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4/5. So I listened to clipping's Splendor and Misery experimental-hip-hop-space-opera album, which I had not heard of (because I live under a rock) before it was nominated for the Hugo.

TL;DR: It is awesome and you should listen to it (I listened to it on Spotify, but if you don't have spotify you can listen to it on YouTube, either the full album or tracks — 1-15 are the actual tracks, 16 is the full album, and 17 is a fanvid) and totally vote for it for the Hugo!

IT IS AWESOME. I mean, it's basically a Daveed Diggs tour-de-force showing him off in about twenty different ways (you know how fast he raps in "Guns and Ships" in Hamilton? I think he raps even faster here!), but also it's a space opera! and has all sorts of references to SF! and digs into questions about slavery and freedom and solitude and rhythm… It says something that the first thing I did after listening to it was… go back to the beginning and listen to it again.

From Sub Pop (clipping's label):

Splendor & Misery is an Afrofuturist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him. Thinking he is alone and lost in space, the character discovers music in the ship’s shuddering hull and chirping instrument panels. William and Jonathan’s tracks draw an imaginary sonic map of the ship’s decks, hallways, and quarters, while Daveed’s lyrics ride the rhythms produced by its engines and machinery. In a reversal of H.P. Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic insignificance, the character finds relief in learning that humanity is of no consequence to the vast, uncaring universe. It turns out, pulling the rug out from under anthropocentrism is only horrifying to those who thought they were the center of everything to begin with. Ultimately, the character decides to pilot his ship into the unknown—and possibly into oblivion—instead of continuing on to worlds whose systems of governance and economy have violently oppressed him.


It is elliptic and somewhat abstract and it's hard to piece together exactly what's going on (which may be a turnoff to some people, of course; for me it's kind of a draw). I have a couple of thoughts on this below.

The first several songs ("The Breach," "All Black," and "Interlude 1" are the most straightforward in terms of describing the revolt by 2331; his dealing with the solitude of being the only person on board through music and rhythm (which leads to "Long Way Away" and "True Believer" as parts of 2331 singing/creating-music/possibly-hallucinating); the computer monitoring and finally falling in love with him, and enforcing the solitude through protecting and warning away all others.

Diggs plays all the characters. As far as I can tell, the rapid-fire tightly-wound rapping without background static is the computer. 2331's rapping is a more rough and rhythmic freestyle which generally is highly filtered (so as to appear as to be coming through an intercom-like system).

We're clearly also meant to take any track that has a significant static/filtered-intercom component to the chorus (e.g., "Long Way Away," "True Believer") to be indicative of 2331's state of mind (potentially, given that "Long Way Away" switches to non-static in the middle, we're meant to find a commonality between 2331's "long way away" and our own day's long way away from true freedom — or possibly even a collaboration between the computer and 2331).

That begs the question of "Air 'Em Out" and what's going on in that song, which does not have any static (there are some airlock sounds). The general opinion on the interwebs, I think, is that 2331 is the protagonist of this song, which is a gangster-rap version of 2331's hallucinations and leads to him having a power "high" before crashing badly in "Break the Glass."

I am not so sure. I mean, I'm not discounting the possibility, and I'm not exactly a hip-hop expert so maybe there are signals here I'm not getting, but it seems to me that given that all the other songs (except "A Better Place," but I'll get to that) signal 2331's POV through static/filtering, and there's none of that here, there might be something else going on. I personally believe that the character of "Air 'Em Out" is actually a third character, the state that's going after 2331, the representatives of the System that thinks that if 2331 is killed, "it ain't nobody dead, just some motherfuckin' riders" (a la "The Cold Equations"). (To be fair, the lyrics "'Cause the Ekumen ain't everything" doesn't necessarily support my hypothesis, although in my reading it is the dystopian State rejecting the humanistic tendencies of the Ekumen.)

I have no idea what's going on with Story 5, which apparently is supposed to be a clipping sort of thing where they put out Story tracks that don't necessarily relate to the album theme? It does seem indicative of the theme of the futility of trying to do good and work against the System. Ugh.

It occurs to me that by the time of "Baby Don't Sleep" that the computer is sounding a lot more like 2331 than like itself in "The Breach."

So, "A Better Place": this is pretty clearly mostly 2331 at the beginning (reprising the first track) and the computer the rest of the time — except that the chorus ("There must be a / Better place to / Be somebody / Be somebody else") starts getting more and more filtered. And it's hard for me to tell about the "Let's go" as well at the end — I don't know whether 2331 is part of that at all; he could be, but I can't really tell. Perhaps that's part of the point: it could be that the computer and 2331 are merging in terms of goals and voice, or it could be that they're so separate that there's no combining them, really, only solitude: a microcosm of the enforced solitude that we already see between 2331 and the rest of humanity.

…The point is, I think, that it's rich enough to admit of several ways of thinking about it, and the more one listens and thinks about it, the more one can draw out, which I really like.


I don't love it as much as Hamilton. Some of the reasons are my own proclivities: I really love the Broadway/hip-hop fusion of Hamilton and the way LMM plays with musical convention. The other thing is that there's a certain amount of emotional depth and range to Hamilton that is necessarily not present in S&M, given that there are only two characters, one of which is a computer. Diggs does a great job in infusing the computer with emotion over the course of the album (contrast "Baby Don't Sleep" with "The Breach") but it's still true that the range is basically [no-emotion anger], and that's pretty much it.

But! it is amazing and it totally, totally should get a Hugo.

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