A Rational Conversation: Rembert Browne On Music In 2015, Even During The Hard Times
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
With another year down the drain, now comes the inevitable need to try to make some sense of it. In a three-part look at how we listened to and thought about music, Ducker had a series of discussions about the big topics and bizarre minutiae that made 2015 whatever the heck it was.
The final conversation is with Rembert Browne, a former staff writer for the now-shuttered Grantland who became a writer-at-large for New York magazine this November. In some of his pieces during the past year, Browne has spoken with President Obama on the way to Selma, profiled Mac Miller and Earl Sweatshirt, and written about Dev Hynes playing the Apollo Theater. On Monday over Gchat he discussed a year in which continuous devastations found their way into everyday conversations, even one that was intended to riff on the charms of Young Thug, DJ Khaled and Meek Mill's infamous tweet.
How many conversations did you have this year about whether Fetty Wap was from Atlanta or not?
It came up initially, because most rappers that come out of nowhere are actually from Atlanta, so it's a pretty good guess. But then the strength of #PatersonTwitter made it very clear that he was a product of New Jersey.
At any point in the beginning did you try to claim he was from he was from Atlanta while knowing that he wasn't?
I didn't, because I didn't love "Trap Queen" upon first listen. That wasn't until second listen, at which point I realized it was absolutely incredible. The reality is, at this point, we don't need to try to steal people from other regions. We have more than enough rappers from Atlanta. If anything, I was happy for Jersey that they finally have someone to follow up Springsteen.
What do you make of Fetty Wap's run this year? Do you think he's incredible overall or just that song?
It's been exciting to watch someone have a great song, and then another great song, and then another great song. I have no emotional investment in it, but it was fun to watch.
Who did you have an emotional investment in this year?
We'll hopefully get back to some of the other ones, but let's start with Young Thug. Did his 2015 live up to or exceed your expectations/hopes for him?
After "Mamacita," I decided that Thug was capable of anything and that it was a waste of time to have expectations because they would probably be exceeded and that I would simply be along for the ride for as long as he decides to exist. It's hard to have expectations for things you've never seen before.
What about him makes him something you've never seen before?
The level of experimentation he does with his vocals is mind-blowing. I never have any idea what he's going to do when I learn he's on a song. Probably the year's secret classic, "Maria I'm Drunk" (a secret classic, because it's not on Spotify), has Thug picking notes out of the sky, and it's always, somehow working. Also, he uses silence very well. Rests. He'll do something and then just not say anything for a full second, and then come back. Also, his attire is phenomenal and he can between-the-legs dunk. So long live Thugger.
I think "polarizing" is the polite way to describe people's reaction to him. For his detractors, they usually point to his appearance or the so-called mumbling, but do you think it more has to do with them not getting what he's doing musically?
I couldn't tell you. If you have a narrowly defined idea of what rap is, or what music is, or what lyricism is, you probably won't love Thug. I like it, though. It reminds me of improvised jazz as much as it does rap. The beautiful thing is that people are completely allowed to not like it. That's why music and art and all this stuff is so great.
What do you think about his appearance on Jamie xx's "Good Times"? That seemed like the most easily palatable appearance he made this year.
I mean, that song is 49% Jamie, 49% Thug, 2% Popcaan. It's one of the best songs of the year. It's incredible. My unpopular opinion of the year is that I enjoyed the leaked version without Popcaan more than the album version. Sue me.
You thought Popcaan was distracting or didn't add enough?
The order of the verses were switched in the album version, and I liked it in its original form. I love Popcaan, I just didn't really need him on this song. I still listen to it, and enjoy it, I just didn't need it. I've been yelled at for this opinion.
Switching from current Atlanta rap star to an original rap star, what did you make of Big Boi's project with Phantogram, Big Grams?
It's really good, loud.
In what context did you realize that?
I listened to it on headphones and didn't like it. I listened to it in a room with 18-foot speakers that were very much on, and I liked it. It's taken weeks of listens to completely buy into every post-Outkast Big Boi project, but eventually I get there. And on all three occasions, the end result is weird and great. The dude is so special.
Are you usually able to recreate the 18-foot speaker experience or do you just have to bring back the sense memory of it when you listen to it on headphones now?
I think music is best listened to in a car, so most of my listening to music these days is trash, because I live in New York. Every now and then, however, I'm in a place where music can be listened to as loud as possible. So that's nice. Also, my apartment building is a semi-dorm, so music can be blasted pretty liberally between Thursday night and Sunday morning.
Maybe you should buy a crappy car, then spend all day driving around the city listening to music and dictating your writing into voice recording program.
You're not wrong about that. Yes, you can buy me a car. Thank you for agreeing to buy me a car.
