One of the ways by which one judges the spirit of a place and its preoccupations is by looking at the kind of shops that proliferate there – Javier Marias
Why? Why would a black musician produce and sell a song of immense density, of brilliance, not made to be understood by most but to be respected? What could possess her or she, in the end a butterfly living a social construct “race”?
What else is this person accomplishing if not releasing a siren song to a society that has not yet become either post-racial or accommodate in all of its manifestations? Chicago rapper Noname, born black and woman in an almost always patriarchal and often racist polity, has produced an album of such siren songs, Telefone.
With prosody meant for the ears and not the eyes, a siren song is a song that is more than irresistible to its listener, enough to jump off a metaphorical ship. Margaret Atwood puts it best in her poem “Siren Song.”
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
It seems to be wherever there has been a “civilization” within a city’s, nation-state’s, kingdom’s, or empire’s walls there are its discontents. It’s as old as art itself: the art of the Ming Dynasty and of the gold sculpting and Kente wearing Ashanti, the artful boulevards of Paris built during France’s Second Empire, the still relevant sculpture of antiquity Athens, were not the only art their time. Some were different. That the idealist philosopher Diogenes of Sinope supposedly told Alexander the Great to “move out of his sun” when he was asked to “name the thing that he wants and he shall receive it” is exactly what this is: some spend their lives being unlike what we will be told was essence of the time that was being lived.
In other words, within the walls of the territory’s walls, where it is necessarily not true that Helen is a faun and can only wait on Menelaus to save her from Troy to eventually be painted figuratively in neoclassical reds, blues, yellows, white, and gold: many disagree that they should be determined by the powerful. Some, sirens, attempt to persuade others to come along with them, to feel the depths of an unknown, and unexplained abyss, a possession and with it an imagination, far from the palace’s court and its imitation (though: the royal-palace is beautiful palace / where all of its young girls are ready to be married, according to a French folksong.).
One can argue that there’s an entire siren aesthetic, a siren song persuading going on in the black arts of the young. It’s in Morgan Parker’s poetry. It’s aims to pull in with unbridled difference.
Once I was:
lone brown spot
in a garden
of upright stems
what do you have to say
In Hip Hop, the best siren songs are being produced in the Midwest through Chicago and the regenerative West through Los Angeles through the music of black communities whose struggles have been made mythical: in Southside, Chicago, and in Compton, Los Angeles.
Let us take a trip to Los Angeles, the cultural capital of the Hip Hop siren song. There’s been a Hip Hop rebellion brewing in Sly Stone’s home state California for some time, typified by lyrical density, delivered over avant-garde “beats.” Madlib. Quasimodo. The record label Top Dawg Entertainment is the most well-known profiteer of this rebellion because of the success of Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick Lamar but Labels that range from XL records, with Earl Sweatshirt, to Strange Music, with Murs, are marketing LA’s rebellious.
L.A.’S rebellious rappers all aim to affect perception, with “lyrical loudness” and “brilliance.” The self-perceptions and perceptions of others of their audiences are the product of environment and thinking: law, government, courage, treason, racism, bourgeoisie, revolution, etc., but especially tradition from written and oral Protestant sermon (the Great Awakening, for example, set the tone for American perception as Jefferson’s flawed intellectual democratism or even George Washington’s philosophical nationalism could never). These rappers would like to, quite simply, command some respect for their artful, and not minstrel perspective, themselves, their art as expression of self, as the still Israelites of the New World, the Hebrews who shall defeat pharaoh like it’s in the case slave, said negro, spirituals.
Oh, Jesus, tell you once before,
Babylon’s falling to rise no more
To go in peace an’ sin no more
Babylon’s falling to rise no more
L.A.’s Kendrick Lamar is rightfully well now as the new undisputed lightweight champion of recorded oral hieroglyphics. His songs root themselves in crowd gathering son of the morning vulgarity (Marcel Proust, on Honore de Balzac, once wrote that if this is the writing that vulgarity gives rise to then I love vulgarity,) but also in protest and pensiveness. The characters that he brings forth in his raps, especially the vulgar narrator who wants his “penis to become as big as the eiffel tower,” an instance of phallic metaphor, seems to thrill much of this society. When he is pensive he is dark, almost gothically so, his flow and the delivery of it much more serious than purely vulgar Kendrick. Kendrick is best at being conceptual: his album To Kill A Butterfly, like Jean Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy on human nature, explores the idea that we are born good but corrupted by the world that we live in.
Listening to Kendrick is an experience of vertigo, a push and pull, a lil’ corvette red roller coaster. What’s even more impressive is that his vertiginous style of music is very popular, as if a new, harsh, protest style.
L.A.’s Blu is always dead serious about something: something that is not quite that articulated. It is as if he has been possessed by some sort of angel (or demon.) His album Noyork! is profoundly melancholic. Its tales are full of a posteriori. His song “Hours” gives his plan away; in it he defines Hip Hop as how to “play with the boss.”
The Midwest is the smaller but other siren Hip Hop capital. In the Midwest’s Chicago, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, and others, produce popular, much simpler, siren songs with big, seemingly honest, vernacular, exclamation points as individuality grounded in popular (and populist) idiom, as if the heirs to Louis Armstrong, the man who could make his trumpet sound like his voice, or Kanye West.
Noname’s both L.A. and Chicago, maybe or maybe not consciously, into Telefone, a first album of density and enigma, rooting her art in some sort of vertiginous tragicomedy. Telefone’s synth and choir singing will lead any listener to believe that this is a traditional Hip Hop soul album, like Chicago rapper Common’s. So will the sound of a child’s voice on “All I need” or the baby gushing, or crying, on “Casket Pretty.” Her telling us that “my name is / hella pimpin” on “Sunny Duets,” with hubris is what we have heard in Kanye West.
However, there’s the mass of narrative and slogan rapping with enough complexity for Telefone to feel singular; Noname’s rapping takes listening to several times to be understood. “I think I wrote a song about / confusion or perception” she tells us on “Freedom Interlude,” on the very same song that she tells us that “I know that is a song of overcoming” but also “of me coming” detailing us the complexity of one song on an entire album.
The skull on the young woman’s head on the album’s cover, on a purple background, next to flowers, is out of the ordinary. Like the photograph of a skull on Andy Warhol’s head, by artist Ai Wei Wei, and like the content of her rapping, the skull syncopates the portrait, throwing us off from an innocent looking painting of a young girl next to flowers.
Siren prosody: instead of leaving, or running away.