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Written by Tom Baumser
Perhaps a little late with this one, but the mad dash of the holidays and the post-holidays work rush doesn’t allow for the kind of free time one wishes for in order to complete criticism on a deadline. Earl Sweatshirt, born Thebe Kgositsile, had a year in 2018; on January 3rd, his father (who has loomed large in Earl’s music explicitly or not) passed away. He was a poet laureate of South Africa who left Earl and his mother to bring his people’s culture back to the country post-apartheid. Earl and he had promised to have a man-to-man chat about the decision. It never happened. Subsequently, Earl went into hiding, citing depression and consternation at the fact. Who could blame him?
This bring us to Some Rap Songs; more fragmented than The Life of Pablo while more dense and insular, his track runtimes speak to a hardcore punk aesthetic that he has utilized since his beginning, consciously or not. Hip hop as a whole has been trending towards shorter song lengths thanks in large part to the abundance of internet rappers, of which Earl was a pioneer, but his focus on brevity here seems to stem from the fault of language in the hands of those who speak without context. Tellingly, the first phrase on the album is “Imprecise words” on ‘Shattered Dreams,’ followed later in the tracklist by the intentionally audible, “closed lips make the mouth breathers frown” (‘Ontheway!’) and bookended by “say goodbye to my openness” (‘Eclipse’).
In between those songs is a thick murk of the dirty avant-garde usually found on an Earl Sweatshirt album, now with lower fidelity and vocals lower in the mix. This space is utilized so that when the album kicks up its energy initially in ‘Cold Summers,’ the muffled piano and drums come off with serious momentum. This strategy also forces the listener to pay attention to the lyrics as they come; most clearly on ‘Nowhere2go’ where Earl gives as close to a thesis as he’s ever come to: “Tryna refine this shit/I redefine myself.” After his troubled youth led him to be canonized as a woman-hating messiah, Earl has tried everything to walk that image back, and with each new album comes a slight reinvention of his sound, granting him that chance.
The album twinkles and shrouds itself in haze, it tumbles and shuffles and clangs and hobbles, acting as some cross between an infant and a coal powered engine. Its short runtime optimizes it for repeated listenings since its fragmented nature makes it easy to miss noteworthy soundscapes the first time around, and seems to reflect Earl’s state of mind during recording. A candidness about mental health and his own depression has littered Earl’s work and Some Rap Songs is no different; most tracks have a reference to what’s going on in his head and it’s usually not pretty. It even earns Earl’s first solo jab at the presidency of The Great Cheeto (‘Veins’) and his problems with white supremacy (‘The Mint’).
After all that Earl has been through, it’s also telling that on an album full of his most self-dissecting songs to date, comes his warmest. ‘Azucar’ is Spanish for sugar, and over the course of its minute-and-a-half, Earl expresses gratitude to women in his life—“it’s not a black woman I can’t thank”—including his mother when she compliments him on looking like his father —“said I was not offended”—rounding it out by name—checking most of the oddball NYC rappers he’s had to keep him grounded. All the while, the production breaches from and dives repeatedly into the depth of his psyche. This is Earl at his most levelheaded, proud, and not coincidentally, strong.
After dragging through the painful depressive and semi drunk-dredges of ‘Peanut,’ he ends on the highest note possible by invoking his recently passed Uncle Hugh Masekela’s song ‘Riot.’ The treatment on the song is so full of poignancy, one could be forgiven for forgetting that it’s a moment of celebration, best experienced on a warm spring afternoon. It’s here that Earl does redefine himself. He is a man; a bridge between the jazz his father and uncle loved from South Africa, the literary background he was gifted by his parents, and the off-key hip hop that he is so inherently gifted at creating. He best shows this in ‘Playing Possum’ featuring his mother and father each speaking (her, an award from the university she teaches at and him, one of his poems) with juxtaposing subject matter illustrating the reconciliation Earl is committed to finding within himself. If I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside was him feeling “more like [him]self,” then this is one hell of a cardinal direction to be traveling in.
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A few weeks ago, I virtually met a graffiti writer and painter by the name of Risky, whose work spans all around New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. To preserve his anonymity, Risky and I communicated solely through Instagram Messenger, making this undoubtedly one of the most unique and intriguing interviews in my experience. And while I may have never figured out his identity, our conversation left me with something much more.
Read our interview with Risky below!
Let’s start with a simple (or not so simple) question: Who are you, or better yet, how would you like to us to know you?
Haha. Oh, man—I’m still developing that day by day. The thing about this path is you really let your actions speak and that’s something I’ve always been attracted to with graffiti from the start. Graffiti has enabled me access another frame of mind to communicate to the world around me. I’d like people to recognize my work over the years as a graffiti writer from New Jersey first and foremost. Just to be remembered and to be a part of the culture paved by so many others has been a true honor.
Well, just hearing your introduction tells me that your passionate about your art. Do you remember a moment in your life when you knew that this is something you wanted to be involved in?
I had always admired things I’d see on class trips into NYC and catch around NJ for sure, but the exact moment I self-actualized being a graffiti writer was probably in the summer of '06 or '07. One of my first big interests was skateboarding. A bunch of older kids hosted a skate competition. Long story short, I won. Needless to say, I was extra stoked and was then invited to an art show/afterparty—there, I saw a gathering of kids out back who were hitting tags. The ink was yellow and it was dripping! Like the tags I saw in NYC, I immediately went over and they just as quickly dispersed from the area—leaving me alone to watch the ink slowly drip and dry... After, I headed back to the art show where I was introduced to two guys at a merch table—I was introduced as the winner of the contest and was gifted a DVD—that DVD alone was Day In The Lyfe. That DVD single-handedly blew my mind—and after watching, I recognized one of the writer's faces whose face was blurred out and voice distorted, as the person who gave me the DVD. Since then, the dots have continued to connect down a seemingly endless path that is graffiti.
That’s amazing! I was actually going to mention that aside from the visual appeal of it all, my favorite thing about graffiti artists/writers is that while they’re expressing themselves, they also maintain their anonymity and such a sense of mystery. It’s so intriguing!
I agree. In an age of Snapchat/Facebook/Instagram live, transparency anonymity always will be cool.
With that said, let’s dig in deeper: What are your favorite things to tag? Is that something you just decide in the moment?
Any party of the female anatomy, fresh walls, anything that moves (trucks, dumpsters, trains), visible high spots and street level tags, rusty stuff with whiteout pens/kilz—I mean, whatever. Its graffiti! 80% in the moment, 20% peer pressure/its just too good a spot not to hit. Over time, I’ve become much more picky about what I do and don’t hit.
Oh early on it was “anything goes,” but over time, you learn about "THE BUFF" and you start to get smarter and pick spots that will last years as opposed to weeks. Also, what states, cities, town, streets, corners and times—all of this becomes a rolodex in your mind when choosing when and where to hit.
So, what about your favorite cities to hit?
I haven’t really traveled much—Philly for sure, Montreal, and NYC for sure.
Now going back to your name, graffiti itself is risky business. How do you go about doing it successfully? Is there a certain time of day, or way that you have to do it?
It most definitely is. Well, night is perfect cover, so most occurs late night. 1 AM-6 AM is a vandal's witching hour for sure. You should be as meticulous, cautious, planned, and prepared as possible—but life doesn’t always offer up those windows, so improvisation is a good skill to have. Oh, and a combination of brazen idiocy, determination and stoic stubbornness go a long way, too...
Any crazy or memorable moments you recall from the witching hour?
Way too many—and many I don’t recall at all, but have proof that they happened. This could be a book. Every writer has their “fishing stories” for sure.
I hope you know that only made me more curious... Let’s retract a bit. People obviously have their own subjective interpretations, but how would you describe your visual style? What does your work mean to you?
Well “style” is regional in graffiti. The true essence of “style” can be traced back to the early 70’s NYC graffiti, where writers started reinventing letters and using colors as a sort of unique expression to set themselves apart from one another. The most pure form is the “tag,” or a “John Hancock." It’s a signature that is ubiquitous of that writer. My tag has developed over my lifetime to become something that evokes speed, grace, precision, originality and legibility. It formed organically and has direct influence from writers I saw coming up. A great tag is one with flow, be it chaotic or thought out. Originality, like in art, is almost a unicorn since all writers are a product of influence. A great style or tag stands apart and evokes in an instant, a writers purpose: “Here I am. I did this here." The place/time can be deciphered or debated among the viewed in their own time/space—but the overall impression should have a lasting and impactful effect. The how/why are almost inconsequential to the immediate effect of the viewer to the tag. Therefore, I am unable to express, nor understand, my own style. It is for the other, only—never to be discovered by the writer. That phenomenon is what I enjoy most; I am both creator and onlooker to what I create, but will never truly understand the individual impact of my mark. My work is myself, therefore I cannot comment on it without defiling or raping the meaning of my actions. Simply put, my work is as it. I am wholly in control of the chaos I choose to immerse myself in.
