Saturday, February 18, 2012

Unified (Gar)Field Theory

(at, starting here, with a hat tip to Grant for sharing it)

The clear implication, at the end of the bizarre arc from October 23rd to the 28th, 1989, is that the entirety of the Garfield comic strip is, in some way, an elaborate hallucination, a paranoid delusion, or an extended meditation on a stage of grief. The comic itself is utterly explicit about this, and, strangely, doesn't even bother to shoot a snide sideways grin; there's no wink at the end, nothing but the tiny "End" insert to indicate that what has happened is at all out of the ordinary in the universe of the strip. And of course that it is there is important. But the final panel itself is strange; it takes the tone of a moral, that part of the fiction which tells you that the fiction is being exceeded, that there is a remainder here that you are supposed to recognize and use. The problem, though, is that what it actually says is totally fucking incoherent as a moral; it's, really, just a description of the preceding comic. Which means, I take it, that the arc itself is the didactic footnote to the fable of the comic.

Which, of course, means that Garfield itself is the story of a cat who does not exist, fantasizing about a life which is not real. And if Garfield is an absence, then he is an absence that dreams in a particular, dilapidated house.

Two days after the end of that arc, came this comic

Which is, of course, exactly your ordinary Garfield comic strip. It happens to be the Halloween edition, so there's a bit of a prepackaged theme to the joke. But, coming as it does just so soon after the arc, and especially the comic from the 27th, where we watch Garfield's delusions dematerialize and see the truth of his surroundings, there's something extra eery about this comic from the 30th of October, 1989. Because Garfield is no longer just a sort of apathetic, sardonic cat - he is in fact the absence of a cat, a nocat, subjected to time. Garfield becomes the structuring principle, the ability to imagine of that which is absent. And the truth of his absence, what makes it comprehensible, is, of course, the dissipation of his dream-world; and what signifies that dissipation is the dilapidated house.

The Garfield Minus Garfield webcomic actually gets Garfield, then, both totally right, and totally wrong. Garfield is, apparently, by its own admission, the comic depiction of loneliness and denial that Garfield Minus Garfield supposedly detourns it into. The way that Garfield Minus Garfield could be said to get Garfield exactly right, though, is that, as that arc showed us, Garfield himself is an absence - "But that means I haven't lived here for years." But it seems to assume that because he is an absence, he is erasable, whereas this seems to be the exact opposite of the truth. Because his absence is a structuring absence, not a simple lack of presence. Jon and Odie are, and perhaps always been, mere projections of this absence, figures formed to fill up space.

Garfield is a ghost. And a real ghost, not some bullshit about a lingering soul trying to finish up his business. Ghosts are space. They are, particularly, a becoming-consciousness of space. Ghosts are not embodied, or if they are, it is a function of narrative and not ghost-ness; ghosts are absences of space, absences within space, that structure the space. And so, apparently, is Garfield.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

David Banner Vs. Lil B: The Collapsing Into Each Other of Swag Rap and Radio Rap

(This post is going to be a bit top-heavy with the embedded youtubes (or, if you prefer, a bit bottom-heavy with text). I thought about distributing them more evenly but fuck it.)

So, for all you out there who don't follow swag rap, here's the deal. David Banner made this song, Swag, dissing the trend, taking aim specifically at Lil B.

You might recognize David Banner as the rapper who did that 2-bit (but still pretty fantastic) Ying Yang Twinz rip off, Play

Taking aim at swag rap does seem to be the new trend among rappers who no one really gives a shit about anymore. You might remember The Game teaming up with Tyler, The Creator (and sampling Lil Wayne, all "featuring Otis Redding," Watch The Throne style) for that really abominable sub-sub-Eminem track, Martians Vs. Goblins

(Lil B's response to which, is, by the way, fantastic:

and then Lil B released his I Forgive You mixtape, which doesn't actually explicitly reference The Game, but hell if that isn't the funniest way to respond to a diss)

But anyway, that's all sort of beside the point. Lil B's response to David Banner, in which he jacks the beat for Swag and turns it into I Own Swag.

