Doin’ it for the Culture

Since the inception of the rap genre it has been chock full of stereotypes, especially about the gritty streets.  While most other genres have veered far and wide with their lyric topics, hip-hop subject matter has stayed mostly the same.  Since Straight Outta Compton’s drug talk, murderous lyrics and casual misogyny, these things have been lyrical staples.  The world is changing though.  Gun violence is now a realer evil than ever, # MeToo has put an end to sexist behavior ever being publicly excused again, and the opioid epidemic is at an all time high.

It is with all this in mind that I still cannot believe the existence, not to mention the success of Migos, a group of actual criminals, unabashed sexists, and apparently unrepentant former drug dealers.  I fully understand that by using this as a criticism, I cannot ignore the decades of other rappers that used to be drug sellers.  But others, take Jay-Z for example, have shown moral growth in their careers, and a desire to give back and make recompense, for this trade that destroys the lives of so many.  The Migos are definitely not telling stories about how they used to sell drugs.  It is an inseperable part of their musical identity; their very name is slang for a drug house.

What’s more, Culture II isn’t even good.  Uninventive beats with even less inventive lyrics blend together into an aggressively mediocre bad-music soup.  After over an hour and a half of generic trap it kind of all blends together.  The album’s 20 track inventory is probably the most blatantly profitable money move we’ve seen in a while, and it also seems to be the most artistically bankrupt.

The album’s name suggests complex ideas discussed and maybe some discourse on state of american culture right now.  What we get is a bunch of triplet flows, frequently interspersed with the word “culture”.  But realistically, if you ignore the words an album that has songs about criminal activity can at least possess a sort of roguish thrill to it.  This album is neither roguish or thrilling.  Talking about drugs, women and money takes over the whole album, letting up once in a while to talk about cars.  Not even talking about them in any different way, the list of topics bores fast and takes over the album eliminating any hope of its enjoyment.  From the obviously subjected “Narcos” — “we be wrappin’ in kilos (yay), snub nose with potatoes” — to “BBO” — “Hit her for a minute then I pass her to the homie” (not sure theres any excusable way to interpret that) — to what should have been an interesting song: “Culture National Anthem” — “need a million dollar slab, bring it back and break it down”.

This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing good about this album.  Despite the Trio’s efforts, some decent music does glimmer through the fog of marijuana smoke; such as Cardi B’s fantastic bars on “Motorsport” and Pharell William’s excellent motown-esque “Stir Fry” beat  (If you like Stir Fry you should just listen to No One Ever Really Dies, a whole album by Pharell).  On a side note, Sing J. Lee, the director of the music video for Stir Fry is a genius.  I call it now, the man’s career is going to take off soon.

Wait…

This is supposed to be an optimistic publication, and I’ve kind of got a bad taste in my mouth from writing about Migos.  Here are some recommendations for music that doesn’t come from a 20 song “album” and doesn’t have lyrics that sound like they’ve been written by a foul mouthed toddler.

Track #1: U&I (feat. Dia) — By Flatbush Zombies

This track from the New York psychedelic rap trio features an absolutely beautiful hook from Dia before some cooly rapped lines set to relaxed guitar riffs.  Here is a song that manages to be laid back and pressingly urgent at the same time “This life is full of stress!”

Track #2: Only Love — By Deer Tick

This less of a new track released in 2017 by the Rhode Island Alt-Rock group.  Boasting subtle finger picking, steadily thumping percussion, and some grating but pleasant vocals, this song is some of the best that Deer Tick Vol.1 has to offer.

Track #3: 33rd Blakk Glass — By City Morgue, ZillaKami, and Sos Mulla

I’m not really sure what to make of this song.  It contains some brutal screamed hooks that I don’t understand.  I don’t have any clue who City Morgue are, and they aren’t on wikipedia.  It’s definitely a cloud rap sort of song, but there are some pretty overt metallic tinges that take its intensity up to an eleven.

Track #4: Humoresque — By Jack White

If you’d like to curb the ear assault of that last track then listen to this one from Jack White’s new album Boarding House Reach.  The album it self is a bit of an avante-garde artwork (a review is coming, believe me) and “Humoresque” represents its lowest dip into sanity as it descends from the highs of “Get in the Mind Shaft”.  I recommend this one because even if the sublime weirdness of the album isn’t your cup of tea, I think you’ll still be able to appreciate this nice piano tune.

