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We’re watching two separate journeys on Atlanta. Earn’s story is about how he might overcome being broke as hell to provide a better life for himself and his family. Of course, he can only accomplish this feat by latching onto his cousin Alfred’s burgeoning rap career. As for Alfred, we’re witnessing the story of an artist who must navigate fame and all that comes with it.

“The Streisand Effect” continues to develop each of these threads, though yet again, Alfred is more the driving force than Earn. The episode begins with both of them standing in a parking lot — no gun violence this time — as they talk about a potential song. (“Pussy relevant, so intelligent” is a sample line, if you’re curious.) Seconds later, a racially ambiguous character named Zan walks up to Alfred and says, “My nigga.” Alfred gives pause, like most black people would, and asks, “Are you even black?”

Zan says yes, though for much of the episode, others wonder about his exact background. Is he Dominican? (Which you know, is a nationality, not a race, but I get what they’re angling at.) Or maybe he’s half-Chinese? Is he Indian? If so, as one of Alfred’s friends notes, “I don’t like Indian dudes who say ‘nigga.'”

Neither do I. If you’re not a part of the diaspora and none of your kinfolk can be traced to those slave ships, keep that word out of your month. But yeah, I don’t know what Zan exactly is, but I do know that he’s an annoying jackass. Kudos to actor Freddie Kuguru, who plays the part extremely well. In any event, Zan introduces himself to Alfred and Earn, asks them to pose for Instagram, Snapchat, and every other social-media app known to man, and then makes his exit. The next morning, though, Zan starts talking shit online about Paper Boi — which drives Alfred crazy.

Earn tells him not to worry about it, but as many of us know, that’s easier said than done. It is incredibly difficult to avoid the temptation to curse out annoying strangers online. Sure, it is “just the internet,” but trolls are trolls because they know exactly which buttons to push.

Zan definitely knows how to drive Alfred crazy. In one scene, he posts a picture of Alfred holding a trash bag next to the dumpster while his energetic voice narrates, “Oh, look, I found all my mixtape! Let me put them back where they belong!” You get the message: Alfred’s mixtapes are trash.

Maybe I’m giving Zan’s method of trolling too much credit. You don’t have to spend much time on the internet to find crueler examples of trolling, but it’s effective enough in the episode’s story line. To wit, Alfred cannot stop watching Zan’s antics. He checks his YouTube page while pumping gas. He shows his Vine clips to friends at the pool hall. He obsesses over every video Zan uploads to clown him.

More commentary from Zan: “The first L this dude took is naming himself Paper Boi,” and “This is the problem with rap right now: Every nigga can’t sell drugs.”

Alfred feels a way ’cause, you know, he actually does sell drugs, but as his friend at the pool hall reminds him, he needn’t be concerned. It’s not like you want everyone knowing you hustle, right? I guess it’s just the principle. Then again, if you’re a rapper and you sell drugs, but you can’t take someone playing you online, you’re about to have a hard-ass road ahead.

Moments later, an older bartender who looks like he listens to nothing but Zapp, Angela Winbush, and Earth, Wind & Fire realizes he knows Zan and where he works. So, Alfred rolls up to his job at the pizza spot. Zan is not shaken in the least. He greets Alfred with a grin and extends his hand.

Alfred tells him that they need to talk. Zan is totally casual about it: “Yeah, sure, we can talk. I just gotta deliver this [pizza], though. Ride with me, we’ll talk.” There’s a little black boy sitting in the back of the car, by the way, but we’ll get to that CPS case in a second. After they hit the road, Alfred wastes little time getting to business.

Read the rest at Vulture.

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Very few people are more frustrating than fast-food employees who take their jobs too seriously. “Go for Broke” begins with this truth as Earn is shut down for trying to buy a kid’s meal. Why? Because he is not under the age of 14. Earn argues the politics of this silly rule, but the woman at the register doesn’t give the slightest damn: “I just made day manager and I didn’t get that title by handing out discounted meals,” she explains.

