Thursday, December 25, 2014

Rest in Peace Kevlaar 7

May 27, 1977 - December 23, 2014

Nature destroys us
Time destroys us
We destroy ourselves
Angels wings clap, 
I feel the wind in my cells

- Kevlaar 7

This morning I learned the devastating news that Kevlaar 7, a master lyricist/producer with the Wisemen from Detroit, died this past Tuesday from complications related to a blood disorder. He was 37 years old.

Kevlaar was one of my favorite hip hop artists of all time, a poet with a magnificent gift for stringing together intricate and inspiring bars who was also a highly talented producer. He was also a friend. A lighthearted, down-to-earth, humble and extremely intelligent person, Kevlaar would often reach out directly to his fans (I'd just had a text message convo with him a few weeks ago). A beloved friend to many, he was a proud father of two children who he frequently posted about on Facebook and mentioned in songs. He even included a clip of his young daughter saying "I'm learning, daddy" on a track from his first album, and put an image of his son on the cover.

In this blog's five-year history, I've spilled many words on the work of Kevlaar 7. The first piece I ever officially published was a review of Kevlaar's EP Who Got the Camera? for Slant Magazine. He and his younger brother, the Wu-Tang affiliated emcee/producer extraordinaire Bronze Nazareth, have brought an unparalleled approach to their craft and quickly became my favorite contemporary artists, of any genre. Unfortunately, during his career Kevlaar's work was relatively slept-on and underrated for such a great talent. A poet with a vast perspective, his verses were often inlaid with hints of his words living on and inspiring listeners long after his death, hence the title of his first album Die Ageless.

When I heard the news this morning, I had an immediate physical reaction. My heart sunk into my stomach and my hands were shaking. It was complete shock. Kevlaar had always been an active voice not only through his music but through social media, regularly posting articles and news throughout the day. I learned a great deal from him. He had a passion for science, especially astronomy, and was a strong advocate for healthy eating through a plant-based diet. A friendly and irreverent person, he was loved by many. Despite his talents and reputation, he was an extremely humble and accessible guy. I could always rely on him to respond quickly to any text or e-mail. The thought of him being prematurely silenced by death just didn't seem possible. His energy seemed too powerful, too important, too necessary to possibly be taken away. In this tumultuous moment in history, we need poets of perspective like Kevlaar. I feel deeply saddened, a heavy depressing gravity in my chest when I ponder proceeding into the future without Kevlaar 7 actively supplying us with his inspiring gift.

I've been a passionate fan of hip hop music since I was a young kid and once I learned about him (around 2006) there was hardly anyone whose work I looked forward to hearing as much as Kevlaar's. A new piece of music from Kevlaar 7 would always be devoured; played over and over again to catch the wordplay, double entendres, and mesmerizing flow. I can remember a conversation with him a couple years ago where he declared to me that his confidence in his artform was as strong as ever. He felt he could step on a track with any emcee in the world and shine, commanding respect and admiration. I'm convinced he was as good as anyone out there, an individual embodiment of the cutting edge in lyrical hip hop's evolution. If that sounds like hyperbole, I suggest reading some of the analytical pieces I've written about his verses.

In loving memory and reflection on the life of Kevlaar 7 (real name Kevin Cross), I am including links here to the many in-depth pieces I wrote about his work. Rest In Peace Kevlaar 7!!! You will be sorely missed.

I give you power with my words
It's a gift and a curse
Like nursing a dead flower 
back to life
I watch you grow
Then let you go
until my final hour

- Kevlaar 7

An analysis of a track Kevlaar devoted to his deceased cousin.

A thorough track-by-track review of Kevlaar's debut release. A very timely piece with meditations on the growing epidemic of police brutality.

(alternate version posted at Slant Magazine)
My first official published article, devoted to an important and far-ahead-of-its-time project.

A line-by-line breakdown of one of K7's most impressive tracks, written in a verse which parallels MLK's most famous speech. "I have a dream today that the devil vanished/ re-plant this in our handbooks/ teach our children the answers."

Interview with Kevlaar 7 and Bronze Nazareth 
Discussing their work and their album Children of a Lesser God.

A lengthy track-by-track review of his most important album.

Reviewing his last full-length project.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wu-Tang Clan's Original (and Better) "A Better Tomorrow"

Following my ranking of the Wu-Tang Clan's catalogue of group offerings, this begins a series of posts based around the new Wu-Tang album "A Better Tomorrow" and the factors surrounding its creation and release. Stay tuned for more this week.

For the Wu-Tang Clan's 20th anniversary album, the group's de facto leader Rza intended to craft a record that dealt with the current issues affecting our world today and the dire need for positivity and change for the future. The new album is entitled A Better Tomorrow and features a title track of the same name. That track should have been a "Part 2". Unfortunately, there is no acknowledgment at all made to the group's previous song with the very same title (and similar message), "A Better Tomorrow" off the Wu-Tang Forever album. Maybe it's because the earlier track, from the Clan's peak period, is of far superior quality to anything on the new album. The original "A Better Tomorrow" manages to be sentimental and positive, while keeping it raw.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Scenes from Adventures in the Iberian Peninsula, Part 1

Back in April of this year, I had the privilege of traveling to Lisbon, Portugal and Barcelona, Spain for a two-week vacation with my girlfriend. Documenting that here is long overdue. Here are some pictures from that unforgettable adventure.

