Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is a grim, yet triumphant, 'absurdist chronology'

photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

Two deaths punctuate Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the new, absurdist chronology of Peanut Butter Wolf and his beloved Stones Throw Records. Though J Dilla was widely known before signing to PBW‘s label and Charizma never made music under the imprint, the two talents’ respective passings mark the creation and recreation of what is perhaps music’s strangest family tree.

Charizma, a dear friend of Wolf’s, is endeared to us via glimpses into the goofy, profound bond the two shared. “Together forever,” they repeat to a disbelieving interviewer. The hurt is only more palpable, then, when he is taken from us. The early framing of Charizma as one of the film’s main protagonists makes Wolf’s increasing hunger for success in tragedy’s wake all the more understandable. We mourn in unison with Wolf, Our Vinyl‘s lone standing hero.

Out of what he calls a “desperate” need for his music with Charizma to be heard, Wolf forges onward and founds Stones Throw. Instead of launching into the rest of the label’s history, we jump to the present for vignettes of the label’s most impressive current artists. Homeboy Sandman ponders on and nails what makes Stones Throw special (“they find artists, they don’t create artists”); Jonwayne makes a beat from his Newton’s cradle, among other things; and Guilty Simpson and Jonti are spliced together as evidence of the label’s paradoxical roster.

Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a jovial exploration of how style and substance careen off one another. Weaving the sloppier elements (grainy old show and studio footage, bizarre montages) with crisper pieces (hi-def interviews, perfectly remastered snippets of Stones Throw classics), Broadway delivers a tangible story of immense, crisp talent with an overarching distaste for rules, regulations, and cleanliness.

The dirty flash of Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton justifies itself, frame after immaculate frame. The film is stuffed with gorgeous shots of vast, bustling record shops, the LA skyline, rollicking, dapper parties, and palm tree after palm tree. Each of the interview settings is intelligent and engaging, yet never distracting. Madlib is enthroned on leather, Earl Sweatshirt squirms in a wicker chair, and Kanye reclines on a pristine suede sofa, his marble relics clearly visible in the background.

One interview shot stands apart from the rest. The camera peers down from the ballroom ceiling, and we see a slim figure, slumped in silence, his head and black fedora angling toward the floor. This is Peanut Butter Wolf, in the wake of the film’s second pivotal loss: the passing of J Dilla. Though Donuts was the Detroit legend’s only solo release on Stones Throw during his lifetime, Dilla receives nearly as much screen time as the label’s crown jewel, Madlib, and double Charizma’s emotional fanfare. We are wrenched by an old video of Dilla being wheeled out on stage one last time, and sympathize with Madlib’s departure from hip-hop when his friend passes.

The central, lone Wolf is deeply affected, too. Post-Dilla, PBW is freed by grieving into the oddest planes of his artistic taste. Stones spirals into absurdity, and though director Broadway does not shy away from criticizing his subject, all criticism is done with a resilient trust in Wolf. “A lot of labels put out what they think will do well. Wolf presses his little brother’s punk brand,” we hear, before seeing that average-to-bad punk band in action.

With death acting so prominently as the film’s (and the label’s) engine, it seems Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton would come out a rather grim, even trudging piece. Luckily, the film never lacks energy, and often boasts consistent laughs. Among the most energizing moments are our glimpses into the film’s many subjects’ mutual love. It is hard not to be giddy as ?uestlove recounts Dilla telling him that Madlib’s music was over ?uest’s head, that the LA producer could only be making music for Dilla himself. The film works largely as a comedy as well: try not to laugh at Earl’s weird posture, Kanye’s description of Dilla’s drums (“like good pussy”), or Madlib’s description of the work process for Madvillainy: “The only thing we did together was a lot of chocolate shrooms.” One of the best, fullest laughs comes on slowly, as the poorly-wigged, off pitch Folerio makes his first appearance, and those of us who were unacquainted slowly realize…Folerio is Wolf! The sight of the otherwise unassuming Wolf in a shimmering black wig, missing high notes by miles is hilarious, but it is more. The moment serves as a testament to a man and his team willing to travel endlessly inward and onward in the name of creativity and strangeness. Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a triumph: it is Wolf’s eighteen years of sustained, twisted lightening, captured in a lightening-shaped bottle.

by Ben Sherak '16

Schoolboy Q makes 'Gangster' an oxymoron

original artwork by Vasaris Balzekas '17

original artwork by Vasaris Balzekas '17

Wearing a pair of gold-rimmed, perfect-circle glasses and a top hat to match, ScHoolboy Q rubs his scruffy struggle beard and grumbles, half asleep, “I’m a gangster rapper, that’s who I am.” On the press run for his third studio LP, Oxymoron, Q has made it very clear how squarely he thinks he fits into the “gangster rap” category. The rap world’s collective agreement with his claim speaks to how far modern hip-hop is willing to let its normally icy machismo wander. To a larger and more abstract extent, Q’s challenging of the Gangster role shows how the world’s shifting perception of gender and masculinity is seeping into all areas of life.

