Eric B. & Rakim Play to Their Die-Hard Fans at “Paid in Full” Tribute Show

Hip-hop’s carpetbagger fans looked a bit upset last Friday by the end of the Apollo Theater’s Eric B. & Rakim show. The mythological duo reunited for the first time in twenty years to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its debut, the classic Paid in Full. But no amount of combing Rakim lyrics on Genius or rereading histories of hip-hop like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop would have prepared you for Friday night. You can wear the commemorative T-shirt, but if you weren’t actually knee-deep into rap in 1987, you would only have exited onto 125th Street sorely disappointed.

Because, quick, who’s B. Fats? What about Joeski Love? Both commanded the stage last week, rhyming over their own dusty twelve-inch singles DJ’d by the legendary Lovebug Starski. For the record, both rappers’ songs exalted two different dance crazes from 1986 — the wop (“Woppit”) and the Pee-wee Herman (“Pee-wee’s Dance”), respectively — and were barely ever heard from again. But their performances, the first of many from old-school tributaries, marked the two-hour concert as more of a This Is Your Life for hip-hop’s original golden age than a Paid in Full memorial.

One might have expected Eric B. & Rakim to tackle Paid in Full from beginning to end, from “I Ain’t No Joke” to “Eric B. Is President,” like similar shows from Nas, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. But there’s the professional, polished live hip-hop model of, say, Jay-Z, and there’s the…let’s say, more anarchic model of Wu-Tang Clan. Rakim could be the quintessential MC of the Eighties raucous rap era. And so those in the audience who danced the wop or the Pee-wee Herman at the Latin Quarter or the Rooftop nightclubs thirty years ago weren’t surprised to see a crowded stage full of one hundred hangers-on for a Rakim show in which the god MC performed five songs.

In fairness, Paid in Full only contains seven songs, with two more tracks of DJ Eric B.’s scratching. (Their performance ignored Eric B.’s solos, plus “As the Rhyme Goes On” and “Move the Crowd.”) The reason the record deserves such a show seems so self-evident as to not even warrant explanation. Rakim reinvented MC’ing like Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar. His menacing cadence, multisyllabic flow, metaphor-laden lines, and Five Percent Nation references immediately became cornerstones of hip-hop, taking the genre from the Run-D.M.C. era into an age where immensely more complex MCs could flourish. No greatest-of-all-time list is complete without him.

Ironically, Eric B. played master of ceremonies (the original meaning of “MC”), decked out in a tux and introducing more than twenty special guests. Hip-hop godfather Kool Herc stood to the side. Flavor Flav popped up, in a nod to his first appearance on film: the video to “I Ain’t No Joke.” Slick Rick, Kid Capri, and Video Music Box creator Ralph McDaniels waved. Sweet Tee and Roxanne Shanté rocked “It’s My Beat” and “Have a Nice Day,” respectively. T La Rock — the MC blessed with Rick Rubin’s first production — killed “It’s Yours.” EPMD, Main Source, Special Ed, Lost Boyz, Mase, Fat Joe, Ice-T, Al B. Sure!, and others all represented for Rakim, easily filling out the two hours dedicated to an album with seven four-minute songs.

So in the heart of gentrifying Harlem, a celebration of Paid in Full turned out to be sort of an indecipherable occasion if you weren’t truly of the culture ever since the Eighties. Which is, in a way, as it should have been. If one has to use Shazam to identify “Looking at the Front Door,” perhaps one should have saved his money.


The Queen Sugar Recipe

Like a lot of other people, filmmaker Ava DuVernay went to see Wonder Woman a few weekends ago. The movie and its director, Patty Jenkins, broke a few box office records on opening weekend, though this was not on DuVernay’s mind as she talked to a roomful of journalists assembled to preview her TV series Queen Sugar: “[Some scenes in Wonder Woman] unpack issues of sexuality and gender politics with a real intention of coming from a place of equity coloring the whole thing,” she said. “If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t have even felt it. But if you were looking for it, you saw yourself. That was a beautiful example of what Hollywood can be. And that’s what happens when you let women behind the camera.”

For its second season, female directors are behind every episode of Queen Sugar, the most feminist, most culturally aware (read: wokest, blackest) show on cable television. The show — based on the 2014 book by first-time novelist Natalie Baszile — deals with the African-American Bordelon clan managing the inheritance of an 800-acre sugarcane farm in New Orleans from the family patriarch. All thirteen episodes of last year’s season one were also directed by women — “None of the season one directors are available [now], they’re completely booked,” said DuVernay — and singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello scores the series, where lush Louisiana visuals and soulful music sway in concert.

At a post-screening talk in Los Angeles — one that included Queen Sugar executive producer Oprah Winfrey, actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner (who plays the series’ central character, Charley Bordelon West), and actor Kofi Siriboe (Charley’s brother, Ralph Angel) — DuVernay brought up Jessica Chastain’s recent comments as a Cannes Film Festival jury member about the lack of female directors resulting in a lack of authentic female characters. “I retweeted her to champion that,” she said. “But also, I wanted to say, ‘Look over here! Look at how wonderful it can be.’ ”

Also at Cannes, Sofia Coppola walked away with the Best Director prize for The Beguiled, only the second woman in seventy years to do so. Though the Academy Awards notoriously robbed DuVernay of a Best Director nom in 2015 for Selma, her reward came from elsewhere in Hollywood: She’s now the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget over $100 million, the Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (due March 2018). And that after turning down Marvel Studios’ African-superhero story, Black Panther.