Lisbon's reputation for having a rich street art culture was part of what drew us there, so you will notice lots of street art photos here. We even went on a Lisbon Street Art Tour that was excellent.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ranking the Albums of the Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan will form like Voltron once again. The Staten Island supergroup, widely considered to be the greatest rap group of all time, is set to release their 6th studio album, A Better Tomorrow, next week in commemoration of their 20th anniversary. Generating a massive amount of media buzz for a bunch of 40-something rappers (many of whose contemporaries have faded away by now), they are also going to be auctioning off a single-copy "secret" album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which has already garnered multimillion-dollar offers and may never be heard by the general public.

As the 9 lyrical swordsmen are primed to release their first official group album in seven years, here is how I rank the five albums in their catalogue.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Lingerous Longerous Book of the Dark

One of the larger, more challenging pieces I've ever written is finally finished. For almost two years now I've been studying John Bishop's classic work of Finnegans Wake analysis, Joyce's Book of the Dark, and spent the last year writing a walkthrough/summary of its important ideas. The final part of that 4-part review is now posted at my other blog. I encourage you to go give it a read.

This final part is all about the female archetype in the Wake, the river goddess Anna Livia Plurabelle, and what she comes to represent in Bishop's interpretation. His entire book is built around the premise that the Wake is the account of what goes on inside the body of one man as he sleeps. Having constructed a towering argument on the basis of his thesis, Bishop concludes with an in-depth analysis of the 8th chapter of the Wake, the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter. He finds that the sounds of "the hitherandthithering waters of" night (FW p. 216) described throughout the chapter are actually the consistent systole and diastole thumps of the sleeper's pulse. As he falls into deep sleep his vigilant ears focus on the sounds of his heartbeat leading him to reminisce, regress back to the prenatal bliss of "foetal sleep" (FW p. 563) inside the womb.

It's a groundbreaking argument, unlike anything I've read about the Wake, and Bishop presents his ideas so thoroughly and with such scientific rigor that it transforms not only the way one looks at Joyce's book but the phenomenon of sleep in general.

That is why I had to write about it. To be honest, I have wanted to write about Bishop's book since I first discovered it, years before I actually read it. One of the reasons I decided to start writing a blog in the first place was so I could eventually share an in-depth look at Bishop's text. (In fact, the title and subtitle for my other blog come from Bishop's text.) I discovered it back in 2009 or 2010, thumbed through it in amazement and was shocked and disappointed to find that the internet contains virtually zero discussion of this great book.

It's often said that you can find everything on the internet. While there's plenty of great material out there about Finnegans Wake, somehow the finest analysis of the Wake was not discussed anywhere. I wanted to change that. It took me an absurdly long time, but now I've finally finished it and web surfers curious about the Wake will be able to experience a surface-skimming glimpse at what makes Bishop's book so special.

I've also provided links to a video lecture of Bishop discussing the Wake, an audio interview with Bishop, and the iTunes University series of free lectures from Bishop discussing modern English literature.

I hope you'll find the time to go have a look.

Here are the links to the full four-part series.

Discussing the basics of Bishop's theory and the psycho-archeological approach Joyce adapted from Vico.

 On the Wake's science of sight and sound for the sleeping.

How to read Finnegans Wake.

 An examination of Bishop's "Riverbabble Primer".

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The World Series is Here

In a short series between two evenly matched teams, predictions are practically meaningless. Despite that, I love this time of year when we get to break down one final match-up to its most minute elements.

And there's been plenty of good preview material written about this series. Sam Miller dissected the participants at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh and Jonah Keri argued the merits of each team  at Grantland, while Joe Sheehan shares his usual unique insight in his newsletter, suggesting the Giants' many left-handed hitters might tie up Ned Yost's bullpen management, while once the series shifts to San Francisco and Yost is forced to use pinch-hitters (which he did fewer than any manager in his league) his poor tactical skills could cost the Royals.

Making the Fall Classic 29 years after their last postseason appearance has brought an abundance of good vibes around this Kansas City Royals team and they're actually considered the favorites in this series.

Consider this more of a statement of my rooting interests than a prediction: I really like the Giants here. They've won 8 straight postseason series and have been an extremely entertaining group to watch during this dynastic run. Their cast of characters is as colorful as a comic book cover. Pablo the plump Panda, Brandon Belt the Baby Giraffe, Hunter Pence the Alien/Praying Mantis, and even Buster Posey who's so strikingly normal despite his fictional-sounding name.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, this Giants team has displayed an unshakeable resilience, especially in their last run in 2012 when they won both the Division Series and League Championship after falling behind. Of course, they also snuck up on the favored Tigers in the subsequent World Series, with Pablo Sandoval joining elite company (Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols) by smashing three homers in one World Series game.

We've seen enough from the Royals in the last couple weeks to expect plenty of fight from them so I think this could end up being an epic series between two teams who put the ball in play, thrive on sharp fielding, and clamp games tightly in the later innings with strong bullpens.

Happy Baseball!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Your Mind-Boggling Artworks of the Day

It truly boggles the mind how gifted some of our fellow humans are. It's hard for me to even fathom how these magnificent works of art were created.

Adonna Khare won a $200K Art Prize back in 2012 for her otherworldly triptych entitled "Elephants"---drawn entirely, all 13-by-40 feet of it, with a pencil.

I'm blown away by this piece and how she did it. Apparently the arrangement wasn't even pre-planned, just flowed out this way. If you'd like to take a closer look there are videos on YouTube and plenty of pictures.

And one more:

Phil Hansen created a perfect rendering of Nikola Tesla's portrait, using electric sparks. Take a look:

(Found both of these via

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on Moby-Dick

I spent the last couple months reading Moby-Dick, finishing it last week. A massive and often tedious epic, it's not a very easy read but the short chapters make it manageable and the language is deliciously rich and grandiose. The meditations of Melville (through the book's narrator Ishmael) often reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson; so immensely poetic and majestic, and yet the prose is also extremely precise in its realism.

With plenty of other writings on my plate at the moment, I'm hesitant to really dig into an in-depth analysis or reflection of this undisputed champion of the American literary canon so I'll instead just share a few thoughts and favorite passages from it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

On Reluctantly Returning to NFL Fanhood

The NFL season officially began yesterday and I didn't watch a minute of it.

I've had a love/hate relationship with football for a while now. This year my interest has been rekindled to such an extreme that I've been devouring all the season preview material I can find---especially the fantastic Football Outsiders Almanac 2014---and yet I still don't have any desire to watch games yet.

If I had to rank the available methods for consuming NFL football from most to least favorite, it'd probably look something like this:

1. NFL highlight shows
2. Madden videogames
3. Fantasy football
4. Reading football articles
5. Watching football games

The Madden franchise helped lead me to become an NFL fanatic for a good decade or so. I didn't care about football growing up until I was in junior high, then it was football videogames and an exciting New York Jets team (in 1998) that combined to reel me in. Not long afterwards I was ritually recording the Jets game on VCR each Sunday so I could spend the rest of the week watching it closely, then trying to reenact their gameplan in Madden using the same players. I lived and died with Curtis Martin, Vinny Testaverde, and Wayne Chrebet. I was furious when Laveranues Coles departed to the Redskins in 2002 (the Jets would eventually trade to get him back a few years later).

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rooting for the Cleveland Indians and Team Entropy

Here's hoping Carlos Santana and the Tribe can make things interesting.

It's been a rather weird baseball season thus far. The game's twin giants, the Red Sox and Yankees, are among the lowest scoring teams in the league. The Texas Rangers, a popular pick to win the American League pennant, have the worst record in all of baseball.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Baltimore Orioles have surprised everyone all year, building a commanding 7-game lead in the AL East with nobody mounting much of a threat to knock them off their perch. They've bewildered analysts by succeeding despite a subpar pitching rotation and limited contributions from key players like Matt Wieters (elbow injury, out for the year), Manny Machado (knee injury, done for the year), and Chris Davis (healthy but batting .194 following his breakout year in 2013). Their formula has been defense, homeruns, and a strong bullpen. With all the other AL East contenders faltering, that's been enough for them build up a big lead.

The Oakland A's were the most dominant team in the game for much of the year but they've experienced a sudden rapid descent in the past month after executing a daring trade that sent one of their most imposing hitters, Yoenis Cespedes, to the Red Sox for pitching ace Jon Lester. The A's were leading the AL West division for most of the season, but they're now looking up at the Angels and a possibly insurmountable 4.5-game deficit. Alas, the Wild Card safety net virtually assures they'll be playing October.

In the Midwest, Detroit and Milwaukee have also both relinquished division leads they'd been holding onto for much of the year. The Tigers have played below expectations as they often tend to. A blockbuster trade for David Price merely patched some holes in their rotation where Anibal Sanchez is hurt and Justin Verlander ineffective. Detroit hasn't fallen into any prolonged funk though, they were simply overtaken by a surging Royals team who are, like the Orioles, succeeding despite major flaws. Kansas City's offense is among the worst in the American League. Their success has been predicated on the league's best defense and a shutdown bullpen.

The Brew Crew got off to a great start, hung around atop the NL Central while their rivals struggled to figure things out, and now have gone 22-30 since the beginning of July. The wheels appear to be falling off for them as they've now lost 8 games in a row and their best player Carlos Gomez is out with a wrist injury.

Neither league looks to have much of a thrilling playoff chase in the works as the contenders are pretty clear. In the NL, the Nats, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants are virtual locks for the postseason with the Braves, Brewers, and Pirates fighting for the final wild card spot. In the AL it's the Orioles, Angels, and A's with the Royals, Tigers, and Mariners fighting for the other 2 spots. The Yankees are also technically in the mix but I have zero faith in them to stay there.

There's one other AL team on the outside looking in that I find highly intriguing though, and that's the Cleveland Indians.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Now Appearing at Amazin' Avenue

Last week I wrote my first piece for the popular Mets blog Amazin' Avenue, covering the team's success with forming a bullpen after years of frustration in that department. It's the first of what I hope will be many articles for me at Amazin' Avenue and I'm honored to be given the opportunity to contribute there as I've been a regular reader of theirs for years.

As fun and exciting as it is to write about baseball, the material tends to be transient as teams are playing every day with new and unforeseen events constantly occurring and changing the outlook on things, and relief pitching especially is notoriously volatile. Since I wrote that piece, Mets closer Jenrry Mejia (who I praised quite highly) has been completely bombed and revealed that he's been playing through multiple injuries, among them sports hernia. The team is letting him pitch through it but he's getting smacked around. So far this month batters have crushed him to the tune of a .981 OPS. It's already been a very frustrating season for Mets fans thus far, there's no use keeping an injured and ineffective pitcher in the closer role. Watching potential wins slip away in the 9th throughout the final two months would be a terribly demoralizing end to the season.

With that said, I still stand by the main point of the piece. The Mets bullpen outlook as a whole looks better than it has in many years.

