Boudoir Blues: Notes on Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E.

To experience Teyana Taylor is an intoxicating adventure unto itself.  Poised and sculptured with sphinxlike regalia, she is one of those compelling creatures of any era whom ignite fascination amidst all they dare cross – a potent mixture of cunning, confidence, style, and sensuality that stretches across media, mediums, and formats through a wave of grace and symmetry.  Within her lies a sense of a reckless abandon, a restless excitement, a fervent desire, as if a delicious, capricious storm nestled in a bottle, ready to provoke wonders and terribles alike.  Whether or not she is chiefly aware of this radiance, Teyana has come to exemplify a sense of unabashed modernity that has been sorely missed in a musical environment overstuffed with carefully-crafted curators of taste.  It is in her brash, brutal honesty.  It is in her smooth, sumptuous stare.  It is in her cool, courageous moves.  And while her progressive first album, VII, may have introduced this entrancing persona of impeccable soul, it is her latest album, Keep That Same Energy (K.T.S.E.), that captures such sublimity with a fuller, grander realization.

Drenched in the crisp, yellowed majesty often unearthed in ancient vinyl collections, K.T.S.E. is a millennial recreation of a funk-laden past, a decadent, rapturous ode to the abundance of romance, the thrill of experimentation, the pleasure of self-care, and the mastery of freedom.  Through a slick, spellbinding rush of 22 minutes, we are taken into the mind-boggling neuroses of a chief seductress, untamed and unashamed in her necessities, spouting her beliefs and liberations as if gentle, nocturnal revelations, forging a perplexed stream-of-consciousness that becomes increasingly mystical and mystifying.  Here, she amplifies pillow talk into poetry, horniness into sanctity, and intercourse into revelation, pocketing our often-meaningless, animalistic whims into golden threads of luxury.  And yet, whilst embarking upon this incandescent sex odyssey, one at once feels the sumptuous splendor of true, indescribable love permeating through, garnishing each subsequent gem with a sincerity and charm that evades any possible shred of vulgarity.

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Much of this amorous grandeur is achieved through Teyana’s raw, silk-sodden voice.  Hers is one full of honeyed husk, refined rasp, and gorgeous gentility, able to shift between mournful yearns and explosive euphoria with artful ease.  She does not waste time attempting to manipulate our minds with a showcase of dizzying acrobatics, yet instead keenly focuses on embodying the same air of naked emotion that has been the hallmark of some of the most intriguing and breathtaking blues performers.  In truth, with its mixture of dexterous lovemaking and simplistic ambitions, Keep That Same Energy is perhaps one of the most effortless inversions of the blues genre that has emerged out of the Teens Decade, utilizing Teyana’s noirish vocals to an electrifying degree.  It is within the suspense-laden, mob-encrusted operetta of “Rose in Harlem,” its torturous beams of betrayal and loyalty flashing in chilling dread with every maniacal, symphonic shriek.  It is within “Gonna Love Me,” a near-sorrowful confession of reciprocated acceptance and affection in the face of unspeakable adversity, a tremendous loss of ego blanketed by the need to be held.  It is within the poignant, space-age hypnosis of “Issues/Hold On,” the awesome, unnerving epiphany of one’s romantic failures equating to one’s history colliding against a cartoonish army of arcade sparks.  Upon even the warmest of the album’s trim 8 tracks, there is an overwhelming sense of emotion, a hidden layer of sadness that packs a marvelous punch.

Who else could turn the illustrious boudoir fantasy of having a threesome into a slow-burning religious awakening?  Who else could transform the amusement tawdriness of “WTP” into a bold, psychedelic ride of sociopolitical theatrics?  Though slightly out of place, it is the latter that perhaps best captures the most adventurous atmospheres of K.T.S.E., coolly aligning Teyana with her spiritual forebearer Grace Jones whilst bowing with respect to the black ball culture which seems to have been created and inspired by both fearless, impassioned women.  The frenetic, outrageous cousin to executive producer Kanye West’s “Fade,” a house-laden song whose beguiling, iconic clip launched the first true glimpse into the current enigma that is Ms. Taylor, “WTP” ends the album in a colossal, heart-stopping haze, extracting the stark blues that preceded it with renewal and rebirth.  It is also a reminder of the brevity of K.T.S.E., creating in its own way, a desire to hear much more from the soulful seductress, a desire for the album to continue on with more excitement and beauty and chill.

In truth, of all the five albums Kanye produced and released throughout 2018, K.T.S.E. may, in fact, be the most enchanting.  It may not marinate in dramatic, innovative risks; however, it is still an intricate, intimate, well-woven mosaic detailing the endless multitude of illusions, devotions, and dreams of love.  One feels deeply aware and privy, as if sauntering through Teyana’s thoughts and ideas in the same rhythms and paces, untangling the complexities of her hunger and cravings in absolute tandem.  At times, this can exude a voyeuristic confusion, of feeling as if there is too much shared or known or discovered.  Yet, in the same breath, such revelations gleam with even brighter humanity and spirit, crisscrossing over our own, allowing us to feel as if we are one.  With the retro-tinged futurism of K.T.S.E., Teyana Taylor emerges as one of the most startling talents of the current Pop landscape, possessing us with an exquisite elegance that never seems to quit.

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Goodbye, Summer: Lana Del Rey’s “Mariners Apartment Complex”

One can only be impressed by Lana Del Rey’s artistic clockwork.  At the dawn of her career, she retooled the supreme, luxurious melancholy of early 1960s girl groups for a new era, swiftly connecting those halcyon Camelot days of JFK’s presidency with 21st century America’s pride and fascination with another charismatic world leader.  Adorned with mile-high hair and Cleopatra-winged lashes, Lana embodied all the desired glamour and glory from a nation still proud of its prominence and culture, her music a searing, naïve reflection of the simplistic tragedies of young love.  Yet, as the earlier, cheery idealism of the Teens Decade slowly fell into cold, nervous splendor, so did Lana’s art slowly change from mere patriotic wanderlust to a complex collection of altered ideals and values.  This especially came to fore on her last studio album, Lust for Life, which depicted the once malt-shop millennial as a bewildered flower child, succumbing to the Trumpian numbness and anxiety buzzing around her.  Like the decade of which she so dearly borrowed, Lana began to view our own current epoch as fracturing, dividing, bursting at the seams, and she realized that, like those pillbox hatters of yesteryear, she would either have to adapt or die.

It is that sentiment which makes her latest track “Mariners Apartment Complex” even more evocative.  Completely devoid of the sheen-driven hallmarks of the Golden Age of Pop, it is an effortless love letter to the Californian folk scene of the early 1970s, a faded, modern remnant of the retired, well-educated hippies of Laurel Canyon spilling their secretive heartbreaks and epiphanies amidst marijuana smoke.  Here she has left behind a whimsical, fabulous existence for something more tranquil and underground, yet even within this solitude she has found, there remains the stark darkness of her past, desperately bleeding into newfound unions.  “Don’t look too far, right where you are, that’s where I am,” she calls over a sweeping piano, totally shifting convention and tone with the mantra-like: “I’m your man, I’m your man.”  It is a profound, chilling exploration of persona and expectation, how our pain has a way of finding us when we have long-since let it go, and how we then pacify the woes and beliefs of others for our own peace.

Especially coming off the heels of summer, there exists within a palpable mixture of unease and finality, pushing all emotions into a shimmering pool of shadows.  One feels the harsh beads of sweat sliding down their face.  One sees the cool dance of trees shaking in the wind.  One hears the raucous lullabies of crickets and cicadas filling the great beyond.  Already a master of mood and atmosphere, Lana embraces her greatest lo-fi, bohemian instincts without fear nor concern, giving herself away to dreamlike depths and psychedelic lethargy, engulfing us with bejeweled sunsets and abandoned dirt roads.  Even in the frigidity of winter, it feels as if “Mariners Apartment Complex” would still radiate with such warmth and heat, sizzling against our skulls in senseless harmony.  And that is precisely what makes it such an incredible move: though we know less of what is to follow, the track itself reminds us how vital Lana’s presence is in the current Pop scene, how she brings to the table what others often miss.  And as the nation grows deeper in introspection and sobriety, Lana seems to be telling us that she will be close behind, telling the stories that we cannot.