Mentioning Game of Thrones’ three-season streak of all male directors (hardly an anomaly), DuVernay affirmed, “We’re going to center women because we can and we want to. And we’re a network owned by a woman, so it makes it easier.” La grande dame Oprah giggled with the audience.

Queen Sugar’s narrative balances a surplus of elements heavy on romantic angles. Charley relocates to N’Awlins from L.A., leaving behind a rich basketballer husband caught up in a sex scandal; she founds the Queen Sugar sugarcane mill, and makes a love connection with a local farmer. Aunt Violet is a sexy black fifty-year-old (is there another on TV?) in a hot relationship with an oil rig worker. And writer-activist–weed connect Nova — Charley’s sister — struggles through an affair with a married white cop in season one, and seems to be searching for something through casual encounters with various other cute whiteboy lovers at the start of season two. Nova also flaunted an honest, unabashed bisexuality dealing with a Black Lives Matter organizer last season.

There are men here too, and their characters are rich, particularly Ralph, a formerly incarcerated single dad actively raising a young son with a recovered addict. Fallen basketball star Davis West is hardly sympathetic, but his teenage son Micah’s arc is compelling: navigating the burst of his rich-kid-bubble life in L.A. to the complexities of being young and black in the South. But at its heart QS is a family drama, with the siblings’ conflicting points of view combustibly rubbing up against each other from episode to episode, and the star is Gardner’s flawed Charley, on whose lithe shoulders (and fat bank account) the fortunes of the Queen Sugar mill ultimately rest. “The most central thing for Charley for me was isolating what was going on with her,” said Gardner. “She’s actually in a bit of a spiritual crisis and doesn’t know it. She has no idea she’s actually in that space. What is it that she’s really seeking? What is it that she’s missing? Where are her flaws? She’s sort of built up all these structures in this way of being to avoid [her flaws], basically.”

“I’m not so sure some days if I like Charley,” Oprah added. Neither, she said, are her friends who watch. “We’re not sure how we feel about Charley. ‘Why did she do that?’ But I’m always cooing in my heart over Ralph Angel. And this is how you know whether it’s a good book that you’ve read or a great movie or a series. You know, the characters feel real to me.”

“We’re trying to be really explicit with our intentions about playing with and unpacking race and culture,” DuVernay concludes. “But do it in a way that’s wrapped in contemporary romance and beautiful people and interpersonal relationships, while we also have this large kind of cultural, historical context over it. That’s the daily balance in what we’re constantly trying to do. It’s an exploration, because it’s definitely something that’s not a well-beaten path.”

The question, naturally, is: Does Queen Sugar work? Last year Variety called the show muddled but well directed. The New York Times complained that “genuinely lazy scene-making saps the show of credibility.” But like plenty else in the Trump era, white opinions and black opinions can be starkly polarized. (Black Twitter adores the show.) Somewhat ironically, the more culturally specific a work of art, the more universally appealing it can be, and QS clearly excels at cultural specificity. For this writer, the show hits the mark. Whether most of us ultimately feel that way or not, only time will tell as season two unfolds.


Purple Rain Shower: The Revolution Offer Prince Fans a Chance to Celebrate and Mourn

Every single Prince fan has a personal story behind how s/he got that way. Mine: From the moment I played a Purple Rain cassette doing ninth-grade homework in ’84 to graduating college in ’93, my ambition was to grow up to be Prince. I bought sheet music and practiced his songs over and over on my out-of-tune Kemble upright piano. I wore my grandpa’s cream cashmere coat to high school in the Boogie Down Bronx like I’d sauntered out of Under the Cherry Moon. Teenage journals are packed full of Prince references like he was my first love. TMI, but I may not have figured out how to be me until I was 22, at (coincidentally) the same moment Prince stopped acting like Prince, changing his name to the male-female biological symbol fans wore on necklaces like crucifixes.

The Revolution, Prince’s backing band during his years of cultural and commercial domination, played the B.B. King Blues Club last Friday to a relatively small crowd of 1,000 who, no doubt, each had their own heartfelt, cringingly embarrassing version of the above. #TeamPrince was and forever will be an almost cattily exclusive club, and the Revolution tour — returning to Webster Hall on May 3 — is for collective mourning and celebration. Prince’s unexpected death from an opioid overdose came a year and one week prior to the Revolution’s NYC memorial, and sadness was never far below the surface for anybody in the house. “We need to kind of create a place for all of us to land,” said a bespectacled Wendy Melvoin midway through the 23-song set. “It’s sort of our own little shiva.”

Guitarist Wendy, bassist Brown Mark, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, and drummer Bobby Z re-creating tunes from Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade sometimes sounded (and certainly looked) like a damned good middle-age cover band playing Prince tunes. Some lyrics were subtly forgotten, and a command from Brown Mark for 25 James Brown–style hits at the end of “Let’s Work” broke down around 13. But the Revolution, on a music-historical note, were the most practiced, stop-on-a-dime accomplished, rock- and new wave–tinged funk band ever. So some moments of magic, like Wendy’s rip-roar solo at the climax of “Let’s Go Crazy,” were inevitable.

