It’s hard to hate on what the mainstreamiest skinfolk were diggin’ into in 2018. On its face, it seems they’ve been getting into each other. If scrolling through this year’s Pazz & Jop rankings tells us anything, it’s that the collapsing of technological, aesthetic, and networking barriers between the music industry and Hollywood resulted in a celebration of seamless branding. The Black Brunches at the tippy-top are paying off. In a time where conscious consumption and demands for Black entertainment hit threat-level orange, everybody Black seemed to be rooting for everybody Black. And for better or worse, it’s working. Donald Glover — whose virtuosity played transistor through which this year’s charged Black music (as Childish Gambino) and Black visuals (with Atlanta) often ionized — tops this year’s singles list off the strength of the interweaving gloss and shock on “This Is America.” Following recent big-screen appearances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Janelle Monáe coded Dirty Computer, effectively kicking through the ceiling and high-stepping up out the closet and clocking in with the number two album and number two single; Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, didn’t even release a proper album this year (his last two both topped P&J) yet makes the singles list after banking off the Cali conneck with Ryan Coogler and helping soundtrack the year’s most spectacularized Black product, Black Panther.
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Each of these aforementioned artists has been labeled a Black Genius™ in one way or another. Glover as the “solitary male genius” in the mold of Kanye West, hailed for his mind and malleability. Monáe as the revved-up engine of Black femme grace and queer womanhood attempting to redefine what genius looks and sounds like. And Lamar as the Pulitzer Prize–winner, celebrated for his brilliant wordplay, multitudinous performance, and ferocious rhyme-scheming. Each has the ear and consideration of Black and white audiences alike, crafting a vision of Blackness and Black “transgression” that is legible and hugely profitable to a largely white industry. In today’s culture, as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quips, “You ain’t crackin’ right now if you ain’t got no black something.” These days, the separation between the wheat and the chaff comes down to the genius label.
The 2010s have presented the transmissive and transgressive modes of Black musical genius on multiple points along a spectrum: in Lamar’s chaotic free-flow rap-witnessing and defiant live performances; in Beyoncé’s unabashed appeal to down-home Blackness and poignantly subversive feminism at this year’s Coachella; in Kanye West’s self-sustaining engine of aesthetic and musical output (through which he became this decade’s Black genius du jour); in Glover’s banally provocative “This Is America” and Monáe’s Afrofuturist posturing on Dirty Computer. If the multiplicity of approaches suggests a progression in accepting the various and overlapping realities of Black life, the critical response (read: who we as an audience deem “genius”) still represents a simplistic, gendered, and classed view of virtuosity and artistic autonomy. Who is considered a Black genius is wrapped within the presentation of Blackness as attractive, abrasive, “unapologetic,” or abject.
Genius, especially of the artistic flavor, infers both signifying and self-fashioning. Ingenuity implies innovation — a glimpse into the future of form using the materials available in the present. Before the Black voice was beloved, Louis Armstrong’s horn could at once skew soteriological and shambolic. Satchmo reimagined the standard, and set new ones for Duke Ellington and the rest of those heads at the Cotton Club. Miles Davis blew till he was blue in the face, and sinewed Black America to its mainland African cousins in what Amiri Baraka terms America’s musical “rhythm bed.” These cultural icons elicited huge praise from white jazz critics who, in the late Fifties, mirrored the ethos of New Criticism in literature. White audiences buzzed off those jazz cats, and as the form was subsumed, new Black faces covered in sheeny sweat took over: The Stevies, JBs, Princes, and MJs soundtracked the new virtuosity, which had to include the sweaty, somatic, hip- and head-rolling vibe of the time. Prince’s and Stevie’s multi-instrumentalist, know-it-all, do-it-all mode provided the frame that that middle-class, Midwest producer-kid Kanye West filled for the majority of his career.
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It’s no coincidence that every genius who sees glory in their own time is a straight man. Consider that the progenitor and generator of the rhythm and blues form, Big Mama Thornton, didn’t receive her flowers till she was decades under the grave. Aretha got her roses a generation too late, the genius of her voice and autodidactic instrumentalism only truly celebrated after she passed. Alice Coltrane, it can be argued, was the one pushing John to do all that weird shit that ended up becoming his most lasting contribution.
In 2018, the contours of major success were formed around presenting an understanding of the sonics and images that “start a conversation” without having to necessarily add anything new or refreshing to that conversation. The most blatant examples of this are two singles that dominated streaming services off the strength of punchy videos that spoke to a growing awareness of “feminist aesthetic” and self-involved philanthropy: Drake’s “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan,” the latter a looping mess of quick quippy rhymes, with a video that’s an easily read publicity stunt if watched more than once. But no one this year won off stunting quite like Donald Glover.
Glover’s upbringing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, subsequent matriculation to NYU, early white-’n’-nerdy humor and music shtick, as well as his role on NBC’s Community, situated him as a Black-whisperer amongst white friends. It wasn’t until 2016’s Parliament-inspired Awaken, My Love! and the “unapologetically Black” FX show Atlanta that Glover began to be viewed by Black audiences as someone potentially approaching the visionary stratosphere of Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Janelle. But unlike those artists, Glover-as-Gambino hadn’t made a concerted appeal to Black audiences specifically. His work seemed concerned with boosting his status as the multihyphenate artist-of-the-day. Glover, as Jordan Peele quipped to the New Yorker, is attempting to make “elevated Black shit,” though there is hardly anything innovative about “This Is America.” Craig Jenkins, writing for Vulture, opined that compared to Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!, “This Is America” is fascinating yet facile: “Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this.”
The video’s overt symbolism has been the subject of a torrent of deep reads and “stories behind stories” speaking to the “necessity” of the work in today’s racial climate. For whom the video is necessary is subjective. The video’s most widely discussed images — Glover summoning a pistol to murder a hooded Black man and an assault rifle to mow down a Black church choir — is deemed genius by some and conveniently cynical by others.
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Because the song itself is a disarray of punchy lyrics and chaotic sound, it’s fair to ask how “This Is America” would fare if the video wasn’t so lustrously traumatic. Shot beautifully by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video captures the sweaty viscerality of “unapologetic” Blackness in Glover’s warping facial expressions and dance steps, as well as the sudden synchronicity of Black death. Glover’s playing of both sides is undermined, however, by a lack of consideration and mourning for those lost. Maybe that’s the point. But it’s worth asking whether that point was worth the psychic trauma. I talked to costume designer, stylist, and Columbia, South Carolina, native Clark DeBarry about the video — which she could only watch once because of its triggering nature — who said that she felt Glover didn’t really sit with the terror South Carolinians lived through after the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “It didn’t feel like Black people were being put in the forefront to receive whatever message he was trying to put out,” said DeBarry. “The public was very quick to label it iconic.… I was very confused about him being labeled a genius.”
The video dips an entire leg into a kind of Black exploitation that profits from the “performative wokeness” that’s swallowed public discourse this year. Glover has been noticeably quiet about the discussions surrounding the video, electing to allow his audience to interpret it however they see fit. He’s fully in his right as an artist to do so, but as someone trying to show an investment in Black people’s experiences, killing a bunch of unnamed Blacks without warning and without mourning seems more hurtful than poignant.
The genius label suggests an interplay between artist, critic, and audience that Black artists navigate with various levels of consciousness. During her promo run ahead of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe spoke about her sexual evolution — coming out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, no less. As such, Dirty Computer has been hailed as Monáe’s first true masterpiece. It’s a curious distinction, as her earlier work not only features the multilayered sonics and storytelling of previous “geniuses” but the ideological depth that should’ve catapulted her into the stratosphere. Maybe all she was waiting for was the blessing of the reigning Black genius. Before his death in 2016, Prince lent his guitar to Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” tied for the number two single on P&J this year. Like Kendrick’s posthumous détente with Tupac on To Pimp a Butterfly, Monáe is speaking across time to other geniuses — namely Stevie Wonder on “Stevie’s Dream”— and placing herself along that continuum generally works to her benefit. She largely lets her work do the talking, but who she’s talking to matters just as much as the content itself.
Monáe revealing the mystery of her sexuality by publicly coming out is at once an act of self-fulfillment and clever marketing on her part. Following her roles on Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe’s star has never shone brighter. Answering the questions regarding her queerness through Dirty Computer’s pre-release videos — and the companion sci-fi film of the same name — only generated more buzz among fans and newcomers alike. Still, trying to represent and celebrate the fullness of her identity is a political tightrope. The video for her breezy, gumdrop song “Pynk” came under scrutiny online for what seemed like a narrow construction of womanhood: Monáe and her backup dancers sporting what’s been facetiously termed “pussy pants” garnered a healthy backlash. After all, the critics carped, not all women have vaginas, or necessarily pink ones, at that. Reading a work solely for what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t see, without contextualizing how it fits within a larger industry is a rather deficient way of critiquing art, however. “Pynk” is refreshing in an art scene full of men we consider geniuses who hardly ever celebrate women and the parts that make up women — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — in any meaningful way.
Glover’s and Monáe’s work — the particular criticisms that follow, and their respective responses — highlight how artistic demands dovetail with our feedback. Glover wants to be taken seriously, so he positions himself and his crew beyond reproach, beyond his audience’s touch. As such, the mystique and ethic he’s cultivated is praised and tabbed “genius.” Monáe tried that with her earlier work and failed to receive the same respect — the ArchAndroid suite still conjures emotional responses from her listeners; there is hardly any working artist who portrays falling in love in the midst of the apocalypse so remarkably. Of course, genius, mystique, and autonomy are warped by a patriarchal order that undervalues Black women, queer and non-binary folks, and poor people’s work at every turn. Monáe shows a propensity to listen to her audience. She repeatedly expressed concern with what her “early fans and very religious and very Southern family” would think about her sexuality during an interview with the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham last month. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she said.