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Schooled: A Personal Reflection on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

  1. The Girl in the Video

There was something in the air during the summer of 1998 – a buzz of the new century inching closer, brushing through ancient ideals, dispelling once truths into falsehoods, praising all radicals as the new convention.  Even within my nine-year-old bones, I could feel the tide shifting and turning, knew that we were veering into greater, stranger, cooler places we had never once encountered or even imagined.  Blocked I was from the ruthless scandals and politics surging above my crown, but through the medium of music video, my mind seemed educated enough, fed by a nourishment of images at once surreal, disturbing, breathtaking, and beautiful which steadily pushed the boundaries of my burgeoning thoughts and beliefs.  It was through MTV and its respective visual network cohorts that I first learned of alternate fashions, lifestyles, relationships, and worlds.  An avid scholar, I would tape as many countdown and late-night programs devoted to the art form, studying them with fascination and depth, learning every frame until it was burned into my skull.  To me, music videos were portals to artistic possibilities.  To me, music videos were introductions to challenging my senses.

And perhaps, within that spellbinding summer, no clip challenged said senses greater than that of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).”  Devised as a split-screen of a New York block party taking place simultaneously in 1967 and 1998, the video is a masterful smorgasbord of black life, capturing with a slick, anthropological lens the wave of history and culture within a community, highlighting its plethora of changes and emphasizing its perennial consistencies.  With Lauryn painted both as the consummate Copa crooner and hip-hop goddess, singing from her tenement window and before a rambunctious crowd, an incredible thread was created, aligning the disparate decades between with ease and chill, bringing to fore a love and respect for lives often ignored and neglected.  As I watched with increasing wonder, she appeared, in many ways, an enlightened spirit designed to bridge gaps, tie loose ends, and her immaculate hymn, backed by panic-driven piano and devoted to self-respect and self-pride, only made this apparition appear most tangible.  Who was this queen radiating across the screen?  I asked my naïve self.  Who was this girl in the video?

But, of course, I’d already known her from other clips.  In the videos for Fugees’ “Ready Or Not” and “Killing Me Softly,” I had fallen under Lauryn Hill’s impeccably innate mixture of charm, beauty, and style, feeling as if I could have known her as I also felt as if she could not have been any more impossible to comprehend.  Yet, there was something about “Doo Wop” that completely altered my perception, glorifying her singular magnitude, positioning her upon a spectacular planet of her very own.  With each subsequent viewing, I became enthralled, fanatical, desperate for something new, something that revealed more of this sparkling greatness.  And within a month, I got what I’d wished for.

2. The Car Ride

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Like most children, my first introductions to what music “mattered” arose in the car.  When you are too young to dictate the turn of the radio dial, you are at the mercy at whatever your parent or guardian chooses to inflict, subjected to their own means of “taste” and, for quite a bit onward, relate this “taste” to your own.  Many end up growing with utter disdain for those particular sounds filtered to through their adult counterparts as it becomes too distant from their individual pleasures; however, it would be absurd for myself to join such cliques.  In truth, what was thrown my way during those early, formative years were some of the most intriguing and crystalline pop, R&B, and hip-hop emerging at that moment.  Though my parents had been cultivated on a steady diet of jazz and funk, their sophistications never barred popular music from our ears, and, particularly with my mother, such commercial sounds were deeply encouraged if their abilities to transform were just and foremost.  As a teacher, my mother recognized the scholastic powers that music could achieve in ways lectures could not, and raised me to view art as an agent of change, as an agent of knowledge.

And so, it came to no surprise when on our car rides, she blasted The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill with such ferocity and fervor.  From its vivid, poignant lyricism that advocated for a greater awareness and understanding within the black community to its neo-realist interludes evoking the restless, perplexing atmosphere of a classroom, it was an album born out of the desire to teach and educate, to fill one’s mind with thoughts never had, dreams never awakened, facts never stated, feelings never stirred.  It was an album created to assuage fears, conquer anxieties, deny division, and reject indignities.  It was an album designed to expound philosophies, celebrate romance, and, above all, radicalize complacency.  Offhand, such ambitious endeavors could spark intimidation or preponderance within the listening experience.  Yet, filtered through the courageous consciousness of hip hop, morose serenity of jazz, and mystical agony of soul, one did not feel bombarded, preached, or engulfed by its wisdom and truths.  Instead, one felt enlivened, understood, and reawakened.  Instead, one felt as if something majestic was occurring.

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Upon those car rides, I fell hard for its contents.  I fell hard for its grooves, its vibes, its passions.  I fell hard for its highs, its lows, its colossal nexuses.  I began to see her as my educator, as my guide, as my guru.  I began to see her as a soothsayer, a teller of futures and times unknown.  Though it would take years for its greatest emotional resonances to truly ring honest, there seemed even at that time a marvelous familiarity to my comprehension, giving me the tools to view the world with wider introspection.  “Doo Wop” fiercely championed the gilded purity of the body and the mind over wasted distractions.  The Aristotelian “Everything is Everything” began with “I wrote these words, for everyone, who struggles in their youth” before painting a vivid portrait of injustice and inhumanity in a deceptive society.  The dew-drop ebullience of “Nothing Even Matters” irresistibly rhapsodized the vitality of love over materialism, romance over appearance, intimacy over notoriety.  And “To Zion,” intensely and unabashedly confessional, restructured the concept of motherhood, revealing the artist not merely as the goddess I had first imagined her to be, but also as a living, breathing human being, capable of forsaking artistic selfishness for the sake of her family.

As it were, it was that very declaration of parental sacrifice that would haunt our growing appetite for her assurance and growth.  For as much as Lauryn became a symbol of racial pride, activism, feminism, and artistic genius, she winced and cowered at such influence and responsibility.  We may have seen a beautiful, intelligent, young black woman, confident and powerful, on the cusp of absolute global domination.  However, Lauryn only saw herself as someone who wanted to explore and live out her dreams.  And once she got them, it appeared that she no longer wanted them anymore.

3. The Misunderstanding of Lauryn Hill

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When Lauryn Hill first disappeared in 2000, the world had shifted.  No one could figure out why someone with such talent, charisma, and appeal would choose a life of seclusion and exile.  Why throw away that fame and financial security?  Why drift away from that privilege and prestige?  Why lose that authority and clout?  To the millions of outsiders looking in, it seemed an act of desperation, of ill-health, of insanity, and it was before too long that the image and persona of Lauryn Hill as an erratic, difficult, maniacal creature began to overshadow all of the goodwill and appreciation that once seemed second nature once uttering her name.  Even I felt quite bewildered by such movements, confused as to why the goddess I once dearly loved had turned her back, had stopped gifting us with her vast, endless expertise.  Yet, within time, I began to understand that what had happened to such a bright, incandescent star as Lauryn Hill was merely the symptom of being young, gifted, and black.

Born into a nation and society that often ridicules and prejudges one’s worth, black youth are often not raised to believe that our particular talents or gifts carry any validity.  Even when our skills are obvious and present, there often comes a moment in which the ability to fully achieve those skills to our highest levels is snuffed out and left for ruin.  It is no surprise then that when a person is actually able to reach their greatest potential, we raise and place that being on the tallest shelf, displaying them with immense pride and glee, aligning and associating each and every achievement with our own.  These black geniuses then become vessels for our hopes, our desires, and our progress; these black geniuses then become the best our race has to offer.  However, there is something deeply unsettling about being forced into such a role without any true aspiration.  It becomes even more unsettling once that same vision viewed by one’s race is soon accepted by the greater population.  In that instance, one no longer feels enraptured by their power, yet trapped and disturbed.  In that instance, everything changes.

