"I'm being really ratchet right now," the up-and-coming rapper Le1f tells me over the phone. He's on a train, and I've asked him what his wildest music video fantasy would look like. He laughs, but he doesn't demur. "I don't think I'm being like Marina Abramovic, but that's totally where I want to take it: pulling strands of pearls through wounds in my body while rapping. That sounds really crackin' to be honest."
If you don't know Le1f, aka Khalif Diouf, you will. He's been making waves in the New York rap scene among queer and straight listeners alike. And for all his subversive ideas, he's got the potential for broad appeal. (Referring to him as a "gay rapper," while accurate, is a misdirection, he points out; "female rap" isn't a genre either.)
"I don't necessarily need it to be a fucking Lady Gaga," Le1f says. "But I definitely have ideas that require screens and projection and hired dancers."
Hey, Le1f's new EP dropping tomorrow, includes the single "Boom." ("How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep?") It's his first project since signing with Terrible Records, a move that establishes his position in the indie scene with labelmates like Grizzly Bear and Dev Hynes. The deal is part of a joint venture with XL recordings, which carries blockbuster names such as Thom Yorke and Vampire Weekend. "I don't necessarily need it to be a fucking Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson production," he says. "But I definitely have ideas that require screens and projection and hired dancers."
At Wesleyan University, where he majored in dance, Le1f, 24, wrote beats for Das Racist, including the track "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," which made them internet famous. But Le1f was destined to make his own mark on the widening hip-hop landscape. He has released three mixtapes, most recently Tree House, whose track "Damn Son" Pitchfork called an "unqualified banger."
When I ask Le1f for a tour of his musical influences, he narrates his version of Genesis in a matter-of-fact tone. "Music history starts in 1994 with Aaliyah. And then you put on Missy Elliott and Timbaland and that's the second day, and on the third day there was Lil' Kim and Junior Mafia. After that it's like Bjork and weird shit."
Perhaps the most unique thing about Le1f's music is it's deep sensuality in a genre that tends toward phallus comparisons, the objectification of women, and the trivialization of sex. He is at times theatrical or ironic, but the defining characteristic of his music is potency. His lush, clubby beats and agile lyrical delivery thrust him toward a trajectory of pop-rap radio play.
That's not to say his lyrics lack depth or timely social commentary. "It's my place to talk about issues within the gay community as well as gay rights," he says. "Taxi," one of the songs on his forthcoming full-length album, is about "racist gay dudes in the club" who ignore him precisely the way taxi cab drivers ignore him on the street.
"The Gaystream doesn't care about diversity," Le1f says. "I'm not going to shy away from what it feels like to be unaccepted as a gay person."
Twelve studio albums is a long time to maintain your edge, but Drive-By Truckers show no signs of fatigue on the compelling English Oceans. While the band has maintained a consistent identity over the years, telling hard-luck stories of everyday people with nonjudgmental eloquence, subtle changes have helped them stay fresh, namely new faces in the supporting cast and a gradual shift to a greater sharing of creative power. Where Patterson Hood seemed to be the main driving force in the early days, fellow writer and singer Mike Cooley has emerged as a more substantial and confident contributor, and provides 6 of the 13 songs here. His folkier voice may sound too understated at first, but serves as an effective counterpoint to Hood’s bluesier and brasher displays. Highlights include "Made Up English Oceans," inspired by real-life political smear master Lee Atwater, and the epic, eight-minute lament "Grand Canyon."
Equally adept at dirty, two-fisted rock and tender ballads, Drive-By Truckers still have their mojo. Long may they roll.
Western discussion of Pakistan tends to focus on geopolitics and terrorism. In this refreshing break from the policy stuff, Haroon Ullah, a Pakistani American scholar and diplomat, tells the story of a middle-class family struggling to stay united as violence, political turmoil, and extremism threaten to tear the country apart. The book reads like a novel—whose rich dialogue, colorful characters, and vivid descriptions of Lahore blend seamlessly with historical context to offer glimpses of a Pakistan we rarely see.
Time Warner's HBO hopes to attract more rap fans to watch Game of Thrones with a hip-hop mixtape featuring rappers like Big Boi.
