Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

A letter to Wes about Tolstoy

by gradus22

You took Austen against Tolstoy? So you’re that guy who bring the knife to the gunfight! Leo Tolstoy is a super-heavyweight, Wes. Just for context, let’s remember that one of his lesser known works, The Kingdom of God is Within You, sparked a correspondence with an Indian lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi, and inspired versuseverythingland tag leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are some quality guys to have in your corner, Wes. Abraham Lincoln would have a hard time going up against that crew.

I have to confess that I have never been able to make it through any of Jane Austen’s books, even the one with the zombies, and even though former Marquette University star (and multiple-time academic probationer) Dwyane Wade said it was his favorite novel as part of an NBA Cares campaign. There is something about her that has always reminded me of Sex and the City; I hear the theme whenever someone starts in on the “It is a truth universally acknowledged” bit. Jane Austen also has the misfortune of being the ancestor of a lot of other stuff that continues to define gender expectations to this day: Disney princesses, magazine ads, Ken and Barbie, NYT articles that are shocked to discover that college-age women might take charge of their sex lives (Good heavens!). The avalanche of Jane Austen sequels, Mr. Darcy-as-a-vampire novels, and Jane Austen movies that are not adaptations of her books have done nothing to discourage this impression. This is the starting point, the patient zero, of the assumption that marriage is a woman’s chief goal and responsibility. It’s certainly not fair to blame all of this on Jane Austen, and I understand her work is probably the best stuff in its genre, but it has to be mentioned. I imagine my female relatives reading Jane Austen, narrowing their eyes, and then returning resolutely to their math homework. My suspicion is that Anna Karenina has more to say on marriage than Jane Austen’s work does in its entirety. (To be clear, there’s nothing pejorative about being calling Jane Austen is “less than” a book that gets consistently mentioned in the “greatest of all time” conversation.) My opinion on Jane Austen is more or less irrelevant. It’s just not for me.

But I see your point: Austen-vs.-Tolstoy isn’t a choice we have to make. I’m hard-pressed to find examples of art, literature or music that have had an overall, cumulatively negative effect on society. I can’t stand pop music, including, but not limited to: “Freshman” by the Verve Pipe (Inexplicably still on the radio! How does that happen?), anything by Katy Perry, Adam Levine’s botoxed vocals, Macklemore and “Blurred Lines” (I guess song intros are the new songs), but I would never argue that these things shouldn’t exist. Even right now, someone is enjoying the hell out of “California Girls” or “Hot ‘n Cold,” which is enough to validate their existence. Who am I to make that person feel bad?

But when it comes to literature, a person can only read a small fraction of the entire corpus in a lifetime, so sacrifices have to be made. You’ll never convince me that The Da Vinci Code is better than Foucault’s Pendulum; if the two could meet as members of the animal kingdom, Eco’s book would devour and regurgitate Brown’s book many times over. Hell, it may have done that already. I’m not offended by Dan Brown; people are always looking for something to read on the beach or after a long day of work and we all can’t emulate Augie March’s grandmother and re-read Tolstoy every year. But I am offended when people claim that the two are equivalent; It’s one thing to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger and another to try to convince the people around you (or yourself) that it’s steak. That’s just insecurity. If you’re going to have a guilty pleasure – as everyone does – you might as well own up to it and really enjoy that cheeseburger in all its artery-clogging glory.

I don’t mind Game of Thrones, but I read a dozens of fantasy novels just like it when I was still a teenager. It’s perfectly diverting and it doesn’t aspire to be anything more, but there’s not a lot of substance there. At least Martin kills off his characters when they get boring, I’ll give him that. I will never understand readers who devour multiple thousand-page fantasy novels and never try Tolstoy at least once. War and Peace always struck me as an advanced version of Lord of the Rings. They’re really very similar: both are set in far away foreign lands, populated by people with unpronounceable names who are fighting a prolonged war for their ideals. It was like reading Tolkien without the elves, with one essential difference: when I finished reading it, I was a different, better person. How could I return to fantasy novels after that? I could only hope then – and I still do now – that everyone could have the same experience. Too often literature is divvied up like breakfast cereal – it’s either good for you or it’s enjoyable, no in between. The best stuff out there does both, you just have to find it.


A letter to Matt about Pride & Prejudice

by iroqu0ispliskin

Dear Matt,

While my primary field of aesthetic expertise is giant robots, we both know that my other grand passion is English literature of Georgian era. Which means it’s time to talk about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is, pound for pound, one of the best works in the English language. My utter delight in this novel places me under the unfortunate obligation of saying something insightful or entertaining about one of the best-loved and most-discussed products of our mother tongue. It is for such obstacles, Matt, that I customarily limit my commentary to murder simulations.

I was at a wedding a few years ago, and I got involved in this argument about Austen versus Tolstoy. The argument for Tolstoy was this: while Tolstoy was interested in everything, Austen only cared about marriage.

The short answer for this argument is, well, thank god we’re not forced to choose! But the longer answer is that to me, this argument mistakes Austen’s ultimate concerns. Granted, marrying well is the chief preoccupation of every Austen novel and heroine.  Her books are literally “about” marriage: the arc of romantic love, culminating in marriage, provides the narrative structure for almost everything that happens in them.

But I think the right way to understand this preoccupation with courtship is to see how the pursuit of love provides a good arena for the exploration of morality. It’s not so much that marriage is the most important thing in life (although marrying well is certainly up there), it’s that it provides a set of circumstances in which essential elements of character come into play. Pride and Prejudice is occupied with Elizabeth’s finding of a good husband because it is through finding love that she comes to understand herself better.  

Because Pride and Prejudice, as the title implies, is chiefly about misperception. That’s why there this marvellous final scene in the book, after Darcy and Elizabeth have become engaged, where they just spend an extended walk narrating with delight how they had gotten each other so wrong. Darcy, misled by Elizabeth’s (admittedly, pretty-atrocious) family, openly insults and then materially injures the only woman of his acquaintance whose intelligence and probity could possibly provide him any wedded happiness. Elizabeth, misled by Darcy’s (admittedly, pretty-shitty) demeanour, mistakenly takes her own offence at his slights as reason to believe that Darcy is not merely an asshole, but also a scoundrel. Happily, events conspire to let these two get things right: they come to understand not only why they got each other wrong, but also what it is that is wrong about themselves. Austen thinks this task has great moral worth, and so she spent all of her adult life and considerable talents imagining how it happens.

Actually, I would defend Austen’s preoccupation with marriage for much the same reasons I routinely defend shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones  to educated laymen. As a culture we are excessively hung up on subject-matter as the chief determinant of aesthetic merit, much to our detriment. Yes, my friends: there may be some light wizardry along the way. But the purpose of good science fiction (as with romantic comedy) is that space-plane battles provide can furnish an apt context to sound certain ground notes of human character. Battlestar is essentially an extended meditation on the nature of democracy in an age of terror, and in this respect it is probably the best work of art we have (in any medium), about the post-9/11 aftermath. I would not rate Game of Thrones quite so highly, but even a casual observer can see that it is a show as ruthlessly concerned with the manipulation of  political power as it is concerned with knights, tits, and dragons.

My prejudices with regard to genre have steadily eroded over the years, Matt. I think I’ve just came to see that the best things to see and read have little to nothing in common.  Us humans have made great things about nearly anything: spies, sea voyages, gay cowboys eating pudding, anything. We should keep it up.


A letter to Wes about The Newsroom

by gradus22

Is there anything interesting left to say about Aaron Sorkin? Stuck in summer television purgatory last week, I watched the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom with an overwhelming feeling of redundancy. I’m not just referring to the impassioned on-air monologues, the walk-and-talks or Sorkinian trademark back-and-forth-dialogue, but every conceivable dimension of the show: the characters, the plot developments, the relationships, the character motivations, everything. It doesn’t just trot out the cliches, it executes them with near-perfect skill and proficiency. They are running a television clinic over there. This is the televisioniest television that ever televisioned. Aaron Sorkin made some of the best shows and movies of the 1990s, but that’s precisely the problem: he’s still making shows for the 1990s for an audience that’s moved on to 2013.

One caveat: I can’t criticize Sorkin for using the same phrases over and over again; most people, writers or not, unwittingly repeat themselves every day of their lives. You probably know someone who relies on a sarcastic “You think?” overly much in your own life. If you read enough of any single writer’s work in quick succession, you’ll develop a similar case of literary tinnitus. To a certain extent, this is really part of the appeal. HBO bought an Aaron Sorkin show and we volunteered to watch it. We would have been sorely disappointed otherwise.

