When you watch enough animation, you start to obsess over form and detail. You know the mechanical processes that go into producing an image, if not firsthand than through other sources, and so you begin to notice the difference between good animation and its disheartening opposite. Most of this time, this acquired eye for detail will be a blessing to you, since it will help you make better and more cogent critical statements about works of art. Sometimes, however, a piece of animation will come along that has an irresistible pull on your eye, and it will haul you by your retinas through hell and back just because it looks pretty.
Casshern Sins does not inflict real pain on the viewer. Not this viewer, at any rate. I can say this about it, though: the experience of looking atit was nothing short of a delight. Listening and watching attentively, on the other hand, were significant contributors to dull but grinding headaches. I didn’t even know tigers could get headaches, and I am one.
Populated by decaying robots, a remnant of marginalized humanity, and more dust mites than you could shake a Hoover at, the world of the show is a wonderfully evocative emptiness. Its vistas embody bleakness, and the few remaining structures look frail and unsound. Casshern Sins fleshes out this environment with a palpable sense of history, mostly through visuals. Amidst the wasteland, a grand tale is playing out. The story concerns a being named Casshern, who looks like a robot but exhibits characteristics of a living organism as well, including a starfish-like ability to regenerate his body. Other robots believe that by ingesting Casshern they can regain their immortality. At least, they think, they can escape the ravages of the Ruin, a blight that is gradually driving robots to extinction. It emanates from the environment and seems to have been unleashed by Casshern himself when he killed a young girl-like being named Luna.
I learned a few things from the show despite my difficulties with it. These will hopefully prove to be valuable insights with some applicability outside this particular situation.
Lesson 1: Amnesia Is Overplayed
Part of the problem with the show is that its central character is an amnesiac. Other than this fact, Casshern is a perfectly acceptable protagonist in my mind. He’s certainly guilty of inhabiting a particular type–resentful antihero who is obsessed with his past and possesses strange abilities–but his unique character design and the particulars of the plot join forces to rescue him from convention. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.
Amnesia is rarely well-used as a character trait. It tends to justify excessive adolescent brooding (“I don’t even remember the horrible things that you tell me I did! Woe is me!), tedious exposition that could have been excluded or integrated more elegantly (“Horrors! Please tell me more about what horrible thing I have done, and more broadly about the situation of the world as it is now!”), or both. You can probably guess that Casshern Sins is guilty of both.
Amnesia can be effectively and intelligently used as a part of a coherent narrative whole. I think back on Dark City, the 1997 Alex Proyas sci-fi film that has an amnesiac protagonist. There are specific reasons for his being an amnesiac, and the fact that he is disoriented fits the grim noir feel of the film as well as the overall aims of the plot. Now, I have not seen all of Casshern Sins, so its main character’s amnesia might have been put to good use in later episodes. If so, tell me, since I would very much like to give the show another chance someday if I have a good enough reason. That disclaimer aside, I think that Casshern’s amnesia is purely an excuse for lazy writing.
His character, and indeed the broader story, would have been far more interesting had he remembered and internalized his failures, soldiering on without any meaning in his life, full of regret but unable to die. There might have been more time for reflection on the actual themes of the show. Corruption, death, existential angst, guilt, etc. Those are powerful issues and a leaner, more focused show might have had something to say about those issues.
Lesson 2: Sometimes Taking Your Time Is a Bad Thing
I have an unabashed love of so-called “slow cinema.” Tarkovsky, Tarr, and the whole crew of filmmakers who can work with time without compressing or being overly hyperbolic tend to be my favorite directors. Given that, I was anticipating finding the slow pace of Casshern Sins a refreshing change of pace. I did. Not enough.
Writing problems abound in this show. It’s not that the show progresses at a more contemplative pace, it’s that it wastes its contemplation. Clumsy dialogues, insufferable angst-ridden monologues, characters who are clearly designed as mouthpieces for particular views–the show quickly mire itself in the molasses of trivialities, ignoring the deep questions we were supposed to be here to discuss. This is not always the case, as there are a few episodes that have a discernible point of view on a particular matter. In the main, however, the show tended to waste its time. Look, if you’re going to be trivial, at least be zippy and exciting. Put on a happy face.
