In the spirit of showing that the Talmud is a living part of all Jewish brains everywhere, and by way of reflecting on the events of a hot and unsettling summer leading into what is sure to be an even more tumultuous fall, Tablet invited our staff reporter Armin Rosen and highly valued contributor Jeff Weiss to discuss the summer’s best and most resonant hip-hop. Why? Because Armin’s dispatches from the frontlines of the coronavirus epidemic in Brooklyn and social justice protests in Brooklyn and Minneapolis were some of the realest writing anywhere, and because we are all huge fans of the Passion of the Weiss, in which Jeff plays LA Rashi to the Torah of 03 Greedo and Drakeo.
The discussion, which took all summer to complete, with some occasional prodding from Tablet’s Literary Editor, is presented here in largely unexpurgated form. It also offers rare insight into Tablet’s mysterious editorial process, which consists of people who like each other sitting around and talking, and writing long letters from the weird places they find themselves. Armin eagerly champions Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, while Jeff Weiss unscrolls a masterful history of LA hip-hop against his own shambolic-heroic attempts to break out of the LA bubble.
What emerges from the clash of these contending opinions is a larger truth: Love it or hate it, East Coast or West Coast, hip-hop is the real CNN in an age when traditional news reporting is a mostly defunct art that has been taken over by propagandists and patsies.
I fear I can’t really hang with Reb Weiss on hip-hop-related matters. However, I’ve given this one a bit of thought over the past couple weeks and if you really listen between the lines to the posthumous Pop Smoke album, two things become apparent. One: Either they didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of material or are hoarding material for future releases; in any case the “album” is packed with songs where Pop either gets a very short verse, or, in the case of the one with the DaBaby/Lil Baby features, no real verse at all (the recent Juice Wrld album doesn’t really have this problem—it’s a real album’s worth of stuff).
Two: I suspect 50’s ego or sense of history or whatever got the better of him; the inclusion of multiple Pop quotations of 50’s work (one of which, I admit, is actually heart-stoppingly intense)—are kinda gross. Someone who’s done nothing of note for over a decade, except for buy Vitamin Water, built a temple to himself out of the corpse of his “protege,” although of course Pop wasn’t 50’s protege at all, at least not outside 50’s own imagination.
Then again, Pop Smoke’s talents were so unique, and the details of his life so unfathomable, like something out of folklore, that neither point really seems to matter much out in the real world. Just a remarkable and downright uncanny instance of an artist taking on a life of his own. ...
No matter what lumpen form this cursed valley of ashes summer took, Pop Smoke would inevitably have owned the song of it (East Coast, non-Mark Morrison edition). Even rap capitals only get a generational talent once or twice a decade, and Bashar Jackson clearly was the Henny-lit apostle set to spread Brooklyn’s mutant strain of Chicago drill into the dessicated shell of mainstream culture.
To be fair, I don’t even know what mainstream culture looks like anymore. Pop would’ve lived to see the industry try to convert his bodega valkyrie fury into a Zoom guest spot on “Ellen,” where she would’ve requested to “meet the woo” and asked those watching at home to download a contact tracing app for a chance to win Mike Amiri jeans.
So yes, the Pop Smoke album is good, but it mostly makes me want to listen to the original Meet the Woo tape that came out last summer, a time unremittingly bleak, but not yet apocalyptic. I actually got to catch Pop Smoke then at the MoMa PS1 show and it was clear that he was already an elemental force of nature. Stars come and go, but not many can turn a room into a cyclone. He was 19, but had a voice like a tuba that he could fashion into a bazooka at the first sign of a threat. And as that other eternal Brooklyn hero once shrewdly noted: It’s mostly the voice.
I don’t think anyone realized that Pop Smoke could really sing too, which is why this album feels almost like a taunt. No offense to Curtis Jackson, a legend in his own right, but Pop almost seemed to have a Biggie-like ability to terraform any type of sound—which his A&Rs obviously intended when they put him on a song with Tyga called “West Coast Shit.” And while I am an unreconstructed Tyga apologist, no one needed to hear that shit. Pop sounded like the vengeful hand of God and Tyga sounds like an anthropomorphic umbrella drowning in a carafe of pina colada.
All of 2020 continues to feel haunted and unreal: Kobe, then Pop, then the 170,000 and counting. The only good thing I can say about the modern moment other than the enduring functionality of air conditioning is that regional rap continues to thrive. I was out protesting for the entire first month of summer and while the soundtrack in LA wasn’t exclusively local, I don’t think I heard “Dior” once. This is to our discredit, but still, it can’t make the same amount of sense among palm trees and false promises of paradise.
