The first song about abuse by El-P I ever heard was Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep.” It was one of my least favorite tracks on the fantastic Funcrusher Plus because it was so weird and uncomfortable. El’s flow is slow and strange, just out of step with what I was used to hearing, and the content was simultaneously intimate and distant. He talks about how the man downstairs must’ve drunk one too many beers and how he beats his wife. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate that song. It’s halting and tense, and it isn’t what I was expecting from CoFlow. It’s a song that sounds like a nightmare.
Two songs on Cancer 4 Cure are about explicitly about abuse and they’re feel much more accessible than “Last Good Sleep” was when I was a kid. “The Jig Is Up” is about hating yourself. “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” is about being there for someone else.
I first listened to Cancer 4 Cure on a bike ride to work, and then at work, so I didn’t get the fullness of “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” at first. I misinterpreted the chorus as being about police brutality and the benefits of keeping your eyes shut while working around New York City. I was wrong, obviously. The story’s even better than that.
“For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” begins with El having been called into a police station for questioning. Someone was killed and the cops are checking for witnesses. El’s position is simple: he didn’t see nothing, he didn’t hear nothing, and if something did happen, that sounds like somebody else’s problem, boss. “I spent the day on my New York shit, didn’t even meet them once, and no I’m not upset — I’m just another guy minding his business.”
Verse two is the real story. He ran into his neighbor, an abused woman, in the hall. Rather than sticking to their status quo, which is walking past each other and pretending like he doesn’t hear the noises from the pain her husband inflicts on her, El stops and touches her shoulder and says the first and last thing to her: “Do the thing you have to do and I swear I’ll tell them nothing.”
It’s a song about showing support and being there when somebody or anybody needs it, dig? It’s about letting down the walls that cities build up inside us, looking at someone else, and making sure they know you have their back, no matter what. It doesn’t matter that the solution is a terrible thing. It may have been necessary, it may not, but it’s a solution. It’s a revenge fantasy, but a good one.
The line “The halls are thin and so is skin when bearing witness to the sound you’re generating every day… guess it reminded me of something” screams A Fistful of Dollars to me. There’s that scene where Clint Eastwood rescues a family for no apparent reason, considering this actions thus far. When asked why he did it, he says “Why? Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.” That sounds like it’s about his own family, right? I don’t know if El-P intended that connection or not, but man, what a detail.
“The Jig Is Up” is about rejecting that same feeling. It’s about looking a pretty girl in the face after she’s explained how much she likes you, calling her a liar, and then demanding to know who put her up to it. It’s about believing that no one could ever love you, and pushing away those that do due to your own insecurity.
El nails this one, too. Even the hook is a flat, high-speed, “I wouldn’t wanna be a part of any club that would have me,” a Groucho Marx joke that rings with finality, instead of humor, in this context. It’s meant to be a funny little turn of phrase, but sometimes funny turns of phrase hit too close for comfort.
El-P will take you on highs and lows. Paranoid and anxious are two words that come to mind when thinking about his music. When he chooses to go low, he hits hard. There’s a bit on “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, toward the end, that goes:
I’ve been noticing the fact that nothing glorious can happen anymore
We’ve run the gamut of our filth
But here I am again, pretending spontaneity exists with idiots
All lifted out their little gills
Aren’t you disturbed that everything you did tonight is something else you did already
And its meaning is still nil?
And all the people in your presence are just weapons
It’s as simple as the theory that the dying love to kill
and it’s just the most pathetic thing you ever heard in your life. And then there’s this, from “Request Denied” on Cancer 4 Cure:
I’m a holy fuck what the did he just utter marksman
Orphan, a whore-born, war-torn life for the harvest
A fair-trade target of air raid, starter kit
Used heart plucked from the bargain bin
I don’t give a fraction of fractal of fucks
I’m a Garbage Pail Kid calamity artist
Cancer 4 Cure is about recognizing that you’re the cancer for your cure, and always have been, but not letting that stop you from balling out on your own terms.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the final entry. I had a conversation with a friend about Damon Albarn and what I’ve been calling urban ennui. This is me trying to quantify that feeling, and how the music I enjoy the most has reflected or dealt with that feeling. This is more a collection of thoughts than a proper essay, but I hope you underdig it regardless.
-One of my favorite, or maybe my most favorite, songs on the debut album from the Gorillaz is “M1A1.” Listen:
-The first couple minutes of this song are taken almost verbatim from George Romero’s Day of the Dead. The man’s shouts for other people turn the song into something a little creepy. He’s seeking companionship and finding none, but he keeps trying and the music eventually buries him. The implication is that he never finds anyone.
