Chasing Your Delusions: The Unkle Adams Story

Unkle-Adams-is-not-long-for-this-world
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

NYT2008112412341502C
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.