Star Man Fades to Black: David Bowie’s Brilliant Final Album

bowie-blackstar-viceAmid the frantic beats, atmospherics, and saxophones playing tug of war on the title track that opens the new David Bowie album Blackstar, about halfway through the 10-minute track most of the sound clears and Bowie sings “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter and stepped aside; Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried.”

Released on his birthday and just two days before his death, Blackstar is dizzying and exciting and strange and oddly cool and I thought all those things even before he died. But now it’s a little more difficult to hear him wailing “good-byyyyyyye” as the reverb increases and the star man sounds like he’s floating back into space or heaven or wherever he was just visiting from.

Secrets are hard kept in the modern age, and yet somehow Bowie could spend months working on a new album with a small group of people and the rumors never leaked. He stunned the world in 2013 when he suddenly had a brand new (and quite rocking) album, The Next Day. It seemed amazing, even a few years ago, that a major artist could be at work and finished with an album without the world hearing any rumors or news about it (let alone a leaked copy of the actual album). It didn’t hurt that it was a well-received return to form, a rare feat a full 10 years after his previous album.

He came close to pulling it off again, but in 2015 it looks like he chose to give the world a few months’ notice that he’d employed a New York City jazz band to back him on a very diverse record to be released January 8, on his 69th birthday.

And just as we were in the midst of unpacking this complex and interesting new album, Bowie was gone.

The world mourns online and it is one of the bittersweet and ironic advantages of the internet: we can all be together when we’re all alone and sad about the passing of a true artist. And among the inevitable retweets of clueless teenagers asking “who tf was david bowie?” there were countless tributes and notes of sadness, as well as attempts at joy (like this, from Dean Podestá @jesuisdean: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”) Others commented that Bowie left such a huge void, as if an entire color was now gone from the universe. (Here’s a great collection of newspaper/magazine covers mourning the loss.)

I wasn’t a huge Bowie fanatic; I liked pretty much all his hits, knew some of his albums, saw him in concert once, and I understood his significance and influence in rock music and popular culture. And I’m probably one of the people that loved his first Tin Machine album. But even beyond the music, Bowie made being “weird” or just being yourself (and shattering such labels as “weird”) something to aspire to. Funny that there was a time when a kid could get beat up for liking David Bowie. But we don’t live in a world like that anymore, thanks in part to David Bowie. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be different.

He didn’t just predict the future, he helped us get here. Continue reading →

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Thanks a Bunch Bin Laden

Warning, this is long. If you only have the tolerance to read 140 characters or less you may want to skip to the end where you will find the TL;DR.

In the interest of self improvement I recently decided to take a digital photography course.  For the last ten weeks I have been learning the ins-and-outs of digital photography. While I have always had an interest in photography and picture taking I wanted to learn more about using a camera. More specifically I have wanted to make the jump from shooting on iAuto mode to shooting in the ever intimidating Manual mode. Just a few short weeks into the class, I was already more comfortable with shooting in Manual mode, so much so that my camera is never on any other setting, ever.

Photography is Prohibited

What are you taking a picture of there?

One of the fun aspects of the course has been shooting weekly assignments. Every week the instructor would give assignments and each of the students were left to their own devices to fulfill the requirements. First assignment, we shot flowers. The flower assignment was easy enough. How could it be difficult, shoot some flowers and share them with the class. Next up, portraits. Again, cake assignment. Snap some pictures of people’s faces. Boom, boom, boom. Done. After finishing up the first few weeks of the course I felt pretty confident in my abilities as an amateur photog. Give me a concept to shoot and I am creative enough to come up with something that will both fulfill the assignment and give it a certain flair to make it my own.

All was well as I made my way through the course work and then came the ‘Urban/Landscape’ assignment. Undaunted by the challenge I set out to capture some images that consisted of my take on ‘Urban/Landscape.’ How difficult do you think it could be? Shoot some pictures of buildings, water fountains, city parks and the homework is done. Right?

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The Boy Who Cried Roots

The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Photo by Chago Akii-bua.

At some point, “The new Roots album is really good” became a cliché we’ve been taking for granted since the release of their fourth album, things fall apart, in 1999. They’ve since dropped six more gems, some better than others, but all so consistent and at times stunning in their quality that we’ve just become immune, desensitized, and unappreciative. Oh, yea… The Roots have a new album. I heard it’s really good.

Every other year I find myself telling this friend or that about how great the new Roots album is, stressing its brilliance and begging to be taken seriously… feeling like the boy who cried wolf, except I’ve never lied.

Their legendary live shows, their solid canon of classic studio albums, their recent high-profile gig as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon… the bar has been set pretty high. And yet with each new release, as they continue to sail over that bar and raise it higher and higher, we shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and put The Roots on our year-end best-of lists and that’s that.

Since 1999’s things fall apart spawned the hit “You Got Me,” the Roots have quietly blessed us with a run of albums that could rival others entire careers, starting with the wildly eclectic Phrenology (what I call their White Album in how experimental and psychedelic it is) and continuing through The Tipping Point, Game Theory and Rising Down. These four albums over six years seemed to come and go, pure genius being ignored right out in the open.

Then in 2010 came How I Got Over, a late-career classic. A “mature” hip-hop album that was still a banger, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece (and yet still probably shrugged off as “another great Roots album”). With their killer collab album with John Legend, Wake Up!, released on its heels that same year, I assumed How I Got Over might be their last album for a quite a while…  And then at the end of 2011, bam!, they hit us with undun. And once again, they’ve outdone even themselves.

As the press releases and subsequent reviews have said, undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999),” a loose-narrative concept album told in reverse about the death of the fictional struggling everyman from the hood. It starts with the flat-line beep sound of his death and then goes back to tell the story of ghetto inevitability.

After countless listens on repeat, I don’t see (or hear) it as “told in reverse,” as much as it seems circular. You can come in at any point and pick it up. It’s like a classic movie on cable, like Goodfellas, where no matter what part is on when you find it, you feel compelled to watch the rest even though you know how it ends. And when the instrumental suite that closes the CD ends…. it starts again with the flat-line beep, and before you know it you’re circling around for another turn with this all-too-familiar American tale of desperation and destiny… like the endless cycle of lives trapped along the poverty line.

To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me

That’s the very first verse we hear from Black Thought. If I decided to quote any more of his brilliant one liners and verse-long portraits, it would fill this whole post. Just go read them, or better yet, submerge yourself in this record and hear a lyrical master at work, in both writing and delivery. His basic style/flow may have been birthed by the legendary Rakim a generation ago, but Black Thought absolutely belongs in any type of “Top 5 MC’s of All Time,” list/argument you want to make. He might not have the cultural impact of Tupac or Biggie; He’s been around for close to 20 years on record, but he’s not quite a pioneering legend like Chuck D or KRS-One; he’s not as flashy as Nas, Eminem, or Andre 3000. And while he’s undoubtedly benefited from the beats, production and leadership of ?uestlove, it’s also possible that Black Thought’s “legacy” is diminished cuz we just hail them as The Best Hip-Hop Group (by a mile) and we never quite give BT his due. Taken for granted once again.

On this latest album, Black Thought is so concise, as plain spoken yet creative with his wordplay and metaphors as ever. Anchored by a revolving door of guest MC’s led by veteran Roots role player on the mic Dice Raw, Black Thought gets the most out of every line, no words are wasted, every rhythmic turn and lyrical phrasing complementing the beat as if it was actually part of ?uestlove’s drum kit.

One of the most interesting recent quotes I read from Black Thought was about his serious approach to the writing:  “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.”

Like a great American novel, I hope that after all the accolades and Grammy nominations and glowing blog reviews, we all remember this incredible album, this snapshot of a society crumbling… with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.

Compared to it’s predecessor, undun is sonically stark, but still extremely effective. Musical storytelling that paints pictures behind the stunning verses. If they’d never sent out the blurbs about this being a “concept album,” we still would have picked up on the cinematic vibe. It’s like the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movie making again. And while this particular one has sadly played out in American streets over and over again, undun will still be worth revisiting and repeating for years to come.

Undun is not just “another great Roots album,” (though it is that). It reminds you that albums are an art form and luckily artists like the Roots are still making them.

My Brush with Death, A PSA for All of You

So far, today has been interesting. Just to catch you up to speed, the furnace in my apartment has been having trouble with the pilot light in that it won’t stay lit. As a favor to my landlord I offered to work from home today and let the repairman into my place and so he complete the repair.

When he arrived I showed him the furnace and told him that I think the thermal coupler was probably the culprit. After offering my analysis regarding the cause of the furnace’s state of disrepair I was quick to tell him that he shouldn’t take my word for it since all of the knowledge I possess  regarding boilers can fit on one side of a cocktail napkin.  James, the repair man, gave a couple of attempts at lighting the pilot light and low and behold my diagnosis of the problem turned out to be correct.  I love it when I sound handymanly.

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Sheer Athletic Prowess

Behold this shit!  People try to act like I got no game when it comes to some motherfuckin’ round ball. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

In an effort to shut the mouths of all the naysayers I am putting this display of basketball greatness on the internets for the world to see.  Yeah that’s right, I am taking this shit global son!  Let all of the doubters be told the truth through motherfuckin’ ones and zeros.

I present to you…

A Yelp Review

yelp

I give this post 1.5 stars. No where is there any mention of side boob.

Living in a society that allows individuals the right to express themselves is something our country’s founders felt was inalienable. One thing that the internet has provided the masses is a chance to express their opinions, thoughts and beliefs.  On it’s face the concept of providing a platform for everyone to share their voice is a positive thing.  In the virtual world of the internet both the like minded and ideologically divided can come together and engage in debates freely and without fear of reprisal from those with opposing viewpoints.

As I previously mentioned, on the surface this is a good thing.  However, as inherent as the likes of Jefferson and Franklin believed free expression as a good thing, I have to say I am not so certain.  It is one thing to debate politics across the ether of the internets in hopes of convincing your ideological counterpart to change their mind, but where I draw the line is when it is no longer debating but simply commenting on something for the sake of being able to re-read the words you wrote in some sort of publication.

What could I be talking about?  Simple, yelp.  This website represents everything that I feel is wrong with giving everyone a voice.  If you are not familiar with yelp.com feel free to give it a go and read some user reviews about service-based businesses across the globe.  Looking for a quiet place to grab a cocktail in Lisbon, check yelp.  Are you dying for some great seafood and you live in Des Moines, Iowa?  Go ape shit all over yelp because apparently there are folks in Des Moines that feel that Waterfront Seafood Market Restaurant in West Des Moines is the shit.  Don’t believe me, google that shit because at least one individual there believes that the CLAM chowder and coconut SHRIMP is fantastic.  Why the CAPS?  Maybe it is because I have difficulty believing clams and shrimp being served in a land locked state such as Iowa are all that fresh.
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