The Get Down
For fans of hip-hop, musicals, and Baz Luhrmann, this is a real treat: luckily I’m all three,
so I was down with The Get Down right from the start. The show is set in 1977, two years away from rap’s breakthrough into the mainstream with The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, at a time when the genre was being birthed on the streets of the Bronx. Mixing archive footage of the ’hood and his own (and other director’s) extravagantly filmed flights of fancy, Luhrmann tries to have it both ways: to achieve a documentary realism and a magical realism all in one, which is why the overall effect is rather messy. The concept itself is inherently confused – it acknowledges that gang violence and urban poverty were necessary ingredients for the emergence of hip-hop, but the musical moments themselves, when they come, are too studio-bound and clean to thrill in the right way or to reflect this raw reality. Even more confusingly the female protagonist, Mylene, who is trying to make it as a diva, apparently ‘invents’ another genre by splicing gospel and disco (read: religion and sex) together, although quite what this newfound genre and its place in history is The Get Down never quite elucidates – gospel was always a huge element in black music, and the idea that love of God and love of sex could be interrelated was a massive element of Marvin Gaye’s career, for example.
Still, where the show really triumphs is in its knowledge of hip-hop specifically, as it well should seeing as Grandmaster Flash appears as both an onscreen mentor to the male protagonist, Ezekiel, and his crew of wannabe rappers, and an offscreen mentor to Luhrmann and his crew (Flash took the role of Associate Producer). No other film or TV series that I’ve seen on the subject has given quite so much time or respect to the different avenues of hip-hop, which never has been just about rap: breakdance, graffiti, and DJ culture were equally important parts of an all-encompassing anti-establishment movement that would outlast, commercially and artistically, the punk aesthetic that was emerging at around the same time. The hard work and dedication that goes into DJing in particular can’t be denied whilst watching The Get Down, which shows just how tough it can be to succeed even at a street level in such a genre, and should hopefully help to dispel the insidious myth that it is all just about stealing other people’s music and talking over it. There is great artistry involved, immense creativity – and, in this show’s best moments, it captures the sheer adrenaline rush of these creative juices flowing, helping to explain why hip-hop is still a phenomenon inspiring working class kids around the world nearly 40 years later.
Only six episodes in and some interesting characters have emerged, but the central relationship between Ezekiel and Mylene is so far devoid of sexual tension, taking a back seat to the real romance of the show, which is with the music. Various hoodlums and politicians in the supporting cast have yet to distinguish themselves. One of the biggest surprises, though, is Jaden Smith, who gives a winning performance here as graffiti artist Dizzee, hinting at a latent homosexuality sure to be given expression by the burgeoning underground disco scene with which he is destined to become involved. But the truth is that The Get Down is filled with winning performances, which carry the energy of the show even when the writing sags. I look forward to more series, more revelations about the early years of hip-hop, and much more excitement as we are shown how it explodes into a global phenomenon. You would do well to get down with it too.
And the Anonymous Nobody… – De La Soul
In the late 80s/early 90s De La Soul established themselves as a viable alternative to the gangsta bullshit peddled by mediocre rappers like Dr. Dre, producing a sequence of classic albums which channelled soul, jazz, and funkadelic samples into a unique vibe they labelled the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Fuck being hard, they said, we want to be complicated – even if they never tired of dumb skits or danceable beats, which is why Posdnous here describes their music as ‘the right amount of soul with a parallel amount of grit’.
20 years ago I would’ve agreed, but And the Anonymous Nobody… has next to no soul and barely a handful of grit. What has turned them into De La Soulless? The answer might surprise some of the uninitiated to hip-hop: it’s because they’ve rejected sampling in favour of live instrumentation. De La recorded this album in the studio with their friends and assorted musicians, but the jams they produced are timid and largely unfavourable to percussion, which means they meander and lack… well, grit. The group’s great strength was always their unerring ear for killer hooks, even if they were ‘stolen’ from other records, which gelled with their principled positivity and inventive rhymes. Here, though, they can’t deliver the goods because the live musicians just aren’t tight enough – except for on the rare occasions when the band gets down with the funk, ‘Pain’ and ‘Whoodeeni’ being the key examples, they don’t generate any surprise or excitement like the chopped samples used to do. Embarrassing detours into rock-rap are the most painful experiences on this record, with De La channelling the legendary rock star presence of, er, Justin Hawkins. Remember, from The Darkness? But then again even the genuinely great David Byrne can’t work out why he’s there. The overall confusion of direction, and hence the inevitably half-baked raps from De La Soul themselves, makes their boasts of ‘providing comprehensive substance’ and ‘Fuck! I can’t stop dancing!’ almost as ridiculous as anything to have emerged from Kanye’s mouth in the last year. Boasting is only arrogance if it’s false, after all. In which case, this is the first time that De La Soul have displayed any arrogance in their inspired history.