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And that was precisely the finale of that masterful hip-hop soulstress.  She could no longer be a posterchild, a pawn, a mascot.  She could no longer play the game and act the part.  She wanted to be free as an artist, as a woman, as a black person, as a human being.  She wanted to be free as a mother, as a lover, as a friend, as herself.  And since that freedom was no longer potent in her artistic life, Lauryn left it behind for solace and clarity and a peace of mind.  For decades, she has made various comebacks and appearances, startling the public with her electrifying presence, yet none of these endeavors have stuck, perhaps due to a world that has become increasingly more fame-obsessed and celebrity-starved.  She, at this point, seems far beyond the gild and garishness that has become the norm.  Instead, she remains an indelible remnant of a transformative era, a groundbreaking virtuoso, a misunderstood myth.

And yet, it is that mythology which makes The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill such a remarkable wonder to spin 20 years later.  Though the impeccable, genre-bending album continues to be the most formal, complete work Lauryn Hill has ever released, it also continues to astound, excite, and tantalize – it also continues to reach within our coldest, darkest, angriest emotions and replenish them with a sense of fulfillment and reflection.  Never has its lost any of its vitality and freshness, never has it lost any of its spirit and knowledge.  As if an unbreakable talisman, the album continues to bring light and luck to all whom cross its path, annihilating prejudices and pains, simmering poise and excellence, extolling mirth and insight.  It is essential, it is imperative, it is necessary.  Staring at its brilliant cover of a drawing of Lauryn’s wise head harshly etched into a school desk, it is hard to imagine a life or a world in which its majesty does not exist.  And, in truth, that is a world in which I would never want to live.

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The Vicious Cycle: Hope Raney’s “Round and Round”

There should be an ease in ending something ruinous.  There should be a smooth, solid slide away from absurdity, a cool, calculated escape from mania.  Oftentimes, upon the sight of others, we foolishly assume that if in similar dire states, our own souls would arise polished and spotless, completely evading any possibility for victimhood or casualty.  Yet, in truth, it is only once we indeed move within those moments do we realize the complexities lurking behind such removals from romance – only then do we see the vicious cycle that dependency creates, like a wild ouroboros forever swallowing down its own tail.  Between two worlds we seem to exist, knowing what is right for the mind yet allowing the heart to dictate, until, suddenly, the rose-tinted visions of beauty and sweetness fade entirely and we are left no longer entertained by the tortures of love.  Instead, beaten and bruised by ridiculous repetition, we finally submit and obey our desires for peace and harmony, deeply altered, believing it is much wiser to live with clarity than confusion.

Perhaps nowhere more recently is this present than on the R&B futurism of Hope Raney’s “Round and Round.”  Set against a tidal wave of stellar synths and marvelous, thudding bass, the burgeoning Pop creator’s ode to the end of a romance feels cosmic and breathtaking, a splendid parade of tension and drama lurking amidst its ultrachill veneer.  This is further exemplified through Hope’s soothing, soul-drenched drawls, echoed and distorted with impeccable frenzy, as if sparking through a glitched-out transmission from another planet.  Here, we are given immense heartbreak in zero-gravity, aching and tugging as we saunter within an intergalactic abyss, tying up loose ends and never turning back within a village of constellations.  “Like a circle just replayin’ what we had,” she emphatically coos, the production itself twirling, whirling, and spiraling with a narcotic breeze, coating all lingering anger and pain in a wondrous layer of frost and finality.  “I can’t keep goin’ round and round with you.”  Upon Hope’s stargazing space opera, there are no more possibilities for reconciliation, no points of return; though the wounds are still potent, she is fully prepared to release the fool she once loved in exchange for something greater and more alive.

At under three minutes, “Round and Round” is precisely what Pop is all about: a rush, a near-mirage, spinning and twisting so quickly that it is not unlike a magnetic dream abruptly ended.  With intricate touches of overflowing emotion and a slick slither of hip-hop cadence, it is an exercise in earworm classicism teetering off the edge of modernity, igniting a collision of epiphany and brutality – of forcing oneself to alter errors and take risks – that gives the loose, laconic track its incredible power.  Although there is no certainty of what glory and happiness may reach Hope once she has exited the union, it is the firm, inflexible knowledge and assurance that she deserves better that sticks and remains hardest.  No longer does she wish to waste time, no longer does she wish to regress; she can only, in her current frame of freedom and self-respect, envision going forward.  She can only, in her current frame of truth, envision change.

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Under the Influence: Notes on Sweetener

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Ariana Grande is the most contemporary Pop creation of the 21st century.  There is no artist who possesses greater ease amidst the exhilarating, mind-boggling movement and speed of the here and now, the preposterous present which gleams itself beautiful and maddening at once.  There is no artist who coolly communicates to her audiences, analysts, and abstractors with such didactic warmth and simplistic depth, choosing the most immaculate letters, language, and leaning as if directing armies or subjects.  There is no artist who conveys in style and in work the cheerful awareness of a century just setting upon its heels, kissing the collision of genres, cultures, and philosophies unabashed and wild.  It is an effortless, seamless majesty exuded, conveying a being capable of any and every whim, exacting a person both of and outside our imagination.  At once, with that impossible voice and magnetic ponytail, Ariana is an amphitheater angel, shojo soulstress, choral conqueror, and modern maestro, engulfing and embodying environs typically uncrossed and unmeasured.  A breathing encyclopedia of stage, song, and slang, she is the girl-genius-next-door, incredibly familiar yet ecstatically untouchable.  Others may bridge gaps and stitch holes and align spaces on the periphery, yet there is simply no one navigating through the current, anxious, tide-shifting landscape of Pop quite as confidently, surely, and masterfully.

Such an innate grasp on the millennial soundscape already proved spellbinding on her third record, Dangerous Woman.  Designed as a loose dissertation on the sexual and romantic odysseys of young womanhood and released during one of the most exciting musical years of the decade, the album luxuriated in its keen, coming-of-age resonance, allowing the polished synth-laden perfection of super-producer Max Martin to elevate her woes, worries, and wonders into that of high drama.  Within those state-of-the-art confines, Ariana transformed and established herself into the signature siren of her generation, bringing to fore a sense of maturity and growth without forsaking amusement and vitality.  In the same token, because Dangerous Woman burst with such modernity, it appeared she had inexplicably captured the entire half-decade too impeccably, pushing her to a space for possible, comfortable doom.  However, with Sweetener, her sly, sublime, and spectacular fourth album of froth and finality, Ariana has gleefully escaped such dismal trappings, opting entirely for a new, fresher palette which to embark upon.  It is with Sweetener in which the idyll is married to the innovative, in which the twinkle of today is replaced by the ferocity of the future.

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First and foremost, it takes a certain supreme vocalist to allow themselves shared importance with ambiance; history is consumed with chanteuses whom deliberately choose simple, sparse, nonthreatening productions in order to accentuate their brilliance and mastery.  Yet, on Sweetener, by way of the incomparable vanguard Pharrell Williams, Ariana is absolutely thrilled to be altered into an agent of change.  Eschewing the kind of monumental, big-hearted balladry of which she was clearly invented, she marinates in radical hypnosis and meditation, sauntering amidst sedation, digging deeper under the avant-garde influence.  It is an act of diva defiance and rejuvenation, an exploration of an artist who is chiefly aware of their strengths without any desire to force or strain such.  Instead reigns a perverse confidence and knowledge, something magnificent and wildly independent, glowing in its passions and uncertainties, evolving into an acute dynamism to push boundaries and discredit limits.  Sweetener is Ariana’s most adventurous, her most psychedelic record – the kind of wistful, whimsical album that toggles and boggles, that is just as mind-altering as the substances it so greatly mimics.

