Saturday, May 30, 2015

Meredith Vieira's Exotic Hip Hop Adventure

Now, I know, I have talked about jet skis on this blog before, but a music video recently surfaced that is making me revisit this topic. Thanks, Internet, for making this clip readily accessible:

Previously, when I was talking about jet skis, it was in reference to what I claimed was a parody video mocking hip hop's expectations from Empire. The video in question was being made in support of Hakeem's veritable masterwork, 'Drip Drop,' and while I wasn't able to find any good clips from when they were shooting it with a green screen on a jet ski, you need to just take my word for it that this happened. There is more insight into the overall aesthetics of the 'Drip Drop' video later in the episode:

Earlier in the episode, Hakeem states that he wants to create a video that shows he is the heir apparent of Empire Records and that he feels like this message will be sent via a video filled with scantily-clad women and jet skis. I view this entire song as parody, particularly because it is so vapid (and so close to a generic Rihanna collaboration) yet so catchy. What makes it even more of parody is the fact that Hakeem thinks this image is what he needs to succeed in the family business. Meanwhile, up at Ghetto Ass Studios (which is an actual location in Empire), Hakeem's brother Jamal is recording a song from his heart, a song with meaning, a song that conveys his struggle as he attempts to distance himself from his disapproving father. Notably, it does not feature a green-screen jet ski video.

So if we can agree that Hakeem's video is demonstrating the profound shallowness of his character (and by extension, the generic hip hop song that he has just created), then what exactly are we to make of Meredith Vieira, who has taken almost all of the same tropes, only brought them to a day time talk show and therefore made them weird? First, let's identify what these tropes are:

1) Scantily clad women: a seemingly unending stream of them appears in Hakeem's video shoot. Meredith was apparently not ready to 'go there' (I feel like this was an actual note in some production meeting). So instead, she wore a t-shirt that projected the notion of a scantily-clad woman.

2) A green screen: on Hakeem's set, some random cameramen note that they expected to be in Miami filming Hakeem on a jet ski. Instead, they are stuck in New York, filming a jet ski in front of a green screen. If anything, this moment adds to the irony of Hakeem's assurance that this video will show him to be, in his own words, 'king' (also, you don't want to be king of an empire. You want to be emperor of an empire). Meredith notes that such videos should take place on the beach, but then goes to the green screen instead. This seems particularly ironic for a song entitled 'Going Down For Real' since they are getting down for fake.

3) Bling: Flo Rida and Hakeem share very similar watches. However, Flo Rida missed out on the gold chain. Instead, Meredith got the gold chain.

4) Intimations of a Strip Club: neither video is set in a strip club, although there are intimations of such. Hakeem is carefully evaluating the ladies and their various assets, which places him into the role of a consumer, much as he would be in a strip club. Furthermore, the raining gold in the backdrop turns the set into an enclosed area with low light. While Meredith is not in any way in a club, she is making it rain. While on a jet ski. With a t-shirt that projects the notion of a scantily-clad woman. I am not sure what to make of this. Also, I am not sure why you would want to make it rain on a jet ski. I don't think you're going to impress strippers with that kind of precipitation.

5) Dranks: both Hakeem and Meredith have champagne. Hakeem treats it in a more understated fashion, whereas Meredith is guzzling it down like it's the last bottle on earth. Have some decorum, Meredith.

6) A Bunch of Women Touching On the Artist: there are a number of these near the end of 'Drip Drop' touching on Hakeem. What Meredith is doing around 0:50 makes me slightly uncomfortable.

I'm not even going to talk about the fact that the two songs are not that far off in terms of style and content. You can just make of that what you will. If Flo Rida had done 'Drip Drop,' though, I have total faith that he would have been promoting it on Meredith's show. 'Going Down For Real' was featured prominently in Furious 7 during a scene steeped with overstated opulence in Abu Dhabi, although I would make a larger argument that the FF franchise basically takes hip hop tropes and pushes them to excessive extremes, much as it does with, well, everything. This is what happens when your movies co-star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Vin Diesel.

In case you were curious, Wikipedia claims that the instrument used in the sample was not, in fact, an oboe.

This whole Meredith incident could be viewed as nothing more than a scene gone wrong or a tone-deaf segment (or really freaking funny because what just happened there, depending on your point of view), but I feel like Meredith's frenetic actions in it suggest that she is taking advantage of what is, for her, an 'exoticized' moment. She is placing herself in a world that is very distant to her, yet from her exhortations to 'Shake it' (and encouraging others to yell/shake the same?), she is momentarily attempting to join it.

That Meredith 'exoticized' Flo Rida's music is a bigger problem when considering who her audience is. I wasn't able to find any specific statistics about the demographic that watches her show, but from recent rumors that it is going to be canceled, some clues emerge: the network is looking for someone who draws a 'younger' and 'more multicultural' audience, which implies to me that Meredith's is primarily 25+ and white. Hip hop in general, then, is being conveyed to an audience that is not familiar with its conventions--unlike the viewers of Empire, who were more likely to know a parody when they saw it. What is the image that emerges here? This is a style that seemingly lacks deeper meaning, that can be reduced to its most overarching stereotypes; in other words, that can be summed up by a bikini t-shirt, bling, champagne and a jet ski. Even the actual video for 'Going Down For Real' is arguably more sophisticated as it features a women's basketball team facing off (I'll leave that as 'arguably,' since there is plenty of booty shaking too).

We're at a cultural moment when hip hop is being transformed into a larger means of dialogue across a broader audience. The runaway success of Empire as a prime-time soap reinvigorated by a fictional hip hop world was one sign, and I would argue that the wide-spread integration of hip hop culture into the Fast and Furious franchise is another. There is also the upcoming studio (!) film Straight Outta Compton, which (LET'S ALL HOPE) will portray the social conditions that led to NWA's album (ALLOW ME TO DREAM). In contrast--and contemporaneously--the Meredith segment represents hip hop as little more than its most basic and distancing tropes to an audience likely unfamiliar with the genre. I, for one, truly wish that Meredith had never donned that bikini t-shirt.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ready to Pimp a Butterfly Dropout: the hip hop concept album

As a historian, I feel leery at claiming that every ten years or so, a hip hop album emerges of such fundamental importance that the genre is changed thereafter--a simplified (and potentially spurious) notion of history-in-cycles. And yet, when I first heard Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly last week, I almost immediately thought of a 10-hour road trip I took in 2005 with Kanye's College Dropout effectively on repeat for the whole time because I was so thoroughly entranced with the album. That was ten hours each way, resulting in almost a full day's worth of 'Ye when all was said and done. I would do the same for To Pimp a Butterfly in a heartbeat, and I cannot think of an album that has had such an immediate effect on me. My only question is why it took me until last week to discover it, but at least I can now rectify my ignorance by listening to it incessantly on repeat while at work.

When I listened to College Dropout a decade ago, I was struck by the singular sound that 'Ye had managed to produce, a sound that was very unlike what had come before. He did not limit his producing skills to his own album, but also worked with artists such as Common to incorporate this new hip hop aesthetic that featured soaring vocals and grandiose sounds:

But while Common's challenging rhymes were ideally paired with this new and challenging sound, one could argue that some of 'Ye's lyrics delved into the mundane (seatbelts for safety first) or even the absurd (pick whatever you want, there are plenty of examples):

In contrast, one of the most notable features of To Pimp a Butterfly is the sophistication of both rhymes and sound on the album. In fact, Lamar conscientiously fuses references to blackness in a variety of media to create a reflection on black culture as a whole. It is, I feel, nothing short of a masterwork, while simultaneously featuring tracks as catchy as this one:

There is much to be said about this video (and much has been said already) and about the imagery itself, turning around the main character of Alex Haley's Roots from a slave into a king--Kunta Kinte has taken over Compton as King Kunta, replete with a throne sitting in his driveway. Just as Lamar reimagines this iconic 70s black figure, he reinvigorates funk while drawing on its main indicators. It's hard not to hear the numerous exhortations of wanting the funk at the end of the track as parody.

If you haven't heard the album, please do not think of 'King Kunta' as typical of its sound. In fact, there is no 'typical' sound as each track ranges widely from sultry, jazzy big band:

To a Curtis Mayfield-inspired track that might simultaneously reference Kanye's 'Touch the Sky' (the repeated lyric in the chorus 'I love myself' could not be a better parody of 'Ye, really):

And beyond! Including spoken word tracks and a dialog with Tupac. That's right, he's still releasing albums from beyond the grave.

To Pimp a Butterfly is also quite clearly a concept album: a work that is meant to be understood as a coherent whole rather than what most albums present, which is an assemblage of individual tracks that do not depend on order. That Lamar sees the tracks as interwoven is undeniable since he presents a series of spoken-word lines at various points in the album. The first two lines are heard after 'King Kunta,' then are repeated and expanded as the album continues. It is only in the final track, 'Mortal Man,' that the poem is heard in its entirety, presented in a 'dialogue' with Tupac that intersperses a 1994 interview with Lamar's observations. That Lamar is reflecting on hip hop--and by extension, black culture--is apparent throughout To Pimp a Butterfly in subtle and blatant ways.

By presenting a concept album, I also see a parallel between Lamar's project and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die--an album that came out in 1994, so almost twenty years ago in keeping with the 'every ten years' idea. I would not characterize Ready to Die as a reflection. Instead, it is a provocation, from its lyrical content to its front cover, which features a black baby juxtaposed with the album title. Biggie was seeking to capture his world with its oppression and paradox, a world where a black man was ready to die as soon as he was born.

The reception of Ready to Die, particularly through its radio-friendly songs such as 'Juicy' and 'One More Chance' (in the remixed version specifically), makes it easy to forget about the more hard-hitting tracks that appear on this album as well. Through them, we are exposed to the ways in which the protagonist sees the world: at times its hope and promise, but also its insurmountable difficulties that eventually lead the narrator to suicide on the final track. 'Juicy' is the most optimistic moment of the album, although the verse opens with the line 'It was all a dream,' creating an immediate (and unanswered) question about whether the song should be understood as truth or fantasy. There is no ambiguity about how this album ends: a gunshot and an incredulous friend on the phone who has aurally witnessed a suicide.

Just as I am reluctant to claim that there is some mandated ten-year cycle for hip hop albums that indelibly change the genre, I am equally wont to suggest that hip hop is 'evolving' as time goes on--genres do not evolve so much as they shift and change. What I would suggest instead is that these three albums demonstrate the profound variety of responses that hip hop has grown to accommodate: from Biggie's provocation to Kanye's stylization and now Lamar's sophistication. If you haven't yet had the chance to listen to To Pimp a Butterfly, I hope you will take the time to check it out, as I have only scratched the surface in terms of what could be said about it.