Archive | June, 2013

Hustling to the Top

29 Jun


Decoded by Jay-Z

Jay-Z always had an extraordinary work ethic. The whole nine-to-five thing was never really for him. Instead, he put in countless hours all over the country selling crack in the streets. He recounts one weekend in which he and two others hustled for 60 hours straight just to break even. He kept himself awake by eating cookies and writing rhymes on brown paper bags.

Like many others, his life was saved by Hip-Hop. Had it not been for Hip-Hop, rather than being the one man business with a five-million dollar net-worth that he has become, he would probably be an elusive kingpin somewhere the in shadows of New York’s underground.

Hip-Hop gave a voice to a generation that wasn’t getting proper representation. With crack-smoke thick in the 80s air and stacks of money being had and lost in the space of mere hours, and phantom fathers resting only as distant memories in the minds of kids everywhere, Hip-Hop offered a distinctive poetry of ascension and belonging.

All his personal stories compliment some bigger idea inclusive of the whole Hip-Hop culture. Those curious about his highly private marriage to Beyonce will be disappointed—she receives a single professional mention. Those wanting a more in-depth account of his feud with Nas will be disappointed too (a feud in which dis-songs were traded: Nas’s ‘Ether’ being a stream of homophobic non sequiturs while a single verse of Jay-Z’s ‘The Takeover,’ featuring an almost polite review of Nas’s professional failures was accepted almost unanimously as the victor).

Decoded isn’t so much a memoir as it is Jay-Z’s love song to Hip-Hop itself, though this is merely because the personal subject matter of his life takes a back seat to the subject of the music he loves, and not the other way around.

With that said, he still takes time out to talk about some of his music and where particular song ideas came from. A famous line in his mid-career anthem, ‘99 Problems’ is explained and confirmed with a meaning whose code was cracked long before—‘So if you got girl problems I feel sorry for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch aint one.’ The ‘bitch’ referred to is a police drug-dog.

Jay-Z’s strength with this book lies in his gift for analogy and metaphor. He often comes up with interesting ways to describe what Hip-Hop does.

‘But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhymes land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhymes, or hangs a drunken leg over the last bap and keeps going …’

Very analytical of what rap is and what rap does, Jay-Z often gives off of sense of standing outside of the culture and looking in just as much as he stands inside of it. ‘It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old rapping into a tape recorder: I’m dope. Doper than you.’

He’s aware of the criticism directed at Hip-Hop, citing that many people have thought of it as a form of ‘hyper-capitalism.’ For Jay-Z and many others, the survival instinct of the streets simply took them to the top and there wasn’t much reason to stop going.

While there is special attention given to his previous life as a hustler, Jay-Z offers brief flashes of his current-life of private jets, gargantuan business deals and meetings with the president (Barak Obama has Jay-Z on his IPod)—a result of shooting to such high commercial success while learning to be a good businessman.

While Jay-Z remains succinct and articulate on the subject of Hip-Hop, some of his more abstract ideas get lost in the stories he uses to make his points. Bono evidently went back and redid a whole album with U2 when it was already done (which album? we don’t know) because Jay-Z made an off-hand comment to some journalist about how much pressure U2 must have felt at that stage in their career. When he learns that Bono reacted this way, Jay-Z is surprised that Bono did, in fact, feel that way. Why the surprise? Jay-Z then goes on to say:

‘In Hip-Hop, top artists have the same pressure a rock star like Bono has—the pressure to meet expectations and stay on top. But in hip-hop there’s an added degree of difficulty: While you’re trying to stay on top by making great music, there are dozens of rappers who don’t just compete with you by putting out their own music, but they’re trying to pull you down at the same time. It’s like trying to win a race with every runner behind you trying to tackle you.’

The moral of the story seems to be that Jay-Z has it tougher than Bono, even if Bono feels the need to redo and entire album in its final stages.

He knows Bill Clinton too, but this relationship is a bit more problematic.

‘He’d done a lot of good as a president. But he’d also taken the country to war in the Balkans and sat in his office while AIDS ravaged Africa and genocide broke out in Rwanda […] But I’m not exactly the same person I was in 1992, either. Everyone needs a chance to evolve.’

I’m not certain if Jay-Z’s comparison of his own petty street hustling to a president’s criminal atrocities counts as an act of extreme hubris or whether it counts as an act of incredible moral miscalculation.

The chapters are short, giving Jay-Z just the space needed to wax aesthetic about art without getting out of control. Every now and then a perfectly slangy and therefore comically interruptive sentence works its way in, like, ‘I mean, where were they gonna plug them shits in?’