“Y’all don’t know this one!” exclaimed a zealous fan as Lisa’s repetitive keyboard run launched the band into the rare, unreleased “Our Destiny.” Which led into “Roadhouse Garden,” an even scarcer, funkier track much adored by the hardest of hardcore Prince lovers. The smackdown Bobby Z put into the backbeat of “Kiss” would’ve made their fearless leader proud. Snatches of piano from the extended “Let’s Go Crazy,” familiar from the opening performance scene of Purple Rain, popped up in the middle of “Delirious.” Likewise, “Controversy” at some point contained the melody to “Mutiny,” a funk track from protégés the Family that Prince reclaimed for Revolution live shows when that group dissolved. The sly ear candy for attentive fanatics (meaning most of the audience) went over well.

More secret-handshake moments came with all the dance moves associated with different Prince songs, something you may never think much about until you’re in a sea of beautiful ones crouching down at the same moment during “Raspberry Beret” or “Computer Blue,” side-stepping in sync to “When Doves Cry,” or hand-signaling choreographed gestures to the chorus of “I Would Die 4 U.”

“I’m sure a lot of you in here, if you haven’t met him, would think to yourself, ‘I wonder if he would like me,’ right? I’m sure that he would,” Wendy shared, introducing the delicate, beloved piano ballad “Sometimes It Snows in April.” The song — about a death and the longing for the one who’s passed — was written by Prince, Lisa, and herself on April 21, 1985, she said, exactly 31 years to the day Prince would pass away in an elevator at Paisley Park Studios. Fingerpicking her acoustic guitar over Lisa’s piano and harmonizing, Wendy sang as audience sniffles gave way to tears. The evangelical rock celebration of “Let’s Go Crazy” followed, but failed to mask the melancholy in the air. What could?

By comparison, “Purple Rain” served up a sobering be-here-now reality check. The Revolution (the Revolution) stood before us playing the song that surely made many of us cry in our private moments since last April, without their hero and ours. Because he’s gone. And so we could only harmonize together through the end, and slowly sway.


“The Get Down” Stays On The Good Foot

No open bar, no DJ, no popcorn. For a change, the main event of a recent preview at Soho’s Crosby Street Hotel screening room was the preview itself: episode seven of director Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. (It’s the first episode of part two of season one, which arrives on Netflix April 7.) A small assembly of media reacquainted themselves with the great adventures of the Bronx-born Get Down Brothers rap crew, navigating 1977’s New York City in all its Koched-out glory. Associate producer Grandmaster Flash, supervising producer-writer Nelson George, choreographers Rich and Tone Talauega, and Luhrmann himself gathered onstage afterward for an exchange about inspirations — Bruce Lee; comic books; and hip-hop’s three kings, the founding fathers Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa — as well as motivations.

What would motivate a fiftysomething director from rural Herons Creek, Australia, to take on the embryonic rap era of MC’ing, DJ’ing, graf, and B-boying in the South Bronx? “I’m an outsider,” Luhrmann admitted. “You couldn’t get more outside than a person growing up in a small country town in Australia. But I always wanted to know: How did a bunch of young kids with virtually nothing, where government programs for music were taken away from them . . .”

He started free-associating.

“You don’t have a piano. ‘Well, we’re on our own. What can we do with these two records?’ Or, ‘If I spray my name up on that train . . .’ But you risk your life to do that, and why do you do that? So, this desire for the youth to express themselves no matter what ‘the oldies’ do, that is what I wanted to know about: How did that go on to be what it was? The privilege has all been mine from my point of view, being taken on a journey by those who lived it.”

“A lot of people describe the show as ‘The Birth of Hip-hop show,’ ” Nelson George remarked, “and I always say: That’s not what the show is. The show is late-’70s New York City through the prism of the birth of hip-hop and disco. As you watch every episode, the disco thread is as big as the hip-hop thread. You couldn’t really deal with hip-hop without dealing with disco. Disco was the dominant thing. Later on, there’s the level of New York City itself, which is the fiscal crisis [subplot]. It’s really a New York City show.”

“And also a few light threads of punk coming into it,” Luhrmann added.

The series features hip-hop’s first DJs as actual characters in the narrative. Mamoudou Athie does an excellent outsize Grandmaster Flash; Eric D. Hill Jr. plays a believable Kool Herc; and part two finally introduces Okieriete Onaodowan as Afrika Bambaataa. But a young Dee Dee Ramone also makes an appearance, playing bass in a Chelsea Hotel jam session. References to Blondie, Sid Vicious, and CBGB get blended into the mix too—alongside Mayor Ed Koch’s war against graffiti, President Jimmy Carter brokering peace in the Middle East, Saturday Night Fever, Dog Day Afternoon, and more.

HBO took a stab at a similar ’70s reminiscence with Vinyl last year and failed, canceling the show just as season one ended. A stellar production team — Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger executive-produced the sprawling music-biz drama alongside Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter — couldn’t elevate the show past accusations of “leaden nostalgia.” What does The Get Down get right that Vinyl got wrong, or, what saves The Get Down from becoming The Letdown?

Maybe the story explains it all. The Get Down is a Bronx tale, a teenage love story between Ezekiel Figuero (a.k.a. Books when he’s MC’ing) and aspiring singer Mylene Cruz. By the middle of season one, Books has partnered with Shaolin Fantastic (DJ disciple of Grandmaster Flash) to form the Get Down Brothers, and Cruz has signed her own disco deal. Drama comes from the drug-dealing Fat Annie and her gangster son, Cadillac, over at Les Inferno nightclub. A romantic triangle also surfaces between Mylene’s Pentecostal preacher of a father (Giancarlo Esposito), her mother, and her politician uncle (Jimmy Smits). Eventually, Books needs to decide between a corporate internship at the Twin Towers that will lead to Yale, and the artistic pull of the corporate colossus to come: hip-hop music.

Luhrmann’s series mines unknown territory that Vinyl didn’t. “It was extremely difficult before The Get Down to explain to people that this art form was around ten years before the first rap record,” Grandmaster Flash rationalized. “I thank God that I’m here to witness this. I’m called a legend, I’m called a king, but a lot of times legends die really young. If you haven’t seen the first half, that was the innocent period. This second part is where things get intricate, slightly painful. There’s joy, there’s pain more substantial. They pulled off a period of time that I found so hard to explain to journalists.”

Months before The Get Down debuted last August, Netflix offered up the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, where rap pioneers Coke La Rock, Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, and others traveled through largely unexplored terrain of hip-hop’s earliest days. Before that, starting in the late ’90s, books like Nelson George’s Hip-Hop America, The Vibe History of Hip-Hop, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, the Experience Music Project’s Yes Yes Y’all, and Fantagraphics’ illustrated series Hip Hop Family Tree served all the info anyone would ever want to know about stuff like the Sugarhill Gang biting Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes and the Mighty Mighty Sasquatch mobile sound system. Finally, film is catching up to literature through The Get Down, last year’s VH1’s 1990s hip-hop valentine The Breaks, and more on the horizon—20th Century Fox just announced Atlantis, a musical inspired by Pharrell Williams’s childhood in Virginia.

Hip-hop fans love to hear the story again and again, of how it all got started way back when. Now casual Netflix bingers can catch the dramatic wave, getting an education in the process that wasn’t previously possible without hitting Amazon for memoirs like Jay Z’s Decoded or The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.

In its second half, The Get Down leaps ahead one year to 1978. “The biggest change from ’77 when [the Get Down Brothers] were kids to ’78 was, suddenly clubs said, ‘We’re gonna pay you money to be a club act,’ ” said Luhrmann. “And that brought the kids into a sphere where, one, they were performing; two, they were receiving money; and there was quite a lot of drug dealing going on as well. They weren’t being asked to perform at parks and rec rooms, they weren’t asked to Radio City Music Hall. It was an edgy club. We wanted the edge.”

Visually, the greatest difference between side A and side B (if you will) of The Get Down is animation. As much as Bruce Lee influenced B-boy battle stances and the angles of DJs’ arms, the bronze age of comic books held its own sway on hip-hop culture. That inspiration still stands, as one look at the new Raekwon album or illustrator A. L. Dré’s hip-hop-themed covers over at Marvel will tell you. When The Get Down dropped last year, Netflix got inundated with so much fan art that Luhrmann and company chose to include cartoony comic art in every episode of the season’s second half, courtesy of Jaden Smith’s gay graf artist–MC, Dizzee. At first, the animation’s inclusion makes you wonder if certain actors (Jaden, for example) couldn’t make it to set as much as the others. But you get used to it.

“We really were feeding off the audience,” Luhrmann said. “And it led to big creative choices. Flash will tell you how influenced he was by comics. It was really clear from the fan art that those relationships needed to be heightened and poetic. At first we were gonna do it for a bit, but [the animation] became way beyond what we ever expected and a great way of expressing that.”

The flip side to a rabid fan base is the fanboy phenomenon of hypercritical analysis, and The Get Down is hardly exempt. Episode six’s Pelican Brief–worthy fake out of a non-kiss between Dizzee and graf artist whiteboy Thor? Folks weren’t feeling the misdirection. (Once upon a time, Denzel Washington advised Will Smith against kissing another man for Six Degrees of Separation; what advice has Will given his own son?) Another minor criticism: MC Ra-Ra anachronistically flaunting a Das EFX lyrical flow decades before anyone ever rhymed like that.

Still, nearly fifty years after its creation, hip-hop finally has a drama worthy of its culture, one that overwhelmingly gets it right — all pre–“Rapper’s Delight.” God is in the details here, from Books’ Bronx address (400 Prospect Avenue) to the proto-Uber def OJs to the angel dust epidemic. Overzealous fanboys won’t be the only viewers waiting impatiently for season two. “Books says to Shaolin, ‘You made us believe in grandmasters and superheroes as if we’re in one of Dizzee’s comics. But it’s not true; it’s never gonna mean anything to anyone outside of the Bronx,’ ” Luhrmann said. “And we all know that’s not true. In fact, it went on to change not just the Bronx or New York, but the world.”


Drake’s “More Life” Is Another All-Purpose Emoji

When it comes to hiphop guilty pleasures, there’s Aubrey Drake Graham and then there’s everyone else. More Life — his latest full-length, self-described as a playlist rather than an album or mixtape — is more manna for the masses of millions out there who vote with their dollars to make him this rap era’s top-selling MC. For them he’s like an all-purpose emoji. There are Easter egg lyrics of Drake songs in every episode of awkward black girl Issa Rae’s Insecure (“He just really gets us!” her character gushes in the premiere). At the same time, he remains decidedly uncool for most males among us. At any moment, any given everyman on Twitter is apt to tweet, “Drake makes music for men who sometimes wonder what it’s like to lactate” (hat tip @Tony_Grands).

Plenty of sing-songy rappers have rhapsodized about love — Drizzy built on Kanye’s maudlin 808s & Heartbreak to cement his style, and he also has Q-Tip (and L.L. as well, hell) to thank for interjecting sensitivity into hiphop, to say nothing of Kurtis Blow’s ancient 1982 “Daydreaming.” But going back to his earliest mixtapes, Drake felt just as exclusionary to the testosterony as Hymns From the Book of Bey like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” that obviously weren’t made for the male gaze (and more power to Her).

