Da Art of Storytellin’: Miley Cyrus and cultural blindspots
Last month, Billboard published a cover story interview with Miley Cyrus. Wearing cowboy boots, denim shirts and red kerchiefs, Cyrus, as depicted in portraits, seem poised to reposition her as America’s sweetheart, the down home country girl, Hannah Montana 2.0. Throughout the interview, Cyrus espouses a kind of populist rhetoric: “I love talking to people, and I approach them in a normal, ‘Don’t treat me different, ‘cause I’m not’ way.” Skipping the disingenuous nature of a famous pop star who is the daughter of a country star and in no way was ever “normal,” the interview was a calculated effort for Cyrus to shed her twerking, tongue-out past and by extension her connections to Black music and culture, and return to her initial brand of Country Sweetheart, i.e. a kind of mea culpa to white audiences.
In the interview, Cyrus goes so far as to denounce hip-hop, a genre she so willingly sidled up to not that long ago, citing its misogyny:
But I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [“Humble”]: “Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” I love that because it’s not “Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.” I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock”—I am so not that.
Again, Cyrus’ blindspot is made abundantly clear. Her comments underscore the double standard hip-hop has long been subjected to: being charged as uniquely misogynistic when there are countless ways that rock music, country music, EDM and other genres of music are as well. (This isn’t to let hip-hop off the hook for the frequent derogatory treatment of women; in fact Lamar, hip-hop’s symbol of wokeness, has frequently written lyrics that demean Black women.) But aside from the particular issue of misogyny, the interview makes clear Cyrus’ intention to drop the Black culture she so callously used for her own benefit. This move isn’t new in pop. Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and many others have pulled the same move. In an effort to prove themselves as “real” or “edgy,” pop stars have co-opted hip-hop and found willing co-signs, only to drop the act (and their co-signs and whatever entourage they had) and emerge as, as Preston Mitchum says on The Root, “more peaceful, serene and tranquil versions of themselves.”
At the beginning of the month, my partner and I took a trip to Los Angeles on an art viewing trip. While there, I was excited that a piece I had wanted to see happened to be showing at MOCA Geffen. Arthur Jafa’s deeply moving Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016) is a seven-minute video essay that culls together found video clips set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” The clips depict a wide range of footage that illustrate the extremity of Black lives in America, from Serena Williams dancing on the court, Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, clips of Footwork dancers, Mahalia Jackson hugging Louis Armstrong, footage of a child being apprehended cruelly by police, video of a fleeing Walter Scott. The clips range from moments of pride and excellence to despair and a shameful reminder of how terribly this country has and continues to treat Black people.
Watching this piece, I thought about the role capitalism plays in the subjugation of Black people, that from the moment slaves were brought to the U.S. to fill the coffers of property owners, Black bodies have been used to create capital not for the benefit of Black folks. It brought mind white sports team owners becoming even richer off of the physical labor of Black bodies. It’s Marvel smugly accepting accolades for bringing on Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and other writers of color only to turn around and blame diversity for their slumping sales. It’s Miley’s pathetic attempt at twerking and playing the part of a rachet bitch while getting famous and rich and later condemn hip-hop for their misogyny. I thought about how much the U.S. profited off of Black culture, celebrating Black excellence, but look away and whimper, “but all lives matter.” It’s painful to think about. It’s even more painful to think of the ways we are all complicit, whether we’re aware of it or not.
The month’s notable mixtapes
24hrs – Not Open Late
As readers of this column know, I have a particular fondness for hip-hop crooners. I love a sing-songy chorus and if you want to thrown in some Auto-Tune? I’m game. So it doesn’t seem so far fetched that I quite enjoyed 24hrs’ EP Not Open Late. Released in advance of the Atlanta-based artist’s upcoming Open Late, Not Open Late establishes him as an interesting and intriguing voice. Having previously appeared with his brother, MadeinTYO, on 23hrs in Tokyo earlier this year, 24hrs has made the most of these succinct releases. Rather than releasing a string of bloated and ultimately underwhelming mixtapes, 24hrs opts for quality over quantity. Opening track “Deserve” is a gem, wistful with just the right amount of swagger. It lifts a melodic note that for a long time I couldn’t place, then realizing I recognized it from Drake’s “Girls Love Beyonce,” leaning into the groove as 24hrs sings “you deserve better.” “VSVSVS” has a catchy chorus, making good use of 24hrs slightly slurred delivery making the repetition of “v-s” hypnotic. But perhaps best of all is closing track “Like That” which launches with a great guest turn by Salma Slims. Like Rihanna and SZA on “Consideration,” 24hrs and Salma Slims Auto-Tuned voices weave into each others, almost making it difficult to parse their individual voices but making for a compelling listen, amplifying the narrative of a relationship gone bad. It’s a solid EP, showcasing 24hrs’ winning vocal stylings.
Playboi Carti – Playboy Carti
Atlanta’s Playboi Carti just always seemed to be around. He appeared on tracks by friends and cosigns, ranging from the Awful Records crew, Kodak Black, A$AP Mob and Lil Uzi Vert, to name a few, dropping a verse here and there, sometimes the highlight, sometimes not. A few loosies came out as well, but no full-length release was in sight for so long, it seemed like it would never happen. But here we are! After nearly two years of guest verses and loosies, we have a full-length debut by Playboi Carti. The 15-track self-titled tape is loose and unforced, surprising considering how long awaited this album is. Playboi Carti favors lo-fi beats and ambient or distorted synths (sometimes both in the same song). The music lends itself well to the overall tone of the album: playful and unserious. Playboi Carti isn’t necessarily concerned with the content of this lyrics as he is concerned with the sound of the words. Here, repetition is the key. Throughout Playboi Carti, he frequently repeats words phrases, and sound to almost comic effect, but like a good joke, after awhile it begins to work. His confidence and effortless style really begin to win you over—though if you’re more of an old school hip-hop purist, you might skip this one. One immediate drawback is that I found some tracks began to bleed into each other, making it a little hard to pinpoint individual highlights, despite enjoying the overall journey. Yet somehow, through sheer charisma, Playboi Carti makes it work for him, even in places where it shouldn’t work at all.
CupcaKKe – Queen Elizabitch
Let’s end this month’s round up with a tape whose title is in the running for best of the year: CupcaKKe’s Queen Elizabitch. The Chicago-based rapper is best known for extremely, explicitly raunchy songs and while Queen Elizabitch certainly delivers that, it also features songs that explore CupcaKKe’s rough upbringing, with exacting critiques and illustrations of the poverty and crime that she was witness to. Her unrelenting delivery is one of CupcaKKe’s most charming aspects, her husky voice relishing in her workplay. Tracks like “Scrap” and “Tarzan” compliment her wonderfully energetic and ferocious rhymes with music that is both minimal and hard, giving her space to spread her wing and come for who she needs to come for. In both these tracks in particular she is thrilling in her pure fierceness. Conversely songs like “33rd” and “Cpr” (both of the sexually explicit variety) pair CupcaKKe with bubbly pop instrumentals and here it doesn’t work as well. The pairing seems false and forced, and in the end feel more like novelty songs than the tracks that have CupcaKKe explore more personal narratives. While I’m not one to sex-shame anyone, these tracks feel a bit like ploys to continue to make a name off of what has gained her notoriety. CupcaKKe is a talented rapper and one can only hope that she finds the right producers that can really let her shine.