#tbt: American Poetic Hybridity, Then and Now

As Norton is pushing its new edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry, it may be that the press’s 2009 anthology, American Hybrid, is vanishing into history. But this anthology–Cole Swensen and David St. John’s hypothesis of a contemporary lyric existing between “traditional” and “experimental” poetries–is still in the air. Contemporary big-press/big-prize American poetry is gravitating toward its own conception of “hybrid” poetry, a learned, skeptical poetic voice that steers carefully between James Merrill (in his virtuoso word-painting mode) and John Ashbery (in a fairly normy post-Stevens reading of that poet). This is a “hybrid” project if there ever was one–I think of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections and Adam Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade as exemplars–and it suggests to me that this now almost-old-fashioned-feeling idea (whose “traditional”? whose “experimental”?) is still alive. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a review of American Hybrid I co-wrote with the delightful and serious Michael Theune for Pleiades 30.2 (2010).


On American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, Swensen and St. John, eds (Norton, 2009). A Critical Conversation by Jay Thompson & Michael Theune.

American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry anthologizes work that situates itself in the middle space formed by what is often conceived of as, as editor Cole Swensen calls it in her introduction to the anthology, the longstanding “fundamental division” in twentieth-century American poetry. Formulated in a variety of ways (Romantic vs. Modern; New Formal vs. Language), this division typically comes down to a divide between more mainstream, traditional poetries and more avant-garde, radically experimental poetries in what Swensen calls “the two-camp model.” According to Swensen, the poetry in American Hybrid is new insofar as it hybridizes “core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways.” Swensen notes,

The hybrid poem has selectively inherited traits from both of the principal paths… Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” works, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which can change dramatically depending on how it is combined with others and the particular role it plays in the composition.

American Hybrid brings together the work of 74 contemporary poets whom the editors believe have been doing such hybrid work, presenting each poet with a brief statement about their work, a paragraph of professional biography, and a sampling of approximately six pages of poems. According to St. John’s introduction, all of the poets included in the anthology had three books published when reading for the anthology began in summer, 2005. Many of the anthologized poets are well-known, including Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Norman Dubie, Alice Fulton, James Galvin, Forrest Gander, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer, D. A. Powell, Bin Ramke, Claudia Rankine, Donald Revell, Rosemarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, C. D. Wright, Charles Wright, and Dean Young. But American Hybrid also includes some relatively younger poets and/or lesser-known poets such as Joshua Beckman, Molly Bendall, Killarney Clary, Martin Corless-Smith, Andrew Joron, Myung Mi Kim, Stefanie Marlis, Jane Miller, Jennifer Moxley, Rod Smith, Dara Wier, and Elizabeth Willis.

The following conversation took place via e-mail during the fall and winter of 2009-2010.

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Repost: How Can We Say “God Loves You” to the Oppressed?

This piece was published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Inbreaking, the newspaper of the Seattle Catholic Worker, and I thought I’d share it again here. Thanks to Peter Gallagher and Shelby Handler for comments and feedback on an earlier draft.


Mary Antona Ebo, F.S.M., lifelong civil rights activist and marcher in Selma

This winter, at the closing of the Chanukkah gathering of a Seattle Radical Shabbat group in a little craftsman house in the Central District, an attendee brought out a list of names.

The names were of unarmed people of color killed by the police in America, and it was long: it stretched back more than a decade and made its way around our circle of thirty more than three times. Seattleite John T. Williams, a hearing-impaired Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver shot to death only four seconds after being ordered by an officer behind him to drop his carving knife, was on the list. Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were on the list. One attendee, her voice full of tears, asked us to remember that each name we heard was more than a name: it was someone’s child, best friend, lover, parent, companion—someone whose loss to state violence left a tear in the fabric of many anonymous lives.

The Radical Shabbat group, a gathering of lefty Jewish folks, is “working to practice and reclaim our Jewish ritual in a space that holds our values,” including the value of work against oppression. This list of victims ended an evening of conversation and reflection on the lessons of the Chanukkah story, making literal and human the tensions of the story of the Maccabees’ rebellion against Greek domination. How can we work against the violence of an oppressive state?