Drake’s not just sensitive. He embodies what Zadie Smith once coined “the nostalgia artist,” constantly looking back on those who doubted his rise and all the unlimited ladies left in his wake. More Life has a head-knocker or two (“Can’t Have Everything,” “Free Smoke”), but it enters the annals of Drake’s long-lost love lore consistent with the rest of his discography. “Remember when I bought Sealey the fake Chanel wallet/She knew that shit was a fraud but never told me about it,” he jokes on “Do Not Disturb,” and it’s not the first we’ve heard of Leanne Sealey. (See 2011’s “Club Paradise.”) “Did I read that you just got engaged on me?/I heard from your friend, you couldn’t even tell me” comes earlier, on the short, sweet “Nothings Into Somethings.” Drake’s laments have laments. He’s forever running through the 6 with his woes, an extremely woe-is-me MC.

By now, babies have been made to Drake music, rare for hiphop. (There might be some Nas babies out there, but that takes a special kind of woman.) Last year his OVO Sound label released the seductive, sex-dripping Sept. 5th by fellow Canadian r&b duo dvsn, and if you’re the only millennial who hasn’t made love to it yet, I feel bad for you, son. But Drake’s sound lends itself just as amenably to the bedroom as theirs, or the drenched-panties atmospherics of longtime collaborator PartyNextDoor (who appears on More Life‘s “Since Way Back”).

Playlist or not, More Life might just inspire more repeat listening than last year’s bona fide, Grammy-nominated Drake album, Views. There’s more vibe here: the deep house groove of “Get It Together” (featuring South African DJ-producer Black Coffee and the gorgeous pipes of Brit teen Jorja Smith) and the heavenly upbeat “Passionfruit.” Enough Afrobeat underlies “Madiba Rhythm” that a Femi Kuti cover isn’t impossible to imagine. Got trap? Naturally. Drake trades bars on “Portland” with Quavo of Migos, with enough background skrrrts and brapppts to make Desiigner jealous.

Kanye has conceded that Drake is more popular than he is, despite The Life of Pablo appearing closer than Views to the top of best-of-2016 lists. (Kanye himself underwhelms — and he could really use a home run these days — on his guest-spot, “Glow.”) And yet more than enough folks still joke about needing ovaries as a prerequisite to enjoy Drake’s music. Until last month he was linked with J.Lo, who he talks about drunk-dialing in “Free Smoke” and whose “If You Had My Love” is interpolated on “Teenage Fever.” But his canoodling with Serena Williams, Rihanna, and the endless exes referenced in his rhymes forever marks him as a sucker for love. His lovelorn lyrics and all those links to the fairer sex have led to dismissal among many. When Sprite grouped Drake with lyrical gods Nas, Rakim, and Biggie Smalls for its recent Obey Your Verse campaign, Drake’s inclusion looked like a joke. And yet there he was. (And no, no amount of Drake caping in the world will ever make him worthy of that company.)

But Drake is a master of the meme, with omnipresent social-media gifs to prove it. He debuted More Life on his own OVO Sound Radio show via Apple Music (home to star-programmed shows by Frank Ocean, Q-Tip, Dr. Dre, and others), gluing everyone to the radio like the happy days of American Graffiti. Half his “albums” are labeled mixtapes, EPs, or, now, playlists. He has his share of lyrical moments, to be sure: “We wrote the book on calculated thinkin’/And icy Heineken drinkin’, and rival neighborhoods linkin’ ” (“Lose You”), for example. But most importantly, at thirty, he’s a millennial master of this post-post-everything moment, which is why he wins.



‘Being Mary Jane’ Relocates to New York. Will She Make It After All?

In the words of city poet Carrie Bradshaw, “In New York, you’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend, or an apartment.” BET’s Being Mary Jane (with Gabrielle Union in the titular role) has juggled that holy trinity of pursuits since its summertime 2013 pilot — the most elusive concern being the boyfriend. Once tentatively titled Single Black Female, the show tracks the self-destructive, often unsympathetic movements of news anchor Mary Jane Paul as she rises through the ranks of the Atlanta-based Satellite News Channel and navigates married men, childhood sweethearts slash babydaddies, and other romantic ne’er-do-wells. As the series enters its fourth season, change descends upon the land not a moment too soon.

A few more particulars before we get to the heart of the matter: Mary Jane has relocated to New York City, leaving behind her fabulous home of glass walls in the ATL for an ersatz Good Morning America program called Great Day USA. A frenemy rivalry immediately ensues with veteran anchor Ronda Sales (played by the excellent Valarie Pettiford).

Come late 2015, series creator and showrunner Mara Brock Akil (a sitcom veteran responsible for Girlfriends and The Game who stepped up to the hour-long format with BMJ) departed with her husband, director Salim Akil, for a development deal with Warner Bros. And so along with its new locale, season four introduces a fresh creative team: executive producer Will Packer and showrunner Erica Shelton Kodish.

If the tone of Being Mary Jane has changed, this is why. Akil used talk-show personality Mary Jane Paul’s cultural-nationalist predilections to slide in guests like cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal and feminist image activist Michaela Angela Davis. Packer and Shelton Kodish seem less politically inclined. Last season’s cliffhanger, involving Mary Jane’s niece (named, unforgivably, Niecy) getting tasered to the ground by police, is almost brushed aside as the show fast-forwards ahead to a year later. The incident is alluded to but mainly feels dropped like it’s hot. The series instead front-loads Mary Jane’s office drama over her family spectacle, which is too bad. Drug-dabbling brother Patrick, lupus-suffering mother Helen, and family patriarch Paul Sr. — always a strong supporting cast — are now all way down there in Georgia, disconnected.