Fine, she has a job to do, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to let an adult — notably one hard up for cash — purchase a meal he can afford. Maybe if Earn thought on his feet and lied about having an imaginary cousin waiting for him outside, he would’ve been able to snag that kid’s meal. You know, ’cause I assume this chain didn’t have a 99-cent menu with a chicken sandwich made up of ankle meat.

Nevertheless, it’s a fitting opener to “Go for Broke.” Atlanta uses its third episode to chronicle how Earn and Alfred each make a living (or in Earn’s case, not much of one) and the respective costs of their decisions. For Alfred, it’s drug dealing, which his cousin only now discovers. After Earn says he’ll be getting paid that day, Alfred responds, “You only get paid on commission, though, right? Might as well sell drugs.” Earn then asks Alfred how he makes money. “Drug dealing.”

I assumed this was already known, owing to obvious optics, like his clothes, his food, and his friend Darius being taken care of all without any mention of gainful employment. It reminds me of my uncle once asking me, “When you gon’ work in a building?” There’s no laptop around, so Al ain’t freelance writing. That said, I like that Earn never made assumptions about his cousin. After Alfred tells him about his line of work, and how he’s planning a bit of a work meeting later that day, Earn offers the following advice: “Just try not to die.”

It turned out to be good counsel. When Alfred and Darius hit a parking lot for the meeting, they wind up dealing with a sudden change in venue — somewhere in the middle of what looks like the forest, near an RV filled with a bunch of dope boys. Mere moments after making their way to the meetup, Alfred and Darius witness some poor, unfortunate soul being let out of the RV. He’s in his draws. The man in charge presents him the chance to run (with his clothes back on), so off he goes into the woods, racing to get out of there before he’s fatally shot.

He doesn’t make it. R.I.P., he’ll never make the club.

The lead dealer then turns his sights to Alfred: Why does he suddenly want a huge order? He’s aware that Al was just arrested, but he’s suspicious now that he’s out and requesting more than he typically wants. Thankfully, Earn calls while all of this is happening and while on speaker, asks his cousin to put $20 into his account to pay for a pricey date with Van that he cannot afford. Alfred makes it out of the meeting alive, but the entire ordeal is yet another confirmation that despite initial perceptions about a rapper named Paper Boi, Alfred doesn’t seem as confident in his role as some would expect him to. That’s a testament to Brian Tyree Henry’s performance. The Book of Mormon alum is so adept at conveying cool and wit, but in those moments when Paper Boi feels dragged by the life he’s leading, he’s just as sharp at expressing weariness and disbelief.

Alfred’s trip into the forest was funny to watch, but I’ll be honest: I was drawn more to Earn and how complicated it is to pursue a dream when the responsibilities of adulthood begin steering you in another direction. We still don’t know why Earn and Princeton didn’t work out, but we’re witnessing how a bit of aimlessness consumes him. And in some cases, a certain lack of awareness about anything beyond his own immediate life.

Take Van entering the apartment with his daughter. He just sits there, on his MacBook Pro, not offering to help. He could’ve gotten the baby out of her arms, but he just sits there. She points this out, then proceeds to let him know that when she shares things about herself, he dismisses her. Earn in turn admits that he can be inconsiderate, apologizes for treating Van that way, and offers to take her to dinner to make up for it.

Read the rest at Vulture.

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Earn is the kind of person who stresses everyone the hell out. Yet for all his faults, you still hope this fool figures himself out. That clearly won’t happen in “Streets on Lock,” given how the episode begins: Earn and his rapping cousin are in jail, mere hours after he got Paper Boi’s single on the radio.

While they’re sitting there, Earn turns to Alfred and says, “I’ve never been arrested before.” And he wasn’t even arrested for fighting the struggle, so it’s a big ol’ L all around. I’m not sure what I’d do if I got locked up in similar fashion. I’d probably sing Ja Rule’s “I Cry” — in my head, for safety reasons, obviously.

In another #poordat situation for Earn, Alfred is let out of jail faster than his kinfolk because someone handled his paperwork for him. When Alfred tries to see about bailing Earn out and inquires about why exactly he’s been arrested, a very matter-of-fact black women quips, “What’s the charge? Nigga, this ain’t a movie. You better wait until he’s in the system.”

His ass sure waits, too.

I love Atlanta‘s unabashed use of nigga. Maybe Paul Mooney no longer believes saying it makes his teeth white, but many of us haven’t stopped using it colloquially. Some will understand it’s the culture, others will feign confusion and whine about double standards. I’ll just be over here saying na-na-na-na-na-na, white people still can’t say it.

You hear it again when Alfred makes his way out of jail, after a thirsty cop approaches him — well, Paper Boi — and asks for a picture. At one point, he asks, “You listen to Gucci Mane? Man, I locked that nigga up.” How many Atlanta-area police officers can make similar boasts? To get a good estimate, multiply the number of lies Donald Trump has told this month by half the number of headlines featuring “Hillary Clinton” and “email.” The answer is too many damn people.

That lust for fame follows Alfred for the rest of his day. Fresh out of jail, he and his hilarious friend Darius go to grab food, and he is approached by a very enthusiastic waiter who informs him that he is “the nigga.” Why? Well, “I heard about that shoot-out you had on Twitter. You’re one of the last real rappers, man.” The waiter then goes to speak about being an old-school cat who listens to Mobb Deep and dead rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac. Not surprisingly, he also slams “singing-ass rappers” like Fetty Wap before noting it’s “good to see a rapper blow a nigga.”

The end result is that Alfred and Darius don’t just get lemon-pepper wings, but WET lemon-pepper wings with the sauce. Now, lemon-pepper wings are already a cherished meal in certain sects of the community, but with the sauce, too? Oh, you poppin’.

Before leaving, the waiter warns Alfred, “Don’t let me down. If you let me down, I don’t know what I’d do.” You’ll grow up and get over it is what you’ll do. What a picturesque visual encapsulation of the old heads: They cling to bygone days of hip-hop while bitching about how much they hate Drake, Kanye West, and artists like Childish Gambino all day long.

Of course, the scene is not exactly subtle commentary. I’m typically not a fan of shows being so overt, though in this instance, it’s not a weakness. Thank God this one doesn’t practice Tyler Perry–style moralism, in which you are beaten over the head about the way you ought to be thinking. And I suppose I’m a bit biased because I absolutely agree with the point being made. Atlanta wants to be sure that everyone knows how violence and a specific strain of masculinity can benefit rappers like Paper Boi when they’re bursting onto the scene. The same goes for another scene where Alfred sees a little boy with a toy gun, emulating the parking-lot shooting so he can be just like him.

Read the rest at Vulture.

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When I first heard Donald Glover was making a show called Atlanta, my initial response lingered on, “Uh, I don’t know about all that.” I know Glover was raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, but as much as I’ve respected his career path, I’ve never been quite sure what to make of him. I don’t believe in measuring anyone’s blackness; it’s stupid, sophomoric, and, forever and always, incredibly boring.

Still, I’ve taken issue with previous comments he’s made about black culture, most notably how he’s referred to it as a “fight.” It’s fine to talk about hypermasculinity and homophobia within our community, but it’s just as important to properly contextualize those issues — that is, considering their roots and the outside forces at play in keeping them alive. Also, whenever I hear black people opine about liking both rap acts and emo bands, my eyes roll into the back of my head. You’re not the only one, beloveds, and plenty of us can relate to mixed tastes. Being well-spoken, being educated, and not being thuggish or “hard” does not automatically make you disconnected from the black community at large. But for whatever disconnect that’s been mentioned in the past, Glover didn’t help his case with comedy sketches like “bro rape” or the fetishizing of Asian women under his rap moniker Childish Gambino.