Now, I'm going to be entirely honest here: before I started writing this, I was under the impression that I hadn't heard hardly any David Banner songs. But as I'm writing, I'm looking him up on youtube, and realizing something kind of strange; David Banner has, apparently, been behind every song on the radio for the last decade or so that occupies that exact 'radio space' - where you enjoy it when it comes on, and it inspires no interest beyond that. I don't think I'd ever really known that I was listening to a David Banner song before Swag, and yet I keep finding these songs that I know most of the lyrics to on his VEVO channel. Like, honestly, somehow David Banner even managed to make a song featuring Akon, Weezy, and Snoop fall completely under the radar. That's pretty remarkable.

But I'm not here to talk shit about David Banner. Because I actually kind of like the song Swag. I think the criticisms he's leveling at swag rap are fucking laughable, obviously - especially the shit about "They won't spit the truth / These niggas been scared / Call my flow the puddin' / The proofs in there / I say the shit they say I shouldn't / I ain't never cared." David Banner isn't exactly a fucking conscious emcee - which is a good thing, fuck "conscious hip hop" and all that shit - and, as far as I can tell, he's never said a controversial thing in a major song, ever.* And then, even, it seems like he's almost taking subliminal shots at himself when he says shit like, "Is anybody on the next level, with me / I'm hearin' niggas dissin' god, y'all think it's witty / I ain't laughin', we don't play in Mississippi" (emphasis mine).

It does seem a bit weird to identify who in particular he's targeting. Lil B is definitely the main one, and V-Nasty is pretty fucking explicit in the chorus; but then, Banner did a song with A$AP ROCKY recently, he of Purple Swag fame. It leaves me wondering how Banner feels about, say, Danny Brown, or Lex Luger. Or if the first half of the chorus is intended as a diss at Brick Squad.

Swag is produced by Swiff D, whose beats sound to me basically like really conservative attempts at swag rap beats, like if Clams Casino were constantly worried about how A&Rs would react to their beats. Or, to be a bit more dickish, like how you'd imagine the Fruity Loops-wielding producer for a really unremarkable Southern California rap crew would sound.

The thing about all this, though, is that I think both David Banner and Swiff D actually excel way beyond everything else of theirs I've heard on Swag. The song might be intended as a parody, but if you listen to it as a pastiche, it is, or at least I think it is, pretty interesting, and not a bad example of the form.

And I mean, Banner definitely intended it as a parody, but listen to some of his other songs; he's a pastiche artist. He's almost as bad as The Game, in terms of biting the style of whichever other rapper is on a song with him. The reason The Game's diss at Lil B didn't come out interesting is because his pastiche never reached out far enough; he just copied Tyler, the Creator (and not even all of Tyler, just the part of Tyler that is heavily influenced by Eminem).

The difference between parody and pastiche, being, here, to take from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s introduction to The Signifying Monkey, that pastiche is different from parody insofar as pastiche possesses an "absence of the negative critique." (xxvi) That is, pastiche takes previous texts just as parody does, and both rework them, and effect them; but pastiche does so not under the rubric of the critical, or particularly the negative critique, as does parody. Instead of being "about the clearing of a space of narration," pastiche "seems to be intent on underscoring the relation of [the] text ... in a joyous proclamation of antecedent and descendant texts." (xxvii)

Now, if you're following me here, and you've listened to Swag, and paid even the slightest attention, you're probably about ready to tell me to fuck off. The song's about as explicitly a diss song, which might be also called a song of negative critique, if we were kind of poncy, as a song can be, short of Banner including some "Fuck you Lil B" punch-in somewhere.

But then, the way that the song plays out is kind of strange. The way that the diss is constructed is definitely not along the lines of your ordinary rap beef; Banner says very little that is directly insulting, instead jacking Lil B's flow, and his ad libs, and some of his memes, and just incorporating them whole. There are moments, lines about how disappointed in the state of hip hop that he is, that sort of shit. And some weird implication that, like, Lil B is the reason that people didn't care about Oscar Grant's death or something. I'm not really sure.

The point being, though, that as much as David Banner wants to decry this new aesthetic turn in rap, he can't do it in the traditional, parodic way; Banner can't simply come at swag rap the way BDP could come at the Juice Crew, presenting criticisms in order to clear a space for narration. He, instead, has to position himself within the aesthetic, in the hopes that doing so will be understood to be subversive of it. His gambit, though, relies so heavily on the critique remaining implicit, that it's actually not that hard to just willfully ignore it, and listen to the song as though it was a swag rap song by a new convert.

