Quick thoughts on DAMN. (2017)

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I wonder how many people in the world enjoyed both the pilot episode of Saekano season 2 and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. today–definitely not very many. Anyways, without trying to analyze the album, I wanted to participate in the highly anticipated (in the hip hop world) release of DAMN.. It got leaked a few hours early, and I got a chance to listen to it twice now.

I realized that in order to review/analyze an album critically, it requires genre-specific knowledge as well as a head space in that genre. While I have decent knowledge about music production, hip hop, as well as the history of Kendrick’s releases, ever since I delved deep into the anime culture, I’ve become somewhat distant from hip hop records. I still listen to all the major releases, but the homogeneous sound of all the recent trap-influenced hip hop records have become painfully obvious in contrast to the generally upbeat–and at the very least–interesting Japanese anime/pop music. So as a DJ, I usually skip through tracks, spending about 10 minutes on an album to see any tracks stick out.

Having said that, and in credit to Kendrick, the album engaged me from start to finish: at no point in the album did I want to skip to the next track. Compared to the narrative focused gkmc and the musically experimental/ambitious TPAB, DAMN. is Kendrick’s most commercially appealing album to date. And this isn’t a bad thing, DAMN. has an incredible balance of accessibility while still showing the creative and lyrical side of Kendrick. Sonically, the album’s production is undeniably of the modern, trap 808 style of hip hop, but the groove and the instrumentation is quite eclectic. Similarly, even though the flow of rapping is of the typical trap flow, Kendrick’s lyrics are uncompromised and they’re still the narrative lyrics that we expect from Kendrick.

That’s my brief impression of the album. It seems that there are intricate themes and references, but I’m not there yet. I’m curious as to what Anthony Fantano, Big Quint, and Pitchfork will have to say about the album.


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Image is the cover art for DAMN.

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Anime fandom parallel to hip hop: my “normie” perspective

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As indicative of my recent posts pertaining to anime in general rather than individual anime series, my intention is to build a solid knowledge base in anime. Although in part motivated by my novelty to the medium, I’m also genuinely interested in learning about it; I don’t want to just enjoy consuming anime, I want to be able to understand and celebrate the thing I love. And in seeking this holistic understanding of anime, I want to be able to explain and share this passion with others.

Myself prior to getting into anime can be described as a twentysomething student living in the Canadian West Coast who would use the word ‘fam’. I never went as far as using vernacular such as ‘mad ting’, but it wouldn’t have been so out of place among my friends, many of whom are rappers. Speaking of which, I would like to call attention to how prevalent the African American Vernacular English (AAVE)–and the currently emerging Eastern-Canadian/London patois popularized by Drake and BBK–has become in the North American popular culture; hip hop has undeniably been integrated with the American society, growing alongside America since its come up.

While this is sort of obvious, at least when you think about it, what fascinates me is how anime seems to be becoming mainstream as well, in the West. Although my personal subscription of media content is biased, I think noticing anime’s popularity is a reasonable observance, which has been especially noticeable in meme culture. And in my frame of reference, Porter Robinson’s Shelter signaled a groundbreaking assimilation of anime into the popular culture, which cemented my anime fandom that only really started (a month prior) in September of 2016.

A semester (4 months) later, I would be experiencing my first time following an anime season (Winter 2017), which–by the end of this week–I will be finishing 9 of the season’s titles. This number isn’t even including many older series I’ve also been watching and… I found myself asking why, as this is objectively a lot of anime. Well, you could say that I’m obsessed (aka otaku), but probably, this is just a phase. I’m not implying that I’ll stop watching anime–it’s too culturally and nostalgically significant for me–but the time allocated to anime will naturally decrease.

There used to be a time when I would listen to at least one hip hop album a day as I felt inspired by rap and I wanted to learn everything I could about hip hop. I actively researched for ‘classic’ albums that I should listen to if I wanted to understand the culture. And I seriously dove right in: I’ve rapped, produced, DJed, and right now I’m even running a hip hop club at my university. What’s crazy is that this only started (almost exactly) 3 years ago when my friend invited me out to Rappers Without Borders, the aforementioned student club. But even though hip hop has solidified itself as a major element of my life, it doesn’t replace people, relationships, and community–and it’s going to be the same for anime.