How else could one feel but serene and spiritual against the rumbling, tumbling bass rushing in medias res upon the mirrored ball tenderness of “Blazed,” its smooth, classical slice of live lounge spontaneity veering simultaneously into magnetic ecstasy and terrifying bewilderment?  How else could one feel but fortuitous and faded against the ultrachill, ultramellow snaps and hiccups cascading throughout the wintry, music-box glamour of “R.E.M.” as if intoxicated constellations illuminating the dreariest of night skies?  How else could one feel but enthralled and entranced against the skittering, tittering throb crawling across “Goodnight and Go,” first in heady, hardcore heartbeats and then exploding into a spectral wave of complete euphoria and exuberance?  How else could one feel but buoyant and blissful against the sun-drenched, funk-laden stroll of “Successful,” its stumping spotlit sublimity simmering with a lush, dancehall luxury?  Within Sweetener’s gingered confines, there is an ambitious aim to exude a peace, calm, and harmony, to pacify and soothe; even aboard the album’s busiest and most complex productions, there remains that dignified layer of restraint and lull, keeping one constantly in a state of marvelous, dreamy bewitchment.

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Never is this truer than on “The Light Is Coming,” the strangest yet most captivating of her experiments.  Commencing with immense abrasion – a callous, unsettling thud slapping underneath the distorted voice of a politician reaching his breaking point – it is unlike anything she has ever created, scaling into a noirish, Dadaist netherworld with its earth-shattering crushes and jovial marathons.  One feels both accosted and assuaged, drunk on the madness teeming at every edge yet somehow blanketed in its grandeur, knowingly reaching stratospheres outside of logic and reason with a sense of anxiety and anticipation.  There are beeps and bumps, squeaks and squawks, twinkles and tingles – each of them rushing at full-speed, uncaring of their inevitable collisions, perhaps even enraptured by the mere prospect.  It is that reckless abandon which gives it such gusto and gild, which locks the body and mind into states of shock and steadiness; there is a blueprint of tomorrow within those four spellbinding minutes, preparing us for things to come, epitomizing commercial music’s highest aspirations.

Yet, if Sweetener is undoubtedly her most psychedelic, surreal album, then it is also her most soulful.  Vocally, Ariana has always been an apprentice of the most imperious, taking cues from those ethereal, eternal goddesses whose sprightly growls and torrential murmurs often render the spirit catatonic beyond recognition.  She bathed in their brightness, she soaked in their sentiment, she steeped in their succulence – she was a descendent prepared for a path typified by lone microphones and little black dresses.  However, Ariana’s innate colloquial modernity of delivering words with a studied, slang-ridden drawl has always pushed her into avenues elsewhere, and upon her latest work, she doubles-down on this millennial poetry, bringing her velveted voice down a few notches and exercising a sense of wonder never before witnessed.  Within each song, as she rises and falls, Ariana is enraptured by her own joy and contemplation, repackaging the lyricism in every unbridled wave and bawl so that it feels almost improvised and preternatural.  In one of her contemporaries’ hands, it would all fade into trickery, gimmickry, and falsehoods.  Yet, building upon this styling as the album tickles through its 47 minutes, this enchanted crooner exemplifies that mixture of church and carnal most sacred within Pop; in her hands, we feel as if there is no difference between the heavens and the bedpost.

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Take the dewy, gooey titular track, which curiously oscillates between smirking seduction, nocturnal deliverance, and doo-wop ratchetry with refined splendor, her “make me so ‘Ohh!’” equal parts holy and orgasmic.  Or the brilliantly devout doublespeak of “God Is A Woman,” coming off as if one of the most sensuous sermons one has ever given at the pulpit, its hollow, goosebump-inducing outro ornamented by a haunting, thrilling choir, a sense of doom and glory in rhapsodic symmetry.  Or even take the rapturous, intergalactic opera of “No Tears Left to Cry,” an ode to liberation and freedom showered in gorgeous swirls, shouts, and calls not dissimilar to those found in sanctuaries and Sunday schools.  Fascinatingly enough, however, the album’s most incredible and impressive vocal does not follow such a pattern: instead, “Get Well Soon” is a poignant throwback to the keenest of 1950s pop, invoking malt shops and sock hops at the same moment it unfolds into a confession of fear and destruction.  It is a remarkable rush, wallowing in its self-deprecation and self-doubt, unshakable in its affirmation and optimism, visceral, callous, eruptive in its gentility.  Here, the soulful renditions reach a maximum peak, an effective climax, guiding us from valley to hilltop to mountaintop to valley again, channeling the mind’s incorrigible penchant for diversion and denial in the most sensible and nourishing tone.  Here, she is leaving us with something to hold onto.  Here, she is leaving us with something to change our lives.

And it is that sense of respect and wisdom which Sweetener best embodies.  It is a work of art birthed from a being still reeling from catastrophe, abundant in its confidence and direction, though masterfully entangled with disorder and respite.  One feels the overwhelming power of love and romance, of adoration and admiration, of promise and commitment.  One feels the beautiful, almost desperate necessity to expound all truths, epiphanies, discoveries, and affections.  Were it caked in darker, gloomier hues with colder, more somber dispositions, one may go away from such an album feeling the weight of the world upon their shoulders, feeling as if there were no true hope at all.  Yet, with Ariana’s awesome arrangement of avant-garde majesty, we are instead struck by the possibilities of catharsis, of resolution, of mirth.  With Sweetener, we are instead struck by the possibilities of beginning again.

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Breaking Through The Looking-Glass: Notes on Whitney Houston

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What does one say about the ultimate crossover star?  That queen, that goddess.  That searing, impenetrable, unimaginable beacon erupting from a mystical beyond, naturally gifted with gifts out of nature, effortlessly divine by way of divine effort, teeming with electric grace and timeless beauty, shattering through heights never once seen through that most rarefied of vocal talents: the innate ability to be light and dark, high and low, saccharine and scholarly, buoyant and broken all at once.  For a brief, surreal moment in time, she existed upon the earth almost by magic, wading through the titanic rush of history, utilized as a shining national siren pacifying mounted fears of apathy and alienation.  Painted and glossed to oblivion, she embodied progress, prominence, and prestige, epitomizing with her majestic background of classic soul singers as cousins that most fascinating yet oft-ignored American archetype: a black girl with a pedigree.  For many, it was that glamorous, vibrant image of which struck the loudest chord, sticking within minds the belief they were witnessing a constant, one-woman beauty pageant.  Yet, it was also the image of which obscured the genius, the mastery, the glory she emitted stronger than any other singer of her generation, something impossibly unknown to the mere mortals which she had the misfortune of existing around.

In truth, preoccupation with image both amidst the mixture of black culture and pop culture did not commence with Whitney.  Keenly aware of the historical belief that many entertainers of color were seen as loud, brash, and uncouth, the Supremes and their contemporaries were buffered and polished into cornerstones of sophistication, once-ghettofied children easily digestible for the classiest of clientele.  However, whereas the Motown set lavished in its regal, imperious standards that came off increasingly refined and untouchable, Whitney’s organic air of royalty was stretched and made accessible through a collision of everyday and otherworldly, where she appeared the girl-next-door with the most unusual radiance.  She was, in many ways, entirely perfect for the MTV world of which she was launched, showing a mesmeric quality that escaped the notion that she was, in fact, performing just as groundbreaking of feats as her predecessors.  Prior to her appearance on the burgeoning video channel, there were not many other women of color able to gain massive exposure.  Yet, there was no possibility anyone could deny someone so pretty and poised, so endearing and illuminated.  Even if this radiance was often misjudged as a falsehood or gimmick, Whitney Houston’s mere existence was earthshattering, a political campaign in and of itself.

It is why there lies such a tragic darkness upon her premature demise.  How, over time, there grew instead of appreciation and acknowledgement of a voice beyond comprehension, an agonizing perception of superficiality and fakery.  She was cast continuously as a person out of touch with her culture and community, a fool who had abused her privileges as a black Barbie doll without injecting any meaning or message behind her words.  Yet, how could such idiocies have been invented when her boundary-busting appeal spoke louder volumes than any social declaration?  How could such silliness been sired when that irresistible, soulful coo first cooked within the church choir was so obvious and so lucid upon each and every track she has recorded?  It is there in her earliest renderings – the sublime “Saving All My Love For You” that is so smooth and so silky one easily forgets its ode to infidelity, the boisterous “How Will I Know” that collides pulpit with prom night, and, most swiftly, the masterful evocation of Sunday school hymnal that is “The Greatest Love of All.”  And of course, it is there, magnified and dignified, in her crowning achievement – the most succulent, sumptuous, serene peon to romance, “I Will Always Love You.”  Even in her gooiest stage – primarily on that artifact of sheen Whitney – she still revealed herself as a child of the sanctuary, deeply aware of that fine line between turmoil and triumph, hitting always with expertise and without error.

Who else could have exacted such a stirring, mind-boggling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” aligning generations, races, sexes, and religions, bombastic and free?  Who else could have challenged romantic and sexual taboos through the shimmer of Hollywood cinema, creating screen classicism by kissing one of the world’s biggest white action stars on an airplane runway?  And who else could have reestablished our entire order of vocal styling, influencing decades and decades of aspiring artists who must be aware they can never touch her halo?  There lives within humanity a desire to disturb the brilliance of others by our envy or perplexity of their motives.  In our minds, we desire a trajectory for our idols to follow and when they deviate or do not live up to those ideals, our faith falters and we turn our backs.  Yet, perhaps the most miraculous attribute that Whitney possessed was her lack of interest in proving herself as an activist and agent of change.  She knew instead that her power lied greatest in her art and she let that break down walls, alter perceptions, delight bodies, and satisfy souls; she allowed her impeccable skills to bring togetherness and unity and harmony into the world.  Most importantly, however, she allowed her presence to signify a shift, a move, a turn.  Never had people seen anyone as mythical and enchanting, yet as tangible and bright.  Never had people seen anyone as soft and beautiful, yet as strong and full of might.  And perhaps, never people will see anyone as such ever again.

What does one say about the ultimate crossover star?  She lived, and it was gorgeous.

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Jennifer Lopez, Video Vanguard

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Therein lies amidst this dear, quixotic century, an anxious necessity to declare greatness with spellbinding speed.  Even before something may even deserve such praise and glory, we find it absolutely paramount to extoll and project an influence or importance or impact, as if desperately hoping that our extravagant affirmation will somehow create truth.  Part of this may stem from the fact that we are living in a century not yet fully-formed, not yet knowledgeable of its values, qualities, and ideals.  There is, after all, much unfinished and undone, much waiting to be understood and concluded – an entire world patient in its eventual recreation.  Yet another part of this desire to find significance in every shred of newness is the fact that popular culture has wildly grown into a legitimate culture in and of itself.  Sometime in the 1990s, the last grasp of popular conservatism failed to keep tight in a world inundated by The Simpsons, gangsta rap, and Geraldo, giving way to a society ready to sever its snobbish perplexities and fully embrace the reckless environs of pop culture.  What was once lowbrow and tawdry slowly became mainstream and mainstay, transforming how we thought, spoke, lived, and dreamed as we veered closer to the dawn of the millennium.

It was amongst these radical cultural upheavals that MTV had emerged victorious, somehow able to reinterpret and refashion all of the madness and ebullience with their plethora of mind-boggling cartoons, dramas, and, of course, music videos.  The Video Music Awards, then, had grown to become MTV’s flagship special – a maniacal, anarchic parade of pop culture du jour, bringing in the most entertaining and controversial celebrities and personalities to self-destruct under one roof with a level of hilarity, sincerity, and absolute aplomb.  During those final days of the millennium, it was infallible and highly-anticipated in its ability to provoke conversation, thought, and alter perceptions of music and fame.  Yet, as the century began and the channel devoted to youth rearranged its schedule, so did the magic and allure of that fateful award show.  Little by little, its vitality diminished, until its current state of bewilderment and doubt.  For many, it will never return to its mythical magnificence, too far gone for its own good.  However, if there is one reason for any to continue to acknowledge its presence, it is the burgeoning importance of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

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Because as the VMAs fell into ruin, it lifted its most coveted award to the highest degree, creating a mystical lifetime achievement for the most iconic video artists.  In certain ways, this seems a breathtaking glorification only given to those in the midst of some sort of vague commercial return to the spotlight.  However, there is merit in receiving such an honor – the only one of its kind for an art form that appears to still be seen with cynicism.  Music video is, by far, one of the most accessible, charming, and efficient mediums, mixing song, dance, and poetry into astonishing displays of passion, freedom, and liberation.  Many are designed for thrill and bliss, whilst others strive for ambition and depth.  Yet, regardless of which angle chosen, music videos simply have the capacity to do what many other art forms cannot: completely change one’s life within the span of three minutes – bringing to fore ideas, concepts, theories, and philosophies by the unyielding glamour of image and sound.  The way we are seduced, enthralled, entranced.  The way we are stunned, surprised, amazed.  Glimpsing some of the art form’s greatest pieces, it is no wonder of why the VMAs even began and why MTV, at its tallest, was a monumental force to be reckoned with.

And in truth, that Golden Age of Music Video may be somewhere far beyond our reach.  However, there is no mistaking that Jennifer Lopez, the impending recipient of the Video Vanguard Award, desired to keep that ornate era alive as long as possible.  Though she did not possess vocals of girth, strength, and soul, Jennifer did possess a preternatural sense of confidence, vivacity, and ferocity, springing to life before any and every camera of which crossed her path.  She was a consummate dancer above all, but also an actress of unimaginable connection and honesty, casting excitable familiarity and capricious sensuality, never apologizing for her irresistible attraction yet never allowing it to supersede her bounty.  In videos, in particular, Jennifer found the greatest and most appreciative vehicle for her diversified talents, giving the world the striking image of a Latina unbelievably powerful and untouchable – a true one-of-a-kind that could not be boxed in or characterized.  Reaching closer to her receiving the Video Vanguard, I cannot help but think of that visual splendor, and though there may be too many to acknowledge, for me, there are perhaps five videos that have truly shaped not only my existence, yet also my perception of Jennifer Lopez as one of the most incredible musical personalities of our time.

If You Had My Love

Most debut clips serve merely as auditions for the upstarts-in-question, glorified screen-tests that possess far more awkwardness than allure.  However, in the sensuous, ultra-modern Orwellian landscape of “If You Had My Love,” Jennifer smoothly embodies a tantalizing virtuoso, writhing panther-like down darkened hallways, swinging limbs across cozy chairs in brightened rooms, her only focus upon the cameras streaming her every move to faceless followers across the globe.  Primarily seen through the hungry, turned-on perspective of a young slacker, the futuristic, millennial gloss evokes the glacial depravity of cheap porn – that slick, sly comfort in saturating your mind with eroticism.  However, it is both Jennifer’s total confidence in her body (especially during a jaw-dropping breakdown) and in her words that twists the lurid fantasy upon its head, revealing the starlet as a dominant master, teasing and toying with unbridled pleasure.

Waiting for Tonight

The dawn of the new millennium struck both fascination and fear within the hearts of the world’s population, causing even the most rational to question technology’s strength once the clocks hit the year 2000.  And although the inclusion of such tropes grew abundant the closer the 20th century moved towards its finale, the mesmerizing, immaculate clip for “Waiting for Tonight” – perhaps her finest – transformed that now-amusing confusion into something majestic, wondrous, and spectacular.  Chronicling the singer and her clique voyaging through the jungle on the hunt for festivities, we are first baked in darkened, noirish palettes and then beautifully accosted by an army of lime lasers, flickering and frolicking with immediacy, anticipation, and even tension.  Split in between scenes of Jennifer’s body delicately encrusted by twinkling gems, there is a maddening, suffocating anxiety lurking amidst the enchantment, reaching a fever pitch once the clock indeed strikes midnight and all party-goers pause as the lights die.  Yet, six seconds later, there is power once more and the party continues without error, giving comfort and ease where there was only despair, pacifying our doom with the delight of dance.

Love Don’t Cost A Thing

Sometime in the early millennium, the music video grew into a shiny, shimmering machine of arrogance and frivolity, unashamed and unconcerned with the excess in which it basked.  It was about pure spectacle, pure theatrics, pure dramatics – and for an artist like Jennifer Lopez, it was perhaps the most beneficial period of prominence.  Having recently broken with hip hop magnate P. Diddy, the unwavering veneer of “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” creates an excellent dissection of celebrity culture by wallowing in the varnish that so dearly characterized her former lover while also bemoaning its horrific and destructive tendencies.  Sickened and trapped by the empty, meaningless materialism surrounding her, Jennifer leaves her sprawling mansion, hits the freeway, and disposes herself of every sparkling remembrance of a life she no longer values.  Nothing seems to matter anymore, nothing will ever replace the boundless, incredulous romance permeating within her soul.  As she finds solace on a vacant beach awash with Antonioni existentialism, she receives a postcard from her absentee amour yet, without pause, rips it deliriously – relishing in her newfound liberation, in her wily escape of a banal existence, in her gorgeous return to self.

Jenny from the Block

While “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” shunned the wasted decadence of which unlimited funds can afford, the verbose celebration of “Jenny from the Block” signaled a complete and utter retraction, salivating in mindless glitz and ostentation with the zeal of a Roman emperor.   Though highly criticized for its brazen, flagrant display of the then-magnanimous relationship between Jennifer and Ben Affleck, the clip of her most iconic single actually seamlessly evokes the then-rising obsession with fame permeating American society, interplaying shots of a supremely ghetto fabulous Jennifer dancing upon the street with rapid snaps of she and her boytoy aboard yachts taken by an unseen paparazzo.  This kind of purple-tinged voyeurism may not radiate or titillate in the same fashion of her debut video, yet its glorious prelude to the TMZ madness of which we live today – feeding our disgust and intrigue for 1% life – feels just as vital.

I’m Glad

Homages to classic films can be quite tricky in music video, however Jennifer’s warm, flawless recreation of Flashdance, arguably the first movie geared and marketed towards MTV consumers, is one of the genre’s most exhilarating tokens of affection.  Perfectly painted as Alex Owens, the steel worker who moonlighted as an exotic dancer, the effortlessly stylish clip is an undeniable showcase of a lifetime of movement, reimagining the starlet as a brilliant, optimistic novice fighting for her moment in the sun, almost in the same fashion one envisions Jennifer nearly thirty years ago.  Stepping into an audition room, she is bombarded with the toils of which led to that particular point: looking back on the club where she shook ass and the humble lodgings where she practiced with a sense of understanding and awareness; she knows where she has come from and she does not want to go back.  It is that staunch, profound determination that causes her, in the clip’s last moments, to shed all remaining angst and lose herself upon the table where a panel of judges watch with fierce curiosity, slowly submitting to her sanguine spirit.

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Stop Pretending: Robyn’s “Missing U”

Perhaps no greater tragedy has befallen human life than the remembrance of dead love.  How it creeps, slithers, and emerges unawares and unexpected, cruelly catching one at their coolest and most confident.  How it conjures, evokes, and radiates insecurities and images one believed long-since buried with cackling glee and glimmer.  How it sparks and spins slick snaps of sounds, smells, and touches as if idling a merry-go-round of doom.  Even when the heart seems brave and bountiful, even when the rays of sunshine have blazed through the hell of shadows, a single strike of memory of what-once-was can easily alter all gilded elegance and revert one to a ruinous mess.  It is then when we are confronted with the longing and leftovers, the pieces of the puzzle still unsolved and unbelievable.  It is then when we are desperate for a rescue or escape, all the while knowing deep down that the damage has been done too clearly: we must recollect the flaws and failures that led to this brokenness, we must remember the relationship that we wish not.

Within the confines of slow, sullen, and maudlin majesties, such open wounds could swiftly ignite sadistic fantasy.  Yet amidst the mirage of fairy-dust-encrusted twinkles upon Robyn’s incandescent “Missing U,” this recreation of events becomes rather cathartic, allowing the melancholy to morph into a slice of jubilation, allowing the coldness to transform into a breath of brightness.  As the sparkles give way to a steady, pulsating groove that is not unlike the anxious murmuring of a jilted heart, our heroine’s ghostly past is made present, still locked within the surprise that everything has destructed and that never again will her significant other’s scent collide with her presence.  Clinging to old pillows, Robyn is desperate for any totem to their days of bliss, but her declaration that at least her lover “left” her “something” only glorifies the delusion permeating within, forcing her, in turn, to face the truth with even greater realism.  “I keep digging through our waste of time,” she briskly admits in the chorus, the pulsating groove joined in a passionate dance by those mystical twinkles, now delirious and frenzied, “But the picture’s incomplete.”  And as she takes a deep breath, coming to grips, knowing where she truly stands, there is a brief pause and then: “’Cause I’m missing you, I miss you.”  And it feels as if both a birth and a death, a breakthrough and a setback, an epiphany and a nightmare, striking with a clean, garish blow that feels a near-heaven as much as it feels a near-hell.

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With the floodgate now burst through, Robyn’s memories intensify posthaste, wrapping her mind deeper into a frosted state of ponderance, feeling that tainted, maniacal rush of awareness growing faster and faster.  The delusions and dramatics are fading, the rose tint opaque; all signs and clues of their romantic glow are lost in darkness.  Suddenly, this overlapping of truths reaches a startling, radical domination, becoming too much to partake, and once finally she admits, “I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass, it don’t leave no shadow,” all gloves and masks and secrets are taken off, all the gauzelike dreaminess abolished.  We are left only with the fresh, marvelous discovery that behind all the lucidity one craves to embrace, there indeed remains that glaring actuality of complete collapse.  It was, in fact, always there, underneath the lies, fictions, and false apparitions.  Yet, there is no more room for deception and fakery; we are left only with the realization that the only way one can push through the pain is by acknowledging that pain still persists within.  Because we believe ourselves to be mature and stronger than we often are, the true road to recovery seems nearer from the horizon; however, it is that deception in our strength that is even more damaging, forcing us to gloss over hurt in incredibly irresponsible hues.  By the time Robyn reaches the song’s middle-eight, it is that lying-strength that she has finally shed; she is, as it were, fully human.

Against a hypnotic, cascading new wave landscape equally evoking enchanted heavens and garish galaxies, “Missing U” glides pass its torment and tragedy in greedy giddiness, epitomizing the devoted ethos of Robyn’s oeuvre of dancing through one’s downfalls.  Despite the collision of realities, we feel golden and sweetened and beautiful, we feel wise and radiant – those dazzling twinkles and those volcanic thuds creating solace and sanctity, eliminating the bold, useless anchors stuck to our souls.  As the otherworldly euphoria grasps to impenetrable heights, sizzling and simmering and soaring like a rocket giving a plié, there is a sense of renewal and rejuvenation as we continue to forgive ourselves for silly suppressions and dismantle the fantasies that no longer exist.  “There’s an empty space you left behind,” Robyn repeats mantra-like during the finale, her voice now calmed and weathered, now settled and true.  She knows that the agonies are not over, but she also knows that there is no more pretending; she wants to move forward and she wants to remember – she knows that it is impossible not to, that it is, in fact, essential.

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As her first solo release in nearly a decade, one could easily decipher “Missing U” as a beacon to Robyn’s audience – a flawlessly-drawn love letter chronicling the incredibly surreal symbiosis that arises from an artist and their fans.  How that too, if left incomplete and disoriented, can feel as if a break-up, as if a dead romance that has lost its fuse.  Yet, it is truly that masterful array of interpretation that makes Robyn one of the most vigorous, courageous, and intelligent pop stars of our time, allowing endless subversion to reign supreme without losing one ounce of rhythm, dignity, or vibe.  There is no desire to fool or confound by way of arrogant wit and obscurity; there is only delight in hitting one as directly as possible.  By stretching simplicity to its greatest limits, Robyn manages to make some of the most remote and obvious emotions appear polished and brand-new, transforming our oldest and dearest heartaches into today’s bloodbath.  With “Missing U,” she reestablishes this power with bewitching wonder and amazement; yet, it is the spine-tingling vulnerability that ultimately gives it its grace, reminding us that it is okay to remember, that it is okay to reflect, that it is okay to let go.

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Subversion on the Dancefloor: 10 Years of “Just Dance”

For any soul that has dwelled deeply amidst the confines of clublands, there often arises a moment within the night when one’s senses commence to fade. Such alterations contain a marvelous seamlessness, slipping and sneaking up unannounced, shamelessly dragging its once-lucid captive into a rapid state of perplexity and reflection, of truth and phantasm. At times, that denial of reason and embrace of intoxication reflects a dangerous ease into the psychological beyond, allowing sordid demons and cavernous ghosts to emerge full-speed. Yet, if one is delightfully barricaded by the avalanche of thunderous throbs, plethora of pulsating bodies, and blaze of mystical strobe lights, then that step into uneasy euphoria becomes something of a colossal dare in pushing oneself to a state of limitlessness, to the point of no return. Combatting against distress, horror, and anxiety, a grandiose delusion and optimism is then birthed and ignited as a buffer and cushion of goodwill, happy endings, and yellow brick roads. It is, after all, the nightclub in which communal desires are given their most radical clearance, offering many the chance to black out of their everyday banalities for a brief moment of complete carelessness; one only wants to feel good. Yet, even amongst that blinded, debauched sweetness, still looms that ill-fated breath of absolute reality waiting past the velvet ropes, constantly forcing one to destroy its fate before it destroys their own.

Never has that complex, challenging after-hours mindfuck been more gloriously exemplified than on Lady Gaga’s irresistible debut single “Just Dance.” Rocketing down into our dismal atmosphere ten years prior, its glittering, gloss-laden surface radiated against the consistent radio ennui, those magnifying, stuttering synths triumphantly buzzing at the onset as if futuristic coronation horns announcing the arrival of an extraterrestrial monarch. If one, however, was not hypnotized by that candy-coated rush of futurism, then undoubtedly, they would be drawn in by the mystical, operatic cries coming from the formerly Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, permeating through the blue-tinted Europop bliss with a frenzied, uncertain urgency. It is, as it were, a voice of impeccable soul, of glistening funk yet it is also one of bubbly desperation, of damned innocence; she is both elated about her state of befuddlement yet also shocked by the madness that has generated because of such. She has lost her drink, her man, her keys, and her phone – she has lost, perhaps even, her mind. Though, as the failures and mishaps pile up in ridiculous succession, Gaga continually harks back to the remarkable notion that everything’s “gonna be okay,” truthfully, in her ruinous logic, believing that all will work itself out.

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It is a breathtaking, amusing, yet ultimately poignant adage that spoke – and continues to speak – to a society on the verge of utter ambivalence. In 2008, as the pace of political peace and financial freedom came to a grinding halt, a sense of apathy and disillusion grew exponentially amidst a generation raised to believe they would inherit a rich, prosperous world. Realizing their economical dreams were soon to become woes, it is no wonder that many turned to the hedonism of club-life as a refuge, indulging in every new sound that promised an escape from the hellish environs they inhabited. That was, in fact, what made “Just Dance” such a colossal, magnanimous work of art – its effortless ability to capture that burgeoning sense of disgust and failure and reconstruct it as an anthem for renewal. By asserting that things are gonna be “okay” in a world inundated by terrorism and greed, Gaga played both the role of the self-conscious epicurean pacifying herself out of fear and of the decadent guru providing a happy space to annihilate tensions. This becomes even more apparent as the track toggles forward and Gaga’s remarks become increasingly nonsensical, mimicking that meandering mellowness that encroaches the glazed mind with each new drink. Here, she bravely accepts her faults and flaws, marinates in them even, knocking away the darkness of tomorrow for the brightness of the present with an elegant tiptoe between mania and mirth not unlike the most delicious pieces of hippie psychedelia.

Yet, more than anything, it would be rather foolish to reminisce on the brilliance of “Just Dance” without acknowledging the electrifying music video which accompanied its nocturnal merriment. Coolly directed by visionary Melina Matsoukas, the clip chronicles a boombox-clad Lady Gaga arriving at an already-dead party in the heart of faceless suburbia with the sole intention of sparking the flame once more. Adorned in a Bowie bolt, sharp, thickened sunglasses and a severe neon-flavored shoulder-pad ensemble, a steely sophistication and importance exudes in spades from the starlet, creating before our eyes – as the greatest of earliest videos – an entirely new icon waiting to be dissected and admired. Instantly, she seems untouchable, unreachable, unassailable; however, once the groove settles, so unleashes the charismatic, kitschtastic party child, bringing life to the zombified guests and fearlessly mugging for the camera whilst straddling an inflatable whale in a kiddie pool. It is that second revelation – that Gaga was in on the joke – which also made “Just Dance” such a subversive dancefloor breakthrough. It wasn’t that pop stars had stopped creating masterful club hits or refused to poke fun at their own personalities prior; yet no one in mainstream 21st Century Pop had ever concocted their image and message with such polarizing seriousness. Broken down in increments, there emerges a mystical hilarity about Gaga’s drunken stream-of-consciousness, and within the clip’s TMZ-flavored lens, that mystical hilarity hints at the kind of pop art deconstruction she would soon become famous for.

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How then, does one totally assert the genesis of one of the most fascinating, endearing, and paramount Pop careers of our baby century? How then, does one totally view the standing of one of the most bombastic, unyielding, and unwavering monsters to engulf nightlife? There is no doubt that Lady Gaga has released a bevy of greater, more polished, more experimental works since she crash-landed upon our planet. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find something of more radical efficiency and stellar ingenuity. Though I myself found no sense of innovation or originality upon my first listens, time has eclipsed such necessities and proved them otherwise. Ensconced in simplistic naivete, “Just Dance” now bears the genteel markings of great tragicomedy, a picaresque folk tale for noxious club-goers, taking the most obvious elements of one of our most traditional art forms – the dance banger – and turning it inside out. It is a plea, a call-to-arms, a call-for-help, and a simmering rapture all at once; it is an inaudible whisper of solidarity amidst the cacophony of impending disasters. And as we, 10 years later, continue to move closer to even greater mystifications, it is perhaps that whisper in which we need to hear loudest.

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The Endless Magic of Black Cool: Notes on Dirty Computer

Coolness has often been something perceived natural for blacks.  That is not to say that no other ethnic group possesses a similar organic majesty or enchantment; yet, within the American landscape, where black culture has significantly shaped the most cherished of national art forms, it is hard to escape the notion that there is something particularly incredible and phenomenal about our souls.  Some may view such intrigue as a hinderance – the stepping stone into leading other groups to assuming all blacks speak, eat, dress, and dance the same.  It can lead to the radical, maddening notion that our culture is merely designed to be consistently borrowed, pilfered, stolen, and abolished by those who otherwise despise our skin.  That sense of black coolness can be seen as a crutch, as a way for others to create control and boundary, to keep one “in their place.”  Yet, for others, the ideal of black cool is something deeper, more refined.  It is something of pride, of privilege, of power.  It is something of integrity, of rapture, of exaltation.  It is within those great believers that all of the hatred, malice, cruelty, and injustice is replenished, reformed, reinterpreted into a badge of honor.  Think Miles Davis, think Nina Simone, think Gil Scott-Heron, think Lenny Kravitz, think Lauryn Hill, think Andre-3000, think Janelle Monáe.  With black coolness, you are witnessing those raised to believe they are nothing shamelessly spitting in your face, telling you that they are, in fact, something quite extraordinary.

