Death and Judgement

Controversial Rapper XXXTentacion, who has been shot dead.

“I like it when bad people die.”
– Christopher Hitchens

“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.”
– Romans 12:14, King James Bible

Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy is dead. He was 20 years, four months, and 26 days old when he died, shot dead while leaving a motorcycle dealership. There is a photo circulating on Twitter of him propped in the back of a car, mouth agape. Apparently he had no pulse as the photo was taken.

Onfroy was better known to most as the rapper XXXTentacion (ten-tah-see-yon). X, as he was called, was a controversial figure – the kind of controversy that makes Kanye West look like The Fresh Prince. The day before his debut album released, X posted an Instagram video of him hanging himself. His concerts have become centres of violence and disorder. He has been arrested three times, and charged with gun possession, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, witness tampering, and aggravated battery of a pregnant victim. The pregnant victim was his ex girlfriend, Geneva Ayala. She has described a history of abuse and torment – physical and psychological. There is a photo circulating on Twitter of her eyes swollen shut and her lip split and bleeding – the handiwork, she says, of her ex-boyfriend. X responded by releasing a song named after Ayala. The lyrics read “She showed me fake love, can’t forget how it hurt, no. Made a list of my regrets and you were first, love”.

I believe Ayala. I have no reason to doubt her. X did nothing to contradict (let alone convincingly counter) her accusations. He expressed openly antifeminist sentiments in a recent interview, and his entire image traded on the idea of loathsomeness – self loathing, loathing others, being loathed, and doing loathsome things. Yes, I believe Ayala. I believe XXXTentacion beat his pregnant girlfriend and tormented her, that he broke her phone and threatened her life for complimenting another man on Snapchat, that he pummelled her again and again, to the point where she needed $20,000 worth of surgery to repair the damage. I believe that XXXTentacion was an abusive, cruel, and stupid young man, who showed every sign of glorying in that image, and no signs of redeeming himself.

And now he is dead.

And I do not know just what to feel.

It’s hard to know how to respond to the deaths of people you despise, especially when that death is tragically unexpected and completely unnecessary. Deaths of truly evil people in wartime (or something like it) – those are easier to square. The circumstances made it necessary, we tell ourselves. A sane utilitarian calculus demanded it. We may be right, and it may quiet the pit gnawing at us somewhere deep within. But even with the death of Osama Bin Laden, a monster, a reprobate, a vicious reptilian bastard, a man who unquestionably deserved Seal Team Six and more – I find it difficult to glory.

I do not, through this position, wish to assume some moral authority. I am not one. I just know that XXXTentacion is dead, and I am not happy about it.

To be clear, I despise X. I always have and I always will. I am lucky in that my simple and unqualified loathing of him as a person wasn’t complicated (as I know it was for many – and that’s perfectly fine) by a love for his music. I found it, on a superficial level, a trite emulation of what other folks (Death Grips and Dälek first among them) have done so much better. Lyrically, his preoccupation with how hard it was to be an abuser was sickening. I hated him as an artist and despised him as a person. I did so long ago and will continue to do that. It is an easy position to take.

But I didn’t want this. I don’t think anyone really wanted this.

X, for all his controversy, was a seriously popular figure in American hip hop. His death will raise a great many questions. Some will come already answered, like the link between aggressive music and actual violence (tenuous at best), or the terror of gun crime in America (it remains, shockingly, a problem). Others, like how we should evaluate the artistic legacy of someone like X and what the emotional response to his death should be, have no clear answers.

I call myself a Christian. I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s a longing for a comfort I had as a child – the security of religion, the connectedness it provided. The act of prayer is absolutely a source of relief and release. I do not think I would have made it through my university years did I not have some faith in the words I whispered to the sky. But my faith doesn’t extend indefinitely. God, do I have doubts. The existence of the divine is… unlikely. At the very least it is incomprehensible. There are a thousand different questions I have about my professed faith, and in all likelihood almost none will ever be answered. But I focus now on one area: the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. “But I say to thee, resist not evil”, Jesus tells us in the King James Bible: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

This is not the part where I implore my readers to forgive XXXTentacion his trespasses. That would be wholly inappropriate for me to ask. When it comes to cases such as these, turning the other cheek seems impractical and undignified, if not downright mendacious and ignorant. Some people, of course, are capable of extraordinary feats of forgiveness – Michelle Knight, one of three women abducted by Ohioan Ariel Castro, managed, through years of meditation, therapy, and prayer, to forgive the man who held her prisoner and raped her repeatedly for 11 years. Her journey is chronicled in her remarkable book Finding Me. My admiration for her strength and grace is boundless. She is a better person than me, and a better person than I expect anyone to be.

