I finally took some time to give a few serious spins to Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Bad on me. Really bad on me. Good Kid is not simply one the best hip-hop albums I've ever heard, but one of the most moving pieces of art I've seen/heard in a long, long, long time. I sort of initially bristled at the notion of comparison to Illmatic--my personal favorite ever--but it is exactly the right comparison. Nas was able to do was conjure the chaos of inner city black America in the late '80s and '90s. Now Kendrick Lamar summons it nearly 20 years later (with more focus, by the way) and virtually nothing has changed.
Good Kid chronicles a 17-year-old's effort to visit a romantic interest, and the kind of violence that haunts such a pedestrian effort. This scenario is right out of my young Baltimore city life. I used to love The Wonder Years. But Kevin Arnold didn't have to roll five deep to go see Winnie Cooper. That was the street law when I young man, and it's depressing to hear that it still is today. But it shows how violence warps the most ordinary routine.
Lamar's album is, in part, about the consequences of forgetting that law. But more than that it's also about the people who enforce it. Everyone should listen to "The Art Of Peer Pressure." It is commentary on everything from Chicago to Steubenville. Everyone should listen to "Black Boy Fly." All I can tell you is the feeling behind "Two niggas making it had never sounded logical" mirrors my own feelings as a child.
A word on "bitch." I initially felt that the album was a beautifully produced work of misogyny. That mostly came from me giving a quick, inattentive listen. Good Kid deserves a lot better. It is that rare rap record that actually abandons triumphalism, invulnerability, and wears the mask. Rappers like to claim to be broadcasters, not endorsers. Except it's usually clear that they think, say, guns are pretty cool. This was that rare rap record where I thought the reflection to endorsement ratio was roughly 20 to one.
This is a great album--one that I wish had been around when I was 13. Non-rap fans should give this a listen. it is some of the best word-smithing, sentence-crafting, and beat production that hip-hop has to offer. And it is how it feels to be a black boy in the mad city. Hip-hop is obsessed with soldiers. This may be the first great record I've heard by someone obsessed with speaking as a civilian. And there have always been more of us than them.
MORE: Another quick note. Hip-hop has long been obsessed with "confessionals" and showing that gangstas have sensitive sides too. Usually this just comes off as whining. Puffy's "No Way Out" is a classic of Whine-Rap, as is almost everything Kanye West does. Rappers who whine tend to talk about Jesus a lot.
Of course not all rappers who talk about Jesus are whining. Kendrick Lamar is the MC that every other whine-rapper thinks he is. Their idea of making sensitive art is to cut a track say "HEY THIS IS ME BEING SENSITIVE. THUGS CRY TO GIRL. AND IT IS WRONG THAT I AM OBSESSED WITH WHITE WOMAN. BUT BLACK GIRLS BE BITCHEZ (DON'T JUDGE ME. JUST SAYIN.)"
Whereas Good Kid doesn't talk. It just kinda is. As great art always is.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
In the early 19th century, a series of massive quakes rocked Missouri. Some experts predict that the state could be in for another round of violent shaking, while others warn that a big quake could strike elsewhere in the center of the continent.
As I drove across the I-40 bridge into Memphis, I was reassured: chances were slim that a massive earthquake would wrest the road from its supports, and plunge me more than a hundred feet into the murky Mississippi. Thanks to a recently completed $260 million seismic retrofit, the bridge—a chokepoint for traffic in the central U.S.—is now fortified. It’s also decked out with strong-motion accelerometers and bookended by borehole seismometers to record convulsions in the earth.
The bridge passes a glass colossus, the Memphis Pyramid. Originally built as a nod to the city’s Old Kingdom namesake, the pyramid now enshrines a Bass Pro Shops megastore. The city recently spent $25 million to prevent the pyramid from being swallowed, perhaps by Geb, the ancient Egyptian god of earthquakes. Further downtown, AutoZone’s corporate headquarters also stands ready for a tectonic throttling, propped up as it is on top of giant shock absorbers, while, the nearby Memphis VA is similarly inured to temblors after the city spent $64 million dollars removing nine floors of the hospital to reduce the risk of collapse in a catastrophic earthquake.
Patrick Griffin, his chief congressional affairs lobbyist, recalls the lead up to the bill’s passage in 1994—and the steep political price that followed.
For those who question whether anything will ever be done to curb the use of military grade weaponry for mass shootings in the United States, history provides some good news—and some bad. The good news is that there is, within the recent past, an example of a president—namely Bill Clinton—who successfully wielded the powers of the White House to institute a partial ban of assault weapons from the nation’s streets. The bad news, however, is that Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.
In 1994, Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. Given the potent dynamics of Second Amendment politics, it was a signal accomplishment. Yet the story behind the ban has been largely forgotten since it expired in 2004 and, in part, because the provision was embedded in the larger crime bill.
The Brexit vote highlights some of the forces pulling the United Kingdom apart.
Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.
So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
Thoughts on the first episode of ESPN’s five-part documentary
Every fall Sunday, when I was a kid, half an hour before the pre-game shows and an hour before the games themselves, I would tune into the latest offering from NFL Films. This was the pre-pre-game show—an assembly of short films derived from the massive archive of professional football. Steve Sabol, whose father founded NFL Films, would preside. He’d offer and then throw it to Jon Facenda or Jefferson Kaye, who would narrate the career highlights of players likeGale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Dick “Night Train” Lane.
“Highlights” understates what NFL films was actually doing. The shorts were drawn from some the most beautifully shot footage in all of sports. It wasn’t unheard of for NFL Films to go high concept—this piece on football and ballet, with cameos from Allen Ginsberg and George Will, may be the definitive example. Great football plays would be injected not with the normal hurrahs, but with poetry. When Facenda, for instance, wanted to introduce a spectacular touchdown run by Marcus Allen, he did so in the omniscient third person: “On came Marcus Allen—running with the night.”
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Should the United Kingdom referendum serve as a warning not to underestimate Donald Trump?
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has set off shockwaves across the globe—and rightfully so. Betting markets, pollsters, andpundits suggested the Brits would uphold the status quo. It didn’t take long before Americans started wondering what a failure to predict the Brexit could mean for the United States in a year where Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, has outperformed expectations.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn. A similar demographic profile unites many of the people who voted for Britain to leave the EU and voters who have stood by Trump. “Brexit supporters mirror Trump voters,” Reuters reported, “in that they tend to be older, white, less affluent, and less likely to live in urban areas.” So should the referendum results serve as a warning to Americans not to underestimate the potential of a Trump presidency?