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Traveling with Seven

When I graduated from college way back in 2002 and left the wonderful world of college radio, I lost my strongest connection to the underground music scene that I valued most--independent hip hop. Since then I have been struggling to keep up by borrowing albums from my brother (still in college and cool) and discussing them with him over email or an occasional Quizno's sub. Our conversations have been quite constructive and have meant a lot to me, so I thought I'd try posting my half here (and my brother's too, if he's game) and see what happens. If I can bring this music to a few new ears or add some voices to the conversation, I will be quite pleased. For those of you here to see pictures of Veronika with no interest in "rappin'", bear with me.

The topic of our inaugural thread will be Atmosphere's latest album Seven's Travels (if you're not familiar with Atmosphere, here's a couple of brief bios). I tried to withhold judgment until I felt I had a good grasp of it and after three solid listens, I think I'm ready. After the first spin, I was left a little unsettled and I think that it was because I was worried about Slug (the MC of the duo) as a person, as strange as that may sound. He has an unusual way of working out his issues through his rhymes that I'm just not accustomed to. I knew that it was more that just his personal and honest lyrics because I had just finished listening to Brother Ali's Shadows on the Sun, an album that rivals Atmosphere on both counts and which I liked almost immediately.

A second listen to Seven's Travels provided more clarity. Atmosphere's albums have always felt a bit like therapy to me and I think in a way that's what they are to Slug too, a place where he confesses, lays himself bare and ultimately emerges a different (and hopefully better) person. I found the answer to my query when I extended this metaphor. Therapy, at least the Freudian kind I am familiar with, deals with the subconscious, dreams and repressed desires, and these are the playground which Slug inhabits. In a genre so obsessed with being "real," his lyrics float above (or below, depending) the real world but still manage to stay grounded in introspection. Instead of approaching a subject directly, he talks about his emotional hang-ups with it and the baggage that he carries in order to come to terms with his own weaknesses. For instance, on the track "Good Times (Sick Pimpin’)," he sings, "Got a thing for them women that don't love themselves," which, when taken on its own, is not only offensive but sad--taking advantage of women with little self-respect is not exactly upstanding territory. To Slug this line means something completely different though, for two reasons: 1) being an admittedly unstable person, he recognizes himself in them, and 2) he has obviously fallen prey to this trap before and this line seems to be a kind of confession, which he hopes will eventually allow him to rise above it.

The rest of the album holds more of the same therapeutic rhymes on every issue he's currently working through: fame ("Trying to Find a Balance"), doubt ("Gotta Lotta Walls"), vices and temptations ("Los Angeles"), love (several), etc. It's not always easy to listen to him struggle with his demons but eventually you realize that he is overcoming them in a way by revealing them, because if he wasn't I don't think he would see any reason in doing it. After a while you can even sense a kind of triumphant air about the album, as if he's saying, "Yeah, I've got problems but who doesn't. I'm dealing with them and everything's going to be alright." For Slug letting it all out is the only healthy thing, as messy as it may be.

I can't in good conscience wrap up this review without taking this opportunity to say that Ant (the production half of Atmosphere) is probably the most underrated producer in the game today. He makes beats that always perfectly fit the MC he's accompanying and the tone of the song. This is the kind of thing that can only be accomplished by knowing the person you're composing for and taking part in the whole song creation process. Getting a beat from Timbaland or the Neptunes is like buying the most expensive Armani suit on the rack. Working with Ant on a track is like going to the best Old World tailor and having a suit custom-made for the occasion.

I'll save the track-by-track rundown for my brother and leave you with some parting advice--pick up something from the Rhymesayers label (I would recommend starting with Atmosphere's Lucy Ford), you won't be disappointed.

March 30, 2004

Growing Pains

This is exactly the kind of growing up I'm talking about

In the last month or so, Veronika has become increasingly interested in grabbing and playing with every object in sight, exploring the world around her. It has been a gradual transition but in all it is a drastic change from the first few months of her life, when we were everything to her and toys were only a temporary distraction. My initial reaction to this, like every other new stage she's entered, was one of amazement and pride. It is a wonderful and awe-inspiring thing to watch one's child grow and develop, with each new achievement seeming to happen in an instant despite all the anxious anticipation.

However last week I caught myself feeling a little disappointed when one night Veronika was no longer content to just sit and be with me, she needed to have something to do, something to grab and play with. As I tried to understand these feelings, I realized that this is probably how raising children will be--every step they take towards independence brings with it a little pride and heartbreak for the parents, with that amount increasing according to the size of the step. As long as the positive feelings continue to outweigh the negative (how could they not?), I think I will be able to live with that.

Last night I was trying to imagine Veronika on her first day of school, with a cool outfit, neatly combed hair, lunchbox and a nervous smile. Dinka added the one part of the picture that I had left out--the weeping father in the background. While there is a good chance that this may come true, no father will be prouder of his five-year-old on that day than me.

March 23, 2004

The Descent into Madness

Veronika, scrutinizing her first bracket

The most exciting time of the year for sports fans across the country is almost upon us (edging the MLB playoffs for the top spot by virtue of sheer intensity). The bracket is set and the madness is about to begin. For as excited as I get about the whole enterprise, you'd think that I'd see it coming a mile away but every year it manages to sneak up on me. Since (Selection) Sunday, I've been madly trying to catch up on all the college basketball information I've missed by not paying attention all year long, reading every bracketology article I can get my hands on, and hashing out every possible scenario until I come up with something that I can live with.

Of course March Madness wouldn't be what it is if you couldn't share it with people that are equally passionate about it. My brother and I have been obsessively talking out the different permutations of results for the past hour and a half and we will meet for lunch tomorrow with printed brackets to compare notes. Frantic emails will be sent as my Yahoo sports page refreshes, bringing the latest results to my desk at work. As the tournament progresses, moments will be relived with excited voices and picks will be scrutinized in the hopes of learning something for next year (doubtful). The important games (all those involving Valpo or Wisconsin and everything from the Final Four on) will be watched together with accelerated heartrates, eased only by the comfort of a cold beer or two. The camaraderie facilitated by the tournament is really something special.

With that being said, a case of Shiner Bock is in the fridge and the picks are (mostly) made. Let the madness begin.

March 17, 2004

Welling Up

Today I listened to John Mayer's latest album, Heavier Things, for the first time. I like him but I couldn't say exactly why, since I tend to dislike his contemporaries. His music has a kind of honesty that is refreshing even if it is at times too simple or neat. Anyway, he has a song called "Daughters" (lyrics below) and I cannot make it through the first chorus without crying. More specifically, it's the line "Daughters will love like you do" that always gets me. I'm welling up just reading the lyrics as I write this. This is not especially significant, given my propensity for tears and current station in life, but I share it with you nonetheless because that's what this thing is for.

If you'd like to hear this song, email me or leave a comment and I will arrange it.

I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
She's just like a maze
where all of the walls are continually changed
And I've done all I can
To stand on the steps with my heart in my hand
Now I'm starting to see
Maybe it's got nothing to do with me

Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too

Oh, you see that skin?
It's the same she's been standing in
Since the day she saw him walking away
Now she's left cleaning up the mess he made

So fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too

Boys, you can break
You'll find out how much they can take
Boys will be strong
And boys soldier on
But boys would be gone without warmth from
A woman's good, good heart

On behalf of every man
Looking out for every girl
You are the god and weight of her world

So fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too

This song might be too sappy or straightforward for most, but for a mushy new father like me, it tugs on my heart in just the right way. This is a good thing.

March 08, 2004 | Comments (1)

Movies for Grown-Ups

Although I can't find the reference on Google, I could swear that I once heard a critic refer to Lost in Translation as a grown-up version of Before Sunrise. I couldn't agree more. In the same way, I think Raising Victor Vargas (thanks for the recommendation, George) is the grown-up version of a whole generation of failed coming-of-age films. Like Lost in Translation, it has all the wonderful characteristics of a mature film: nuance, emotional depth and a reliance on the bare performances of talented actors. Special effects may win Academy Awards but they are seldom truly moving.

Using words like "mature" and "grown-up" to describe a film conventionally translates to lots of sex and/or violence but in fact the exact opposite is true. Generally speaking, the films with the most sex and violence are the most adolescent. It would have been easy for either of the aforementioned films to succumb to this kind of shallow resolution, but they were too smart for that. Instead they thrive on subtlety (Bill Murray's hand drifting over to cup Scarlett Johansson's foot, etc.) and complexity beneath the surface to cut much deeper.

It is difficult to find films like this without wading through a lot of mediocrity on the way, but it's an admirable task and I will use my two hours of available time each week to pursue it. Recommendations are welcome and appreciated.

March 07, 2004