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.

    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.

    Tegneserier i Information


    I dag debuterer jeg som tegneserieanmelder i dagbladet Information med en anmeldelse af sommerens danske tegneserier. (Deriblandt Jan Solheim og Henrik Rehrs Insolitus, billede ovenfor). Det er planen at jeg fremover vil varetage broderparten af tegneseriestoffet for avisen, om end filmskribent Christian Monggaard naturligvis fortsat vil bidrage på området ind i mellem. Tak til Christian og til jer der læser!

    Anonymous Venetian


    The drawing reproduced above was sold last week at Sotheby’s London. It fetched £20.000 including the buyer’s premium. Which, if the old attribution to Titian were correct, would be an amazing bargain.

    As I’ve mentioned before, Titian is hard to pin down as a draughtsman because there are so few surviving drawings securely attributable to him. This sheet is definitely in his manner, but doesn’t look like his work to me. The construction of the figure, while daring and impressively conceived, is too incoherent, with the dramatically foreshortened right leg fitting awkwardly on the body — especially the lower leg — and the feet being disporportionately small. Also the outline of the head is a little sloppily put down. A far cry from Titian’s bold, confident strokes.

    But who is it by, then? The most obvious suggestion, and one that has been made repeatedly in the literature is Jacopo Bassano, but as is generally acknowledged, this is not really a satisfying attribution either. Again, the figure is not really of his type — it has a nimble quality too it that is at a distinct remove from his stout characters, and the bodily twist depicted here is unlike his way of posing his figures. And it is too accomplished, too expressively drawn and, again, too different in kind to be by his lesser talented sons.

    I don’t have any great suggestions, but it occurred to me that the drawing might be Paduan, perhaps by Domenico Campagnola (1500-1564). A follower of Titian in his early years, he worked in Padua for most of his life and was instrumental in defining a tradition for landscape drawing derived from Titian that would reverberate for centuries. He is almost exclusively known — and very well defined — as a draughtsman in pen and ink, however, while his chalk drawings are few and far between. In this sense, there is very little to compare with, and the drawing at hand in any case seems beyond his rather pedestrian approach to the figure. But if we think about his early, extremely innovative work in printmaking in the 1510s and of the anatomically somewhat awkward, invariably contorted figures he would populate especially paintings with in the following decade, we have something that may not be totally off the mark.

    A long shot, I know, but something to think about?

    Roskilde 2013 in Retrospect

    Kendrick Lamar by Kenneth Nguyen


    It’s been two weeks now since the Roskilde Festival. Two busy weeks with lots happening. It was another good year, however, not the least for hip hop, with a program focused on coastal innovation, from Kendrick Lamar to El-P and Killer Mike to Mykki Blanco and Azealia Banks. The notable misfire was Rihanna lip synching her way through a boring set Saturday night. Anyway, our coverage at Rapspot can be sampled here, and these are my contributions: Mykki Blanco, Killer Mike and El-P, Linkoban, and Kid Koala as well as my usual rap up commentary, which I’ve just uploaded. All in Danish. I’m sorry.

    Thanks for a great festival, everyone – and props to the graff people who celebrated their 15th anniversary at the festival this year with another great burn on the festival walls.

    See you next year?

    It’s About that Time, Roskilde!

    Photo from Roskilde 2012 by KenYen


    Once again, you know where you’ll find me this weekend. At the Roskilde Festival, covering the hip hop acts and assorted as part of the RapSpot team. So tune in over there, and witness the strength of sneed knowledge.

    Titian in Rome: Notes

    The Gesuiti St. Lawrence before cleaning (not even the exhibition catalogue reproduces it in its present, beautiful state)


    In what is becoming a bit of a trend hereabouts, I’m writing notes on another art show which is no longer available for viewing: this time the Titian exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, which closed several weeks ago.

    As an exhibition, it was fairly lacklustre. The kind of blockbuster whose curatorial muscle is all the justification it seeks. Drawing primarily upon Italian collections for a retrospective presentation, the show included a fair number of undisputed masterworks (e.g. the Capodimonte Paul III (1543) and Danaë (1544-1545), the Washington DC Rainuccio Farnese (1542), the Kroměříž Marsyas (1570-1576), but nevertheless managed to underwhelm at least this viewer. Additionally, one may question the wisdom of allowing the former two and the latter of these pictures to travel as much as they have in the last decade or so, where they have all appeared in three to fours exhibitions each. These are some of Titian’s supreme masterpieces and it is vital that they be conserved for posterity and not be put at risk in this way. It is great to see them, of course, but they deserve a good long rest now. If we want to see them, we should be able to travel to the collections that house them.

    Anyway, the exhibition lacked both the animation of a central idea and the kind of visual-narrative weave that can make monographic presentations so exciting. At the end of the day, the selection seemed random and included unnecessary, substandard works (such as the Bargello mosaic Portrait of Pietro Bembo by Valerio Zuccato (1542), and the Budapest Portrait of Doge Marcantonio Trevisan by the studio, (1553-1554) that detracted from the overall effect.