Part of the fun in taking the song this way, for me, is how it reframes Lil B's shot back. Not only because Lil B is actually a lot more explicitly taking shots at David Banner (in that he says his name), but because of how Lil B's response is itself also, then, more pastiche than parody.

Again, even though Lil B's song takes the form of the diss, and seems to mark itself clearly with the intentions of the negative critique, it doesn't really serve the purpose of clearing out a space. The comparison I made earlier, to the Bridge Wars, is an example of diss tracks that do precisely this; these crews attack each other, throwing into question the other's authenticity, claims to veracity, and so on, precisely in order to assert their own narrative into and over the tradition. With Tupac Vs. Notorious B.I.G., the disses were, again, attempts at a geographical dominance over the tradition, only coastal instead of inter-borough. Banner might rep Mississippi, but he's made his share of hyphy-biting tracks; and Lil B might rep the Bay, but he's made no secret of his debt to southern rap like Lil Wayne. The only real sense one could make of Lil B vs David Banner, in geographical terms, is actually meta; Banner being the representative of regional hip hops, Lil B being representative of post-geographical, Internet hip hop. Which might be an interesting lead to follow up on, but I'm not going to do so here.

I Own Swag is not, for the most part, your ordinary Lil B song. Unlike, say, Nas Vs. Jay-Z, where the diss tracks are designed to show off the emcee in his element, his flow perfected, Lil B reaches out for a style that he very rarely employs and is, frankly, not very good at, technically. He sounds more like David Banner than he ever has before, for the most part, except in those moments where he breaks the flow, and reinserts the swag into the song.

When, for instance, Lil B breaks his flow to sing "You know I'm more famous than you," or when he suddenly says, "Obama BasedGod," and seems so pleased with what he's just said that he stops and repeats it. And, to a lesser extent, how the whole second half of the song doesn't have any raps over it at all. It is in those moments that the song steps up out of the parodic mode, I think, and takes the moments that would have been read as parodic before that with it.

What I'm trying to say here, in perhaps a bit too roundabout of a way, is that this beef seems to me to be less battle and more dialogue. A sort of discursive instant within the development of swag rap, the moment this new genres maw opens up to consume and internalize certain thematic and technical content that it has up to this point not had access to.


I've claimed before that "To be Based is to reach a state at which one's very essence becomes communicable." If Based is still, at this point, and I think it unquestionably is, the most advanced theorization and mystification of swag rap that so far exists, and if my description of Based is accurate, which I have seen nothing to indicate that it isn't, then what is going on in this David Banner Vs. Lil B beef is a further reorganization of rap music along the lines of the Based philosophy/meme.

One of the biggest absences that Swag Rap hasn't really contended with so far, in its ascent from a subgenre to a contender for synonymity with the genre as a whole, is the question of its reterritorializing the mainstream rap tradition. Without anything resembling a program or manifesto, aside from the explicit non-thought of Based, but an open enjoyment of appropriation and certain aesthetic and memetic threads that constitute an ostensive & mutable unity, the (potential) "becoming rap" of Swag Rap means that that which is currently just "rap" will be displaced, and made to reconstitute itself along some other lines.

The point that I made at the beginning, that David Banner is the perfect example of a rapper who occupies the 'radio space,' is precisely what I mean by this. It's not quite "pop rap," not quite "southern rap," not quite anything that we can identify when it is presented to us as it normally is. This isn't to say that Banner's music doesn't come out of these (and other) material traditions, that it doesn't have its own work done to it and that it does, and so on. It is just to say that it is a perfect example of that specific set of hegemonic principles that allow something to be just simply rap, the sort of privileged invisibility of nonspecificity that record label money allows.

If the work of pastiche is the insertion of a text into a tradition, joyously or not, as opposed to the clearing of narrative space to create a tradition (parody), and if David Banner and Lil B's "disses" at each other are really more pastiche than they are parody, then, I'm claiming, what we have here is this exemplar of "rap," in Banner, absorbing and being absorbed by Swag Rap, in the form of its head theorist/mystic, Lil B. And in I Own Swag, I think, we see in embryonic form what could very well be known soon as a simple, unqualified, "rap."

*For real, I mean, this video just came out, but if you can show me one David Banner song that has anything near the political content of Lil B's verse on this I would be very, very fucking surprised: