Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Case For Reading Ta Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations Atlantic Cover Story

Ta Nehisi Coates' June, 2014 Atlantic cover story, The Case for Reparations, is probably the most affecting piece of journalism I've ever read.

It is as long as it is upsetting.

Privilege and discrimination are not issues that are exclusive to black-and-white America, obviously, but they do have a unique and fundamental role in our national origin story. And equivocation is a lie we tell ourselves intended to pacify, whether due to feelings of helplessness, or internalized guilt.

Words like "reparations" are divisive, in every sense. As a result, we shy away from them, thinking that, like Voldemort, if we fail to mention them they will lose their power, and that politeness alone can power us to become a better union, as if by default. That's bullshit. Kids who read "Harry Potter" know that's bullshit. The only way to reconcile divisive issues is to acknowledge them, in full.

I don't find racism to be any more malicious a sin than -isms relating to gender, or sexuality, or class. But institutionally, it has a different role in American history. We didn't invent misogyny. Or homophobia. Or even racism, in the broadest sense.

But there are practices that were invented by this country that had very specific repercussions. The long tail of those developments is what Coates explores.

I've been a white guy for basically my whole life. Despite conflicting reports, I've never aspired to be anything different. But one thing that has never sat well with me was the idea that conversations about race and institutions in America were limited, "minority issues," as if only the underserved had either cause or qualification to engage in the discussion. It's the ultimate manifestation of privilege, right? That since *we* didn't engage in the historic deplorable practices, since *we* aren't to blame, we have no obligation, no skin in the game.

The problem with this line of thinking is it puts all the responsibility to solve and overcome historic injustices on the historically underprivileged. Which only exacerbates things. Which only leads to a culture of increasing division, but a mutating one, that evolves and simmers and only boils to the surface in explosive and obvious moments. It fosters resentment on both sides of the coin, even as both sides wish to move on, beyond. "Don't characterize me as a racist, I'm not Sterling, or Zimmerman." "Don't talk to me about empathy if the upper limits of your identification is the rejection of slumlords and murders." It can be insidious, alienating and cyclical.

There's no way to read Coates' reportage without coming away outraged. We're supposed to be better than this. That aspiration is what we pledge to, and how we define ourselves. For me, actualization is a core tenet to self improvement. And I thought this piece could have just as appropriately been titled "The Case for American Actualization."

If you've read this long, dear stranger reader, I hope you've been convinced to read the piece in its entirety. If you're not a sociopath, it'll hurt, quite a bit at times. But it will bring truths to the surface. A scar heals easier than a cancer.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentime's Bey: A Drunk-on-Love weekend, remixed

The universe can be a scary place when Valentine's Day falls on a Friday. Regular, everyday Friday thirstiness aligns with the once-a-year desperation of people in and out of relationships feeling the crushing burden of expectancy with which St. Valentine damned us all and creates an amorous eclipse that can drive damn-near every person goddamn insane.

People respond in a couple different ways. Some shut it down, loudly cursing the holiday and its place in society, the cultural implications of it ubiquity, and the mental acumen of those who allow themselves to be duped by a greeting card-commercial holiday.

Others surrender to it. If they're in relationships, they celebrate them to the fullest, hit every ritualistic touchstone from chocolate to flowers to the intimate dinner for two. If they aren't, they mourn, bask in their loneliness, and redouble their efforts in the pursuit of romantic fulfillment.

But you know what every one of those people do on Valentine's Day, ESPECIALLY when it falls on a Friday?

They get drunk.

You know who knew that? You know who was ready to pounce on people's fragility on the most questionable holiday this side of Columbus Day and Evacuation Day?


The Superwoman must have decided that this was her weekend to get us all drunk off her good-good, because we weren't just given one remixed shot of the most brazenly raunchy single of her career, we were given rounds and rounds of them. So many that things got a little blurry.

It started on Thursday, the day before the Whitman's chocolate started flowing like water, when Neil “Detail” Fisher, the original producer of Drunk In Love, unveiled his “official” remix to Complex.

Drunken Love is a dramatic take. It doesn't build its drunkenness the way original does, where we spiral into irresponsible decisions along the ride with Beyonce, it's more of a hungover memory of a night. It's an echo; atmospheric but unspecific. The remix sounds good, but it is much more of a compliment to the original than a replacement. It's interesting but inessential.

Late Friday night, another remix surfaced, this time with Watch The Throne-in law Kanye West giving it the Yeezus treatment.

I can promise you that I have more opinions on Kanye West and Yeezus than you care to hear. Maybe someday. The important note for here, though, is that Yeezus is a hell of a caricature, representative of a very publicly exploratory phase in Kanye's career.

The natural comparison to draw here is to Kanye's verse on the remix of Rihanna's Diamonds, since that was the last time Kanye guested on a top song he was uninvolved with until after it was already its own phenomenon.

Over the last year, people have often said they miss the “old Kanye,” who was introspective and playful and whose combativeness was less pervasive, but I've always felt that his contribution on this song, talking about Fresh Prince, Back to the Future, and The Louvre along with his demons and insecurity, proved it was all a ploy, since here he was his doing everything short of donning the old Dropout Bear costume. On his Yeezus tour, he does this verse as part of his final, maskless sequence, along with Jesus Walks, All The Lights, The Good Life and Bound 2, as if to tacitly acknowledge that he knows how to give fans that uplifting and inclusive “good Kanye,” but is only willing to do so on his own very specific terms.

The Diamonds verse reads like the only time Kanye's spit with explicit literalness in the last two years, a sharp contrast to the darkly fragmented and elusive Yeezus persona. “Voices in my head/ 'I need choices in my bed'/ Aaaagh!/ Get out my fuckin' head!” That conflicted sentiment is basically the entire thrust of the Yeezus album, tidily packed into someone else's song so that on his own work he's not over-explaining things.

Kanye's verse on Drunk In Love feels like a coda to the Yeezus persona. He's filthy-talking baby-mamma Kim Kardashian, but none of the conflictedness that ran so rampant through the Yeezus album is left. What's more, he's tipping his hand, whether by using the “Ooh” sample from I'm In It as a substitute for saying what he's, um, in, or putting her on that bike (bound, girl); he's just riffing on how much fun he's having when sleeping with Kim, putting a bow on it, saying the Yeezus monster has been fed. He's not actually mad.

Drunk In Love is about how, when those two states are in concert, the universe is made up of only two people, and the importance of everything else melts away. When Yeezus debuted, there was a lot of talk about Kanye's commitment to Kim, and a lot of hay was made about many of the songs' implications. This verse makes it pretty clear that the album was all about he and Kim, all for her, but also that if Kanye hadn't explored his doubts before they'd had a baby, it would have made for pretty boring music.

Because while it's a fun verse and an interesting inversion on the beat, aside from the Flashing Lights drop, Kanye's Drunk In Love remix is kind of boring. Maybe because Kim isn't altogether that interesting (granted, unless you're having sex with her). I think I like the idea of it as a Yeezus coda because I'm so interested in what comes from Kanye next, once he puts away the diamond masks and starts to process all the animosity he actively pursued over his Yeezus year. His relationship with his girl is pretty neatly squared away, now he can go back to working on his relationship with America. Which, last time he did that, birthed the opulent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I told you I had more to say about Kanye than you were ready for. But that wasn't it for the weekend, because late Saturday, on his birthday, The Weeknd also got involved with all the drunken loveyness.

He labeled it a remix, but it's really something closer to a cover, or a reimagining. Not too much is done to the beat, but Weeknd has taken over the singing duties from Beyonce (the gall!). But he's not just singing her song, he's transforming it into the sort of dystopian, paranoid aural landscape he's made his trademark.

This song was inspired by Beyonce's, but his lyrics create a pretty seismic gap between her get-me-off-I'll-get-you-off pathos and his get-me-off-don't-expect-to-hear-back-from-me-ness. Which, again, is pretty in keeping with Mr. Kiss Land, whose biggest driving creative questions generally seem to circle around the shortcomings of intimacy as a solution to feelings isolation and loneliness. It might have been a little more intellectually honest if he'd called it Drunken Lust, or Drunk In Love With Myself, because there's very little to indicate any sort of even cursory interest in mutuality.

So it might be, like, thematically deplorable?, but like so many Weeknd songs, it sounds very, very good. It's expansive and, probably, honest, because, like, why would he say he wouldn't call a girl unless she gave good head unless he meant it? Not a ton of upside there in admitting that one.

There were at least a few other Drunk In Love remixes that came out over the Valentimes weekend, but those were the ones that most crossed into my interest-stream. Was it a weekend filled with a greater than usual number of instances of waking up in the kitchen asking “how the hell did this shit happen?” Oh, maybe.

Everything about how we feel on February 14th of every year is pretty unmistakably arbitrary. It's not better to have love on that day than it is on August 14th. But in an era where we hold tighter onto the things we experience universally and simultaneously, like live sports and award shows and unexpected album releases, there's something reassuring about the knowledge that it is a weekend of shared feelings, be they contended ones or anxieties. Or vices. We have all these incongruous data streams in our lives, some from artists, some from friends and family, some from highly-targeted corporate interests. When they streamline into singular focus, the effect is powerful. Things like Valentimes and Beyonce remixes become impossible to avoid.

It seems like a weekend of an awful lot of trying. People trying to be happy, trying to be loved, trying to be heard, recognized, validated.

People are chasing that feeling, that something, whether they're rubbing beautiful bodies, hitting the club, or hitting refresh on Facebook as they web surf, bored.

[Surf bored]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Readmix: Hoth x Jotunheim and the January 2014 playlist

Today's curriculum
I'm a big advocate of the playlist-as-living-mixtape lifestyle. We are in an era where radio has long since been declared deceased, and where the tastemakers have all basically fundamentally been compromised. The protective walls of commercial music have come down, and active listeners can just as easily access a tine that was produced in someone's bedroom as they can something born of a major studio. While it isn't quite an even playing field, it is closer to it than ever been before. In this limitless musical landscape, we are completely empowered to chart our own musical constellation, cater it to our specific personal tastes, and form entire relationships with songs and musicians in a way that, historically, was mandatorily negotiated through a major corporation.

It's a great time to love music. You can envelop yourself in a personally-tailored soundtrack. But it's also completely overwhelming. We've got culture and media saturating our lives at all times. The only way to cultivate your sonic garden might be to spend entirely too much time on it.

Which is certainly what I do.

Given the over-attentiveness paid to my iTunes arrangement, it's only right to share this newest playlist, foist some opinions your way, and try and let you know how and why each track came to me and sounded like the earliest days of 2014. It is the Ice Age phase of the new year, with the entire country only thawing out once a week in order to watch titans do battle on frozen and foreign tundras, so read on to tune into Hoth x Jotunheim. Because I am a huge nerd.

"All you hear is tires,
click-clack, boom of the gats."
1) Phantom
Chester Watson

This kid, a teenager from the South I guess?, came across my path via the Shots Fired podcast. A hip hop radio show I'd never heard until I came across it via Stitcher, they had steered me the right way with dude Anderson Paak (who does what's basically a life-changing cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' MAPS on his Cover Art album), they played this song and shouted him out, it sounded like my kind of mellow vibeyness, so I hit it up on Youtube and whatever whatever I'm a fan.

This song is just super melodic and haunting, and really tonally on point. His rhyming is really unassuming and comfortable, and his voice really contrasts to the more accosting, put-on styles of guys like Chance the Rapper and Earl Sweatshirt, who, age-wise, are probably the dudes in what we might call this guy's draft class. He's not quite singing, it's like he's focused on cooperating with the sound.

What's most impressive is how he curates the sound of his ghostly phantom with his timbre, the loop, and the imagery. It's a hyper-focused grab bag that's extremely rad, like a corkboard in the world's most cultured coffee shop. That skill makes me confident that following up on him will prove worthwhile.

"Telling songs in the key of life,
you was on your Stevie."
2) Martyrs
Mick Jenkins

After the way Kanye used it on Blood on the Leaves, someone was going to have to sample Nina Simone's Strange Fruit in a way that could more readily be seen as contextually-appropriate to the song's storied legacy. Dude Mick Jenkins steps up, his rejoinder “I'm just with my n****s hangin'” plainly equivocating impoverished urban decay and social surrender with Strange Fruit's lynching imagery. Again, it's super haunting- terrifying really- but in such a way that it really honors its ambition.

Jenkins is really clever, and he illustrates his music with real quickness and dexterity while making something very specific. He's making Martyrs a composite of all this cultural shorthand we associate with, basically, hood shit. He's got Django on a horse, he's got a weird composite of James Franco and Gucci Mane's Spring Breakers characters, along with weaves and basketball dreams. It's all building this case for nihilism and fatalism. It's almost like it's a response to Lorde's Royals, a commentary that isn't quite a rebuttal but, since it's not quite in agreement, isn't quite complimentary, either. There's no substitute for friends in different areas with great, eclectic tastes, and it is to my old roommate in NYC that I owe credit on this particular cutting observational find.

Martyrs definitely gets richer with each listen. Which, considering the portrait of impoverished surrender it articulates, is probably ironic.

"I just need a reaction to keep it alive, baby"
3) Fertilizer
James Fauntleroy

You have no idea how much it thrilled me to unearth this gem from the dusty corners of the Internets. I came upon it while researching (although can we really call snooping around the Web “research?”) James Fauntleroy had blown me away with his contribution to Drake's phenomenal Girls Love Beyonce track, a Nothing Was The Same leftover that uses Destiny's Child fragments as well as James Blake ever could. Fauntleroy has a voice that is vulnerable and precise, and that delicate precision gives his rendition of the typically-female Destiny's Child Say My Name verse an unexpected authority. Fauntleroy had cropped up doing hooks here and there since, notably on J.Cole and Big Sean's most recent albums. You got the sense that he had a pretty big musical reach, due to the prestige of the his collaborations, but he definitely didn't seem high-profile.

So, having dug the limited stuff I'd heard, I go down the rabbit hole a little on him, come to find out he'd done a bunch of stuff I'd heard from another mid-level favorite of mine, Jhene Aiko, and worked on a good amount of Kanye's Cruel Summer album, mostly performing and being credited under the guise of Cocaine 80s. And that was all cool cool and whatever whatever.

Then I found Fertilizer.

I should note at this point that last year, in the lead-up to the release of channel ORANGE, I became pretty thoroughly obsessed with Frank Ocean. I heard Pyramids, which sent me backwards to Nostalgia, Ultra., which I devoured and is probably my favorite mixtape ever and a top-15 all time album. I was privileged to see Frank in a small venue just weeks after ORANGE's release, and at that point I already knew every word to every song in his catalog. When I go in, I go in hard. (#pause)

channel ORANGE was an interesting (and acclaimed) project, but one of my favorite layers to it was the way that Ocean really orchestrated it to feel like you he was tuning you into all these different stations along the way. He used sketches and interstitial tracks to compose this thematic collage that alluded to everything and made nothing explicit. One of these interstitial tracks was a 0:40 ditty called Fertilizer. “Fertilizer, I'll take bullshit if that's all you got.” That's all we get, then the tuner shifts and we move on from Thinking Bout You to Sierra Leone. It was a song you could appreciate without ever thinking too much of it, you assume it's just an unfinished fragment considered but cast aside as not worthy of inclusion in totality on the final album. It's a curiosity.

Well it turns out Fertilizer is a 2010 James Fauntleroy song, which Frank decided to cover for forty scant seconds on his 2012 major label debut.

And the full song turns out to be a bit of dimestore ear candy so sweet I think I gave myself an ear-cavity listening to it on repeat.

That I'd heard it, fragmented, as the third song on channel ORANGE, tucked right between the lovesick Thinkin Bout You and the spacey responsibility dream Sierra Leone, made this song super-fascinating to me. I'm dying to know why it was included in Ocean's major-label debut project, why it's the only song on the album without an Ocean writing credit, why for only 0:40. But more than anything, I was thrilled to find a throughline from Ocean to Fauntleroy, both of whose mastery of what the Academy confusingly calls “Urban Contemporary," has been among the most rewarding part of following pop music of the last couple years.

Fauntleroy has a needy garden in his heart that can only be filled by the bullshit of one negligent gardener. It's a sentiment that bore right through me. The desperate urgency and resignation to the anatomy of one-way relationships and crushes and power dynamics is familiar and universal, unless you've always been the one crushed on, I guess, in which case, go screw. Still, for a song about the absence of affections, it's incredibly upbeat and optimistic. It's pleading, but not victimized, as if the singer knows he's just as responsible for the problem as anyone. It lives in that moment before resentment sets in, when a lovestruck crusher still sees the two's union as an inevitability, despite all evidence to the contrary. Which, let's be honest, can be the most thrilling part.

"Though both can't be broken, I'm not
your heart, I'm your habit"
4) Beautifully Bad
Idle Warship AKA Talib Kweli and RES

Lyrical bar-setter Talib Kweli and syrupy golden vocalist RES have been collaborating for over a decade, first cropping up on my radar on my single favorite track of my collegiate era with Where Do We Go, off Kweli's 2002 Quality album. This song stood out even in those wild-west days of rampant music piracy and the infancy of internet-induced information overload, moodily challenging its listeners to take ownership of things as thematically broad as their own isolation, creativity and ambition, and the taught dynamic tension underlying all three. It was Kweli at his strongest, the “backpack rapper,” playing professor to his impressionable audience, with RES providing insulating  harmonies, keeping things in frame. I could never explain why it was my favorite out of the tens of thousands of songs I panned through in that exploratory era, but the fact was it certainly was the song most likely to be heard from outside my dorm room at any given time.

Fast forward a million years, and my man Kweli tweets that we need to check out this great Fleetwood Mac cover by his girl RES. It's phenomenal (and I will surely feel compelled to explore it another time), and sent me down another musical spelunking journey to see where she'd been since working on that song I loved a million years ago. Come to find out the two had worked on a few entire projects together as Idle Warship.

Beautifully Bad succeeds everywhere Where Do We Go did, in terms of demanding introspection, focusing on a single failing relationship instead of the ambitions of an entire generation. The vocalists almost seem to negotiate a sweet spot between singing and rapping where they can both perform comfortably and authentically, as opposed to donning the traditionally gendered roles of “rapper” and “singer.” They make a wonderfully complimentary pair, and really share the space of the song. Beautifully Bad tells the story of two people walking opposite directions away from the wreckage of a failed Great Romance. It's not an argument, because it lives in a moment that exists after all those have passed. Instead, it's a eulogy for something that was nearly magical, right up until the point it wasn't.

If we learned anything from Pacific Rim, it is that together we can build beautiful things. Of course, this makes it all the more tragic when they come crashing down, but even in that tragedy there's beauty (again, as illustrated so beautifully in Pacific Rim). Idle Warship proves both with their existence, collaboration and creative ambition.
You know how to drive in rain
and you decided not to make a change"

5) Honeymoon Avenue
Ariana Grande

It was never going to take very long for my pop-proclivity to reveal itself. I'm probably too old to be listening to Ariana Grande, but as long as her rangy vocals continue to evoke mid-90s, totally-in-her-prime Mariah Carey, I'm going to be giving her fair listens. As an avid comicbook guy, I'm used to enjoying it when one artist ably apes the style of another successful one. And while I know I'm SUPPOSED to hold that lack of originality against the imitator, I'm usually too distracted by all the enjoying I'm doing. Make no mistake, Grande sounds EXACTLY like Mariah, especially given the way her voice climbs. At a certain point, though, it's like, who cares who you're dunking LIKE? You're still throwing down WINDMILL REVERSE JAMS!

So again, I have no issue with someone lifting something that works. Which is convenient, since Honeymoon Avenue (the first song off Grande's Yours Truly album), begins with nearly the exact same orchestral string overture as the first song on Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience Pt. 1. It's a harmless little flourish that definitively demarcates the pop era it is participating in. The strings give way to very Glee-meets-RENT choir doo-wops as Grande, again channeling Carey, sprinkles coy little vocal exclamation marks about. The project is very glossily produced, but it can't diminish from how impressive it is to hear someone hit her marks the way that she does. Grande's age and career makes me think of modern collegiate NBA prospects, who are younger, more talented, more refined and more specialized than their predecessors. It's impossible to think of how prepared these kids seem without thinking about how that preparation must have shaped their entire youths. It's really remarkable. These kids these days, I tells ya. This is why one of my favorite hobbies is flippantly dismissing any and all 90s babies.

She sucked me in with her Big Sean and Mac Miller collaborations, and has won me over with her acrobatics on Honeymoon Avenue. 90s babies might not know ANYTHING, being that they missed the most important decade that I remember most of, but some maybe they learned some shit via osmosis or something. Because they certainly know some things about some good sounds.

"Then we mix it up, call it Pikachu"
6) Hands On The Wheel
ScHoolboy Q feat A$AP Rocky

Covers, right? Love 'em. I love the chart of music and influences they can map out. Love it when someone unexpected can own something unconventionally, in a manner that runs against type. Its gratification is something akin to karaoke, albeit at an at-least-passably professional level, which makes it, y'know, awesome. So a sample of a cover is something like a box within a box (within a box?), and while its anatomy is that much more insular, its appeal can be that much broader.

ScHoolboy Q's Hands On The Wheel samples this girl Lissie's cover of Kid Cudi's smash hit Pursuit of Happiness in an endeavor that would probably be best represented by some sort of Venn diagram visual aide. I mentioned karaoke and going against type, as that is one of my favorite parts of performance singing and which I think, when wielded properly, can be one of society's most subtly effective weapons against what we might call otherization. There is, of course, a fine line between participation and appropriation, and, contextually, as a straight white man I occupy pretty rarefied and risk-free territory when it comes to what the “type” is that I can go against. Big words and big ideas aside, all I mean is that doing Beyonce and Toni Braxton songs is really really fun, especially when the audience doesn't see it coming.

This type/code-switching was definitely part of the appeal and notoriety of Lissie's cover, a white folk singer covering a young black rapper's hit single (although it's worth noting that throughout Cudi's musical career he has gone to great lengths to distance himself from anything that might marginalize him as strictly a rapper, and that he's no stranger to the switching act himself, sampling pop-contemporary Lady Gaga's Poker Face on Make Her Say).

It's not fair to say whether Lissie was making some sort of statement with her cover, whether it was about her or Cudi or music or expectations, but who the performer is and what she is performing certainly informs its resonance. Top Dawg Entertainment's Q flipped it one more degree, co-opting the co-opt.

Kendrick Lamar has done the most to establish TDE as a thinking fan's rap label, but the entire crew has shown themselves to be deliberate and thoughtful in their creative approach, so while ScHoolboy is basically just making a getting-fucked-up banger anthem by plucking a good and familiar sound from wherever it crops up, its inclusive anatomy is no accident. It posits that, actually, here, at least, no one is appropriating anything; we're all just sharing the stuff that was made for all of us.

It is one of those quiet things that, again, to me, signifies an underlying racial and cultural progress that is taken as a given by the younger generation. They all just want weed and brews and to fuck once or twice. The arc of justice is long and bends towards beautiful interracial babies, just like The Matrix promised.

Oh, incidentally, Q and A$AP Rocky are really good at rapping, and this song goes hard. If you were wondering.
"A lotta brothers from the ghetto
got the gift of gab"

7) Ill Vibe
Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip

As I believe I've made clear, I remember the 90s. I don't know when the era became so mystified for me, being that most of what I remember about the decade is awkwardness and sexual frustration, but it is certainly a time that happened. I spent half the decade pretending that I was someone who didn't like rap music and then spent the subsequent decade doing everything in my power to catch up on everything I'd missed within the genre when I wasn't paying attention because I was too distracted by Metallica.

Busta Rhymes was the favorite rapper of my childhood best friend and hip-hop consigliere. He was cartoonish and broad and nimble and even if I didn't acclimate to him instantly, I could see his strengths. Q-Tip, I would later learn (again, didn't have it totally together in the 90s), was largely responsible for the kinds of mellow music I loved that came out of the era.

Me and my bestie would eventually get our chance to see Busta's cartoonishness up close, when he performed at our college during our underclassmen days. It was an absurd evening, complete with a woozily drunken and stoned crowd that wasn't entirely sure how to compose itself at a RAP SHOW, and an ornery Busta who, when dissatisfied with the audience participation during one of his hits, jeered the crowd and, unforgettably, told us all to put down the sandwich and get on a treadmill. This made it all the funnier when, years later, Bus' was alleged to be a part of a whole group of rappers vaguely implicated in a celebrity HGH sting. People in glass houses need to be careful where they scream at fisheye lenses, bruh.

In any case, Q and Busta came together and gave The Culture a stiff shot of nostalgia late last year with their The Abstract and The Dragon mixtape. Both have solo albums upcoming this year, and in today's all-important hype market, they crossed streams with a mix of old, new and forgotten stuff that reminds audiences of the power and consequence they wielded in the days when the power of celebrity and airplay was more concentrated. These guys are super talented, still, and if they have new things to say it'll bear listening. HGH or not, Busta still slams his verses with the power and precision of Barry Bonds, playing the part of ferocious dragon. Q-Tip sets the mood, giving Busta the boom-boom-bap flooring to build upon, and curating the (abstract, natch) sound that transports us to those halcyon, naïve Clinton years.

Some reunions are sad affairs where it is impossible to note anything but the powers that have been lost. Hip hop is advancing to middle age, though, so the fact that these dudes are doing it gracefully and crisis-free is, in and of itself, worth catching an ill vibe to. Word.

"Love ain't fun for me, it's a battlefield
and I got a big gun with me"
8) Love Is
Dutch Rebelle

I don't know a single reason why Dutch Rebelle shouldn't be a superstar. I'm just a guy with an iPod and some headphones and a slice of digital real estate and a lot of opinions, so whatinthefug do I know, but to me this Boston girl is, to borrow a local title that's currently going unused, The Truth. She popped up last year on a lot of year-end lists with her Married to the Music debut album. It was the aching and cinematic Runaway Bride that sold me, not only on her talents rhyming and singing, but her creative direction and well-tuned ear.

We haven't yet hit the time when female rappers are as respected and exposed as their male counterparts, and the ones that have begun to break through seem to share a hyper-ferocity they couple with a hyper-sexuality, as if there's some need to prove that they can “hang with the guys.” Rebelle is no pushover, she's as lyrical and canny as any contemporary, but she doesn't seem to need to be a swinging dick to represent herself. Her music is capable of dealing with her vulnerability as a strength, roundedly, making her work more approachable and relatable than someone like Azaelia Banks or Angel Haze. Which is totally unfair to everyone involved but oh well.

Love Is marks Rebelle's most precise and well-executed work to date. She's simultaneously strong and wounded in the a soulful ballad. Like Runaway Bride, it is a woman's song with a woman's perspective. It has R&B trappings, but plays to her strengths, storytelling the betrayal with vibrant detail.

Mainstream hip hop has evolved a lot the last few years, in terms of participation and pathos. There are feels rappers and there are punchliners and superficial plastics and living legends and everything in-between. But fifteen years after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's still a boy's club, complete with all types of saloon doors in need of swinging open.

Dutch is that fly half of Lauryn Hill from the Doo-Wop (That Thing) video. Not because she has the look, though she does, or the bars, though she does, but because she's got the authenticity. Her songs reek of realness. If there's justice, she'll break all the way through. If she doesn't, well, somebody's gotta make Beantown Shit the official anthem of Boston's inevitable next sports championship, if only so the Dropkick Murphys guys can finally be put out to pasture.
"I'ma hit the dojo like Neo hit Morpheus
and see who got the plug like Dr. Kevorkian"

9) Daily
Michael Christmas

Rap is more differently inclusive than ever, which means there's more room than ever for the out-and-out weirdos. Michael Christmas, another Boston act on the come-up, is definitely one of those weirdos, whose distinctly clever and referential flow is in the same weight class as the latest by Joey Bada$$ or Mac Miller. Of the jams Christmas released in advance of his Is This Art? mixtape, farcical mission statement Michael Cera was catchier, but Daily, the Hot Pocket, pot-smoking and jerking off testimonial, is where he really embodies the well-intentioned burnout/underachiever-persona that Seth Rogan and all the other Judd Apotow-ites have made such a major part of our cultural lexicon over the last decade plus.

You're inclined to be like, “This dude is just normal,” again, like the players in an Apatow project, which, while true, takes the work's quality for granted and distracts from how talented and comfortable in their craft all the creatives really are. The end result is the same, too, where that ambient likeability translates to relatability which can, with the right breaks, subsequently translate to universality. To paraphrase (well, no, steal-a-phrase) another great millennial philosopher, Christmas may not end up as the voice of his generation, but he's certainly a voice of a generation. Which is probably more in keeping with his ambitions, anyway.

"If I was yours, and you were mine, would you do
me like you do him and have someone on the side?"

10) If U Were Mine
Nipsey Hu$$le feat. Sade & James Fauntleroy

The aforementioned James Fauntleroy-research-black hole I found myself sucked into also turned out this track, off Nipsey Hu$$le's Crenshaw mixtape. I just wanted to hear that dude's voice as many places as I could, even if it was merely him echoing the sped-up Sade sample looped throughout this song. Hussle had been somewhere around my radar since Crenshaw dropped, but I hadn't found that all-important point of access to his work until now. If U Were Mine is benign; in it Hussle is negotiating with someone that's crushing on him, trying to set honest realistic expectations for her while seeing if she's still down.

I couldn't help but be reminded of LL's Hey Lover, where Cool James Todd richly details this fantasy world built around and for the object of his affection. He offers the world, assuring her that their union would solve everything short of world peace. Of course, it's a fantasy; it won't come true. The gender roles are flipped on If U Were Mine, and Nipsey, playing the pragmatist, promises no more than he's willing to deliver while also picking apart the motivations of the girl making the proposition.

I dig that Hussle never out-and-out rejects her, he just teases out the scenario and lets the story speak for itself. There's a gap between Hey Lover and If You Were Mine, it involves the respect with which each rapper is explaining the situation to his respective prospective, that I can't help but think speaks well of gender equality's cultural evolution in the nearly twenty years between releases. Nobody's motivations are totally pure, but there's a baseline respect with the way Hussle holds this girl accountable to her proposal that LL's pleading but knowing mansplainin' lacks. Maybe it's just a triumph of laissez-faire hookup culture, I don't know, but it seems more honest and on more balanced footing.

It's a fun track, and Sade, Fauntleroy, and Nipsey Hussle's voices all blend well. I found Hussle's ideas on fan culture and artist ownership and the Internet and direct sales and involvement in the new and unstable economy of the recording industry to be, like, trenchant? And probably telling about the direction of all produced content in a world where content has been rendered free but for those who pay voluntarily. So the dude seems worth paying attention to, going forward.

"Rather be alone than unhappy"
11) It's Not Right But It's Okay

Everybody tells me I gotta listen to Chrvches, because they play like a brand of synth R&B with a delicate female lead vocalist and I love Metric so how could it not be a fit, but I had, to date, lacked that entry point to their catalog. Their Whitney Houston cover, given both the practice and the subject, seemed like the maximal opportunity for they and I to see how we all get along.

It's a take that is well-served by the huge stylistic gap between it and the original. It's upbeat, slick and sparse. The lead singer doesn't make the mistake of attempting to mimic Whitney's vocal gymnastics (as karaoke jockeys across the globe collectively shudder), and really succeeds in containing the intensity of the song within the range she dictates. It's not as complimentary to the original as a lot of the covers I gravitate towards, but it's a very confident and specific take. It'll be that confidence that makes me curious about Chvrches in their own, original work, which I now can at least begin to approach.

"Don't think I'm just his little wife"
12) ***Flawless

Beyonce is America's only real superhero. Think about it; she's got the origin story, the celebrity, the acumen, and the let's-just-say-it flawless reputation. No one has more fans, or bigger ones.

For those that might self-identify as part of the Destiny's Child generation of girls, Beyonce is a real-life Disney princess all grown up, complete with a coronation and a Hollywood happy-ending husband. It might be that she serves as a beacon of sisterhood from a bygone age of Girl Power that makes her so seemingly impossibly popular among women. Guys don't have an immediately apparent analogous hero. For men, the only unifying figure even nearly as universally idolized and beloved has got to be Batman.

Beyonce's most impressive feat is the way she wears the crown without ever seeming to break a sweat under the crushing weight its burden of perfection must carry. The culture is shocked when even the slightest cracks begin to show, but even then negativity fails to stick to her the way it does so many contemporaries. Those biggest stars are the ones most closely scrutinized, so when the biggest acts deliver in the biggest way, as Beyonce did with BEYONCE, its impressiveness is matched by its improbability.

Our constant consumption of content and messaging has fostered an environment where hype is like a cultural high-fructose corn syrup, insidiously rotting our insides and expectations. The impossible bar set by hype is very probably why this album was released without any advance warning. There was no time to envision this project being anything other than what it actually was, making it impossible to disappoint.

***Flawless is Beyonce's superhero testimonial. It's an ownership of her entire mythology, and the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's feminist TED talk pushes its scope even further. A superhero, like a celebrity athlete, is measured by his or her opponent, and Beyonce has set her sights on misogyny and gender inequity, as well as a culture whose willingness to celebrate her life and career is contingent on her credentials in the historically subservient roles of wife and mother. She's taking on a big fight, but if she is going to be ladies' (FLAWLESS) biggest champion since Wonder Woman, it is really her only worthy adversary.

She wears an armor powered by the belief a generation of women has placed in her, and gives the world the visage of immaculate perfection it demands. But she doesn't surrender it, coyly, deferentially; she flaunts it, brusquely, authoritatively. She dictates the terms to let her acolytes know that it is what they should be doing, too, and that it is what the world should expect and accept of them.

Before there was BEYONCE the superhero, there was Ms Knowles, the secret identity. The Star Search scenes that bookend ***Flawless highlight the imperfection and failures that compose the messy reality of her own inward personal origin story. Girls' TYME, the precursor to Destiny's Child, loses its bid at fame. The devastation it must have meant to an 11-year-old Beyonce is obvious and self-evident. It's a tip of her hand, a reminder to the audience that, like magic, perfection isn't a reality but a well-orchestrated illusion.

Still, mastery of the illusion is a feat in and of itself. After all, I woke up like this.

"Wanted to spread them legs like you number 23"
13) Lay Down
Fabolous feat. Ryan Leslie

Fabolous had lit the New York streets on fire over the holidays with his Soul Tape 3 mixtape, as I understood it, and, being that I'm bitchmade, it was the Ryan Leslie track that I had to check into first. As you might expect from a Leslie collaboration, Lay Down is a tender ballad, free of aggressiveness. Fabo has his walls down, the cat-and-mouse game of courtship has already been resolved, so he can comfortably bask in the resulting intimate trust as it plays out in the boudoir.

Lay Down is a strikingly grown-folk song. The patience of its cadence and rhythm makes high-tempo urgency seem foolishly immature. Young bucks might work themselves into a frenzy, but on this song, no one has anything to prove. It displays the kind of confidence that only comes with experience and the kind of curiosity that romance fosters best. Leslie croons and Fabo narrates and the lights are lowered and grown-folks do grown-folk things without reservation.

Fabolous just seems so much more grateful for his partner than most rappers aspire to be in their attempts at love songs. The gratitude is the sort that could only exist between peers, which gives it a much more heartfelt resonance. Leslie is also totally welcoming and nonthreatening, which is, of course, no surprise.

Anyway the fact that I even care if a song about nothing but sleeping together aspires to some sort of equity probably just proves how and why I'm bitchmade. Always caring about people's feelings and shit...

"Cookie monster."
14) Cookie
R. Kelly

Will R. Kelly force every music consumer to also become some sort of ethicist?

I'm not sure what R. Kelly's legal history means to our standards for cultural participants. I don't know if listening to R. Kelly songs empowers him to abuse others, and, without being overly relativist, I'm not sure if or how my attentions empower any famous person to do despicable things.

This being the case, I am going to take advantage of and underdeveloped and under-supervised entity and steal R.Kelly's album from the Internet without his consent, and advocate you do the same. It's nice to find a backdoor ethical loophole and payout to occasional piracy.

Make no mistake, the Black Panties album is a nymphomaniacal masterpiece. It's sixty-nine (!) minutes of pure, prime-grade freakiness. Casual vulgarity doesn't come to anyone as naturally as it does to R.Kelly. It's so casual, in fact, that after immersing yourself in it for long enough, you might even get used to it, and before you know it, you're belting out “Oooo like an Oreo, I love to lick the middle like an Oreo,” as if that was even remotely acceptable behavior in any civilized society. But goddamn if it isn't catchy as shit. Although “pervasive,” might be the better word.

Still, when Kelly breaks into “Cookie, cookie, cookie, I'm your Cookie Monster,” you can't help but wonder whether he's willfully trolling us all or if his lack of self-awareness is so absolute that he could possibly fail to recognize how casting yourself as a Sesame Street character might be a questionable decision for a man that's been repeatedly and publicly accused of inappropriate behavior with children.

If his apparent failings as a human being can be compartmentalized, his musicianship can be duly celebrated. He clearly aspires to be a sexual revolutionary of some sort, fighting a war against repression; not only repression of desires but even of the conversations around sex and sexuality. Which has merit?

Sadly, the affirming, let's-all-be-freaks-together message of Kelly's music is pretty incongruous with the reputation of a man who's best known for (probably/basically/definitely) peeing on a fifteen-year-old child in order to get his rocks off. It kind of sucks that we don't get to choose who gets to be our geniuses.

I'm someone who has gone to extraordinary lengths in erecting mental barriers of plausible deniability around the life and times of Michael Jackson because the alternative would make loving his music too heartbreakingly difficult. Ultimately, we negotiate our relationships with the artists whose work we allow into our lives individually. Who they are and what goes on in their lives are things that only matter as much as we decide they do, and that decision is really the point where we begin to weave our own narrative into theirs. It's where we decide their context for ourselves.

And contextualizing art for yourself can probably be pretty cool or whatever.


Brought to you by-
So yeah, it's cold and the bedsheets are hip-hot and that brew of lyrcism, observation, affection and discovery is Hoth x Jotunheim. If this has all gone well, you've gotten the chance to hear a story while listening to some music in some sort of weird essay-meets-listening-session amalgamation. These 14 songs will be on steady repeat on my ipod for the next three weeks, running over and over, like Casey Kasum playing his top-40 to an audience of one, because I'm into repetition. Then I'll move on to a new set, probably made up of largely the same bones of this one, but with whatever comes into my life in the next few weeks added, and that will get the repeat-treatment, because I'm into repetition. Later still I'll be able to come back to Hoth x Jotenheim, hopefully from the warm of spring, and have that little flash of exactly enough tupperware-sealed nostalgia.

Hope the highlighting and sequencing pleases. Appreciate you appreciating the appreciation. Thanks for listening.

Monday, April 1, 2013

+20/20Exp: Justin Timberlake is Grown & Sexy & Back & in Focus

Mostly, I'm just grateful.

I'm grateful because when Justin Timberlake puts out a new album, I somehow become a handsomer man. My clothes fit better. My feet dance better. My charms charm better.

That this handsoming effect is a mental one in no way diminishes from its corporeality. Have this album in your earbuds, and you project pretty. Project attractiveness out onto the world, and the world will see attractiveness.

Energy can be neither created or destroyed, only channeled, which makes Timberlake a superconductor, gathering an amorous confidence concentrate, channeling it into his pop-tunes, until finally unleashing it on the world like a Hadouken of swagger.

This Swagdouken isn't meant to inspire an army of popped-collar douches whose only pursuit is That Thing, That Thing, That Thiiing. It plays to something more genuine and authentic. It plays for the heart.

Throughout The 20/20 Experience, JT chooses imagery over subtlety, crafting a fully realized, lushly rendered romantic arc, from the inception of love to its pursuit and realization, until finally rounding back to explore the implications of its conception. This is Justin Timberlake's full-throated effort at making the most comprehensively romantic album of all time.

So thanks, JT, and to a lesser degree The Tennessee Kids, because your album is a far cheaper alternative than investing in an entirely new wardrobe, and a lot less draining than, say, exercise. And yet it awards a swollen sense of self-confidence to those that choose to believe in its love-propaganda, all the same.

Having listened through this album a few dozen times, some thoughts have been synthesized. A perspective or two has even been gleaned. What follows is a track-by-track analysis of Timberlake's latest grand ambition. Try not to fall in love during the discussion. Or, maybe more in keeping with the album's goals, do.

1) Pusher Love Girl

“Let's grow together.”

The Vibe: Pick-me-upped
The Move: Practice-dancing in a mirror

The album opens with string-section overture that evokes a majestic classic-era Hollywood-style romance picture. It is a grandiose declaration; “Expect big movements and big emotions. Have popcorn and makeouts at the ready.”The lights come down, the sounds swells, and the epic begins.

As a thematic mission statement for the album to which it serves as prologue, this song calls back to FutureSex LoveSounds, the lead track and namesake of JT's last release. Then, Justin himself was the attraction, representing a new brand of exotic sensuality he had discovered in worlds and times unknown, like a freaky-deeky Christopher Columbus. He was the pusher, pushing up on her. He was the seductioneer.

Things have changed. Here, Timberlake plays a more passive role. On this album he extends all of his efforts into building a rapport between the Singer and the Lover. These aren't characters in a narrative, they're roles whose specificity will come into focus throughout. Here, with Justin assuming the role of the addict, the entire power dynamic is inverted; this isn't a matter of JT using all his charisma to woo and win a lady. Instead, he's powerless, not only to the Girl in question, but also to addicting force of nature that is Love.

The song's playfulness makes the entire affair feel aspirational. It's like an open casting call for the One who will make the Singer feel addicted and transfixed and obsessed and unreasonable. This Lover, over time and tracks, will evolve, and the image of her sharpens, but here's she's just a thought. Someone, somewhere, out there, waiting to be discovered. And sung to. And be allowed to charge whatever she pleases for her futuresexlovedrugs completely free of fear of DEA interference.

The other statement this track makes, that heralds things to come, is its runtime. This album is pretty committed to the 7ish minute long song. It revels in its own excess every chance it gets because it knows it can.

Longer songs make for sexier songs. You aren't bored by the fifth minute. Unless you're doing it wrong.

2) Suit & Tie

"Why yes, I did invest heavily in bow ties before releasing this single."

The Vibe: Amped
The Move: Straighten the cufflinks

My feelings on the album's lead single have vacillated mightily since the first listen.

First singles suck. It is known. The first single will be the first one you come to skip once you've listened to the album in its entirety. It will be overplayed and played-out and become so ubiquitous you will forget why you ever liked it, or radio, or television (and its commercials) in the first place. That's not Timberlake's fault, or the song's fault; it's the fault of The Machine. The Machine is what gives shared/pop culture its agency, but its churn also perverts everything it touches, if we let it. Or when we become jaded.

So that's the world as we live in it. The Machine is going to do what The Machine is going to do. And given this context, and as if its mother was Skynet, Suit & Tie seems self-aware. It's an onomatopoeia; the song is exactly what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is a call-to-arms heralding the Return of the [Suit-and] Tie-guy.

Its runtime (shorter than all but one of the non-bonus tracks) and Jay-Z guest feature suggest a tacit acknowledgment of its relative weakness, or lack of substance, with regards to the rest of the album. Jay-Z is the most authoritative hype-man one could find, whose whole brand represents credibility. But he was also never above putting out commercial singles and letting die-hard fans find the juicy stuff on the record.

What makes Suit & Tie an easy song to target or get bored with is that it's so broad, which it was obviously designed to be. The only thing about it even nearly subtle are the cowbells(?). But it's worth remembering that when the song first dropped, the entire Internet was overwhelmed, immediately becoming a singular glass case of emotion. It was the musical equivalent of Arrested Development getting its fourth season- a euphoric breakthrough fans had anticipated as long as they could remember. So in the instant those horns started, and Justin kicked into his falsetto, millions of wishing-well pennies were cashed in. As soon as that first listen-through was over, though, there was no longer a return to herald. JT wasn't “coming” back; he was back. The song carried a message with a very short shelf-life. Nobody ever framed the Michael Jordan “I'm Back,” fax. Except maybe his agent. And Nike.

Beyond self-promotion, there is another function to this track. By focusing in so tightly on style and presentation, Timberlake is creating a permissive environment to house his/our vanity. This isn't destructive narcissism, it's just a touch of vanity to be indulged and allow to be motivated into enjoying a little game dress-up. It's a luxury, just like Jay-Z's inclusion. And as anyone who has even heard 16 bars of Watch The Throne is well-aware, the Jiggaman is indeed well-versed in luxury. It may not be the noblest statement a single's ever made, but it's also free of any sort of malice or aggressiveness. It's the good part of a Friday night, the optimistic part, not the entitled or conflicting or draining part of Another Amateur Night On The Town.

It's literally style over substance. And, every once and a while, JT assures us, that's totally fine.

3) Don't Hold The Wall

At least she'll always have this.
The Vibe: Inviting
The Move: Two-step with locked eyes for the better part of 7 minutes

So in music there's this entire cottage industry built on the legacy of Michael Jackson. This is a good thing, because, falsetto. This song makes a good case for why JT is a bit of a truer MJ torch-bearer than noted Michael-disciple Usher. Justin is All. About. The. Dance. With him, the dance *is* the seduction. Getting her to the floor to tap toes is the goal unto itself. With Usher, all that dancing in the back of the club is basically going down because that's the most efficient/socially acceptable route for him to get inside her. As R&B masters and sexual icons, they're both chasers, but where Usher's persona seems to relish the kill, JT's seems to favor the hunt. The dance. Timberlake's sexuality reads as more inferred, more patient.

That distinction and distance between the tools of seduction and the act of sex was a pretty defining characteristic of Michael Jackson's music. There was abundant sexiness throughout MJ's music, but not a lot of sex. This was a huge contrast to the contemporaneous work of Prince, whose use of sexual imagery was always so explicit and immediate. Michael was at his best basking in the iconic romance. He would've rather been the last pair dancing than the first one upstairs.