Blonde – Frank Ocean
Buzzkill album of the year, and that’s saying something – Drake’s already released his. No jokes, no falsetto, no beats, no hooks: everything that made Ocean a pop sensation has been deleted, and we’re left only with the thing that made him a critical darling: soul-searching moody soundscaping. Which is fine by the critics, of course, many of whom have already proclaimed this a masterpiece. But they’re wrong: Blonde’s determined rejection of Entertainment in favour of Art is a sham with no clue how to back up such a move. If you’re going to plug for soundscaping instead of tunes, really Frank, you’d better make it more engaging than this: the spare instrumentation and lack of drumbeats with hushed, atonal synths and the odd guitar might be deliberate, but that doesn’t make it interesting, especially when self-pity is your primary lyrical concern. Ocean opts for a drugged-out, hazy kind of atmosphere, and he pulls it off, but that mellowness unfortunately brings more attention to the words: with no consummate skill, he lets us know about his nostalgia for lost summer days of childhood innocence (yawn) and the pain of several toxic relationships, plus the marijuana he needs to overcome these memories. After a week of concentrated listening, I began to feel some nostalgia of my own: for the wit and tenderness of his 2011 mixtape debut, Nostalgia, Ultra, which deviously outsmarted samples by Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Eagles (admittedly not such a difficult feat), and for the simple beauty of Channel Orange’s most successful love songs, ‘Thinkin’ ’Bout You’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. It’s a sad state of affairs when the highlight of Blonde turns out to be a guest spot, from Andre 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise)’, a blitzkrieg attack of such intensity that it begins to stir up feelings of nostalgia all over again, this time for the propulsive brilliance of OutKast. Such a comparison exposes Ocean’s tortured genius act for the shallow shtick that it is, and leaves one with concerns for the immediate future of his career.
God Help the Child – Toni Morrison
It might seem harsh to compare Frank Ocean to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, but if he wants to transform himself into a Serious Artist then he really needs to learn from the best. Like Ocean, Morrison’s primary fascination is with the past, about how it affects and haunts the present – so we have a murdered baby returning to its mother’s home in Beloved, or Macon Dead’s flight to the South to rediscover his family roots in Song of Solomon. But unlike Ocean, she elevates the ordinariness of this theme to extraordinary levels through imaginative license (ghosts, mystics, and moments that can only be explained by magic abound in her work) and a recognition of how romanticising the past can have far-reaching, unintentionally disastrous consequences.
Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is a sterling example of this: one of its protagonists, Booker, is struggling to come to terms with the murder of his brother decades ago when he was a child, a brother whom he regards as an ‘angel’. But this image of perfection means that he can’t reconcile himself to the flawed nature of the adults who surround him, those that love him the most. So he ditches his family and girlfriend and chooses to live in isolation, alone but for the memories of his beloved brother. It is only when the girlfriend that he has spurned, Bride, comes to confront him with his selfishness that he starts to realise the absurdity of clinging to such an idealised image of the past – after all, if his brother had had a chance to grow up, he would no longer have been an ‘angel’, for the simple reason that nobody can be; he would have grown up to be shaped by the world into as flawed a human being as everyone else. So Booker begins to unburden himself of that romanticised view of the past, primarily by attempting to rebuild his love affair – whether he manages this I won’t spoil, although it is the attempt that is important, for it demonstrates an intention to live in the present that was not there before.
Morrison is no fool – she knows that acknowledging the past is necessary, and that family and cultural links are important to observe and honour. But she also believes that this should never be done uncritically: by glorifying memories in a one-dimensional way, as Booker does with his ‘angel’ brother, or Frank Ocean does in Blonde. Such is the difference between genius and pretension, and the reason why I would recommend reading this novel over listening to that album any day, even if it’s not as shocking or as powerful as some of her past triumphs.