You might have heard (or might not - it’s not really that big of a deal) that onstage in Minnesota Friday night, a fan rushed on stage and gave Danny Brown a blowjob while he rapped with his usual aplomb. This makes me sad and a little disgusted, but probably not for an obvious reason.
First off, this is not a moral argument. I’m not against blow jobs or sex. I’m not out to critique any practice or power structure.1 I just think getting head on stage is bad form. And more than that - representative of bad art. It shows a fairly glaring (if overlookable) problem that permeates Brown’s music.
The basis of art is representation. Cave paintings, epic poems, Catholic mass, the tango, impressionism, expressionism, the young adult novel, and the advertorial. Every form of art works through representation, which can be accepted generally to function by means of metaphor. A tango might mean Argentine nationalism, a poem may be about mortality, and a rap can tell its listeners that the rapper is the most powerful person in the world. In none of these cases does that entail the pair of dancers opening fire on enemy combatants, the poet killing herself, or the rapper actually murdering all his enemies. Because, metaphor.
What if we got rid of representation and metaphor in performances? Picture the Watch The Throne tour, stripped of all pretense and metaphor. It would be all Jay-Z walking you through the 10-K forms and quarterly filings of his investments while Kanye negotiates loudly with a realtor. Instead of jamming out masturbatory guitar solos, picture Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix mic’d up, grunting, jerking off under a bright spotlight on center stage. That’s Danny Brown getting head on stage.
And I guess, maybe, part of the problem is that I’d like to think that all the money, cash, hoes stuff in music (not just rap, obviously) is about more than just money, cash, and hoes. Like the Caramanica profile of Atlanta strip clubs and their sort of necessary evil role in marketing some of the best music being made today. But maybe it’s not about anything else. Maybe there is no metaphoricity to some music. Maybe a lap dance is just a lap dance. Maybe there’s no art to a big part of Danny Brown’s music.
I sat around all morning listening to different Danny Brown tracks, eventually settling on one of my favorite mixtapes of all-time, XXX. Think about a few songs. The pair of incredibly condescending toward the end, “Nosebleeds” and “Party All The Time” — both about a woman who goes out, snorts blow, and starfucks. Between the low-key production, even lower-key delivery, and patronizing lyrical tone it’s pretty clear Danny thinks these girls generally live life ‘the wrong way’. The girl’s scummy life in “Nosebleeds” leads to her own sexual arousal. The one in “Party All The Time” sounds like an annoying bitch:
Always wanna go
Always tell her yes, never tell her no
Know you think you know everything but don’t
Wanna do the right thing but probably won’t
So you chase the nightlife, blinded by the lights
Bottom of a empty glass, where you find life
Always left behind, because she think she right
Thinking that she grown she don’t need your advice
And always in situation that she needs your help
But wouldn’t help another only care her about herself
Come on, really? The protagonist in “Party All The Time” is probably the most complex or extended picture of a woman in any Danny Brown song, and it’s just to illustrate that she’s a needy, confused asshole who likes to get high and fuck. This sentiment, just a few tracks after Brown, straightfaced and approving, claims that getting fucked up is in his “DNA”. I mean, I really, really like Danny Brown’s music. He’s number one on my pointless and personal Greatest Living MCs list. But at some point, I have to wonder whether the metaphors for sexual adventure are very entertaining, or whether the straightforward and lavish descriptions of sexual conquest are a metaphor for anything greater. “Outer Space” is a pretty cool, DOOM-ish romp, but then lines like “Love a feminist bitch, oh, it get my dick hard / So no apologies for all the misogyny” and “I’m Wes Craven with X cravings / Fuck a bitch mouth until her fucking face cave in” make me think there’s not a lot of there there.
The (probably) greatest song of ‘our’ generation, “Ignition (Remix)” is just an extended metaphor for fucking, but it’s by turns hilarious, witty, and, most importantly, makes you feel really good. It would be a lot less great if Kelly just repeated variations on “I’m gonna fuck you because I’m famous”. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t really create a rewarding experience when Danny says he’s going to cave in some bitch’s face with his dick.
The things I like about Danny Brown are in descending order: his ridiculous, entertaining flow; weird and funny imagery; impeccable (and off-center) beat selection; semi-relatable struggle tales. Nowhere on the list are Brown’s gaudy and literal sexploitation jams.
I wasn’t there. Maybe it was tastefully done. The thing is, when you utterly drop any pretense of metaphoricity or artistic purpose, you start to verge awfully close to the utterly narcissistic and self-serving films of Vincent Gallo or, say, Sarah Palin’s vapid and vacant “you betcha” politics. A triumph of force over mastery, outcome over process, or want over need.
It’s incredibly difficult to make music that’s catchy, technically good, and about something. Most of the time, I’ll settle for just one of those. “Molly Ringwald”, a song about fucking a redhead on molly - ok, that song sounds cool and it’s catchy. But there are really diminishing returns on the general subject, so it becomes more and more about execution. Entirely artless Danny Brown performances (public, on record, whatever) make me think I’m sort of a fool for overlooking his missteps. Danny Brown is still, don’t get me wrong, my favorite rapper, though the gap is closing between him and a score of guys ten years his junior. It’s not like anyone’s keeping score, though. There aren’t really any aging curves for artistic performance (I mean, there are, but there aren’t). But it’s also pretty clear to me that if Danny Brown is going to put less and less effort into coming up with either 1) more artistic ways to say stupid shit or 2) more stupid ways to say artistic shit, then I’m going to put less effort into listening.
This all is to bracket one of the more obvious points, which is that a few days earlier some fans groped tour opener Kitty Pryde, which seems obviously to have upset her. That same night, of course, Danny Brown or someone whom he retweeted mentioned that a female fan ran on stage and grabbed Danny’s dick - an act he was pleased with. A few nights later someone comes on stage and gives Brown head. What’s the analogous progression for his young, female opener? Of course, you can look up her own personal thoughts on the matter. This is all my own sort of conjecture. ↩
I don’t know why it was that, of all the obsessions in my notably obsessive life, my most expensive habit came to be perfume. What I do know is that, for a very long time, I would not talk about this to a single living soul.
Things are different than they were when I started out. Fragrance-smelling and fragrance criticism are not weird, outre hobbies any more. They do it on The Awl. Writers I like outside the smell world – Emily Gould, Judy Berman – have mentioned or written about Perfumes: The Guide and Now Smell This. P:TG is incredibly highly-praised, even among people who aren’t nerdy about fragrance, because it’s just a fascinating and well-written book.
When I started, it was around 2006. You had to dig and Google and – in my case – read the editors’ retraction of a plagiarized article on Slate to find out about the weird, intense world of perfume fandom and criticism. It wasn’t okay to like perfume; it was kinda tacky, and having a whole lot of perfume was (a) a waste of money, and (b) vaguely pathetic, like you’d stocked up on weapons of seduction because you were actually 55 and lived alone with your cats and sometimes made them get married to each other. I once had an office job and a fucking legendary collection, including several vintage Roudnitskas, about 5 Lutens, and a Malle (you might not know what this means; that’s fine, this article is about how you might not know what it means, and why that’s OK) which I then gave away because I was moving in with a dude and I didn’t want him to know I had it.
So, on the one hand, I feel relief. Finally! I can talk about this! YOU GUYS. I HAVE WANTED TO TALK ABOUT THIS FOR SO LONG.
On the other hand, I miss my vintage Roudnitskas. And I think it’s important for you to know: I have been way, way more into this than the average person for about seven years. And the guys behind the counter at Aedes de Venustas – the best perfume shop in New York, maybe America, maybe anywhere; high-end, critically beloved designers like L’Artisan make perfumes just for their store, including one that is supposed to smell like their store — still scare the shit out of me.
Learning about scent can be difficult, weird, intimidating; it seems like such an abstract, arcane, pointless form of knowledge. Worse, it’s wrapped up in high-end style and cosmetics, so there’s always going to be an unfortunate Ladies Who Lunch vibe overshadowing your enjoyment. And then, there’s the Aedes De Venustas Counter Dude Fear: Perfume can be great, or it can be terrible, and you have to choose one. And the dudes at Aedes know everything about what is good and terrible, because they run the best perfume store in America, and they are watching you, right now, and THEY WILL KNOW IF YOU CHOOSE WRONG.
All of this can, very easily, divert you away from smelling things and into considerations of “taste.” Your taste, good taste, bad taste. Whether your taste is the correct taste. Whether you have taste at all.