The birth of black cool is arbitrary as our pride supersedes mass thought, but such fascination undoubtedly slipped into the popular consciousness at the dawn of the jazz age.  As the well-bred children of Victorian youth shed their rickety ideals for the rambunctious, riotous rhythms erupting in nightclubs and speakeasies, suddenly the once-derided black musician became the most sought-after idol.  Everyone wanted to do the Charleston and sing like Billie Holiday; everyone wanted to join a band like Louis Armstrong’s or spend a night in Harlem.  Only a generation prior, blacks had been seen merely as horrific leftovers of slavery, easily categorized as burdensome, difficult, libidinous, and worthless.  Yet, as white actors and singers readily adapted the mannerisms and vernacular of their darker counterparts with intense adoration, they altered the perception of black culture as mere trash, welcoming jazz and its associated properties as the first true musical art forms created in America.  Only now in our stately, naïve century do we view such a genre with a degree of solemn sophistication; however, in its heyday, jazz was Pop, it was the decadent throb that kept the kiddies up till morning.

With black coolness having taken off, one would assume its hosts would gain equaled acceptance.  Unfortunately, what arose from this artistic admiration would become a consistent theme throughout America with black culture: a desire to accept its exterior without embracing the interiors of those who’ve created it.  Famed journalist Norman Mailer would chronicle this paradox in his timeless 1957 essay “The White Negro,” aligning bebop-era cultural appropriation with Cold War hysteria, yet it takes very little to witness the consistency with the blues, rock n’ roll, and even disco, house, and techno.  Hip hop – the most immediate purveyor of black cool as of late – is experiencing itself a breaking down of barriers as more non-blacks establish grounds within its confines, an act that speaks beautifully of the merits and brilliance of our globalized world, yet also creates a sweet anxiety of protection and preservation amongst certain gatekeepers.  As with other art forms, one does not want to feel as if their culture has moved on without them, that those who are coming in late to the party are breaking the ancestral dishes on their way out.  That kind of negligence and disinterest in the creators of one’s pleasures is what motivates those icons of black cool, reminding them that their coolness is to be appreciated and proudly hailed.  They have seen the erasure of those before and wish only to carry their foibles – reclaim and redress them with love.

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It is that unyielding sentiment that is most pervasive on Janelle Monáe’s otherworldly masterpiece, Dirty Computer.  Undoubtedly, she is a child of the modern – endlessly inspired by the alienation and technophilia of the 21st century, constantly reinterpreting our deepest fears and possibilities with a mixture of the macabre and mesmeric.  She floats, ballet-style, through the cold, distracting anomie and emerges remarkably supernatural, capturing hedonism and nihilism with effortless taste and seamless wonder.  At the same time, hers is an air old-fashioned and classic, nestling the noses of juke-joint goddesses, funk saints, and R&B divas with tendered romanticism.  She is aware of those who came before her and gleams that knowledge in respectful hues, mixing each style gracefully into the other as if they had always been made that way; it is a gift she shares with her close mentor, Prince, whose aural collages bridged gaps between cultures and genres in maniacal ease and intellect.  It is no mistake then that Dirty Computer feels like a complete encapsulation of a certain millennial-laden black cool: an immaculate playlist devised by those beautiful outsiders in love with both the alternative and accessible – those oft-misunderstood bundles of history, individuality, and elegance.

Oftentimes, it is the oddball who becomes the true symbol of black cool.  Oftentimes, it is the one whose mind digs deeper, spirit leaps higher, and imagination expands further.  Usually, they are loners, searching for the right tribe with whom to cause mayhem.  Usually, they are free thinkers, disconnected from restriction and authority.  Usually, they are incredible stylists, concocting images of power and complete comfortability.  There is a nerve, a slick saintliness within these geniuses that embraces the absurd, the surreal, and the strange whilst clinging to the closest cultural connections: groove, soul, and euphoria.  Only from such a being could one receive the majestic, exhilarating coos of surf-pop auteur Brian Wilson on the opening titular track, before being thrust into one of the greatest, most liberating pieces of audacious jubilee.  Against a pastel-coated ebullience, “Crazy, Classic, Life” ponders apocalyptic ruin in the midst of the dance floor, basking in ruthless spontaneity of the grand possibility that all will soon be finished.  Though what mostly plays as a simple, straightforward pop-doom ditty slowly morphs into a masterful indictment of black excellence, as Janelle fiercely acknowledges her pride, fear, hope, and distress with a smooth, sultry rapper’s cadence, proving her musical breadth and immeasurable strength in one fail swoop.

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Such vigor grows wildly upon Dirty Computer, transforming its dystopian concept of rebels being wiped of their soiled magnificence into an exquisite manifesto on the beautiful freedoms often unjustly usurped by those with greater control.  Yet, Janelle’s vision is not one of defeat or discouragement, but one of renewal and reclaim, of truth and sobriety.  This is apparent throughout the sun-stroked environs of “Take A Byte,” which alludes to some of the most prominent and pivotal women throughout history and fiction, creating a seamless nexus between Janelle’s colossal carnality and those infamous libertines of yesteryear.  Within the bubbly intoxication of “Screwed,” a taut parade of colorful sexual innuendos can barely mask the encroaching terror and wiliness of a nation breaking on disaster.  Upon “Django Jane,” she dives headfirst into a wonderland of roughneck radiance, championing black femininity in a startling mixture of sincerity and ambition.  And on the slinking, slow-burning funktastic “I Got the Juice,” Janelle quite brilliantly warns any potential defiant lurking her way that “if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”

Such excellent, mind-boggling defiance also falls heavily with another of Dirty Computer’s greatest assets: its bold, brave celebration of queer love, fluidity, and self-acceptance.  Within black culture, there are certain aspects that do not allow room or space for anyone who does not adhere to a heterosexual existence, creating great divisions and igniting perplexities amongst those merely attempting to live their lives as proudly and happily as possible.  While some sadly become casualties to hatred and expectation, many others have increasingly embraced their truest selves, denying any chances of darkness and ruin to filter their thoughts.  Those who were once taught to keep their emotions and feelings hidden and shut away have thrust clear of the insolence, the indignance, and the noxious.  For queer people of color in particular such declarations are not only poignant but absolutely revolutionary, peppering upon a pop record the kind of lost shame and gained independence that has before seemed nonexistent.  Women, in particular, have always been seen as those whose carnal tastes have been decided by others, yet on Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe abolishes centuries of codified black sexuality and femininity, exterminating the permeance of patriarchal pestilence with endless valor.

As one of the most current icons of black cool, it may seem unfair to expect constant greatness from Ms. Monáe.  For it is true that as much of a privilege it is to embody such ideals, there lingers that vicious flipside of having one’s soul drained, transforming one to a shell of their former regality.  History, after all, is filled with young, gifted black geniuses who were torn down by their own torturous thoughts and the widespread dreams of their handlers and audience.  However, one of the most remarkable components of Janelle Monáe is her unwavering, almost inconceivable confidence in everything in which she does.  It is as if she has seen her destiny laid before her and is merely walking the path in the smoothest, most dignified fashions.  Privy of her power, she is also aware of her own honesty: that she is not some glorified role model, some deified queen designed for the pleasures of philosophical banalities.  She has, in fact, the awareness that all may not be solved by her own suggestion.  But it is her spirit, her presence that allows that burgeoning awareness to appear ever-brighter and ever-possible.  With Dirty Computer, she has splendidly imagined the future in the present and, in turn, has fully established herself as one of the grandest cultural architects of these strange, stupendous times.

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