In saturating myself with anime for the past 8 months (and I’ve actually yet to be satiated), I feel a satisfying sense of understanding for the current landscape of anime. And in feeling this way, I also realize my separation and differences in perspectives compared to the people who have watching anime for years: my appreciation of the ‘moe’ sub-culture. Before some of you dismiss me–although, really, who cares–what I understand of moe is that it’s very difficult to define it due to how diversely it is being understood and used today. And so, in clarification, when I say moe culture, while still acknowledging moe blob, loli, and CGDCT, I personally enjoy its focus on relational aspects of story telling (although this is slice of life), and the clean, cute, and colourful aesthetics they usually entail. In music genres, moe is the bigroom of EDM (generic), trap of hip hop (over-saturated), pop music in general (good production)–and all of these things are easy to consume.

Now, even if I recognize this, someone like me who actively enjoys moe may be frustrating to many. Although I can try to explain my pickiness within the moe genres, I can certainly sympathize with this frustration: hip hop has ‘youngins’ who only listens to Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, or 21 Savage. No shade against them, it’s just that they represent the currently over-saturated and derivative (mumble rap) trap sub-culture of hip hop. But let me offer this perspective, in prioritizing togetherness, understanding, and celebration of the positives: not that we can even stop art from evolving, new fans of the medium are nonetheless new fans. There’s no reason to discredit them or worry about the medium’s demise, because true fans will always seek out for more, as I am doing.

But I’ll admit: I have not seen all the ‘classics’, and at this point in time, it’s not my priority to watch all of them anytime soon (my MAL has over 100 PTW titles). I’m talking abut Ghost in the Shell (I couldn’t finish it), Your Lie in April, Clannad, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Code Geass, Gurren Lagann, and the list goes so on. While it could be argued that the classics must be watched in order to truly understand the medium, I think having this reference (at this point in time) is relevant in reflection of how newcomers come into the anime fandom.

My perspective, then, is when I came to the fandom that was post-Eva, post-Haruhi, post-NHK, post-K-On!, and post-Shirobako. I came in and enjoyed the likes of New Game! and Gabriel Dropout while also enjoying NGE and NHK. I didn’t hate One Room, I didn’t think the Monogatari series were confusing, I agree with the popular opinion that FMA:B is great, I’m slowly watching Cowboy Bebop… and K-On! is my favourite. Compared to modern anime, I don’t particularly like the character designs of early 2000s like in Clannad. These are just some of the ways to describe my viewing experiences.

In hip hop, there is a fairly vague divide in what we call old school and new school, in which old school is now synonymous with boom-bap (Just Blaze) and G-Funk (Dre). The original 80s sound of hip hop is probably called ‘super old school’ or ’80s hip hop. New school is whatever is new, which is trap right now so I guess the stuff in the middle like early Drake and MBDTF Kanye are… throwbacks? I guess it really depends on who you ask. And if Kanye’s 808 is said to have influenced all following 808 focused productions, K-On! is analogous in having created the CGDCT boom that is still popular today. Or was that Lucky Star (and Man on the Moon: The End of Day)?

In closing, I find it incredibly interesting that hip hop and anime actually amalgamates in some crossroads. Lupe and Logic watches anime (regularly?) and Kanye, at the very least, appreciates anime. And in both cultures, music is a huge part of the medium, which is a big reason for me being involved in the first place–I’ve seen entire anime series just because I liked the OP. I also can’t help but love the intonation of ‘seiyu’ (voice actors) and their dramatic, syllabic delivery of lines reminiscent of rapping.

There’s also vapourwave, which stands at an interesting junction between the two, a genre which is the soundtrack to the meme culture, that has the sampling aspect of hip hop and in which many of these samples are from ’80s Japanese funk records. How did this come to be? I don’t know, but it feels somehow catered to me.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found my frame of references as interesting as I did thinking about it. To read up on other personal perspectives, check out Diary of an Anime Lived.


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Image is from K-On!

Re-envisioning RWB as a club (2017)

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Here are a few thoughts that I have after leading as the president of RWB for a year. As my first time being in an exec position, I’ve certainly learned a lot and discovered many of my shortcomings. Here are some thoughts that I would like to pass onto myself and any future exec members:

Perhaps most importantly, I realized the importance of having a clear vision for the club. What is the purpose/motivation behind existing? Is there another organization or group that does the same thing? How are we different from what’s already available? Asking these questions are important because, unless we identify and understand this, we likely won’t have the motivation to continue when the times get rough. And it’s also important to realize that we can’t do everything. We need to do what’s possible with the resources that we have right now (funding/budget, availability, helpers, space, etc). Look at it as leaving room to grow.

And if we’re building a community, it may be necessary to consider the legacy of the club. How will the club continue to exist/run after the current execs are gone? We have to be intentional with inspiring or drawing the attention of future leaders.

And this is one of our current problems. I know that we want to build a community, but I realized recently that we’ve been doing it wrong: we’ve been trying to form a community around hip hop when we should’ve been trying to form a community through hip hop. What I mean by this is that we are not just a group of people who like hip hop. Hip hop has helped us in different ways, and we want to celebrate that.

Hip hop, then, is the coming together of diversity. We as students come from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We meet, express ourselves through the art of hip hop, and we learn from each other. That’s hip hop — a way for people from different backgrounds to easily come together.

Another thing I’ve realized was that we weren’t including people effectively. We certainly welcomed people and wished for their participation in our events, freestyling and performing may not be the easiest thing to introduce yourself into. Our focus on showing that we’re out there certainly generated interest, but this didn’t bring us very many returning members. If our freestyles were bad, people didn’t want anything to do with us. And if our performances were amazing, people shied away. We become a performance and therefore something for people to consume, not something to be a part of.

My friend Kevin told me this: every person and their stories are beautiful and incredible. There is something to be learned from each of them. So the question is, how are we including students who can’t/don’t want to freestyle or care about hip hop? Previously, our focus has been for us to be a platform for artists to connect and craft their skills. While there is certainly a need for such organization, in my opinion, this isn’t nearly as important as connecting people through hip hop. And the fact is, we simply don’t have enough resources to achieve this properly right now. I want to avoid being stretched too thin and instead build slowly but consistency.

Moving forward, we have to understand that we’re going to have to hand the torch off to someone else one day. And it is necessary to take our hands off completely because, otherwise, our presence and authority will be a hindrance to the club’s future growth. Instilling ownership is crucial to their success. I have to trust in other people’s vision and that a good seed has been planted.

As parting words, I want RWB to be a community that embraces hip hop to build ourselves. I want a club that I’m passionate about and is rewarding in itself to run. I want to have events that are inclusive and entertaining, by being something that will be fun even if it’s just the few of us. If we start off with like this, we can’t do no wrong. As for the bigger picture, I want a community and a culture of being inclusive by loving people for who they are. I want the community to be built on this ownership of changing our culture.


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Image is from The Get Down

Rappers Without Borders

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Plug: Rappers Without Borders is a community at UBC that loves hip hop and creates space where hip hop is celebrated. To root ourselves in cause, we raise donations for MSF (Doctors without Borders). As a club, we often just hang out, talk, and let freestyles happen (Freestyle Fridays). We also have cypher recording sessions and a monthly hip hop night at The Pit.

What’s interesting about me being the president of RWB is that I used to dislike hip hop back in high school. It’s more of the fact that I wasn’t exposed to it, but I generally accepted English teacher’s making fun of rap music as c-rap music. But in the second year of my university, my friend from my jazz combo invited me out to Freestyle Friday.

And it was there that I fell in love with hip hop.

There is something incredible about witnessing a freestyle. You may have seen some impressive feats from YouTube, but when you see it happen right in front of your eyes, as the rhymes reference the environment around you, and it react to your reactions, it becomes this powerful energy. Even just by being an audience, this energy is reverberated and connects everyone in the earshot.

It is sometimes easier to drive self-expressions to a rhythm. When the music is playing, you simply let go and share. And when we listen to each other’s words, there is real intimacy through this understanding.

The hip hop community is one of the first places where I felt a lack of diversion. It’s hard to describe but something was different. Differences weren’t concealed or highlighted, but simply understood.

Hip hop, as I understand it, is a culture that embraces diversity. Historically, it came out of a place of systematic oppression and racial prejudice against the black people. Hip hop was a counter-cultural, non-violent alternative to the youth who felt angry and hopeless. So since its beginnings, it has been a platform for the minority and the oppressed to voice themselves. It is the spirit of building something for yourself or for your community. This is why I embrace the hip hop community.


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Image is from Rappers Without Borders

Dear wordsmith

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When words leave your lips in a rhythmic dance that paints vivid imageries onto the mind, the uninspired become inspired.