Whereas, I still heard old YG and Kendrick songs over and over, and what I learned via communications with the best working rap writer, Alphonse Pierre, is that YG does not exist east of the Rockies. But I’ll save that for my next screed.
Not sure if there’s any equivalent in LA but Pop Smoke owns the Brooklyn soundscape in a way that even the sirens and the fireworks never did. Wherever I go, whatever I’m doing, the voice of a dead man is there. I heard it echoing down Empire Avenue when I was interviewing members of the Chabad community in Crown Heights during that terrifying final week of March. I heard it blasting from the handball courts at Maria Hernandez Park, which were heroically liberated by local youths and then reoccupied by law enforcement in an almost daily, quasi-mimetic cycle of subversion and enforcement before the city finally ascended to the bureaucratic abstraction known as “Phase III,” at which point various forms of recreation magically became safe and legal again. Naturally, I heard it at every march in June. (Note from the present day: As of late August I haven’t seen a cop in that park for at least like a month and a half.)
Valiant yet transparently ex post facto attempts have been made to turn Pop Smoke’s wrecker-turned-protest anthem “Dior” into some kind of political statement. I think such efforts misunderstand the psychic and social function of pop music, which is to achieve some sort of mass experience that bridges or even reconciles the distances between journalists, Chabadniks, handball players, cops, bureaucrats, protesters, etc.—especially in the plague times, when the distances between people are fearsomely vaster than usual. That’s “Dior,” the protest song of the curfew and corona-plagued summer of 2020.
In a song about a shopping spree, I now hear pain, anger, and exhilaration, along with sensations far harder to describe. I see police helicopters and truck morgues and 22,000 dead people, yet am pulled out of whatever despair these things all caused. Such a moment-bestriding pop song is about everyone. It becomes a summing up of all things even if it lacks any deeper intended meaning. In the inevitable documentary about New York under the virus, “Welcome to the Party” will play over the opening montage and “Dior” will thunder over the climax.
I wrote a moment ago that Brooklyn echoes with a dead man’s voice, but that’s not quite true. More accurate to say that it echoes with the voice of a dead person who was barely out of childhood. My queasiness about Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon begins here, with the too easily avoided fact that a murdered 20-year-old lies at the heart of all this. What is owed to such a violently abbreviated artistic legacy? More importantly, what is owed to the memory of someone struck down so young—to Pop the human being, robbed of the rest of his life? I don’t know.
A posthumous album always raises the question of exactly what it is we’re hearing, and in this case the answer seems especially urgent because the record represents such a disproportionate chunk of the murdered artist’s total output. Is Stars an archeological dig through scraps of recorded material, or does it track with some larger design that the artist made in life? And if it doesn’t, whose roadmap is being followed here?
In this record’s case, one possible answer is that it’s 50 Cent’s road map. 50 is credited as the “executive producer” and was one of the public faces of the project: His statement to The New York Times that “What you see when you talk to me is what happens when you get rich” whereas “what happened to Pop is what happens when you die trying” was like one of those “don’t say it” memes come to life.
The relationship between Pop and 50 is as intriguingly Freudian as the quote suggests, 50 having transformed sonically and thematically menacing strands of hip-hop into culture-conquering radio fare, and Pop, a fellow street-wise New York kid, having found success through an even uncannier register, a growling and semidemonic delivery that was as unmistakable as 50 had once been. On a more disquieting level, both rappers were phantoms of what the other one might have become, in terms of where they started from and where they ended up.
Having been made caretaker of one of the more challenging legacies in contemporary hip-hop, Curtis Jackson’s game plan seems to have been to turn Stars into as much of a streaming monster as possible. Hence we get “For the Night,” which features Lil Baby and DaBaby (what, no Sada Baby?) and is built around a Pop hook but includes only a fragmentary verse from the title artist himself. The song is currently the third track on Rap Caviar, the curated Spotify playlist that has become one of hip-hop’s great homogeneity machines. Quavo appears on three tracks on Stars, and “West Coast Shit” aside there is no real artistic justification for this.
Eras removed from his most recent music of any real consequence, Curtis Jackson probably wanted to hitch his legacy to that of a departed spiritual protege. Yet while the results can feel kinda gross in places, I think he inserted himself into Stars for reasons that are not entirely mercenary. When Pop quotes the hook of 50 Cent classic “Many Men” on the final track it is one of the few moments on the record where the senselessness of it all actually punches through. Pop’s voice, speaking 50’s words, appealing for heavenly mercy, hits like the dying gusts of a tornado. After that, there’s a portentous silence lasting long enough for you to think: That’s it. That’s really it. This is all we’ll be getting, because that’s all the time he got.
