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by Anthony Henriques

10 Jul 2008

You Can’t Stop Us Now

Salaam Remi, with whom Nas has worked more than any other producer this decade, based this track around a sample of the Whatnaut’s “Message From a Black Man”. Unlike RZA, who recently sampled the same track on his latest Bobby Digital album in raw form, Remi masks the central melody in a heavy baseline. The sound actually makes me wonder whether he sampled the song or just interpolated it. He also adds soulful blaxplotation-sounding horns as a lead into the chorus, sung by Eban Brown, who has been a member of both the Delfonics and the Stylistics throughout his career. He replaces “me” with “us” in his version of the classic hook. The track overall has a more polished yet similar feel to that of previous Remi-produced Nas songs like “Made You Look” and “Thief’s Theme”.

Nas’ two verses on “You Can’t Stop Us Now” run through a range of topics which add together to make the song a singular, astute statement of Black Pride. His first verse is an exploration of African American history in a series of poetic, internally-rhymed individual statements which are able to stand unaccompanied as powerful proclamations; his first line is: “From Willie Lynch to Willie Hutch” – six words that, alone, serve as a potent summation of the plight and triumph of blacks in America. Other lines like “from gold to shackles and back to gold” as well as “slave food turned to soul food” have similar effects and the verse ends with Nas claiming, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass.” I could not imagine a better verse examining African American heritage with such celebratory vitriol.

Nas approaches the second verse from a present-time point-of-view and assumes the task of exposing hypocrisies in the interpretations of African versus European culture. He uses the Michael Vick case as a talking point: “Gave a Blood time / Cause he fought with his canine / Bestiality / Humane Society / Go to China, see how they dine / See what they eat / Better yet ask PETA whoever / Which animal makes suede? / If not for suede would you have survived the Dark Ages?” He goes on to address Sammy Davis Jr. who “helped pave the way for Southern crankers and them Harlem shakers”, which has led Nas to assert, in the ending of his verse, “Now we getting our papers / They try to censor the words / To stop our money coming / But you can’t escape us / Haters.”

The Last Poets declaration, in between the first verse and the chorus, that, “as James Baldwin says, you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers a nigger” provides a literal link between Nas’ poetry and the original concept of Untitled, a discourse on the word “nigger” and an attempt to strip it of its rhetorical power.


This song’s keyboard-driven production from J. Myers and Dustin Moore has a smoothed-out ‘90s R&B feel to it. The beat is not bad by any means, it’s slightly unremarkable. Its breezy style makes it easy for one to hear the song without actually listening to it. That’s unfortunate because “Breathe” is probably Nas’ most personal song on the album and his rhyme-schemes are awe-inspiring.

The lyrics are concerned with the true meaning of freedom in a free country, especially for a high-profile black man. His verses touch upon the theme of subliminal racism in white America which is present throughout the album. We get a glimpse of him at his most somber while contemplating his own identity. His paranoid, seemingly infinitely internally rhymed verses run quickly through his various anxieties (child-custody battles, police racial profiling, money and fame) and he portrays a world where everyone either wants part of him or wishes him harm; his chorus repeats the question: “Can a nigga just breathe?”

The concept of the song fits well into the whole theme of Untitled. It is the lament of a man who, despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to society, still feels unable to transcend the American subconscious from which a word like “nigger” was able to become dominant.

Had the production been a bit more interesting, this would have been an instant classic. It’s still damn good though.

To be continued…

by David Pullar

10 Jul 2008

Sam De Brito keeps a blog called All Men Are Liars over at the Sydney Morning Herald website.  It’s popular and very interactive.  He posts most days with something provocative, usually about masculinity and gender issues, and his sizable readership will run with it for a few hundred comments.

I read it pretty regularly, not without a certain guilt.  The generalizations about gender roles can be pretty crude and it’s mostly entertaining from a voyeuristic angle.  Occasionally he’s right on the money and it’s those moments of insight that keep me coming back.

Now he’s branched out into fiction with a novel called The Lost Boys.  De Brito has tried his hand at a book before: No Tattoos Before You’re Thirty is a little pocket-sized volume of advice that Sam would give his unborn (and unconceived) offspring.  Now he’s trying something more ambitious.

If you’ve read All Men Are Liars for any length of time, you’ll have a pretty clear idea what’s in store.  Sam’s not shy about talking up his past and there’s a strong autobiographical element to The Lost Boys.  Young blokes go out, do stupid things, keep doing stupid things and wake up in their thirties wondering what happened.  There’s a lot of sex, drugs and general misbehavior.

I’ve picked up a copy in a bookshop, flicked through it and put it back on the shelf on a few occasions.  I’m sure there are some interesting insights into the psyche of young Australian men, but the passages I’ve read are so full of misogyny and unrelenting squalor that I just couldn’t be bothered.

That’s the problem with “gritty” literature.  In some shorter art forms, say films or photography or journalism, grime and unpleasantness can be exciting—over a 400 page book, it can be draining.

That might be worth it for a brilliant statement about society, but De Brito doesn’t really speak for Australian Masculinity, if there is such thing.  He speaks for a subculture of lower middle-class urban thirtysomethings, the products of a very specific time and place.  There are any number of Aussie males who would struggle to see much of themselves in these lost boys.  There are big themes involved, but they tend to get buried in all the extreme behavior.

Most of us have a tendency to universalize our experiences and writers only more so.  It goes something like “I’m a man, therefore this is what men are.”  Maybe De Brito’s goal is something less grand, but from his blog and the publicity around the book, it seems as if he’s trying to take the pulse of an entire gender.

Who will The Lost Boys appeal to?  Probably not the Maroubra Beach toughs that De Brito is depicting.  Readers of new Australian fiction tend to be a more sensitive lot.  Maybe a lot of men will read it with a sigh of relief, “Thank God I’m not like that.”  I don’t think that was the author’s point.

by Bill Gibron

9 Jul 2008

Guillermo Del Toro should be Peter Jackson. He should be sitting on a multi-billion dollar franchise, a few Oscars, and that rare combination of mainstream movie studio cred and overwhelming geek love. Granted, the Mexican maverick has gained a couple of these career accolades over the last ten years, his resume overflowing with awards, appreciation, and the kind of adoration reserved for rock stars. Heck, he’s become so powerful within the closed community of Hollywood that he managed to get a sequel made of his amazing Hellboy, even though the first film was no blockbuster, and there was no great grassroots groundswell to revisit the franchise.

When Columbia Pictures bailed, more or less dooming the director’s proposed trilogy, Universal came in and scooped up the series. At the time, it was seen as a major gamble. Even with his Blade II commercial rep and Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth aesthetic aura, Del Toro was not a guaranteed box office hero. In retrospect, it was a genius play on the part of the powers that be. In between greenlighting the return of everyone’s favorite cat and candy loving demon superhero, the Academy came calling, and so did Middle Earth. Indeed, Del Toro is now in preproduction to bring The Hobbit (as well as a follow-up linking film) to the big screen. For the next four years, JRR Tolkien will be his life, and just like the man who he should be, it will be a make or breakthrough for the filmmaker.

Like Jackson, Del Toro really doesn’t require the need of that famed work of fantasy literature to establish his true cinematic value. He is responsible for some remarkably visionary works, from the giant insect deconstruction of Mimic to the vampires as vultures/victims in his take on Blade. A love of old school horror has made him dabble successfully in the genre (Cronos) as well producing the brilliant ghost story by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. An appreciation of comics brought him to Mike Mignola’s usual graphic novel, and always the outsider, Del Toro delivered a big screen action film without a major star (Ron Pearlman as the lead?) or well known marketing icon. Yet thanks to his undeniable passion and kid in a candy store scope, he evoked the best of what makes movies magic - the pure power in visuals. It has become his considered calling card.

Looking over Del Toro’s oeuvre, it’s clear that the image is everything. Take the genetically altered cockroaches in Mimic. Their ability to resemble humans, combined with the inherent terror of their oversized awfulness, makes them an endearing bit of macabre. Similarly, his Blade gave neckbiters a mandible to be wary of, while the first Hellboy filled the screen with all manner of heretofore unseen monsters. But it was his smaller films, his work in Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that sealed the spectacle deal. From the unforgettable symbolism of the unexploded bomb in the children’s home courtyard to the Great Faun, its bent-back legs and elongated limbs suggesting an ancient folklore façade, Del Toro definitely believes that a picture is worth a thousand words - and a million narrative possibilities.

With Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, the man’s imagination machine goes into overdrive. It’s a movie that literally fills the screen with optical eye candy. The moment our hero’s father figure - Trevor Bruttenholm - tells the story of the truce between mankind and magic (illustrated in a stop motion puppetoon style that suggests the very best of George Pal), we know we’re in for a major treat. That things only get better from here is a testament to Del Toro’s constantly churning creativity. Doors are complex puzzle boxes, rock formations the humanoid gateways to other worlds. Even when he applies a standard physical F/X motif to his work (the mesmerizing Troll City), we can sense the purpose and playfulness in his stratagem.

Some suggest that Hellboy 2 has too much visual splendor, that it allows excess to overwhelm both its sensible and supernatural approaches. Actually, this is not a criticism so much as a reflective and rather damning disclosure. The reason most people feel that the film offers too much in the way of wonder is because so many so-called fantasies are absolutely bereft of same. The sequel may play like Ghostbusters on steroids, but Del Toro isn’t doing anything that his fanbase hasn’t complained about and then embraced for the last ten years. The Star Wars prequels were some of the busiest, most CGI-laden examples of overindulgence ever, and yet no one is giving George Lucas grief for his images (his casting choices and script writing, on the other hand…).

No, what makes Del Toro’s tapestry so dense and daunting is its connection to tradition and old world mythology. You see, films like Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth rely on a knowledge of legend and fable as a means of making sense of their often symbolic substance. When a city sized Elemental attacks our gun-wielding Hellspawn, its purpose is not just to destroy. No, it wants to reclaim the natural order, the delicate balance that once allowed it to live in harmony with all others. Similarly, the faun is not testing Ofelia by having her fight any particular set of creatures. Each of her challenges represents a step in the maturation process, a point of reference that will make her last act sacrifice seem majestic, instead of meaningless.

All of Del Toro’s nightmares and dreamscapes work this way. The villainous Prince Nuada doesn’t want to simply destroy all humans. He wants them to understand the pain they’ve inflicted on the otherworldly realm. His goal is both nasty and noble, which makes his efforts both ghastly and somewhat valiant.  As with many characters in the Del Toro canon, the complexity fills many functions. A champion is never pure, the wicked never wholly so. Evil comes in a compelling visage, while good can always screw up and shift the eternal equilibrium. Beyond the way they look and they way they fight, the most fascinating element in a Del Toro movie remains how he can turn the tiniest of pixies (the Golden Army‘s beguiling Tooth Fairies) into the most voracious of horrors.

That is why he should be Peter Jackson. That is why he should - and probably will - share the New Zealand auteur’s place among the vaunted visionaries of our generation. For both of these amazing men, vistas come with a value, an unspoken price to be paid by the protagonists who populate them and the antagonists who want them destroyed. For both, story is simply a place to put characters, a chance to allow narrative to strengthen personality and illustrate inclination. For both, technology is the canvas, not the brush. It’s the mind that does all of the heavy inventive lifting. For them, cinema represents the ultimate expression of man’s inspired soul, a picture book as philosophy, film as a force of fate.

