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January 21, 2009

Romilar on my Back

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 3:14 pm

 

It’s not really news, but here’s an entertaining take on Lil Wayne and his dark secret. Here’s another.

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November 26, 2008

Star Time

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , — Alex Rawls @ 9:06 am

 

[Updated December 5, below]

Reading Dave Thompson’s I Hate New Music: the Classic Rock Manifesto, listening to the new Lil Wayne mixtape Dedication 3 and discovering that Ashlee Simpson and Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz named their baby Bronx Mowgli Wentz got me thinking about rock stars. Thompson’s book expresses a confusing preference for days when rock stars were larger than life and almost everything they did was interesting, even when it was retarded.

That book next to the news about the baby Wentz made me realize that naming the kid after a borough and the manchild in The Jungle Book was the first interesting thing a Fall Out Boy has done other than run around with celebutantes, which really doesn’t count. There’s nothing exotic or dramatic about anyone who has starred in a reality TV show or led her life as if it is one. Dating, boinking or marrying one makes you part of the soap operas that they act out for the tabloids, MTV and E!

On the other hand, Lil Wayne is a rock star. He made Dedication 3 with Atlanta’s DJ Drama and it’s not great but it’s fascinating. He has discovered the joys of AutoTune on it – not to the extent of Kanye West, another rock star, on 808 and Heartbreak, but enough – and it gives him yet another voice to employ, even if it’s not clear why he’s using it. The set isn’t as ambitious as Tha Carter III, but it seems like he’s so compulsively creative that he can’t stop recording. Or, he’s in love with himself and can’t stop recording. Both are equally possible, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But that drama is interesting. Praying onstage during his Voodoo set is interesting. Getting enlightened and asking people if they believe in God and if they’re voting, then celebrating pimp life in the next breath by getting the crowd to chant “Fuck bitches, get money” is interesting. Consistent? No. The logical follow-up? Not obviously, but those seeming contradictions and the willingness to play them out in public is interesting.

After only three official releases, he talks about things he hasn’t done yet on Dedication 3’s ”What Else is There to Do” : “Grammys, Emmy, Angelina Jolie, Katie Holmes, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Mama Blanco, [snicker] Sarah Palin. I love a bitch who wears glasses. Bitch, you can keep those glasses straight on.” The casual slide from awards he hasn’t won or shows he hasn’t been on (again, one or the other or both), he slides to a more sexual meaning of “done” and shows pretty wide-ranging tastes, but as he cracks himself up riffing on Sarah Palin and her glasses, it’s not clear if he means anything he said, or if it was all just calculated outrageousness. Only he knows for sure – maybe – but few other artists are sufficiently compelling at their best and intriguing under any circumstances to make paying attention mandatory. And that’s the definition of a rock star for me. 

Update: He can scratch “Grammy” off the list.

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October 26, 2008

Voodoo Notebook dump: Day Two

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , , , — Alex Rawls @ 6:37 am

Next to Nine Inch Nails, Lil Wayne was the biggest draw Saturday and generated the most excitement. That didn’t make him punctual; in fact, his DJ was 10 minutes late for the stage, then he spun a 15-minute set that ranged from “Party Like a Rock Star” to “Wild Thing” to “Free Falling,” leaning heavily on ’90s pop hip-hop. Was this simply crowd-pleasing DJ’ing, or a subtle comment on the audience? I have a hard time imagining him getting a party hype for traditional hip-hop audiences with “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Ice, Ice Baby.” 