But that is not to imply those who cannot forgive X are bad or worse people. Forgiveness is terrifyingly personal, and most Christian traditions premise it on heartfelt redemption made in good faith. To say XXXTentacion did not attempt this is an understatement.

Another complication to my faith is my near-unceasing admiration for Christopher Hitchens, an extraordinary writer, and in my view the late 20th century’s greatest political journalist ( at least as far as the English language is concerned). Hitchens is renowned for his antitheistic atheism, accompanied by his erudite vitriol. After Jerry Falwell (a truly sick and odious creep) died, Hitchens wasted no time in decrying him on CNN. “If you’d have given him an enema”, Hitchens said of the gluttonous Falwell, “you could have buried him in a matchbox.” He endured great criticism for his disrespect of the dead, but remained unapologetic, as the epigraph herein contained shows.

In many ways, I have no problem with Hitchens’ attitude to Falwell. Deifying the recently passed and forgiving them their failings is careless towards anyone said failings might’ve hurt. For a man such as Falwell, who suggested that 911 was the direct result of the United States recognising the LGBT community as human, those failings (and their accompanying hurt) are so great that they transform carelessness into cruelty. Hitchens called this a “grotesque offence to truth and morality”. He was right. And he was right to do it just after Falwell died.

But where I take issue is glorying in his death. There is a line – a fine one – between refusing to sanctify the deceased, and celebrating their demise. And death isn’t a punishment like anything else. It is final, and terrifying, and grotesque. The fact that it is natural and inevitable does nothing to numb its effect or still the terror it inspires. Death… death is too often dismissed as another unfortunateness, frequently by political extremists, who adore the notion of human life sacrificed at the altar of ideology.

XXXTentacion was scum. But he was only 20 year old scum. Who knows what his future held before him. Human beings are capable of the most amazing transformations and tales of redemption. X will never get his.

I am not sorry that he is no longer with us. But I am sorry – painfully sorry and ill – that he died as he did, and that his death, for some, is cause for celebration. I cannot imagine the relief his victims must feel knowing that he will never touch them again. I don’t want to invalidate or criticise that. Not for a second.

But I do want to caution against those who imagine that, because of what he did, his life was forfeit. Death is not yours to deliver, and certainly not yours to celebrate. A 20 year old kid has died. A stupid and cruel kid, but a kid.

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

– Gandalf the Grey, from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien


For more hip-hop related posts, read my retrospective review of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, or my profile on Unkle Adams.

Gorillaz Retrospective

A look back on the “career” of the world’s most successful virtual band, written in anticipation of their fourth album. Originally published 28 March 2017 for Smoke Magazine.

Please do yourself a favour and watch the first 30 seconds of this video:

That terrifying, LSD-infused facsimile of wholesome family entertainment is the intro to a half forgotten television programme called The Banana Splits. The show focused on the titular (fictional) band; a pop/rock group comprised of four actors (who presumably dreamed of doing more with their lives) dressed in funny animal costumes. They sang songs, went on adventures, and generally continued to prove it was a miracle that any child came out of the late 1960s remotely well adjusted.

Why bring up this bizarre piece of pop culture ephemera? Well, when Damon Albarn left one of the biggest and best rock groups of the 90s, Blur, to start a “virtual band”, this was the precedent he had to go off.

It is easy to forget just how weird and revolutionary Gorillaz was when they first began.

First, the concept: An animated band consisting of a satanic bassist, a possessed drummer, a Japanese tween, and an (apparently) eyeless Britpop singer.


Next, give them a massively, furiously convoluted backstory which involves fractured eyeballs, ghost rappers, and guitarists being sent through the mail.


Now, make the music a complete and total mish mash of genres, spearheaded by an alt rock star and incorporating pop; RnB; hip-hop; rock n roll; and literally whatever else we feel like.