Before we get to the requisite boyfriend, New York City bears mention as Being Mary Jane‘s latest cast member, and Gotham comes up way short. The cabs are yellow, but their resemblance to true NYC taxis stops there. A shadowy dance-club scene from episode one, marked in my advance screener by the placeholder “Afropunk club” (what, pray tell, is an Afropunk club?), looked wholly inauthentic: dancers’ faces dabbed with neon paint like the j’ouvert of Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade. Thus far, it’s been a pretty soundstaged Manhattan. The eye candy of that gorgeously modern glass-walled Atlanta house has been traded for a drab generic hotel room. Is Mary Jane Paul moving uptown to gentrified Harlem too much to hope for?

Boyfriend Lee Truitt (Brit actor Chiké Okonkwo), an English comedian with a not-quite-wife and kids back in the U.K., seems personable enough. But his charisma pales next to Mary Jane’s lovers past: married man André Daniels (Power star Omari Hardwick); selfish empath David Paulk (Stephen Bishop); eccentric rich guy Sheldon DeWitt (the eternally sexy Gary Dourdan). If MJ’s taste in men these past three seasons has been any indication, Michael Ealy as Justin Talbott — a former colleague who once got our heroine fired at CNN — will be sending Truitt back to trolling women at the Comedy Cellar sooner than later.

In the absence of Mara Brock Akil, the question becomes: Will Being Mary Jane lose its magic? A ratings juggernaut, the series stood for something larger from the start. The roaring success of Being Mary Jane, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder served as the frontline infantry to African-American-centered successors like 2016’s Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage. The new direction emphasizes the personal over the political, and though it’s too early to tell how that will play out, it seems unlikely liberal commentator Van Jones or academic talking head Marc Lamont Hill will turn up on a Great Day USA cooking segment any time soon.

The final question is, how much will Mary Jane herself finally grow? Newsrooms and romance aside, she’s never been the Mary Tyler Moore of Black Lives Matter. She’s never been the most likable character, from stealing her lover’s sperm (eventually attempting an impregnation) to sexing another woman’s husband to chasing behind an assumed soul mate who’d already slept with her bestie. Or the most adventurous either — she doesn’t do anal (see season three’s “Hot Seat”); she’d never dated a white guy. The can’t-turn-away appeal of Being Mary Jane has always been of the train-wreck variety.

But those who love the show hope for her success anyway. Because despite the soap-opera histrionics, many see themselves in Mary Jane’s near-desperate quest for love and in her struggle to stabilize the (often self-inflicted) craziness of her life and times. We don’t love her because she’s off the rails. We love her because, sometimes, she’s us.
Being Mary Jane airs at ten on Tuesdays on BET.



Yasiin Bey’s Swan Song

Quiet as kept, 2016’s angel of death claimed one last casualty in December before finally getting the fuck on. For millennials raised on lyrically dense late-Nineties hiphop classics like Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Mos Def’s seismic debut, Black on Both Sides, the recently announced retirement of Yasiin Bey marked the death of backpack rap itself. Ten days after his 43rd birthday, Bey (f/k/a Mos Def, Dante Beze, and Dante Terrell Smith) performed at the Apollo Theater; the December 21–22 run in Harlem, along with a stay from December 31 to January 2 at the Kennedy Center in D.C., marked his farewell to music after years of expatriate living in South Africa.

Dec 99th — a project with producer Ferrari Sheppard — dropped the same night as that first Apollo date; Negus in Natural Person and As Promised (another collaboration, this one with producer Mannie Fresh) are due soon. For all its Ragnarök upheaval, 2016 managed to gift us all some grown-up hiphop for the aunties and uncles at the party: A Tribe Called Quest’s astounding comeback, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service; De La Soul’s Kickstarter-funded and the Anonymous Nobody…; El-P and Killer Mike’s Run the Jewels 3. So Yasiin Bey’s bow-out wasn’t strictly necessary from an ageism point of view. But anyone paying attention has long known the former Mighty Mos Def just wasn’t made for these times.

“If people are trying to be famous, then they’ll do one thing,” Bey told me way back in 2000. “If people are just trying to support themselves and put their music out and do so in a way where they control what they create — they control how it’s presented, they control the bulk of the money that they get — and that’s what they wanna do, they’re gonna do another thing. Some people wanna achieve notoriety so they can use whatever acclaim or light that they have to shine it on broader issues, donate to something other than themselves. At the end of the day, it’s all based on people’s intentions on what people are trying to do.”

Seventeen years later, how hard is it to pinpoint Yasiin Bey’s intentions? Shades of Netflix’s Luke Cage, “always forward, forward always” could be the tagline for Bey’s entire career. “Umi Says,” the positivist anthem that’s one of his most recognized songs, finds him singing soulfully, carving out the path in hiphop trod since by Drake, Future, Childish Gambino, and loads more. At the sold-out Apollo, he switched up lyrics in an emotional performance of the song, chanting a self-accepting “I’m perfect as I am” (in lieu of “I ain’t no perfect man”) into his customized crimson microphone. I sat next to a style editor whose wedding song was (swear to god) “The Panties” — the Marvin Gaye–styled come-on Mos Def crooned through in ’09 — who rejoiced when he introduced it. His rock band Black Jack Johnson (guitarist Dr. Know, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Will Calhoun, all already famous from Bad Brains, P-Funk, and Living Colour) laid tracks on 2004’s The New Danger, presaging hiphop musical mash-ups like Yeezus and Saul Williams’s The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!

Mos Def always went left. The former poster boy of Nineties boom-bap preservationist rap refused to ride that till the wheels fell off. He sang. He rocked out. He left the United States for Cape Town in 2013; after issues arising over his use of a so-called world passport, he’s no longer allowed to return to South Africa. (“America’s a very challenging place for me,” he explained two years back about leaving the U.S. “Given the current social, political, economic climate…the type of creativity that I like to have, it’s very difficult for me to produce that here.”) His later albums — 2006’s label-deal-closer, True Magic, and, three years later, The Ecstatic — revealed nearly no commercial considerations at all.

Yasiin Bey touched on so many styles across his five-album discography that predicting the sound of Dec 99th, this latest release, would’ve been impossible. Several songs start off with a ceremonial bismillah or straightforward dedications to Allah. It sounds musically moody and minimalist (eight songs, one reprise, and an instrumental), an austere woodshed effort akin to Q-Tip’s Kamaal/The Abstract. To be less kind, it’s an experiment you’ll likely be hearing in the background of Williamsburg hipster boutiques. News of the Mannie Fresh alliance, As Promised, dates back to 2012; that project surely involves more standard rhymes and rhythms. Same for Negus in Natural Person, newly announced last month as a more proper follow-up to The Ecstatic.

His Apollo shows were billed as Yasiin Bey & Friends, but audience-expected guests like Talib Kweli and De La Soul never showed. Slick Rick the Ruler appeared to a standing ovation on “Auditorium” during night one, Pharoahe Monch spat “Oh No” and “Simon Says” both nights — and that was it. Bey never rocked his biggest hit, the gluteus maximus shorty-rock ode “Ms. Fat Booty,” and closed out with a trio of Dec 99th tracks. “I can appreciate entertainment, but I’m over it if it’s a place you can’t be earnest,” he said at one point from a rose-petal-strewn stage, flanked only by his DJ. “I don’t always want to be dazzling. I just want to be.” His eclectic farewell setlist was as defiant as the artist himself.

Mid-career, Mos Def might’ve seemed hiphop-disillusioned and Hollywood-bedazzled, with roles in The Italian Job, Be Kind Rewind, Cadillac Records (playing Chuck Berry), and others. His heartfelt NYC farewell shows seemed bittersweet, not only because of his slow fade to black, but also because — a bit like his career — they didn’t quite measure up to what fans who loved him expected. With his political consciousness, lyrical dexterity, and acting chops dating back to the 1988 TV movie God Bless the Child, he could easily have been more Kanye-ubiquitous on the pop landscape. However unfair, it’s easy to embrace the feeling instead that, in his way, in the end, he kind of gave up. Framed in hiphop historical perspective, a short-lived, Jay Z–like retirement would surprise no one. But considering what’s become of ‘Ye, maybe Yasiin had the right idea.


Gorillaz Get Serious

If Gorillaz ever took themselves completely seriously, would it spell doom for their infectious virtual-band whimsy, or make for some iconic, classic postmodernism? Originally just a playful side project for Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the animated quartet captured creative lightning in a bottle with the hip-hop-infused synth pop of 2001’s Gorillaz and the ’05 follow-up Demon Days. (Though much credit goes to Bay Area MC Del tha Funkee Homosapien, hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, and the anime-influenced art of Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett for the project’s initial appeal.) The new Plastic Beach shoots for a little more gravitas with a loose environmental concept, but the sometimes tossed-off results remain as whimsical as ever; the ever-growing list of guest stars (this time including the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble) is more impressive than what they actually contribute.

Gorillaz have evolved into an even more amorphous concept, a revolving cast of characters gathered by Albarn to do their thing in the name of funky electroclash. Here, Bobby Womack and Lou Reed supply the rubber soul, while Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, and old buddies De La Soul uphold the hip-hop inflections alongside Brit grime MCs Bashy and Kano. “Superfast Jellyfish” uses a Happy Meal conceit to transport De La back to the silliness of 3 Feet High and Rising; tossing an ’80s TV ad for Swanson’s microwave breakfast atop a hard-ass breakbeat, they rap obliquely about eating up wack MCs like, well, jellyfish, a dish evidently as appetizing as starfish and coffee.

Elsewhere, though, the “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” intro gets much more value from Snoop’s infamously relaxed cadence than the actual content of his lazy freestyle. And the very idea of a soul legend like Womack working with Gorillaz proves too intriguing to satisfy expectations. “Cloud of Unknowing” fails to get much interesting use out of him, though “Stylo” fares a bit better: Behind a driving, 21st-century-Eurythmics pulse, Albarn sings of global overpopulation before Womack offers his own rousing verse, giving the record its best shot at “Clint Eastwood”–style crossover success.

Of course, what makes Gorillaz more fun than almost any other modern act—excepting Lady Gaga—is entirely unrelated to the music: They’re not real. Hardcore fans have pored over the four characters’ elaborate backstories for years now (Bassist Murdoc is a Satanist; guitarist Noodle was trapped in Hell, but mysteriously escaped recently, etc.). Their holographic appearance with Madonna at the 2006 Grammys is one of the greatest live spectacles of the aughts. While Disney wastes capital remaking Yellow Submarine, the real money will be made when someone funds Gorillaz’ own inevitable A Hard Day’s Night.

For now, as always, this third studio effort is by turns atmospheric (“Glitter Freeze”), capricious (“Pirate Jet”), and electronically funky (“Rhinestone Eyes”), while Plastic Beach‘s more melancholy tracks—especially the exceptional “To Binge,” featuring Swedish robo-soul quartet Little Dragon—are welcome holdovers from the group’s more mystical, aborted Carousel album, giving the proceedings more of an emotional balance. Which raises the question: What impact would Albarn have if he ever lost his levity entirely? Whatever critique he’s making on pop celebrity, environmentalism, or anything else gets diluted when his musical backdrop gets a little too flighty. Does anyone really want to hear a completely serious Gorillaz? Plastic Beach makes you wonder, but stops short of making you find out.


On Britney Spears’s Sadly Generic Circus

If only we could just talk about “Womanizer.” Britney Spears started jacking European electroclash somewhere around 2003’s “Toxic,” but she’s never made a truer distillation of synthy folktronica than this four-minute slice of pure guilty pleasure: From the initial pitch-modulation alarm to the stuttering Rihanna-worthy hook to the futuristically cold and percussive piston effects that surround her, “Womanizer” is a 2046 strip-club classic come calling a few decades early. Until now, we’d barely heard anything from Brit to justify the endless, endless voyeurism of her 27-year-old life and times, though all eras inevitably get the pop stars they deserve.

Great single. But there had to be an album. (The digitized record industry hasn’t relearned that particular singles-only 1950s lesson yet.) Circus is as boy-toy bland and Rorschach generic as any other Britney album since her teenybopper . . . Baby One More Time beginning nine years ago. Nobody at this late date thinks we’re dealing with Tori Amos here. Britney bares zero about her mental-institution misadventures, or the legal battle over her toddlers, or the K-Fed divorce, or even her (I’m sure) considerable embarrassment at getting caught pantyless over and over. Instead, this one goes mostly to prove that Brand Britney is back on track—she shaved her head, but the hair’s grown back, so to speak.

Until she somehow manages her very own Ray of Light, it’s all we have. Last year, Madonna told Z100 that she does her Pilates and dance aerobics to Blackout, the 2007 Brit record that has yet to similarly engage even one million gym rats. Circus is just as useful on a NordicTrack stepper; that’s uncontestable. “Shattered Glass,” “Radar,” “Mmm Papi”—they’re all as amphetamine-energetic as C + C Music Factory by way of Goldfrapp. But “If U Seek Amy” (bypass the mental exercise: It’s “F-U-C-K me”) is catchy, but clever in title alone. “Lace and Leather” shocks just for flaunting a live instrument: thrice-removed Rick James–variety bass. Brit offhandedly crowns herself the Queen of Pop on the expected anti-paparazzi number “Kill the Lights,” and “Blur” could be read as revealing (“Everything is still a blur/Can’t remember what I did last night”), but her Highness never gets much deeper than “Oh, my backless dress is excess.” Surprise.

Circus is no better or worse than Janet Jackson’s dominatrix-lite Discipline from earlier this year, but she doesn’t even have a record deal at the moment, apparently forever penalized for her Nipplegate fiasco. Calling out white privilege is prohibited in the age of President Obama, but can you imagine Beyoncé flashing her privates, landing in the nuthouse, etc., and returning to the open arms of MTV an album later?

Britney Spears plays the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale March 11 and the Prudential Center in Newark March 13


Labelle Update Their Sound on Back to Now, But Not Too Much

If the omnipresent “grown and sexy” moniker applies to anybody, it’s Labelle. Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Patti Labelle have an average age of 63, but they maybe just pulled off the first great r&b/rock/adult-contemporary hybrid with Back to Now. The trio stuck their fingers in the socket of the early-’70s zeitgeist and shocked folks with their “Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi” routine and risqué double entendres like “I come like the pouring rain each time you call my name”; opening for the Who and the Stones sportin’ glam that could make Bowie throw shade, the girls were a genre-bending phenom that couldn’t debut today in a gazillion years. All praises due: Their first disc since 1976 ain’t a Pharrell production with guest spots from Weezy and T-Pain. Instead, the trio called in old hands like Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and retro king Lenny Kravitz to do a surprisingly capable job re-creating the operatic gospel feel of classic albums like Nightbirds.

“Candlelight” shows off all the strings, piano, and tambourine any longtime Labelle lover would expect right out of the gate. Lyrically, “The Truth Will Set You Free” is full of ham-handed sloganeering worthy of the Black Is Beautiful era, but the horns and guitar solo earn forgiveness. Still, though Patti’s pipes are always fire and always will be, trite message songs like “System” and “Tears for the World” can make her sound like a well-intentioned grandma. (Which, I guess, she is.) The one concession for the kids is “Rollout,” a Wyclef-produced “Hit the Road, Jack”–themed track that’s as fast as Back to Now gets—most of the divas’ return is spent in the throes of glorious ballads like “Without You in My Life.” And when they mix in a Cole Porter cover recorded 38 years ago (“Miss Otis Regrets,” with Keith Moon on drums), the inclusion doesn’t jar you one bit. The ethereal gospel harmonizing over their patented rock-and-soul mélange alone is worth the price of admission. Modern times be damned, Labelle will never need Auto-Tune.

Labelle play the Apollo Theater December 19