Drama is less difficult than comedy, but dangers still beset writers who want to deal with Big Questions. Here’s the thing: you have to deal with those questions. Casshern Sins largely does not do that.
Lesson 3: Even Shows That Aren’t Bad Can Be Unwatchable
I’ll close this by defending several aspects of the show. Voice work did transcend the problems of the writing, though not as much as I would have hoped. Sound design in general was a plus, with the hushed vibe drawing my eyes and ears more closely to the show’s atmosphere. Visuals were excellent, as I have mentioned. The experience of watching the show was rarely overtly unpleasant. However, it was almost relentlessly trivial and mediocre, to the point where I had a difficult time paying attention even to parts where characters weren’t spouting vague and headache-inducing dialogue.
It’s a wash. I hope to return to the series eventually, but for now the roof is collapsing on me, and I cannot justify watching a show that leaves me with a dull ache behind my eyes.
I’ll be watching Welcome to the NHK as the world comes down around me.
I envy humans. Their lives are so rich and full. Routines are broken, and basic urges can be resisted. One day, a person can be stalking around their haunt, snacking on derelict snack foods from the pantry, and the next day the very same person is out swimming in a pool or living in a new house. This might be why there are so many films made about humans, whether dead or alive. Today, I watched one of those films about people.
Let’s situate ParaNorman in context. It’s an animated film, albeit one whose animation is handcrafted rather than processed in computers. It was also made in the United States for wide audiences. Animated films for wide audiences in the United States follow a very narrow subset of film tropes: they are intended for children and star youthful protagonists with distant, dead, or terrible parents, their supporting casts are lined with broadly characterized bit players mined from set stereotypes, and they tend to have a dramatic three-act plot that is leavened by broad comedy.
ParaNorman fits the mould precisely. In addition, it slots into the gothic-comic stop motion niche in animated film. Corpse Bride, Coraline, Frankenweenie, and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit all established and defined this space. On a plot level, ParaNorman is unremarkable, in some ways adroitly conventional. In such a meticulous medium, however, details tend to matter more than generalities. It is in the details that this film pulls off a satisfying but incomplete triumph over its genre straitjacket.
Norman, a young boy living in the aptly named Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts has a different perspective on life than the average citizen. Namely, he can see ghosts. The town, whose Puritan founders were responsible for hanging a witch, now survives by commercializing its grisly past for the tourists. Considered a freak by everyone from his classmates to his own father, he lives a lonely life watching horror flicks with his deceased grandmother and stoically enduring his daily ridicule.
From this premise, the first-time writer Chris Butler (previous work includes art design for Coraline and Tarzan 2) sets up his plot as a narrative about fear and the long shadow cast by the sins of the past. It seems that the witch who was executed cursed her accusers. Norman’s strange and estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast insinuates that the curse is real and that it is the young one with the spiky hair alone who can suppress it. Much of the running time is taken up by a tame zombie movie that makes up for its lack of horror with grotesque wit. There are some choice moments, the best of which involves the slow advance of zombies and a bag of chips. It truly comes alive, however, after a late shift in tone and emphasis that brings the whole affair to an oddly affecting conclusion. There are too many limp action sequences and tame scares that don’t work on seasoned hunters, but the pacing is overall well-balanced if not exactly brisk.
Visual and aural design are all impeccable. Each new set and situation reveals new wonders of production and puppetry. Characters are memorably constructed visually, their faces fluidly animated, the visual gags illustrated with panache. The final sequences are especially stunning. There is very little to fault in the overall presentation, as even the special effects are seamlessly integrated into the three-dimensional . LAIKA studios does not match their moody and dreamlike work on Coraline but this is by far the most rewarding aspect of ParaNorman.