That is to say, past skepticism of Glover is not unwarranted. I have a few friends from Atlanta that feel a way about Glover being the person afforded the chance to make a show about their city. Such is their right, but to Glover’s credit, he certainly seized the opportunity. Atlanta is fantastic work, no matter the weariness I felt prior to viewing. Although this may be the first time I’ve seen Glover in a majorly black story, I’m happy to call a very good thing exactly what it is.

It’s impossible for me to not enjoy a show that includes the shouting of “Worldstar!” in its first 30 seconds. I became even more excited 90 seconds later, after hearing the voice of rapper OJ Da Juiceman. It’s those sort of specific references — black, and in other cases, southern and black — that make Atlanta‘s first episode function so well.

“The Big Bang” opens with a confrontation in a convenience-store parking lot — a setting for many a black man’s incarceration tale — where Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) tries to calm down Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), his drug-dealer-slash-aspiring-rapper cousin, as he confronts a man who tore off his rearview mirror. But once we hear the sound of a gunshot, we’re quickly taken back to the previous morning, when Earn wakes up next to Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his daughter, Lottie.

Theirs is a peculiar relationship. Earn and Van are intimate enough that he can joke about her curry-flavored morning breath, but she soon tells him to kick in rent money and watch their daughter that night because she has a date. When Earn hears this, he looks at his adorable daughter and says, “No, this is a great environment for you.” Fair assessment, though, once you learn more about Earn, you can see why Van is exploring her options.

As “The Big Bang” reveals, Earn is a young dad and Princeton dropout presently making $5.15 an hour at an airport kiosk, where he tries to sign up people for credit cards they likely do not need. When he cuts out of work to stop by his parents’ house, he’s not allowed inside because (1) they’re tired of giving him money, and (2) he can’t even be bothered to flush the toilet. And according to his mom, who examined what should have been flushed, he needs to start consuming actual food as opposed to candy. That’s disgusting, but also, very motherly.

Back at the airport, Earn is alerted to Paper Boi by his co-worker Swiff — who some may recognize as that guy from VH1’s Single Ladies who was convicted of molestation charges — and after realizing that the rapper is his cousin, Earn quickly tries to latch onto his rising success by offering to become his manager. Paper Boi ultimately listens to Earn’s proposal, though he doesn’t waste time reminding him, “Nigga, I ain’t seen or heard from you since my mom’s funeral, and the first thing I hear out your mouth is ‘Let’s get rich.'” By the way, upon reading select reviews of Atlanta elsewhere, here’s a quick PSA: White people, he’s not calling Earn “nigger.” There is a subtle yet substantial difference. You’re welcome.

Read the rest at Vulture.

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As iconic as she’s become, Britney Spears still carries with her an air of unfulfilled potential. Not as far as professional achievement goes; the Louisiana native has been a money-making industry unto herself for much of her life. In terms of her music, though, it’s a different story. She was on the verge of something great with 2003’s In the Zone, which was better received by fans than by critics, and 2007’s Blackout was a fantastic album that was overshadowed by personal troubles.

Those personal troubles were enough to infamously cause the Associated Press to prepare an obituary for Spears. Fortunately, she survived, but since then we’ve been grading her on a curve. The album born from that difficult period—2008’s Circus—had its moments (“If You Seek Amy” is good), but was ultimately just OK. The same goes for 2011’s Femme Fatale. Then there was Britney Jean, in 2013, an album most of us pretend never happened out of politeness.

And while the music wavered in quality from 2008 to 2013, Spears consistently seemed dejected as both a performer and personality. Even her highly profitable Las Vegas show relies on her old hits and nostalgia. Is there any reason to  expect much from Britney Spears, recording artist, in 2016?

Her latest release, Glory, answers that with a soft yes.

I was more than ready to give my firm no after hearing the album’s first single, “Make Me,” a track that, like Spears circa Circus, is just there, glassy eyed and floating. Likewise, “Private Show,” which works great as a jingle to sell her perfume, but isn’t good for much else. The promo single “Clumsy” does feature a very present Spears on vocals, but it’s not especially great as a song.