When he came out playing “Mr. Carter,” the crowd treated him like the rock star he is. Backed by a live band and a DJ, the songs had the impact hip-hop often lacks live, and a lot of the teens and twentysomethings in attendance rapped along. The cad/lover they wanted or wanted to be is in his rhymes. If anything, he spent a little long indulging his soul man side, and the show slowed to an unmemorable midtempo for 15 or so minutes, when attention flagged after “Lollipop.” He then hustled through shortened versions of songs including “Phone Home,” “Misunderstood” and “Shoot Me Down” – a hip-hop tradition these days, but not a good one. That revved the energy back up and saw the return of rap hands to the audience for the finale, “A Mili.” He, guest Mack Maine and a child I assume is a little Carter took the song as a physical freak-out, dancing and running the width of the stage, Weezy often struggling with his shorts, which were showing off a lot of his blue boxers by the end. When that ended almost 15 minutes past his scheduled stop time, the PA was cut off during what looked like band introductions. Still, we could hear from the stage the DJ spin Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Lil Wayne was cut so Thievery Corporation could start, and he didn’t look to happy when their first notes boomed over whatever he was saying into a dead mic. The issues I have with the band on Radio Retaliation remain – the heart of Thievery Corp were the most minor presences onstage, and the show felt more like a revue than a band. Still, live it was so much more physical – particularly playing dancehall and reggae – that it was a dance party, and name aside, they’d be a hit at Jazz Fest. Unfortunately, they one-upped Lil Wayne by taking the 15 minutes of their set that he cut into and going an extra 10 minutes for good measure.

I was curious about the Mars Volta, and I wanted to like a band with some of the style of a young Wayne Kramer and Rob Tyner at their core, but the lengthy pieces – not jams; this was organized music in its way – resulted in a lot of intensity without movement or significant change. In theory, I approve of their indulgence, stretching ideas beyond the boundaries of conventional sense, droning to let psychedelic moments happen. But for the most part, they didn’t. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala was physically feeling the music and danced with an impressive recklessness onstage, but in the end, it was just a lot jumping around that didn’t create drama or excitement.    

The most interesting thing about the Nine Inch Nails show was a curious sense of – well, “contentment” is probably not the right word, but something like it. Angst is still central to Trent Reznor’s music, and he’s still tightly wound, hunched in a semi-fetal position over the microphone, but he doesn’t perform like this could all go away tomorrow. He rearranged “Closer” to something slinkier, something less bombastic than it once was, and he slowed the set for a suite of instrumental tracks from Ghosts I-IV that sounded gorgeous outdoors. He played for over two hours with a state of the art light system including a grid that dropped behind the band to serve as projection screen and diffuser for light. All very beautiful and dynamic, and moreso than it had to be. 

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June 25, 2008

Space is the Place

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , , , — Alex Rawls @ 6:30 am

Lil Wayne has often referred to himself as an alien (as in Martian), and doing so on Tha Carter III has prompted writers to revisit the theme of the Afronaut, one Kandia Crazy Horse uses as her launching pad for an essay she wrote for us for the upcoming issue. At Slate, Jonah Weiner wrote “Lil Wayne and the Afronaut Invasion,” where he says:

Many white rockers—Pink Floyd and David Bowie, most prominently—have taken to the cosmos for inspiration, but space has played a particularly vital role in the articulation of African-American musical identity. As a worldview, Afronautics began to take form in the late 1930s with a Birmingham-born college student named Herman Poole Blount. While meditating one afternoon, Blount said, he was beamed to Saturn by friendly aliens, who explained that his purpose in life was to speak truths of the universe through music. By the late 1950s—around the same time that Sputnik went into orbit—Blount had renamed himself Sun Ra, claimed Saturn as his true birthplace, and formed an elaborately costumed jazz collective called the Arkestra, specializing in noisy jams full of chants about space ways, satellites, and, in one of Ra’s most-quoted formulations, “other planes of there.” In songs, poems, and interviews, Sun Ra mapped out the fuzzy contours of his philosophy, which combined mystical futurism with an interest in ancient Egyptian civilization, and found sympathetic ears among avant-gardists, psychedelia heads, and hippies.

For a dizzying analysis of Afronautic spirituality, read John Szwed’s Space is the Place, a biography of Sun Ra that reveals the roots of Blount’s philosophy, some of which spilled over into Rastafarianism (Check Culture’s “Black Starliner Must Come”).

At Zoilus, Carl Wilson analyzes Lil Wayne’s use of the device:

This self-exoticization is a sort of reclaiming and reversal of the treatment of talented black people as freaks, and I wish I’d discussed it in my review because my discussion of him as a wildly atypical pop star could be critiqued as falling into the exoticization trap too. But I think that Wayne is very deliberately raising and promoting this image, just as Clinton and Sun Ra did, because it can be a liberating place to operate. By freeing himself of his context he frees himself of rules and expectations. (Unlike Ra or Clinton, though, he does try to have it both ways by keeping up his New Orleans bonafides, especially since the hurricanes, another rich vein of contradiction to explore with Wayne.)

