The Weekest Links : american avant-garde

I looked it up: alienation can mean " the separation of things that naturally belong together", or an estrangement from one's community. Things may not fall apart but they definitely become harder to describe as societies evolve and the centuries accumulate. To think about and to look at the United States from the outside - arguably the best way to do it - is to realize at once how an infinitude of things that don't naturally belong together become entangled, intimate, united, estranged from the common notions of right, wrong, and proper opposites. No weird is too weird for America, one used to say, marveling at how spongy and absorbent that signifying matrix really is.

On today's show, I shall humbly submit to your consideration that mainstream American culture carries within it enough subversive elements to be considered an avant-garde in its own right. From imperial power to globally contested political entity, the USA continues to send out to the world a unique blend of confusion, glitter, and rhythm. The great Neal Stephenson once wrote that his country could outperform any other in four basic human activities: music, movies, software and high-speed pizza delivery. This week's show is about the musical part of that equation. Welcome back to The Weekest Links.

First time I looked at this man I had the goosebumps, I saw the second coming of Russell Jones. Others saw it, too, in the high-pitched uncontrollable vocals, the orthodox cliche rock-slinging past quickly fading away under the new light, the new awakening of a bigger-than-life pop artist who just couldn't be contained in somebody else's rap cage. But then I looked again, heard XXX, and saw that it was no revival. This was an original Detroit state of mind, the genuine arrival of a new prophet.

Brown is the electronic truth, the least predictable of the avant-garde. His place is unique not only because of the influence of Detroit's dance music scene on his beats and style, but because he seems capable of referencing and channeling every quadrant of history, like when he recently revealed a timeless admiration for Arthur Lee or when he mentions David Bowie and Q-Tip in the same sentence.

What you need to keep in mind about the emergence of the avant-garde and its leading figures is that circa 2006 hip-hop culture was being declared dead, its formulas having supposedly reached the end of the creative line. Nas only rode that trend when he published his album because by then it had become commonplace to state that urban black musical culture had somehow peaked. You had Kanye and that was mostly it. When, as Mr. West so eloquently reminded us, hip-hop has taken the place of rock n' roll as the central element of popular culture, Houston, we could have had a problem.

We didn't. Rap bounced back and by 2010, The Hybrid made it clear that a new era was upon us. On his new album, Danny Brown returns with added clarity, an almost self-conscious need to push the envelope. While rappers all across the world try to clone the gangsta and bling paradigm, Brown is speaking the century. At the center of every perfume there is a big stink, at the heart of every melody a dissonant chord. Danny Brown is that singularity, the lone runner, the dancing eye of this perfect storm.

Black Hippy. Black Dylan. King Kendrick. The city of Compton has spawned its fair share of legends in the last century, all of which have either inspired or haunted the history of the rap game. When word got around that Dr. Dre was mentoring and nurturing the career of yet another promising MC from those golden and troubled streets, the writing of a new chapter began. It was called Overly Dedicated, that first 2010 statement, and from then on Kendrick Lamar would begin his ascent to the throne, enduring with patience the initiation ritual of endless collaborations and featurings, magazine covers and hype cycles, his material and character honed through a life of preparation, too real to flinch.

Then he dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city and everything around it collapsed like distorted pixels in a VHS simulation.The recent past seemed to make perfect sense, as it often does in the face of destiny: the slow-burning anticipation, the careful alliances, the look in his eyes like he knows something you don't. Then the confirmation: that Control verse - rap version of the classic diss manifesto, an elegant maneuver that dispelled any illusion about the stakes Lamar is raising - the cypher, public coronation as the leader of his group, and now the Yeezus Tour, an unmistakable sign of the establishment's need to incorporate the disruption. Kendrick's rule has just begun.

The avant-garde finds its most poignant expression and explicit dilemma in Pusha T's career, heir to the Clipse's legacy of crack realism and menacing beats, now surrounded by a changed political landscape where it has become acceptable to praise drug-dealing as a legitimate business strategy on Oprah. The streets have not gone clean, they are still watching, but out there, under the glaring media lights, King Push sometimes sounds like a lone monarch on a holy crusade, preaching in a distant land to those who know not of the hood virtues and the pipe dreams.

Nostalgia for the early 90's is a common feature in Pusha T's music and even with way too many elements of the Pyrex stories making their way back into the recession-hit mainstream awareness, authentic crack rap now feels distinctively and unfortunately alien. But in that displacement also lies its greatest strength, its greatest pride when compared to the cartoonish universe of current gangsta rap.

Pusha T remains the best example of the uneasy, almost incongruent coexistence of edge and center. His place is guaranteed by the power of words and beats, his relevance dependent only on how much he doesn't change. Check out My Name is My Name, for the confirmed promise that he won't.

No story of an art movement is ever complete, especially those in blog post format. Other names could certainly have been included, some probably more representative of a certain vanguard in contemporary American music, but the point was not to venture out into the fringe, quite the opposite: to look at the mainstream and realize how unsettling it can be. Thanks for reading, I'll see you back here on next week sharp. You take care now.

Alice Politics