Sunday, November 19, 2017

Album Reviews: The Wu-Tang Phoenix Re-Arises Again

The sheen on the iron "W" was scuffed following Wu-Tang Clan's disappointing 2014 album A Better Tomorrow and the whole distasteful debacle of the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin project. Maybe any press is good press, but while Wu-Tang remains generally beloved and un-fucked-with, the PR hit resulting from the one-two punch of teasing fans with a new Wu-Tang Forever-sounding album assembled by one of the team's freshest new beat-makers sold as one single secret copy to one of the most hated men in the world while instead serving to the public a fractured and subpar group project produced by a rusty and out-of-touch RZA, definitively marked a low point in the Wu-Tang legacy. Maybe the lowest point.

Not to be kept down for long, the Wu phoenix has re-arisen again. The whole Wu-Tang conglomerate has regrouped and brought forth a swarm in 2017, releasing a slew of new projects that serve to reassert their present skills and still-fearsome roster depth while burnishing the legacy of the brand. No bullshit, no gimmicks, just dope beats and dope rhymes. (To top it off, the asshole who acquired the single copy album, Martin Shkreli, was sentenced to prison in a case where a prospective juror stated on the record that he held a grudge against Shkreli because "he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.")

Here are some capsule reviews of the new projects brought forth in 2017 thus far.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: How Thomas Pynchon's Novel Bleeding Edge Hit Close to Home

When the miasmic shitstorm of authoritarianism and real-life Idiocracy gained full force earlier this year, I felt compelled to dive into Thomas Pynchon's novel Vineland in search of informed, anti-authoritarian entertainment and guidance. The novel mostly takes place in the year 1984 (a recent edition of Orwell's 1984 has an introduction from Pynchon) depicting Californians fleeing the militarized police state carrying out Reagan's war on drugs, with frequent flashbacks to the impact of COINTELPRO's insidious dismantling of resistance movements in the 60s. It sounds dark and bleak, but Vineland is a hilarious and uplifting adventure.

Nobody does it like Pynchon. His works feel like an essential road map for navigating our contemporary political madness. It seems every damn dumb, absurd or gross thing that unfolds in the Trumpocalyptic age begs the question of whether this is actually Thomas Pynchon's world and we're all just living in it. Even the fucking names! When I saw that the source behind a recent NSA leak was a 20-something blonde girl from Texas named Reality Leigh Winner, I thought: go home Thomas Pynchon, you're drunk!

I've been seeing tweets like this every day:

After zipping through Vineland, I was craving more Pynchon but had my own anti-authoritarian writing to do, an essay on the treatment of warfare and invasion in Finnegans Wake for the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (an experience chronicled here). Once that was completed, I took a much-needed break from Joyce to crack open Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, and holy shit what a treat it turned out to be.

Bleeding Edge completely stunned me. Not only is it a funny and engrossing web of stories carried by characters engaged in sharp, witty dialogue, but also the setting of turn-of-the-millennium New York City spoke directly to me and my background in a way Pynchon's work never has before. More than anything else, the prime display of the master author's precisely researched rendering of setting just blew me away. Pynchon was born in 1937, a year after my dad. He's a pretty old dude. Yet the cultural milieu he recreates out of the minutia of video games, TV shows, internet culture, rap music, pro sports, etc from that 9/11 time period in Bleeding Edge (published in 2013) suggests an old man who's as with-the-times as anybody alive. He references Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon, for instance, and describes nuances of the Metal Gear Solid video games in such shocking detail that one internet reader suggested the only explanation is he must've had input from his then-teenage son. The book is littered with nuggets of culture like a character holding "a mug that reads I BELIEVE YOU HAVE MY STAPLER." (p. 77)

That mug appears in a scene with weed smoke hovering in a hacker's lair, as our protagonist Maxine Tarnow explores the dimensions of her techy friends' creation called DeepArcher, a sort of cross between virtual reality and online multiplayer games. Maxine (who Pynchon helpfully describes as a Rachel Weisz doppelgÀnger early in the novel) is a fraud investigator in Manhattan in the years following the dot-com bubble, hot on the trail of a shady Internet security firm called "hashslingerz," itself a sort of pun encompassing Pynchon's penchant for pot references and the term hash used for computer coding. This is a novel full of tech geeks, subversive bloggers, radical filmmakers, hackers, stoners, Mossad agents, Russian mobsters, shadow government assassins, and every other variety of spooks and weirdos. A typically Pynchonian web of colorful characters expanding so far out that I finally had to jot down a who's-who primer in the back of the book.

A book jacket blurb mentioned that, "We are all characters in Pynchon's mad world" and that starts to feel true. He creates such a broad network of characters, male and female, with all range of backgrounds and quirks, that I begin to see myself and my friends appearing in there. That's part of what is so special about Pynchon---his fiction hems fairly close to realism while always keeping things zany, off-beat, and funky with every person, place, and thing having some deliberately weird or funny name (I burst out laughing on a flight when I read of a strip club called "Joie de Beavre") so that you eventually start to view this world a little differently, noticing its inherent weirdness.

*   *   * 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rest In Peace Prodigy of Mobb Deep

These dark times we've been living in of late, dominated by headlines about Russian mobsters and spies, neo-Nazis and Klan rallies, environmental disaster and predatory power structures, have also been ripe with death with the departure of powerful souls of our culture like Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, et al. The death of the rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep last month at the age of 42 struck me sharply and I've been experiencing its resonance ever since.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Madlib Interview NYC 2016 (Video) & More

Posting this not because it's a fantastic interview or anything, but a new(ish) appearance of an interview with Madlib in that type of setting is worth celebrating and paying attention to. The interview technically isn't even anything special, mainly because Madlib is such a notoriously quiet character. But for me, as a huge Madlib fan, his elusive nature and bizarre personality---buried as it is within a thick turtle shell whose surface is decorated with jewels and whose cavernous depths echo exotic clanky music---is fascinating in and of itself. It's amusing watching Madlib here squirm away from straightforward answers, or use humor and sarcasm as subterfuge.

More importantly, Otis Jackson Jr. aka Madlib is widely considered (by those who know who he is) to be one of the great musical geniuses of our time. When he speaks (whether in a rare interview or through music), you listen. A multi-instrumentalist who transcends mediums and genres, his trippy crate-digging mixes of Brazilian jazz or African rock or other miscellaneous gems are just as interesting as his one-man band jazz releases or his legendary beat tapes. He's always been one of my favorite artists to write about and a constant presence in my daily playlists. I'm thrilled to see the mind of Madlib open up here even just a little bit to share his wisdom. Plus, above all else, the common thread of intrigue about his sound is his style, and the man's unique style certainly comes across in this interview. So do check it out.

After that, you can listen to this Madlib mix of Brazilian records from the crates, entitled Speto Da Rua.

(If you dig that, then also check out his newer mix, Mind Fusion: African Ear Wax.)

Lately, I've been immersed in the instrumentals he produced for Strong Arm Steady's 2010 album In Search of Stoney Jackson. I could listen to this for days:

And, lastly, one can't talk about Madlib without lamenting the absurdly long wait for the new Madvillain album with Doom. Here's Madlib's remix of a track from another long-awaited collabo, Doom and Ghostface:

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