Track #5: Need A Little Time — Courtney Barnett

I know very little of Courtney Barnett.  I saw her on SNL a few years back, thought she seemed like the next Kurt Cobain, and forgot her soon after.  Her latest song is a tad mellower than the grungy stuff i first saw her play, but it still packs some punch with the compressed electric strums and sweet sounding background vocals.

Black Panther

Well the Jury is out on Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s third major motion picture, and arguably his best; inarguably  his most accessible.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it at least once, but if the box office is any indicator, you may have seen it twice.  This film is currently the 86th best opening film ever, adjusted for inflation, and has crossed the one billion dollar threshold; it’s begun to slow up a bit, but nonetheless has left an indelible impact on the movie business.  Coogler has made a film that is for everyone, hardcore film snobs, basically every critic, comic fans, and the average moviegoer.  This is a movie that has reached out and piqued the interests of tons of people.  White people, Black People, Asian People, Men, Women, Nostalgic Adults, and Wide-eyed children.  This is a film that glorifies black culture, and represents the African Diaspora in possibly the most spectacular fashion possible, but it is a film for all of humanity.  By the way, this genius that can’t seem to make a bad film is only 31, and he went to Sacremento state on a football scholarship where he also majored in finance…just in case you wanted to feel less successful.

There is very little to say about this film that has not already been said, and you can read many of these thoughts in Lee Kuczmynda’s spoiler free review.  This a very layered movie though, and beyond the surface characteristics like its fantastic action, acting, cinematography, and humor, there are still gold mines of material to discuss.  For one thing, Ryan Coogler seems to be absolutely obsessed with the sacred nature of one to one combat.  His two ritual combat scenes play a lot like the boxing matches in Creed; Tense, emotional, and rife with a palpable feeling of true danger mixed with adrenaline.

Coogler also does a very nice job of putting you in the world of whatever environment the story is taking place in at that momment.  The grassy plains of africa, the high tech palaces of Wakanda, the gritty streets of Oakland, or a glistening Korean casino.  I know that many of these locations were cgi, but it is a credit to the production team that these sets still feel extremely authentic.  As the force-field fades, giving way to Wakanda’s bright, skyscraper laden skyline the grin that crosses T’challa’s face matches the feelings of everyone else watching as they enter a mysterious and exciting new world.

I do however take some issue with the complete misuse of the soundtrack in the movie.  The credits feature “All The Stars” and at one point in the movie we hear “Opps” and “Pray For Me” (but with Kendrick’s verse inaudible mind you) but otherwise this 14 track album goes unused.  Maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much if there weren’t snippets of generic hip-hop songs that were interspersed into the score; midst transitions and the like.  Maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much if I couldn’t pick out verses on the album that corresponded with exact moments in the film.  Maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much if Black Panther: The Album was less of a masterpiece.

Nonetheless, Ryan Coogler has created a superhero film that is also a work of humanitarian art, and a massive blow to the near century of under-representation in film.  The beautiful thing that this movie does is offers a turn for the better to the marvel franchise, without forcing its established mythos to be torn down, despite its lack of diversity.  It acknowledges that the films that built the MCU are still great movies even though they are dominated by white people, and makes it possible for the MCU to continue producing great movies with people of all races.  What’s more, scores of children and adults now feel that superheroes are for them, and represent them because they see someone that looks like them being a hero.  Now, a cynic could see this as a marketing tactic — which it definitely is at least to a certain point, and with the money Black Panther is raking in, it seems to work — but, an optimist like myself simply sees it as something beautiful.

Black Panther: A Spoiler Free Review

Hi, Ned here.  I’ve been trying to get Lee, my younger brother to write something on the site for quite some time now, and Black Panther seemed like the perfect place to start.  Enjoy his review!

Lately, I have been reading the Black Panther comics. So, naturally, like plenty of other  people I was really excited for the movie, but as I walked into the dim light of the theater I had no idea what was about to happen to me once the screen burst to life.  I was expecting something similar to what we normally get from Marvel movies: a simple plot revolving around a power-hungry villain thirsty for power the hero must fight for the fate of the world.  Instead, I discovered something very different.  Marvel had unearthed the conflict of the Black Panther.

The mighty Black Panther must fight to support his secretly technologically advanced  nation, while at the same time fight for his life.  T’Challa has to literally struggle  to stay on the throne as the villain of the film, Killmonger, battles him for reign over Wakanda. A king one day, and a warrior the next, he remains locked in an electrifying tangle with Eric Killmonger.

From old Wakandan artifacts to shots of Killmonger on the throne representing how the tables are turned, the visual symbolism in this film is titanic.  Consistent flash-back reminders that mistakes made in the past shouldn’t define the individual, as well as strong bonds between characters like the fresh ancestral fatherhood examples, all enhance the viewing experience.  The emotional as well as visual representations in this movie are golden and explosive. This film was incredible and you should give it the chance I did, I definitely enjoyed it.

Guardians of the Galaxy — MCU Under Review

So, I’ve been sick.  Life’s rough like that.   The Black Panther Review is coming.  For now, let’s talk about a movie that actually uses its amazing soundtrack.

Guardians, I’m ashamed to say, is a film I did not see in theaters, but instead watched for the first time in my own home.  I was just a little unsure it.  It seemed different, and with Marvel films being such a new thing, different could have been bad, just as easily as it could have been good.  I’m happy to say that this is the last time I doubted.

After a brief, but tragic cold open scene, we get one of the best character introductions ever.  As Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” plays, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) struts through a dark cave, dancing about and holding a space-rat like a microphone.  This scene is so goofy, and yet so breathtakingly beautiful.  It sets the stage for the whole movie; a fun romp filled with great music and eye-popping color schemes.

This film’s use of its soundtrack is quite possible the greatest thing about it.  James Gunn shapes sequences around songs so that they blend perfectly, and the elements of the scene seem to capture the true essence of the song, like in the fantastic breakout scene.  Nothing says “The Pina Colada Song” more than Peter Quill coolly strolling down a hallway, priceless artifact in hand, especially when you consider that the song is actually called “Escape”.

As superhero films go, this one doesn’t exactly break any molds or redefine the genre in terms of structure, but it is definitely one of the first Marvel films to really set itself apart.  James Gunn gave us an easily digestible summer blockbuster, but with amazing music choices, an excellent cast, one of the richest color palettes in cinema, and some solid action paired with an encouraging story of friendship.

 

 

 

Black Panther: The Album

How does one move forward in a career that has, in under a decade, spawned a brilliant coming of age story, a rhapsodic work of activist poetry, a mixtape of rough-cut demos that is still fantastic, and an intimately honest meditation on man’s relationship with God.  Well, the obvious answer is to produce the soundtrack for the next Marvel movie.

The Album’s first and title track tells a lot about the project itself.  African drums fade in and then abruptly stop, giving way to an old-fashioned sounding piano and the sound of  match being lit.  Kendrick Lamar begins rapping, “king of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland”.  The song is all about T’challa, the Black Panther, king of Wakanda, but Kendrick uses some clever wordings to liken himself to the character.  As it happens, they aren’t too dissimilar.  Each one is the king of their respective domain (The Rap Industry or Wakanda), and each is using his powers (rapping or actual superpowers) for the good of their constituents/fans.  As the piano continues, suddenly the beat changes, vintage keys replaced by an arrhythmic bass and an unnerving synth.  Kendrick’s cool rhyming changes to a frantic scream; “King of the fighters, king of the fathers, king of the belated!”  Then there is yet another shift.  The piano comes back in, with a syncopated sixteenth note bass.  This weird mixture of sounds may as well be a metaphor for the entire album.  Sounds of tradition like that old piano, fused with sounds of the future.  Throughout its run time, the project sports all manner of bizarre noises, from distorted vocoder singing, to cacophonies of African percussion.  This album is a series of reverberations fittingly complex for the story on which they are based.

Black Panther probably won’t go down in history as a universal classic like the rest of Kendrick’s discography,  but it is an excellent time capsule of popular music in 2018.  Pulling from nearly every corner of the rap world, the record combines frothy, radio friendly pop-rap (“All The Stars, “The Ways”, “Pray For Me”), latin-pop (“Redemption”), something that almost sounds like metal (“I Am”), trap (“X”, “Paramedic”, “King’s Dead”) and african tinged rap (“Opps”, “Bloody Waters”, “Seasons”).  This diversity makes for a rich listening experience.