By this third track, Justin is primed to get his Lover off the wall and onto the floor. Producer/ JT-whisperer Timbaland also makes his familiar presence felt, unleashing his signature sound and rhythm while vocally instructing over the haunting, belly-dancing tune.

This is another instance where Timberlake effectively forgoes all subtlety in favor of a thoroughly resonant singular image. It's an invitation, Come dance with me, so our seduction can bloom. If it doesn't happen now, we may never make it happen. Don't delay, this song may be the only Moment, and once it passes we don't want to end up regretting what didn't happen....

Or, boiled down, Let's get sexy. And do it where they can watch.

4) Strawberry Bubblegum

This one's gonna blow up.
The Vibe: Mellow & infatuated
The Move: Hold hands and swing

So thus far, Justin has 1) defined what he's looking for in a partner 2) got himself appropriately done-up and looking the part for Game Time and 3) extended flirtatious invitations. Now comes 4) the actual bolt of lovestruck. It's still vague, so it's not love, not yet. But it's a heavy infatuation. It's innocent and ill-informed and blinding and real but ephemeral. The juvenile bubblegum imagery allows for unsullied innocent. Justin is 31, but falling for someone will make a 13-year-old out of any of us.

The specificity of the flavor evokes corner-store standards like Bubbleicious, which calls to mind the sorts of gum that pack bursts of fruit flavors in their candied centers. The shock of sugar erupts in a single explosive moment. It's a just morsel of a thing, and passes in an instant, but it's still exciting and entirely worth it.

Now, unlike that sort of gum, this song doesn't imply anything about losing taste after a few chews. And, in fairness, I think the gum described actually gets bland in less time than this song runs. But this song lingers in that single ecstatic moment of release and payoff, enjoying it for everything it's worth.

Things can only be new for so long. When they are, when potential is limitless and every unknown feels like it will have an exciting answer, that something is meant to be savored.

5) Tunnel Vision

“What was it, George? Birdwatching?”
“What, Lorraine? What?!”
The Vibe: Creepin'
The Move: Drink raised to lips while side-eyeing/ ice-grilling from across the barroom

Here's where The Singer's fascination transforms into fixation. Timberlake's music is generally super-inclusive, but this track allows itself an extended moment to wallow in his Male Gaze.

Does this song objectify the target in Timberlake's sights, his Lover girl? It hones in with such tight focus it's hard to totally ignore the sense that there's some leering going on. But maybe it's consensual leering? And if so, could one argue that a little bit of mutual objectification is a pretty fundamental part of attraction?

If Strawberry Bubblegum is about consequence-free attraction, then Tunnel Vision is about the weighty burden that quickly follows. Suddenly, it's compulsive. Things have gotten serious.

Timbo packs this song with such rich atmospherics you'd think the tunnel in question leads to an underwater level of Super Mario Bros., its synthetic layers lingering only slightly as they escape to the surface like bubbles. The presence of Magoo's better half on the hook is downright intrusive, like he's an omniscient stalker following JT's romantic exploits, making it more or less exactly like his performances in every one of Justin Timberlake's videos from Cry Me A River on.

I don't know if the looped vocals are saying “I dunno what you like” or “I didn't know she lied,” and I'm not seeking out the answer because I like that ambiguity. It plays both ways. Can you be “a little” obsessed? Is there an acceptable level of obsession with regards to romantic pursuits? Don't you HAVE to be a little obsessed with someone, especially in the early throes? Isn't that how you can tell the difference between meeting somebodies and meeting Someone?

Pretend I didn't say “obsessed.” Moving on...

6) Spaceship Coupe

The Vibe: Starry-eyed
The Move: One hand on the wheel, the other draped over her

Hoverboards notwithstanding, the future has arrived. By every conceivable, non teleportation/levitation metric, we've got all the things we imagined ourselves to have when we projected out Future Visions. We've got the video phones, the voice-activated and touch-screen computers, the non-white dude president, all of it. As such, we're a little in love with space. It's the final frontier, after all, and given that everyone younger than the Baby Boomers was born into a world where space and the moon had already sorta been conquered, we get a little entitled in our expectations. So it's nearly reasonable that Justin Timberlake, a man of style and means, would see a Sunday drive through the stars with his future-girl as an attainable goal, or, at the very least, a worthy image.

Speaking of means (and ways), JT has a lot of them, and by this point in the album's romantic arc he is ready to share them with his Lover. A lot's been said about the luxury branding of this album, and there's nothing more luxurious than taking your new crush on a cruise in your made-up-interstellar-whip. And, I mean, didn't one of the N'Sync guys pay some exorbitant amount of money to try and go to space? Was that a Backstreet man? Was it Freddie Prinze Jr. in Ultimates?

After the frantic chase that comprised the album's first half, JT is ready to relax for a spell. Every other chapter has happened out in the open, in public, and now there's finally an opportunity for some intimate alone time amongst JT's spoils. Out of the spotlight. Under the starlight.

It's been said that this album hits a lull in the middle, and I'd say that if that's true anywhere it's here. The starry outro feels strained, comparatively. It's not rushing to get anywhere, which might be the point, but still comes out a little meandering. It's a daydream, so it's a harder thing to share in from outside the bubble.

7) That Girl

“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, 
you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
The Vibe: Propose-y
The Move: Hop on a raised platform and serenade

To this point, JT's Singer has had a pretty broad view of his sought-after Lover. It was an open chase. Then there was a crush, sure, but crushes can be a dime-a-dozen. Bubblegum does come in packs, after all. And spending a nice Sunday together? Sure, that's intimate, but that's still a first-sleepover move. Here, though, JT's specificity snaps into frame.

The live-style staging of this song, with Timbaland taking the mic, MC-like, and introducing JT with his Tennessee Kids band, lets us know that this will be a performance piece. It's a rare instance where the listeners aren't meant to get up as a group and dance. Instead, the house lights are brought down and the spotlight directs our attention frontward. It's time for one man to take the stage and declare his love to one very special audience member. He's taking the risk, taking things public.

Up until now, every song has primarily been about trying someone out, or trying something out with someone. It's been a rehearsal, a series of tests to see what fits. Now a decision has been made. A partnership is in order, and this song is the very public statement made to cement that, to everyone within earshot.

It's entirely declarative; it's effectively a pointed finger, the “I'm With Stupid” t-shirt you wear when adjacent to your boo, free from boundaries.

And while it is meant to be performed in total openness, it only needs to be heard by one other. It's a highly exclusive promissory lullaby and a soothing assurance to a Lover that these feelings will not be fleeting.

That Girl is a song that ends on bended knee, assured that the payoff to the Singer's gamble guaranteed to pay out. A small box is opened. Tears well up, first in the Lover's eyes, then in eyes of the rest of the audience. Applause breaks out. Everybody wins.

8) Let the Groove Get In

Groove last spotted Getting In somewhere on the West Side.
The Vibe: Shamone!
The Move: Shamone is also a move

From its grooving premise to its expressive wail, Let the Groove Get In is where Timberlake allows himself to be his most Michael Jacksonest, maybe ever. Unapologetic, it fits in such perfectly harmony somewhere between Rock With You and The Way You Make Me Feel that I'm wary there wasn't some paranormal channeling or possession afoot.

After the last song, we know that his Lover has said “Yes,” and so it's time to celebrate. There's no more seeking in this song, it's time to partner up and boogie down.

It may be slightly out of the traditional order of things, but this track is perfectly crafted to suit the wedding reception. It starts with a knee, seated but rocking, that catches the rhythm. The knee straightens and soon the whole body is led to the dance floor, where a dance circle has quickly formed up, as people take turns sharing the spotlight.

C'mon (shamone?) everybody; join, sing, and dance and hand-clap.