At the close of this excruciating litany, the attendees said the mourners’ kaddish for these victims of state violence. I listened but couldn’t join in: I was the only Catholic in the room and, though I grew up with Jewish folks in my extended family, I’d never learned these words. I went home with a hard knot of grief in my throat and my head tangled with questions. The Shabbat space showed its participants the trust of letting us sit in our grief and rage: not forcing a happy or positive meaning onto this list, but to feel, even if only for a moment, the terrible individual cost of our society’s criminalization of people of color. Later, I looked the words of the kaddish up: “B’rikh hu,” goes one passage, “l’eila min kol bir’khata v’shirata, / toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah.” “Blessed is he / beyond any song and blessing, / any praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

“Beyond any song and blessing”: the God remembered in ritual, petitioned and honored in prayer, revered (so I as a Catholic believe) in the incarnation of Jesus, and seen in the animating power of the Holy Spirit, can seem unbearably distant sometimes when we’re confronted by state violence. In the world to come, we’re told that “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). But in this life, the oppressed endure grief, agony, violence, spiritual degradation, and dehumanization, alleviated by no revolutionary miracle.

Eleanor Josaitis, "Detroit's Mother Teresa"

Eleanor Josaitis, “Detroit’s Mother Teresa” (1931-2011)

How can we (I write as a white middle-class able-bodied male citizen, enjoying just about every privilege American society has to offer) say “God loves you” to the oppressed? The daily life of an oppressed person is an experience—to quote Father Gustavo Gutierrez, Peruvian priest and founder of liberation theology—“of exclusion and nonlove, of being forgotten, of having no social rights.” What does it mean to tell an oppressed person that God loves them? I’m honored to have shared the space of mourning with the participants of Radical Shabbat, but I claim no special knowledge on the history and spirituality of Jewish anti-oppressive politics; I face this question as a Catholic. If the great truth of God’s love isn’t going to seem like an empty and meaningless piety in the face of the grinding reality of oppression, what actions must accompany it?

Father Gutierrez, who for fifty years has done his theological and political work in the slums of Lima, Peru, “between the sufferings and the hopes of the people with whom I live,” has a simple primary recommendation. Gutierrez writes that “Christian theology must be grounded in the reality of human suffering and exclusion if it is to be at the service of discipleship and transformation.” To follow Jesus’s teachings and to act from the trust of God’s abundant and self-communicating love means understanding that oppression is not fate, but a system created by people, and that the degradation and violence it forces onto the lives of the oppressed is “against the meaning” of the free, gratuitously beautiful gift of life. To me, Gutierrez’s recommendation leads to three conclusions.

First, Catholics must acknowledge that the suffering of the oppressed—the criminalization and state murder of young black men, the abandonment of the poor, the prohibitions against immigration even for those fleeing violence and poverty, the murder of trans people—is not merely a backdrop to their lives or ours, but a call to solidarity. As Christians, we find our fullest humanity in the radical love of our neighbor, and we affirm that we touch “the suffering flesh of Christ” himself when we minister to the most oppressed, when we strive to build their power and center their concerns.

Second, to follow the call of God’s love means following Jesus’s message toward social, not just individual, transformation. In the words of Pope Francis, “God, through Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing” between all people. I believe that Jesus—by his words, actions, and life—teaches us that another set of human and political relationships is possible, one that refuses the “structural sin” in which those of us with privilege participate. What would this human-centered society, as opposed to a society of the marketplace imperatives and of state oppression, look like? It’s hard to even conceive of, but, in the meantime, it’s a truly radical assertion to center human dignity, autonomy, and freedom in our politics. When, as Pope Francis writes, “the categories of the marketplace” are made into absolutes, “God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.” This is a God I am glad to love.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (1917 - 1980)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (1917 – 1980)

Finally, to truthfully say to the oppressed (and show by action) that “God loves you,” I believe that we Catholics should courageously explore the consequences of what the Church calls its “preferential option for the poor.” Catholic theology defines this option as centering the needs, concerns, questions, and conditions of the poor in our faith life, and examining our society’s policies and institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. A shallow reading of this teaching simply suggests that “we” the church must minister to the needs of “them,” the oppressed. But, carried to its logical conclusion, this teaching can and should challenge Catholics to center the voices of those most affected by oppression when that oppression is being addressed.

What might this look like? Well, here in King County, youth of color are resisting—through education, protest, and direct action—the county’s plan to invest $210 million in a new youth jail; the community most affected by mass incarceration is speaking for itself and saying no. How can Catholics listen to these voices, and build their power over that of self-proclaimed experts and employees of carceral institutions?

Or, for another example: in a church that remains deeply sexist and exclusionary of queer and trans folks, how can those of us who enjoy gender and cis-gender privilege build the power of women and queer and trans communities, internationally and locally? For all his lucid and serious criticism of capitalist ideology, Francis’s opinions on reproductive choice, the role of women in the church, and the humanity of queer folks are largely awful, including his recent offhand comparison of modern “gender theory” to “nuclear arms,” for how both threaten to disrupt “the order of creation.” Liberation-oriented Catholics must clearly and definitively say no to such ideas, and the practices they lead to. Our call is not just to find common cause with oppressed communities, but to strengthen them by addressing systemic injustice and by centering these communities’ politics, cultures, and ways of knowing.

As Catholics concerned with a genuinely human-centered politics, our work must be within our faith communities as well as in the world as a whole. Authentic faith, Pope Francis writes, “is never comfortable or completely personal…. [It] always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values.” And so, remembering the mourner’s kaddish, I grieve for the victims of police violence—and for the hearts of those officers who, for one terrible instant, were the state’s violence, fear, power-numbedness, and hatred personified. In this grief, I strive to act not because I feel morally superior, or because I feel the oppressed to be saints idealized by their suffering, or because I feel those who oppress are inhuman, but because God is good, and in the words “God loves you” I hear a call, impossible to ignore, to fight for the liberation of all people.

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Songs I Like #6: The Stingers, “Give Me Power”

Do suburban white kids still listen to reggae? Before the internet, and without a radio station to show me myself and goad me to a scene, music was my brother’s school jazz band, car rides with my parents’ home-dubbed cassettes (Rubber Soul, Hank Williams, old tapes of Ruth Brown’s Harlem Hit Parade radio show) and afternoons with my best friend Drew at the city library music shelves.

I still think of Everett’s library. There must have been a lonely and brave soul somewhere in their purchasing office behind the stacks, because their music selection was weird, brave, and beautifully cosmopolitan, a cry into the vacant vast surrounding of Navy yards, shady cul-de-sacs, and slumbering malls. Drew and I fixated on Rounder and Trojan’s old reggae anthologies. Ska was cool that year, so, thanks to our anonymous librarian, we followed it backward to its Jamaican progenitors– groups like the Skatalites, who played commercial dance music, a hard-offbeat open-air-dancehall take on American R&B– but where we really sank in was into rocksteady.

That slowed-down (Jamaica’s summer 1966 was supposedly too hot for ska’s quick clip), re-Africanized, and increasingly political reorientation of Jamaica’s music spoke to us. Our vague alienation felt some answer, I guess, in the tension, urgency, and militant stirrings of the music. As a suburban youth-grouper, I found the might of Rastafarian prophecy transgressive and familiar at once. And, of course, we worshipped Lee Perry, the ranting mystic and studio wizard, whose beats sounded tough and whose productions sounded (in its parched vocals, sudden bursts of found sound and toasting, and dissolves into echo) three-dimensional. Give Me Power, one anthology said simply. The harmonies on its title track (from one of Perry’s many one-and-done groups) were delicate, the sentiment was mighty, and the strength couldn’t be shaken off.

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Songs I Like #5: Saturday Looks Good to Me, “You Work All Weekend”

The windshield a sheet of luminous bugkill and dirt, my friend Andy and I crept in sunset-blinded traffic into Austin eleven years ago last month playing the record “You Work All Weekend” comes from, All Your Summer Songs, and talking about nostalgia.

You know, nostalgia, the feeling we feel we should feel. None of the revolving indie-pop recruits of Saturday Looks Good to Me, nor the band’s songwriter, sole consistent member, and worst singer, Fred Thomas, were alive in the summer of 1965, and they don’t exactly strike poses as if they were. But their lyrics are still saturated with nostalgia– for the dying cities of their Michigan home, for falling asleep in headphones, for sitting on the porch, for being 23 and in love– and their music sounds like 1965. This means guitar pop and Motown (speaking of Michigan) soul, all played with school-dance-y joy and given a busted, dubby production that sounds like it took a lot of cassette tapes to master. So the music seems to be looking backwards.

There’s nothing arch or Rushmore-y formal in this backwards orientation: there’s too much poverty and honest heartache in this record, the kind of 23 you spent smoking cheap cigarettes and working all weekend, in love or not. But the raggedy singers and washed-out, hissy sound signify affection and throw the prettiness of the whole thing into relief. These kids remember, even if they weren’t there.

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What Role Might White Non-Muslims Play since the Attack on ‘Charlie Hebdo’?

What role can white non-Muslims play in expressing solidarity with the values of social and political equity and open debate since the horrific and murderous attack on the satirists at Charlie Hebdo? Mainstream American commentators seem to have decided that Charlie‘s anti-Muslim cartoons, which had previously earned death threats for editors and cartoonists and a 2011 firebombing of their offices, themselves should be “welcomed and defended.” Plenty of folks are even counting as solidarity the dissemination of the cartoons and of further “blasphemous satire.”

I don’t agree. Most of the conversations I observe on this attack, among my community and in the press, are happening without mention of the extent to which Muslims’ rights of speech, worship (three more links), and free travel are being abrogated in the West. Nor do many commentators mention the role that post-WWI western colonial politics and US meddling has played in the rise of the brutal– and, in what I know of the history of Islam, quite new– form of Islamist fundamentalism apparently behind these attacks. To claim that the defense of blasphemous speech is the best role for supporters of liberal values in the West is, to my mind, to ignore the deep illiberality (or, one might call it, “oppression”) to which Muslims are subjected by Western state power, domestically and in the Middle East.

To respond to the attacks primarily by praising the cartoons is to ignore the extent to which these attacks will likely be used as justification for continued, or expandedstate surveillance in the West. As well as for, possibly, anonymous drone attacks, aid to “friendly” autocratic governments who say they’ll help us fight Al Qaeda and ISIS, and continued military incursions in the Middle East.

Why attack Charlie Hebdo to begin with? Middle East commentator Juan Cole notes that this horrifying attack seems to be a strategic attempt to “sharpen the contradictions” between French Muslims (most of whom are secular and not remotely interested in violent fundamentalism) and non-Muslims. The response to the attack has been near-universal outrage and horror and, unsurprisingly, a new surge of reactionary politics across Europe. This, Cole suggests, is the attackers’ goal. In the attackers’ chilling form of game theory, such a rise in general anti-Muslim sentiment among ethnic Europeans will aid in the creation of a “common political identity [among the tiny minority of violent Islamists and other French muslims] around grievance against discrimination.” Of those Muslims who will bear the brunt of increased discrimination and persecution, some tiny fraction might be radicalized into terror themselves. Cole goes on, “The only effective response to this manipulative strategy… is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.”

But this is not generally being talked about. Rather than reflecting on Western treatment of Muslims domestically or abroad, the center of debate I’ve seen in light of these killings has been, Is Islam itself intolerant? Those who claim that aspects of Islam itself may be to blame adopt an embattled tone, as if hordes of pious multicultural commentators were declaring the “criticism of any manifestation of Islam” off-limits. I believe that this is a straw-person argument. I’m not claiming that this question– whether the illiberality or violence of some minority of Muslims means Muslims somehow aren’t “fit” for liberal values– is by definition one asked in bad faith. But it becomes disingenuous when asked apart from historical and political contexts. To name a few: the US spent decades covertly arming and training fundamentalist Muslims to fight first and kill secular socialist pan-Arab nationalists, then Soviets. The US, in exchange for favorable oil deals with Saudi Arabia, supported the Saudi royal family’s exportation of its particularly severe and repressive Wahhabism. Though they bear no obligation to do so, Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS and this attack specificallyAnti-Muslim prejudice is horribly and increasingly common in the West. And let’s not forget that, as journalist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald so bluntly puts it, “[T]he west has spent years bombing, invading and occupying Muslim countries and killing, torturing and lawlessly imprisoning innocent Muslims, and anti-Muslim speech has been a vital driver in sustaining support for those policies.”

In this context, the celebration of anti-Muslim satire no longer seems particularly liberal or heroic. The narrow terms of conversation on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons feeds just the sort of generalizations about Islam that will harden into further stereotypes on the part of non-Muslim Westerners.

This criticism (I feel silly even saying so) is not the same as seeking to silence or censor those who share the cartoons. In the same column I quoted above, Greenwald reflects on the distinction between defending and endorsing speech, then notes:

It’s the opposite of surprising to see large numbers of westerners celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons– not on free speech grounds but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned.

So, I return to my first question. What could be the next step, as a white non-Muslim who wants to promote social equity and political freedom? For my part, I believe naming and critiquing unjustifiable generalizations about Islam in my own communities, supporting the free speech and worship of Muslims in my own country, and organizing in resistance to the US role in empowering American-friendly autocracy in the Middle East, is more strategic for these values than republishing anti-Muslim cartoons, or high-fiving Charlie Hebdo for having done so particularly. Another thing I think is important, which I probably should have done at the top of this post rather than here near the end: admitting what I don’t know about the history and theology of Islam, which is plenty, and seeking out opportunities to educate myself on the faith and its history.

P.S. Thanks to my friends Gavin, Jon, and Sam, whose reflections, assertions, and questions on this topic on my Facebook wall spurred me to set my thoughts down here in this form.


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A few of these folks (*’d) have wonderful work not available on Spotify. For everybody else, I made a 25-song playlist of album cuts and single songs I loved this year. I would talk to you for an hour about each song here. Hope you enjoy.

Albums: “they love you with the lights on”

NME C86 reissue. As bottomless, joyful, inconsistent, and generative as an old K Records cassette. Not on Spotify, though I found an alternate mix of a favorite from it (Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl”) and appended it to the playlist.

kelisThe Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast. At 18, I got my wounded, hypertrophic masculinity and songs-as-music-criticism craft fix from Elvis Costello. Now, I’m done with Elvis Costello, and now, I love Greg Dulli’s alpha-wolf howls, his detailed arrangements, and his songs’ top-heavy tension. When the playing’s at its best, I hear Bruce Springsteen, Muscle Shoals, and the Jam. When I can understand Dulli, I get the sense that people with guns give no shits and that love remains bad news.

Black Belt Eagle Scout, Black Belt Eagle Scout. Katherine Paul’s solo set as Black Belt Eagle Scout was my very favorite from a great Unknown Music Festival this summer.

Ian William Craig, A Turn of Breath. Music to watch an angel rot to.

Donato Dozzy & Nuel, The Aquaplano Sessions. Not “Neel,” Dozzy’s partner in the summer-midnight-river perfection of Voices from the Lake, but “Nuel,” whose palette seems more cityish and who pulls the album apart into a sequence of sketches. These Sessions feel more like watching headlights cross your ceiling than like watching eelgrass stirring around your ankles.

Lori Goldston, Creekside: Cello Solo. Prayerful, brittle, fragmentary, imagistic, assertively scrapey.

Nicholas Krgovich, On Sunset. A 1980s LA album that feels meticulous but never thin or “just” retro. Krgovich is omnivorous and puts loving detail into every song; to create his effects, he works his voice hard, straining at the limits of his vocal instrument. A vibes album instead of a songs album.

jonlangford* Millie & Andrea, Drop the Vowels. Feeling post-industrialized, memory-addled, machine-eaten and after-midnight-y myself, I’ve wanted to love the music being made by dark techno/ambient folks like Raime, Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, Haxan Cloak, and Actress more than I have. The Caretaker’s wintery moods bore me after a few minutes (except on that ravishingly beautiful record). Tim Hecker’s synth-and-chamber explorations are too hellish for me to put on in any but specially nasty moods. But Drop the Vowels, a collab between Miles from Demdike Stare and Andy Stott, is the best movement-music I’ve ever heard come out of this scary aesthetic: it quavers, pulses, and squirms like a body, and still chatters, clangs, and moans like a decaying machine. My favorite song by these dudes, and their funnest, is last spring’s single-side 12″ promo-only track “Stage 2,” but the rest of this record, especially the dreadful “Temper Tantrum” and the title track, comes close. This is dance music.

New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers. “I like these guys’ music better than their songs,” Cait said once, when the ragged ardor of openers Okkervil River made the Pornographers seem fussy and buttoned-up by comparison. I agree: Brill Bruisers is the first record of theirs where the camaraderie and energy of each song win out for me over the craft and professionalism of the whole thing. Even the mic-swapping adds something to this: each of their singers show up everywhere. Its mix is blocky, oxygenless— I couldn’t imagine a worse record to listen to on vinyl— and just right for its joyful, loud, and indomitable songs. Put it on for these dark, rainy mornings we’ve got and you’ll feel much better.

Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty.

Sleater-Kinney, Start Together. The “importance” of this band has been so well-documented that I don’t want to say too much more. Like the Clash, they believed in rock ‘n roll, so much they wrestled it back and found a political form for its macho heroics and heedless energy. I loved the conviction and tight entanglement of their performances even though, after The Hot Rock, they adopted a political language that I connected with less than the personal language of the first records. Onstage, they never looked comfortable when they weren’t playing; when they were playing, I couldn’t imagine anything more powerful.

Songs: “I’m everywhere like gossip”

Basement Jaxx, “We Are Not Alone.”

E-40, “Yellow Gold” (feat. Droop-E and Work Dirty). I’m sure if I spend another week or two with 40’s monster Block Brochure trilogy I could spin off a dozen favorites that might compete, but this one is my shoo-in.


FKA twigs, “Two Weeks.” Someone talk about this with me: We live in a sexualized-as-hell pop culture that nonetheless has almost no room for female sexual subjectivity. From straight porn to hits radio, our mainstream cultural era is one where sex is something that happens to women and that accessorizes male power. Which makes “Two Weeks”— hungry, pent-up, powerful and teeming— a rare monster of a song: a woman’s experience of sex and appetite that should terrify anyone used to, say, “Anaconda” or “Body Party.” “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open / Suck me up, I’m healing,” she sing-whispers as the song piles up, then: “Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine.” The need runs both ways.

Game Theory, “Date with an Angel.” More collegey 80’s pop reissued.

Ariana Grande, “Problem” (feat. Iggy Azalea). Triumphant like “Ladies First” was when I was ten years old with a Walkman.

How to Dress Well, “Precious Love.”

Kelis, “Jerk Ribs.”

Jon Langford & Skull Orchestra, “Sugar on Your Tongue.” A poem.

Lydia Loveless, “Really Wanna See You.” Her group rocks out in a way that feels bar-band-y and anonymous, but her vocals throw her heart all over me. This is my favorite on a record that’s emotionally wrecked, sexually frank, and spiritually inexhaustible.

* Miguel, “nwa” (feat Kurupt). The leadoff from a free surprise year-end EP right here.

The Moles, “Accidental Saint.” The first I’ve loved from this arch and classically-pop 80’s indie group whose work was reissued this year.

Ought, “Habit.”

Rae Sremmurd, “No Flex Zone.”

lydialovelessReal Estate, “Talking Backwards.” Their mellow loneliness, their bland-ass name, the tunes rolling by indistinguishable as hedgerows, the drinks-on-the-patio calm of the vocals: everything about Real Estate brings out my anti-suburban prejudice. But when I love one of their songs, I want to live there, begrudging it less the longer I stay.

Run the Jewels, “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” (feat. Zack de la Rocha).

* Joan Shelley, “Electric Ursa.” C.D. Wright-style folk, every weird little lyric more like a touch than an image.

* Shura, “Just Once.” Another song of a woman looking: vulnerable, hungry, her you sometimes the man she’s leaving behind, sometimes the anonymized man who’ll help her get lost. If you want to buy something by this shy-looking Londoner, good luck; all I found online was her Soundcloud.