Lamar’s large role on this album is unquestionable, but he takes a back seat on most of the song’s, filling in blank’s here and there, and using his vocal versatility to tie the record together.  “All The Stars” begins with his verse about love, denial, and expectations of a leader, but gives way for SZA’s soaring vocals.  Lamar possesses an exceptional propensity for picking out an artist’s gifts, and applying them to his own music.  “How Much a Dollar Cost” wouldn’t be the punch packing ballad it is without James Fauntleroy’s etherial chorus.  The same is the case here; this song takes the album to insane heights right off the bat, and it couldn’t fly the way it does without SZA.  It is a deeply spiritual song, with a mostly ambiguous chorus, but a nearly tangible otherworldliness that sends chills down the spine.  This feeling is captured perfectly in Dave Free’s equally beautiful music video.

The album isn’t afraid to digress into major key happiness, which is considerably rare for something that is still as hard-hitting as Black Panther manages to be.  The fourth track, “The Ways”, by Khalid and Swae Lee is a catchy love song.  The contrast between this and the previous track “X” can not be overstated.  Transitioning from the aggressively confrontational bars — “Originality, couple fatalities/ candied my car and it’s sweet like a cavity” —  to heartfelt declarations of romance — “Pick me up when I fall down and out/ Dust me off and show me all truth/ Show me that I’ll never fly alone” — has a considerably jarring effect.

Elsewhere, rap’s characteristic brutal nihilism is appropriated to symbolize the beliefs of the film’s antagonist, especially on “King’s Dead” ; “my shot’s on pull, that’s armageddon/ I got pull I hope y’all ready/…born warrior, lookin’ for euphoria/ but I don’t see it”.  Kendrick’s closing verse even clearly states that the song is in fact from Eric Killmonger’s point of view “Who am I? Not your father, not your brother/ not the title y’all want me under/ all hail king Killmonger”.  This awareness of Black Panther’s inherent themes brings an unprecedented depth to the content of the album.  It may be less cohesive than a solo project, but it beats the heck out of the Suicide Squad soundtrack which — while bringing us some great track’s like “Heathens” and “Standing in the Rain” — possesed no closer connection to it’s film than Rick Ross rhyming “Deadshot” with “headshot”.  Take Lamar’s verse on “Pray For Me” for example.  While sporting a typically Weeknd-esque chorus, it echoes T’challa’s plight beautifully: “I fight pain and hurricanes, today I wept/…It’s all a prophecy and if I gotta be sacrificed for the greater good/ then that’s what it gotta be”.

For years the Compton MC has demonstrated his propensity for thoughtful lyrics, expectation shattering music, and momentous performances.  Now he unveils another facet of his skill set; his ability to organize and excecute a variety of wildly different musical compositions, by a group of wildly different talents, and make something that doesn’t just sound good, but something that sounds great.  In the word’s of the album’s title track, “Kings did it, King’s vision, Black Panther, King Kendrick, ALL HAIL THE KING!”

 

 

 

Resources for the Beginning Movie Critic

I’ve only been at this film writing thing for about a year now, but even in so short of a time, I’ve learned a lot. I thought I’d share some of the resources I used over the year for inspiration and information.

  • Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott — This fantastic book by the New York Times film critic is an excellent description of a critic’s role in modern society and what their purpose ought to be.
  • Nobody’s Perfect by Anthony Lane — This recommendation is a bit tricky, because I’m not necessarily saying you need to read this specific book.  I am however saying that you should follow a certain critic, and study the way they use their voice.  Seeing how someone else communicates their ideas will work wonders for helping you communicate your own.
  • DK’s The Movie Book — This is a book that gives a fascinating recount of the history of film and its shifting role from petty amusement to cultural touchstone.
  • Reading the Silver Screen by Thomas Foster: This is a fantastic book, especially for someone who wants to write about movies that covers basically every major aspect of the visual language.  Witty and entertaining at every turn, this book is a joy to read as well as informative.

If you’re someone who watches a lot of YouTube, the channels you frequent are just as important as what you read.

Some Fantastic Youtube Channels:

Chris Stuckmann: Stuckmann is one of the greatest video reviewers on youtube.  He always crafts an effective, well rounded review, and his experience with film production lends his reviewing a certain expertise unseen elsewhere.

ScreenJunkies/ScreenJunkies News: A fantastic team of writers, commentators, producers, etc… screen junkies is a movie channel that combines commercial professionalism with a signature amateur unpredictability.  Their features include all manner of things; from their infamous “Honest Trailers” to intense movie debates, to breaking news in the movie industry.

Lessons From the Screenplay: One of the most intelligent film examination channels i’ve ever encountered, Michael of LFTS breaks down story structure, and plot devices from a film’s original form in an extremely engaging manner.

Cinemawins: What may have started as a playful jab at Cinemasins has become something almost as popular.  Each week Cinemawins releases a video that highlights everything that is great about a movie.  While a good critic should be able to pick out a film’s failures, this overwhelmingly positive lens is never a bad way to see film.  Plus, these videos just make you feel good inside.

Well that’s it for now.  I hope these resources can be to your benefit.  Do you have any great resources that I missed?  Tell me about them in the comments?

Will the Next Rock Revolution be Rap?

Disclaimer:  This article deals with music and musicians that can’t seem to string a sentence together without any expletives.  I’ve found clean videos for this piece, but if you look further into the discographies of these artists, the rap ones especially, be ready for some rough profanity.  

Listening to an artist like Lil Xan — especially after listening to something more mainstream, say, Kendrick Lamar — can be a jarring experience.  Devoid of  any loud noise or tough sounding percussion his breakout hit “Betrayed” starts out with a slow and simple electronic riff.  When Xan starts rapping, the uniqueness of his voice comes like a second punch to the gut.  Youthful, obviously white, and extremely lethargic, the California rapper’s vocals are not standard hip-hop fare.  But then again, the definition of “standard hip-hop fare” is becoming muddier and muddier, especially after last year’s surprising but inevitable replacement of rock as America’s most consumed genre with rap.

Lil Xan

Lil Xan is still pretty small as far as musical stardom is concerned, but he’s getting bigger everyday, and he’s played a major part in the rise of soundcloud rap.  Soundcloud rap is a genre characterized by stripped down lo-fi trap beats, and an unusual use of distortion, often resulting in a decidedly ugly sound.  Primarily growing through online streaming,  The movement has been compared to a variety of other musical movements, such as punk and emo, and pulls similarities from both, but the clearest parallel I can see is with 90s grunge (even though that wasn’t really a movement as much as it was a branding of Seattle music culture).  Soundcloud rappers possess the sincerity that most Seattle rockers came to be famous for — that “I don’t care if you like my song” attitude that garnered the movement so much attention two decades ago.  Florida rapper XXXtentacion released a shakily voiced declaration in that vein on the first track of his debut album 17.

“If you are not  willing to accept my emotion and hear my words fully, do not listen.  I do not value your money, I value your acceptance and loyalty.”

Sound-wise, if you ignore the fact that one is using guitars and drums, and the other is usually using a computer, the parallels between soundcloud rap and grunge are plentiful as well.  Both styles have an austere and unvarnished vibe to them, and a thick dissonance that creates a distinct atmosphere.  Just as grunge sought to counter slickly produced pop, soundcloud rap is the polar opposite of the radio friendly, overproduced, pretty music to which modern listeners are accumstomed.

The mainstream catalyst for the movement has been Lil Uzi Vert and his hit “XO Tour Lif3.”  Keeping with the grunge analogy, this is SC rap’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  Melodic enough to be a crossover hit, but possessing the same characteristics and attitude as are typical of the genre, the song’s beat gets its muted vibe from the fact that it was produced using only a portable speaker, and a computer.

 

There are however, some lyrical digressions between the two genres, as is to be expected.  While “XO Tour Llif3” features a compelling emotionally strained chorus “All my friends are dead/ push me to the edge” it almost immediately turns into a rap about money, women, and fast cars.

Most dreadful is the chorus to Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” — a song every bit as simple as it sounds — which simply repeats the song’s title seven times.  There is an unfortunate lack of  complexity and meaning, and when the rappers do have something to say, it often gets drowned in rambling braggadocio, which, to be fair, is typical of rap music, but when a sound is this unique, one expects the lyrics to follow suit. I may be nitpicking, but part of what defines the genres to which soundcloud rap might be compared, is rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional lyrics to match the rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional sound.   I should mention that XXXtentacion’s 17 is a rare exception, lyrically complex and musically diverse, the album is worth a review all on its own.