The shift from disappointment to surprisingly pleased begins with “Do You Wanna Come Over?” It’s a fun, cheeky, flirtatious pop song about sex. Some have employed Spears’ use of sexuality in her music to paint her as “one dimensional.” This is not a new critique of Spears. Many have wondered why her music is impersonal. Spears did herself no favors when she billed her last album as her “most personal album to date” despite it not saying much of anything about the realities of her life.

I wish Spears hadn’t bothered; she doesn’t owe us anything, especially not after her darker period in the late 2000s, which an invasive media likely only worsened, if not directly fueled.

As an artist, Spears is what she is. In terms of albums, I could go for more In the Zone and Blackout, but in terms of subject matter, I’m not expecting The Velvet Rope from her. Spears sells us dance music, and yes, lots of sex.

To that end, “Do You Wanna Come Over?” serves its purpose quite well. As does “Slumber Party,” another danceable song about sex where she coos—less robotically, mind you—“we ain’t gonna sleep tonight.” Or “Coupure Électrique,” a song Spears sings entirely in French.

For many of these songs, she sings like she’s truly into it. You get that sense on “Liar,” “What You Need,” and “Man on the Moon.” Her voice sounds processed, as it normally does, but much less than usual. Which is to say, she doesn’t sound like a robot with a sex addiction on Glory.

Read the rest at Complex.

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For some years now, MTV has largely relied on nostalgia and the promise of returning to what used to make its Video Music Awards show vital viewing to lure people into watching. You watch—majorly because the performers list is so stacked that you can’t help giving in to temptation—and then you’re let down. This year is no different, but thankfully, there was Beyoncé.

Beyoncé is that rare contemporary act who not only can stand confidently alongside her predecessors who helped create the VMA mystique but also performs at a level that has her soaring above many of them. I have laughed at some of the tweets that have imagined how MTV and Beyoncé decided her performance—set list, time allotted, etc.—but I imagine that MTV didn’t flinch at Beyoncé’s request for 16 minutes all her own. They probably would have given her an entire hour if she wanted. They know who sets the standard; they know who will captivate; they know who will deliver.

Beyoncé, who won eight awards last night, including Video of the Year, performed five tracks from her critical and commercial juggernaut Lemonade. In the first few minutes, as we heard percussion shots, we saw women fall to the stage, their bodies magnified in red. It’s unclear whether the allusions to violence pertained to the violence in this country, the themes of her album or some combination of the two, but that imagery, coupled with the one that closed her performance—her dancers forming the female symbol—signified that Beyoncé continues to use her art and her celebrity to say something. And before she took the stage, Beyoncé had “the Mothers of the Movement” on the red carpet with her, continuing to amplify their message and reminding this country of what it steals from black people.

The performance itself, though, was yet another example of her commitment to precision. So much thought went into that performance—down to the camera angles, specifically those that followed her as she stormed through “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She stared into that camera knowing she was commanding our attention. Her choreography, tweaked for songs like Lemonade’s first single, “Formation,” was delivered in delightfully frenetic fashion.

She didn’t have to work that hard, but it made for better television that she did. One of the most alluring things about Beyoncé in 2016 is that she continues to strive to outdo herself. It is in stark contrast with many of her peers who excel despite having very little interest in improving or even giving the best that they’ve got at the moment.

Immediately, some will read that as a diss of Rihanna, the only other performer who mattered last night. It is not. Rihanna was enjoyable throughout her multiple performances on the show.

As one of the premier visual artists of her generation, she absolutely deserved the Video Vanguard Award. Still, she is an anomaly in that she can get away with things most artists in a previous time likely would have been condemned and subsequently cast out for doing. Things like singing every third word while sort of doing the choreography. That typically bothers me, ’cause when Rihanna tries, she’s good. Effort matters. That said, there was some effort made last night, so when Rihanna did keep moving the mic away, at least it was to dance.

Rihanna is the only person who, as an entertainer, can force you to find redeeming qualities, if not a slight beauty, in being blasé. But she wasn’t that blasé yesterday. She always kept her cool, but she clearly cared about honoring her legacy properly. When she did offer live vocals during “Stay,” “Love on the Brain” and “Diamonds,” she reminded you that she sings well when she so desires. The same goes for her dancing, especially during her dancehall set.

It was not Beyoncé, but that was not her intention, and both delivered what fans of each performer appreciate. Everyone else is largely forgettable. That would include Alicia Keys and her impromptu spoken-word poem, in which Keys continues to embody an inspirational Instagram word meme. It would also include Kanye West’s speech, in which he said many words—none of which amounted to much. That said, Teyana Taylor stood out for being the star of West’s “Faded” video.

Taylor is quite the dancer, and her body makes me regret every fried piece of chicken I’ve ever inhaled (until the next bite, anyway). Taylor has now had two big moments on television this year, but I hope that in the future, they have more to do with her, given that her own music is worthy of wider attention.

Read the rest at The Root.

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In March, Hillary Clinton mistakenly rewrote American history when she thanked the Reagans (particularly Nancy) for helping to start “a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS. It took mere seconds for fury to ignite and just a couple of hours for Clinton to apologize for telling what many knew to be a lie. History matters and must always be told accurately.

In “Art AIDS America,” a traveling exhibition originally co-curated by Rock Hushka and Jonathan David Katz for the Tacoma Art Museum and currently at the Bronx Museum, we are reminded of not only the silence of the Reagans, but the bigotry of others in elected office as well as many members of the clergy — and the deaths that came as a direct result of both. The exhibit description, printed high on a white wall in the lobby, specifies its intentions: “For too long, we have considered art about AIDS as a tragic, closed chapter in the history of American art.” The message: The worst of the disease may have passed for most, but the story hasn’t ended, and it’s vital we continue to engage — honestly, thoughtfully.

The exhibit includes some 125 works — paintings, photographs, sculptures, mixed-media pieces, videos, and prints — loosely divided into four categories: Body, Spirit, Activism, and Camouflage. That last focuses on the challenges many artists faced in creating personally relevant work after legislation passed in 1989 that restricted federal funding for art dealing with homosexuality and AIDS.

So it’s unsurprising that many of the works approach their themes subtly. Brett Reichman’s And the Spell Was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow, for instance, is adorned in the colors of the rainbow and features three large clocks: The oil painting makes references to Oz while alluding to the new reality that San Francisco, ravaged by the AIDS crisis, could no longer be viewed solely as a land of enchantment.

Still, the most striking works are the bluntest. Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Babies With AIDS, an acrylic painting, was inspired by news stories about infants who were born with HIV and abandoned. The images of those babies, superimposed on an American flag, are an instant, infuriating reminder of how hatred and fear are so easily transferred.

Read the rest at The Village Voice.

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Apparently, even the Obamas are somewhat dismayed that the story of about their first date has been made into a feature-length film.

During a Q&A at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Richard Tanne was asked if the Obamas know about the movie. “We’ve heard from some pretty reliable sources that they are aware,” he answered. “They are excited. And they are also a little baffled by its existence.”

It is somewhat baffling, but understandable to a degree. Barack Obama is this country’s first Black president. His wife, Michelle Obama, is revered by communities of all backgrounds, but even more strongly in the Black community (and rightly so). Even so, I was a bit weary about seeing their lives depicted in film so soon much less as a romantic comedy. Weary because it still feels so soon to be looking back at history as it continues to take place. Curious how people who haven’t even left the White House to start their post-White House lives are already being mythologized.

Then again, we now live in a time where everything feels instantaneous. No one waits anymore. Not even The Obamas can escape that.

So here we are. Whatever fears the Obamas had about the film, they needn’t worry. Tanne’s depiction of both will more than likely appease them. Southside With You reminds me of one of President Obama’s infamous hope-filled speeches. It’s intentionally aspirational while making sure not to go too far in an effort not to come across as schmaltzy, and thus, completely unbelieveable. Sumpter as well as singer-songwriter and rising entertainment power player John Legend serve as producers for the movie. They’ve all assisted Tanne in giving our commander-in-chief and First Lady what amounts to a cute date movie centered on their personal lives.

Southside With You, which clocks in just shy of 90 minutes, tells a story we’ve heard about for years now. However, there are more details here and to see them dramatized in this fashion does lead one to reflect a little more about what we’ve been told by the Obamas themselves. Say, Michelle as played by Sumpter, explaining to Barack, portrayed by Parker Sawyers, her reluctance to be romantically linked to him because as the only Black woman working at her law firm, her dating with the first Black man to show up at the office might lend credence to prejudices she has to grapple with in corporate culture as both a Black person and a Black woman. It’s an important note given that in the earliest years of the Obamas being national figures, many were especially critical to the point of cruel about how Michelle Obama behaved in a space not often welcoming to those like her.

There are still some hokey moments—Barack taking Michelle to a community-organizing event so she can hear him deliver a speech that includes lines like they ought to understand that “‘no’ is the end of the line.” Of course, Michelle—who has always managed to humanize Barack in every sense of the word—calls him out on the notion that it would probably impress most women to see him this way. The same goes for her questioning why he stopped dating white women.

All of Barack’s answers and actions read as perfect, and in that respect, he comes across as the Barack we’ve read in The Audacity of Hope i.e. a skillful politician than say the more complicated youthful figure we read about in Dreams Of My Father. But the intent here is to make them magical. It is largely apolitical. This is more Lifetime on a good night than HBO.

In a recent interview, John Legend said of the film, “It makes you believe in love. It makes you believe in what a partnership like this can add to each person to make them both better.”

On that goal, it succeeds.

Read the rest at Complex.

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A few years and a Ryan Lochte-like “over-exaggeration” about a 2015 release later, Frank Ocean released the proper follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGE over the weekend with Blonde. (Endless, the visual album he released earlier, is good but not the true sophomore effort, if any of that cataloging even matters anymore.) The most immediate question about the new album, which was once known as Boys Don’t Cry, is whether or not it was worth wait. The answer is yes, and and also seems to be the kind of album that calls for extra effort (and listens) from the listener in order to discover all its strengths.

If you’re a fan of Frank Ocean, the 17-track Blonde more than satisfies a wait that wasn’t as long as it may have felt. That feeling, though, proposes another question about the artist: Is there any contemporary male R&B singer-songwriter as evocative and daring as Frank Ocean? Apple Music has categorized Blonde as pop for its varied influences and references, but its core is largely rooted in the traditions of rhythm and blues and soul—Ocean’s vocal style, the layering of his vocal tracks, and certain drum patterns can all be traced back to R&B. Some have christened this “avant-garde soul,” but taking a genre to new places doesn’t mean you’ve separated your work from a rich tradition.

You might have some other contemporary Black male singers in mind for that title, but more often than not so many of those artists merely wear a superficial aesthetics of emotion. Sure, the songs sound sad sonically; the production is sparse, making the vocals, detached, feel like you’re listening to someone pouring his soul out. But, lyrically, so much of the material is drowning in lust (which is useful, but different), or frankly, of that subgenre some refer to as fuckboy ‘n B: whiny, defensive, and stubbornly unwilling to offer any indication of emotional intelligence.

When you compare those artists to Ocean, you realize how distinct his gift for vulnerability and introspection (not to mention surprising, writerly language) really is. His words come across as genuine, and as others have recently highlighted, force the listener to wrestle with their own emotions about subjects like mortality, failure, unrequited love, and specifically, the pain and necessary reflection that comes with it. The album may no longer be called Boys Don’t Cry, but Ocean paints himself as separate from other men who generally avoid anything that isn’t driven by hyper-masculine ego, bypassing sincerity in an effort to remain “cool.”

