Monthly Archive for August, 2013

Stop the Motor City Sellout


As most of you are no doubt aware, Detroit is bankrupt, and one of the worse ideas the city has for keeping its creditors at bay is selling off the treasures in the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of America’s finest art museums. Deaccessioning masterworks from the collection, or dissolving it entirely, would be a great loss to the public, and to the city: no longer the industrial hub of yesteryear, Detroit needs to redefine itself in order to remain a vibrant city and and an attractive place to live and visit. Focusing on culture and other soft capital doesn’t appear like the worst way to achieve this, and in the DIA the city has an internationally significant cultural institution and a natural node of interest in such an endeavour, it seems to me. Besides, whatever money might be raised from selling off the collection is dwarfed by the city’s debt. It would be like pissing your pants to stay warm.

Anyway, enough pontification. Jeffrey Hamburger from Harvard University has organised an online petition to convince the city of Detroit to leave the DIA alone. I encourage you to sign it, and leave any comments you may have.

(Such petitions can make a difference, however small. Hamburger’s petition to convince the city of Berlin to leave its collection of old masters at the Tiergarten Gemäldegalerie may not have been the deciding factor, but it cannot have had an adverse effect on the recent, happy decision not to move the collection).

Image: The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1566), one of the great works in the DIA.

The Week

The week in review

This week the rap game experienced tremors when Big Sean released the song “Control” online. It featured a verse from the still-young, still gunning Kendrick Lamar on which he not only claimed for himself as many indices of hip hop royalty as he could — ‘Makavelli’s offspring’, the ‘Black Beatle’ or ‘Marley’ and, evidently most galling of all ‘King of New York’, he also named names, placing himself in the august company of the current paragons (Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Andre 3000) and calling out a selection of his contemporaries, warning them that whether they are homies or not, he is trying to make their careers history (or ‘murder’ them, to be exact) in the true, competitive spirit of hip hop. This touched of a frenzy of responses from all over the rap world, with dis tracks coming at Kendrick left and right (and mostly from New York emcees, as one would expect). Several prominent artists reacted positively, stating that Kendrick has made hip hop exciting again by rekindling the focus on lyrics.

This is the kind of verse that’s an immediate jaw-dropper, and not even mainly because of the presumption of naming of names. It’s in the performance. Kendrick here sounds as hungry as he ever has, pouring more aggression into this one verse than his entire, already impressive body of work can muster. We’re hearing a new side of him here. It’s not really about the lyrics, despite what everyone has been saying. Kendrick pushes some easy buttons and simultaneously makes sure not to piss off the establishment too much (why not include Jigga, Nas, et. al. on his hit list while he’s at it? It would be in the spirit). (incidentally, I like that Kanye is nowhere mentioned!). And frankly the rest of the verse is kind of incoherent, lacking in evocative simile and too busy with the name checks. No, what makes this verse of a different order than just about all the responses and most of what one hears in rap at the moment is the conviction he brings to it. It is truly exciting to hear a rapper spit with such passion. The words matter, of course, but only because they are delivered with such fire, such promise. In one verse, Kendrick has done much to dispel the very reasonable fear that he might experience sophomore jinx after his masterful major label debut good kid m.A.A.d city of last year.

XXL and MTV both provide nice overviews of the responses to the verse; Brandon Soderbergh has the best critical take on the song.

  • In other news, you have to read this incredible piece on how Edward Snowden established his contact to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald.
  • Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz on Detroit’s plight and what one might learn from it.
  • Institution and Individual – French Satire at the Comics Journal


    A new instalment on my lamentably irregular column on European comics, “Common Currency” is up over at The Comics Journal. It examines the winners in the two major categories at this year’s Angoulême festival — Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain’s Quai d’Orsay vol. 2 and the work of Grand Prix awardee Willem, exemplified in his latest book Degeulasse. It is an attempt to tease out some of the tendencies in French satire, from the proudly idealistic to the coarsely individualistic. Go, read.

    A Certain Tendency in French Comics

    A Certain Tendency in French Comics
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    Click here to read the extended Metabunker debate on the current (problematic?) state of nigh-mainstream French comics.

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    Party and Bullshit


    Went to Waka Flocka Flame’s concert in Copenhagen last night. Didn’t quite know what to expect, but arrived stoked to find out whether the energy he channels so freely on record translated well to the stage. Well, it did and it didn’t.

    Waka Flocka’s music is simple, testosterone-charged, almost vitalistic hip hop that carries the trappings of gangsta rap, but fundamentally is about a party. It is the wrong place to look for complexity and even variety, but when he is at his best — like on his amazing album debut Flockavelli from 2010 — he marries infectious abandon and chest-thumping assertiveness, and he tends to do it over Lex Luger’s majestic, surprisingly complex orchestration.

    Anyway, much of this also happens live. Turnout was low at the venue, Pumpehuset, but what a crowd — youngsters moshing bare-chested in the front rows, the rest reliably throwing their hands up at every prompt. And Waka and his DJ brought great physical energy to their performance, never letting things slip. It was a party, no doubt about it.

    On the other hand, Waka didn’t really rap much at all. Most of the time he either shouted or ad-libbed his own recorded vocals, essentially acting as a hype man to his own music. It was more of a DJ’s vocal performance than that of an MC and when one is reared on hip hop being about skill in live performance, that just doesn’t cut it for a high profile rapper like Waka (the DJ didn’t do anything beyond pressing play, adding the obligatory gunclaps and ad-libbing on the his mic). From a musical point of view, it makes for a fallow listening experience.

    I suspect Waka doesn’t even give it second thought, coming as he does from a tradition of Southern hip hop that doesn’t adhere to the blueprints prescribed in New York last century. Where this is perfectly acceptable as a live performance because it gets the job done — it’s a party, people have fun. This seems to be a tendency that is becoming increasingly prevalent in hip hop, and one that poses a fundamental challenge to certain core values in the culture. Now, I don’t think skills are disappearing from the music — clearly Waka has them in the studio, and channels he his persona well on stage, which is also important to the skill set of an MC — but I can’t help but feel a little sad to see such devaluation of vocal and musical artistry in a genre that has always put a high premium to them. It is a carte blanche to lazy, disposable music and, in the hands of less charismatic performers, extremely dull concerts.

    The video above, from a 2012 performance in London gives a good idea of Waka Flocka’s performance style as I experienced it, although he didn’t bring a drummer to the stage last night.

    The Week

    The week in review

    This weekend saw the first Vanguard Festival here in Copenhagen. A bold step up from long-time hip hop booker Peter “Soul Kitchen” and his team, it spread over two days divided between indie rock (Friday) and hip hop (Saturday). Surely a risk, it seems to have paid off — at least judging by attendance on Saturday. The lineup was stellar, if somewhat retrograde — what one might call ‘your dad’s favorite hip hop’: Pharoahe Monche, DOOM, De La Soul, and the Wu-Tang Clan (on their 20th anniversary tour), as well as some quality Nordic acts, with Loop Troop Rockers and Malk de Koijn being the most notable.

    While among the best in hip hop of the past twenty plus years, the list carried some risk: DOOM is infamously languorous on stage, De La have long been past their (astonishing) prime, the the Wu-Tang are notorious wild cards as a live act. And while DOOM was just as boring as always, and De La gave a lacklustre performance loaded up with time-filler and frustrating wheel-ups, the festival overall was a fantastic live experience. Loop Troop ripped it with their reliably energetic show; Malk is always solid: Pharoahe, backed up by Mela Machinko and DJ Boogie Blind, was reliably amazing, his vocal stylings and content crisp on the mic; and Wu-Tang brought the blast.

    When I last heard them perform live, in 2008 — in the wake of their partly public row over royalties and creative decisions — morale was clearly fraying and their show was erratic. Five years later, and twenty years after Enter the Wu-Tang, the Clan was evidently more closely knit, even if Ghostface still seems reluctant to participate — I don’t think he spat more than four or five verses total — and any Wu-Tang show without a prominent Ghost is a less than optimal one. Good that Meth remains the fabulous entertainer he is, that U-God and GZA (the usual weak links live) performed above average, that Dek remains rock solid, and that the RZA retains his enthusiasm. Also crucial was the crowd, psyched to witness the entire clan on stage for the first time in Denmark, sending much love their way. The interaction, spiked when RZA invited two kids on stage to rock out to “4th Chamber”, was nothing less than wonderful and made for a magical finish to a great festival that I hope we will see return many a time in the future.

    UPDATE: for Danish readers, peep the Rapspot coverage by Svensker-Martin (Ponyblod, Loop Troop, DOOM, Wu-Tang) and Toobs (Marvelous Mosell, Pharoahe Monche, De La Soul, Malk de Koijn), and here are Kenneth Nguyen’s photos.

    OK, here are some links:

  • A major piece of reportage this week was Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian‘s exposure of the NSA XKeystroke surveillance programme. If you didn’t take the time to look at it already, I urge you to do so. Like so much of what the US Government gets up to internationally, this affects us all. Related: John Cassidy and Ben Wizner had useful commentary on the Bradley Manning verdict.
  • Ahmed Akkari interviewed on Danish TV. Akkari was one of the group of Danish Muslim representatives who travelled around the Arab countries in the wake of Jyllands-Posten‘s publication of the infamous Muhammad cartoons, fanning the flames of what was at that point still mostly a local conflict. Since that went down, he’s matured and done some soul searching and now comes forward to denounce his actions in public. Anyone interested in the affair should watch this fascinating interview conducted with reliable acuity by Martin Krasnik. Unfortunately it is in non-captioned Danish. I don’t know whether there’s a transcript out there.
  • The Frankfurt School. Excellent web resource presenting central texts by Frankfurt school thinkers. Great for reference, as well as general edification.
  • Photo: Ghostface Killa by Paw Ager for the Vanguard Festival. More here.