-”M1A1″ could mean a lot of things. It’s a type of tank, a flamethrower, and a submachine gun. It’s also the name for a road in England, built toward the end of the ’90s. From wikipedia:
Between 1996 and 1999 the M1 section north of the M62 underwent a major reconstruction and extension to take the M1 on a new route to the A1(M) at Aberford. The new road involved the construction of a series of new junctions, bridges and viaducts to the east of Leeds. When the new section of M1 was completed and opened on 4 February 1999, the Leeds South Eastern Motorway section of the M1 was redesignated as the M621 and the junctions were given new numbers (M621 junctions 4 to 7).
-The song goes from empty loneliness to rapid-fire music and shouts. It’s an interesting balance. It’s not even remotely single-worthy or radio-ready, but it’s still a great song.
-It evokes a specific mood. It sounds like cities feel. You don’t talk to strangers. You don’t make friends. You stay in your bubble until you reach safety, and then you get to go wild — party, drugs, girls, sports, whatever.
-That mood puts me in mind of a Kid Cudi line from one of my favorite songs about depression: “Crush a bit, little bit, roll it up, take a hit. Feeling lit, feeling light, 2 a.m., summer night.” This is how we have fun. Looking out over a city when it’s long past bedtime, enjoying the quiet, the swoosh of cars going by outside or at street level, and the cool winds. But it’s a little futile, too. The song’s called “Pursuit of Happiness.”
I bailed out of my life and went to Los Angeles last week for a few days. No email, no tweets, no nada. I don’t think I even texted that much, beyond getting directions from the LA gang. I spent Saturday night in Santa Monica, and I woke up around 3am. I got something to drink, looked out of a window, and realized that it was bright outside. The city lights made 3am look like 7pm. The weather made it feel the same. An eternal comfortable twilight, the perfect time of day locked in place and preserved. I wanted to take a walk, but instead I just went back to bed.
-I live in San Francisco, and sometimes I take walks at night with my iPod. This city is really nice at night, and I live in a pretty busy part of town. It isn’t quite as bright as Santa Monica was after midnight, but it’s still nice. My only issue is with the weather — I have to bring a jacket when I go out. But, sometimes, you hit that perfect balance and the city is beautiful in all the right ways.
-A couple Sundays ago, I found myself sitting on a bench in Japantown (a district in SF, just a couple blocks from my place), pleasantly faded, reading stories out of a copy of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome that the homey Sean Witzke sent me. It sounds simple, I mean I was just reading outside on a bench, but that’s not an experience I could have back home in Georgia. The people going by, the location, the smell of food from Yakini-Q drifting down the block, the reflections from the New People building… there’s something special there. Something fascinating and appealing.
-One of my favorite images of a city is a Black Star song, “Respiration.” It opens with a woman saying “Escuchela… la ciudad respirando.” I don’t know where that’s from, but here’s the hook and a youtube:
So much on my mind that I can’t recline
Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin
Chest heavin, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving
It’s beautiful, yeah? I love “Breathe in: inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/ Breathe out: weed smoke retrace the skyline.” It’s crystal clear, a thousand words worth of imagery packed into two short lines. When I think of what I like about cities, this is what I think of. The city as a living, breathing organism and the citizens as people just trying to get by.
-I loved this song before I moved to a real city. I spent a couple years in Madrid, but that wasn’t quite the same. I wasn’t on my own. When I moved to SF and found myself alone, I finally understood the melancholy aspects of the song. City living is like nothing else, but it will burn you out if you can’t keep up.
-I was trying to explain this to a friend in email, and the only compact term I could come up with for what I’m talking about was “urban ennui.” Urban ennui is that feeling that arises when you’re caught between a city’s majesty and its dungeon. It’s the combination of pretending you’re sober enough to talk to a pretty girl on somebody’s balcony at midnight and curling into a fetal ball in your apartment because the pressure is too much a week later, and then doing it all again because escape is unthinkable and unwanted.
-The feeling isn’t ennui, not really. Ennui is a listlessness, a tiredness. It’s exhaustion. Depression. But that’s the closest feeling I could come up with, even though this is something different.
Urban ennui about the push and the pull between the sacred and the profane, and how both are required if you’re living in the city. It’s how a smile from a stranger can change your day just as fast as a mean mug from another. It’s how a snarl of cars is beautiful from four stories up and a nightmare at street level.
-I can hear traffic from my place late at night, when it’s real quiet. I like how cities sound, and if I’m up late, not sleeping, that quiet motion is comforting, like the ocean. I don’t know why I like it, I doubt if I could quantify it, but I do.
-One of my favorite rappers, a guy whose career has had almost undue influence on my writing style, is El-P. He started with Company Flow, moved to Definitive Jux, and I’ve followed him ever since I first heard CoFlow’s Funcrusher Plus. Here’s his song “For My Upstairs Neighbors (Mums The Word)” off his (very good) Cancer 4 Cure album.