You proclaim to the human kind the kindness found in the syllables of language.

When I hear you string together words, I am myself lost for words.

You create conversations, you open yourself up to vulnerabilities, and you speak with boldness, all the while having fun.

You play with words, with profound meaning and context and subtext and references, with each wordplay revealing more of yourself and connecting me closer to you.

These words become verses and the verses become chapters. Surely, the next chapters of your life will capture the hearts of many. Don’t lose this light. Demand rights and positivity.

You made me realize that the best artists are not always the ones on the radio or even the ones performing on stages at all.

Please continue to speak truth and let your lungs be filled the breath of life. The reverberation of your passion will be echoed throughout my life.

Thank you.

simok


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Image is of Huey Freeman from The Boondocks by SykotixUK

Origin story: TV and I (A-side)

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[Soundtrack: one, two, three]

After experiencing a sense of community and excitement from exploring the anime blogging community (like Digibro‘s excellent Diary of an Anime Lived project), I thought it would be appropriate for me to write about my starting place. In an attempt to keep the narrative coherent, the focus of this post will be on how I became the anime fan I am today. Note the italics.

Let’s see… I’m 22, and currently, I’m in the slice-of-life anime phase.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve watched more anime this winter term than at any other point in my life. This was a fairly big surprise for me along the way because I never thought that I would become this into anime. Let me explain — I like to think that I play a fairly big part in the hip hop community at my university. I like to make beats, DJ, and just last winter was the height of my dark-Atlanta-trap music phase. I found myself asking, “What’s happening?” constantly throughout the term. Anime completely deviates from hip hop culture, down to the rhythm and feel (and yes, I’ve seen Samurai Champloo).

Having said all of this, however, I’m by no means unfamiliar with anime. I started watching anime in ’90s Korea before my family and I immigrated to Canada (I say this like I had a choice but really it’s just what you do as a kid in that time and place). I was part of the generation that grew up with Pokemon and witnessed and experienced its international phenomenon along with the rapid progress of globalization facilitated by the internet. I might even go as far as to say that anime has played a significant role in shaping my perspectives, but for the most part I would have agreed with the idea that anime is for kids.

The other thing, which I’m still in the process of understanding and navigating the landscape, is the fact that anime by definition is a Japanese medium. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. But at the same time, I grew up with my grandma lamenting about the hardships and injustice she experienced during the war by Japanese people almost on a day to day basis. I’ve also heard from my Korean friends years ago that it’s frowned upon for a Korean person to like Japanese culture. When I asked my parents about it recently, they told me that it’s completely fine, especially in my generation, but it’s nevertheless a sensitive and complicated topic. I digress, but I wish to one day be able to confidently open conversations about it. At this time, I have a much better understanding of the black struggles in America.

Going back to the narrative, let me talk about my earlier experiences in Canada. Anime, in all of its context, was quite different from the predominantly white and first nations population that I went to high school with. And in the very first days in Canada, I remember feeling weirded out when I saw Pokemon on TV. It was just so different — everyone’s voices and even the theme song. To me, the English Pokemon felt like a completely different show. I remember feeling quite upset about it for a while, and it embodied the feeling of being different and perhaps even alienated in this new country.

In the very early years of living in Canada, I remember watching Naruto (with subtitles, of course) with my siblings. So I guess it was around 2004. I remember that some scenes were quite brutal and emotional, and it would make me physically shiver throughout some of the episodes. The fact that a show could make me experience something like that seemed simply amazing. Moreover, I liked the ideals that Naruto had, which I mean, to put it simply, was about trying your best and overcoming your odds — the classic shonen genre mindset. At some point, however (I think it was around episode 190), I stopped watching it. It was either because the site bad stopped working or our parents raised the pressure to not spend time doing things other than studying English.

And I guess, for better or for worse, I started to watch the TV shows airing in Canada. Let’s see… it was mostly stuff from YTV and even some stuff from Treehouse (it’s a kids channel). This is just what was accessible via the basic cable plan. At the time, YTV had some seriously weird-vibe TV shows (ex. Jacob Two-Two & Yvon of the Yukon). As for the shows on Treehouse… well I mean they were easy enough for me to understand and it was rather pleasant to watch (I just realized that kid shows are in many ways, “slice-of-life”).

Well, that was elementary school and by the time I went into high school, I’ve started to hear people tell me, “Wow your English is really good!”. By that, they meant that I didn’t have an accent. So I guess watching only English media paid off. Throughout the first half of high school, I didn’t watch any anime. Instead, I watched shows like Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Friends, That ’70s Show, and Community. I guess I’ve always had an affinity to sitcoms (there’s also a Korean sitcom called High Kick! that I’ve seen a few episodes of). Out of that list, Community is easily my favourite. I absolutely loved all the referencing, meta, and (seemingly) quirky and intelligent humour. I mean, Abed is the product of the TV generation.

Around grade 10 or so, I remember my younger brother occasionally bringing home the shonen jump magazines from the local library. It was in one of those pages that I discovered Rosario + Vampire… which led to a harem/ecchi anime phase (this is when I watched Zero no Tsukaima & To LOVE-Ru). I mean something was so intriguing about watching a male protagonist trying his best to be a nice guy and… having inadvertent sexually gratifying things happen to him all the time. I mean, it was like porn (mind you, sex never happens) but for your mind and ego. While this certainly has its own problems pertaining to expectations and perception (much like actual porn), but at the time it’s just what I was into. I’ll talk more about the similarities/differences and my current thoughts on fanservice later.

Funnily enough, I think it was during this time of me checking out anime again that I encountered Neon Genesis Evangelion. I mean it consistently ranked high on lists and it seemed to be one of those “you have to watch this in order to understand the culture” kind of a thing. So I watched it, and it was the first time where a show really fucked me up. I would summarize the person I was in my adolescent as: a kid harbouring a lot of angst unbeknownst to him while trying his best to obey his parents’ authority while feeling frustrated. Needless to say, I connected with Shinji almost instantly, and I could not believe that there was someone who understood my feelings so well that they could create a character like Shinji. I remember at the time, the scene (from episode 2) where Shiniji sort of goes berserk to defeat the enemy felt like the most intense experience of my life. I was almost too scared to continue watching the show.

Well I managed to finish the show in three days. I didn’t quite get it, but I thought for sure I experienced something crazy. In the end, though, I felt that this was yet another thing that I couldn’t share with anyone else from my high school. The majority of the disconnect stemmed from the natural differences in our cultural upbringing. For me, it just felt so weird trying to connect with kids who seemed to have this whatever attitude towards everything while I tried my best not to get punished from my parents (I know, sounds real healthy). How I felt at home was just so different from my surroundings.

To describe my surroundings, I would say that perhaps because of the geographical restrictions of being on an island, it seems that the decades stay a little while longer. And with a large percentage of the population being seniors, it seemed like the ’70s and the ’80s kind of stuck. That’s just what it felt like. One of my best friends introduced me to the ’80s one hit wonders while another got me into metal (Metallica, Dream Theatre, etc). In a very real sense, my high school experience felt very similar to That ’70s Show, and I was Fez.

When I had graduated from highschool, I moved to Vancouver for my university. It was during this time — upon a fairly messy breakup — that I fell into a deep depression. And it was not until this year (4 years after the break up) that I’ve been able to fully understand and accept what had happened. I’ll just say that I was both too immature and young to know how to deal with my own problems, let alone anybody else’s. This doesn’t excuse me from any of my actions, of course, but that’s what happened. I started smoking weed too, and I would genuinely feel paranoid that everyone hated me. For much of the first year, I would be trapped in that mindset and I spent a lot of time alone. Anyone’s who has spent a lot of time alone can tell that it makes you go crazy.

Well, time went by — as it does — and I got better. I mean I was still struggling and I would be struggling for years to come, but I stopped living in isolation. In the summer after first year, I watched NGE for the second time, and I understood it a whole lot better. A big realization that I got out of it was the fact that coexisting with other people will inescapably bring you pain, but there’s a lot of joy in it too. This was catharsis and it played a huge role in affirming my interested in psychology. If you also resonate with NGE, Digibro wrote a very personal post called Shinji and I – Diary of an Anime Lived: Neon Genesis Evangelion and I highly recommend reading it.

See you all on the B-side!


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Image is a screenshot from Community S4E12

Soundtrack one is [Corridors of Time by Yasunori Mitsuda] performed by Super Guitar Bros

Soundtrack two is Disillusion -2006- (instrumental) by Tainaka Sachi

Soundtrack three is Snow Storm (instrumental) originally sung by Kugimiya Rie