With the subject of race, he doesn’t play it safe. One recalls an old interview that Tupac Shakur did with a white female journalist after he got out of prison. When Tupac expressed surprise that he was hearing the word ‘nigger’ being directed at him by the prison guards, the journalist responded, ‘But you use that word in your albums all the time,’ at which point Tupac gave her a lesson in the difference between ‘nigger’ and ‘nigga.’

Jay-Z uses both, and uses them along Tupac’s largely accepted contextual definition: ‘Nigger’ is a pejorative no one should use. ‘Nigga’ is simply a hypostasized identification that people best not think about too much and white people best not use. Jay-Z has little patience with white people who’d like to think of him as ‘one of the good ones.’ The song ‘99 Problems’ tells the story of a man being pulled over for the crime of being black and driving a car.

As Jay-Z reminds us throughout the book, how far he’s come and how much money he has or how many rock star and president friends he has didn’t change his concerns and sentiments very much. He is still Hip-Hop to the bone; still that kid from Brooklyn trying to make it and trying to represent the others who don’t have a voice.

Related Posts:

Review of


Other People by Martin Amis

22 Jun


Other People represents a stage in Martin Amis’s early career when he jazzed around with short, stylish novels. Amis’s jazzing around, however, has never been made up of average sessions.

If books could be equated to children, Amis’s first two, The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, seemed to come out of the womb fully grown.

Other People is Amis at his most puzzle-like with structure. The book opens with a girl being told that she’s on her own now and to take care. She doesn’t remember anything before that. She names herself Mary in order to say something when people ask her who she is.

Mary’s amnesia is so complete that she can’t quite figure out what basic objects are like shoes and chairs. She is a baby. She has to learn everything from the beginning. This allows her some strikingly simple but profound observations about features of life we accept so readily.

Of tramps, her conclusion follows:

‘The reason they are tramps is that they have no money. The reason they have no money is that they won’t sell anything, which is what nearly everyone else does. You sell something, don’t you, I’m sure? I know I do. Why don’t they? Tramps just don’t want to sell what other people sell—they just don’t want to sell their time.’

As the story moves forward, it acts like a whodunit in which the main character is not asking whodunit. A policeman named Prince shows up trying to help her, and his grave concern is interpreted by Mary as hostility, thus making him a sinister figure.

Mary wanders around getting mixed up with different people, none of whom seem to understand what her exact predicament is. An early unfortunate violation puts her off of the act of sex until she becomes the object of attraction for a couple men who work at a restaurant with her. She doesn’t quite understand why Alan is jealous when Russ makes advances on her, and vice versa.

Just as ever, Amis is a genius at capturing skewed or tragic images and making them completely comical. After Mary matter of factly tells her brief lover, Alan, that he’s not to come into her room anymore after a series of dissatisfying nightly sexual encounters, Amis paints the following picture up this way:

‘He did two things at once. It didn’t at all help that he was naked. The first thing he did was start to cry—or at least that was what Mary supposed he had started doing. With utmost desolation he clenched shut his mouth and his eyes, and his white chest began to rock or pulse, all in silence. The second thing he did was even stranger: slowly and with shame, but not in concealment so much as if an gesture of protection, to keep it warm or out of harm’s way, he cupped both hands over the creaturely pith of his body.’

Never has anyone made crying so funny.

‘And she cried beautifully—not too loud, and with a sweetly harrowing catch at the end of each breath, like the soft yelp at the peak of a sneeze, bringing to the weeper’s tragedy a pang of the sneezer’s comedy. Mary was good at crying.’

Something peculiar happens when a young man named Jaime enters the picture. He seems to have had a relationship with ‘Amy Hide,’ (who Prince suggests is the girl that Mary used to be). Jaime doesn’t seem to remember that Mary is Amy anymore than Mary remembers it.

As we get closer to the end, the book becomes more and more dreamlike, operating on its own internal logic. In the first half of the book, Mary’s perceptions invite us to look at the world differently. In the last half of the book, we’re just as earnest to get answers, even as we approach the dark room at the end with her …

The book is like David Lynch in print. It is impressive to see Amis both funny and ominous all at once. He is so good on a sentence by sentence level that, in an attempt to isolate one sentence like an aphorism, one must either start quoting the whole book or leave behind a great many in favor of a few ‘bests.’ But how does one choose? Oh well.

At random:

‘He had drunk too much the night before. Mary speculated that people would never drink that much unless they were quite drunk already.’

‘Live people are as good as dead to active necrophiles.’

‘Big deal, thought Mary as Michael chatted contentedly on. Insecurity. Is that all. Who isn’t? What did people do and say about what they said and did before that kind of word came along?’

First Sentences Series #2 — Gravity’s Rainbow

17 Jun

First-person present-tense is ‘in,’ now, however you want to define it, for it seems that ‘in’ keeps changing its shape. In the 80s, Minimalism was ‘in,’ and when Minimalism started to lose its maximal impact, it appropriated the first-person present-tense. Perhaps simple sentences favored the style of immediacy that comes with present-tense. I’m not quite sure.

Apparently, the first-person present-tense mode is still quite popular with undergrad creative writing students, despite the best wishes and instruction of creative writing teachers. William Gass wrote about his grammatical frustration with the style in his essay ‘A Failing Grade for the Present Tense.’ Samuel R. Delany, in his essays on writing, remarked that one of his students admitted to writing in that style because it would make it seem ‘more literary.’

Contemporary fiction has swallowed the present-tense style and somehow keeps running with its scepter as an unquestionable mark of experimentation. But is it really experimentation if everyone is doing it and if we already know what results this experiment will yield thanks to countless examples?

Most young adult books are written in this style now. Millions of independent authors can’t seem to write anything else. By now we’re familiar with present-tense in the form of fetishistic journalese that column writers often employ when trying to capture the feel of an exotic foreign location or what it’s like to spend an afternoon with a celebrity.

Of course, one style can’t be dismissed as bad in and of itself. If a style works, it works. But surely, a single style doesn’t work very often. A style must seem necessary. It shouldn’t be something to trick the reader into enjoying something they wouldn’t enjoy otherwise. There should be no ‘otherwise’ at all.

Present-tense has been around longer than Minimalism. Present-tense has been around longer than Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (which is third-person, as well). Yet, Gravity’s Rainbow remains an example of a style that is necessary. The book couldn’t have been written any other way.

‘A screaming comes across the sky.’

Thus begins Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There is only one word in this sentence that gives us any indication that the narrative will commence in present tense. Had that ‘comes’ been a ‘came,’ we would be reading an entirely different book.

We’re not simply talking about every present-tense S being changed to a past-tense ED. The entire context would change.

The present-tense of Gravity’s Rainbow is the stage of the story. Though it is set in World War II, the present-tense doesn’t allow the narrative anything like a sense of hindsight. We wander into the book as we do into the future. There is little mention of The Holocaust in any context we would understand it today. The present-tense serves to convey the sense of paranoia always pervasive throughout the text.

The ‘screaming that comes’ across the sky in the opening sentence is the screaming of a rocket. Rockets act as the most extreme objects of paranoia throughout the book. No one knows where they’re going to fall or when they’re going to fall. There seems to be some existential question as to whether or not the rockets follow specific people, in particular, the hero of the story, Tyrone Slothtrop.

The backdrop may be Europe during World War II, but for the characters, and for the readers, the backdrop ends up being a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the instruments of final extinction are inevitable but unknown.

Pynchon has never been, nor could he be, associated with the Minimalist movement in any way. He’s always been a Maximalist—which means everything from long sentences to long paragraphs to lots of information given in lots of different ways over the course of many pages. He could not be accused of employing a style in order to cheat at a sense of suspense. The paranoia of Gravity’s Rainbow is hard-earned. By the book’s end, it feels as though you’ve come out of a long, disquieting dream.

I’m sorry, but this reader will not be tricked into the narrative of here and now as a tool to compete with television and high-speed internet. It seems that the best examples of what that style can do have been done or, dare I say, exhausted. But I shouldn’t use a word like ‘exhausted,’ for when Pynchon used the present-tense in Gravity’s Rainbow, the use of the style itself was meant to convey a sense of the unknown, and there is nothing so inexhaustive as the unknown.


5 Jun

We’ve reached an era in our personal communication when, rather than shout from upstairs, we receive a text-message from upstairs.


It comes in handy to text when one doesn’t wish to talk. When one would rather type than talk, it saves one’s voice for the more important occasions of face-to-face meetings. Perhaps the words we used to speak face-to-face are numbered. We can only give them away sparingly unless we speak to someone face-to-face on nights and weekends.


I keep getting this text from mother in the other room. For mother, this is not an obscene exclamation of puzzlement but a simple request I’ve yet to fulfill for I’ve been to busy FML-ing.

On my third reception of WTF, I sigh and finish up with Feeding My Lizard so I can Water The Flowers for mother. FML! I Fill My Lungs with the breath necessary to speak a text onto my smart phone so that someone will read it and reply back at their convenience.

In pre-historical days, when man didn’t have all the words we have today, there would come a point where he would have to stop talking. He would run out of credit. Prehistoric man paved the way for us today, sitting around the fire, naming new things—developing better speaking-plans that were more cost effective.

But the languages were divided and the Tower of Babel sat there unfinished while the French people, the Swedish people, the American people and the Englishmen people sat around scratching their heads, having no clue what the other was saying.

But a Pentecost took place. There was a time when nights and weekends seemed like a good deal. Now, unlimited speaking is the normal privilege of language.

Since we’re all allowed to talk now as much as we want, we just have to make sure to get the shortened language correct.

In order to let someone know that I found something they wrote on the internet or over text funny, I give them an IJLAT: I Just Laughed At That.

To me, that is preferable to LOL, after a relative informed me that, ‘Aunt Sue has passed away, LOL.’ (Lots Of Love).

Or when I asked a friend how she made it through her summer backpacking trip through Europe if she had little money for food and she replied, simply, ‘LOL.’ (Lived On Lollipops).

Less problematic but equally troubling was when, over email, I asked a brother’s math teacher what I should do to go about helping him and he responded with ‘LMFAO alone.’ (Let Mike Figure Arithmetic Out alone).

It is not so troubling to help those in need. I will continue to give LOL to those sitting sick in the upstairs when they can’t carry out tasks themselves.

When I went outside, the garden was covered with weeds. What does one do? Pull them the best one can. WTF, right?

Mystery Girl

5 Jun


Millions of people, after having watched David Fincher’s film The Social Network, looked up the name ‘Erica Albright’ on Google. They wanted to find out just how scathing Mark Zuckerburg’s real post about her was on his blog Zuckonit. Did he really call her a ‘bitch’ in the opening sentence? Did he really offer an indictment of her bra size and her social class, etched forever in stone on the wall of the internet?

How disappointed they were to find that Erica Albright doesn’t exist. Sure, Zuckerberg dated an ‘Erica’ in college, but not the feisty, Maya-Roonified-‘Albright’ of the Fincher film.

To say that Erica Albright was based on Erica Fillintheblank is tantamount to saying that the scene in the film where a Garfified-Muskowitz picks up Eisenbergified-Zuckerberg’s laptop and shatters it against the ground is based on a real event. It is based on a real event, just not that event.

Fight Club proved that Fincher could stay close to a Palahniuk novel and still slap us with his own style. The Social Network proved that Fincher could stay close to a Palahniuk novel while telling a story that supposedly has something to do with Facebook.

In the closing scene of the film, little Zuckerbeg sits at a table with his laptop after a long private court session, clicking and clicking and clicking the ‘reload page’ button to see if his ex, the Fincher-fantasized Erica Albright, has offered him the universal stamp of post-relationship clemency by accepting his Facebook ‘Friend Request.’

It is unfortunate that the redemptive implications of this last scene have been largely overlooked in favor of a far easier interpretation that many viewers gleaned from an earlier scene in the film, in which a Justin-Timberfied-Parker tells the young EisenZuck that he started Napster because of a girl that broke his heart in high-school.

‘Do you ever think about the girl?’ Fincher’s Zuckerberg asks.

‘What girl?’ Fincher’s Sean Parker replies.

People everywhere started referring to Erica Fillintheblank as the woman ‘responsible’ for Facebook. This interpretation is just as misogynistic as it is shamelessly opportunistic. The two conclusions of this interpretation: 1) Women are stumbling blocks to a man’s potential. 2) Money heals all wounds. The message is a minority romance in a Hollywood slop-pile of messages that forever tell us how to live without ever really representing life.

Kierkegaard certainly would have appreciated Facebook as I’m sure he would have appreciated the final redemptive subtext of the Fincher film—regardless of what little semblance it had to reality. We may not know for a while to what degree an Erica informed Zuckerberg’s work, but we do know which woman influenced Kierkegaard’s work.

Kierkegaard’s work is peppered, slathered and spiced with Regine Olsen. His entire career is a constant flirtation with the woman he broke his engagement with in the autumn of 1841. Kierkegaard’s first major work, Either/Or, is full of surreptitious messages to, about and for her.

His journals and letters provide us with all the evidence. Regine Olsen—someone he parted ways with ultimately because he didn’t feel he could accomplish the work he wanted if he was married to her—was the secret intended reader of his every word. Soren’s various pseudonyms only helped perpetuate the openness of the very anonymity he hoped to achieve through his ‘indirect communication.’

Poor Soren didn’t have the luxury of social networking. I imagine that if he did, he would have dropped philosophy altogether in favor of a monumental game involving a multifaceted network of fictive internet personalities, each with a different name, a different message, a different way of communicating.

Certainly, Kierkegaard could have taken it pretty far with the internet. He spent a decade or so creating a network of subtexts that we are now able to create with social networking in a matter of minutes.

Zuckerberg and company have done a lot to make the social networking experience both convenient and stimulating. The different settings, guidelines, quirks, quips, tags and likes have created a whole complicated system of etiquette that transcends any Terms of Service Agreement. Facebook may be constantly changing to make the whole social networking venture a smooth one, an inclusive, an unassuming yet shamelessly opportunistic one, but it seems that few people remember the dynamics of social networking sites that were in vogue earlier on like Myspace.

Does anyone remember how messy Myspace made us? The comment bar was like a series of people shouting obnoxious things at you from across the parking lot. It took a while for people to figure it out. Remember the questionnaires that thousands of your friends awkwardly and uncharacteristically put on their pages in the About Me section? (What’s your favorite soda: I don’t drink soda. What’s your favorite movie: I don’t watch movies. Etc.)

Myspace told us publically what text-messaging made us suspect privately: that most people aren’t really sure how to write things. This didn’t stop them.

One can excuse a ‘thanks’ being shortened to ‘thnx.’ It is disheartening, however, to see how many grown men and women still can’t seem to grasp the difference between ‘there,’ ‘their,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘there’re.’

We’ve evolved along with social networking. It always seemed that even the smoothest face-to-face flirts became parking-lot shouters when Myspace was big. Chemistry between members of the opposite sex always seemed to translate into a series of public, badly spelled bits of conversation that would normally happen over phone-text.

Facebook is a lot less vulgar. It’s classier. It’s subtler. It gives you the opportunity to exercise shameless ostentation without wearing your emotions on your sleeve through the categorical elitism of the ‘Top Friends List.’ Perhaps Zuckerberg and company knew these devices turned grown men and women into junior-highers.

Like Kierkegaard’s works, like his ‘indirect communication,’ Facebook is a network of constant flirtations with secret messages. People can compartmentalize themselves more easily on Facebook. You can tag a friend in every status update if you think they’d appreciate it, regardless of whether or not they have anything to do with it. You can hint at all sorts of in-jokes. The uninitiated see it and it causes them wonder. Here, we all take turns, cloaking ourselves in mystery. But this is not an empty mystery. This is a mystery we can show. It is a sense of mystery we can force on one another.

A million Regine Olsens, I imagine, are behind a million posts, a million tagged-photos, a million status-updates and quirky jokes. We’re all peacocks in this game, puffing up our feathers to send a message we won’t say. How many mystery girls lie under the surface of a simple sentence? How many mystery boys? How many mystery business opportunities? Mystery deals? Mystery lifestyles? Mystery desires?

How many status updates are merely tools to stay present so that some other business, art or piece of expression may be grasped by your hundreds of friends? Some are just trying to sell their books. Some are just trying to promote their blogs. Some are just trying to express their opinions. Some are just trying to book shows at local venues. Some are just trying to hook up with someone.

Facebook offers a world where seduction and flirtation form the core of all social transaction. The information is deliberate in its expression and discriminate in its choice of company. Every piece of information is disguised as something you’re not supposed to see, thus appealing to a mass voyeuristic impulse. We can offer someone the illusion of thinking that they’ve come to the information on they’re own.

No, the romantic vision of Fincher’s movie may possibly tell us something about successful young billionaires, what it’s like to piss people off and what it’s like to get sued, but in the end, it tells us nothing about the subject of its title: the social network.

The Zuckerberg character may have been happy enough if the equally fictive Ericka Albright were to accept his Friend Request, but it’s hard for me to imagine the real Zuckerberg sitting there clicking a button over and over again, as if so much rested on that single update, that single acceptance.

What Hollywood fails to see is that social networking has made the whole idea of ‘acceptance’ quite cheap. Everyone ‘accepts’ everyone as a mere gesture of politeness. It doesn’t hold the same weight it did fifty years ago. We are more enamored with flirtation. It is flirtation itself that we like to flirt with.

Catch other posts at