But even so, The Newsroom feels like a Sorkin mixtape; a bit of SportsNight here, a dash of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip here.You find yourself starting to wonder if his next show will be about an embattled late night talk show host to make it an even. He also brings out the usual axes to grind: politics, religion, therapy, woman trouble. Maybe his next show should just be about Aaron Sorkin; cut the funhouse mirrors: the television studios designed to look like other television studios, the television personalities pretending to be other television personalities and let’s just get to it.

The man is also clearly a true believer in the power and importance of television at a time when most television viewers aren’t. There’s always been a lot of Network in Aaron Sorkin’s writing, no matter the setting. Network contains some of the best movie dialogue of its decade and it holds up to this day, but at it’s core, it’s a movie for its time, and some of its elements – the attitude towards women, for example — don’t hold up well. It’s also a type of writing asks its actors to be completely earnest about everything, and ends up rewarding charisma instead of his or her acting skill. If you’ve got a Tom Cruise-type star, a plot about the U.S. President, a big screen, a darkened theater and enforced silence, this type of writing can take you very far. The same type of earnestness, applied to characters working at a weekly television show, for God’s sake, is more than a little out of place. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had the bad luck of running against 30 Rock, a show that understood this precisely. And even at its worst, most insufferable, unlikeable moments, Studio 60 managed to be entertaining, supremely watchable and conversation-worthy. People loved tearing that show to shreds. They watched it with their friends with snarky, purchased episodes and read every joke about it on the Internet the next day.

It’s a shame, because Aaron Sorkin should be more than a punchline. He has an undeniable gift for dialogue and for finding a narrative when he steps outside of his own experience. He turned Moneyball and The Social Network – both stories that should have been unfilmable –  into excellent, compelling original movies. Well, maybe not completely original, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

A letter to Matt about civil rights and misogyny

by iroqu0ispliskin



It’s pretty common for rappers to rep hard for the American civil rights movement. I mean, it makes total sense. Hip-hop considers itself, if not the vanguard, then at least the PR wing of the contemporary civil rights struggle. (You know, the one about how 1 in 3 American black men is going to be in prison sometime during their life.) The topic is approached with respect: there’s samples from Dr. King on old Common songs, a Ghostface song that is kind of about Malcolm X. There’s even somewhat-playful references, like in Kenrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” where he elaborates a dream that has less to do with the content of his children’s character than the eiffel-tower-like proportions of his own penis.

While Lil’ Wayne may have blazed the trail when it comes to making sex jokes out of the historical suffering of Black americans, there’s something especially… systematic about Kanye’s approach on Yeezus. I mean, one reference is a crass joke – the kind of thing I’d expect out of a man with a borderline sense of humor and a nonexistent sense of propriety. But this shit happens repeatedly on Yeezus. I’ve already talked about the dubious use of the “Strange Fruit” sample on “Blood on the Leaves,” a song that also compares the separation of wives and mistresses to apartheid. But “I’m In It” really is the worst. You don’t just have “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last / Thank God almighty, they free at last!” (context), but also (I swear to God I’m not making this up) “Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”

There’s no purpose denying this that the lyrics on Yeezus are gross. Brie Walsh, one of our dozen readers, wrote a piece over on her (excellent) website expressing basic disgust at the misogyny, materialism and general human shittiness on display at the album. Justifiably pissed off at the lyrical content Kanye drops on Yeezus, though mesmerized by the music, she argues that whatever gratitude we have for this record should be directed towards Kanye’s bullpen of genius collaborators and not the misogynist at its center. This is a fair thing to say.

But for me it’s not the last thing to say. I’ll admit that as a man, I have the privilege not being fundamentally shocked by overt misogyny. It’s so obviously grotesque that it basically fails to disturb me. Like, when I hear misogyny on record it’s like I’m peering at an excised tumor behind plexiglass. I end up just wondering what kind of defect could have produced this specimen.

So I just end up wondering what Kanye is trying to do with this stuff. Part of it, I think, is that the only way he could manage to make his album more revolting to his listenership, and a more honest airing of his problems, is by mixing in the last sacred element of Black culture, one that even rappers won’t fuck with. If the aim of the album as a whole is catharsis (an aim that makes sense given the way “Bound 2”, which finishes off the record, provides an ambivalent ode to romantic commitment),  maybe Kanye is trying to come to grips with his profoundly fucked-up attitudes towards women by just giving them the ugliest possible articulation. Maybe this gives him a little too much credit.