Do you find graffiti becoming more socially acceptable now, or no?
Absolutely. It’s really not a point to be contested. It’s in branding across the board, and rarely do these companies give back/support the culture in any way, which is fine, 'cause it’s graffiti—it’s meant to be wild, intangible and in the streets, not bottled and sold to mindless consumers.
I feel like there’s a sense of danger that, to me, is an integral part of it. You mentioned an age of social media earlier and I feel like it’s made so many things evolve. Now you’ll see people modeling on Instagram using random graffiti they see on the street as a backdrop, for example. It’s quite interesting.
Everyone loves a gangster. Nobody wants to pay the tolls to haul the body haha.
Have you, or do you, practice any other forms of art, or has your focus always been solely on graffiti?
I’ve always drawn since a young age and was naturally gifted artistically. I was kicked out of an after-school art class my mom enrolled me in due to the fact that I wouldn’t follow direction. I see skateboarding as a form of art, and that was the vehicle that also drove my eye for aesthetics, music, and advertising in my teens. After high school, I pursued Graphic Design and really enjoyed and excelled at it. I was lucky to have great peers and professors, as well. In my 20s I left home for college and the graffiti bug bit. I was now seeing more and learning more, while jumping into the mix myself. After a year or so at school I had tags all over campus and was getting up all over NJ with tags and stickers and eventually met writers who’d share their knowledge of that culture. That spring-boarded into more of everything, really. I lived across from a park with train tracks and a massive wall that had a load of history from 90’s writers, so I’d take influence from them and began to unknowingly form a more unique tag, and paint more intricate pieces based off of what I saw, and from sketching with my crew mates/other writers I’d meet over the years. I still love design and have began painting canvas, but this influence will always be rooted in my graffiti.
I’ve always loved how skateboarding and street art/graffiti have always kind of coexisted. There’s such a juxtaposition of rebellion and community involved in those two worlds that I find fascinating.
This is true. I’d say more so in skateboarding, for sure. Graffiti has more drama than I can stomach these days.
In what sense?
Mental illness combined with egos mixed, for starters. Haha.
Woah. So would you say there’s some sort of tension or competitive nature involved?
Absolutely. I mean, the urge to write on things socially deemed as private property is a bit odd when you really look at it. And, yes, just a bit of advice for anyone thinking of initiating themselves into this culture: get ready for the drama—haters hate—it just important you know the rules, progress, never snitch, and stay true. This isn’t a half-steppers club haha.
Wow, I think I may have an idea for MTV’s next hit reality show... What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
Well I’ve been honored to work for the Paint For Pink project which raises awareness to breast cancer through empowering the youth in Newark. It is also a collaboration with Ironbound USA, a project started by Gary Blore. He’s been open to enlisting some of NJ’s finest graffiti artists to back his idea. It’s been a real pleasure to give back to the community and show the youth to be engaged and invest in themselves. I’d love to do more community work and keep art/community working together.
That’s awesome! Any projects at the moment?
I am compiling a zine of collected images both graffiti and non-graffiti related to get out by this fall. I’m also working with a photographer for a year-long project documenting myself that will result in a gallery showing and feature high-definition images. The guy shoots amazing, honest photography and utilizes low light in a very unique way that I’m honored to work with. Very excited for how that works out!
Well, it's been great talking to you, and thank you for sharing so much! Any final words you'd like to leave with anyone reading?
Again, just to pay respects to all the writers who paved the way in the past, my family, first and foremost, and my crews/friends who’ve stayed true and put me on, Paint for Pink/Ironbound USA family as well. Also to you, Megazine, for letting me tell my story and hopefully inspire something in someone, somewhere, somehow. Special shout to those writers not here anymore—I keep their names up always —Rest in Paint: Define, Kramp for sure!
If you’d like to keep up with Risky, follow him on Instagram or look for one of his tags in a city near you!
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