By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
There’s a great line in the art-house Negro film Lift in which one character says to another, “Black people need therapy, too.” The line reverberates in the film because it’s spoken with droll precision; it reverberates in real life because it’s in pointed defiance of Afro-American cultural prejudices and misconceptions — that therapy is a “white” thing, that psychologists and psychiatrists are for the weak or pampered. The line is also weighted by its context: The film is about a young black woman who boosts jewelry and designer gear from high-end stores, selling most of her haul to a loyal clientele but using the best of it to win the heart of her emotionally frigid, materialistic mother. Lift is, among other things, a critique of the ways in which black folk — especially the hip-hop generation — use gaudy signifiers of wealth and privilege to mask emotional and spiritual wounds. Black people need therapy, too.
Rap music and hip-hop culture are rife with proof that Negroes need to stretch out on somebody’s couch and share. A lot of that proof is offered unintentionally, in lyrics and videos that reflect uncritical embrace and embodiment of racist stereotypes. But some of the proof is sly and knowing, wrapped in dark and “black” (as in culture) humor. Madness and emotional exhaustion are themes that are revisited constantly. The toll of living in poverty and despair, under the constantly reinvented rule of white supremacy, is the preferred subject matter for prophets and profiteers alike. In the last month, both Ja Rule and his obvious blueprint, DMX, have dropped CDs that are meant to be the equivalent of a tongue pushing against a loose tooth — agitating, insistent, bringing the pain.
Ja Rule’s disc, Pain Is Love, continues where his last effort, 2000’s Rule 3:36, left off. Ja, from the start of his career, has had a sharp ear for catchy pop hooks and riffs. (His remix some months ago of J.Lo’s single “I’m Real” was sublime, not only offering up one of the year’s best lines — “My appetite for loving is now my hunger pain” — but briefly giving musical heft to the Velveeta diva.) Yet where his debut, 1999’s Venni Vetti Vecci, emphasized the grit in its bubblegum-thug concoction, his second CD was remarkable primarily for its shrewd pop calculation. Splitting his material into two sharply outlined persona-modes — the barking, pitiless thug and the heartbroken, fuck-till-the-break-o’-dawn nigga — resulted in a windfall of radio and video hits.
The formula is refined on Pain, but it’s largely the same: phlegmatic vocals (listening to Ja long enough can make you crave a throat lozenge), ill-advised attempts at singing (inside every wiry thug rapper is a Fat Lutha struggling to come out), samples that desecrate R&B classics (Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do” is gracelessly sodomized on the hit single “Livin’ It Up,” which features the non-singing singing of Case), and enough bling! bling! references to make Donald Trump cry “Uncle!” At the core of it all, of course, is anxiety — about realness, authenticity and manhood — masked as ferociousness. Black people need therapy, too.
Ja makes halfhearted, if loud, references to depression and spiritual pain, but they’re overshadowed by the need to floss and fuck with equal voracity; real introspection is nowhere to be found. He doesn’t yet seem capable of it. He’s still a boy. His descriptions of life in the hood and in his head are secondhand, regurgitated from every other rap record he’s ever listened to; if there’s anything personal or heartfelt on the whole disc, it’s suffocated by Ja’s lack of — or difficulty excavating — a real inner life. Neither his sadness nor his nihilism has any undertow; it’s all the mirror reflection of a pose struck by someone who was emulating someone else’s contrived stance in the first place . . . All roads lead back to Tupac.
Saying anything remotely critical of Tupac at this point is akin to strolling through the Vatican singing XTC’s “Dear God.” It just ain’t done. What Pac did better than anyone before him was twine a hardcore pose around a growl of self-pity passed off as social commentary. By cleaving himself into two marketable poses — sensitive poet-activist/unrepentant thug — he gave his niggas permission to weep withouat appearing weak, to write off bad behavior as righteous anger. He swerved from shameless sentimentality to taunts and threats that could be either pseudo-militant or incredibly childish, but rarely contained real political depth or fresh insights. And he begat DMX, who begat Ja Rule.
In support of their new releases, both DMX and Ja Rule drape themselves in imagery from ’60s civil rights marches and demonstrations — DMX in the video for “Who We Be,” Ja Rule on one of the two album covers released for Pain Is Love. It’s a tack designed to give legitimacy and weight to their personal narratives while snagging points for political consciousness. But where DMX gives off a strong whiff of (weed and) internal struggle, and some awareness of a larger world (the album itself is deathly anemic), Ja Rule just seems like a little boy who slid on his father’s shirt and shoes, clip-clopping around the house, making a lot of noise while grinning, “Look at me!”
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