial accusing the pop-positive proponents of poptimism in music crit of pushing the sphere of coverage to close to the mainstream. Gioia thinks people come to music writing for theory-based laymen’s breakdowns of sound architecture. Austerlitz thinks it’s a forum for illuminating achievements in recording that shouldn’t be openly accommodating to “the taste of 13 year olds.”

Naturally, Critic Twitter had a fit, and the young spring has arrived speckled with sideline metacritical debates on what’s good and nurturing for a reading audience— that scarcely involve said audience. Our readers are Wallace’s lobsters: we look at their movements for proof of how they feel about the job we’re doing, never sussing out a reliable method of soliciting feedback for it. Many of us use social media as a thermometer for reactions to our work, but we tend to cherry pick our experiences there along lines of common interest and to filter out the rudest, most uncomely interactions. The people in our offline lives often don’t care about whatever flavor-of-the-month issues we’re on about every day, so we retreat into the company of our fellows in the critical chorus for advice/dialogue/feedback regarding matters of the trade. It’s a hall of mirrors, a contained unit of people too close to a thing grasping at a deeper perspective on it.

So pardon me if I’m not too deeply concerned with whatever shirts-and-skins divisions we’re breaking off into (again) this year. The closest we get to appreciating the vast array of music swamping the market is to listen to as many voices as possible. There should be Gioias out towing the technical line over jazz records and Austerlitzes treasuring new guitar rock. There should be Beyonce enthusiasts singing the praises of her self-titled album. There should be cheesing over Miley Cyrus’ stage set up. These wings of music crit can coexist without corroding the integrity of the form, without harboring secret designs on overtaking the whole of the industry. They can all be art. Their merits deserve praise and consideration, and the appreciation of the one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other. The binary, two-party thinking that has dominated these conversations is a gross disservice to the diversity of the subject matter we cover.

While we’re on the subject of diversity, it pains me that we’re unable to carry out these infernal poptimism/rockism debates without opponents of deep pop criticism steadily citing women and people of color as being undeserving of thorough consideration in prose. It’s always the Beyonces, Drakes and Katy Perrys that come under fire when poptimism debates come up, and trust and believe that whether the people that posit these ideas intend to come off wrongly or not, they almost always carry an air of sexism and of vaguely racial middle American “Take our country back” sloganeering. Part of why we’re seeing more coverage of blacks and women in music is that there’s more blacks and women doing the writing. We’ve seen what happens when the prevailing voice of music criticism is white and male (I know, I know: it still is. But change is afoot!), the appraisals of women in rock that prize looks over talent, the frustrating paucity of writing about decades of great R&B, the early reticence of rock publications to give hip-hop a fair shake, the vacuous evasion of reporting on music that challenges our language barrier. We’re not going back to that.

If you can’t appreciate the influx of new voices servicing an ever splintering web of genres and subgenres, these next few years are going to annoy you, and for that I’m sorry. It can be hard to watch the world pivot underneath your feet, to find that you’ve lost your bearings, the world you had in your hands slipping ever out of your grip. This goes out to you.

I Am… Revisited: Searching for Nas’ Lost Classic

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Popular rap fan consensus states that Nas’ late ‘90s were his worst period artistically speaking, and in retrospect it’s probably because he overextended himself. After the Firm album tanked, Nas took his career in a million directions at once, linking up with DMX and T-Boz from TLC for Hype Williams’ big screen debut Belly, starting up a vanity label in Ill Will Records and embarking on an ambitious double album project called I Am… The Autobiography. Like Illmatic before it, Nas’ sessions fell victim to prerelease bootleggers, but rather than dropping compromised music again, he recorded new songs and released the radically restructured single album I Am… on April 6th 1999. Months later Columbia hinted at a plan to release Nas’ outtakes, and again he rushed to the studio to cook up fresh material, coming away with late 1999’s much-maligned Nastradamus.

Two things have always bothered me about the middling reception of I Am… and Nastradamus. First, The Source reviewed a version of Nas’ I Am… album in 1999, awarding it a near-perfect 4.5 mic score. This is more than a little incongruous with the version of the album that made it to stores, which was hampered by a grip of subpar song concepts and iffy beats.

Second: I had a neighborhood bodega that sold bootleg albums and mixtapes in the late ’90s and early ’00s where I’d splurge on whatever rap albums I was cagey about buying at retail. I picked up a copy of I Am… there sometime before the street date and was shocked in April when the retail version surfaced with many of my favorite cuts replaced. Then in November when Nastradamus dropped and the only cuts revived off the bootleg were “Project Window” and “Come Get Me”. Then again in 2002 when The Lost Tapes resurrected “Blaze a 50”, “Drunk By Myself” and a few other cuts from the I Am… sessions. The real get for this piece would’ve been me producing a copy of that CD, but blue bottom CD-Rs weren’t built to last. Shit is gone.

The consolation prize is that in going through Nas’ ‘97 - ‘99 discography last month I found not only a formidably solid two albums worth of songs (I know this has been done a thousand times over the years, hear me out) but in working out a sequence for my personal listening enjoyment, I ended up piecing together an arrangement of I Am… era singles, deep cuts, soundtrack/compilation loosies and still unreleased outtakes that honors both the format and intent of I Am… The Autobiography. I found a concept album. The first disc takes Nas from birth to fame in the rap game to loss as the East/West rap feud started claiming greats. The second disc gets a little fictional as Nas the power-mad kingpin carries out a series of increasingly sloppy hits and capers that lead to his eventual undoing (and maybe mythological rebirth?)

It’s a rap game Scarface story and a spiritual successor to Big’s Life After Death. I swear if Nas released anything resembling this tracklist we’d be talking about that part of his career a lot differently. There’s a couple of dope cuts that didn’t fit the playlist tonally or else thematically (“Shoot Em Up”, “Small World”, “The Rise and Fall”, “You Won’t See Me Tonight”, and fuck you, I like “You Owe Me” too) but there’s also no weak links. Mixcloud audio and tracklist below.

I Am… The Autobiography - Part 1 by Craigsj on Mixcloud

00:00 - 03:18 Fetus

03:19 - 07:07 Poppa Was a Playa

“Fetus” is one of the great autobiographical Nas story songs, and it vexes me that it only saw the light of day as a hidden track on The Lost Tapes. He takes us from his conception to birth, detailing his parents’ squabbles through his “belly button window”. Lost Tapes closer “Poppa Was a Playa”, ghost produced by Kanye as legend has it, sees the union of a young Nas’ parents reach a breaking point as Olu’s philandering slowly tears the family apart.


07:08 - 10:26 U Gotta Love It

The opening line of this Lost Tapes loosie never ceases to slay me (“Real conversation for that ass!”) but between L.E.S.’ massive 6/4 production and Nas’ tight rhymes, fuck it, you gotta love it. Verse one reminisces about gazing at Playboy magazines before fooling around with neighborhood girls and then laments the mid-’80s crack epidemic’s transformation of innocent boys into grizzled street soldiers.


10:27 - 14:02 N.Y. State of Mind Part II

Nas reunited with DJ Premier for a remake of the Illmatic classic to open I Am…. QB’s still ravaged by poverty, drugs and police brutality here as Nas details the succession of deaths, arrests and betrayal that whittled his circle of close friends down from eight to three.


14:03 - 18:03 Nastradamus

Idc idc idc L.E.S. killed it. I don’t care if Nas was dancing inside a solar eclipse and rocking wolf pelts at the club in the video, I don’t care if you were supposed to watch the video with 3D glasses, I don’t care how smart/dumb of a title “Nastradamus” is, I don’t care if he said “I let y’all niggas bang my shit before Saddam hits”, I rocks with this. Nas uses the slick-to-death Nastradamus title track to remind us of all the shit he originated and open up about the death of his friend Ill Will. He also bucks on Memph Bleek something crazy at the top of verse one talking about hot slugs melting in dude’s hat. Damn, Nas.


18:04 - 22:09 Come Get Me

Premo killed it, Nasir killed it, there’s no reason this Nastradamus banger shouldn’t’ve have been a single. So it goes. “Come Get Me” is Nas on top arrogantly baiting enemies, and yes, that means more subs for Bleek and them. You can tell it was a leftover for the original sessions cause Nas threatens to “wild on haters on album three” even though the song appeared on album number four.


22:10 - 25:49 Find Ya Wealth

This shit was way too good for that messy QB’s Finest comp. Nas serves up the story of his success from his debut on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ” through the beginnings of his solo career over a smooth sample chop of shimmering keys from L.E.S. “Find Ya Wealth” inspires listeners to look for emotional/spiritual stability rather than wilding for respect and money.


25:50 - 30:10 Did You Ever Think (Remix) (feat. R. Kelly)

Hear me out! “Did You Ever Think” off R. Kelly’s 1998 R. album was dope, and this remix of it deserved better. It’s as much a Nas song as a Kells song, with the two of them taking a verse apiece in between choruses. It’s your typical incredulous rapper celebrates riches joint but this swanky Trackmasters collab is textbook Commercial Nas, and the message fits the story nicely, so it stays.


30:11 - 35:10 We Will Survive

Trackmasters had me at hello with this flip of Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It”, a personal yacht rock fave. But Nas takes this over the top with personal letters to Biggie and 2pac, tracing his relationship with each from friendly competition to shock and disbelief in the wake of their passing.


35:11 - 40:06 Project Window (feat. Ronald Isley)

Knowledge darts, moody feels, Ron Isley on the hook, this was a Nastradamus highlight. Nas recounts neighborhood shootouts and shakedowns he witnessed from the window of his mom’s apartment. Jay would later turn the sentiment into a dig on “Takeover”.


40:07 - 45:03 Sometimes I Wonder (feat. Nature)

This Nas/Nature cut slid out on an unofficial mixtape somewhere and it’s the perfect bridge from the depression and uncertainty of “We Will Survive” and “Project Window” to the bloodbath that’s to come.