I wish American mainstream animation could get over its apparent inability to consistently foster more than one story archetype. LAIKA studios has, however, pulled an original film out of a dusty template. The result dazzles the eye and pleases the intellect just enough to keep the ghosts of conventionality at bay.
I’m giving you a special insight into the mind of a talking tiger. That does not mean that this is the only way to find out about the nature of our fearsome and reclusive species. Observe the common housecat. You are on the Internet, so you are no doubt intimately familiar with felis catus, the common domestic cat. Truly, if you desire to discover the tiger way, the housecat is your field of study. For once, idly watching videos on the Web can be a genuinely educational experience. Tigers and housecats have a whole host of commonalities, from basic anatomy and genetics to irritability. Some would say, “Well, tigers are filthy and despicable man-killers while my cute cat Honorius wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Total nonsense. As a matter of fact, housecats probably have more of a taste for human flesh than I do. The only difference is that tigers can eat humans if we want. It’s a nice, if unpleasant, fallback to use instead of succumbing to starvation. Look, the point is this: nine and a half times out of ten, the demeanor and behavior of Li’l Snuffy is going to match up to that of a Bengal tiger. It’s only where our size and lack of social graces come in that we have much to dispute, and we can chalk most of that up to breeding and lack of education.
Sitting in my townhouse, I was pouring myself a hot Bengali drink–it was carbonated, which I found plain odd–and I came upon a perfect example. If you’re the religious type, watch your cat on holy days and worship days. Observe it all day and make careful notes and come back to me. Do this for at least a month of worship days and then send the results to the only townhouse in tiger heaven. Let me ask you something, since I believe this will be obvious: did your cat or cats show any interest in attending religious ceremonies? Did Tipsy raise her irate little paw and decry you as a heathen for using a pair of scissors on the Sabbath? Has your pious tabby lodged a complaint to your local religious leader because you broke a fast by eating instant ramen before the sun set, and you justified it by saying you were on vacation and home was a time zone ahead so it was technically still keeping fast? Does your cat go around door to door draped in holy vestments and proclaiming the sacred Word? No, the answer is no.
Because I was a tiger, raised as a tiger in the wild before I learned how to speak and became literate, I too was raised as what one might call a natural tigerist. So forgive me if I am somewhat unqualified to offer my feline opinion on the Newsboys. The Newsboys is a group of fresh-faced Australian pop musicians who make what is called Contemporary Christian Music or CCM. In the wider music world, CCM has probably the worst reputation of any genre this side of American brostep or nu-metal.
When I invited a group of tiger acquaintances to my townhouse here in tiger heaven, I played them some records from the pile that could be connected to this genre¹. The reaction was muted. Most of the tiger simply shrugged and went back to sleeping or munching on flavored salmon eggs that I keep in a bowl. It’s difficult to say if they were bored, but they were certainly indifferent. Now, my human medium grew up thinking the Newsboys were pretty cool. They could put on a decent show and made infectious pop tunes that weren’t too offensive to the intellect and had a bit of class. It has been quite some time since either I or my human medium has had much chance to listen to them, though. Because my book is still young and vital, I wanted to make the first two reviews set the tone for most of the later entries. Most of what I’ll be reviewing will be fairly obscure and in genres that do not have enough of a following for tracks to get millions of views on Youtube.
The song in question today is “God’s Not Dead.” Normally, there would be no need to separate a song from its music video because good songs usually have good videos. That written, this is an average song with a video that might redefine my entire categorical understanding of terrible music videos. To be brief, it is a video so despicable it almost registers between my pointed ears as a satire of this sort of music. Some secular humanist with an acrid wit and a fondness for CNN produced it, or so this tiger is convinced.