Oh, and make super heavy use of that newfangled internet thing as a promotional tool, with cryptic puzzles and hidden websites which, after much decoding and sleuthing and puzzle solving, allow one to see a photo of the bassist’s stolen Winnebago.


As it turned out, it was. All comparisons to the likes of The Banana Splits were thrown out the window immediately upon the release of Gorillaz’ self titled debut – the album which won them the title of “most successful virtual band” from Guinness World Records. And over the next decade or so, Damon Albarn’s eclectic side project became just as successful, influential, and iconic as the band which made his name.

But why?

The answer is twofold.

First, Gorillaz was designed to be a band of a type which hadn’t really existed for decades – one which combined the personality driven relatability which boy bands had co-opted with the serious artistry of less, ahem, ‘vibrant’ acts like Radiohead or The Smashing Pumpkins.

(Don’t get me wrong – I adore both those groups, but it’s hard to imagine either one starring in anything like A Hard Day’s Night.)

It’s always fun to immerse oneself in the lives and stories of our favourite celebrities and artists. Autobiographies and reality TV are based on this fact, but long before they came along, pop stars came pre-packaged with their backstories and multimedia adventures – recall that The Beatles had a saturday morning TV show, while Sonny and Cher once solved mysteries with Scooby Doo – to say nothing of The Monkees. This trend withered throughout the 70s as rock bands began to take themselves more “seriously”, but it clung on to respectable and critically acclaimed acts like the Jackson 5 and Diana Ross, whose screen personas filled television and film alike, just as their music filled the airwaves. But, like it did so many things, punk killed this trend, consigning the notion of pop stars as fictional heroes with backstories and adventures to the world of the kitsch and the forgotten. And when it was resurrected by the likes of the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, there wasn’t exactly any sense of artistic credibility behind it. (I say this with love, as I (in particular) adore Backstreet’s Back, but neither of those groups will be remembered as among the most artistically innovative of the late 90s.)

Gorillaz combined the inherent fun of tracking the adventures of a group you like with genuine artistic ambitions. Damon Albarn had been writing nostalgic alternative rock under the britpop banner for a decade, and it was clear he wished to branch out.

This brings me to the second big contributor to Gorillaz’ success: their tunes were, for lack of a better word, banging.

The first taste of Gorillaz the world got was an EP called Tomorrow Comes Today, most of which soon appeared on their debut, self titled album. But the song that really launched them into the popular consciousness was this:

It’s not hard to see why. Gorillaz created something that sounded like nothing and everything on the radio at the same time. It was a clear descendant of the amorphous blob we call “pop” music, but when it came to its specific parents, things got murkier. That bassline was distinctly funky, while the harmonicas, strummed guitar, and vocals all heralded from alternative rock. And then, the verses were two fantastic bits of rapping from Del The Funky Homosapien (seriously, everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard “that it’s all in your head”). This is weird, edgy pop music at its very best – something you can groove to while discovering new lyrical and textural surprises with each listen (“I ain’t happy/I’m feeling glad/I got sunshine/In a bag” – now that is an ambiguously inviting chorus for you).

And the trend continued.

Feel Good Inc is, justly, one of the most remembered songs of the 2000s. That groove; that beat; that bass; that laugh; that “shake it shake it”; that hook; that video, that De La Soul verse – this is perfect pop music. Demon Days, their second album, continued to prove that musical eclecticism didn’t have to mean self indulgence – this is music that is meant to listened to. Gorillaz achieved something which only the very best pop artists do – I’m talking here of the lineage of The Beatles; The Beach Boys; Outkast; Marvin Gaye; Kanye West – to combine genuine musical innovation and experimentation with traditional pop formulas in an entirely successful way. Nothing we’d heard sounded like Gorillaz, and that new-ness was palpable with every song, but it was never inaccessible. They took the parametres of pop music and used them to create songs everyone could appreciate – tunes which belonged in your hi-fi headphones as much as in the club, and they did it while crafting a wholly unique musical identity.

Their third album, Plastic Beach, shifted away slightly from their alternative hip hop/RnB aesthetic, featuring Beach Boys and Phil Spector influenced lush orchestration and composition. If it wasn’t quite the commercial monster its predecessors were, it compensated by, arguably, being even more interesting, earning further critical acclaim, and continuing to be far, far better than a cartoon band had any right to be.

