Beyond its late role as obligatory, super-expensive job training for the modern workforce, college also serves as a sort of a sort of cultural/pop-cultural swap-meet, a place where you’re surrounded by people who throw art, music, movies, TV, just everything at you every single day and for several years. That’s a pretty awesome side benefit, too.
But when you get old, get isolated, and that firehose of things to explore dries up? You can still find this stuff using music magazines or, later, online (not just because those magazines went online, but through blogs…which, it occurs to me for the first time are like the ‘zines of my youth (look, I’m slow)), but it’s both a lot harder and, often, more narrow; you lose the beneficial scatter-brain nature of inputs that comes with getting thrown together with a bunch of random people. Those people expose you to the names of artists, even entire genres, for you to check out and, when the stars align, fall in love with. Again, pretty damn amazing, but then one’s four or five or six (me) years of college ends and it all goes away.
So, what do you do?
When my interest in music sort of reignited in my mid-30s, I landed on the approach of picking up albums based on the cover. Even as it’s not as central to a musician’s art as his/her music, what a musical artists puts on his/her album cover makes its own artistic statement. And when you’re picking through the bins, the artist makes his/her introduction through the aesthetic choices made on that album cover. As it happened, this approach worked out a lot more often for me than picking a band* than most things I read.
That’s how I picked up Willie Evans Jr.’s Introducin’. When you’re picking through the “Rap,” “Hip Hop” bins and you come across the album cover above, you guess you’re getting something different. There’s none of the generic hip hop signifiers – e.g. visual cues about stacking up the benjamins, having a big, dexterous, oft-used dick, “da club” and what you and your crew will do there, how everyone will see you doing it and how they’ll be very, very impressed, etc. etc. etc. (OK, yes, all that’s a cheap (white) shot, but two of my personal biggest barriers to hip hop are the materialism and misogyny. I’d argue that that stuff shows up more in lazier, popular stuff, and, even that stuff can be done well…except the misogyny. That shit’s always gross. But, I’m losing the thread…picking it up again).
One thing I assumed that I’d do for each artist in this project was pick a couple favorite songs to frame my appreciation of his/her work. I am struggling, and mightily, to pick the best, or even a favorite song on Introducin’. It starts slow for me…by which I mean I only like tracks two through four (“Introducin’,” “Dumbtron” and “Take 2”), while I flat-out fucking love tracks five through eleven. Whether themes, structure, sampling, flow, or just the general creativity, I can find something to return to and sit with in every single song.
My thin knowledge of music sorta pisses me off here. To my uneducated ear, the sampling recalls jazz, producing a fluid, melodic sound that I don’t hear often enough in hip hop. Or, to rephrase, Willie Evans makes really pretty music, or at least more elegant than most. He declares his personal independence by way of rhymes that hit his own themes ("twenty-sided dice"?) and that does it really fucking smart. That thought makes me lean toward “Nerd English” as the emblematic song on Introducin’, a tune that 1) celebrates the stuff he likes, while 2) resisting (or, better, calling bullshit on) narrow definitions of how hip hop should look and sound, and what it should talk about. (Side note: the music in the video linked to above bleeds into what is, for me, the best Willie Evans song, “Moon Foot.” Ooh....audio's kinda shitty on that one; sorry.)
There’s this great couplet in Childish Gambino’s “Fire Fly” (unrelated, but I stumbled on a slick little remix of that one):
“These black kids want somethin' new, I swear it,
Somethin' they wanna say but couldn't cause they embarrassed”
I love that line, and I think it tracks my love/fascination with Willie Evans. I don’t know the rest of his work – I mean, Introducin’ is it (hey, working on it) – but I'll always clap for any declaration of individual autonomy that isn't, y'know, monstrous and/or racist. Willie Evans resists the mindset and collection of thoughts, traits and/or ideas that define “hip hop” or even “blackness,” and that has an almost treacherous feel of telling me (or confirming) that the weird, cross-cultural explosion that has been the post-internet age hasn't only told white nationalists that, yes, they have friends (or other doltish pieces of shit) to talk to, but that, by way of the same ethereal machinery, that I can understand that, like me, an essentially random kid from Baltimore, Maryland (Ta-Neishi Coates), liked comic books and Dungeons and Dragons just as much as I, a kid from the the most conservative part of Ohio, did at the same age. Basically, if teenage boys from vastly different circumstances like the same stuff, maybe there's something not just to that idea, but to the music underneath it. And if the music that the words dance over is goddamn fantastic, so much the better.
Viva individuality, basically. And viva Willie Evans. (BONUS: This review provides some background on Willie Evans and musical connections, y’know, for future exploration. Happy spelunking!)
* That I still have to suppress the habit of using the word “band” says a lot about my musical background.