He packs a lot in. Cops as hostile invaders and obstacles, New York attitude, snitching, abuse, but most of all, the unique relationship between neighbors in a city. You hear the noises from other apartments, the arguments and screams and orgasms and heels, and you ignore it. There’s no real common area, so you don’t hang out and become friends. Each apartment is a world unto itself, orbiting the sun of the apartment building but existing almost entirely apart from it, as well.
-I don’t know any of my neighbors. I’ve had conversations and introduced myself to a few, but I wouldn’t call any of them friends. We don’t hang out. We smile as we pass each other and continue on in our lives.
I live directly across from the main elevator and stairs, so I hear everyone. Snatches of conversation. Muttered arguments. Drunken ramblings. But I don’t know anyone. I don’t know faces, only voices, and I barely know those. I have neighbors, but they just live near me. They aren’t neighbors like I had back home.
-El-P is familiar with urban ennui. It bleeds out of his discography, in addition to his songs about abuse, addiction, and depression. It’s one of the things I like most about his work, honestly. That paranoia and pain that oozes out of songs like “Stepfather Factory” and “The Jig Is Up” hit me hard.
-It’s no surprise that whatever it is inside me that loves cities latched onto El-P and his love of the same. The actual surprise, though, was Damon Albarn.
-Blur just released two new songs: “Under the Westway” and “The Puritan.” They’re pretty good.
-The Westway is another road. Albarn sang about it in “For Tomorrow,” from Modern Life Is Rubbish. A video and another quote:
She’s a twentieth century girl,
With her hands on the wheel.
Trying not to be sick again,
Seeing what she can borrow.
London’s so nice back in your seamless rhymes
But we’re lost on the Westway.
So we hold each other tightly,
And we can wait until tomorrow.
“We’re lost on the Westway, so we hold each other tightly, and we can wait until tomorrow.” Terror and love, inseparable.
-I like “Under The Westway” more than I like “The Puritan,” but that’s more due to the fact that “Westway” sounds more like the era of Blur I’m really into, their 13 and Think Tank albums. “The Puritan” sounds more like Modern Life Is Rubbish to me. (Not a complaint, mind.)
“Westway” is properly melancholy and explicitly about cities. Here’s an excerpt:
There were blue skies in my city today
Ev’rything was sinking
Said snow would come on Sunday
The old school was due and the traffic grew
Up on the Westway
Where I stood watching comets on their lonesome trails
Shining up above me the jet fuel it fell
Down to earth where the money always comes first
And the sirens sing
Bring us the day they switch off the machines
Cos men in yellow jackets, putting adverts inside my dreams
An automated song and the whole world gone
Fallen under the spell of the
Distance between us when we communicate
Still picking up shortwave
Somewhere they’re out in space
It depends how you’re wired when the night’s on fire
Under the Westway
Love-horror-love-horror-love-cities. Again and again.
-I got into Gorillaz (who I’d liked since high school) in a major way after I moved to SF. I reconsidered Demon Days, I dug Plastic Beach, and I grabbed all the b-sides I could find. Here’s a snap from my Google Music:
I don’t have everything (I haven’t grabbed the Laika album yet), but I do have most of their stuff.
-I also got into Blur, and Albarn in general. I’ve enjoyed all of his side projects to varying degrees. I haven’t disliked any of them. Some are just more good than others.
The internet makes it easy to binge on an artist’s discography (“damon albarn discography mp3 high quality”), but I don’t usually get into artists like I get into Albarn. I never felt like I needed to get every Joe Budden song ever, or Fabolous. But I did that with Albarn, and I’ve even got three zips of bootlegs and live recordings to go through even still.
-I think I binged so hard because Albarn scratched the same itch that El-P does. They’re both exploring these ideas of love, hunger, fear, and obsession on wax. They have a habit of seeing the beauty in pain — El-P enabling a neighbor to murder her abusive husband, Albarn focusing on the love that keeps us together in hard times — and being honest about who we are and where we live.
They don’t have a lot of common ground, but the common ground they do have is remarkable. I don’t think they’ve come to the same conclusions, either. Albarn seems like he’s made his peace with how things are, while El is much more abrasive and prickly about it. Maybe that’s that New York swagger vs whatever they have in London, I don’t know, but I enjoy thinking about it.
-I wouldn’t be the person or writer I am today without music. Specifically rap music, guys like Nas and El-P and Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox and Jay-Z and OutKast and Goodie MOb and Backbone and Cool Breeze and Too $hort and Mos Def and Talib Kweli and RA the Rugged Man and dozens more. They all either explored ideas that are near and dear to my heart or explored ideas in a particularly clever way.
The language they used and the ideas they explored are what made the difference. They opened something up to me, whether it was showing that every subject is worthy of consideration or just flipping a hysterical lyrical miracle off a spherical aerial toward the pinnacle, minimal satirical.