A letter to Matt about rock music

by iroqu0ispliskin



I am  lucky to have been raised on rap music. Due to a happy accident of my upbringing, I was never cool enough to understand Nirvana. I didn’t use drugs or drink alcohol until I was well into my dotage, which prevented me from ever understanding the impulse towards headlong self-destruction that makes rock music a vital proposition. I mean, I fucked around with Dave Matthews Band, but I don’t think that counts. And so I find myself, instead, part of an unlikely generation of intensely nerdy 30-year old white guys whose formative musical experiences included listening to “Supreme Clientele” for the first time.

I call this lucky, because rock music is over. It’s not that rock music is dead, Matt. It’s just done being whatever it is. Telented people will continue to make rock records, and some of them will be really good to listen to.  Hell, I enjoy me some Japandroids, and I’m not averse to them Walkmen. But it’s been a long time since someone has made something thrillingly new on a rock record. I still love a lot of new rock music, but I don’t expect it to blow my world apart.  Which is just to say: Led Zeppelin isn’t walking through that door. This is sad, because I love the sound of scorching electric guitars as much as anything on this earth. But such is the way of things.

I was worried about rap for a while, but I shouldn’t have been. There are rap records being released these days that are saving some kid’s life, that I am sure of. One of them is Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, about which I have very little intelligent to say, except to note that the extremely high quality of Kendrick’s game goaded top-flight performances from lazy rap moguls Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Also, Drake and I share an appreciation for sundresses.  Enjoy!


A note to Wes about my summer reading

by gradus22

Hey Wes!

What’s eight hundred pages long, twenty-five years old and alternates between in-depth discussions of nuclear physics and eyewitness accounts of world war II atrocities? Need another hint? It won a Pulitzer, National book award and a National Book Critics Circle Award (that’s one PEN award short of a Philip Roth, if you’re scoring at home). It’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes! Would like to learn more? No? Too heavy for summer, you say? I’ll tell you about it anyway!

Let’s start with the title: it’s not a famous quotation put to surprisingly good use, it’s not from Shakespeare. There’s no subtitle. No attempt to sound scholarly or clever whatsoever. Just a picture of a mushroom cloud. This book is probably as intimidating and depressing as it claims to be. You can’t claim you were misled. There’s something very refreshing about that.

But as you know, I have a secret weakness for books with titles in capital letters four inches tall, books that might as well scream “Father’s Day gift” when you open them, and movies with characters who speak with clipped British accents. If you’re like me, or even if you just enjoy black-and-white photographs of men in labcoats with terrible haircuts, this is the book for you. And it is fucking great. There’s espionage and drama. Rivals are forced to work together, friends become enemies, great stuff all around. Norwegian special forces endeavor to destroy the Nazi supply of heavy water before Hitler’s scientists can initiate a nuclear chain reaction. Niels Bohr – Danish physicist, Nobel Laureate, outspoken enemy of the Nazis – is visited by a former student — now the head of the Third Reich’s nuclear physics program. Bohr, facing Nazi arrest, is later smuggled out of the country. Enrico Fermi surreptitiously spends his life savings so the Gestapo won’t notice that he’s planning on fleeing the country. I don’t know about you, but I consider events like these to be the bones of a compelling narrative.

In most popular physics books, the historical context usually gets left by the side of the road, a necessary casualty of the need to explain all the relevant concepts clearly and quickly. And most of the time, this is a very good decision. Popular readers have never clamored to to read the minutia of scientific experimentation in real time; even Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe — otherwise a perfectly readable popular science book – started to drag as soon he put himself back in the laboratory. But the nuclear bomb was much, much more than a scientific or military discovery, it changed the global political landscape irreparably, it fueled the Cold War for decades and our current age of terrorism is still running on its fumes. And the scientists involved understood that atomic bombs would probably change their world for the worse, from the first ideas of atomic bombs in H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free (life imitating art again) and the desire to set up a global initiative to control nuclear energy, to the penultimate tests in Los Alamos. Franklin Roosevelt made nuclear policy the sole province of the president, an incredible judgment call, considering that Hitler and Stalin were dismissive of nuclear research at the same time. Rhodes takes stock of the scientists just before the final nuclear tests: the most philosophical researchers are drinking heavily and playing poker, Fermi is clinical scientific, Oppenheimer is underweight and reading the Bhagavad-Gita. The nuclear tests are successful, the scientists have just created the most destructive device in human history. The component parts of Fat Man and Little Boy are being sent to the Pacific theater. And Rhodes has a couple of chapters left.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this an incredibly heavy read, literally as well as figuratively. That might be an understatement: it’s a lead balloon of a book. Rhodes doesn’t pull any punches either, especially when he discusses the bombings and their aftermath. But it’s the right way to tell a story as important and as influential as this one. Discussing the World War II bombings in the German city of Dresden, Rhodes goes right to a young American POW and eyewitness named Kurt Vonnegut. Thirty years later, Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle would be informed by fears of nuclear holocaust, describing the end of the world from a seemingly incidental scientific discovery. His narrator? A writer who set out to write a history of the atomic bomb. Life imitating art again.