ScHoolboy Q, the squawking goofball who hangs out with Mac Miller and calls himself “chubby” on records and “whack” in interviews is the Gangster Rapper of the moment. The genre has been home to rappers both self-deprecatingly funny (The Notorious B.I.G. called himself fat and ugly) and eccentric (Cam’ron and his affinity for pink) in the past, but no one has ever been as sloppy or self-deprecating as Q. 

The hook to “Gangsta,” track one on Oxymoron and a vicious ode to the Crip life that Q was long a part of, is a brute, uninhibited force. “Gangsta, gangsta, gangsta” he chants, with frightening venom. While certainly hyper-masculine, there is a vulnerable tinge to Q’s unhinged, mad-eyed performance. Cave-mannish lyrics aside, “Gangsta” remains important because of how far it lands Q from the forced composure of his Gangster Rap predecessors. ScHoolboy himself has often pointed, in interviews, to the dead-eyed 50 Cent as a defining beacon of the genre. Q has referred to himself as the hollow money machine “Puffy” (a.k.a. P. Diddy) countless times on Twitter. Absent from Q’s persona is the steely reserve of 50 and Diddy before him; it is replaced with tangible, approachable emotion. 

The content of Q’s lyrics, given the context of recent interviews, further challenges the typical notion of masculinity. On “Gangsta,” he chants, “They say they want that gangsta ****.” Track four, “What They Want,” echoes the sentiment: “This that **** that they want…This that **** they gon’ buy.” In claiming that he is only responding to a demand, Q ceases to endorse these individual representations of gang life as being the whole story.

 “It's embarrassing for me to even really be talking about it in detail. …Why would I go and do all that type of stuff, and take time away from my daughter," Q asked recently, on Hot 97. The ex-gangbanger is more than aware of how sinful his past life was. While he regrets it, he remains thankfully far from parodying gang culture. Instead, he is helping to portray it in a more honest, grim, and often unattractive manner.

Oxymoron reaches its ugly, cautionary peak on the semi-title track, “Prescription/Oxymoron.” In the opening half, Q details his addiction to Oxycontin pills in painful detail: “Dinner on my shirt, my stomach hurts / I had a ball sellin' 80s but yo, the karma's worse / I cry when nothing’s wrong.” To add to the lyrics’ wrenching effect, Q’s own daughter is featured on the track, crying out to her father, “What’s wrong, daddy? Wake up!” It is hard to imagine anything further from the polished cool of 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta,” a song that begins with the image of Superman’s S on his chest. ScHoolboy is so much more flawed, damaged, and passionate than 50 Cent. ScHoolboy is concerned with consequences—on Oxymoron, no deed, good or “gangsta,” goes unpunished.

Once the sad, clicking beat of “Prescription” slips us into Q’s coma along with him, the eager menace of “Oxymoron” slaps to life. Q becomes a cocky dealer, selling the very same pills that nearly took his life in the song’s first half.  Astute listeners will note that “Oxymoron” actually covers events that took place before “Prescription.” Q calls our attention to the consequences of a reckless, unsympathetic way of life by first wrenching us with an addict’s tale, and then showing us the dealer gloating about his sales.

ScHoolboy Q’s gangsta world is a distinctly human, unpolished mess in progress. The efforts on the part of the Black Hippy spitter to produce valuable tales of street life that are musically enjoyable and realistic are valiant, and, further, his very existence is important. As one of the year’s headlines and the culture’s tastemakers-to-be, Q’s authentic, well-rounded, challenging version of the “gangsta” persona is not only a solid step for hip-hop culture but for gender politics. If artists as stereotyped as Gangster Rappers can continue to push their boundaries, we move toward a world where the definition of masculinity more comfortably accepts reflection, vulnerability, passion, pain, and, ultimately, well-rounded people and honest success.

by Ben Sherak '16

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Ben Sherak '16 breaks down his top rap picks of 2014

From the struggling twitter-dwellers to the predicted stars of tomorrow, rappers of all types have been trying to ensure that this year will be their year. High quality tracks have been plentiful, but few have reached the true upper-echelon of transcendently exciting, fun, or inspiring music. Luckily, though, there have been seven tracks that stand tall, that will likely still be as impressive once year-end list season rolls around.