If Gorillaz had a real flaw, it was the wait between albums. Years of emptiness passed the time between quick and sudden bursts of creativity. When albums came out, they came as part of a new “phase” – replete with villains, backstories, and allegorical music videos. And yet, they never dated. Despite their debut being indelibly associated with a pre-Myspace internet; despite Demon Days being overstuffed with potshots at George W Bush, and despite each album being as much about adding to the Gorillaz mythology through viral marketing and cartoon adventures as about new music; the first Gorillaz songs sound as fresh and important as ever. But, naturally, such creative flourishes being interspersed between years of nothingness creates a sense of… abandonment. Having been seven years since the last major Gorillaz release, and with the weight of 2016 (God, what a year) hanging over us, not only did Gorillaz seem forgotten, but when Damon Albarn casually slipped that he wouldn’t mind giving his virtual band another go, it was hard not to wonder what relevance this relic of the age of Howard Dean and friendster could possibly have in the modern pop landscape.

And then the first single dropped.

Some dismissed its crooning, synthy neo-soul as “not Gorillaz”. Apparently they longed for the funky dance grooves the “band” had built their name on. These people missed the point. Gorillaz had delivered exactly what they were expected to: the unexpected.

Musically, Hallelujah Money blends genres with the best of them, while its lyrics’ gorgeous and ephemeral metaphors ensure that its message won’t fade the moment its politics cease to be immediately relevant. Damon Albarn had blindsided us once again.

And so, now, here we are. Four further tracks from Gorillaz’ upcoming album Humanz have been released. They range in style from slippery, insidious neo-funk (Saturn Barz) to aggressively lonely edm (Andromeda) to rock influenced alternative hip hop (Ascension) to sheer glorious power pop (We Got the Power). I love every single one of these songs for the same reason I love all Gorillaz – hell, for the reason I love pop music. There’s nothing wrong with music that invites and requires concentration – I dig jazz and prog as much as the next guy – but pop affects you on the most elemental of levels – hooking itself into your brain and refusing to let go. It is musical instant gratification, and when this is combined with the genuine artistic aspiration of someone (Damon Albarn) who thinks his listeners are as smart, as discerning, and as interesting as he is, and deserve to be entertained, not just distracted – well, then you get a special kind of great art.

Gorillaz, we love you. And we are very, very glad you’re back.

The Surprise Success of A Quiet Place


A report on John Krasinski’s shockingly successful thriller, and what said success means. Originally published 20 April.

John Krasinski’s low key thriller A Quiet Place remains third at the UK Box Office this week, beating out Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. While the film still trails behind Peter Rabbit and the Dwayne Johnson’s blockbuster extravaganza Rampage, its success is significant – particularly for a film of its type and budget.

Horror films are rarely box office gold, particularly when they’re neither based on a pre-existing property or starring Hollywood A-Listers. A Quiet Place, which meets neither qualification, seems to owe its success largely to good reviews.

The film received five stars in The Times and The Guardian, and has a 92% positive rating on aggregation service Rotten Tomatoes. Its current UK posters boast 11 positive notices.

This comes at a time of great debate about the role and value of film critics, with recent blockbusters Justice League and The Last Jedi having greatly divided critics and audiences. The backlash against critics has resulted in online petitions and conspiracies about bribery, so the notion that their good word can still draw audiences to smaller films is significant.

When asked about A Quiet Place’s success, director and star John Krasinski responded with disbelief.  “I’m still processing:, he confessed. “It’s like that high school feeling that you get when you think something’s cool, but you hope other people also think it’s cool, and the fact that other people think it’s cool, it’s now cool… Both myself and Emily are completely blown away by the reaction, and we honestly couldn’t be happier.”

A Quiet Place is now playing at cinemas across the country.

Thoughts On Film Criticism


“There has never been a statue erected to honour a critic.”
– Zig Ziglar

Most people don’t like film criticism. Stephen Fry called it a “dreadful trade”, asking “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?”  Director Alex Proyas called critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. The unfortunate truth, however, is that film critics do matter. Alfred Hitchcock was just an entertainer until Cahiers du Cinema defended his artistry. Bonnie and Clyde revolutionised American filmmaking, but only after being championed by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. And many great filmmakers – Wallace Shawn; Paul Greengrass; Lynne Ramsay – owe (some of) their success to good early notices.