You hear this on “Seigfried,” where Ocean laments that he’s “not brave” while singing lines like, “I couldn’t gauge your fears/I can’t relate to my peers/I’d rather live outside/I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.”

Or when he mulls over a failed relationship on “Ivy,” singing, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said love me.”

Or on every second of “Solo.”

And when he very casually notes “here’s to the gay bar you took me to” on “Good Guy.” Until there is a day when Ocean’s assumed bisexuality and his singing about unrequited love for a man does not make him, a Black man, an anomaly in mainstream music, even the most casual reference to otherness will be a big deal to those of us who see no parts of ourselves in this culture.

Read the rest at Complex.

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Though it has been described as such all across the Internet, calling Frank Ocean’s Endless a “visual album” instantly makes me recall the old cartoon show Gumby and the Black folklore figure known as Reach Armstrong. Sure, there is a visual component to the album. We are forced to click play and are provided the visual of Frank Ocean building a staircase while 45 minutes worth of new music plays in the background, serving as a de facto score to what has already been hailedas something that “mixes the avant garde with the accessible.”

Still, “visual album,” which already had a loose definition but is noticeably expanding by the week, feels too generous a term. Endless, with the same minimalist, black-and-white imagery shown throughout, doesn’t really resonate in the way Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Suede’s Night Thoughts, Kanye West’s Runaway, or hell, even R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” series do. Each of those offer a more compelling story being told whereas in Endless, Ocean is present throughout but a narrative—which feels pretty essential to the notion of a “visual album”—not so much.

I can already feel the contempt of the more artsy folks of the world rolling their eyes at me for saying this, but all I got from Endless as a visual is Rhythm and Home Improvement. But okay, if everyone else says so. Fine, it’s a “visual album,” too.

After sitting with Endless for a few additional listens, it’s better consumed without watching the New Orleans native get his Bob Vilaon. Ultimately, when it comes to music, a visual can magnify what’s being heard, but I prefer to judge music largely by the music itself. Especially on Endless where the music is far more commanding of your attention than the visuals presented with it.

There are some immediate takeaways from the project. The first: it is not the album we were initially promised. That would be Boys Don’t Cry, which is said to be coming over the weekend under a different title. Whatever the case, Endless is the album we have now and despite the wait and its frankly bizarre delivery (he fits right in with Kanye West and Rihanna when it comes to wonderfully mishandling highly anticipated album releases), it is enjoyable.

The other immediate takeaway is Ocean is offering listeners much more polished vocals. We had hints of this as he covered Aaliyah’s cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love).” It was actually not my favorite rendition when it was previously released as “You Are Luhh,” but maybe with time and waiting obsessively for new Frank Ocean music, it sounds sublime. Ocean’s voice is not the strongest in terms of range, but there is something skillful about how he uses it—namely his falsetto. That remains the case throughout Endless.

That would include other tracks like “Alabama,” which features vocal work from the terribly undervalued singing phenom that is Jazmine Sullivan. Sullivan joins Ocean there and on three additional tracks. Their voices and his lyrics compliment each other terrifically—here’s hoping to a continued, blissful musical partnership. Other collaborators include Sampha, who joins Ocean and Sullivan on “Alabama,” along with other collaborators like James Blake (a whole lot), Acra (FKA Twigs, Björk, Kanye West),” and indie rock artist Alex G.

Together, they help give what has become typical Frank Ocean: a wide mixing of genres and moods happening all at once. What continues to shape them and make them singular is Ocean’s way of singing, and in some spots on here, rapping. It’s a somewhat lethargic delivery. It allows much of Endless to merely float throughout, though exactly where will require more time and many more listens. Or maybe further explanation in terms of intent and direction (like, is this your vision board of an album or nah?), but who knows if we’ll ever get that given this entire process and rollout has been shrouded in mystery and appears dead set on keeping it that way for the time being.

Read the rest at Complex.

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