Lil Pump

Some Punk Lyrics:

“Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it/ I  wanna destroy the passer by!” — “Anarchy in the U.K” by The Sex Pistols

 

“Everybody’s doin’ just what they’re told to and nobody wants to go to jail” — “White Riot” by The Clash

 

Harmful elements in the air/ cymbals crashing everywhere/ reaps the fields of rice and reeds/ while the population feeds!” — “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Some Grunge Lyrics: 

“This is my kind of love/ It’s the kind that moves on/ It’s unkind and leaves me alone” — “Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone

 

“If you wouldn’t care I would like to leave/ If you wouldn’t care I would like to breathe” — “Blew” by Nirvana

 

“Why would you want to hurt me?/ So frightened of your pain” — “Animal” by Pearl Jam

And some SC rap lyrics:

“Clothes from overseas, got the racks and they all C-Notes/ you is not a G though” — “XO Tour Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert

 

“What you mean? What you mean? What you mean? Yeah/ That’s okay, that’s okay, that’s okay, yeah” — “Wake Up” by Lil Xan

and finally, my favorite:

D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, DRose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose — Lil Pump…guess what the name of the song is

This new breed of hip-hop tends to focus more on creating a distinctive vibe than spitting poetry, but it will probably need to evolve in order to be taken seriously in contemporary society.  Like I said before, with rappers like XXXtentacion, this is already beginning.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, U2’s Bono, who could be said to know a little something about the rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional, talked about how he and the band discover new music.  He cited his son Eli as one source: “Elijah is in a band, and he has got very strong feelings about music… He believes that a rock & roll revolution is around the corner”.  When asked if he agreed, Bono simply answered, “It Will Return”.  Bono seemed to indicate that soon, rock is going to unseat hip-hop and once again reign supreme as our culture’s music of choice.  As much as I love rock music, I don’t see that happening.

Bono squares up with death

It isn’t that good rock music isn’t being made anymore, but the stuff that charts is extremely reminiscent of the past.  One of the fastest ascending rock bands right now is Greta Van Fleet, who’s main point of marketability is the fact that they are a near replica of Led Zeppelin, from the screeching vocals of lead singer Josh Kizka, to their propensity for odd song names (Highway Tune, Safari Song, and Black Smoke Rising are three of their most popular).  My favorite album of the year, Colony House’s Only The Lonely achieved much of its appeal by drawing heavily upon rockabilly and surf rock.  The greatest stroke of irony is that the Foo Fighters, arguably the most successful band to emerge from grunge, made their latest album Concrete and Gold a giant homage to classic rock greats such as Queen, The Beatles, and Steely Dan.  While I’m cherry-picking my data a little, for most intents and purposes, rock is dead, and we’re living through its funeral.

Great song though…

If rock is going to continue on, it is going to have to evolve.  It must shift away from veneration of what has come before and move into new territory.  If it can’t reach the younger generation, then it is going to die off as the determining demographic moves on to new genres.  Kids just don’t listen to rock music anymore.

So what do I think?  Call me crazy, but my guess is that rap is going to absorb rock, or vice versa.  This might seem crazier if it weren’t already happening, and if it hadn’t been happening for decades, ever since Run D.M.C’s remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.  The late Lil Peep’s genre-breaking “emo rap” songs could very easily be mistaken for old Blink-182 with a different back beat, and Post Malone, formerly a heavy metal guitarist and quite a virtuoso with the axe, structures his “rap” songs like rock songs and even goes so far as to cover Nirvana and Metallica at his live shows.  Most notably, Kendrick Lamar, winner of five Grammy awards in 2017, has appropriated elements of rock into his live and even some studio performances.  Lamar seems to incorporate pretty much every genre; his hit “King Kunta” even features a guitar solo.  He also capitalizes on the bombast of rock in concert, usually performing with a live band or orchestra.  King Kendrick’s performance of “Humble” at the VMA’s hit hard with distorted power chords crunching over his bars, and his verse from “DNA” at the Grammy’s was accompanied by a wild and rambling jazz guitar riff.