On another Mets-related note, Jerry Seinfeld did an interview with talking all about baseball and his favorite team, it's a great read. An intensely devoted and passionate fan who says he spends all day thinking about the game, Seinfeld relates:
When I think of retirement, all I would think of is going to a baseball game every day.
I kind of got into the World Cup a little bit and watched some Stanley Cup this year. They're both great, but it's not as good as baseball. Even in replay, the sequence of how the events took place is not as clear to understand. In baseball, you understand as it's happening, you see something that's transpiring in the moment because of the geometry of the game. These other sports don't have that clean geometry. Even in replay, you can't fully diagram in your mind, how did that even transpire?
In baseball, when someone tags up, knowing the excitement of what each guy has to do, and then you watch it. It's unbeatable.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Internet Abuzz over New Book on Tumultous Birth of Joyce's Ulysses

A new book detailing the creation and tumultuous publishing history of Ulysses has James Joyce in the media spotlight moreso than I can ever remember. Harvard professor Kevin Birmingham has been earning heaps of positive praise for his new work The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses published by Penguin Press. I received my copy yesterday and find myself zooming through it already. It's very smoothly written and presents an engrossing narrative.

Despite eventually being considered the greatest novel of the 20th Century and one of the most important books in the English language, Ulysses had a hell of a time being born. Before Joyce had even completed it, literary magazines which had been publishing excerpts were burned by post offices and their editors prosecuted on obscenity charges. Publishing houses wouldn't come near it, so the first edition of Ulysses was actually published by a small bookstore in Paris. It was a crime to own Ulysses in the English-speaking world for over a decade, leading some fervent devotees to chop the book into pieces and tape it to their bodies to be smuggled across borders. And the book only became legal after lengthy courtroom battles.

Adding to all that drama, Joyce suffered terribly from eye diseases during the book's seven-year creation, underwent many eye surgeries without anesthetics, and bounced around multiple cities with his family as World War I began. 

It certainly makes a fascinating story and, from what the reviews are saying, Kevin Birmingham has nailed it in his new book.

I'll have more to say about it once I've completed The Most Dangerous Book but for now you may want to check out some of the attention it's been receiving.

Publishers Weekly writes:
"Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece."
The Washington Post actually calls it "a page-turner"! (Same with the Telegraph: "Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner.)

Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, CounterPunch, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education praise the new book's fluid writing, thoroughly researched details, riveting courtroom drama, engaging narrative and enlightening perspective on the intensity of the era (first decades of the 20th century) in which suffragettes were blowing up buildings in London as they fought for voting rights and people were being put in prison for reading books that talked about sex.

Slate has a large feature on it, referring to Ulysses as "literary anarchy," as does The Economist which describes Birmingham's new book as "thrilling."

Library Journal has an interview with the author, here's his excellent summation of the book:

"I’d like to remind people that books are dangerous and powerful, and Ulysses is the perfect example of that. Female sexuality simply wasn’t something an author could write about—it seemed to be a force that could break marriages and families apart. Joyce confronted those fears directly. Beyond that, Ulysses seemed to overturn all traditions, standards, and codes—it violated all of the rules of literature. In a world that was already skittish about falling empires, the lionization of Ulysses among certain men and women of letters seemed to confirm that something was seriously wrong with Western civilization, that we had reached the end of something. And they were right.

This story revisits a time of upheaval and war as well as an explosion of popular culture, literacy rates, urbanization, and immigration—and these factors made books that could “deprave and corrupt” the public even more frightening. We forget about the power of books because we have newer technologies to worry about (the Internet and video games), but the written word is still the primary vehicle for unsettling ideas."

Some more info about the author:
Kevin Birmingham received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is a lecturer in History & Literature and an instructor in the university’s writing program. His research focuses on twentieth-century fiction and culture, literary obscenity and the avant-garde. He was a bartender in a Dublin pub featured in Ulysses for one day before he was unceremoniously fired. This is his first book.
Part of the attention Birmingham's book has received concerns his assertions that Joyce had syphilis, leading to his blindness and other persistent illnesses. This had been speculated over the years (specifically in Kathleen Ferris' James Joyce and the Burden of Disease) but Birmingham's research has ostensibly proved this rumor to be true.

The Guardian published the piece on Joyce and syphilis followed shortly thereafter by another piece on Joyce in which award-winning Irish author Eimear McBride declares him "My hero" and argues:
Difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment, and Joyce certainly compliments his readers in what he asks of them.

Another recent piece on Joyce written by an Irishman is entitled "James Joyce: You Can't Ignore the Bastard" and is worth a read.

And, lastly, the archives of Vanity Fair have seen some of their old articles on Joyce resurface of late. Here is Djuna Barnes interviewing the author in Paris in 1922, the year Ulysses was published.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Album Reviews: Life Outside the Frame & The Living Daylights

When it comes to art, no matter the medium, what I tend to find most intriguing is the artist's style, their unique fingerprint. Creativity consists of focusing the luminescent energies of imagination through one's personal prism, bending that light into original forms and angles according to the curves of one's distinctive artistic style. In this way, the best artists tend to strike us with a distinguishable spectral pattern, within the defined framework of their medium of course.

Two recent hip hop albums have been in heavy rotation for me during the first half of the year, both featuring lyricists with strikingly unique styles. Ironically, the two artists are also nearly opposite from each other in their approaches. While the albums share some basic similarities---both being of the underground hardcore rap variety and both collaborative works between one emcee and one producer---one lyricist twirls out heavily-worded abstract bars with rapidity while the other utilizes conciseness, internal rhymes, pauses, and other crafty techniques. One album is loaded with no fewer than 17 multiple-verse tracks; the other is practically EP-length, a quick 35 minutes. Both are compelling in their own way.

Paranom & Purpose - Life Outside the Frame
On his debut album, Paranom shines with a sharp voice and mesmerizing flow. His verses are constant streams of elaborate wordplay and surrealist imagery strung together over the polished, crisp yet somehow rugged production of Purpose. This collaborative project is the latest release from the Massachusetts-based Tragic Allies crew (who I've written about before). These guys are purists, dedicated to the golden era format of hip hop as artwork and they've mastered the craft.

The fluid, precise delivery of dexterous rhymes is a noted specialty of the Tragic Allies contingent (such skills are all over last year's Golden Era Musical Sciences album) and newest member Paranom certainly excels at this, but what's most impressive is the vocabulary and surreal imagery in his unique lyrical arsenal. His raps reward repeated listens; honing in on the swiftly delivered lyrics reveals a rich array of obscure terms like "tetramorph" and "vesica piscis" weaved effortlessly in his writing. The verbal imagery is taken to truly hallucinatory heights in the somnolent track-length trips of "Bee Stings (Seraphémme)" which opens with envisioning "Rose petals pouring liquid steel" and my favorite track "Dreamz" where the second verse begins:

"Gettin' faded to explore the universe inside me
dreams confronted with the world crumblin' behind me
underwater with the sharks gnawin' on them bodies
with they teeth fall in speech codes and Hammurabi"

The lyricism alone stands out on Life Outside the Frame but what makes this album so replayable is the full-length production from Purpose. His moody tones and heavy bassliness, occasionally enhanced with DJ scratches, create a cohesive sonic experience. The ostensible leader of the Tragic Allies crew, Purpose is proficient at making others sound good with his lively boom-bap loops. The poet Paranom's endless repertoire of original linguistics thus finds a perfect instrumental canvas to stretch out on and the combo yields potential classics like the mellifluous "Microphone Phenomenal" and the genuinely reflective "Dayz Go By".

Paranom stands out as an artist of limitless potential and talent, if perhaps only underground appeal because of the abstract language of his lyrics. Even if you didn't understand a single word of his verses though, his voice, flow and delivery simply sounds good over beats. Comprehending his words reveals an introspective, poetic intellectual artist who has created an album full of tough, rugged, raw hip hop while hardly uttering a curseword in his verses.

This is the best drop from the Tragic Allies camp thus far, already a personal classic, and Paranom already has a lot to live up to after such an impressive introduction.

Willie the Kid & Bronze Nazareth - The Living Daylights

While I had been aware of Willie the Kid for many years based on his name often popping up alongside his Wu-Tang-affiliated brother La the Darkman, I honestly was never compelled to seek out his work simply because of his generic name. Rappers with the appellation "The Kid" or "Young" or "Lil" are a dime a dozen and often the same can be said about their lyrics. A full collaboration with his fellow Grand Rapids, MI native and certified human factory of dope music, Bronze Nazareth, finally brought his work to my full attention. It became immediately apparent that Willie the Kid is a refreshingly unique and highly entertaining artist.  There's a brief line on "The Blitz" that sums up this effect perfectly:

"My abnormal rapportmy normal nomenclature
rare form for the art form"

A noted minimalist with a catalog full of acclaimed EPs and yet no full albums to date, Willie keeps his portions short, rich, and elegant much like an expensive meal. Appearing on 11 of the 13 tracks on The Living Daylights, he is often limited to one verse and his rhymes even feature lots of short bars.

Conciseness is part of the grand design though, as Willie's writing craft is a sophisticated and intricate one. His clearly enunciated verses are full of finesse and flourish. A true connoisseur of words, he calls himself "a thinking man's rapper" and indeed the thinking man will be satiated not only by Willie's wordsmithery but also by the various subtle techniques he frequently employs in his rhyme structures like internal rhymes, pauses, and enjambments. The last part of his verse on "Avalon" is a good example of some of these tactics:

"I'm brave enough to be creative
but I acclimate like a native
trying to blend in with the cadence,
abide by the rules, fuck the latest
trend, I just came for the accolades
more time on important shit
it's money, assorted shit"

With his "normal nomenclature" comes the expectation that, like most generically-named rappers, he mostly raps (or brags) about wealth and material things. Indeed, Willie obviously has a taste for the finer things but with his respectable artistic pedigree he's kind of a paradox. He raps plenty about opulence, but he tends to keep it creative and original. An amusing example of this: his verses are littered with food. The listener mentally savors all kinds of exquisite cuisines, not to mention there are tracks called "Bless My Food" and "Breakfast in France". Reeling off the names of exotic locales is another favorite device: "The fly, I'm in Dubai hittin' sand dunes/ or in Japan on the bullet train, Cancun."

So impressed by Willie's output, I've yet to touch on Bronze's production (or the album's many guest appearances). Having now produced over a half-dozen front-to-back albums, the beat maestro Bronze Nazareth has gotten to be an expert at making a fully cohesive record and The Living Daylights is just the latest example. A true collaboration which bears the mark of Bronze all over it, there's a nice subtle Wu-Tang feel to the project. It even has a few well-placed kung-fu clips. The tracklist is punctuated by two earth-rattling bangers in "Fucking Blades" and the album's standout "Delirium" which, along with La the Darkman's vicious solo track "Ice Cold Guinness", will make any Wu head nod ecstatically. Beyond those formidable barrages, I've been enamored with the twisted up soul loops on "Coming From" and "Bless My Food".

For such a brief album it has plenty of guest appearances. These range from superb (Roc Marciano on "Avalon"; Sha Stimuli on "Delirium") to forgettable (Sun God on "Wu Babies"; Tekh Togo on "Bless My Food") and the latter is really the only unappealing factor about this project. Listening to the album over and over again, you're left with a hunger for more from Willie the Kid. And the sole rhyming appearance from Bronze on "Coming From" highlights a notably effective and potent contrast between the two lyricists that was evident on past Bronze/Willie collabs "Malcolm X Manuscripts" and "Farewell". Would've been nice to hear Bronze on the mic a little more in lieu of the uninitiated features. As it is though, the burgeoning star Willie the Kid can claim yet another entertaining and rich-in-replay-value record to his name.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Astonishing Art from Grains of Sand

Cleveland-based artist Carl Jara creates these monumental, purely original, and jaw-dropping sculptures out of sand.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Wu-Tang Clan Will Rise Again

The 20th anniversary of their debut came and went last fall. The alleged final album from the crew, A Better Tomorrow, appeared less and less likely to become a reality as internecine discord and disharmony dominated any headlines Wu-Tang was getting.

An excellent in-depth feature at Grantland tracked down each living member of the Clan portraying a disappointing image of the Wu collective---fractured, scattered around the country, unable to connect all the necessary pieces to form Voltron, unable to finish their final album because of financial and creative disagreements.

Then, out of nowhere, the newswires blew up with word that the Wu-Tang Clan had actually recorded a secret album (a double-album) produced by talented Moroccan Wu affiliate Cilvaringz and were planning to release just one copy of it. The plan is to tour the album around museums and music festivals before auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Suddenly Wu-Tang, the gritty rap dynasty and beloved cultural phenomenon of the 90s, became one of the most talked about things on the internet.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Smart Infographic Displays Rappers' Vocabularies and Compares to Shakespeare, Melville

While I haven't yet read it, I've heard plenty of lofty, lavish praise for the style and poetic prose of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick before.

"This is the greatest work of prose ever written by an American without contest, I think. I mean I like to think that when human history is written, Americans will be remembered for two things: they went to the moon and they're the people who produced Moby-Dick. This is our Odyssey. This is our Odyssey and our Iliad."
- Terence McKenna

A very telling and well-conceived new infographic by Matthew Daniels ranks hip hop artists according to the number of unique words in their first 35,000 lyrics. Aesop Rock places #1. The Gza/Genius of the Wu-Tang Clan came in at #2 and the top 10 is dominated by the Wu family. Rza, Ghostface, and Killah Priest are all up there as well as the Clan's output as a group on their albums.

The unique word-count for Shakespeare and Melville (specifically Moby-Dick) are included in the chart for reference and you may be surprised at the results. Aesop Rock, Gza, and Kool Keith are beyond Melville. Shakespeare's around the top 10. I'm surprised MF Doom wasn't higher (he's around 11th or 12th). The study probably has its share of imperfections but the results are very fascinating nonetheless.

I can't say I'm familiar with Aesop Rock's work though I've always heard good things about him.

The Gza/Genius is one of my all-time favorites, though. It should come as no surprise to see him up here---the man recently did a TED talk about science, schooled Neil deGrasse Tyson, went on a lecture tour to places like Harvard and MIT discussing hip hop physics, and is helping to promote science education for inner city students through hip hop. Wu-Tang is for the children and Gza has been a shining example of this.

In light of the Genius' ranking on this chart, I pondered some of my favorite verses. So here's one of his best: "Amplified Sample" the first track from his second album Beneath the Surface (one verse repeated twice in the song).

The amplified sample, will trample, delete and cancel 
So vacate your vessel 
Guide this, strenuous as an arm wrestle 
Move swift as light, a thousand years in one night 
In flight with insight
Everything I thought of, I saw it happen 
Then I rose from the soil, the sun blackened 
Then came rap czars, left tracks in scars 
Apparent brightness of exploding stars 
Gave you goods to taste 
No ingredients to trace 
You remain stuck, trying to figure the shape of space 
No edge or boundary, release 2 rounds or 3 
Intimidate, my razor scrape, phony clown MC 
The physical shatter from the blast 
Pyroclastic flow, sets forth a tower of ash 
Through ignorance and misplaced trust your world's crushed 
Too late to activate hyperspace of thrust 
Even wearing camouflage, you're analog 
At war, the scene is high beams and fog 
I came in, accompanied by deadly rain and wind 
Mentally endowed with lightning, hit the crowd 
The warm side, edge across the barrier 
But the storm tide, destroyed your area

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Upon Return from Adventure in Lisbon and Barcelona

Ceramic tile art or azulejo in Lisbon.
An eventful and stressful, exciting and hectic period has come to an end. My move into a new apartment with my girlfriend was completed not very long before we had to prepare to head off on a two-week journey to Lisbon and Barcelona.

The European trip was magnificent in every way. Lisbon is one of the coolest cities I've ever been to and Barcelona is a lively metropolis punctuated by exquisite architectural masterpieces from Antoni Gaudi.

We walked over 110 miles during our two-week adventure, wandering and exploring both cities each day from sunrise to sundown and collapsing from exhaustion at the end of each day. We saw everything, though. Or at least as much as one can see in one city in one week. Every night I went to bed with images of colorful art or vast cathedrals or panoramic city perspectives in my mind's eye. Still soaking in all the things we saw. Getting back into the daily routine so quickly, the whole thing feels like it was just a dream.

I'm planning on writing up a lengthy post (or probably series of posts) about the trip featuring some of the many hundreds of pictures I took, but for now I just need to say: I'm back. And despite the new challenge of working the full-time 9-to-5 grind like a regular boring old adult, I plan on putting my nose to the grind to churn out as much writing as I can in my free moments. Too many ideas growing in my mind that need to breathe fully.

If you haven't already, please go check out my other blog where I've got a new post about the 75th anniversary of Finnegans Wake as well as an ongoing in-depth review of John Bishop's stupendously deep and fascinating Wake study Joyce's Book of the Dark.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions, Part 2: National League

Carlos Gomez and the Brewers are everyone's favorite sleeper pick. Consider me a believer.
Most predictions for the National League have been a little bit bland as there is virtually zero deviation from the expectation that the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals will win their divisions. As much I'll be rooting for some unpredictable chaos to throw those sure-thing predictions into disarray, I can't help but pick those three to be atop their divisions myself.

I do think the NL East will shape up differently than most are expecting, though.

(Win projections via Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system.)

NL West
1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 98 wins
My take: Under

The PECOTA system is known for being ultra-conservative, I don't remember ever seeing it pop out a win estimate this sky high. Taking the under here only means I don't think the Dodgers will be a 98-win juggernaut and the best team in baseball. They'll still be pretty damn good, though. You can try to nitpick their weaknesses (second base is nebulous, there's no real center fielder, the bottom of the rotation is troublesome, the manager is clueless strategy-wise), but the fact is: this team is going to be very good. Not 100-wins good, but certainly in the mix with the Nationals and Cardinals for top team in the NL.

2. Giants
PECOTA: 87 wins
My take: Over (Wild Card pick)

The Giants have transformed over the years from a team reliant on pitching & defense into an offense-oriented squad while its pitching lags behind. The run prevention is still bolstered by a strong defense and lefty Madison Bumgarner has established himself as an ace, but their once-dominant bullpen has a new tendency for hemorrhaging baserunners, Ryan Vogelsong's magic pixie dust has completely worn off (5.73 ERA last year, currently getting crushed in Spring Training) and, much to fans' dismay, Tim Lincecum just isn't the same Freak anymore. A full season from nifty pickup Tim Hudson and expected bounceback from Matt Cain will help on the mound and the offense is certainly deep enough to carry this team, leading me to believe this new version of the Giants is still plenty good enough to contend and possibly knock off the favored Dodgers.

Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions, Part 1: American League

Tampa Bay's ace David Price will lead my World Series pick.

The new baseball season is suddenly upon us. Things are slated to begin a bit earlier than usual this year as the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play the opening games of the regular season this weekend on the other side of the planet in Australia. Following that, Spring Training will awkwardly continue for another week before the rest of the teams kick off their season.

Here in Austin, I'll spend the next week or so hastily packing up to move into a new apartment with my girlfriend. Should be an exciting, hectic, and memorable time which will be almost immediately followed by a two-week trip to the Iberian Peninsula.

All of which is to say: I don't quite have the time to write as thorough an MLB preview as I had been doing for the previous 4 years. So I'll keep things as brief as I can this time around.

As always, I will use the season projections provided by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system as a baseline and determine whether I think each team will finish above or below that baseline. These predictions are not all that serious, I wouldn't bet on most of them (the last four years my success rate is below 40% with plenty of embarrassing misses) since the 162-game season provides immense opportunity for variance, injuries, sudden breakouts or collapses, and every other kind of unforeseen event. But I'm a certified baseball addict with opinions about everything and what better place to share them than here?

Without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2014 baseball season.

Starting with the American League...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Brain Pickings spotlights an Alan Watts classic

I could probably piggyback a Brain Pickings post at least once a week or so. It's surely one of the finest blogs on the internet and a must-read if you aren't already into it.

Today there is a nice lengthy post on one of my favorite books, Alan Watts' classic The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. There haven't been many books in my life that I've found to be so consistently rich and rewarding that I've been compelled to actually carry them around on my person for weeks at a time. I can think of just two: Watts' The Book and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature and Selected Essays. (Any reader of this blog knows how much I love Ulysses and Finnegans Wake but both are weighty, encyclopedic tomes dense with obscurity. Not ideal for carrying around in your pocket.)

Watts is undoubtedly one of the all-time great Western scholars on Eastern philosophy and this brilliant little book is essentially a philosophical lecture on the Hindu Vedanta perspective of the universe and man's place in it, explained in the most basic terms that a child could understand. It also serves as a nice summation of Watts' work as whole. There is a great collection of over thirty Alan Watts audio lectures on iTunes that I purchased a while back and I find myself coming back to these lectures over and over again for their soothing eloquence, humor, and Watts' unique combination of scholarship and wisdom. It's safe to say The Book is a distillation of his philosophy into a very compact, accessible format.

Definitely go check out the Brain Pickings breakdown and here's a snippet from Watts:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Falling Down the Kubrick Rabbit Hole

Since first hearing about the documentary Room 237 about a year and a half ago, I've become increasingly interested in the artform of Stanley Kubrick and the internet's rich array of exploration into his work. At this point, it's become a minor obsession of mine.

Much like James Joyce, Kubrick was an artist capable of building layer upon layer of meaning and reference into his work. His movies amount to moving-picture puzzles that invite the viewer to dive into them and try to uncode their messages according to their own perspective. When asked to explain the meaning of any of his movies, Kubrick was always deceptively vague and wouldn't offer much, preferring to let the films stand for themselves as works of art to be interpreted. Asked about the symbolic meanings contained in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick once said:
"They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded."
Personally, I haven't really gotten much enjoyment out of any of Kubrick's movies, haven't even seen any of them more than once. They strike me as too dark. Although I do recall that upon seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time, knowing virtually nothing about it or its director, I declared to my friends that whoever made this movie is an absolute genius.

But it's the world of Kubrick analysis and interpretation I've found to be endlessly fascinating, much the way my fascination with Joyce's work began long before I'd read any of his books. The medium of film seems much more ripe for such deep analysis, though. Great as Finnegans Wake or Ulysses are, there's only so much you can squeeze into a sentence or paragraph, whereas a master filmmaker can insert a staggering amount of material into one shot and this is exactly what Kubrick---a true visual artist who was a renowned photographer prior to getting into film---specializes in.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Indigenous Arts of Moondog

I don't know how it took me all this time before I finally discovered Moondog. But, thanks to the glory of the internet, once I tasted a few drops of his music it wasn't long before the floodgates opened.

Moondog was a blind composer, street musician, and poet who spent decades plying his craft on the streets of New York City in the mid-20th century, busking and selling his music and poetry. Known as "The Viking of 6th Avenue", the eccentric blind bearded artist always wore full Viking regalia
New York Times image
(clothes which he made himself), spear included.

The blind man's sound is spellbinding, intoxicating, invigorating, enchanting---often a Native American-influenced thumping drum pattern forms the spine of his symphonic melodies with their whistling flutes, moaning horns, or lilting violins. Together with the indigenous tribal thump, his music is known for incorporating the sounds of the world, whether it's animals (frogs croaking, birds squawking), the crashing ocean waves, a boat's foghorn, or the grumbling of car engines. It's all combined together into a unique jazz-classical hybrid occasionally punctuated by readings of his short, playful poetry.

Mostly self-trained as a musician, he was adept with many instruments and even invented a few of his own. During his years busking in New York he eventually connected with some major composers of the era who helped get him to record studio albums and even conduct major orchestras. Despite reaching the heights of conducting symphonies in Carnegie Hall he remained devoted to the streets, regularly donning his hand-made Viking garb, rain or shine, to stand out and play for pedestrians.

Surely the most fascinating character I've come across in a while, his story sounds mythical and his sound is mystical. He even has a timeless look to him, his face could be the face of Da Vinci or Aristotle.

Thankfully there appears to be a documentary about him slated to be released this year.

A few of my favorite Moondog sound clips will follow. The first one should be strikingly familiar.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Catching Up and Looking Forward

Happy New Year!

I must apologize for yet another extended absence (more than 2 months without any posts here) as my life continues to undergo major changes. It's been nearly six months since I met my girlfriend (under highly serendipitous circumstances) and things continue to grow more exciting as we get to know each other more. I also recently gave in and decided to convert from part-time to full-time work after almost 3 years of working about 20 hours per week, during which time I was content to be just barely making it financially.

I was juggling two different part-time jobs for a while with the workload inching ever closer toward full-time so it finally made sense to ditch the sillyness of having two part-time positions and stick with one full-time job. The transition has gone pretty smoothly thus far but it will definitely be a challenge to keep up with all the reading and writing I plan to do while staying physically and socially active with half of my week's waking hours devoted to an office job. I'm taking solace and inspiration in the fact that there are writers out there who not only have full-time jobs and write prolifically on the side but who also have families to take care of, too. For now, I've got just one mouth to feed and should have plenty of mental energy to devote to my intellectual pursuits each week.

On that note, another reason for the slim presence on my two blogs lately is that I've spent an absurd amount of time working on one very large piece. I've wanted to write a very thorough summary review of Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop for many years now because it is without a doubt the largest and most enlightening study of Finnegans Wake there is and I've always been disappointed at how little discussion there is about it on the internet. Bishop's book unpacks so many interesting ideas in such a thorough manner, you'd have thought someplace out in the far reaches of the interweb universe there'd be some intensive talk about it. But I haven't found much at all. Even the book's Amazon page only has 6 reviews, one of them a misguided and confused 1-star.

It was actually from Bishop's book that I got the title for my blog devoted to Finnegans Wake (pg. 169: "Finnegans, wake!, you have nothing to lose but your chains"), highlighting the imperative angle of Joyce's title, urging all the sleeping Finnegans to wake up! and take off their shackles of mental and spiritual slumber. A main part of my intention with starting that blog was to write reviews for the many fascinating studies of the Wake that are out there and certainly none come close to matching the originality and depth of Bishop's book.

So as soon as I finished up with reading the Wake last December, I jumped right into Bishop's book for the first time and devoured it within a few weeks. Then I started composing a review and realized... I needed to read it again. This second reading took many months as I was thoroughly parsing this heavy scholarly (yet entertaining and readable) text to take notes and distill its vastness into a sharp summary.

Almost a year later, I'm still not quite finished with the process but I've completed enough of it to start putting up the Bishop review/summary in pieces. PART 1 is up at my other blog now, I hope you'll go read it. [Just posted PART 2, two more to come soon.]

In the meantime, I'll be chipping away at the remainder of the review and trying to build up some writing momentum so as to keep both blogs alive and healthy throughout 2014.