Me vs. Migos (May 9th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I am not easily drawn into popular music explosions. I’m stubborn-minded, distrustful of the taste of the masses when they are manipulated by market forces (snobby though that may be), a bit of a punk at heart, ignorant of the charts, and absent from the clubs. For example, for better or worse, I couldn’t care less about Taylor Swift; I know she’s talented, but I’m skeptical what she’d have to offer me, and I’m still not sure what business a 56-year-old man without kids has listening to her on the regz–a shade creepy, seems to me.

But Migos. So many reasons exist to steer me clear. Hugely popular (correct?). A bit susceptible to the wiles of materialism, and strip joints. A bit susceptible to embodying stereotypes. A bit too comfortable with the “n” and “b” words (am I an old fogey? or justly tired of hearing them trafficked?). Not exactly skilled rhymers or bar-constructers. Plus, there’s this. I participate in two Facebook groups that focus on hip-hop music and culture. As a white person, I’m in the distinct minority in both, and grateful that I’m free to comment, though I keep my head down to a great degree. However, as I learned early on when I admitted in one forum that I liked Young Thug and Bloody Jay’s Black Portland, the members are in near-unanimity in their distaste for and ridicule of trap rap in general and Migos in particular. Boiled down to the general, they scoff at what they perceive as an epidemic lack of MC skills, a paucity of compelling production, and a wackness of the soul. The preferred paradigm is often seems to be rap’s Golden Age acts (’88-’96), and I guess that resonates with me, as does the high standards set by the group (themselves in the minority where popular hip hop taste is concerned). Viewed through their rubric, Migos is trash.

However, they have me hooked. They are damned catchy; after my first time playing Culture (I listened to it today for about the twentieth time), “T-Shirt” and “Bad and Bougee” earwormed me pleasurably for days. They are very fucking funny, from their ad-libbed squawking to their outrageous scenarios to their often impenetrable exchanges (you know when you’re complaining that you can’t understand the words that you’re being coded out, a grand pop tradition). Folks do complain about the repetitive devices of trap production, but upon repeat listening I can distinguish songs within two-three beats every bit as well as I can with The Ramones or Hank Williams. Plus, such a pleasurable vibe results–a weird ethereality, a narco-state, a rhythm of relaxation–that, well, if this is trash, I’ll have another helping. Perhaps, to twist a Raymond Chandler phrase, without some trash a pop partaker cannot consider himself complete.

So, what about the vs. above? With some of the best pop music, things are never settled, and that just makes it more interesting. Seems to me that embedded in Childish Gambino’s now-viral “This is America” video is a clear critique of mass-consumed materialist culture as it dilutes the urgency with which we need to confront our violence. There’s even a representation of the minstrelsy that’s haunted us from the beginning of our music; there’s no question to me Donald Glover’s thought plenty about that complicated and destructive tradition. His proximity to Migos and the kingdom of trap music make the video even more fascinating–and make me wonder if the denizens of Audioblerds and Artists Lounge are right after all. “This is America” has unsettled me every time I’ve watched it.

Enough to wean me off Migos’ music? Maybe “wean” is too long a process under the circumstances. Glover’s participation in Saturday Night Live’s recent “Friendos” sketch only ups the speculative ante further.

I’m torn by this trio of kids from Atlanta. Could be by indulging in their art I’m culpable in my encouragement. Could be these are just foolish things never meant to be taken seriously. Too bad Oscar Wilde and Neil Postman aren’t around to help us parse it. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to quit trying. Or listening.

Apples and Oranges (January 22, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)


As I do with my reading, I follow my nose when I explore music. I read, I chat with folks, I read some more; what I don’t tend to do is put myself in an algorithmic cage, which isn’t that different from radio other than the cage has broader dimensions. In the case of the most explosive and deeply felt music I listened to yesterday, neither YouTube nor Spotify nor Pandora (nor most certainly radio) would have helped me, as I only happened to learn about this particular recording through a perusal of jazz critics’ best-of-’17 lists in Jazz Iz (a publication I seldom see but happened to notice in the rack shadows in a local grocery store). You could say I sniffed it out. You might also carp about critics being gatekeepers, but, look–their job is to listen, and they have the time to do more of it than we do because of that. And lists are very important: right now I know I am not alone in hoping that the Village Voice eventually provides all voter ballots for the 2018 Pazz and Jop Poll, which are almost always a better resource than the list itself and its accompanying lists.

Cutting to the chase: the album I am speaking of is Transient Takes, Chicago saxophonist and AACM member Ernest Dawkins‘ 16th as a leader. Dawkins, 64, is in magisterial form on alto and tenor, shifting easefully between woolly blues, passionate ballads, and no-holds-barred free scrums that unsurprisingly landed the record on two Jazz Iz correspondents’ lists–and at the very top of one of those. Reinforcing Dawkins’ powerful, emotionally complex, and witty playing is Vijay Iyer, one of jazz’s most preeminent  pianists, but also one who is frequently accused of being too cerebral and cold (a stereotypical assessment, perhaps). Frankly, Dawkins (if not such observers) seems to inspire Iyer to some of the earthiest playing I’ve ever heard from him–and I’m a big fan. Isaiah Spencer on drums and Junius Paul also provide solid, rousing, and sensitive support, and the crisp live recording makes a very present group performance even more immediate. Transient Takes is one of the best American releases of any kind from 2017; it would have been on my year-end list had I known about it in time, but I’ll vote for it next year anyway!

The catch: Should you like a copy of Transient Takes–and if you are a fan of Dawkins, post-Trane jazz in general, the AACM, the Chicago tradition, saxophone, or Iyer, I believe you should like one–you’ll need to a) trust me re: the above take (or dig David Whiteis’ review in Jazz Times), because there’s not much commentary out there; b) write Mr. Dawkins directly at the following address for a copy ($20 if shipped in the U. S., I think)–because you’ll not find it streaming, or for sale anywhere but from him.

Ernest Dawkins, P. O. Box 7154, Chicago, Illinois, 60680

You might think it’s perverse for an artist not to “get his work out there,” but in this world of free and instant access, I found it refreshing. The process of obtaining Transient Takes took me back to the days when, hunkered down in my college dormitory, I mail-ordered punk albums from Trouser Press.

Note: According to his website, Dawkins is working on two very interesting commissioned projects that might be reason to stay informed.

OK, those were the apples. Now for the oranges….

I will freely admit to being slow to the dinner table when it comes to pop music. I don’t club, I don’t listen to the radio at all, I don’t follow the charts (my nose can’t smell them for some reason), I feel creepy listening to Taylor Swift, I’ve perhaps become too temperamentally and philosophically aligned with the world of underground, experimental, and otherwise marginal music, I don’t trust megasmashes–the list goes on and on. Though when I read Neil Postman many years ago he annoyed me, for some reason when I think of contemporary pop music, I detect him whispering in my ear, “This is what I was talking about.” However, I like to think that, particularly after friends and fellow writers wear me down and I make an effort, I do eventually bow at the feet of the Undeniable Pop Smash.

Cardi B is undeniable. Migos are undeniable. I am warming back up to Ms. Minaj. And–I am feeling my forehead here–I am even interested in Bruno Mars, thank to this:

My Stephens students laughed out loud at me this morning when I told them I had just listened to a Cardi B song for the first time yesterday (true statement). I had distributed to each of them the above Pazz & Jop poll results, and assigned them to highlight every album and song they’d heard, star each one of those they could defend in public, and otherwise notate records they hadn’t heard but were curious about, which filled them with immediate enthusiasm, but also some reticence, especially when I mentioned I’d voted in the poll. I could see on their faces a look that anticipated my stern judgment of their choices, but in response I said, “How smart can I be if I just listened to Cardi B yesterday?”