Here they are:

7. Future Featuring Pusha-T, Pharrell & Casino (Produced by Mike WiLL Made It) – “Move That Dope”

Of all the entries on this list, “Move That Dope” is most indicative hip-hop radio’s status quo, but if that includes Pusha, Pharrell and Future, the radio might be a good place to love hip-hop. Future, breaking drunk-robot form, uses a human voice to deliver inhuman, confounding flows that challenge the listener in the best of ways. Pusha continues to expertly poeticize his Kanye-sized attitude (“Wearin’ designer s**t that I misspell”) but the true gem is Pharrell, who slides out of the producer’s chair long enough to deliver a wrap-around-the-beat double time verse.

 6. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Featuring Earl Sweatshirt & Domo Genesis  "Robes"

Freddie Gibbs is the meanest rapper currently making music; Earl Sweatshirt is an awkward teenager; Madlib is the most prolifically strange and diverse producer of all time; and Domo Genesis is, by all accounts, average. Here, Earl rocks the sonic bed-head he prefers lately, offering a few spurts of cockeyed self-mythologizing: “Threw his demons off the cliff / The scenic route below, tires screaming in the mist.” The other true highlight is a Madlib beat that leaves chopped bits of soul lying collage-like on the floor. 

 5. Isaiah Rashad – “RIP Kevin Miller”

When Isaiah Rashad signed to TDE, Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q’s label, expectations were set near Everest. “RIP Kevin Miller,” reveals that the world may be lucky enough to see those expectations met. Rashad sounds like a Southern-tinged mix between Kendrick and 2Pac and works in simple, bold statements: “If I die today / know my legacy is straight / I’m the best they never heard / I’m your brother, just relate.” Both the molasses-thick hook and verses are catchy, their chant-like nature birthing memorable piece of language and music after memorable piece. 

4. Dyme-a-Duzin – “White Girl”

Most hip-hop that people throw on for parties has at least a few of the following: a platinum-selling star driving the track, a menacing trap beat, a genre-bending tune, or, on this campus at least, a female or queer rhymer. Dyme-A-Duzin’s wild, jazzy “White Girl” offers none of these, yet is somehow a viable party song. Over a quick snare beat designed to make you jump around, Dymez twists his tongue with a distinct slickness that not only livens up the already raucous party but also casts him as the cool and collected centerpiece. 

 3. Mac Miller – “Erica’s House”

The funniest rap song of the year’s thus far also one of the best. Mac Miller, cozying to his role as the rap game’s increasingly trippy former-bro cousin, raps like he is bored with the acid he has just taken. He is self aware, he is absurdist, he is hilarious: “Let’s go to Syria and have a war / Stop calling me Macklemore / That's not my name, well kinda…it's kind of my name.” The rest of the lines are too gleefully vulgar to print —journey to Soundcloud and enjoy.

 2. Alex Wiley Featuring Mick Jenkins – “Forever”

Boasting two innovative verses and clocking in at under two minutes, “Forever” has the most talent per square second of any rap song in recent memory. Sounding like an immensely talented real-life Eric Cartman, Alex Wiley starts “Forever” with some sputtering sing-rap, his flows as pretty as he is ugly (Google him). For once, though, he is outshined--the calculated and passionate Mick Jenkins spits pure poetry: “Man I been tryna keep it--potent / My people blind and they thirsty, they hungry, they hurting, they searching for water I brought an--ocean,” Jenkins raps, pausing before each final word, pacing his sermon like a true master of ceremonies. 

 1. ScHoolboy Q – “Break The Bank”

ScHoolboy Q is the best hip-hop artist of the moment. He is far from the best rapper, though: hundreds of people in the world can run laps around Q’s wordplay, imagery, storytelling, rhyme schemes, or punch lines. However, when it comes to grabbing your ear with catchy hooks and a raw, aggressive attitude, the South Central MC is unmatched. “Break The Bank,” is a swerving 4AM ride along with Q at his most sneering and determined. The balance between his sloppiness (a decidedly non-melodic hook) and his craftsmanship (the mirror-image rhyme schemes of each verse) is what sets this coming-of-age drug tale apart from and above the rest. 

By Ben Sherak '16

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.