As I listened to all this, I began to notice that it all reminded me of a certain musical act, that’s been around for almost a decade: Twenty One Pilots.  A two-man outlet from Columbus, Ohio, drummer Josh Dun and singer Tyler Joseph combine multi-instrumental intensity with a stripped down DIY vibe that separate their sound from, well, everything.  Commonly labeled “schizophrenic pop,” the myriad of musical influences that go into TOP songs make genre distinctions tricky.  “Schizophrenic Pop” seems to fit, until you get into songs like House of Gold, that sound like front porch Americana, and piano ballads like “Taxi Cab”.  Their sound comes by its murkiness honestly; Joseph’s explanation as of SxSW 2013: “I didn’t know there were rules to songwriting when I started making music.”

Twenty One Pilots performing at The Red Rocks

TOP uses a variety of instruments: the keys, piano, uke, and even bass, but not a guitar.  And yet, their rage and their passion easily classify them as a rock act in my mind.  Rock is borne out of anger, hate, desire, love…intense human emotion.  It’s not a series of musical motifs, or a combination of certain instruments; it’s an idea, one that can exist in a garage, a car, an arena, or a rap club.

After a year of insane releases on both sides of the board, 2018 is going to be a fateful year for music, as Rap and Rock clash for dominance of charts, and the zeitgeist.  I predict that one is going to absorb the other.  Those “rules” to songwriting are going to start breaking down, and the seeds will be laid for the amorphous, undefinable, and totally non-generic (in every sense of the word) music of the future to spring forth.

 

 

Inception

Well, Inception is amazing.  I think you all know that.  It’s got the odds in its favor right from the get go because of its ingenious premise.  A heist movie, where the prize is information, and the high security facility is a mans mind.  The way in: his dreams, the time when his mind wanders, and isn’t on alert.  Throw in a score from Hans Zimmer, Chris Nolan’s cast that he seems to keep on retainder, and some mind-blowing visual effects, and you’ve got a prestige film that’s also a blockbuster.

In a way, Inception is kind of the anti-blockbuster.  The plot is presented to us the same way ridiculous stories about alien invasions and world dominations are, but this time it’s actually an intelligent premise, and a contained one at that since most of the story takes place inside of a man’s subconscious.  The action is there for entertainment’s sake just as much as any tentpole film, but every fight scene is brutally intelligent.  Each facet of the mission affects the next, so as something happens in a car chase in one level, like a character flipping upside down, something crazy happens in the level beneath it, like a hotel hallway rotating accordingly.

Inception only has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes but I think its almost a perfect movie, in that there is no aspect of it that drags.  Every single component of the film, be it the snappy dialogue, the complex characters, or even following along with the logic of the film, this is a piece of art that is designed to engage and stimulate the senses at every turn.  As Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is probably the most exemplary of his propensity for films that are simultaneously marketable, and capable of receiving serious critical consideration, he has been nominated for Best Picture.  Personally, I don’t see it happening, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Nolan finally gets what he deserves.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Well, I know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t this movie come out almost two months ago?

Yeah, it did.  I started out saying I was going to wait until I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to say, then I forgot, then school started again and I didn’t have time, and here we are 40 days later.

One thing I’m sure of after all that contemplation, is that this is a very well made movie.  A big film like this has a lot of moving parts and frequently just one faulty cog can bring the whole thing screeching to a halt.  Not so here.  Rian Johnson and Co. have perfectly crafted every aspect of the film’s production so that most people won’t even notice the excellent CGI and perfectly mixed sound.

I might as well get it out of the way, I loved this movie.  In my opinion its the best Star Wars we’ve gotten since the 80s.  I’m going to try to keep it objective, but objective criticism is kind of an oxymoron anyway so here it goes.

In terms of story structure, this movie is brilliant, and it actually makes up for and justifies the “glib facsimile” of a Star Wars movie we got in 2015.  The safe, gutless Force Awakens serves to re-establish the hero’s journey framework that George Lucas brought us with the original.  By keeping the story structure the same Abrams set us up to have our expectations dashed to bits by the next installment in the series.

In the original trilogy, things were black and white.  Darth Vader and the Emperor were fully evil, and although there were hints of internal struggle within Luke, it was clear where his allegiance was going to end up.  The Last Jedi introduces a new ambiguity to the saga.  On multiple occasions I was actually unsure if Rey was going to turn to the dark side, or if Kylo Ren was going to return to the light.  The lines between the light and dark side are muddied and the divide becomes more complicated than a simple conflict between good and evil.