The way that I talk, the way I choose to write, is a direct product of a childhood spent listening to music. The books that I read ranged from classics to airport trash, and none of them hit me as hard as, say, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” or “Find A Way” or “2nd Round KO” or “Uni-4-Orm” or “Fugee-La” or “Scream Phoenix” or “Shadowboxin’/4th Chamber.”
-Music taught me to be willing to find different ways to explore ideas, rather than just being simple and straightforward and boring. If you have to work for something, even just a little, it tastes better.
-I realized that several of my most favorite songs and albums explore city life and urban ennui entirely by accident, but it made a lot of things about me fall into place. It’s like opening a safe. The tumblers fall, click click click click, and then the door slides open and you have that lightbulb moment.
It makes sense. City living is stressful, especially on your own, and why wouldn’t it be explored via music? San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, New York, whatever. There are differences, but I bet the basic foundation of living in those cities is the same. It’s one of those things you have to make your peace with, or else just leave the city entirely.
-I’ve started running in the mornings, since I’m not really biking currently. I know my neighborhood well, or at least maybe a three square block radius. It’s different when you’re up at 6 or 7 and winding your way through the sidewalks, portapotties, and overgrown trees. You look at different things because you can’t run with your head down. It’s easy to find something you never noticed before as you watch the fog burn off.
It’s another angle on the city, basically, something new to love and fear.
-Urban ennui isn’t a concrete concept, or like a dominant one or something like that. It’s part of a spectrum of things: depression, relationships, adulthood, son-hood, and whatever else. But this feels significant to me, it’s something that matters. It’s something that’s real.
I tripped over a reference to the video for El-P’s “Time Won’t Tell” off his Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3, directed by Shan Nicholson, by accident the other day and thought to myself, “Oh, it’s my favorite video from last year.” I don’t know when I decided that, or if I’d ever been consciously aware of that fact before now, but it’s true. I watch a lot of music videos, and this is the one this year that grabbed me the most.
Part of it is El-P’s production. El is easily the best at making sinister sounding tracks. A lot of classic songs sound like impending violence, like somebody’s about to get his whole head bust outside of the club. El-P makes joints that sound like the beginning of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia or the cityscapes from Blade Runner or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira look. They sound like impending doom on a level far beyond DMX barking in your ear about how you didn’t ride, so you must wanna die arf arf arf.
It’s the way the bass pulses and buzzes under the track, and just how dirty and dusty everything sounds. It sounds processed, but like it was fed through a meat grinder, not Pro Tools. The drums are messy, there’s a throbbing horn infesting the middle part of the track, and a wail that hints at something horrible. And then, at 2:10, the track takes a breath and comes back majestic.
Nicholson’s direction clinches the deal, though. The beginning is a tour, as we follow this kid around town and check out foreclosed homes, decrepit section 8 homes, the presence of authority figures as something to fear, and generally just life in the projects. It feels lonely, because this kid never interacts with anyone and looks uncomfortable around the people he does run into. The long shots of him walking alone push that loneliness even further, begging you to extrapolate a little.
He walks past four kids who then follow him around town and the suspense kicks up. The first thought to come to mind was one of danger, of kids who goose step over innocence. He grabs the mattress, the kids follow, and you know something bad is going to happen. And then it doesn’t, it’s just some kids playing together and having a good time. The first kid has something dope and the other kids appreciate it.
And jeez, man, I can relate. Boy, can I relate. We’re trained to think of other humans as possible threats. You stand real close to the ATM, you ignore strangers in public, you don’t wear short skirts, you practice defensive driving, you don’t make eye contact in the street, you get told to stay away from that white girl, you wonder if that guy is really talking about monkeys or if he’s just dog-whistling, you push forward on the sidewalk with your head down and dare people to not get out of your way, you sign a pre-nup when you get married, and your heart skips a beat when you hear footsteps behind you on a dark night, all because “what if something happened???”
I know what it’s like to be a lonely, skinny black kid. I went to two elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools. The longest time I spent in one house after elementary school was my last two years of high school. I’ve been the new guy, the guy who doesn’t get to hang because he wasn’t there when the group formed. I’ve been the guy who didn’t want the new guy in the crew.
But sometimes you connect to other people off the back of stupid things like comic books or music or jumping on a mattress out where the factories used to be and just vibe and things are wonderful. I remember as a kid, there was this big mound of red clay that the neighborhood boys would use as a bike ramp. I never did it–the thought of going in the air on my bike terrified me, and I’d had a bad bike wreck shortly after moving in–but we would hang out and that would be our sun. I have other memories–the woods between our school and our hood or the filthy creek near the dumpster where we found a gang of playboys or the youth center on base–where the “we” involved is different every time.
It’s nice when people actually connect with each other, no matter the catalyst. This video is as good a depiction of what it looks and feels and sounds like to let other people in as you’ll ever see.
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