A letter to Matt about Behind the Candlabra

by iroqu0ispliskin


I recently had the pleasure of watching Steve Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which I obtained illegally on the Internet. Apparently there are legal routes to obtaining this puppy in your country, which involve stealing your friends’ HBOGo password, but us adopted Turks must resort to light theft. I recommend it highly, although I also would be gunshy about watching it (as I did) on an airplane while sitting between two middleaged Lebanese men. I may be overestimating their capacity to be scandalized, but I certainly felt a bit sheepish watching Matt Damon emerge from a pool in a metal-studded white thong while flanked by two unfamiliar bearded men.

Soderbergh is kind of an anomalous director: despite having made many of the most entertaining films of the past few decades (Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovitch, and Magic Mike), I feel like he doesn’t have the reverence which would be commensurate with the quality of his directorial output. It’s not even that he lacks a signature style. Despite working in a wide variety of genres, his work is recognizable for its cool visual palette and impeccable pacing. He even has a set of personally held thematic concerns that hold across a varied catalogue, primarily his unsensational fascination with sex. Despite these features, his films have this quality of being vehicles for characters rather than vehicles for the director’s sensibility, which probably accounts for his relative lack of reverence.

There’s a lot of things to love about Behind the Candelabra, an account of a love affair between a flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorsten, a young foster-child cum animal-handler (Matt Damon). (The uniformly splendid supporting cast is not the least of them – a horrific wax effigy of Rob Lowe puts in excellent work as a pill-dispensing plastic surgeon). I could heap praise on many elements, but to me the remarkable element of the film is this: it is an intensely gay film where the fact of gayness is largely incidental.

Despite being set in an era when it was not permissible to be openly gay, the fact that the central relationship of the film is between two men mostly accidental, because the film is so effective at depicting elements of their relationship that are just features of romantic relationships in general: power, jealousy, lust, and companionship. I mean, it is obvious to me that the lived relationships of gay people are pretty much like my own in most respects, but when it comes to movies we see very few gay relationships portrayed this way. (Milk is the closest thing I could recall, but the film is so focused on the historical register that the texture of Milk’s relationships get lost in the shuffle.)

Given the unseemly mixture of roles that Scott came to occupy in Liberace’s life – he is simultaneously his lover, employee, physical mirror, adopted son, sugar baby and conscience  – the sympathy with which the relationship is portrayed verges on moral triumph. Liberace is exuberantly screwed-up, and Scott is screwed up in a vulnerable way. There are some queasy dimensions to their relations, none more queasy than Liberace’s insistence that Scott undergo plastic surgery to make him physically appear like a younger version of himself. These exist comfortably side-by-side with elements of genuine care and tenderness. There are fights about how often the couple go out and see their friends (in this case, Charo). In short, it is thoroughly plausible showbiz relationship. Over the long run it goes sour.

In fact, in terms of its overall thematic arc, the film that BTC most strongly resembles is Boogie Nights, which is also focused on the life arc of an insecure and rootless young stud who finds an unorthodox surrogate family in showbiz. Anderson’s career arc furnishes a useful point of comparison with Soderbergh; since Boogie Nights Anderson’s preoccupations have become metaphysical in their approach to character, an approach which has admittedly led to the best film of the last decade. But there is something so much more loveable and deomcratic, if less grand, in Soderbergh’s persistently humane approach. We don’t get the heaven-storming ambition in Soderbergh’s films.  But we get something as valuable: a patient scrutiny of unusual human beings as they are, conducted without moralizing. Like Liberace himself, their ordinariness gives them a cumulative transcendence.

Important reminder

by iroqu0ispliskin

Matt and I both love Woody Allen, despite the fact that he is kind of a gross person and Orson Welles hated him. The perpetually-fantastic Diane Keaton improbably described him as “physically very graceful,” which is kind of a lifetime achievement.