In the years to come, we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll be able to relate our accounts of coming across Dead Alive for the first time, or seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with a paid audience (and not a dry eye in the house). We’ll recall the interviews which made madness sound sane and personal daring appear cautious. Most importantly, we’ll rejoice in seeing the very boundaries of an important artform stretched to their very limits, redefined, and then put back for others to enjoy. And we’ll recall the moment when Guillermo Del Toro moved from the fringes to the front row, bringing his own overflowing mind’s eye with him.  If he’s not already Peter Jackson, he should be. On the other hand, here’s hoping he stays forever himself. He’s pretty great the way he is.

by Rob Horning

9 Jul 2008

In a post from a few days ago, I wondered whether the automated friend-matching component of social networks would eradicate the more spontaneous and seemingly irrational friendships that sometimes spring up unexpectedly in real life. A recent German study detailed here (link via Rob Walker) seems pertinent to this question.

One year after they met for the first time, 52 college freshmen were asked to rate their relationships with each other. By a significant margin, the first relationships they made were often the closest.
“In a nutshell, people may become friends simply because they drew the right random number,” conclude the authors.

Maybe it would be a good thing if Facebook randomly dropped total strangers on your “People You May Know” page and urge you to invite them to become your friend. Maybe the resulting friendship will seem cosmic and meant to be, and Facebook could then recede into the heavens as a kind of divine intelligence.

Anyway, the study suggests that attempts to rationalize friendships in advance may fail to capture what makes friendships work, which may in part be an ineffable spirit of coincidence, hanging over and enchanting everything the friends do together. And even more so, a feeling that the friendship is authentic precisely because there is no good reason for it and no calculation went into it.

by Anthony Henriques

9 Jul 2008

The PopMatters writers guide recommends that record reviews run somewhere between 500 and 700 words. Sometimes I struggle to get 500 words out of an album and sometimes I have a hard time keeping the count under 700. This isn’t necessarily the difference between a good or bad album. Some very good recordings have qualities that are easily explained while some bad albums have complicated flaws that warrant deeper examination. To put it simply, as far as any art form is concerned, some pieces of work just generate more dialogue than others, often irrespective of actual quality.

I recently submitted my review for Nas’ new album Untitled and I had trouble keeping the word-count down, which ended up somewhere around 1,200. (Editor’s note: watch for the review on Monday.) Needless to say, this album caused me to think a lot—more so than any hip-hop album has since… well… I guess I started to put serious thought into any albums. The dialogue generated by content of Untitled should eclipse that which was generated by the controversy of Nas’ original desire to name it Nigger, which is funny because I was afraid that that controversy would be the only thing the LP had going for it. I feel like every song on this album deserves to be seriously discussed. I brushed over their essences in my review. Even at its extraordinary length, the piece still feels to me like a general assessment.

In an effort to explore the themes of this album in more depth as well as further explain why I think this is such a special record, my intention is to conduct a track-by-track analysis of Untitled in a series of posts on this blog which should be viewed as a companion to my review to give a more complete appraisal of the project.


Queens Get the Money

This was produced by Jay Electronica, who has been billed as the “next big thing” in underground hip-hop. A synthesis of J Dilla and Stones Throw, he crafts a beat that consists of only two alternating, off-kilter piano samples and no drums. Nas’ rapping, similar to the styles from which the production draws, sounds more like an a capella poetry recital that ostensibly ignores any discernible rhythm in the pianos. Some hardcore underground fans might view this as one of Nas’ best-ever tracks while more mainstream rap fans might hear this as only an odd mess of noise.

Nas’ lyrics for “Queens Get the Money” serve as an introduction to the world that Untitled was made to address. A world in which “niggas still screaming, paper chasing / But presidential candidates is planning wars with other nations over steak with masons.” For the “pregnant teens give birth to intelligent gangsters, they daddies faceless”, Nas offers love through his music: “Play this, by ya stomach / Let my words massage it and rub it / I’ll be his daddy if there’s nobody there to love it.” He goes on to address the detractors who only want from him another Illmatic and “Pray ‘please God, let him spit that Uzi and the army linin’ / ‘that shorty doowop rollin oo-whops in the park reclinin’” and states, “Hip hop was aborted, so Nas breaths life back into the embryo / Let us make man in our image.”

In the end, the eerily hectic quiet coupled with Nas’ transcendent poetry make for a great introduction to perhaps the most philosophically and thematically complex album of his career.

To be continued…

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