YG absolutely exists east of the Rockies, incidentally—though mostly because of “FDT” and “FTP.” Indeed, even Drakeo exists east of the Rockies now, thanks to his recording a labyrinthine yet banger-filled album from jail. It actually feels like hip-hop is one of the last cultural common spaces the living hell of American life still affords us—you load up Spotify at 12:01 a.m. on a Friday knowing that millions of other people are out there doing the same thing. A few days later, you hear the same songs being blasted from a souped-up Corolla three blocks away, such vehicles being one of the only ways of measuring a song’s real world popularity now that bars and parties no longer exist.
So what are people listening to out there? Is the Pop Smoke album much of an event? Am I being too hard on it? You are correct that Meet the Woo is the more appropriate monument to Pop’s extinguished talent. It’s there that any unacquainted listener should start, and since the world isn’t New York City (weirdly enough) there are probably still plenty of those out there, right?
RE: Seeing Pop live: The best known of Pop’s shows in New York are the ones that didn’t happen, including a scheduled Rolling Loud set that the cultural komissars in the NYPD infamously nixed. You have to see the legends while they’re still here, but some are around longer than others, it turns out.
(Two weeks pass)
Sorry, this took me so long. I may be cursed. Feel like I’m slowly starting to crawl back to normal, but I said that last week too.
“Wherever I go … the voice of a dead man is there.”
You could be describing the sepulchral condition of modern American life, the last few millennia of Semitic anxiety, or the doomed flux of contemporary rap. All three states of being will leave you familiar with heartbreak and messianic delusions.
Eazy-E died at only 30. Tupac was 25. Snoop was cast off into Louisiana exile, later to become the prodigal son redeemed. Dre was as vengeful, insecure, and omnipotent as the Old Testament God. If the 90s G Funk Era swerved across both lanes of LA’s sunshine-noir duality—with just a little bit of silence for a small chronic break—the first decade of this pestilential century found the ’64 Impala mostly idled in neutral. There were a couple of Game classics, Blu, Stones Throw, and DJ Quik’s sleazy yet silken 10,000 thread-count funk. It was a fitful epoch of false saviors, a medieval interregnum where idolatry to the Chronic 2001 and its sinister keyboard vamps, produced increasingly vapid returns. Like New York in the aftermath of 50, LA was searching for its 21st-century identity. After all, the second-hottest new Compton rapper was Guerilla Black, who happened to be world’s second-best Biggie Karaoke performer (#1 remains Moses Michael Levi Barrow).
The jerkin’ movement augured the dawn of an LA rap renaissance. A fluorescent aerial dance-rap phenomenon that swept the city during the school year of 2008-09, its goofy raunchiness offered generational liberation. Size 44 khakis and .44 magnums were swapped out for skinny jeans and green mohawks, stripped down robot dub minimalism and Myspace maximalism. LA rap was explicitly fun for the first time since “Something 2 Dance To.”
Even if the wave quickly collapsed, it made YG and DJ Mustard into all-city phenoms, the Snoop and Dre for kids with sidekicks not pagers. When the Still Brazy star bragged that he was the only one who “made it out West without Dre,” it was only a mild exaggeration. As the decade expired, he was joined by the scowling and braided Nipsey Hussle, who mined the missing link between N.W.A. and Kris Kross, snarling about being “straight out of Slauson, a crazy motherfucker named Nipsey, turnt up cuz I grew up in the ‘60s.” Nip may have resembled Calvin Broadus, but his spiritual mindset and streak of economic independence were inherited from the late great Makaveli.
YG and Nipsey were the first West Coast gangsta rap heroes of the new era, reverent to Death Row but too raw for the radio, waving Tree Top burgundy from the Westside of Compton and Marine Blue from the heart of Crenshaw, but armed with a different slang and digital funk. No in-studio orchestras. These were 808 slaps, get low claps, and ratchet hedonism. Their collaborations, “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and “You Broke,” went triple platinum at house parties south of Pico, but also throughout the South LA freeway diaspora that fanned out to the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley, Victorville to Vegas. As with Quik and Suga Free a generation before, there was an innate strength in their inability to fully translate to regions where palm trees never owned the skyline. If TDE and Odd Future were global brands, YG and Nipsey belonged to the soil and concrete.