Since I haven’t watched Manhattan in a while, I’d forgotten that Meryl Streep is – in addition to being a goddess – also a total babe.  When I graduated from grad school I was a stone’s throw away from Meryl Streep, which was the most exciting element of a ceremony that also featured a supreme court justice and two of the world’s leading Kant scholars. I am certain that I shall have cause to air my Streepophilia at greater length in coming missives, but for now I’m gonna marinate on this for a while.

Mistakes were made

by iroqu0ispliskin


I may have been been wrong about video games.

During the time when I was writing and thinking about games most intensely — roughly 2009 — I wrote a lot of stuff on the internet about the aesthetic potential of games, some of it well-reasoned. Despite some pervasive hedging, I think it’s fair to say that my arguments converged on the view that the manifest destiny of video games lay in their ambitions towards immersive, narratively complex world-creation, a gesamtkunstwerk ideal glimpsed in games like Far Cry 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bioshock.  I reasoned that the tensions between mechanics and traditional storytelling involved in this effort would be, if not resolved, at least smoothed as the medium evolved.

From the current vantage point, it seems indisputable that this research program has produced diminishing returns.

But I am no longer certain that games are particularly good at presenting narrative. Indeed, where I once thought that cracking this artistic nut involved mating existing mechanics to narratives whose quality approached that of other media, this now seems exactly backwards.

It’s not just that people making video games, on the whole, have questionable artistic taste and writing chops, although this is also true. It’s that games don’t get “immersion” from production values, no matter how expert. Games don’t primarily communicate through sound and vision.  They communicate through systems. I have become more and more persuaded that what games are best suited to convey is these experience of operating within a system. The most powerful means by which games get their emotional and narrative texture is through mechanics. Perhaps the most powerful instance of this phenomenon in recent memory is Cart Life, which conveys the requisite feelings of powerlessness through mechanics that capitalize on ignorance and repitition.

There are exceptions to this trend. Some fantastic games have hacked their way down this trail in the past few years. I thought Minerva’s Den an intelligently designed and narratively taut take on the world established by Bioshock. Dishonoured’s anarchic mechanical suite was so versatile, and its world so bizarre, that it made crafting such things seem worthwhile.

But the most vital things going on in games over the last few years have shied away from these ambitions.  They’ve come either where mechanical commitments were minimal (as in The Walking Dead, or Spec Ops: The Line) or where explicit narrative is kept to a minimum (as in Hotline:Miami). And if I were forced to make a choice about how to spend my leisure I’d choose the latter path without hesitation.

In fact, I do every day.  I play DOTA.

Canada Day Special feat. Drizzy Drake

by iroqu0ispliskin

If you think about it, the widespread hate for Drake is rooted in similar factors that lead people to dislike VEL favorites Vampire Weekend: he’s percieved as being effete and fancy. In a word, soft.  With the important difference that Drake operates in a musical genre with much more stringent standards of masculinity. Like, we’ve long given up on the idea that pop bands have to be hard, but there is still no defined spot in the rap game for an artist with the subject position of “introspective croon-rapper”. At least, not until now.

To be honest, I have never been able to take matters of authenticity seriously. I pity folks for whom this is an important aesthetic consideration. At bottom, I just could not care less who actually sold drugs. In fact, aside a few exceptions, I’m pretty indifferent to subject material as a whole. You can write an all-time classic rap jam about anything: moving bricks, barbecue, make-up bags, pimping, gossip folks. The additional question of whether your mastery of this particular subject matter is rooted in personal experience seems beside the point. And for that matter, I don’t care if the thematic material of your work is consumed with things that don’t matter to me: groupie management, postclub regret, designer labels, rich-black-person problems: all that shit has been transmuted into fantastic music.

I mean, I will admit that there is something a little bizarre about the way that Canada’s most famous child star clings to this rags-to-riches narrative as for his personal anthem – maybe “Started from the upper-middle class now we’re here” lacks a certain zing. But who gives a shit? Nobody can touch his jumping-out-a-convertible-in-the-snow game! Plus he gets a lifetime pass for 1) antagonizing Chris Brown and 2) showing love to all the fancy, independent, book-and-streetsmart ladies out there.

Drake’s early style leaned a little heavily on punchlines, but I’ve always loved his flow.  Make no mistake, this man can rap has ass off; he just customarily raps his ass off in an extremely relaxed, singsong manner. “Started From the Bottom” isn’t the world’s best Drake song (The Motto is my current frontrunner), but it is the second-greatest Drake video.