I Am… The Autobiography - Part 2 by Craigsj on Mixcloud

00:00 - 04:43 Hate Me Now (feat. Puff Daddy)

04:44 - 08:47 Life Is What You Make It (feat. DMX)

08:48 - 12:55 Favor for a Favor (feat. Scarface)

The three big rapper collabs on I Am… are a good way to open the story disc 2 is trying to tell. “Hate Me Now” is self-absorbed king shit, “Life Is What You Make It” taps Nas’ Belly costar DMX for stressed fatalism and “Favor for a Favor” is Nas and Scarface teaming up for gleeful bloodletting. The beats on all three are hyperdramatic big screen courtroom drama shit, all strings and suspense, and it’s kinda heavy hearing them all in a row.


12:56 - 15:44 Blaze a 50

“Blaze a 50” is an ace story rap. Nas meets a football player’s wife at a Superbowl party and finds out he’s not treating her right. She hatches a disconcertingly fully formed plan to off the husband and make off with his insurance money. Nas flips on the wife and splits the money with the maid the husband’s fucking when he moves in for the kill. The maid pretends to be the wife, collects the money, then dies when Nas swaps out her coke with crushed up glass. How this missed both I Am… and Nastradamus is a mystery.


15:45 - 19:54 Life We Chose

19:55 - 24:02 My Worst Enemy

24:03 - 28:06 Drunk By Myself

28:07 - 31:49 The Hardest Thing to Do Is Stay Alive

“Life We Chose” (Nastradamus’ crown jewel for my money) is determination shot through with sadness, one of the game’s preeminent players lamenting the fact that yes, everybody dies at the end. The unreleased “My Worst Enemy” and Lost Tapes’ “Drunk By Myself” see a reckless, unstable Nas inching toward his own undoing. “The Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive” is a cautionary tale of dealers and dope fiends meeting their demises on opposing sides of the drug game.


31:50 - 35:24 Wanna Play (Rough)?

35:25 - 39:06 In Too Deep (feat. Nature)

“Wanna Play (Rough)?” is one of the best songs to come out of these sessions, and it is complete balderdash for it to have ended up on a release as forgotten and unheralded as Dame Grease’s Live on Lenox. Grease provides a death march of a beat here, and Nas plays the part of a wronged assassin exacting all-consuming revenge on his adversaries. “In Too Deep” off the soundtrack of the LL Cool J movie of the same name (where Nas plays a bit part) is fearful and paranoid, and situating it right after the murderous rage of “Wanna Play (Rough)?” and the stressed out reflection of the songs before it gives the impression of our protagonist quietly awaiting repercussions for his transgressions.


39:07 - 43:29 Undying Love 

Death finally catches up with the kid on I Am… closer “Undying Love” when he comes home from a weekend excursion on the Vegas strip to find his girlfriend laid up with another dude. Listening to H-Town! Nas goes to kill the guy, who turns out to be an undercover cop, but somehow shoots his girl dead in the process. The pain’s too much for him to take, so he slides the engagement ring he was carrying onto her hand and takes his own life. Married in death. Police reinforcements walk in to find everybody dead, aaaand scene. Rap game Romeo & Juliet. What’s more disturbing is that rumors posit that Nas knew his real life significant other was cheating on him at the time of recording (as Jay’s off sides jabs would bear out very publicly in 2 years), so that technically makes this a bloody revenge fantasy, no?


43:30 - 47:26 Afterlife/Amongst Kings

“Afterlife” was supposed to provide closure to the story “Undying Love” abruptly ends, as Nas pleads for another shot at life after committing suicide. Unreleased stunner “Amongst Kings” puts a damper on that party as Nas meets his maker in judgement, and (here’s where things get odd) may or may not return to earth as an avenging angel? It’s weird that “Undying Love” would turn up without the epilogue because it ties together the I Am… and Nastradamus concepts rather neatly. But all that murky metaphysical shit might’ve been too heavy coming right after all the blood and mayhem of “Undying Love”. Which is why it’s my second to last track here…


47:27 - 51:24 Nas Is Like

With the proper story wrapped, I Am… single “Nas Is Like” as the final cut plays out how Kendrick ending good kid, m.A.A.d city with “Compton” did, chasing a dark, involved story cycle with an uplifting statement of purpose. “Nas Is Like” always felt like a proper album closer to me, and because I don’t have the bootleg on hand I can’t say whether or not its thanks to the song’s sequencing in that tracklist.

I’m dead.

ohsosupreme:

"AYO!!!! LISTEN TO MY MIXTAPE!"

Me like every day.

ohsosupreme:

"AYO!!!! LISTEN TO MY MIXTAPE!"

Me like every day.

Cam’s birthday eyyyyyyyyyyyy classic moment in Cam history eyyyyyyyyyyy.

So I guess this blog is 4 years old today or whatever

Not that that means anything considering how many times I’ve torched it to the ground and started over. In any event…