Still, the disdain coagulates. Films like Suicide Squad, Bright, and The Last Jedi are key here. These blockbusters were received very differently by critics and audiences – a phenomenon which climaxed with two farcical petitions. The first asked “the audiences” to ignore film criticism, while the second charged that Disney had bribed Rotten Tomatoes against non-Marvel superhero movies. These may be extreme examples, but the sentiment behind them is widespread, and the internet has inflamed and harnessed it.

We now have two key digital alternatives to traditional film criticism. The first is to bypass “reviewers” altogether. In 2012, Radio Times Film Editor Andrew Collins noticed a curious phenomenon. Posters for Project X (a justly-forgotten frat comedy) were splattered with praise not from respectable film critics, but from everyday Twitter users. Investigating further, Collins found the quotes came from two accounts – one with no biographical information and one belonging to an Islamic rock band. Without impugning Project X’s marketing, one has to ask – if there’s no accountability for the opinion, if it’s essentially anonymous – why should we trust it?

The second alternative comes in the form of “critics” who are not, strictly speaking, critics. Jeremy Jahns, one of youtube’s most popular film reviewers, goes to great lengths to define himself against film criticism. “In this recent boom” he says, “the internet has given power to normal people… they like movies that are fun… they’re not really after the ‘artsy’ type”. Jahns worked at a film theatre before making videos. His background is not academic, and he skews towards popular films and “erd culture. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s unlikely that Jahns or his competitors would ever kickstart the careers of obscure new filmmakers – they would just go unnoticed. This complaint might seem odd, but Roger Ebert did exactly that with Hoop Dreams and My Dinner With Andre. These films’ success was directly thanks to the critics who championed them.To quote Ratatouille, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new”. In an age when cinema relies on blockbuster tentpole sequels and reboots, a defence of the new is desperately needed. But online film criticism, it seems, is usually more interested in the pre-established – dissecting trailers, posters, and costumes for upcoming franchise entries.

Of course, beyond how online critics operate, it is useful to discuss the consequences of their very existence. In an all too familiar fashion, printed film criticism is in crisis. In 2009 Variety dismissed Todd McCarthy – its longstanding film critic, one of America’s most respected. An internal memo proclaimed “It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers… Today’s changes won’t be noticed by the readers.” Shortly thereafter, New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott (who had just argued that film criticism was not dying at an Atlanta conference) had his 36 year old TV show At the Movies axed. Disney lawyers called the programme “a dinosaur” in the online age, while Scott pondered the implications. “Everyone’s a critic!” he wrote, “Or maybe no-one is.”

But the greatest loss for film criticism was yet to come. Roger Ebert died on April 4th 2013, after battling throat cancer for seven years. There was an outpouring of grief and admiration from all corners – even President Obama paid tribute: “For a generation of Americans”, he said “Roger was the movies.” But there was a sense that more than just one man had been lost. The International Business Times ran an article entitled “Movie Critic’s Death Symbolizes the End of a Profession”, declaring Ebert the last critic “whose opinion actually mattered”.

But there is a curious addendum to Ebert’s passing. If fears about the internet bled into his public mourning (and they did) it must be acknowledged that these were not fears that Roger Ebert shared. In 2006, cancer stole Ebert’s voice and, thus, his TV Show. But he wasn’t deterred. Roger went global, filing all his reviews (new and old) on his website, and using an army of twitter followers to extend his reach further than ever before. Mark Kermode, the UK’s leading film critic, has succeeded on similar grounds – with his blog and podcast becoming worldwide successes. The Mark Kermode Appreciation Society on Facebook boasts 5400 members, while his reviews (also broadcast on BBC 5Live) regularly rake in tens of thousands of youtube hits. Moreover, the internet has fostered a new kind of filmic discussion – based on interaction, and allowed the time to cater to niche topics. Both Kermode and Ebert used blogs to focus in on films, filmmakers, or cinematic ideas, while the likes of Cinefix and Lindsay Ellis have built careers on this format – something that would not have been possible without the internet. There remains a market for serious filmic discussion, and the internet can facilitate it.

This does not erase the challenges film critics face. But it does present a path forward. The online world can accommodate good criticism, both from internet natives and digital migrants. And for all the worries around the quality of digital film reviews, I’d like to point out a 1990 article about Roger Ebert’s television show, written by Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss: “This is, shall we say, no film university of the air. The program does not dwell on shot analysis, or any other kind of analysis. It is a sitcom… starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time.”

Corliss’ column raged against television’s limitations. He worried it was killing American film criticism. He neglected to mention the many episodes which analysed specific films, tropes, or filmmakers, and his complaints ring particularly hollow when weighed against Ebert’s legacy today. The same principle holds true for the online film criticism. It’s new, and it is scary. But it is not the end.

Chasing Your Delusions: The Unkle Adams Story


“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
– Orson Welles, in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

The world is full of success stories. Or at least, it seems to be. With 7 billion people fighting for every chance to be heard, it’s no wonder that the only ones we hear about are those who make it. They dominate the language of artistic struggle so thoroughly that their type of story – “rags to riches” – has, in itself, become a cliche.

But these are just the ones we hear. There are billions more – of riches to rags, or rags to rags, or rags to riches to rags again, which don’t fit the mould of popular success, and thus don’t get told. And that’s a pity, because often failure can be more fascinating and revealing than success.

Enter Curtis Adams. Born and raised in Regina, Canada, Adams’ official bio states that he fell in love with hip hop at a young age. Consumed by a desire to do good and inspire others, he became “NOT just a rapper”, but “also a motivational speaker, role model and counter-bully”.

His songs “Original” and “At Least a Million” became viral hits in mid 2017, enjoyed for the unintentional hilarity in lyrics like “I mold young minds similar to pottery” and “Write out a complaint and place in your rectum, or better yet type it in the comment section!”

And then, as is the case with most internet fads, Curtis Adams had his day and was forgotten, lost in whatever aether of middle-school-centric pseudo-inspiration he was destined to waft into. Until, six months later, he returned.

Adams’ song “At Least A Million” became the title of a vlog series, wherein he spoke about his continuing struggle to “blow up” amid the adversity of online bullying, an unfriendly record industry, and – oh yeah – his ever-growing debt of (what was then) $160,000. By the time the vlog series reached its tenth episode, Adams’ debt had grown to more than $200,000. This was thanks to Adams’ unique way of getting cash in hand – maxing out credit cards to buy televisions and construction equipment, and then selling them at a loss.

Yet he refuses to quit. He has a piece of paper stuck above his bedroom mirror which reads “You are looking at THE ONE”. He keeps pictures of Martin Luther King and Ghandi (among others) above his bed, reminding him that “life tests you, and it’s about keeping the faith”. In his eighth vlog, Adams sits proudly among boxes upon boxes of unsold televisions, and tells how the business partner of “the guy [he] was going on tour with” has decided to withdraw because “he found out that this other business partner… was involved in some fraudulent activity.” Adams was sent a cease and desist letter and the tour was cancelled. His response? “So that was discouraging…  but at the same time I’m prepared for things like that, I know that life does that to you – it does that to everybody, it tests you – and it’s like ‘are you gonna quit or are you gonna keep going?’ And, of course, with me you already know the answer – I’m gonna keep going.”

Johnny Paley was the sound engineer who recorded some of Adams’ earlier songs. He is now moderator of a facebook group dedicated to the bizarre case that is Curtis Adams, and has spoken publicly more than once about the man’s creative process. In essence, he says, what you see is what you get. “he’s the Unk you see in the videos, very forward and confident… delusional.” He described how Adams began as a motivational speaker, before being banned for graphicly showing teenagers what drinking bleach does to the human body. At the same time he was trying to make a name for himself as a battle rapper. This attitude comes directly from Adams’ high school persona, says Paley (who’s known him for years) – “He was always the loudest in the room, and very aggressive.”

Adams’ early work has been retroactively termed “Dark Unk” by this online community – by far Adams’ most prominent fanbase. In fact, there are enough of them that Adams averages 18,000 monthly spotify listens – a staggering achievement for an artist so well and truly outside mainstream music. Surely here, then, lies a route to at least some sort of success?