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But both the music industry and the social conditions surrounding it are changing, and that means we’re defining genius differently than we have in the past. Genius, even if it’s socially constructed, is a nonlinear evolution — Kanye West is a prime example of the progression and regression that can happen over time. It’s close, but the Louis Vuitton Don is perhaps the most successful artist in the history of Pazz & Jop. Much like that of Glover, Monáe, and Lamar, Kanye’s art was so obviously concerned with Blackness — one circumscribed by its male-dominated, middle-class demographic, but Blackness nonetheless. Some things haven’t changed since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Ye’s still a hardcore soul samplephile, albeit with a few postpunk interpolations tossed into the mix as well. But the furious circus surrounding his Trumpism and ahistorical imaginings of African oppression has turned everyone off. Whether it’s from the prescription drug dosage or the reality-TV teachings of his in-laws, West’s work is completely vapid these days: As loud as he is on Twitter and IRL, his incoherent music has remarkably little to say. And he isn’t alone. Drake’s Scorpion, which featured a couple of cute singles drowned out by a thick layer of throwaway tracks, came and went. And Kanye played roulette with the most prominent figures in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, electing to release weekly seven-song tapes in lieu of focusing on an album or a posse cut that could’ve showcased its members’ talents together more seamlessly. The two most influential male rappers of the decade seemed to finally overextend themselves. But this year, more promising names took the stage and exclaimed a self-assuredness that is part and parcel to ingenuity.
Artists like Tierra Whack, whose 29th-ranked, 15-minute Whack World adds another wrinkle to the “album” model. Most of her songs feature a one-minute running time, and were melded together for a long-form music video that introduced her as a wunderkind who’s not only securely in her bag, but also interested in the ethic of cohesion that “contemporary genius” implies. The singularity of her ideas and her self-created world portend a curious and promising future. Her sound is weird, full of guts and approachable, while her visuals — for which she has been nominated for a Grammy — suggest a mind that’s fun, frazzled, and colorful. It feels like Whack can sing or spit on anything from a trap beat to a meandering acoustic guitar with no trouble at all. And unlike previous virtuosic artists, Philly’s resident surrealist doesn’t lay the shit on thick. Where others opted for boasting singularity, Whack displayed a brilliance that is less a barrage than an unraveling tapestry that seems satisfied with just playing around in our heads for a little while.
Expanding the parameters of Black genius means emphasizing the contributions of artists leading long-lasting cultural shifts. That means, necessarily — sometimes retroactively — honoring the dual-headed dance-punk femmes Santigold and Kelis, who cracked the sonic door in Europe, allowing future artists like Azealia Banks and Monáe to walk on through. It requires that we parse out the classed notions of genius as well, highlighting artists like Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who laid the groundwork for drill’s mainstream upheaval; like Memphis, Tennessee’s 3 Six Mafia, who popularized the triplet rhyme scheme dominating radio play and streaming playlists today; or like Odd Future, a bunch of excitable kids who captured the pathos of drug-addled, disillusioned adolescence through shock music, and then followed it up a decade later with thoughtful renderings of queerness both in music and fashion. Like Noname, whose Room 25 compounds the strong cohesion she put on display on her previous work, 2016’s Telefone. In the past, understanding these artists through social contexts of “violent” or “nontraditional” upbringings worked against the communities that bred them. Their uniqueness proved harmful.
The jury is still out on whether unglossy ingenuity will elicit praise from this generation of listeners. History proves that any determination of Black genius requires an interrogation of its function — who the term celebrates and the protections it provides beloved but potentially harmful figures. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is helpful in this analysis. As are the volume of writers, critics, and thinkers who are problematizing celebrity culture, working to resist the dangerous ego-boosting, critical consensus that strengthens exceptionalism and reinforces existing inequalities within and without Black communities. So far, the “Black excellence” of the day is largely Middle Class Problems™, and while that speaks to a certain kind of progress, it also suggests a severing. Nowhere, not on OWN, not on BET, not on HBO, not on FX, not on the radio nor the playlist — nowhere are the stories of Black poor and working-class folks receiving glory. Works like Moonlight and DAMN are exceptions that prove the rule. And that is not simply a massive oversight but a detriment to those living those lives. Which is, actually, the majority of Black people.
Donald, Janelle, and Kendrick are informed by Black artistic communities of the past — the Nikki Giovannis, Maya Angelous, Amiri Barakas, James Baldwins, and W.E.B. Du Boises of the world — but, in their own ways and to their own degrees, they have partitioned themselves from the audiences those cultural giants aimed to encourage. Indeed, they’re winning. Our trust in their contemporary-funk voices has yet to really wane, and rightfully so. They haven’t swerved onto the Ye-route. They’ll be all over our television screens during this Sunday’s Grammy Awards; their nominations will be held as a sign of progress in the white mainstream, as such nominations have for the last fifty years. But in the past, following the commandments to secure thine bag has cut off the top performing artists from the people they are said to speak for. We felt that in droves in 2018. Now comes the reckoning.