Monthly Archives: June 2015

Growing up: Vince Staples and Miguel

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Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

“I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police,” he boasts on “Norf Norf,” to the accompaniment of sonar bleeps that I swear I’ve heard on a Spring Heel Jack record. This 21-year-old occasional Odd Future mate has a high, strident voice, a vestige of a harrowing adolescence he wants to get past and an energy he needs to keep expending. His first official album has Clams Casino production credits like “Norf Norf” and the title track alongside No I.D.’s pillaging of faint tango beats and guitars (“3230”) and of Joy Division’s raptor squawks (“Like It Is”). It’s too long, and here and there it verges on the familiar (“Get Paid”) and the familiar and callow (“Hang and Bang”); but the crossover hopefuls flirt with dub (“Lemme Know”) and the album’s insistent menace destabilizes the percussion and Staples’ bearings. Not his clarity. The cavalcade of horrors on “Birds and Bees” comes down to a couple of simple found object observations: “They found another dead body in the alleyway” and “a gangster like my granny.” Like Miguel, contact with women doesn’t exactly warm his heart. “This could be forever, baby,” he repeats on “Summertime,” and it’s clear who needs the assurance.

Miguel – Wildheart

The California mythos gets a side eye on Wildheart. Cokey scenes and palm trees are nice. But: “Heart caught in a rift, cold pacific waters, sweet California,” he sings on “leaves,” as poignantly as Joni Mitchell did on her own jaundiced ode to the state. With a sensibility steeped in the Mamas & Papas as much as Tupac, Miguel Pimentel wakes up after an evening of love looking forward to coffee in the morning. A happy moment in a rueful storm cloud of an album, part of the tradition of success-has-spoiled-me follow-ups to breakthroughs. “Too black for the Mexicans, too square to be a hood nigga,” he spits in “what’s normal anyway” over burbling guitar, of which there’s lots on Wildheart, much played by Miguel himself. “We’re gonna die soon,” he sings on opener “a beautiful exit.” Even “chase the sun,” the tune that should be the “Purple Rain”-style climax—why else hire Lenny Kravitz to jizz a loud rawk solo?—is a pained valentine, boasting the saddest ooh-oohs this side of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, second side.

Miguel has never sung this well for so long, and Wildheart is a wonderful album, closer to one of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah releases than “Adorn”: a dense amalgam of sexual politics and personal apocalypse, of R&B balladry and singer-songwriter strum, of typographical oddities. Ravishing the otherwise ponderous “flesh” with his upper register, multitracking himself into a Miguel Army on “DEAL,” agitating his tenor on “leaves,” he tests the range of his emotive powers; he’s restless, unwilling to sit in any space too long. Two years of vestigial guest appearances should’ve sapped his recording fervor; for a success-has-spoiled-me follow-up Wildheart seethes with possibilities, is alive to the ridiculous. Sex for Miguel is a ritual choreographed to the signals sent by his lovers. He wants you to have sex with him, he’s pretty sure you’ll like it, he’s damn sure he’ll love it, and sharing this with you is part of his natural courtesy.

Rough justice

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I’m one of the liberals who supported the death penalty into the early 2000’s. The state has a perfect right to take your life should it find you difficult of a capital crime, I thought. Then DNA became accepted, resulting in exonerations, apologies, and nothing when innocent suspects died. Then evidence that years in death row was no deterrent. Finally, I hadn’t thought about the question of doctors sworn to abide by the Hippocratic Oath devising novel means of killing people. As with guns, the death penalty is so entwined with people’s sense of righteousness and debt to survivors that a sea change more than Justice Stephen Breyer’s rhetorical questions. Most people don’t give a damn if a man convicted of a capital crime endures pain, especially if a relative was brutally murdered. It can be done, but it will take a grassroots effort that liberals from which liberals have heretofore recoiled.

Today’s decision in Glossip v. Gross, the lethal drug case, casts the Supremes as actors in a race to decide who can be cruelest. The central facts of Samuel Alito’s opinion:

As a legal matter, it is not at all clear why the actions of drug companies have any relevance whatsoever to a constitutional challenge to the death penalty. Drug companies are private actors, not government actors, so they are free to sell or not to sell whatever they choose so long as they comply with the law. Alito’s opinion, however, effectively punishes these drug companies for their opposition to the death penalty by holding that, should the companies continue to make their more reliable drug unavailable, then executions will just move forward with less reliable painkillers.

They key paragraph in Alito’s opinion is a declaration that, no matter what happens, there must always be a way to execute inmates

The onus is on drug companies to supply the kinds of cocktails that will most effectively kill the accused. As death penalty opponents, we don’t do a good job explaining why this method exacts revenge but has little to do with justice.

‘Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her’

An avid reader of a coffee table children’s Bible my grandmother had bought me in third grade, I was aware of Solomon’s seven hundred wives, Lot’s daughters drunken date rape of their father, the priests of Baal’s throats getting sliced by the river for worshiping this graven image, and, most cruelly, Yahweh prohibiting beloved Moses from entering the Promised Land because he disobeyed him (!). Savagery on par with the Greek myths I was reading but with the extra spice of compulsive piety sprinkled atop. I mean really, as Hitchcock would’ve said.

I make no political point by posting Juan Cole’s excerpting of several notorious passages. This gem I remember well:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” 6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

Out of the Hagar-Abram union came Ismael, father of the Bedouins and by extension Muslims, according to catechism. Cole screatches his head:

So let’s get this straight. Abraham isn’t said to have married Hagar. Apparently he and Sarah had separate property, because Hagar remains her slave. So he slept with someone else’s slave and got her pregnant. And then when that caused trouble between his wife and her slave, he washed his hands of his property-lover and let his wife mistreat her. As we know from 1 Peter, Hagar was supposed graciously to put up with this, but she was made of fiercer stuff than that, and you really have to root for her in this rather sick family situation.

He also investigates the claim from the New Testament that too vigorous a defense of a man’s interest by the wife may result in the amputation of her hand.

Say you’re at a bar and this big bald badass with tats starts smashing your face in. And say your wife likes you and wants to stop the guy from giving you a concussion. Say she reaches down and gets him by the balls. So the Bible would reward her for loyalty and bravery and fast thinking, right?

Nope. Now you have to cut off her hand. I mean have to. You’re not allowed to have a moment of weakness and think about how pretty her fingers are. Off with it, to the wrist.

Truly, traditional marriage was the ne plus ultra of commitment, fidelity, and compassion.

Fighting them by joining them: What Happened, Miss Simone?

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When she finally appears onstage after seconds of enthusiastic audience applause, she has a glazed look, as if she had just awakened from a mummified state. The expression deepens. Does she know where she is? Does she know who she is? In closeup the head is as solid and massive as a marble statue’s. Teachers at the classical piano school to which she was denied admittance rebuked her as a child for having too full a set of lips, of looking “too black.” Then the incomprehension melts into something like pride. She remembers who she is, acknowledges that she deserve the applause. As it comes in waves — the audience has figured out she has snapped into place — she basks in it. She’s as imperious as a figure in a campaign poster. “Hello,” she says when she sits at the piano. Someone whistles. She smiles. “I haven’t seen you in many years — since 1968. I have decided that I will do no more jazz festivals. That decision has not changed. I will sing for you. I will share with you a few moments, after which I shall graduate to a higher class, I hope.”

Nina Simone had hoped to be the first black female classical pianist. After twenty years of worldwide fame as a song stylist, she never lost this ambition. The unsparing What Happened, Miss Simone documents how the tumult of the sixties and in Simone’s life thwarted her ambition. Swept up by the increasingly radical cast of the civil rights movement, bored by the gentility of the role in which she had cast herself, Simone fraternized with Stokely Carmichael and James Baldwin. Concerts became rallies in which she set homicidal fantasies about white America to spare musical accompaniment. “When they leave a nightclub where I perform,” she said in an interview. “I just want them to be in pieces.” Exhausted, convinced that no one understood her, she fled to Africa. Bipolar disorder triggered her erratic behavior, which included beating the daughter whom she had tried to protect from manager-husband Andy Stroud. Apart from several appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Simone remained a low key, ravaged presence mostly in Europe, adored by a fervent cult. She died in 2003.

Graced with excellent archival footage and its sources’ devotion to honesty, What Happened, Miss Simone traces how an artist schooled in one generation’s verities and modes of behavior discovered they were unsustainable; when she tried to put them back together again in the mid seventies the pieces no longer fit. This is the point at which the documentary, commissioned by Netflix, falters. For skeptics, What Happened, Miss Simone offers no explanations for her purported genius. I’m one of them. To my ears she had idiosyncrasies and a manner. The gentility she scorned was as much a part of her as her own skin, an emollient to an audience that wanted to hear standards not fucked with too much. By clinging to her unrealized dream of renown in the classical mode, Simone’s material never quite lost its mossy stolidness. Sometimes her scratchy contralto and piano chops gave the impression that they were recorded on two discrete tracks, refusing to converge or cohere; the voice wasn’t committed to the material besides lavishing it with the patented melisma and abrupt stops in phrases. But I have favorites: “Here Comes the Sun,”, “I Put a Spell on You,”, of course, the RCA album Nina Simone And Piano, “Mississippi Goddamn.” Her influence is vast and unceasing — John Legend as much as Lauryn Hill. The even more genteel Roberta Flack recast Simone’s folk overtones as R&B, and whaddya know, I prefer Flack.

But the arc of a life emerges in director Liz Garbus’ rendering. It’s clear she should have been called Miss Goddamn when she reached adulthood, with or without the radical politics. Stroud often beat her, once allegedly ramming her against a concrete wall. “He actually thinks I want to be hit,” she wrote in a diary, and to its credit the documentary hints at a sadomasochistic side. “I think they were both nuts,” Lisa Simone says. “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7,” she says earlier in the picture, addressing a born star’s cult of self. Lorraine Hansberry gets her due credit as influence. I would have liked to watch the genesis of her late eighties fame: an English Chanel No. 5 commercial that catapulted “My Baby Just Cares for Me” into the top five. It marked the selling of Nina Simone as paragon of cool, similar to Miles Davis’ own adverts and “Miami Vice” appearance. She did get an honorary degree from the institution that denied her admission as a child, and, in the eyes of an uncomprehending press watching cities burn, leaders die, and presidents resign, became the “rich black bitch” that she’d wanted to be when she started. Talk about realizing career ambitions.

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BH55H0 Rings

BH55H0 Rings

The column I’ve been waiting for. Rebecca Traister:

But the other thing that’s so revolutionary about fighting for marriage to be about love and companionship – and not about a strictly gendered economic or social power construct – is that it acknowledges human connections that are also available to millions of people outside of marriage altogether. There is an abundance of romantic love and sexual partnership enjoyed by couples who choose not to marry, by people who co-habit or co-parent or co-exist happily. There are also powerful networks of support and stability between friends, individuals who may not have encountered, or chosen not to commit to, a traditional romantic partner.

Our world is full of single people who are gay and straight and bi, people who have full, busy lives, who do work that is important to themselves and to others; who take care of people and who are taken care of by others; who enjoy pleasures and disappointments with the same intensity as their married compatriots, who break hearts and have their hearts broken; who give birth to and raise children. These millions of people now have more freedom – thanks to lots of social movements, including the one that has brought us legal gay marriage – to live these full, varied lives without being anyone’s wife or husband.

Marriage isn’t coercive, and our hetero friends offering social media support shouldn’t be faulted for wishing the best for us; but the good intentions translate into invitations to a ceremony whose assumptions aren’t being tested. Maybe gays marrying will inject the necessary bacillus allowing the institution to metamorphose into one in which avoiding children and the allowance of sexual partners — always with mutual consent — become acceptable options. When our grandparents practiced open relationships, it was the man who opened and the woman who suffered.

Moving on

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To the friends who’ve married in the extraordinary last couple of years, I congratulate your freedom to move to any state in the country; its government must acknowledge your marriage. I don’t march in parades or change Facebook photos because I’m a prig. A good friend yesterday lamented the subtext of Anthony Kennedy’s decision — the peroration that everyone on Facebook has pasted but to me reads like Tony needs a tumble off Purple Mountain (Anthony Kennedy has been modeling for the ten dollar bill since 1992). I won’t cite it. But there is something to my friend’s recoiling from the notion that marriage saves humanity from loneliness and despair. My life is full and I have no intentions of marrying, not when the woods are lovely, dark, and deep and I have books to read and movies to watch and cocktails to drink and friends to love.

Now let’s move on to ENDA, whose passage is stalled and with this congress will likely remain so but then gay marriage did too in 2006. As conservatives shift from insulting homosexuals outright, the religious liberty argument will get louder, hence the necessity of workplace protection.