The big horn blares, bringing with it an expansive Latin-swing energy. Drums bring a tribal element, which suits the scenario, as a wedding is, fundamentally, a ritualistic gathering of the tribes as a celebratory act of consolidation. It's love and family at its best, as big and broad and inclusive. And fun as hell.

As the song moves from rally to breakdown to closing fade-out, its Michealness only grows, until it is impossible to stop oneself from moonwalking, toe-standing, scarecrowing, finger-pointing-into-hand-snapping, and, eventually, inevitably, groin-grabbing.

If there's one thing JT learned from MJ, it's that whether rocking or grooving, it's best if it goes on all night long.

9) Mirrors

Right here all along.
The Vibe: Reflective
The Move: Waltz

Mirrors is the masterpiece of The 20/20 Experience.

The concert of guitars and keyboard herald the arrival of the procession, as the beloved gathering rises to its feet and looks for the white dress. It's got big sound, a slow build, and a realization of love that's been earned through life's journey. The Singer's courtship of the Lover is over, they are finally on perfectly even ground, eyes locked, standing before everyone they know and care for. These are the album's vows.

Justin once again disregards subtlety, revealing the song's purpose with both the video and the repeated insistence that “you are the love of my life.” Not a lot of room for interpretation there. This is why every song before now has been sung, in the optimistic pursuit of this only maybe-possible destination. And where That Girl was about one man identifying someone as his partner, this song is actually about the fruits of that partnership, the breadth of a lifetime's worth of shared experiences. To have and to hold.

While this is the album's consecration, it is not strictly illustrative of the moment-of-the-plunge, or even the honeymoon period. It's a justification (natch) for everything that has come before it, and everything that will come as a result. When Timberlake dons the eye-examining contraption he sports on the album's cover, the one that grants him the Power of Sight, in either temporal direction, this is what he sees. Fundamentally, this is the 20/20. Look, he says, we made it. We shared our lives and our souls and our experiences and it's the greatest thing we could have done with any of them. This is what we sought, strove for, fought for, mourn when it passes. It's the love that defines us, that personal and unique thing that, by its very definition, is singular to each of us. It is as much a reflection of him as it is of her.

This mirror imagery suggests at least a hint of narcissism. But if true love means being seen, identified, recognized, known and willingly accepted, then JT's hint of narcissism is no crime, so long as the judgment is mutual. He wants to “look at us [Singer + Lover] all the time,” so sure, self is a huge component of that, but it's only as it feeds the appreciation of the greater common whole. There is no love of another without love of self. It's how we know what to look for.

The length of this song, the second single released, which foreshadowed the album’s absolute rejection of brevity, felt too long on first listen. Frank Ocean's similarly expansive Pyramids had earned its length with its tonal and narrative turn two-thirds of the way through, and this one really just stayed and hung around. Out of the context of the album as a whole it made no sense, but within it plays perfectly. The love of your life is something worth that extra examination.

From now on, if I am at a wedding, and this song isn't played, I will quietly place a divorce-bet with one of the bridesmaids. And I will win all of those bets. Because to not play this song at your wedding is to not understand why you're having a wedding.

It'll have to be the naïve bridesmaid. Who will, inevitably, love this song.

10) Blue Ocean Floor

If, out of context, you recognize this, then you are personally responsible 
for James Cameron's insane level of wealth. And, therefore, Avatar.
The Vibe: Meditative
The Move: Drowsily spooning

The album's most musically experimental track is also its most thematically ambitious. Up until now, we've been lead through a pretty straightforward account of a love story. Things have gone from station-to-station. Blue Ocean Floor, though, is about something more conceptual, like JT is exploring the radio signal that love broadcasts into the infinities.

Strings play backwards and forwards pervasively as Justin ruminates on love's half-life. He's mediating on the eternal aspect of companionship, how its reach extends well beyond the lifespan of either partner, or even each pairing's individual bond. That it existed, once, is what grants it agency.

If it was ever real, then there is an aspect that is forever real. It's the taste of something that can't be forgotten, even after death of the love, or lovers.

Also, let's not put it past Timberlake to make the last official track on his album a veiled reference to the final resting place of the primary plot device of James Cameron's Titanic. In fact, let's expect it of him.

So spacey it even meanders, Blue Ocean Floor stays committed to its pursuit of this same vaguely shapeless and ephemeral idea/l. It regains its semblance of coherence at the end, as the dream ends and reality snaps back into place, and you're left trying to remember what happened.

But you can't, not totally, because it's something that only made consistent sense in the midst of the experience.

That, Justin Timberlake says, is what makes love so fascinating, and so worthy a pursuit. In retrospect.

BONUS TRACKS AKA Stay On Target...

11) Dress On

The Vibe: Frisky
The Move: Fool around in the coat room

The album's arc has finished. In ten songs it has more than proven its point. But since this is a show, and the Justin fans have all been so patient, it's time for a couple of encores. Nothing revolutionary, just a couple of compliments of the house to complimentary a few of the album's more energetic moments.

Turning its focus once again to classy attire, Dress On serves as a nice companion piece to Suit & Tie. But where Suit & Tie was about putting clothes on, Dress On is about taking them off, or rather, forgoing the disrobement entirely in favor of satisfying the absolute urgency of lust. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Timbaland bats in Jay-Z's spot in the lineup, setting aside the role of omniscient narrator to take a swing at the album's second rap verse.

This song's characterization of lust doesn't preclude romance; it treats it as a central component to its bargain. It ignores the noise, and delights in the sexiness and certainty of knowing looks shared in an elevator ride up to the hotel room. It's what grown and sexy is meant to look like in execution.

12) Body Count

The joy of my Body Count is in Zion.
The Vibe: Bye, Bye, Bye
The Move: Anything and everything thus far unused from the repertoire

Keeping with the bonus-track-as-companion-piece motif, Body Count serves as a counterpart to Let the Groove Get In. It's a pure hype track, and the album's most retro, its kineticism hearkening to JT's Justified and N'Sync days.

It's all finger snaps and shimmies and enjoying the last drinks and last dances. Rack up dance-floor stats, but do it in a way that matters. It presents like a bit of fan service, an added bonus serving as an appreciative thank you to patient loyalists, who just want to dance, but needed to be inspired.


So, after six and a half years, that's Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience.

It kind of feels like a masterpiece.

Its arc, towards togetherness as the ultimate goal, culminating with its wedding motif, strives to make it timeless, something that will be relevant for as long as people stay hitching up and settling down. Its ambition outstrips whatever trademark Timbaland sound might pervade and date it, aiming for the ages.
So much of it is about the idea of love and the strength of our calls towards companionship. While it is never subtle in its imagery, it's deft in what a comprehensive case it made for love.

The album's journey, finding the love of one's life, proves its own point by illustrating why that pursuit is so worthwhile and fulfilling. In our lives, we hope, this will happen. And this, and this. Maybe, if the timing is right and the match is too, this will happen. If you're lucky, this will, too. And this is what we hope that the loves in our lives mean, after it's all said and done.

The reason I find myself feeling handsomer is because JT's work, like that of a few other crooners that serve as personal romance avatars- John Legend (new record in June!), Frank Ocean (channel ORANGE follow-up coming... good god, not soon enough)- is that its conviction reassures my values. I love it because when living inside its world I'm basically mainlining my own believe set. It's a map and a reassurance.

I believe in nothing like I believe in love (he wrote without reservation or embarrassment), and so does this guy. And it compels me and guides me and motivates me and wounds me, but I couldn't and wouldn't devalue or abandon it under any circumstances. I couldn't quit it like I couldn't quit food.

Of course I'm left handsomer. The just, honest pursuit of romance is what makes me the hero of my own story. I'm convinced it is the noblest pursuit of them all. And this 80 minutes reminds me.

Justin Timberlake sought to make a soundtrack for true love. I'm grateful he tried.