Another big gut punch is that fact that Snoke, the being that fans have been speculating and theorizing about for two years dies, without any real fanfare, and by an amazing telekinetic lightsaber strike at that.  Lots of people have criticized this move, calling it out as an act of irreverence towards the Star Wars fandom.  In this anger a lot of people are neglecting to think about the fact that Snoke was actually pretty lame.  By what we see of him, with power as strong as his, he’s sort of the Star Wars version of Apocalypse, a being so powerful that any battle he doesn’t win seems phony.

I do have some minor criticisms with the arc revolving around Poe Daemeron and Admiral Holdo.  The basic gist is that Poe, a hotshot pilot known for going off half-cocked and taking big risks is taught a lesson in deference and patience by Holdo.  He angrily insists that the fleet go forward and Laura Dern insists that he wait.  In the end it turns out she  had a plan all along.  This part actually really bothered me.  If she had a plan, she should have told him.  In mutinying, Poe was really doing the sensible thing and stopping the fleet from being run into the ground by what seemed like a complete lack of a plan.  Holdo also could have acted a  little bit less hostile towards Poe when he demanded to know what the plan was.

As for the bit on Canto-Bight, I found that rather interesting as well.  This was the first long look at the elite class in Star Wars and I found the shots of rich, sleazy aliens gambling and living lavishly to be pretty interesting.  The slapstick gags may have been cheap but I definitely heard my nine year-old brother cackling in the seat next to mine.

The Last Jedi isn’t perfect, but it is a very organic film.  Any mistakes are Rian Johnson’s mistakes.  That may sound negative, but its actually positive.  The movie is one man’s singular vision, and the absence of the committee bred clutter that usually plagues blockbusters is evident.  The film is unrelentingly tense, with a chase through space keeping the intensity ramped up any time it seems to lag.  This film might not hold up over time, we’ll be getting Star Wars once a year for years to come now; but for now, this film has me unsure and curious about what’s coming next, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a long time.

 

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Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy

There is something about an influential work that can make it rather boring.  When something has been so groundbreaking that its defining aspects have been shamelessly ripped off over the years, much of the work’s weight is lost, despite the fact that it did indeed break ground first.  “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the original Tron are two such examples.  However, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy remains a work of unparalleled uniqueness.  It is not without its familiar genre stereotypes, but somewhere along the line, it cleverly stepped out of the box that most westerns are trapped in.

The music in the first installment is perfectly minimalistic.  Somber and eerie, with whistles, a tolling bell, and ominous cracking whip, it sets the stage for the movie during its opening credit sequence before any of the plot even begins.  The trilling whistle repeats itself pretty frequently throughout the film, breaking the silence in an even more disconcerting manner.

There is also an innate beauty to the camera work.  A Fistful of Dollars is a perfect example of how undeveloped technique can be charming.  Primitive as the cinematography is, it is surprisingly enjoyable to feel the camera bounce along as it follows a posse riding into action; beautifully capturing their speed and urgency.  This is all the more impressive in a movie from a time where most films were as lethargic as could be. Brilliance shines through when we see things like a close up on a hand cocking a rifle, and then a lightning fast zoom onto the face of the gunman.

By the advent of The Good the Bad and the Ugly Leone clearly had a more tightly defined vision, and film technique of the era had caught up with him.  Less mobile, in this installment the watcher is treated to a variety of close ups, most of the extreme variety.  We see the shifty eyes of desparados, and the twitches of fingers on gun handles.  The second film’s defining sequence is a drawn out scene — in which three men face eachother down in a standoff — with tension that you could cut with a knife, all culminating to an earpiercing gunshot.  In the age we live in, where films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver own the box office, it appears that the concept of a tight marriage of music and image may have begun here.  The scene is extended it seems, to fit the runtime of the mariachi song playing, and truth be told Morricone’s rising score does most of the tension building here.

For A Few Dollars More is the most well made of the series.  It features a few standout scenes, namely one fantastic duel of markmanship and a three man showdown, much like its predecessor, but is not quite as fresh.  Like most fantastic trilogies, it cannot rest on the ripe originality of the first film, or the upending of expectations of the immediate sequel.  It isn’t bad, and it will hold most attention spans for longer than the average contemporary release, but when faced with the raw power of TGTBTU, it pales slightly.

Still, these are fantastic films that are dated enough to be mostly family friendly, unique enough to still feel fresh, sophisticated enough to engross, and bombastic enough to remain classics.