Interestingly, the discussion of Afronauts so far have omitted Labelle – Kandia’s subject – and Hendrix, who weren’t as overt in their lyrical explorations of African American-as-Alien, but who sonically and visually presented themselves as artists from the planet Out There. There are few ideas in the ParliamentFunkadelicThang that you don’t find in Hendrix, and Michael Hampton’s post-Hendrix guitar playing gave Clinton’s music a freaky dimension previously unheard in funk.   

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June 20, 2008

Lil Wayne and the Music Industry

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 7:21 am

Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III is a hit in a hitless industry, prompting some meditation on how that is. Here’s The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones:

I appeared on WNYC’s “Soundcheck Smackdown” yesterday to discuss Lil Wayne’s claims to greatness and his long-delayed, finally available album, “Tha Carter III.” Billboard reports:

Unweighted first-day sales of “Tha Carter III” at nine leading accounts through the close of business yesterday (June 10) stood at 423,000. Sources close to the album project “Carter” could shift between 850,000-950,000 in its first full week. That would easily give Wayne the biggest sales week of the year, and the best since Kanye West’s “Graduation” started with 957,000 last year.

This sales spike suggests that giving away music, far from destroying the music business, could be the gesture that saves it. More than a hundred free Lil Wayne tracks surfaced last year, many with Wayne’s blessing. Anyone at the Recording Industry Association of America who felt somehow safer and righteous when DJ Drama (Wayne’s closest mixtape collaborator) was arrested in Atlanta last year might want to revisit those feelings. Outlawing mixtapes is, in essence, firing people who are already working for free to promote your paid employee. But the music business didn’t understand Napster, either. Perhaps they will understand unemployment. Or maybe they will blame that on hip-hop, too.

At The Los Angeles Times, Todd Martens traces the history of the decline in the record industry in other directions besides Napster as well: 

2000: The effect of Napster and the rise of file-sharing on the music business is probably a bit overblown. If one wants to trace the recent woes of the music business to a starting point, 2000 is arguably as good as place as any. It was in 2000 that the Federal Trade Commission declared that consumers had paid about $480 million more than they should have for CDs over the previous three years.

The cause, according to the FTC, was minimum-advertised-pricing, or MAP, policies, which the major labels had adopted to put an end to heavy discounts at music retailers. With MAP in place, retailers that sold CDs below a certain cost, say $12.99, would not receive cooperative advertising funds from record labels (the practice of reimbursing a retailer for advertising costs, such as featuring an album in a Sunday advertisement distributed in newspapers).

With the FTC breathing down its neck, and consumers rightfully fed up at continually seeing $16.98 CDs, the major record labels acquiesced to the FTC, and abolished MAP. A large retailer could now receive funds for advertising a new Madonna album, and then use said Madonna album as a loss-leader, altering what a new album should cost in the minds of the consumer.

2002: Before iTunes even exists, Best Buy warrants a news mention in Billboard for selling the Dixie Chicks‘ “Home” for $9.99 … for one full week.

I wish I could remember which bad Rolling Stones album was the first to cost $16.99, but I do remember that it was a Rolling Stones album, and the logic was that they were a marquee act so their albums should cost more. What the album did, though, was show that the market would pay $16.99 for an album, at least in the short term.

What the history and the Lil Wayne story tell us is what happens when the audience is treated simply as consumers and given no emotional stake in the artist. In the ’90s business model, the industry had an effectively adversarial relationship with the consumer, trying to extract the most money possible from the buyer. In that relationship, the buyer tries to get the music for the best price possible, and you can’t get better than free.

On the other hand, the free Lil Wayne tracks helped create his market and mystique. Those who found him between Carter II and III also had some emotional investment in his success – underdog identification, the joy of the discovery, the taste confirmation, etc.

Home taping didn’t kill the industry, Napster didn’t kill the industry, and downloads aren’t killing the industry. The industry is killing itself, and artists lived before there was an industry and they’ll find their way in the rubble of it. 

 

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June 19, 2008

Lil Wayne’s a Hit

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 1:41 pm

According to the New York Times, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III’s first week sales are the best this year, selling over 400,000 on the first day and estimated to go over a million in the first week.

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