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