by carl wilson

They Can't Get On His System 'Cuz His System Is The Solar
Plus: Bishop Bros. Revisited

lil-wayne-carter-3-cover1.jpg
As several people have noted, cover of Lil Wayne's new album implies
a claim to monumental status with obvious visual reference to Nas's Illmatic and Biggie's Ready to Die.

My review of Tha Carter III - the new Lil Wayne album, if'n you've been living under a rock (or, perhaps, inside a rock-music bubble) - was in The Globe and Mail today. I repent a little bit of the claim that Wayne has talent instead of "drive" - you don't put out all the material he does if you don't have drive, although I meant that he doesn't give the same impression of career-micromanagement that a typical pop star does, that he's a lot more spontaneous. Likewise "friendliness" is a subjective call - his giggly megalomania is kind of personable though it's also kind of offputting - and he does seem to have cleaned up his look a little bit for record-promo season, compared to his usual I-slept-in-the-studio raggedy-ass look. Writers: See where going for an easy joke when you're right on deadline gets you? Take a lesson. But the point stands, I think: Wayne doesn't preen and doesn't try to seem user-friendly in the usual star manner. And that is of course another way of being a star, the don't-give-a-shit iconoclastic way.

I didn't have space in the review to get into another point about Wayne's use of the "alien" persona, especially in Phone Home, which is the way that he's invoking what Deepak Mehmi (at the recent Canadian conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) has called "the metaphorical Afronaut" in hip-hop, a trope others have noted in jazz (Sun Ra being the classic example), funk (George Clinton with his Mothership) and techno (all over the placed). It's the Afro-Futurism theme, the "sonic fiction," as Kodwo Eshun has called it, of black people as alien beings - or at least of particular black artists as being so far-out - and not really "of" the world they come from - that they are like alien beings. This self-exoticization is a sort of reclaiming and reversal of the treatment of talented black people as freaks, and I wish I'd discussed it in my review because my discussion of him as a wildly atypical pop star could be critiqued as falling into the exoticization trap too. But I think that Wayne is very deliberately raising and promoting this image, just as Clinton and Sun Ra did, because it can be a liberating place to operate. By freeing himself of his context he frees himself of rules and expectations. (Unlike Ra or Clinton, though, he does try to have it both ways by keeping up his New Orleans bonafides, especially since the hurricanes, another rich vein of contradiction to explore with Wayne.)

I also didn't talk - because I was writing for a Globe audience that I wanted to convince to give Wayne a chance, and not provide an excuse for them to ignore him - about the sexism you do still hear all over Carter 3, with its alternate greed for and sneering dismissal of "pussy" in track after track, one of the lazy places Wayne lapses into when he doesn't have enough else to say. It's what I meant when I talked about the "garbage" that sometimes bobs in the stream of his flow. For instance in A Milli: "The bible told us every girl was sour/
Don't play in her garden and don't smell her flower." The rumours about Wayne's sexuality make these moments especially ambiguous - touching the forbidden issue of gay males and misogyny - but at the same time he's of course always posing as this indomitable cocksman, like any other rapper but with an extra dose of protest-too-much. Not that I have a clue whether or not Wayne is gay, but if he is and could just go ahead and say so, he would certainly be vouchsafing the fearless individuality he's always asserting - though you can also imagine him not wanting his freakiness to be reduced down to his orientation, too. That's how I figure it with Missy Elliot, for instance, though she certainly doesn't strain as hard to disguise things.

And that's not even getting into the very-hard-to-parse political speechifying in the closing track. All that said, though, the album's maddening and marvelous, though I'm still waiting to compare it to the new Nas (which it probably outstrips) and the upcoming Andre 3000 (which it may well won't).