Alas, no. Not if you’re Curtis Adams, and you only want success on your own terms. Paley detailed this uncompromising attitude in an AMA, saying “I tried [to improve the songs], I really did, but everything Unk releases is ALL UNK IDEAS”. The same thought process translated into his interactions with fans. Adams routinely bans anyone who comments anything but banal positivity on his posts. He recently started a feud with famous online music critic Anthony Fantano, also known as The Needle Drop (Adams calls him “the needle dick” – take a moment now to remind yourself of his claim to anti bullying credentials). And, finally, his girlfriend lurked in the facebook group under a fake account for three months, before making a bizarre post demanding the entire group cease to be, and warning that lawsuits against several individuals are pending. That was three weeks ago. There have been no new developments on the matter.

Curtis “Unkle” Adams is a man in the mould of Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood. He is heedlessly confident and terrifyingly delusional. His perseverance is almost inspiring, and his ignorance deeply pitiable. He is petty, daring, unhinged, and, above all, deeply out of step with the world around him. There is a video of him clapping and whistling at a flock of ducks by a pond. Confused and awkward, he asks a passerby “Are they… are they ducks?” The old man doesn’t respond. Adams bends down and claps once more at the birds, who proceed to make haste in the opposite direction.

And that’s who Unkle Adams is.

808s and Heartbreak – a Ten Year Retrospective


On November 12 2007, Dr. Donda West died. She was a professor of English literature, published author, and the chairwoman of a national literacy foundation targeted at black youth. She was also Kanye West’s mum.

Kanye loved his mother. A lot. He rapped about her more than once, writing “Hey Mama” for her. He premiered it on Oprah, pulling his mother onstage while he rapped “Come on mommy just dance with me, let the whole world see your dancing feet”.

He was not ready for her to go.

Kanye responded by doing what he did best – making music. The album he created was 808s and Heartbreak, and it changed popular music forever.

The album was barely hip-hop. Kanye sang – his voice sometimes distorted, sometimes clear, always pained. Synths and drum machines to create an impersonal bleakness, above which he nominally wailed about a recent break up.

Opener “Say You Will” flickers into existence. Kanye pleads with an ex-lover to stay, then disappears, letting the song’s cold electronica continue unabated. But the album really begins with the second track – “Welcome to Heartbreak”. A droning, unvarying melody is sung above a lamenting cello, while an 808 drum machine pounds away relentlessly, never letting Kanye breathe. And what is he not-breathing about? “Chased the good life my whole life long. Look back on my life and my life gone – where did I go wrong?”

The album basically continues in this vein, except that from here on in, Kanye proves his true genius as a pop songwriter. The melodies on “Heartless” and “Robocop” swerve up and down like Paul McCartney writing synthpop, “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing” use rhythm and texture to evoke what Kanye called “Thom Yorke in the strip club”.

The album is a great demonstration of Kanye’s true musical gift – layering. As a child he used video game programmes to layer sounds on top of each other, thus creating music. Normally this means grandiosity, but on 808s his layering is sparse – a synth, an 808, his voice, and then maybe some strings or a brief piano. Nothing more. But it works, because every instrument plays a complete and total earworm.

But hooks and layering are not new. What 808s introduced was a downbeat, introspective type of hip-hop – it made it okay for rappers to talk about their feelings. Simultaneously, West revolutionised autotune, distorting and dehumanising his voice to blend with the cold electronica surrounding him. The emotional effect was devastating. The cultural effect, revolutionary.

808s paved the way for Drake, Lorde, and the (hugely popular) genre of trap-soul. Its somber introspection still infests present pop hits.

But influence does not equate to quality. So, does 808s and Heartbreak actually hold up? In short, yes. It’s not perfect – the opener and closer are both lacklustre, providing little sense of overture or climax. Several lyrics are deeply silly, and Kanye’s heavy autotune – revolutionary as it was – sounds somewhat dated to a 2018 ear.

But for track after track the album grips and grieves – this is dance music to cry to. It’s clearly a deeply personal work – paying tribute to the 80s pop of Kanye’s youth while providing an emotional bloodletting amidst terrible loss. But while Kanye West makes music for himself, he always makes music he would want to listen to. 808s is never a chore. It is sometimes joyous, sometimes mournful, always captivating.

Aziz Anzari tells of visiting Kanye’s house – finding him blaring 808s on his own hifi system. Stunned by the man playing his own music for himself, Aziz asked why. Kanye replied “these beats are dope”.

That about says it all.