No problem, I'll ship out my 2003 Saturn Ion with 135,000 miles on it. The emergency brake is presently broken, but I recall New York being pretty flat.
I prefer low-key on a speedboat with Fat Joe in the "It's So Hard" video Khaled. That's my favorite Khaled.
Have you ever gone jet skiing before? Would you trust Khaled as your instructor?
I tried once, was like a pendulum, ended up faceplanting into the water, and I was done. Also, I'm on Twitter a lot less than people think — I think — so I'm only like 50% following these references. I don't like Snapchat.
This is a Snapchat thing, the Khaled jet skiing? I know he was lost at sea.
Yeah, he's on his jet ski a lot. He pulled up to Rick Ross's mansion once in his jet ski.
LION. KEY. I know these things. LIOONNNNNN.
Yeah, those are the highlights. Why aren't you into Snapchat?
I'm trying to lose a social medium, not gain another one. I already feel overexposed and in people's grill too much, I don't need another way to remind people that I exist.
Aren't you worried about your #personalbrand and #relevance?
Sorry, can't hear you, driving through a tunn—
Okay, I'm out. What were you asking?
What are your current feelings about musicians and social media these days?
Musicians (and famous people in general) have a lot more agency over how they're portrayed than in the past, because they can do it themselves. I think it's a good thing. I like the reality of people just putting tracks on their SoundClouds instead of feeling this need to exclusively premiere it on some blog. I don't see good writing/good journalism as an unnecessary middleman between the artist and the public. I see good journalism as something that can tell a story better than the person himself. But this newfound agency that artists have does cut out a lot of the middlemen (bad journalism, some corporate interests), which is not a bad thing. And by bad journalism, I mean lazy bought-off profiles, nuance-less opinion pieces, nothing beyond the regurgitation of facts that anyone could find on Wikipedia, etc.
Yeah, it's interesting to see who is making the most of what the direct access affords them and who it backfires on. Interest in Khaled would have diminished if he wasn't so adaptable and capable of taking advantage of new social media, but it's crazy that basically because of one Tweet now Meek Mill has this outwardly radiating cloud of failure around him.
Sorry. It's my favorite tweet of all time.
Because what it caused or because he said it?
There was just so much build up over what Meek would say. It's like when Maybach Music had that press conference a few years ago, to make some gigantic, culture-shifting announcement. And then after two hours, they said they signed Omarion and that they were calling him "Maybach O." Maybe it's not exactly like that, I just love telling that story.
So you enjoy big buildups that end in disappointments? Luckily that's the story of life!
I enjoy just finding humor in things, and not treating them any deeper than that. I loved that tweet because the sight of it makes me laugh. SO HARD.
The ridiculousness of it all.
Yeah, the immediate importance of everything, I love it. Genuinely. It took me a few years to remind myself that there was a world beyond Twitter and the Internet, but it's nice get consumed by the immediacy every now and then, especially once you've have perspective of the world beyond the bubble.
Was there a particular event in your life that helped you look beyond the Internet?
Nah, just kinda happened over time. I know that's disappointing.
No, that's just working things out.
Just got an email that says, "Even Stevie Wonder Is Dabbing Now." So that's cool.
Was there any particular music you turned to get you through 2015's tough times?
Yeah, I listened to "Heroes" by David Bowie a lot, and the various versions of "Young Gifted and Black," mainly Donny [Hathaway] and Nina [Simone], with the occasional sprinkle of [Kendrick Lamar's] "Alright" and [Outkast's] "Git Up, Git Out," especially Andre's verse. "Optimistic" by Sounds of Blackness always helps. That combo pretty much does the trick.
Has music always been able to get you through stuff?
Always, as long as I can remember stuff.
Unfortunately I'm too much of a wallower when it comes to music when things are dark. I end up putting on things that will keep me in that mood.
When things get tough, I get super zombie'd out, just go numb. Music is one of the few things that can turn my mood polar, either really sad or really happy. I welcome either.
Most of those songs you mentioned are older, and I imagine a few are connected to your past. Do you need that emotional history with them?
My entry into music is soul, so it'll always be the genre that I have the most emotional connection to, older R&B.
When you hear newer artists try to directly tie themselves/recreate the sound of that legacy, does it work for you?
Just saw that the grand jury verdict was no indictment in the shooting of Tamir Rice, who was 12. That's when I go listen to Stevie, and Aretha, and Donny. Even before Kendrick.
Just an example of what will happen in about 10 minutes to just bring myself back to a place where I can interact with humans without punching a wall, you know?
If you want to stop this, we can.
Nah, we're good.
Actually, can we?
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