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Meanwhile, I never got around to my promised report on the Bishop brothers (ex-Sun City Girls) concert in Toronto last week. It was a funny one: The show was divided into two parts, the first of which didn't connect much with the audience, to the Bishops' obvious frustration: The first set was mostly the misanthropic murder, blasphemy and incest-themed hillbilly-styled songs that have always been a part of the SCG repertoire, especially the Beat-styled nihilism of the late third Girl, Charles Gocher, to whose memory this tour is dedicated. While there are points where those songs' gonzo intensities can't help but be amusing and occasionally even visionary in their surreal violence and such, a lot of it depends on a shock value that by this point seems pretty threadbare and adolescent. Maybe some of the anti-religious stuff hits home better south of the border, where everyone feels more impinged upon by the fundamentalists, but in Toronto it's hard to work up a sweat about it. On top of that, we were in an art gallery where the strongest drink on hand was soda pop, so we didn't get the drunken-yahoo fun out of it that probably happened at more bacchanalian Sun City Girls shows of yore. (Alan Bishop took all this as a sign that Torontonians are the same cross-their-arms-and-judge types as New Yorkers, as he saw it, and there's no doubt something to that - but as he found out when he started making fun of Canadian bands, especially Rush, we weren't a crowd averse to humour - he just hadn't found our funny bones yet.)

A sizable chunk of the crowd left after that unfortunately (some of them, I know, understandably enough were racing over to the Tranzac to catch the final Silt show). But as Alan promised before the break, they came back with their guitars in different tuning, ready to "sell out all over the place and make you love us." Selling out for the Bishops turned out to mean playing their fantastic pastiches of blues and global music in oceanic acoustic-guitar duets, kind of an extended series of variations on Zeppelin's Kashmir but with wider ethnomusicological sensibility and some ear-scouring, very impressive vocals from Alan in semi-Arabic and African tones. (It's worth remembering that the Bishops are of Lebanese heritage, so they have deeper connections to this music too.) A lot of it was beautiful - with a little comic relief in the fact that Alan broke guitar strings in nearly every song, and in one case two of them, which is even more notable when you realize (as Richard later pointed out) that he started out playing with five strings instead of six because, he said, he was inevitably going to break the top string anyway, so why bother? Richard (who as "Sir Richard Bishop" has been doing a lot of solo, instrumental-guitar records and tours in recent years) didn't break a single string in the same time.

It's too bad that they didn't mix the two sets up over the course of the evening - the naughty novelty songs would have been easier to enjoy if they'd just been interspersed among the more musically compelling ones. Sure, that would have required that they tour with an extra set of guitars (because of the different tunings), but it would be worth the effort. I was a little let down too that there wasn't more of a sense of theatre to the show - at one point Alan did get up and scatter some powder around the room, including on audience members' heads, without identifying it; while it looked like cocoa the buzz was that it was Charlie Gocher's ashes (I doubt it, but who knows?). It's tough to live down your own legend, even when it's a legend only a handful of people have ever heard, and while this was not at all the psychic journey that the storied Sun City Girls shows of the 1980s and 1990s were, I was very happy in the end that I got to witness it.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, June 24 at 10:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (19)

 

COMMENTS

"I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man" -- "Baby Let's Play House," sung by Elvis Presley for Sun Records.

(Sorry to respond so late -- I was out of town and had very little internet for 10 days.)

Posted by john on July 6, 2008 10:25 PM

 

 

I often take the stand that sexism is not as present in rap as its critics charge. This album is particularly vacant of misogynistic lyrics...That bit about the Bible is Wayne restating the story of Adam and Eve, and I would argue his interpretation is no less sexist than the original text itself. (And afterwards, he says "call me Mr. Carter or Mr. Lawnmower," as if he's going in the garden anyhow and will cut down flowers...just a response to your gay thing. And that is also referencing, I think, the term deflowering, which is not something Wayne created but is referencing for wordplay.)

As for the constant pussy references, where do you draw the line between misogyny and machismo? Don't rock stars like Wayne have an obligation to be macho, both to male and female fans? I'm starting to wonder if the atmosphere in rap is such that even mentioning sex is now in itself sexist. This, I think , brings the element of black male -as-sexual threat into the equation. No one accused B44 of sexism for their sexxed up lyrics...nor do we put that label on Kim Deal, who made a song about a man's penis. I think, like those songs, Wayne is more sexual (ok, raunchy) than sexist. (At least on C3.)

Look at Lollipop: While it's written from a male perspective, it makes clear that the woman in the song a) has sexual desire onto herself and is not merely an object (she's the one who asks to lick the (w)rapper in the first place) and b) receives equal sexual attention (he has her pussy in his mouth for a time, remember).

OH, and one elian/alien lyric is about Elian Gonzalez , the Cuban boy in the 90s that was repatriated to his homeland after a macho international dispute. In case everyone already knew that, I'm sorry.

AND, I don't think Elvis sung the "It's the end, little girl" line. I think at was Chuck Berry and then copied by Lennon. Am I wrong?

ALSO, I'm Lil Wayne's biggest fan, as at least Dave M. already knows. He's a huge talent in rap and exhibits all the traits of a Prince-like superstar. I've been squawking about this guy for three years now, so I wonder if I'm becoming fanatical. Probably.

Anyway great review, CW.

Posted by Joshua on June 27, 2008 1:28 PM

 

 

I'm going to divide this into two parts, and hopefully (hopefully!), they won't become confused:

1. My problems with the new Wayne record are twofold: the production is not adding much to the current plague of made-for-your-cellphone beats- in fact, most of it will be flash-in-the-pan ring-wise, which makes me wonder, why even bother sinking to that level if you're not going to step up to that particular plate? As well, the (and I will take full responsibility for all pretentiousness that follows) Faulkner-meets-Joyce qualities of Wayne's style (Tha Carter had far more in common with Joyce than The Streets when he got awarded "Joycean" acclaim) that made Tha Carter and subsequent mixtapes so fascinating to me is dropping off sharply, but again, indecisively. This record feels very much in transition, and incomplete, like it doesn't know where it wants to be.

2. Zoilus, I realize this is the lowly comments section, but that is no excuse for such poor punctuation!

Posted by Matt Collins on June 26, 2008 2:30 PM

 

 

"Who shot the La-La, I wanna know." Total New Orleans party song, approx. 50 years old. (I think.) Very playful -- joyous catchy tune; my son loved it when he was 3. Echo of minstrelsy? "Blue Tail Fly," now, amazingly -- shockingly, really -- a children's song, in which the slave drunkenly exults at his master's accidental death.

I played War as a kid, "shooting" my friends and getting "shot," but I lost my interest in those games. Xgau's comment forces reconsideration. Gallows humor? Who shot the La-La? (People getting shot all around, but as long as I'm singing this song, I ain't dead yet, let's party.)

Jimmie crack corn, I don't care.

Posted by john on June 26, 2008 12:12 PM

 

 

Carl and John, in the (very interesting) discussion of Carter III on Blender's site, Robert Christgau is sharp on the Weezy misogyny issue:

"This brings me to the misogyny question Josh raised. Gangsta-etc. is a metaphor system. Problem is, very often it’s a socially retrograde metaphor system, or even worse, a metaphor system invented to camouflage the socially retrograde. I have no use for it unless it’s truly brilliant—classic example: M.O.P.’s “Ante Up,” one of the great singles of the past decade (with a pretty good album attached). But Lil Wayne is clearly playing with the shit. There are moments—I’d have to go looking for them, but I do notice them as they pass by—when he shades over into the socially retrograde. But his sense of play swallows those moments up. Very New Orleans, this. Listen to the Wild Tchoupitoulas sometime. Mardi Gras Indians. Very upful. Sing about killing each other, among other things. I love ‘em."

More here:

http://www.blender.com/CustomQueryBlog/blogs/the%20great%20lil%20wayne%20debate.aspx

Posted by Jody on June 26, 2008 6:36 AM

 

 

p.s. I understand that "you always hurt the one you love" is not a sexist line, but mixed with all the other lines it's ominous. I used the Mills Brothers' smooth version, and then Spike Jones's, which follows the line with a gunshot.

p.p.s. Soundgarden, Nirvana, and the rest contributed to the benefit compilation, not my collage.

Posted by john on June 25, 2008 5:07 PM

 

 

Somewhere I have a cassette of a collage of sexist lines from rock and pre-rock pop, which I put together in the mid-90s in response to a Newsweek cover story decrying the sexism of rap (as, if memory serves, we squares were still calling it then). I put it over a loop of Charlie Haden's opening bass lick to Ornette's "Lonely Woman."

