Jul 23, 2010

American Gangsta

There are few things more annoying than listening to some self righteous dilettante wax less than poetically on the current state of hip hop culture.  Yet the misguided and uninformed are out in full force these days, following the recent release of Rick Ross' fourth solo joint, Teflon Don.  Many consider Ross to be emblematic of what is wrong with hip hop.  While the heat from Ricky Rozay's newest burns holes through iPod ear buds everywhere, the haters are crying foul.  These haters see Ross as a fraud and struggle to understand why others are rewarding him with what they consider undeserved accolades. 

You see a few years ago Rick Ross was revealed to have at one time been a corrections officer.  Photos emerged of the rapper in uniform and his mad baby's mom co-signed the discovery.   Rick Ross, the bearded rapper who constantly plugged his elite Miami cocaine credentials on all his records, was in reality a former "officer of the goddamn law."  WTF?!  Say it ain't so, Rick!

Hip hop is a world where authenticity is celebrated, while cops are despised.  So Ross broke two rules when he was caught lying about his law enforcement past.  Not only was he exposed, but he was exposed as a former cop in a culture where Fuck Tha Police still serves as an anthem.   As Big might say, "case closed, suitcase filled with clothes."  Not quite.

Ross eventually admitted to his his past with the po-po and kept it moving.  Like one Kobe Bean Bryant who plowed full speed ahead in spite of his troubles in Eagle Colorado, Ross just kept on making music as though none of this ever mattered, as though his credibility was never in question.  The result, the stellar Teflon Don, a muscular ode to hip hop's decade long celebration of 90s dope money and the platinum lifestyle that went along with it.   Perhaps the best example of this throwback to the 90s vibe lies in Ross' clever joint MC Hammer,  a track that uses the original big balla of hip hop, Stanley Burrell, as a metaphor for livin' lavish in 2010. 

By now the haters are chomping at the bit.

The exposure of Rick Ross' past is perhaps one of the greatest things to ever happen in hip hop.  Why, you ask?  Because for far too long people have been confused about what constitutes realness in hip hop.  While Ross may represent counterfeit to his detractors,  it is the detractors misinformed understanding of what's real that is the issue here.  In other words, it is very dangerous to go searching for reality in a place that produces fiction. 

Hip hop is a culture that has long embraced fiction.  This is why so few rappers have used their "government names" when performing.  Rappers come into the game as characters.  For a long time music videos helped to foreground these characters in what were basically short films.  Eventually people came to embrace these familiar characters as though they were real.  Yet in reality, these rappers were always characters no different than the ones played by people like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in film.  Not only were they characters, but they were characters in an ever expanding gangsta genre where the role of hyperbole as it functions in the black oral tradition came to create larger and larger narratives centered around the celebrated themes of "money, clothes, and hoes."

Though hip hop may have indulged the style of realism, the music was always more melodrama than documentary.   The process of producing an artist for a record company trying to turn a profit means that the rapper in question must be packaged to be sold.  This was no less the case with the brilliant Public Enemy than it is for the horrible Gucci Mane today.

Hip hop records are a commodity.  Though this commodity might make for some compelling stories or infectious beats, it is still a commodity for sale that must adhere to the dictates of the marketplace more so that the demands of authenticity.  Some rappers are obviously better than others, the same way some actors are better than others.  Some rappers can convince you of their sincerity, others not so much.  Regardless, the  rules of capitalism don't take a back seat to illusions about reality. The same record industry that has sold some of your more famous so-called conscious rappers has also sold some of your more famous so-called commercial or pop rappers.  The idea of a pure underground culture free of commercialism is a delusional fantasy in a market economy.  Don't believe the hype.

Some will point to a figure like Tupac as the epitome of a "real" rapper.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I remember once seeing the diminutive rapper at the famed Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles back in the day.  Though his two strapped bodyguards were menacing, there was nothing remotely threatening about 'Pac.  The twinkle in his eye suggested a man quite different than the ogre the media had created.  Trust me, the man who stood before me that afternoon looked much more like the jovial little kid performing with his high school classmate Jada Pinkett in that infamous homemade video that went viral long before there was a such thing as YouTube, than he did a thug. 

'Pac had the potential to be a great actor.  His method acting style approach to playing Bishop in Juice (1992) had seemed to take over his persona going forward.  If he had not died tragically I think his biggest contributions would have been as an actor.  But 'Pac was so good at playing his persona that he had people believing he was the epitome of real.  This blurring of the lines between fact and fiction most certainly played a role in his unfortunate death as well.  This should have been the point when people dropped all that foolishness about the real.  Trying to be real had cost a man his life, with others to follow. Hip hop never should have been something to die for!

When I think about all of this relative to Rick Ross, I see a man clearly telling the world that he is a character, but no one wants to listen.  I mean, first of all, his name is Rick Ross.  This name, of course, belongs to the man who was once labeled the "Johnny Appleseed of crack," Los Angeles' own Freeway Ricky Ross.

The real Ross has even attempted to sue the rapper for appropriating his name.

On the album, the rapper Ross also identifies with other real life criminal figures like Atlanta's celebrated Big Meech and Chicago's Larry Hoover.

It's as though all the cinematic gangsters have been used up, so Ross decides to cut to the quick and name check real criminals instead.  Yet, thanks to a program like BET's American Gangster, black criminal super heroes like Ross and Hoover,  have been afforded the Hollywood treatment as well.

To top it off, the title of the album is Teflon Don a direct reference to another '90s throwback, the late Italian-American gangster John Gotti,

a man whose downfall was closely tied to his narcissistic attempts to be more cinematic don than real one.

Considering that crooked cops like Rafael Perez of LA's Rampart scandal in the 90s do indeed exist, Ross' transition from cop to gangsta rapper can be seen as another example of cinematic-style adaptation.

Looking at it this way, Ross evokes Denzel's corrupt cop character Alonzo from Training Day.  

The Miami rapper has dropped an album that plays like a star-studded gangsta flick, with cameos by some of the biggest names in the game.  His over the top tales of drug game excess are very funny to me; something akin to a lyrical gangsta comic book featuring the legendary super heroes of the street.  Considering that cats have been imitating gangsters since the days of Al Capone and Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar (1931), what Rick Ross is doing is almost like a time honored tradition by now.  Ross is not the first nor the last person to use the gangster as a fictional device to represent his take on the American Dream.

Hip hop, at its core, has always been about the art of talkin' shit over beats and rhymes.  The black oral tradition with its use of hyperbole, embellishment, metaphors, similes, and all other manner of creative verbal signifying is the foundation of hip hop's lyrical flow.  It is imaginative wordplay, not something to be taken literally. Those who have mastered this spoken art have dominated the craft.  Gangsters make for some of the best shit talkers. And as one of the greatest shit talkers in history myself, I know of what I speak.

The bottom line is this, hip hop is fiction and rappers are characters.  Don't get it twisted!  And this, of course, is real talk!

Jul 12, 2010

LeBron (The Mandingo Remix)

I was hoping that I could deal with everything relating to Court Jester James one time and be done with it, but then The Right Reverend Jesse Jackson had to open his damn mouth!  Every time I get out, they pull me right back in!  Time to slay another antiquated dragon.

In response to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's tirade following LeBron's announcement that he would be "taking his talents to South Beach,"  Jackson stated that Gilbert "speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship -- between business partners -- and LeBron honored his contract."

See what you did, LeBron.  By turning this whole thing into a media clown show, you left the door wide open for one of the biggest clowns in history.  The Right Reverend might be a senior citizen clown at this point, but evidently his clown suit still fits.  He's gotten to be feisty in his old age too!  I'm surprised he didn't threaten to "cut" Gilbert's "nuts off" like he proclaimed he wanted to do to Obama back in '08.  Of course, a short time after he said that about Obama, he was crying Chris Brown-style crocodile tears while the President-Elect made his acceptance speech, so it's hard to really know what obtuse angle he might be coming from.

Let's get this straight.  Black athletes are not slaves!  Slaves couldn't "take their talents to South Beach," nor engage in any other act of free will.  Is this not obvious?  LeBron has it so good that he can afford to walk away from millions in Cleveland, sign with Miami, and still come out "Richie like Lionel."  I don't need to tell you that slavery wasn't quite so lucrative.

LeBron has teams willingly building their practice facilities closer to his house just so that he can cut down on his commute.  He has some of these organizations actually putting his unqualified friends on their payroll, just to keep him happy.  That doesn't sound like slavery to me.  It sounds like LeBron is gettin' his Special Ed on in a major way; "I got it made!"

Where's the comparable slave example for all this?  "Yo Master, I want you to put the cotton field closer to my slave quarters, so I don't have to walk so far on these bad feet I got.  And while you're at it, if you want me to keep pickin' cotton on your plantation, you gon' have to enslave some of my triflin'-ass friends too!"    To compare LeBron's multi-million dollar situation to that of a slave is a disgrace and it belittles the plight of all those nameless, faceless, powerless slaves who had to suffer under this brutally evil yoke of oppression. 

As I said previously, Dan Gilbert was wrong for his outburst.  He was wrong because what he said was in bad taste.  To throw someone under the bus like that after all that LeBron had done for the franchise, in spite of him leaving now, is just not how it should be done.  Gilbert is primarily wrong because he doesn't admit his own culpability in all of this.  He is wrong for being a hypocrite too, because if LeBron had re-signed with Cleveland, Gilbert would have been singing a much different tune.  He is wrong for not accepting responsibility for losing LeBron to Miami, though his Cavs had a better chance than any other team did to re-sign him.  Gilbert is wrong for kissing LeBron's ass and then getting mad when the entitled player still decided to bounce to another team. 

Gilbert lost the LeBron sweepstakes and it's clear that he is a sore loser. This is business Dan, never personal. The value of Gilbert's franchise dropped precipitously the second LeBron made his announcement. Now none of this justifies Gilbert's outburst, but it also doesn't make the situation a scene from Mandingo either.

Beyond Gilbert's hypocrisy, the charge of LeBron being disloyal, and Gilbert's general classlessness, much of what he said about LeBron was actually correct.   LeBron did come across as extremly "narcissistic" throughout this whole free agency process.  He apparently does want to go to heaven, but doesn't want to die, which is why he sought out his friends to help him win a title, instead of remaining the man on his own team, where he would have to take responsibility for being the leader.  To stage the decision on national television and not recognize how publicly humiliating this would be for Gilbert and the city of Cleveland was both "heartless" and "callous."   So while I can condemn the inappropriateness and lack of sincerity regarding Gilbert's outburst, it's not as though LeBron's hands are exactly clean here.

The NBA is an institution in our society where an overwhelming number of the employees are black, while all the team owners, except Michael Jordan, are white. (Think what Gilbert said was bad? I can only imagine what choice words Jordan would have used if the circumstances were equal and LeBron was bolting his Bobcats for another team. The only difference is, Jordan wouldn't have said it publicly, he would have said to LeBron's face!)  Clearly the notion of "ownership" carries with it all sorts of connotations relative to this nation's history and the culture of slavery upon which the nation was built.  Contemporary athletes make a lot of money.  Even the league minimum is much more than a middle class person can expect to make.  So to call these athletes "slaves" is to say that they have no power at all.  It is to say that they are forced to work against their will, with no compensation, to provide profits for others.

LeBron just exercised his power to sign a new deal in excess of one hundred million dollars and move to another city.  Nothing Dan Gilbert can say or do will bring him back to Cleveland.  There are no slave catchers on their way down to South Beach right now.  Slaves don't give their masters the middle finger on national television and live to tell about it. 

I was hoping that The Right Reverend would be silenced for good after his comment about Obama's genitalia was exposed, but my hopes have clearly not been realized.  When is this black victimization going to stop?  We are off the plantation now Rev., did you not get the memo?   To bring slavery into the picture is, as Mike Tyson might say, "ludicrous." 

Look, I can think of several funny Dave Chappelle-like skits or other humorous anecdotes about race in this context, but I recognize it for what it is, humor.  In spite of such humorous potential however, this is not about slavery.  It is about a immature young man and an out of control owner, neither of whom is willing to take responsibility for their failings.  It is about a highly capitalized sports culture where billionaire owners and millionaire players battle it out in the court of public opinion.  It is about a 24/7 news cycle that needs spectacles like the one LeBron has provided the last few weeks in order to feed a devouring media beast with tapeworm in its belly. 

Sure, whenever you deal with issues of ownership involving black and white in this nation, race informs the situation at some level, but to automatically jump back to slavery as a way of explaining a bad case of sour grapes in a dispute between billionaires and millionaires is just utterly ridiculous.  For someone to offer such an explanation, which ultimately absolves LeBron of any responsibility in this, is to encourage LeBron's arrested state of intellectual and emotional development.  I'm sorry, this is not about slavery.  As Melle Mel might say, "it's all about money, ain't a damn thing funny."  Or better yet, "cash rules everything around me."  That's what it's about.

Let's leave the slaves on the plantation, and deal with what's real here.  Anyone who has made as much money as LeBron James has over the last seven years, and who stands to make even more over the next seven years is no one's slave.  To suggest that he is, is to drastically exploit a situation were race is, at best, a relatively minor factor.  When making the kinds of accusations that The Right Reverend made in this case is to express a total ignorance of how sports works.  Such ideas are dated and ultimately counter productive and only serve to feed the narcissism of a man who was engaging in the act of media prostitution long before LeBron was even born.

Jul 10, 2010

All Eyes on Me

LeBron...where to begin?  I would say "now that the dust has settled," but it hasn't settled yet.  So I guess I'll be forced to write from a dusty perspective then.  In the midst of the dust, what do I see?  I see a man whose knees buckled as he tried to carry a team, a city, and a blighted industrial region on his back.  I see a man who would rather blend in the mix, than be the main ingredient.  I see an overgrown man child who felt compelled to leave the promised land of his birth, who loves the attention of the masses, but who doesn't want the responsibility that goes with it.  I see a former elite superstar who has now become the game's most celebrated role player. 

On one hand, I want to congratulate the ring-less King for his own self-awareness.  He realizes his limitations, and this is a good thing.  As indicated in the documentary More Than a Game, LeBron likes to hide behind his friends.  With this in mind, this recent free agency decision allows him to now play sidekick to D Wade, in Wade's city. The presence of Chris Bosh, the man Shaq once called, "the RuPaul of big men," helps to provide cover as well.  The three of them have now turned the NBA into the AAU. Throw in the looming presence of Pat Riley, who is sure to be back on the sideline before this is all said and done, and you have a situation fit for a ring-less King. 

LBJ was the biggest thing in the state of Ohio.  That's a lot of weight to carry, if you're not prepared to do so.  Evidently the effort wore him out.  Now, he can kick back in South Beach, work on his "brand," and let someone else have to worry about all that extra curricular activity. 

I have no problem with LeBron leaving Cleveland.  He owes the city absolutely nothing.  For sevens years he helped bring massive attention to "The Mistake by the Lake."  He's not obligated to stay if he doesn't want to.  It is a cliche, but it is also true that this is a business, and LeBron made a business decision.  Though he left 30M on the table, it's not like he's hurting.  If he feels that he will be in a better frame of mind in Miami and will a have a better opportunity to win a title then he has earned the right to make the move.  He was loyal for seven years.  Again, he owes Cleveland nothing.

He also owes Cav's owner Dan Gilbert nothing.  Gilbert went on a what read like a drunken tirade Thursday night, making all sorts of incendiary accusations in the wake of LeBron's departure.  LeBron had done a pretty good job making an ass of himself through this whole process, but Gilbert's letter out-assed LeBron by leaps and bounds.  What would Gilbert have said if 'Bron had decided to stay in Cleveland?  Would 'Bron have still been "narcissistic" and "cowardly" then?  If he quit on the team so often in the past, why would Gilbert want him back anyway?  Gilbert is responsible for helping to create the beast, and then he gets mad when the now larger-than-life beast no longer obeys his orders?   Gilbert's response suggests that maybe 'Bron was right to shake the scene.  Such a classless outburst signals that Gilbert may not be the ideal owner to play for, particularly if it means living in a city as depressing as Cleveland.

LeBron is far from innocent in this, however.  To stage the announcement of his decision on ESPN was one of the most self-aggrandizing stunts in the history of American culture.  Based on the embarrassing way that he went out against the Celtics in the playoffs this year, you would think he might be just a lil' humble, but no.  It's as though all this free agency hoopla is supposed to erase the fact that you won more regular season games than anyone else the last two seasons, along with two MVP awards, but you have zero Finals appearances to show for it.

Court Jester James, the lack of championship rings and this media charade have badly damaged your so-called "brand."  Maybe someone should point out to you and those geniuses who handle your business that there was nothing to market here.  Your play on the court gives you the opportunity to market, but after seven years and no rings marketing opportunities start to slowly dry up.  Yes, all eyes were on you during this recent ego feast, but you should know that the criticism will be relentless now. Practically every time you lose a game you will be asked what's wrong, why can't the three of you play together, etc?  Don't get annoyed when the doubters and the haters come at you.  Seeing your jersey burned on national television will be the least of it.  You staged this clown show on ESPN, so don't get all bent out of shape when the same media that you dragged through all this starts clowning you in return.

I now hear that they are calling this new Miami trio, "The Three Kings."  D Wade even said that the three are perhaps the best trio to ever play together at the Friday press conference, more like a WWE event, announcing the signings.  That's a lot of talk for three guys who thus far have accomplished absolutely nothing as a team.  But in this era of "talk about it, don't be about it" I guess we should crown them press conference champs?

The digital era that we live in has exposed us to the concept of virtual reality.  This sense of the virtual helps explain LeBron's situation.  He is a virtual king, without a crown, now playing for a virtual championship team, without a ring.  Back in the real world though, where flesh and blood take the place of pixels, LeBron is an immature young adult in his mid 20s, who appears reluctant to accept the responsibilities that go along with all the accolades that have been thrust upon him.  When faced with frustration, disappointment, and an increasingly difficult challenge, LeBron decided to walk away and hide behind two of his friends.

In spite of how composed LeBron might sound, though he wasn't at all composed when making this announcement, he is a young man who has done nothing in his life but play basketball.   Until his level of maturity equals his skill level as a basketball player, he will continue to come up short in the game of life. Yes, life skills are the area of your game that needs the most work now. To this end,  I'm sure there are some good therapists in Miami.  And if you and your "team" are having trouble finding one, just holla at Ron Artest and he can give you the number to his.