    The hang, though not without good ideas and thoughtful juxtapositions, similarly ended up confusing matters, mixing as it did chronological, thematic, and typological presentations, scrambling all three. Also, there was a video, sponsored by the Venetian cultural mayoralty and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which attempted to provide an overview of Titian’s career uniquely by discussing pictures in Venice and surroundings. Not an easy task, given that so much of his most important work is elsewhere, and certainly an effort unsuited to a show devoted to the entirety of the oeuvre. A symptomatic short cut.

    All this being said, it was nothing less than amazing to see five (five!) major altarpieces by the master assembled in one place. The Gesuiti St. Lawrence (1547-1559); the Ancona Pala Gozzi (1520); the Vatican Pala San Niccolò (commenced mid-1520s, finished about 1535); the Ancona Crucifixion (1557-1558); and the San Salvador Annunciation (1563-1565). Taking up the first floor, they were presented majestically along with a selection of assorted contemporaneous pictures, some to very enlightening effect. Here are some notes: Continue reading ‘Titian in Rome: Notes’

    Remembering Kim Thompson

    Photo taken by the author at SPX in 2004


    I was incredibly saddened to learn of Fantagraphis co-publisher Kim Thompson’s death last week. At age 56 it is early to go and my deepest condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues. He shall be sorely missed, not the least within the field of comics where he made his mark.

    Although I’ve written a proper obituary in Danish over at Nummer9, so much has been written about him online in English over the weekend that I won’t bore you with a translated version and instead merely refer you to the obituary up at the website of the magazine he helped shape, The Comics Journal, as well as to Tom Spurgeon’s helpful collection of links and selected works. Here are a few short personal reminiscences instead:

    I didn’t know Kim well, but met him three or four times over the last ten to twelve years. I guess our common Danish heritage had some say, if nothing else in the projects we ended up collaborating on. In any case, it was a joy to hear him speak the language in his melodious, nineteen-fifties accent, preserved since his childhood as if in amber. Anyway, we collaborated on a few bits and pieces. He accepted (and even translated!) my first interview — with David B. — for The Comics Journal #275 back in 2005 and two years ago he accepted for publication at Fantagraphics the Nordic anthology I was editing, Kolor Klimax.

    The book was financed by the Finnish Comics Society, but Kim’s swift acceptance of the project was a deciding factor in its success. I of course sent him samples of the content in advance, but he clearly trusted that I would put together a book that met his standards and not only took it on, but didn’t interfere with its production. The descriptions I’m now reading all over about his hands-off editorial style therefore ring true. It seems to me that his quality control lay in the initial selection of projects to take on — something he was clearly skilled at — after which he let people do their own thing, getting involved only in the copy editing, for which he had a unfailing eye. One thing he reminded me of with Kolor Klimax was the difference between English and continental European separation of numbers: the former employs full stops whereas the latter uses commas. Confusing the two is a common error with Nordic people otherwise proficient in English, he wrote to me.

    We discussed a number of other projects, including ones on two of his favorite artists: Storm P. and Franquin. Whether these will ever see the light of day is now doubtful, of course. I would assume better chances for the former, however. Franquin, as Kim would often point out, simply does not seem to click with American readers, much to his bafflement. As things happened, our last ‘collaboration’, was on the Tardi feature in the latest Comics Journal (#302), for which I was given space to write about the masterwork 120 Rue de la Gare as a kind of coda to his career-spanning, revelatory and very human interview with Tardi. It was an honor, just as it has been a honor to know, however superficially, this kind, intelligent and hard-working man whose spark was a vital one in comics.

    A Titian Fragment?

    Another possible Titian is coming to the block. The picture at right will be auctioned at Christie’s, London on 2 July. It’s clearly a fragment of a picture that was once bigger, most likely a half-length portrait. Is it a Titian? Christie’s seems cautious, having set the estimate at only £400,000 – £600,000 (low for a genuine Titian), while the experts they have consulted all agree on the attribution.

    While fairly obscure, the picture is not unknown in the literature. In addition to Berenson as cited in the entry, it was included in Fischl’s and Suida’s monographs on the artist (1904 and 1933, respectively), both of whom saw in it Titian’s hand. And my former supervisor Paul Joannides published it in Studi Tizianeschi in 2006. He agrees with the attribution, dating it around 1560, although he points out that the suggestion of the shoulder at lower right is a later edition, making it appear more like a complete portrait. My colleague Chris Fischer recently saw the picture and is less convinced, describing it as dry and somewhat dull in execution, lacking the depth Titian brings to his renditions of flesh especially.

    Judging only from the reproduction, I think it looks pretty great and have no problem accepting the attribution with the natural caution that I would reserve the privilege to change my mind were I to see it in the flesh.

    Update 30 June 2013: I have now seen the painting, and it seems to me convincing as a Titian. I’m unsure about the shoulder, which Joannides as mentioned has proposed is a later addition: it is very loosely painted and does not quite cohere with the head, which seems only tenuously attached to it. It may have made more sense before the canvas was cut, however. The canvas is of the herringbone weave type, which was spun in large sections, another indication that the painting must have been considerably bigger originally. Although most likely conceived as a half-length portrait, one cannot rule out that the present picture was cut from a larger, multi-figure composition.

    The head is marvellously animated, painted in thick, confident strokes, with wonderful detailing around the left eye and temple, and pentimenti around the ear. Although fairly broadly executed, the overall impression of the face and especially the flesh parts is of the kind of tightness one sees in Titian’s work of the 1540s and 1550s, rather than the deeper glow and more dissolute contouring of his work in the late 1550s through the 1560s. This is a very fine and highly imprecise distinction, however, and I would be loath to fix a date for it. In aspects it reminds me most of such pictures as the National Gallery Vendramin Family Portrait, which was largely painted in the early 1540s, but at the same time it is sufficiently broad in parts that it could easily be of the following decade.

    Thanks for a Great Festival

    Late Sunday crowd

    Continue reading ‘Thanks for a Great Festival’

    Hype: Danish Kuti


    A Danish edition of the internationally distinguished Finnish comics newspaper will be released in Copenhagen this Friday. The release is marked by a reception at the Storm P. Museum, just in time for Copenhagen Comics — the grand, international comics festival which will take place in Øksnehallen, Copenhagen, this coming weekend.

    Comics people on the festival circuit or their ear to the underground will be familiar with the free Kuti anthology, which since the early issues has been published with English subtitles and has already seen several local edition featuring cartoonists of a particular country. The Danish edition is the 28th issue published so far and half of it is entirely devoted to Danish artists. The editors of this section are Zven Balslev, Søren Mosdal, and Jacob Ørsted, while the other half, published under a separate cover on the flipside, has been edited by the publisher at the Kuti Kuti studio in Helsinki.

    Artists included in the Danish section: Rikke Bakman, Johan F. Krarup, Storm P., Claus Deleuran, Zven Balslev (who has also provided the cover for the section, above left), Jacob Ørsted, Jon Andersen, Rikke Villadsen, Jan Oksbøl Callesen, Søren Mosdal, Bue Bredsdorff, Karla Holmbäck og Luca Bjørnsten. In addition to this, the section includes two articles on Danish comics, by Erik Barkman and yours truly.

    Come to the reception and kick off your convention weekend in style. The Storm P. Museum is currently showing an impressive exhibition on the Japanese ‘God of Comics’ Osamu Tezuka, in case you need more convincing. If you are unable to come, pick up a copy at the festival or read in online here.

    Eyes Wide Open

    Study for the head of Saint Francis, c. 1571-76, black, red and white chalk and pink pastel, 34.5 x 28.8 cm., Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland


    The great Barocci show at the National Gallery in London closed last Sunday. I’d been meaning to write something about it here since I saw it in its first weeks, but things got in the way and I never got around to it. The show, however, has stuck in my memory as a particularly exhilarating one, an excellent combination of great art and curatorial rigor, as well as a discovery for many, I’m sure. I had long admired Federico Barocci (c. 1533/35–1612) as a draughtsman, especially after the exquisite show at the Fitzwilliam in 2006, but had remained more tepid on his paintings. This show changed that, revealing as it did the simultaenously searching and visionary qualities of his work.

    I still don’t have the time for a thorough write-up, but here are some scattered notes, written from memory: Continue reading ‘Eyes Wide Open’

    (Some of) the Best Online Comics Criticism of 2012


    Whoa, a couple of pieces I wrote on comics last year have been selected among the best pieces of online comics criticism of 2012 by a panel of judges at The Hooded Utilitarian. I’m flattered, not the least to be in the august company of a selection of really excellent pieces from a variety of writers, several of whom I admire a lot. Although I’m proud of the two pieces in question — my review of the first volume in Fantagraphics’ complete edition of Carl Barks’ Disney comics and my critical piece on New Yorker cartoons — it’s hard for me to agree with the selection in a year when a lot of great comics criticism was published. Give me half an hour and I’ll match any of my pieces with something better… wait, Suat mentions a bunch in his ‘notable omissions’ section at the end, so I won’t have to!

    The Best Online Comics Criticism is an annual feature at The Hooded Utilitarian, run by Ng Suat Tong. It’s been interesting to follow it, and I must say this year’s edition has been the most convincing yet, in execution if not in the final selection. Suat has been really thorough, running quarterly reviews in order to reduce the risk of missing significant pieces in the final round. Those are great overviews in themselves and also rather hilarious for Suat’s pithy comments on the nominations.

    One thing that’s unfair about the feature is that Suat himself will never be in the running, for obvious reasons. To my mind, he wrote several pieces in 2012 worthy of consideration. His meticulously sourced approach proves illuminating on Mattotti and Zentner’s The Crackle of the Frost, for example, while his skill at ideological criticism comes to the fore in his review of Joe Sacco’s Journalism. His command of visual reference is on display in his piece on Lovecraft in comics, and his critique of Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? is commendable for its dissection of the book’s complex if also smothering structure.

    Anyway, the Best Online Comics Criticism is your one-stop linkage to a lot of great comics criticism. It kind of makes one optimistic on behalf of this still fledgling discipline. Go and explore.

    The image at top is from Craig Fischer’s fantastic essay on serial photography, photocomics, and memory, which is also (kinda) among the year’s selections.