Game of Thrones, HBO's hit fantasy saga of blood, sex, and politics, returns for a fourth season in April. The season premiere will be preceded by this 10-song mixtape, titled Catch the Throne, which is set for release on Friday. (Click here for the track list; songs are based on specific episodes of the show.) The featured artists, such as Common, Wale, and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, seem super-enthusiastic about nerding out over this fantasy epic. For instance, here is "Mother of Dragons" by Big Boi (of Outkast fame), which includes the lyric:
"Fuck the Lannisters and everybody ridin' with 'em / Jon Snow and the Night's Watch finna slide some iron in 'em."
("HBO has not revealed if a Tyrion response track is forthcoming," reportedRolling Stone.)
"Usin' my king knack for words, as a actual sword / I could decapitate a rapper / If he be lacking, he gone."
(Wale has previously rapped extensively about his love for the TV show Seinfeld, and has even collaborated with Jerry Seinfeld himself.)
George R. R. Martin, the famous 65-year-old author of the books on which the show is based, was not available to comment on the Game of Thrones rap mixtape. "I am sure he loves it but I won't be able to get a quote for ya," says Vince Gerardis, Martin's manager and a Game of Thrones co-executive producer (along with Martin). "I love it," Gerardis added.
Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.
The Americans is one of the best shows on television, and one thing that made the first season so good was its mining of Cold War history for intelligent suspense drama. The episode "In Control," which revolves around the attempted assassination of President Reagan (and the whereabouts of the nuclear football, and then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig's "I am in control here" quote), is wonderful. The first season also uses Reagan's budding "Star Wars" initiative in a story arc. Furthermore, Philip's (ongoing) second marriage to FBI secretary Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) is based on real-life instances of KGB agents marrying the secretaries of government officials to obtain information.
"We can't make the claim of teaching a history lesson, but it can be a springboard for learning about the fascinating real history," says Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans who also happens to be a CIA veteran.
On Sunday, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, DC, in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup, a violinist and family man based in Saratoga Springs, New York, was forced to work on Louisiana plantations for 12 years.
On January 20, 1853 (the same year Northup's memoir Twelve Years a Slave was published), the New York Times ran a report on Northup titled, "The Kidnapping Case," promising "interesting disclosures" (it spells his name "Northrup"):
"By the laws of Louisiana no man can be punished there for having sold Solomon into slavery wrongfully, because more than two years had elapsed since he was sold; and no recovery can be had for his services, because he was bought without the knowledge that he was a free citizen," the story reads.
This morning, everybody is talking about Matthew McConaughey's folksy, funny, and kinda preachy Oscar acceptance speech.
In it, McConaughey did something you rarely hear in one of these: He crossed the streams of science and religion. Specifically, after thanking God, McConaughey added that "He," with the super big capital H, "has shown me that it's a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates."
What is McConaughey talking about?
Turns out he isn't just winging it: A decade of research has defined gratitude as a social emotion that, while related to empathy, is nonetheless distinct from it. Feeling gratitude helps bind us to our groups and communities and enhances social relationships. And it isn't just humans: Primatologist Frans de Waal has observed behaviors that look a heck of a lot like gratitude in chimpanzees, who are more likely to share food with other chimps who have recently groomed them.
What's the payoff of feeling grateful, of "paying it forward," and of helping out those who help you? The research suggests more hope and optimism, a better ability to manage stress, a tendency to exercise more and even sleeping better. And while not all of us are as naturally adept at feeling grateful, the research also suggests there are interventions you can do to turn your life on a more thankful path: Simply writing down the things you're thankful for, on a regular basis, seems to bring on these benefits.
On the Thanksgiving episode of Inquiring Minds last year, we discussed this growing body of research suggesting that the emotion of gratitude has many beneficial effects, singling out one recent gratitude study in particular, which showed a link between feelings of gratitude and the avoidance of risky behaviors like using drugs and engaging in teenage sex in African American youth. (The study did not, however, establish causation.) The discussion starts roughly at minute 3:
Obviously, a lot of people, like McConaughey, want to hop on board this research and ride it to a religious destination. But you don't have to, because thankfulness can certainly occur outside of a faith-based context.
In other words, there was a gem of wisdom in McConaughey's speech that, religious or not, you can put to good use.
On the one hand, it's a little tired to obsess over Oscar snubs in what is essentially a Hollywood popularity contest. On the other, we wouldn't have to do this if the Academy weren't so wrong all the time. These five original songs, whether for petty rules reasons or basic Academy oversight, couldn't even garner nominations—but they're still more than worth your time.
Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" (Dangerous Minds, 1995): Did you even remember this movie existed? It's novel, groundbreaking plot—a passionate teacher gets inner city kids to love learning!—and high level schmaltz were panned by critics. Roger Ebert even dug into the autobiography the film was based on and found that the real-life teacher used famous hip-hop songs to connect with her students—the movie (ironically, given the soundtrack) whitewashes the musical connection to Bob Dylan. "Gangsta's Paradise" rightfully eclipsed its source material, going on to sell millions of copies, inspire one of Weird Al's most popular songs, and win a Grammy and two MTV Video Music Awards. Coolio's trophy case lacks an Oscar, though, since songs that rely on sampled or reworked material can't be nominated. (Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" is sampled throughout.) "Colors of the Wind" from Disney's Pocahontas won that year instead, beating out another artist on this list.
Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)" (Romeo+Juliet, 1996): This haunting track plays over the credits to Baz Luhrmann's modernization of Shakespeare. The band didn't want it to be included on the movie's official soundtrack, though, so it ended up on 1997's OK Computer, which did pretty well for itself. Radiohead was on tour with Alanis Morisette when Luhrmann sent over an unfinished cut of the last 30 minutes of the film and asked for a song. The rest is history, though the success of "Exit Music" was far from assured at the time; guitarist Ed O'Brien said in a 1997 interview that he didn't like the idea of a credits song because "it will have to compete with the sound of chairs clapping up." Madonna's "You Must Love Me" won the Oscar that year, but Radiohead can still lay claim to stopping Marilyn Manson from jumping off a cliff.
"America (Fuck Yeah)" (from Team America: World Police, 2004): It shouldn't be too controversial to call this the best patriotic satire ever to be featured in a movie starring marionettes. The South Park crew's action extravaganza struck out at the Oscars—maybe because the movie killed off half of Hollywood—but this track lives on in the hearts and minds of YouTube uploaders and internet commenters everywhere. Jorge Drexler's "Al otro lado del río" from The Motorcycle Diaries took home the statue, beating out the Counting Crows song that made sure an entire generation would never revisit August and Everything After.
Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" (The Wrestler, 2008): The Boss already has an Oscar for "Streets of Philadelphia" and was nominated again for 1995's "Dead Man Walkin'." That doesn't make "The Wrestler" any less deserving though. Bruce wrote the song after receiving a heartfelt letter from star Mickey Rourke—the two had been friends, but lost touch in he midst of Rourke's personal troubles—and ended up giving them the track for free. The melancholy track won a Golden Globe, but to everyone's surprise wasn't even nominated by the Academy. "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire won that year. At least it was a much worthier competitor than Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," which beat out "The Wrestler" for a prestigious MTV Movie Award.
Metric's "Black Sheep" (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, 2010): That every original song from this move wasn't given 10 Oscars each is a crime that Canadian courts are probably too polite to prosecute. Beck, Broken Social Scene, and Metric served as stand-ins for the Toronto-set film's bands, with "Black Sheep" getting the nod for actress Brie Larson's performance in the movie itself. (Metric's full version appears on the soundtrack.) Randy Newman's "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3 won the Oscar that year, probably because Academy members couldn't stop crying. Still, in an alternate universe, Metric wins and Crash and the Boys play "We Hate You Please Die" on the Oscar stage.
Correction: The original post incorrectly listed Alison Brie, not Brie Larson, as the actress who performed in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
Beck's first album since 2008 does not beg for your attention. In fact, Morning Phase may seem a bit listless at first, but give it time to take effect, and what emerges is a understated yet uncompromising work of serious beauty. Returning to the reflective mode of his haunting 2002 opus Sea Change, Mr. Hansen delivers a stirring set of acoustic folk- and country-tinged tunes (with the occasional string section) about heartbreak and alienation but tempered by glimmers of hope. The moonlit, slow-burning "Wave" underscores his gift for using that deadpan, almost impassive voice to hint at oceans of emotion.
Over an unpredictable career spanning more than two decades, this mercurial talent has been a hip-hop deconstructor, an indie-rock trickster, and a funk dilettante. Here, he's a brilliant, irony-free balladeer, liberated from distracting gimmicks and guises. Listen: