Playing Ashamed

[20 December 2005]

By Justin Cober-Lake

Early this past summer, the Ying Yang Twins delivered a surprise hit with “Wait (The Whisper Song)”. The duo’s aggressive sexuality drove wallflowers to talk about the political ramifications of its violent imagery, while the song’s radio chart ascension helped put crunk into even your mom’s vocabulary. Providing a nearly perfect opportunity for frank discussion about the depiction of women, female sexuality, and male belligerence, the song instead polarized listeners. One camp said if you didn’t like it you were a prudish spoilsport; the other side said if you did like it, then you were a misogynist. While that feud haltingly died away, David Banner released a more artful and conflicted single that would further throw key issues into relief, and relatively unknown Kelley Polar would give us a hint of self-awareness every bit as intriguing as his more outlandish contemporaries.

Banner’s “Play” sounds like, and in some ways works as, an answer to the Ying-Yang Twins’ much-discussed song. The production on both tracks relies on a minimal sort of effort, aided here by sirens of an indeterminate meaning, and the MCs rap softly, juxtaposing a seducer’s tone with violent descriptions of sexual activity (including that infamous phrase “beat that pussy up”). The beat centers on very basic percussion and handclaps, highlighted by a squeaking synth, leaving the quiet vocal to make the impact. The major break in the production comes on one of the repeated lines, when further percussion comes in and a full sound accents the downbeats on “Work that clit / Come girl”. The difference in the Banner track is apparent as soon as he makes it clear how important it is to him to actually please his woman. While we could debate whether the orgasm-centered fantasy is still a masculinized one or whether women like to come, too, we should at least acknowledge Banner’s initial presentation of the giving lover.

Not just a courtship poem, “Play” presents a politically complicated vision of a sexual relationship. While Banner ostensibly expresses the importance of female satisfaction, he repeatedly turns that experience into a tool for his own gratification. In a healthy relationship, taking pleasure in a partner’s pleasure can lead to an exciting and mutually beneficial process, but Banner doesn’t suggest that sort of dynamic. When he tells his woman to masturbate (something many men wouldn’t be comfortable with), it’s not to make sure she has an orgasm; she’s supposed to do it “for a nigga”. With that prepositional phrase, he turns the woman into more of an object and less of a subject. Her sexuality takes on the sole purpose of serving his.

Banner utilizes that sort of tension throughout the track, creating intriguing art, if an ethically ambiguous recording. The honesty of his desire and interest in giving oral sex lend him some credibility, so when he says he’ll “fuck you ‘til your pussy ache”, he makes it sound as if he’s striving for the post-workout burn, the pleased exhaustion. But he still wants, à la the Ying-Yang Twins, to just plain “beat that pussy up”. For the first half of the song, he keeps it unclear what his attitude is.

The second verse unravels him. He renounces his promised monogamy (“Stop worrying about them other hoes / It’s me in your world”) quickly with “I’m feeling real freaky girl, bring your friends / I can make ‘em bounce like one-two-three”. The desire for multiple partners doesn’t preclude concern for the initial lover, but the following statement moves Banner’s narrator in that direction: “It ain’t nothin’ to a pimp, girl, play with the g-spot”. In this moment, Banner disavows the interest in a specific woman he’s professed. Turning on a woman is nothing consequential — it’s just the thing he does before he gets off, which is the important matter. He further distances himself from the woman with the line “I’ma beat it like Mike when he fucked Billie Jean”. He’s comparing himself to the Michael Jackson character in “Billie Jean” who, arguably (and most likely), has impregnated and left behind the title character. Banner seems to be saying he’s going to fuck and flee, regardless of consequences.

Drawing a moral conclusion from this reading relies on shaky assumptions: that the woman wants a monogamous relationship and that she wants something more than just getting off. Acknowledging the possibility that neither of those ideas is true, we’re still left with something troubling: the rapper’s lack of concern for what she wants. We don’t know, because he doesn’t know. We know he’s self-absorbed (even turning her orgasm into something that’s purely a device for his own release) and full of violent imagery. What we don’t get is any sense that he’s actually concerned about her as anything other than a sex toy. While she might not care, it’s a troubling conceptualization to see spread unexamined through mass culture.

