No Trivia: The case for Tupac as a Bmore rapper and a defense of misandrist music criticism
By By Brandon Soderberg
Jan 19, 2015 | 2:38 PM
Last week, I received an email from a reader challenging something D. Watkins said in his article on East Baltimore rapper FMG Dez, "Baltimore State of Mind." The reader disagreed with Watkins' assertion that Baltimore is "the only big predominately black city in America that hasn't produced a hip-hop artist with major crossover success," and asked, "What about Tupac Shakur?"
That seemed off to me. Shakur was born in East Harlem in New York and only lived in Baltimore from 1985 to 1988 before moving to Marin City, California. Because of his success once he moved and the tragic, drummed-up "coastal rap beef" that ultimately took his life, he is commonly known as a West Coast rapper. I just don't think most people, especially outside of Baltimore, think of Shakur as a Baltimore rapper, and I can say with confidence that had Shakur stayed in Baltimore he never would've become an iconic artist the way he did, if only because this city lacked any kind of hip-hop infrastructure, which is what Watkins is in part referencing when he talks about how this city lacks a crossover hip-hop artist to this day.
Although I disagreed, it was great to see someone like, you know, read something and engage with it and then challenge it, especially when that response beams with hometown pride. And still, the email had me thinking about Shakur's relationship with Baltimore because his nearly four years here were very formative. Shakur attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he performed Shakespeare and also honed his rap skills (as "MC New York"), and it is safe to assume those things informed each other. Indeed, Shakur's theatricality is what made him such a complex personality in rap, and it is also, I think, what moved him toward so thoroughly inhabiting the out-of-control street dick role he played toward the end of the career, which both made him singularly compelling and important and, arguably, assisted in putting an early end to his life at the age of 25.
In Armond White's wonderfully discursive book, "Rebel For The Hell Of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur," White connects Shakur's success in the '90s to his time at the Baltimore School of the Arts, particularly his friendship with Baltimore-born actress Jada Pinkett, also a student there. White argues that Shakur and Pinkett's personalities, once they penetrated the industry, were a key component to the aggressive pop-rebel aesthetics of '90s hip-hop. "Playing an odd riff on Muhammad Ali's '60s pride," White writes, Shakur and Pinkett "created a new hip-hop style centered on perpetual preening whether there was a party, a class exercise, a stage competition or not." If all of that happened because of Tupac's experiences in Baltimore, it may not make a case for Tupac as a Baltimore rapper, but it does make a case for Baltimore's slept-on significance in forming the rebellious swagger of hip-hop's golden era. I also think there's no way Shakur would've had such GORGEOUS and PERFECT eyebrows if he hadn't been hanging out with a buncha theater boys but that's another column altogether now, isn't it?
This week, another response to the City Paper's music section came from Megan Lloyd of Crimson Wave (also a contributor to the paper) who took to Twitter to disagree with my review of The Heads Are Zeros and Neck First's split 7-inch in this week's issue. Piggybacking off a piece I wrote in October, "No More Guitar Gods, Only Goddesses: Screaming Females poke guitar prick patriarchy," I reiterated my frustration with men and guitars and said that while all-male metalcore band Neck First's contributions were "special and brutal in creative ways," they just didn't compare to the ineffable power of The Heads Are Zeros, especially because of vocalist Olivia Henry. "dude what's your deal with bands of white males? Did neck first offend you in some way? Curious," Lloyd tweeted. A City Paper commenter also told me I seem less interested in music than "identity politics," as if those are separate things.
If my suggestion that women are just plain better at something than men alienates some dudes, well, fuck those dudes. But I'll open my ears when a woman questions my feminist-informed rhetoric and asks whether I'm being any kind of ally with this review or I'm just being an obnoxious dick. I listened to Lloyd and another Twitter user who reached out, and as long as you're not a man with a penis, then I will gladly listen to your take on my review as well.
Still: When I see a band and it's all white dudes, I wonder why all of their musical collaborators just ended up being white dudes. It isn't a coincidence. And when I hear their all-dude music, too often it is tedious, predictable bullshit or just lacks a certain oomph and it's that way because the dudes making it have shut themselves off to the multitudes around them because it's easier to not look outside of your comfy bro-zone. And think about this: All-dude bands can move through a scene with their aesthetics unchallenged much easier than a more diverse band, so said dude band doesn't grow. Perhaps that's why they suck so much of the time?
The day after my tweet-versation with Lloyd, the Oscar nominations were announced and they were bafflingly, depressingly white and male except when the award demanded they nominate women, in which case it was all white women. Particularly troubling was "Selma" receiving a nomination for best picture, but director Ava DuVernay not getting a best director nomination, which highlights an ongoing Oscar trend of acknowledging the films women directed but not the women who directed them. The naive and insincere chalked this snub up to a coincidence and others began blathering, predictably, about how maybe DeVernay didn't get nominated just because she didn't do as good a job as those who did get nominated, a bullshit-though-common sentiment that pretends that the Oscars are in anyway objective, a fact made even more absurd by these numbers cited by Buzzfeed: "Oscar voters are 93% white, 76% male with average age of 63."
Those numbers are fucking horrifying, right? It's the sort of thing that encourages me to take a strong, sincere, aggressive stance when I write about art. You know, a movie like "Boyhood" (nominated for six Oscars, directed by a dude named Richard Linklater) might be touching and all, but it also seems like an extended exercise in not being able to pull one's head out of one's ass. How is it impressive or interesting or anything to use some middle-class kid in a film over the span of 12 years just to tell the story of a white middle-class kid just like the actor you used? Imagine if Linklater constructed a tale with this kind of dedication that didn't just circle life experiences similar to his own, you feel me?
So, the question becomes, "Well, what are dopey white boys in noise bands and old white guys making films supposed to do?" If Linklater made a movie about a working-class kid or a black kid or a girl, he'd get dinged for controlling someone else's narrative, right? It's a "lose-lose," is the argument I've heard over and over again, to which I would ask, "Why are you so concerned with winning?" Being wrong or even just being called out is a learning experience, especially if you're a white guy. If you feel, for once in your life, attacked and marginalized, well, realize that's how people who aren't white guys feel all the fucking time.
Over the weekend, I began reading Anwen Crawford's book on Hole's seminal 1994 album "Live Through This" and early on, Crawford proclaims Hole's 1991 debut, "Pretty on the Inside," to be "far more singular and committed than Nirvana's 'Nevermind,'" which is something I've thought over the years but figured wasn't even worth declaring because who wasn't gonna just stomp their feet and sputter at that idea? It felt fucking great to read a critic finally say that. Crawford also adds that Courtney Love herself probably wouldn't agree with that assessment, which made me think of how I'm pretty sure The Heads Are Zeros don't agree with my review that trumps their work over Neck First and how that is totally OK.
No matter, I got a seratonin rush encountering Crawford's oppositional opinion (and I'd feel that way even if I didn't agree with it), and I guess I'd like to think that when unpopular opinions like that show up in one of my little alt-weekly reviews they get a reader giddy with contrarian hope too.
And finally, my favorite songs and albums for December.