Death and Judgement

Controversial Rapper XXXTentacion, who has been shot dead.
Source: http://www.miami.com/miami-news/xxxtentacion-has-been-shot-and-killed-according-to-reports-heres-what-we-know-191635/

“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.

The Surprise Success of A Quiet Place

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Source: https://www.gq.com/story/john-krasinski-life-on-mars-movie

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.

Chasing Your Delusions: The Unkle Adams Story

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Source: http://www.toiletovhell.com/toilet-radio-teaches-you-how-to-destroy-your-life/

“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

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/25/arts/music/25kany.html

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.