Geeked Up: Playground Brawls And Childlike Wonder

On hip-hop absurdity, pop’s political power, K-Pop cowbells, and a podcast rumpus

This week’s Geeked Up is for the children, peace to ODB. More particularly, it’s about music that reflects or embodies or is inspired by the worldview, experience, and voices of children – good, bad, ecstatic, tragic. Some songs have a refreshing, childlike enthusiasm or energy. Others might display a naïveté that’s less appealing. As wrestler Dusty Rhodes, the hard-bitten “American Dream,” once said (or was it that French guy?): “Like lost children, we live our unfinished adventures.”

Lil Yachty feat. Quavo, Skippa Da Flippa, and Young Thug, “Minnesota (Remix)”

Respect to Slick Rick and Dana Dane, but 26 years ago on “A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” Ice Cube gave the shorties – not shawties – a nursery rhyme they’d never forget (and got sued by Mister Rogers in the process). Now, teenage scamp Lil Yachty and his fellow hard-knock children of the Atlanta trap are building on that legacy of kickin’ “some shit about the kids, man, the fuckin’ kids!” Backed by little but a toy piano loop, Super Mario sound effects, and Yachty’s doleful/playful falsetto hook, the guest rappers rat-a-tat a simple, resonant message: streets hot, life cold. Dig deeper into Yachty’s SoundCloud (beyond initial breakout “1 Night”) and find scraps of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” and the Rugrats theme. With his goofball manner and red, beaded braids, Yachty may be a logical stepchild of Young Thug, iLoveMakonnen, and Awful Records, but he also feels like he could’ve been found floating down the Chattahoochee River hidden in a papyrus basket (or lil boat!), a lost but blessed child bound for greatness. Some bedtime story, huh?

Travis Mulhauser, Sweetgirl

Mulhauser’s debut novel, set in the rural sketchiness of northern Michigan, opens at a vortex of storms – snow burying everything, a 16-year-old girl (the book’s fearless main character, Percy James) abandoned by her meth-addicted mother, and a neglected baby wailing in the farmhouse of a meth-addicted drug dealer. Percy is determined to find her mom, so she walks through the woods to the drug house, where the dealer and his girlfriend are passed out and the Talking Heads’s blandly upbeat and ironic ’80s hit “Wild Wild Life” blares on the stereo. She creeps in, moving past the debris and holding her breath against the odor. David Byrne chirps about “fur pajamas,” calling out random phrases like “Hey, Mr. Businessman” and “Things fall apart, it’s scientific” over and over as the scratched CD skips and repeats. Percy walks upstairs, calling out for her mom, but instead finds a baby girl in a bassinet, icy to the touch, her chest heaving, covered in spit-up. Picking up the girl and bassinet, she hurries down the stairs and hears yet another of the song’s nagging non sequiturs: “Speak up, I can’t hear you.” “Wild Wild Life,” originally written as an ironic comment on media celebrity for the film True Stories, instead became just another pop hit with a slightly clever video. Here, at last, it had a real function – drowning out the clambering racket of Percy and the baby as they exit the house. Sometimes it can take a few decades for a song to really find its place.

Esperanza Spalding, “Good Lava”

Grammy-winning, experimental pop and jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding is talking about an art teacher her mother once told her about who worked with little kids. Spalding says the teacher insisted that there was “this vibrant life force, this powerful energy, just boiling and burbling and flowing in every person. It's got to get out, expressed, like pressure, like lava in a mountain. It can be a destructive release — or it can be a constructive release ... But it has to be given the release. It's not like that'll just happen.” What’s so dope about Spalding’s “Good Lava” is that it’s exquisitely balanced between sounding “constructive” and “destructive.” The music is a noisy jazz-rock wormhole, while her vocals brim with sly joy and “pretty-girl flow.” Video director and animator Ondrej Rudavsky’s constantly mutating collage of color-saturated images – drippy webs of splotches, psychedelic blurs of mechanization and nature, flowers billowing from Spalding’s profile, Greek and Egyptian statues tumbling – matches the intuitive, giddy hybrid she’s after.

Anohni, “Drone Bomb Me”

One person’s consecrated transcendence is another’s mere melodrama. And here, Anohni's voice almost luxuriates as it enters your atmosphere like a wry taunt, a haint that threatens to slip past the beautifully painted ceiling over your front porch, building an almost unimaginable force for such a gentle quaver. Transposing The Shangri-Las’s dark wordplay, Anohni kisses us, but when she dramatically swans into the title lyric, the effect is like being hit with a fist. “Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains and into the sea,” she sings, snapping you to uneasy attention. Then she keeps pushing: “Blow my head off / Explode my crystal guts / Lay my purple on the grass.” Oh, yes, she goes all the way there, striding into the middle of the most distressing legacy of the Obama presidency and perhaps our greatest shame in recent years: drone strikes that kill hundreds of unidentified people in faraway places – women, children, villagers, supposed enemy fighters, whomever. But for Anohni, a trans woman, being a political artist has been more of a necessity than a choice.

Anohni has said that the song is written from the viewpoint “of a young Afghan girl whose family has been murdered by a drone, and who would like nothing more than to die with them.” And on that level, it is certainly effective, giving an intimate sense of the physical horrors we elide by a reliance on remote-control war. But “Drone Bomb Me,” with its ominously alluring production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, defies any and all demystification that might come from jingoistic drone proponents. Regardless of specific intent, it portrays the devastation of one’s spirit by disconnecting from complicity in irrational, immoral acts. Anohni's voice, a ravishment in itself, begets obligations.

Charli XCX, “Trophy”

On the winningest track from her Vroom Vroom EP, Charli and producer/collaborator SOPHIE (of PC Music notoriety) stretch out K-Pop's laffy taffy until it’s taut and loaded like a rubber-band machine gun, firing off pings, clangs, cowbells, squawks, glitches, thwacks, and barks. A sample of Uma Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction intones, “I want that trophy”; Charli seconds that emotion, with a bratty Sailor Moon squeak: “Bitch, I’m here to fuck you up!” Duck.

The Needle Drop Podcast #40: Craig Jenkins

I firmly believe that important revelations can emerge from schoolyard brawls – for instance, what sort of people one should trust in this fetid, untrustworthy world (see the “If Metro Boomin don’t trust you” meme for further discussion). An intriguing schoolyard skirmish of the verbal variety recently took place on The Needle Drop Podcast, hosted by Anthony Fantano. Fantano, who proclaims himself “the Internet’s biggest music nerd,” films loudly authoritative reviews of notable records from a variety of genres. Employing the hot-take manner of sports-radio jocks with a veneer of rock critic sophistication, Fantano can be oddly watchable when going in on, say, hyped indie-pop records; but when he addresses hip-hop, he more often comes off as “the Internet’s silliest whitesplainer,” showing time and again that he possesses, at best, a rudimentary grasp of the genre.

One of Fantano’s antagonists has been Craig Jenkins, a respected hip-hop critic for Pitchfork and Noisey, who is black, and not shy about calling out folks on Twitter. In Fantano’s intro and outro to the podcast, he implies that he expects some sort of détente to result from the discussion; but during the back-and-forth with Jenkins, he shows no willingness to adjust his points of view. Throughout, Fantano chuckles condescendingly, ignores or misconstrues valid points, and lectures Jenkins on the true meanings and origins of the Atlanta-birthed hip-hop subgenre “trap.” Repeatedly, he interrupts Jenkins to say, “Uh-huh, yeah, I get it, I get it” and “I understand that, but I’m telling you.” Jenkins merely tries to assert that white critics of hip-hop often presume a familiarity with the culture and exhibit a willingness to judge authenticity and worthiness in a way that is unfounded. Finally, after being told, “You’re just ignoring facts now,” in the face of a bullying Fantano opinion, Jenkins blurts: “PERHAPS BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE A FOOT AS FAR IN THE CULTURE AS YOU THINK YOU DO!” Even that doesn’t slow Fantano, who presses Jenkins to explicitly explain how white writers can show “more sensitivity” to the impact of racism, but then dismisses Jenkins’s answers as “all over the place.” Later, Fantano’s dittoheads pile on, offering their all-too-predictable slant that race is just not that big of a deal. If nothing else, this podcast proved that it damn sure is.

2 Chainz feat. Lil Wayne, “Bounce”

After floating in an isolation tank filled with the dankest elixirs for the past five-plus years, Lil Wayne ain’t washed yet. Here, he brings his A-minus game on the best track from the recent Collegrove collaboration with 2 Chainz, who arguably owes his late-career burst to Wayne’s cosign. Screeching into a staccato siren-synth beat from DJ Infamous (his production also enlivened 2014’s “Krazy”), Weezy sounds like a 900-year-old newborn who always needs more but has already had it all, so FML. “Caught up in my bullshit, put your head on backwards / Then skate off after / Engage in laughter ’bout what just happened,” he devilishly hoots. Chainz recently revealed during an ESPN interview that Wayne keeps a skate ramp in the booth while he records. Considering recent history, I’d be surprised if he didn’t.

Tortoise feat. Georgia Hubley, “Yonder Blue”

For me, this is literally “dad rock,” since it was recommended by another dad at a play date as the sort of thing – drowsy chamber pop that bathes you in an infinite yet comforting melancholy – that might be appropriate for a spent parent after a long day of hearing how so-and-so trapped so-and-so in a closet and then instigated a pillow fight, which escalated into a sword fight, eventually resulting in jostling and shoving and screaming, etc., etc. At one point in the song, Hubley sweetly whispers, “They’re always out there hovering,” and all the dads sleepily nod in unison.

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