In “Billie Jean”, Jackson used the ambiguity of truth to help villainize his narrator, or to at least question his reliability. Banner, instead, simply erases the woman (aside from her body). With her needs out of the way, he’s free to use her not only for his own physical gratification, but also for his own ego-stroking (at least). By setting himself up as a man who can make a woman come like a drum beat (although forcefully, “Beat it like Mr. Collipark on the drum”), Banner turns himself into the ultimate stud: he satisfies his woman without ever getting sensitive. Never mind that he doesn’t actually care about her, he’s still getting glory.

While Banner’s narrator continually works to put distance between the woman and himself (and between the woman’s reality and the audience), Polar’s “Ashamed of Myself” makes an explicit acknowledgement of an Other’s selfhood that turns into a moment of guilty self-awareness: “I don’t want to know you; I want to objectify” and “I don’t want to share you; I just want to possess.” Polar’s self-critique ostensibly offers remorse, but in reality it’s the equivalent of OutKast’s “I’m just being honest” line from “Hey Ya”. Instead of offering a true critique of his feelings, Polar proffers shame as a buffer between reality and possibility.

It’s a good step to acknowledge the impropriety of his feelings, and announcing them provides an opportunity for discussion. However, it doesn’t actually announce any change in thought or offer consolation to the lusted-for woman, in part because of her aloofness and in part because of the narrator’s timidity. That apprehensiveness makes this singer sympathetic (unlike the brash Banner), and his weakness allows his uncomfortable feelings to settle safely. Musically, Polar continually envelops the listener with soft sound, especially through his use of strings, and offers a DFA-influenced breakdown that lures his singer away from his meditation and toward the dance floor.

Unfortunately that comfort makes it easy to overlook the content of our alone-in-a-club narrator’s lyrics. The objectification is present, but unresolved; worse, the woman, after being placed on her pedestal, receives the blame for the singer’s discomfort: “You make me ashamed of myself [emphasis mine]”. In this moment, the narrator absolves himself of guilt, even as he claims it. In a song superficially about masculine troubles and political shortcomings, the woman is employed only as a type and used as a scapegoat. Where the song could have centered on a moment of epiphany and regret or change, we find, instead, a static narrator only superficially acknowledging the more troubling side of his yearnings. Arguably, Polar as songwriter recognizes this problem (he’s certainly given us a character as a comment on it), but his use of the present tense throughout only reinforces this stasis of the narrator’s condition.

Both “Ashamed of Myself” and “Play” are fascinating pieces of art that stay intriguing through repeated listens, but their impact differs less because of their content and more because of their sound and context. Polar’s track utilizes an organic house sound in the middle of a European disco album. Its sensuality is comforting, and less likely to bring about sex than it is to soundtrack it (but only on an art-house film). Banner’s number comes early in an aggressive hip-hop album and echoes the controversial “Wait”. Its eroticism, while effective, has explicit and implicit connections to violence and misogyny. Banner’s artistry, while impressive, reaches the listener in a way that Polar doesn’t have to contend with: through a hip-hop filter.

Critics of all stripes have frequently looked for the dangerous side of hip-hop, for the moments when the big, black males threaten society and, as part of that genre, Banner’s song comes with baggage. He doesn’t help the situation with his album cover photo, the very epitome of the menacing man. He also follows “Play” on his album Certified with the absurd and as-subtle-as-you’d-think “Fucking”: “Enough of the hugging and kissing / We should be fucking”. Polar follows “Ashamed of Myself” with strings, synths, and classical training, and puts a soft, beautiful NASA image on his cover. Polar’s sound is clouds and pillows, the removal of danger, the good narcotic. Banner’s sound is clatter, toppled trays, and concrete. The juxtaposition of his assertive whisper and his minimal production makes his personality a formidable presence, and the effects of his lyrics become more pronounced. Polar’s lyrics, on the other hand, take similarly problematic ramifications into the haze, leaving behind an almost unnoticeable trace. In one instance, it’s hiding behind a guise of self-awareness, and in the other, it’s throwing up a challenging front, but either way, it boils down to the same thing.

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/coberlake051221/