Kate Tempest, “Marshall Law.” I haven’t been as riveted by a rap story song since “Shakey Dog.” Likewise incomplete– the first chapter of a novel-as-record I haven’t heard yet– and likewise overflowing with detail, Ghostface’s “tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks” chiming against Tempest’s “free bar, exhausting decorum, he drank till she was so absorbing.” Do yourself  a favor and listen to this one, just don’t tell me how the record ends.

Tinashe, “Bet” (feat. Devonte Hynes).

Jessie Ware, “Champagne Kisses.” The way she teases the listener out of getting the chorus one last time just kills me. This song soars.

Wild Cub, “Thunder Clatter.”

Jamie XX, “Girl.” The first song of this year I loved.

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E-40: Just a Little Ahead of Shakespeare

What makes a masterpiece? As outlets like Pitchfork have taken an increased interest in rap over the last decade, the big culture machine that used to be called “indie” has increased its influence over how non-“urban” (black and mostly working-class/working-poor) audiences have experienced rap. One of the best internal reflections and critiques on the role that classics-hunting tastemakers play in black popular music was, actually, published in Pitchfork a few years back, zeroing in on the cult of the “masterpiece.” Author Andrew Nosnitsky starts with the rapturous reception of Nas’s Illmatic (“an undeniable masterpiece, but… also a pretty narrow one”). He then examines how its self-consciously serious, introspective tone set a template that other rappers out to make “masterpieces” (i.e. big, era-summarizing albums that a major label will keep in print after singles, mixtapes, and one-offs have slipped into history) emulated.

I loved this article, and it interested me how tough it was find to find (a fate shared by many of Pitchfork’s other long features) behind the site’s main business: its daily grindout of reviews. These reviews, by the way, include the anointing of further classics, on exactly the lines that Nosnitsky identifies. Pitchfork’s lately given retroactive perfect-10’s to objet-d’art reissues of GZA’s Liquid Swords and Illmatic itself, giving the reviewers the chance to write rhapsodic (“The doors crumple open and the passengers vanish up half-lit stairwells into the Bridge. There is no Illmatic without the Bridge. Illmatic is the bridge”) odes to albums built for exactly that kind of Serious Appraisal.

I’m laughably poorly versed in rap and I don’t want to sound like I know enough to hazard an alternate history of the genre, but there are some rappers I love whose virtues have nothing to do with those of Liquid Swords and Illmatic— rappers whose voluble, good-times-y energy and omnivorous love of street sounds mean that their music will never get distilled into an Authoritative Statement, a statement that they’d likely be bored by anyway. Like E-40.

e40In the last two years, this 46-year-old rap forefather has dropped eight albums of material. His vocabulary is enormous (according to one survey, 5,270 unique words used in 35,000 lyrics– just a little ahead of Shakespeare), and his gift for slang is jawdropping. Remember learning that Shakespeare straight made up the words champion and discontent? Well, without E-40, the world wouldn’t have “fo shizzle,” “po-po” for police, “it’s all good” (!), “you feel me” (!!), “pop ya collar,” or “lettuce/scrilla/cheddar” as slang for money. (40 himself is modest in interviews, saying many of these terms came from his community in “San Yay” (the Bay Area), but damn, someone had to record them first.) 40 has a cheerful, elastic, bubbles-in-syrup voice and drops at least one amazing line a track. The production on his latest four or five records, the first I’ve been able to find my way into, is sometimes basic (“function music,” he calls it, flashy and fun when it’s not minimal and street-creepy), and his young guest MCs sometimes come off as too tough-kiddish for me to enjoy. But it’s the overall, overwhelming, cumulative experience of E-40’s music, the humanity and humor and unkillable spirit and obsessive detail in song after song, that I love best.

Here are a few tracks:

“I Don’t Work for Nobody” (from his double album with Too $hort):

“All I Need” (the giddy affirmative closeout to the first of his four independently-released Revenue Retrievin’ albums):

“That Candy Paint,” with Slim Thug and Bun B (speaking of detailing, here’s the chorus: “that candy paint, 84s, belts and buckles, chrome and grille / Leather seat, stich and tuck,TV screens and wooden wheels”):

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