First, the song. I have considerably less to say concerning it than the video. Newsboys has always occupied a neutral zone between rock and pop music, a place where both traditions surrender their sundry mutual grievances and play kickball together. This is an absurd way to state that Newsboys is bouncy but toothless, conventional but competent, Christian but not so much so as to not appeal to the generic market for inspirational music. Listen to “God’s Not Dead” while brushing your cat or cleaning her bowl and you might wonder how this isn’t a Coldplay song. The current incarnation of Newsboys share with those unfashionably popular Brits a certain expressive, pseudo-sacramental style of rock music that both happened to pillage from Bono’s closet on the same night in the mid-1990s. Vocalist Michael Tait also sings Coldplay-esque jumbled metaphors, squishy soaring choruses, and banalities that Chris Martin has turned into his bread and butter².
The song is about exactly what I thought it would be about, and communicates it predictably. True to the chorus, the band asserts that their “God’s not dead, he is surely alive/He’s living on the inside/Roaring like a lion.” This is problematic in a few ways, but there is nothing egregious about it. The cadences and melody sound mellow over the gently chiming guitars and marginally rocking rhythm section. It offers reassurance to believers in God and tries to mount a revolution. As a call to generic revival, it does a serviceable job. Newsboys has written better, and the CCM world is full of songs like this that are leagues more offensively brainless. For a tiger, it’s far from wild enough to be charming, fascinating, or conducive to tiger-jamming on the dance floor. Nor does it have any pretensions of being anything other than emotional fodder for Christian youth rallies or pleasant road-trip material for the contentedly square among us. If that assessment reads as condescending, then that is because I am a tiger, and come by my imperious arrogance by birthright³.
We reach a transitional point in this review. So far, the song looks competent but only barely interesting enough to merit comment. Without the charming and affecting illustration of your cat wandering around in priestly garb, this might as well be a wasted post. Mistake me not: this review is about to metastasize. Not only do I have nothing positive to write about the music video for “God’s Not Dead,” but it calls into question every solitary ounce of respect I have ever had for Newsboys. Because I am a pacific and meditative cat, I will use my claws to dissect this video in as much detail as possible to expose the rest of the world the viscera, the mortified innards of this soulless production.
The video begins with a few shots of New York City. You see the Empire State Building, and then cut to the streets of what looks like Manhattan judging by the sheer volume of shiny glass and the Mamma Mia! billboard ad smiling from the background of one shot. An unseen female news announcer then intones with deadened professionalism that “Scientists have announced that, based on their research, they have concluded that God is a myth.” As she speak this last phrase, the lower body of a hip teenager walks by, and in his hands is a newspaper (First blatantly nonsensical shot.) whose headline blares GOD IS A MYTH.
Our editor, evidently enraged by the very thought of a young person reading such a headline, cuts to a black background onto which slams the title of the song in enormous bold red letters. This is the first time watching the video that I purred with humorous delight. This is because these bold red letters are nearly identical to the bold red letters Kanye West has been using to market preview tracks for his vanity label collaboration album Cruel Summer. This is no idle jest. Please deign to compare the two below. The shadowing is even suspiciously similar.
Who knew that hip-hop’s reigning emperor of artistic glitz and a CCM group could have such similar tastes? However, I might be making too much of this; the lyrics haven’t even kicked in yet.
After the letters fade away we cut to the interior of a coffee shop frequented by numerous youth all reading–and I smile again–newspapers. Luckily, however, the GOD IS A MYTH crowd is being watched over by the man in the foreground. Who could he be other than our leading man Michael Tait. As the electric guitars rev up in the background, he gives them a look not of disapproval but of total confusion. he holds this quizzical countenance for several seconds until we cut to Newsboys’ drummer Duncan Phillips banging on a kit. Locations are difficult to discern in the video, but it seems as though Tait and the rest of the band are playing a gig at the café. This is only my humble tigerly assumption, though. For all I know they could be playing in a totally separate time-space pocket where only the laws of music video editing and gravity apply.
More location shots of Manhattan’s skyline and hurried pedestrians whiz by interspersed with footage of the band playing and Duncan Phillips making goofy faces while playing the drums. Now comes the meat of the video, which purports to give us a taste of cosmic information and psychological warfare. Arrayed on the battlefield are, on one side, the dark forces of rationalism, the secular media, and questions. On the other side is the stalwart Newsboys and their army of sympathetic bloggers and Twitter members spreading the good news by hook and by crook to disperse the cloud of confusion.
I have a feeling this will not go well.
Firing the opening salvo in this war of words is the army of doubt. We get our noses rubbed in some more atheist newsprint before cutting to a billboard that states, in the same Kanye bold print, that there is “NO EVIDENCE THAT GOD EXISTS.” Let us interpret that for a moment. Since I live in a literal subjective afterlife, I can hardly agree with the statement that there is no evidence for God or the supernatural. For you humans however, it has to be conceded that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of anything that operates contrary to the laws of nature. Science cannot and never will find God. Despite what some on both sides of this debate claim, science is simply not equipped to find the divine, nor to conclusively disprove it. I would say that not accepting God because of a lack of empirical evidence is, sadly to me, completely reasonable. I believe in God, as does my human interpreter, but not based on any facts or objective knowledge. Faith is a cliff dive into fog, a valiant but frustrating embrace of the absurd and uncertain. There are certainly aspects of life on Earth, especially subjective experience, that defy rational explanations, but this particular thread will be resolved in the video in the most superficial and, to be honest, insulting way possible. Keep that billboard in mind as we proceed.
Shift now to a series of people with downcast faces staring at blank screens. For our benefit, the editor has plastered the screens with mocked up images of news websites declaring things like “God is Dead,” “Man is just another animal,” “Everything came from nothing,” and “How Can A Good God Allow Evil?” The last message is particularly disturbing to the man viewing it, who is so shocked by the question of theodicy existing that he whips off the sunglasses he was wearing indoors.
Before covering the inevitable counterattack, let’s go through these one by one. First for scrutiny is “God is Dead.” In the video, this is juxtaposed with an old print of Jesus carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion. I am not sure if the creator of the video was referring to the twentieth century “death of God” debate or just to Jews and others who deny that Jesus was resurrected. The “death of God” debate took place from the 1960s and later and from my knowledge of human history seemed mainly to centre around whether the secularizing West was losing a sense of the sacred and transcendent in life. Many theologians abandoned a transcendent God and, like J.J. Alitzer, redefined theology as theopoetics, and redefined religion as an encounter with an immanent God in a community of believers. These ideas of God owed more to Hegel than Augustine.
Why do I write this down? Of what value is this exposition of somewhat obscure theological and philosophical debate? Well, it’s mostly to show that this video has no business throwing around terminology like “death of God” because it’s a music video for a danceable pop song, not a doctoral thesis or even a serious blog post. It’s fluff. Spiritual fluff, but fluff nonetheless, and while the song itself plays in generalities and goes for the heart, the video throws caution to the wind and turns the song into a cure-all for doubters of all stripes. Clearly, someone was not taking this seriously enough. More likely, they just used the phrase to refer to those who deny the resurrection of Jesus, which is a more simple but still fairly touchy subject outside of a Christian market.
Next we have “Man is just another animal.” Well, from a taxonomical standpoint, that statement is totally sound. We are able to move, we reproduce sexually, we are consumers who metabolize nutrition that we have to find and imbibe. Nothing would prevent a Christian, at least a reasonable one, from assenting to the fact that we are animals. The real rub comes in at the word just. From a traditional Christian perspective, we are not just animals but are animals with a special access to the divine. We are self-aware and God-aware, the crown of creation and the stewards of the Earth. There is a special role and responsibility for humans beyond our role as consuming animals. Secular humanists would certainly agree on many of those points, though from a non-theist perspective. The video’s answer to this statement is also forthcoming, and is much the same response it gives to the first question.
Third is the quotation that made me gag on my dining room table, which I was chopping up and eating out of sheer boredom. It gave me splinters I was laughing so hard. “Everything came from nothing.” Read Genesis, video director. You know what ex nihilo means? God created everything from nothing in the most dominant interpretation of that account! A non-theistic idea of the creation of the universe depends on there being, in some sense, something from which the universe emerged, even if that something was unclassifiable as energy or matter as we now know it. I am not sure what the video is even getting at here. I suppose it’s questioning the idea that whatever was in existence before the Big Bang did not come from anywhere and was not guided by anyone. It just was. The way it’s worded, however, it comes off as the worst thing a CCM song can be: Scripturally ignorant or at the very least gravely confused.
The last question is possibly in the top three most debated questions in the history of thought. Everyone questions why people suffer at some point. Faithful people in the Bible were fraught over this idea. Several books of the Bible are defined by angst over this, including Psalms and Job. One problem I have with inspirational music of all persuasions is that it often papers over the big questions–hell, any questions at all–and presents whatever it has to sell as certain and individually comforting. Christians can have a kind of claim to certainty, sort of, but the religion of Jesus is neither comforting or soft. To live in faith is to live in doubt. What infuriates me is that the target audience of this video is Christians who are living in uncertainty, who have perhaps asked these questions to God or to others. People with real doubts are not swayed by inspirational songs. This video is more a soft pillow for those who are already certain, or who play with doubt but don’t really feel it. That means that this video is totally without purpose except as a sleepytime tonic for people who have never even met an atheist much less sit perched on the edge of becoming one because of the news media.
Finally, we are ready to move on. After the montage of doubters has gone by we get yet more shots of the band and New York until we get to the response. And this is where I stopped laughing at the video and became totally enraged. I admit the rage was fleeting and shallow but it was not the response the video was calibrated to elicit. If “God’s Not Dead” the video left the questions hanging, and called the people to trust in God and persevere in their calling despite their stumbling blocks, I would give it a pass. I would congratulate it for its willingness to grapple with issues and acknowledge their significance. I might purr on it a few times (Strictly exhalation. Only small cats can purr while inhaling.) but we save that for special occasions. The video instead attempts to give pat, clear answers to these questions. Now, let us record their responses and see how much pandering the director and his crew managed to wedge into this abomination.
Initially, the counterattack is vague, taking the form of a blogger writing a post entitled “WE ARE MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD.” Fine sentiment, I’m sure. Then the man who read “Everything came from nothing” replies with a tweet of his own. Cleverly, he writes, “everything came from SOMETHING!” (sic), leading us all to imagine the kindergarten-level back-and-forth “Yes he did, no he didn’t” tone of the ensuing online debate. So far, the Christian reply has been weak, even when bolstered by the Newsboys’ watered-down rock and roll. Let’s move on and see what else is happening on the front lines.
In response to the theodicy question we get sunglasses man, confusingly, reading an article on the same news site that reads, “God Gave Us Freedom To Choose, Man Chose To Do Evil.” A Calvinist would complicate that by saying that God planned the Fall and uses suffering as a part of his whole plan for the universe, that God’s reasons for doing so are a mystery, and that our only proper response as humans is to cope with and assuage God’s suffering while accepting his grace. Social and cognitive science, meanwhile, cast significant doubt on any claim that humans have free will that is not determined by genetics, social circumstances, and a million other forces that act on us every day. Also, how does the position that suffering was caused by our free choice to sin square with the fact that humans were suffering and dying for hundreds of thousands of years before civilization sprang up? But such nuances are difficult to shoehorn into a headline, begging the question once again: why did they do this?
At last, Michael Tait engages the enemy in battle, striding over to an unsuspecting youth and throwing down a newspaper that is identical to the one’s we’ve been seeing but has the song’s title printed as a headline instead. Aside from the logistical and logical problems with this, which are not actually problems because it’s meant to be more poetic and generalized than plot-driven or logical, what does this solve? So far, the video is putting forth the notion that the best response to doubt is to simply proclaim the opposite of doubt as loudly as possible. That changes nothing and solves nothing. It’s less a clever riposte and more a loudmouthed denial that the question matters or that it might be hard to solve.
I was telling you to keep the billboard in mind. Right now, you can recall it and the “man is just an animal” quotation, because it’s time for the answer. Unfortunately for the quality of the debate it’s another bromide. Some seconds after the newspaper gauntlet throwing, we cut to a group of people watching television somewhere. Another newscast, of course, this time one that is reporting “Complexity Of Life Points to Design.” Although not the absolute worst bit of creationist nonsense it could have (mainly because there is so much to choose from) this is still noxious. Complexity is easily understood without the need for an instantaneous creation of all species simultaneously. Darwinian evolution accounts for the complexity, similarity, and diversity of life far better than intelligent design. Further, this says nothing about whether humans are just animals or not, or whether God is personal or triune or whether God even cares about us. A designer merely implies Deism or even some kind of extraterrestrial intervention. It takes a leap to get from that to Christianity. We still have nearly two minutes left, friends. Tigers, for all their faults, are patient and thorough.
What’s this? I see that the rest of the video is totally non-objectionable. That is correct. The great cosmic war of ideas has resolved itself, leaving nearly two minutes of filler content featuring a Christian rock concert and more shots of Manhattan. I suppose that means there is no more prey to digest. What have we learned from this? Mostly that music video producers, and people in general, should stop assuming that we can throw out cliches and half-truths and expect to stand up to any level of scrutiny. No one has all the answers, no not one. As a tiger, I’m the first to admit to loving my own self-aggrandizement and hubris. It is one thing to have faith; quite another to think that because you have faith it gets you off the hook for thinking.
1. This included dcTalk, Audio Adrenaline, Avalon, Amy Grant, and even a few early Newsboys records.
2. Though I did not meant that literally, I want to clear up the confusion. We all know that bread and butter is far too bold and spicy for any Coldplay member. They normally subsist on frozen dough and celery gruel with all the salt extracted from it.
3. Tigers receive a special commendation through their mother’s bloodline that allows them to claim superiority over all other beings. One of the many advantages of being a tiger.
And as my only human friend, I want to give you a bit of advice, tiger to man. Treat your life like it’s the only one you have, because what comes after is more likely to either be nothing or something unbearable. In some ways, I wish I were just being mulched up and digested by some cross-eyed antelope. At least in that ignominious end there is some poetic justice. This is just an absurdist joke.
What isn’t an absurdist joke? Imagine this is a real joke:
Q. What’s harder to find than a unicorn?
A. A dragon smoking a cigarette.
Actually, now that I think of it, that might be absurdist, just a little. OK, let’s revise.
Q. What’s harder to find than a unicorn?
A. A good rap album.
That’s not a real joke. Plus I know that it’s not true, because on my desk right now is Shabazz Palaces’ album Black Up. This is a real treat, people, a real winner. How can this be so? What mechanisms are at work here to make this specimen a good album? Because it’s not every day you come across a good album, especially not here. So what makes a good album? The only way my tiny brain can think of to explain it is to compare and contrast.
Here’s another good album:
It’s called Graduation and it was released by Kanye West on a major label last decade. I know, the cobwebs on this puppy are pretty thick and tangled. It is, as I previously said, another example of what we in the critic business call a good album. Why do I bring it up? Well, because everything that makes Graduation work are pretty much the opposite in Black Up. Yet both are good. How to account for this? First, let’s see what this beast is saying:
Kanye West’s album, despite being a rap album, features the artist it’s catalogued under more than other people. So you get a lot of Kanye West rapping and producing, putting down tracks and digitizing them together. Graduation works for the same reason that his other albums work: Kanye West made them. To be more specific, the appeal and quality of the album depends not so much on great flow or lyricism–West has a lot of the latter but is inconsistent and has a fairly weak ability to spit verses smoothly–but on just how completely he recognizes his weaknesses as both an artist and a human being and builds something great out of them.
Part of the way he does this is through phenomenal production. Kanye’s beats are fat and lush. Graduation makes no apologies for what it is, and what it is is almost freakishly well-arranged ear candy. Songs shine so bright it’s no wonder the bear on the cover is tripping. Moving through a song on this album is like walking through a strobe light tunnel: mentally overpowering but indisputable awesome. Kanye writes with a mixture of crippling self-doubt devoid of humility and proud bravado bereft of any confidence. Despite the fact that at the time Graduation was released Kanye was living it up spending more every day than I ever did in my entire life (having no house helped), he makes himself into a weird human museum piece, a schematic with big neon labels and cross-sections detailing all of the telltale features of his peculiar species. He’s obsessed with all the things he doesn’t have and blithe about what he has. But what really sells it is the naivety, the wide eyes he seems to have. When he’s enjoying himself, it’s without regard for modesty. When he’s weeping or complaining about something, you don’t get any filter. It’s pure, 24 carat Kanye for fifty-four minutes. And that’s why it’s so great.
What about Black Up, the ostensible subject of this review before Kanye came in and interrupted it? Well, simply reverse much of what I just said. Actually, you can learn almost everything about the differences between them by looking at their covers. Really look at them next to each other. Stare, human. Stare. Done now? For the next, say, five minutes or so, write a report detailing what you think the differences will be.
(Five minutes pass.)
What did you produce? Let’s see it here.
“What I think Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up Sounds Like in Comparison to Kanye West’s Graduation Based on the Album Covers, by Jonathan Hielkema
Ishmael Butler, a rapper from Digable Planets¹, designed his cover as a black square. That is its founding principle. Blackness. Even the yellow pseudo-Gothic lettering is not so much a pure yellow but a kind of muted gold, suggesting the idea of opulence without being at all ostentatious. The whole cover is centered around a small diamond, and the overall design is highly attractive while making use of only a few elements.
The music within is murky and disorienting. For awhile, the listener will likely stumble through it, since its grooves are obscured and jagged. With Kanye’s Graduation cover, there is an ironically self-aware wide-eyed awe. This is utterly absent from the sheer curtain of black, which suggests a dimmer outlook. There is also the sense that Black Up will represent a monolithic statement, perhaps sticking closer in style than Graduation, which suggests a more riotous or celebratory atmosphere, from the title to the festive color of its surreal figures.”
Not bad. If you had actually written that, you would have gotten an “A.” Black Up is every milligram as unapologetic and idiosyncratic as Graduation, but without all the ostentation. Jazz and pitch-dark dance music infuse the production with a snappy verve despite the almost oppressive minimalism of the atmosphere. Many of the vocals sound like echoes, and the rapping is precise and flows with the obtuse beats remarkably well. Both the lyrics and music are ruthlessly Afrocentric, chanting “black is me, black is you, black is us, black is free” while the beats call to mind furtive dances in the dark and the spacey futurism of Sun Ra².
When I think of Graduation, I think of experiential, sensory words with many syllables. Words like “glittering,” “ostentatious,” “superficial,” “pleasurable,” and the like. The experience is all set out and defined for you, a banquet or gaudy feast. Black Up conjures up evocative monosyllables: “bleak,” “bold,” “stark,” “dark,” and on and on. Shabazz Palaces is all about sketching and evoking emotions and letting the appearances take care of themselves. You get the sense that the album was meticulously created, but its final minimalism makes it seem more organic. Kanye is, mostly for the better, deeply interested in the superficial and glitzy, and Black Up has none of that. The album is easy to imagine in cube form: an imposing, in-your-face metallic black cube. Unless you throw it out you can’t ignore it. It’s sitting in your room and if you don’t somehow learn to love it it’s going to nag on you all the time. There was nothing like it in the jungle, let me tell you³.
So what makes both of them good when they’re opposite each other? Perhaps I’ll tackle that sometime in the future. It’s only the most pressing and persistent question in all criticism. An afternoon should do to solve it.
1. An alternative rap group that mixes jazz and hip-hop. In it, Mr. Ishmael Butler is joined by Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca.
2. A Saturnian philosopher/practitioner of a mysterious and little-heard musical form known as jazz, which may come up later in this book.
3. The closest thing to a black metal cube in the rain forest is a panther, which is a pitiful excuse for a big cat. Why settle for less? Though, I do admit, I wish there were black tigers.