Over a decade later, the song of the LA summer still went to LA’s consecrated unity ticket. “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” soundtracked every protest like a snub-nosed national anthem gathering brass knuckle force from its lack of subtlety. When it first dropped in the spring of 2016, it was unclear how terrifyingly prophetic it would become. The specter of a Trump presidency still seemed almost laughable. A brilliant West Coast rapper who shall remain nameless playfully talked shit to me for riding for “FDT.” It was too obvious, too on the nose for him. But actually, it was strictly within the crosshairs, a red laser dot on the forehead. Profane and crude, but that was precisely the point.
“FDT” echoed the nuclear ferocity of the streets. A dizzying rage so intensely felt all summer as America disintegrated in double time. The combination of the president, the nauseous vapors of sickness, George Floyd’s death, real and imagined fear and Facebook conspiracy theories and Gestapo in Portlandia could crack holes in anyone’s skull. For most of the last four months, I’ve felt like my head is being pressure cooked in a vat of battery acid. Of course, the Joker’s origin story would actually make a shred of sense to explain this disorganized fascist, the embalmed testament to a failed American meritocracy. What better revenge than “FDT’ on this Queens trust-fund tyrant, a boneless and soggy Chicken McNugget oozing out of a cretaceous bog of honey mustard sauce.
Our great curse is the 24-7 pressure of the condition. The national news cycle and all avenues of power being weaponized by a senescent and decaying mutant out of a Grimm Brother’s nightmare holding us hostage, punishing us for our soulless excess, worship of ignorance, and willingness to accept any slickly packaged lie. The perfect response track to the Trump era wouldn’t be a ‘60s surrealist tangent in the vein of Bob Dylan braying about how he’d never let Barry Goldwater move in next door and marry his daughter. We needed a song about how if the president came to the ‘60s, he’d probably get smoked.
If the secret service doesn’t pay you a visit, you didn’t make your presidential diss record right.
Nipsey Hussle was murdered last March, right as he seemed to be emerging to a second phase of his prime. It followed Victory Lap, which catapulted him into an internationally recognized, Grammy-nominated artist, one who owned his masters and had recently purchased the lot at the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson. The axis mundi of the section, where Nip’s TMC store stood as ground zero in his attempt to buy back the block, has since become a shrine.
What should’ve been a new golden age became an era of “what if” lamentation. In another dimension, this could’ve been the best summer for LA rap since “Summertime in the LBC.” Yet the two greatest talents to emerge from the last half-decade, South Central’s Drakeo the Ruler and Watts’ 03 Greedo both remained incarcerated. Rather than the brash, ice-blooded, diamond-clustered daggers of Cold Devil, this summer brought Drakeo’s Thank You For Using GTL—a spectacular but comparatively somber dismantling down of the Torquemadas that have kept him behind bars without the chance for bail. As for Greedo, I’ve been steadily bumping an advance of this Friday’s Load It Up Volume 1, the collaboration with Ron Ron that he recorded before he copped a 2018 plea deal to serve up to 20 years in a Texas prison on drug trafficking charges. It’s vintage 03, reminiscent of the Purple Summer trilogy that started his cult, but nonetheless, impossible not to think about a world-class genius baking in an infernal and overcrowded Abilene prison—without central air and on torturous lockdown due to Covid.
Even East Hollywood’s Shoreline Mafia, the crew tasked to sustain the light of the locked up Drakeo and Greedo, were beset by tragedy. In the middle of the first stay-at-home order, the group’s Mac P Dawg was killed in a still-unsolved homicide case. That same week Shoreline announced that they were breaking up after the release of their lone studio album, Mafia Bidness. It’s a valuable addition to the LA kickbacks and blunt cruise canon, but it dropped during the bleakest season in a century. Imagine if Cypress Hill dropped Black Sunday during a complete weed drought. You get the idea.
Shadows similarly loom large in this latest half-generation to burn through the underground. BlueBucksClan are among the hottest in the city, even getting shoutouts from KD, but are rooted within the nervous music lineage that Drakeo established. “Scandalous” from Compton’s Wallie da Sensei has blared from systems all summer, but it’s firmly in the post-Greedo tradition (like 2019 song of summer candidate, Conradfrmdaaves’ “Vintage and Adventurous.”) Then there’s Bino Rideaux, the former Nipsey protégé signed to Def Jam, who recently rocketed to regional stardom. No matter how much you try to escape, there are not only the voices of the dead, but echoes and reverberation in every direction.
Despite its reputation for being agnostic to history, LA has a deceptively long memory when it comes to music. They still pump Bobby Purify, Zapp, and War if you travel to the right blocks or BBQs. Even outside of the West Coast canon, I heard “Fight the Power” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” several times on marches. I assume that had to still be a part of the fabric of the city that brought produced P.E. and Boogie Down?
I’ve heard New York invented hip-hop, but I’ve had trouble getting confirmation. Is that true? What else are you listening to?
Give me a day or two to process, plus maybe a day or two after that ...
Of course. Take your time. Once I get started rambling about LA rap, I become a lunatic.
Less than 24 hours later
Well, here it is. It, uh, takes a detour or two, but the Stove God’s in there!
Ah yes, welcome to the Era of Things That Should Have Happened. Except that’s every era, isn’t it? Transit to the parallel Earth is both irresistible as a mental exercise and impossible in reality—the world where I saw Young Thug and Tyler, the Creator rock a Barcelona beach this past June doesn’t exist and will never exist, at least not outside of a mostly unhealthy fantasy life. Missing out on some unknowably rich variety of foreclosed experience is a pitiful thing to complain about as the death toll climbs so no more complaining from me, folks. But I still find myself dipping into a comparatively even darker well of reflection, the one that acts as a portal into the causal senselessness which primed our current misfortunes.
As you note, the recent annals of hip-hop read like a cosmic dare to believe in anything. The most promising New York rapper in years accidentally revealed the location of his rental house on social media; a few hours later he was dead, the victim of what might have been nothing more than a crime of opportunity. A single traffic stop over some bullshit and 03 Greedo’s gone for 20 years. Juice Wrld panicked during a drug raid and swallowed a lethal dose of downers. The disturbing thing is that it sorta makes perfect sense someone as young as him would have forgotten for a fatal second or two that he’d have had armies of battle-hardened record industry lawyers fighting whatever case resulted from it all. A second or two is all it takes.
What’s happening to Drakeo is many levels of unconstitutional and I’m appalled whenever I read anything about it. There’s Bris, the 24-year-old Sacramento scene-definer murdered a couple weeks back. There’s Kobe Bryant, whose helicopter slammed into a mountain. Helicopter, mountain, simple as that—guess that’s all it takes for a colossus to become air. I know he’s not a rapper, but in my mind Kobe wasn’t a victim of a horrible accident but of everything that’s happened this year, the leading casualty of the ongoing condition that I’ve started mentally referring to as “that Woo weather.”
The music’s tragedies now seem eerily synced with those of the broader society. It was all too fitting, almost at the level of like a cosmic literary device, that George Floyd appeared on a DJ Screw mixtape in the mid-‘90s. One message you could draw from this strange correspondence is that cultural and social tragedy were synced for decades or even centuries before Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department crossed paths, and that the larger edifice of racism and injustice has always been a threat to the things that are most vital and valuable in American creative life.
Something I’ve always admired about your work, Jeff, is that you’ve understood this connection longer and better than most other critics have—for you, championing Drakeo’s work necessarily means trying to get him out of jail.
Now I’m just listing stuff and sucking up to you, but I think my larger point here is that one of the fascinating and sorta depraved and maybe even kinda positive things about 2020 is that it’s taken the question of how we mortals are supposed to cope with the fundamental chaos and unfairness of human existence and forced every single fucking human being on the planet (or at least in like, America) to formulate and then live out their own answer to that question at more or less the exact same moment. We’re in the era of Things That Should Have Happened. Now you have to deal with it, and you have to deal with it, right this second.
For me, the “dealing with it” often happens through artistic consumption, and through clinging to the Proustian idea that the works we really connect with are our “divine captives” in whose company “death ... is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.” The weekly barrage of rap releases has been a particular godsend. My inner rubric for evaluating music is as warped as anything else this year, with notions of quality dissolving into the same pool of pure affect that everything else seems to drain into these days. There is less social and contextual reinforcement than usual for what is and isn’t “good.” Denied much of an outer life, the inner life has subsumed any personal barometer of artistic worth that might have existed beyond my own emotionally addled judgment.
I mentioned last time around that album releases are among our last shared cultural events—but they are also among our last shared solitary events, in the sense that they are some of the final nonproscribed means by which some novel stimulus can enter our minds and souls. Since the virus struck, intense flashes of pure being have been delivered through especially transcendent book pages (page 498 of the Modern Library edition of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust is a good one), and through that otherworldly split-second shot in Kurosawa’s High and Low where four stone-faced, purpose-possessed detectives drive through a tunnel located either in Osaka or somewhere deep in the vacuum of space. One flash arrived via the adrenaline-summoning snare rolls and minor-key moan, almost a sonically inverted angel chorus, that herald the arrival of “Break the Pyrex,” my favorite song from one of my favorite releases of the year.
Reasonable Drought, the Roc Marciano-produced debut album from Syracuse’s Stove God Cooks, dropped on March 27th, the first day in which 100 or more New Yorkers died of the coronavirus. The record is one of the great artistic works to primarily concern itself with cocaine and cocaine’s various derivative products, though there are times when I’m tempted to drop that caveat. The effervescent lunacy of Stove’s rhymes, along with the astounding vocal athleticism of his delivery—Migos-type call-and-response, Mystikal-level aggression, Danny Brown-like mischievousness, a Futurian melodic instinct, and numerous other traits that belong to Stove and Stove alone—seemed like the only positive thing the virus had left us with.
Of course it is insufficient just to mention Reasonable Drought, which is one of the year’s half-dozen worthy new entries in what could be thought of as the Griselda extended universe. This year, Westside Gunn—who, like Roc and Stove, is one of those uncategorizable weirdos who seems all the weirder for giving off vaguely classicist vibes—has already put out two albums stocked with features from other members of the Buffalo-based collective and from artists further afield.
Stove bursts into three tracks on the latter release, last month’s tremendous Flygod Is An Awesome God 2, with precisely as much subtlety and grandeur as the Kool-Aid Man. On “Jose Canseco,” discursis into an imaginary cooking contest with Emeril Lagasse (Stove would work him, he assures us) and the Hank Aaron-like rectitude of a friend who just emerged from 12 years in prison culminates in cries of: “I think UFOs dropped the top blocks on the pyramids—that’s just me!” (Notice that by implication he’s saying Africans built at least 99% of those unreal structures, thus largely rejecting the racist notion that aliens made them). Then things get philosophical: “Everything is math ... everything is stamped, everything is wrapped.”
On verses like this, I sense the boiling frustration of someone who has been cooped up for too long, whether it’s by the smallness of Syracuse, the claustrophobia of socioeconomic path-dependency, or the agitations of being stuck inside such a hyperactive mind for the entirety of one’s time on earth. I have never cooked crack or uh, sold $800 sweaters with Virgil Abloh before, but there is a madcap vitality to Gunn and Stove and Roc and Benny the Butcher’s recent work that the horrors of the age have newly attuned me to. We all feel like bursting, like letting all of our energies free all at once and channeling all this crap into something. Well here’s a group of New Yorkers who actually did it, and they did it during their state’s darkest hour, when their skills were most in need. For this, I consider them heroes. (Second-favorite song of the year: this Twitter user doing a dead-on impression of Westside Gunn ordering at McDonald’s.)
Elsewhere in music made by people are still among the living: “WAP” is gonna be a problem for a long time, man. I will be keeping my grandkids away from this song—hell, the first Martian colonists will be trying to keep their grandkids away from this song, and they will fail as badly as I will. When Moshiach comes, you will be allowed to listen to this song once upon reaching bnei mitzvah age, and then not again till marriage.
I already feel bizarrely protective of WAP—the prudes we can safely ignore; it’s the song’s approbators who are the real danger here. “WAP” is the ultimate example (or at least the ultimate example from like, this particular week) of how thinking too hard about a thing puts you on a path toward denuding it of any real meaning. Is this in fact an empowerment anthem? No, it’s something far greater: an aural evocation of lust, among the most molten ever recorded; an experience of sex at an acuteness that the genuine article sometimes lacks.
I can already hear the Foucaldians countering: Sex is inherently political; owning and proclaiming one’s lust is always an act of empowerment, especially in a society that scorns and fears such displays. OK, sure, but consider that the reduction of lust to a mere sociopolitical statement might suck the zest out of the whole enterprise. There are things so fundamental to human reality that they exist prior to jargon, prior to politics, prior to society, prior to God, prior even to love, and “WAP” is a volcanically evocative song about one of the most important of those.
It’s not my song of the summer, though. That prize goes to a track that I haven’t heard blasting from cars or at protests or even anywhere but my own laptop—I first learned about it on Passion of the Weiss, Jeff. The vocal reverb and backward-playing Technicolor movie overture in “Summer” by BKTHERULA communicates all the pathos and dread and numb acceptance that define my own inner experience.
You wanna hear what it was like? I’ll shout at my grandkids after I catch them listening to “WAP” for the hundredth time. Here: This is what it was like. I really hope young Ms. THERULA, who is a 17-year-old from Atlanta, waits a few more years before she tries any of the substances her woozy masterpiece reminds me of. We need her to survive all this.
LITERARY EDITOR INTERJECTS
Jeff, you have a laid-back one-liner to end this?
I’d like one more swing if possible, just to even out the at-bats.
(A week passes)
(Later that same afternoon)
Greetings once again from sunny California, where 560 simultaneously raging infernos offer a mild corrective to inflated real estate values, where Death Valley heat waves eclipse earthly records, and even the Joshua trees, those prickly mutant survivors of the Mojave, are on the verge of becoming endangered. The mayor of Los Angeles is shutting down the utilities at COVID superspreader parties hosted by TikTok Influencers in the hills, the local unemployment rate is 17.5%, the gang-riven LA Sheriff’s Department continues to incarcerate or liquidate people for being “suspected gang members,” and the pandemic remains a toxic promise. Even Wuhan seems comparatively chill. Cue The O.C. theme song covered by the ghost of Leonard Cohen, the late great bodhisattva of Mt. Baldy.
At the beginning of this cutthroat season, before the uprising, before Bris and my friend Jakeil were murdered and Greedo was denied parole, and before the plague escaped the dreaded sophomore slump, I was asked to participate in one of those pieces where they canvas overly ambitious music writers to determine “the song of the summer.” A week later, George Floyd was murdered, the national tenor corkscrewed, and somehow, things have only gotten darker.
My pick at the time was 1TakeJay’s “Club Rona,” which in hindsight, still might be my choice for the song of this canceled summer. “Club Rona” operates in the same way that “Hotel California” existed as a sleazy metaphorical suite in Don Henley’s imagination. After all, as the Eagle once opined: “the hotel can be taken as a metaphor not only for the myth-making of Southern California, but for … [the] fine line between the American Dream, and the American nightmare.” I’m reasonably sure that this is also the hidden subtext of the Compton rapper’s Zeus-at-the-Zoom strip club banger commemorating this dry season.
The song has it all. You, a mere serf, are stuck at home, shabby and broke. 1TakeJay is with your girl on Instagram Live, and she’s dropping her CashApp and more. LowTheGreat’s beat goes so hard it’s basically an inoperable business. A true fever dream of the medulla, where there is no quarantine, merely Club Rona—a Marriott or a Motel 6 or really wherever the Wi-Fi signal is clear enough to stream. Henny flows like the Styx, the cops never show up, and the club never closes. Such a lovely place.
As much as I respect and admire the greater Roc Marciano Cinematic Universe, try riding around delivering magazines on a subtropical August afternoon where your head feels encased in molten wax (theLAnd, in stores now!). It doesn’t work. We need a reversal of global warming just so it gets regularly cold enough where I can justifiably marinate on whether Gunn’s appropriation of the Hitler motif is offensive or inspired—a proverbial shout out to Pusha T’s boast about “steak dinners at Dan Tana’s” on Benny’s record from last year.
I envy everyone still absorbing new music as a potassium iodine warding off the Three Mile Island of 2020. There is a ton of new music that I like, but very little that I actually love. My four favorite rappers of the last few years are dead or in jail (Pop Smoke, Bris, Drakeo, Greedo). Rapping was supposed to be the escape from such a brutal fate, but now even success feels like an ambush.
I have mostly spent the summer listening to Fela, Greedo’s Purple Summer trilogy, Drakeo, and a YouTube playlist of Bris leaks. I’m glad “Wap” exists because it seems to make people I like happy and Ben Shapiro irate, but I can’t pretend like I care. It’s not a prerequisite, but most of my favorite rap songs have historically had a place within the context of regular life. Memories covalently bonded to nights DJing or at Low End Theory long ago or that first time I hear Nate Dogg on the radio every summer. If Future puts out an album and it’s impossible to make regrettable decisions to it, does it even exist? Without a functioning civilization, music feels largely stripped of personal connection. There is not even a club for me to feel too old to be at.
If my memory somehow manages to retain anything positive about these last few months, it will inevitably be from that first week of protests back in June. There was the overarching hope that this nation wasn’t quite dead yet and a sense of momentary triumph against the metastasizing bigotry and malevolence—the belief that the streets would reclaim their rightful birthright. A reminder of why I have a framed Eazy E autographed picture hanging above my computer.
I will never forget the surreal and destructive beauty of LA feeling like 1992 again, but this time, the rage was more precise, the symbolism unmistakable, the testament of my childhood returning with messianic prophecy. It was the second day of the protests and I found myself cruising west on Santa Monica through the boarded-up boutique wilderness of West LA. The whole boulevard tagged up and defaced, a justified (and minor) carnage wrought upon the looted flagship stores of billion-dollar luxury profiteers. It was not the same, but it was the closest chance I’ll ever have to listen to The Chronic and Sublime’s “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” exactly how they were intended to be heard, in the midst of a complete breakdown in civil society. By the time they were released, the sunset was long over, but now they sounded anew, a rekindling of a timeless municipal ritual.
Those canonical riot testaments from artists of different racial but similar socioeconomic backgrounds … Dr. Dre’s solo debut ingeniously turned gangsta rap into smooth American party music, but stayed radical and reloading. The single was “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” but its soul was “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” which sounds like the city in ashes and features a sampled clip from the documentary, Birth of a Nation 4x29x92. Splicing in dialogue from a seething horde filmed in front of the First AME Church in West Adams, Dre captured the righteous fury exploding off the concrete on the first day of the uprising. Inside LA’s oldest Black church, the city’s elite praised Jesus in search of peace and deliverance. But before a handheld camera outside, an enraged pan-Africanist in locs and an X hat and shirt immortally hollered, “If you ain’t down for the Africans here in the United States … Period, point-blank …Dammit, you need to step your punk ass to the side!”
Sublime were white druggie trash from Long Beach, fluent in Spanish and Eazy E; they covered the Grateful Dead and had Snoop creep on the “Doin’ Time Remix” to prove once again that when Compton and Long Beach were together, you know you’re in trouble. Platonic Southern California fusion music that somehow pulled off a ska influence, and doesn’t translate to anyone who talks earnestly about how much they “miss the seasons.”
As with all of Sublime, “April 29, 1992” is a total fucking mess: Bradley starts the song off by getting the date wrong and his racial politics are well-meaning but reductive. But it’s the same idea: sampled news reports for a verité feel and justice by brick through the window. An anthem about “coming up and staying on top and screaming, ‘187 on a motherfuckin’ cop,” but also about procuring expensive liquor and musical instruments because “everybody in the hood has had it up to here.” It’s been a quarter-century plus, but all you had to do to understand was play those songs while driving past the Ivy—where the brunchers pulled up in Bentley’s like no one had informed them the sans-culottes were out for blood.
It was all I could have ever hoped to witness, Beverly Hills in shambles, blending Dr. Dre with Day of the Locust; the BPMs all the same. The facade of the Beverly Hills Courier emblazoned with “Fuck the 1 Percent,” “Prosecute Killer Cops,” “Fuck Trump,” “ACAB,” and “Not Untouchable.” In 1992, Cher Horowitz’s address was off limits, as the cops formed barriers around Beverly Hills. Now, the old Trader Vic’s was all boarded up (RIP Warren Zevon). The elementary school that Dylan McKay would’ve theoretically attended, El Rodeo, had “pigs” tagged on one of its walls.
For a minute there, LA metamorphosed into the sum of all of its gilded and ruined images and half-true myths—but still felt vibrant and alive, a choppy wave of unpredictable energy, spasming violently without a pattern. The rage was raw and sincere and cynicism was temporarily at bay. For a second there, it felt like the damage could be repaired and the promise renewed.
Obviously, the gains could only last so long, the fanged intermediaries of unrestrained greed and absolute power would press the buttons to ensure order would prevail. There is really no winning in this collapsing condo of cards that we have inherited, so I will take my victories where I can get them.
Armin, get that sweet one-line riposte readied up, quick!
I’m torn between “it turns out a few cubic feet in the earth are all the land a man needs” and “now vee are to begin, yes?” Has anyone used those before?
(An hour later)
OK maybe let’s close with:
The LA Trader Vic’s might be gone, but I read in a certain magazine that there are still two Pioneer Chicken locations in the greater Los Angeles area—a near-extinct fast foodery that I’d only heard of because of a personally beloved Warren Zevon song about heroin. Fun fact, until I read that article I’d always assumed that Pioneer Chicken was fictional, and that Zevon just wanted an anapestic phrase that captured the promise and ruin of the modern American West, a wagon train juxtaposed with a bubbling industrial deep fryer where drugs can be bought. It’s really not the same if he’s going to meet his man down on Alvarado Street by the KFC or by the In-N-Out, is it? The entire song might be ruined, and who knows what else would be ruined along with it.
Imagine my delight at learning that Pioneer Chicken was both a poetic invention and a thing in physical reality. It not only existed but still exists, those stubborn survivors serving as humble monuments to tiny victories, and to the hope that these victories will one day look a whole lot bigger than they do in our own fallen age.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.