I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man. (Elvis AND the Beatles.)

Down by the river, I shot my baby.

Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?

Cruel to my woman, I beat her.

You always hurt the one you love.


Loooong story about how the track ALMOST came out on a benefit compilation with contributions from Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and a host of other stars . . . but the Elvis and Beatles estates wouldn't give permissions. I was told everybody else did.

So, anyway, yeah, really good points, Carl.

Posted by john on June 25, 2008 4:50 PM

 

 

Two things, John - one, a tight deadline and word count: I just didn't come up with a way to wedge in discussion of the sexism that wouldn't derail the general thrust of the review. So my own limitations.

Second, though: It's not like Wayne's misogyny is so much different than most other mainstream male rappers'. He also talks about guns, violence and drug dealing, and he boasts a lot. Since that's all pretty endemic to the genre, and I had limited space, I spent it on the stuff that's more unique to Wayne.

The hypothetical example of the country singer you give would be different: Most country albums (contrary to some non-listeners' assumptions) don't say anything about Arabs or Iran. So when Toby Keith does it, it stands out - no matter how good his singing or guitar playing is, you have to note it. On the other hand, the fact that he sings a lot about drinking and horses and getting in trouble with women - that just means it's country, so it only bears mentioning if you have something specific to say about it.

To tie the points together: I know a lot of Globe readers think, "oh, rap, that's all that misogynistic violent bullshit" *while completely overlooking the same bullshit in music they like* (eg the Rolling Stones) - it's at least as much a rationalization of an aesthetic and social bias as it is their real *reason* for not liking hip-hop. So I wanted to dwell more on the reasons they might like this. It's important to discuss the sexism in rap, or racism in ee cummings, but it's important to discuss the poetics and the punctuation too, right?

That said, I agree it deserved at least a mention in the review, as a cautionary note. My bad there.

Posted by zoilus on June 25, 2008 4:27 PM

 

 

Just to clarify: I'm not saying, "He's sexist, therefore he sucks." I love E. E. Cummings despite his anti-Semitism. The boundaries are interesting, and likely different for everybody.

Posted by john on June 25, 2008 4:02 PM

 

 

Dylan and Costello are sloppy writers too and have been criticized as such (even in the comments section of this blog!), so "sloppy" may just be part of the deal.

I do have a question, Carl. Are you giving hip hop and misogyny special treatment? Why does your Globe review skip the sexism if that's part of the experience? If a hypothetical country artist were a hot, dynamic, creative lead guitarist, and he larded his songs with imagery about, to take a plausible hypothetical example, "dirty Arabs" and pro-bomb-Iran advocacy (to echo a common wrongwing solecism), would you let that pass too in order that people might take your advocacy straight up and experience the hot guitar?

Also interesting: The hybrid form of print-journalism plus instant-blog-self-commentary. Like issuing the remix the same day on a different label.

Posted by john on June 25, 2008 3:32 PM

 

 

Just to clarify - the Globe's ratings are out of 4, not 5. So 3 1/2 is like an A-minus. If I could give it both a 3 1/2 and a 4 1/2 simultaneously - both less and more than perfect - I would. But a 4 out of 4 would suggest a more seamless experience than Carter 3 really is. I think that's clear in the way the review's written & I'm not sure anyone would focus on the R&B; thing, though fair enough, the Robin Thicke thing is the most directly negative point in it.

Anyway star ratings suck and I wouldn't use them at all if I had a choice.

Posted by zoilus on June 25, 2008 3:12 PM

 

 

"you'll note that I didn't complain about Lollipop at all, nor about Comfortable...it's a question of how well the marriage between Wayne and a particular guest vocalist/song works. But it's not a matter of wanting it to be an all-rap all-the-time thing. You're reading that in."

fair enough, but you didn't compliment them either -- the general impression a reader would walk away with from the review was that the R&B; tracks were consistently poor, hence the 3 1/2 star rating. (like I say tho, I agree that Tie My Hands is the worst track on the album -- his best response-to-Katrina material is on Dedication 2).

don't get me wrong, i agree with most of your review. to me the verses that sound the most throwaway are on the R&B; tracks, but it makes sense -- it's more like Weezy is the guest or the actual Master of Ceremonies, doing his own Rap'n'Roll Circus, fun for the whole family; where he's the consistent thread running through the album, but not always the dominant one.

Posted by dave m. on June 25, 2008 1:55 PM

 

 

Hmm - I agree that the novelty songs are satirical, Half, and in that way they do represent an attitude not their own. I guess where we disagree is about the accuracy. I don't feel that caricature - the same caricature of straight authority that the beats and hippies had, elaborated in more or less the same way (a lot of the songs were like sharper versions of Zappa's unfunny satires). I found it very pedantic. I should say I thought some of them were funny and disturbing, just that the average was low.

I like your dialectical reading of it though.

Posted by zoilus on June 25, 2008 12:04 PM

 

 

That's not what I meant Carl. What you saw as adolescent self-superiority, I saw as an artistic expression of a particular voice that was not their own. Of an egocentric, blinkered world view. That's not punishment. That's describing a condition, quite accurately I thought. The style of the performance reflects that attitude. Brutish, ham-fisted, aggressive.

The second set described a more spiritual response to the world where the sheer beauty of what they did put the lie to everything they showed us before. To me, the experience was very deep. It wasn't just entertainment.

Posted by Half on June 25, 2008 11:24 AM

 

 

"other rappers step up their vocabularies around Wayne"

I think is true of critics, too -- I don't remember the last artist that generated as much interesting commentary as Wayne (especially since Drought 3), including your piece here. All very well said.

Posted by KS on June 25, 2008 11:05 AM

 

 

Oh and Half - I think the whole idea of "testing" the audience and then "rewarding" them reflects the same kind of tiresome, condescending self-superiority that made most of those "angry" songs seem so adolescent and indulgent.

Posted by zoilus on June 25, 2008 10:22 AM

 

 

First things first: Yeah, should have mentioned Corbett too.

Other stuff:
- the carelessness is a choice and a posture, I agree, but in Wayne's case I think that it does spill over into sloppiness - maybe I'm wrong but there are verses that he does that seem completely throwaway, mumbled crap that doesn't generate much textural or emotional outcome for me. it's not necessarily a problem because it contributes to the *feel* of his whole style but sloppy still seems like an accurate description

- it's not that i want there not to be R&B; songs - and you'll note that I didn't complain about Lollipop at all, nor about Comfortable. But I didn't like Mrs Officer and I thought Tie My Hands was kind of a mess. First, there's smooth and then there's ultrasmoot; second it's a question of how well the marriage between Wayne and a particular guest vocalist/song works. But it's not a matter of wanting it to be an all-rap all-the-time thing. You're reading that in.

Posted by zoilus on June 25, 2008 10:19 AM

 

 

this review dovetails with jess harvell's salon review for me, in that it makes some similar points that i find a little frustrating. for one thing, i don't understand what you mean when you say lil wayne is careless or sloppy. was bob dylan careless and sloppy because the vocal sound he was very deliberately trying to affect was unconventional for a pop singer at the time, or because not all his tangents and allusions could be easily parsed?

also i don't understand why having R&B; songs on a rap record ("Mrs. Officer", "Comfortable", "Lollipop") surprises anybody these days. the dismissive way modern R&B; gets written about by critics really diminishes their credibility when they go to review rap records that are being made for an R&B-dominated; commercial market. it's this weird purist impulse, that if it's not 74 minutes of hardcore rhyming then it must be garbage. i for one love "Comfortable" and "Lollipop" and don't mind "Mrs. Officer", though Robin Thicke's contribution admittedly is totally sub-Ray J and cringeworthy.

(oh and how you gonna mention 'afro-futurism' and name kodwo eshun instead of john corbett??)

Posted by dave.m on June 25, 2008 9:54 AM

 

 

I really liked the two-part nature of their show. It resonated with me as an interesting way to tell a story. The first part, the "angry" bit, was all instant gratification and short fuse. Played against that, the emotional appeal of the second part was deeper and more layered. I don't think it's an accident that this set rewarded those who stayed.

Posted by Half on June 25, 2008 7:20 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson