What I've Been Listening to: July 2020July 31, 2020, 10:24 PM hip-hop, Listening
Everything just comes together so well on RTJ4 by Run the Jewels.
I've been a Run the Jewels fan for quite a few years now. First, Killer Mike and EL-P are exceptional musicians. It's been true of the other Run the Jewels albums and of each's solo work. That said, I feel like RTJ is more than the sum of its parts. The rappers complement and play off one another to reach a higher level. One gets the impression that the two rappers are truly and deeply friends, as interested in supporting one another as they are in taking the spotlight, and that comradery comes off as unique, refreshing, and uplifting.
Second, the beats are fantastic. Each track grabs your attention and makes you want to bob your head, but each has a distinct sound. This is another type of musicianship, but I see it as distinct from the vocal performance. For some tracks, this probably means they reached out to other collaborators to bring new or refine sounds, but to me, this means Killer Mike and EL-P picked the right collaborators and put in clear effort to make every track pop.
Speaking of collaborators, RTJ4 calls on a handful of heavy hitters who dip in to compliment the duo perfectly. Sometimes it seems like groups, hip-hop groups, in particular, rely too heavily on guest appearances and featured artists. On this album, you'll see names like Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, and DJ Premier, and while their contributions are distinct, to my ears, they're low key. In some cases providing a back-ground hook or beat. In others, providing reinforcing the lyrics, but only after Killer Mike and EL-P have developed a song. In short, you never hear the guest upstage the artist, but rather lift them up, and it's wonderful.
One couldn't talk about RTJ without mentioning their social and political relevance. You won't hear bragging about how dangerous or cool they are as a lot of rappers lean on. Instead, RTJ 4, as with previous albums, Killer Mike and EL-P seem to want to look at society. This album speaks to racial issues, speaks to the power struggle between people and authorities, and speaks to poverty and income inequality. It really couldn't be more politically or socially topical.
That said, what really sets RTJ apart, is that with all their earnest and serious topics and feelings, they are masterfully humorous. It is a fine line to walk when coupling social problems and trying to be funny, think Dave Chappel, etc. But RTJ does just that. On the one hand, they ask you to "look at all these slave masters posin' on yo' dollar," on the other, they have a tough deep-voiced refrain chanting a very silly "ooh la la, ah, oui oui."
For RTJ, these are serious matters and serious times, but they can't help but be goof-balls, and boy, it makes it easier to swallow.
What I've Been Reading: June 2020June 30, 2020, 02:36 PM Criticism, Reading, Review, Sci-fi
Murderbot's cynicism often results in humor, but it can also become overwhelming to go through an entire story with this disparaging monologue. I've mentioned before that writing this character in novellas has been a plus, as a novel from Murderbot's POV would be a bit too much.
Enter book five, the first novel-length installment in the Murderbot series, called Network Effect. I picked it up with mixed feelings. The world-building, secondary characters, and the protagonist have all been creative. The plots have been compelling. But, I was concerned about the length, given this particular character. To my relief, Wells handled this perfectly.
We still get to experience this story through the view of the sarcastic Murderbot, but in addition, we now have a character, his employer who has known Murderbot through the entire time period of the series, and who can cut through Murderbot's facade, to put the light of criticism back on it. We get a teenage character, who like most teenagers, manages to turn judgment back on Murderbot. And, we get other sentient AIs who, for all practical purposes, start to populate family rolls for Murderbot, and they don't take Murderbot's grief quietly. In short, they won't take his crap.
I think this story works well for a couple of reasons. First, we see more viewpoints in general. In turn, we get more breaks from Murderbot's attitude. Second, we get active tit for tat on Murderbot's judgmental voice. It makes this sort of character more palatable. Finally, we really see Murderbot forced to grow. The character has to reluctantly accept that its life is changing, and has to change itself to accommodate. In many ways, the character is becoming more human, more vulnerable, more relatable, and it's endearing.
What I've Been Watching: June 2020June 30, 2020, 02:34 PM Originality, Watching
The premise: a teen, working in a comic book store, gets pulled into a dark, secretive world of vigilante Nazi-hunting after the untimely death of his grandmother. While that is fantastic, Hunters pits the Nazi-hunting team, not only against German Nazi defectors, living in hiding in the US, but a sophisticated, clandestine organization of Nazis trying to reestablish their former power.
Sometimes the show is over-the-top. Many of the characters are exaggerated stereotypes, and it has an air of catharsis to it as the Nazis are slain, and viewers get an "oh wouldn't it be nice" sort of feeling of justice. But for all its quirks, it does weave a tangled web of suspense as the Hunters uncover more villains, the Nazi organization uncover the Hunters, and an FBI agent uncovers both. Whether it's the fantastic suspense or the fantasy aspect of the storytelling, it's hard to take your eyes away.
What I've Been Listening to: June 2020June 30, 2020, 02:32 PM hip-hop, Listening
"Good News" is a single of Miller's 2020 album, Circles, which was released posthumously. Apparently, a work in progress that the musician's family oversaw to completion with some notable collaborators. The sound is mellow but and often soulful, and I suspect that is what attracted me. It has an air of exhaustion to it that given Miller's death seem prophetic. But, it's hard to say how much that is due to others' work after his passing. It certainly seems a more mature, life-warn piece. It's well worth a listen.
What I've Been Reading: May 2020May 14, 2020, 10:49 PM Fantasy, Reading, Review
As with any solid series, finally, most of the groundwork has been laid, and rather than introducing loads of new characters and setting up new conflicts, in this book, we get lots of explanations, outcomes, and tying up of loose ends.
Ultimately, the main character arc came to an excellent close. Several characters had their backstories expanded upon fantastically. We felt the loss of some likable characters, and the entire world Jemisin spent three books developing, was forever changed by the epic climax. The series had posed what might be the ending since midway through the second book, and while it didn't go down as I might have thought, it landed just about where I hoped. And that's just satisfying.
Through the other two books, Jemisin has woven social themes, such as prejudice and inequality, which I've appreciated. This continued into The Stone Sky and served the story well.
I've had other series come in with a bit of a letdown in the finale as if the author's never really had an ending in mind as they turned out volumes. I don't think that is true for Jemisin and the Broken Earth series. So, kudos on a find conclusion. I'm sure I'll look into more books by this author.
What I've Been Watching: May 2020May 14, 2020, 10:46 PM Review, Sci-fi, Star Trek, Watching
I have mixed feelings about this series. There are lots of things I like, and some not so much. However, in the end, I think I'd rather have it than have nothing.
For me, the genius in Start Trek is that besides being cool sci-fi with good storytelling, it has tried to cast a critical eye on social problems. Some obvious and contemporary, such as racism. Other cases have been more abstract such as what rights an artificial intelligence might be entitled too. Then, such real-world importance has been paired with exhibiting forefront scientific and engineering thinking. Sure, there is artistic license, and sure, some things are wrong in retrospect. But, it is easy to see how Star Trek has tried to come up with as realistic of scientific ground for the sci-fi fantasy as possible. From warp drive to replicators, and sometimes Trek has been remarkably prophetic, such as computer voice interaction and tablet computers. Heck, in my experience, few sci-fi properties have even tried to explain how they achieve faster than light speeds. And of the few that do, none have been more realistic than Trek's warp drive.
Now, much of that went out the window in the JJ Abrams Trek movies. They were first and foremost action movies. While much of the cast was great, I wasn't especially thrilled with rehashing old characters or throwing out the Trek fidelity to science. Still, after years without a new Star Trek, I could at least take some satisfaction in the property being revitalized. And to give credit where it is due, I don't imagine it would have been as easy, perhaps not even possible to have the Discover series or the new Picard series without the Abram's Trek movies. So at least there's that.
With that in mind, where does Picard fall? For me, the series is all about character. The Picard character is beloved, and now we get to bring him back and double down on his screen time. With that, we get to revisit a few other beloved characters along his journey and meet a few new ones. This is different from previous movies and series, which have been rather ensemble-driven, maybe more like many of the Star Trek books over the years. And I can buy into it. I, too, love Captain Picard.
It's the rest where I have some trouble. Rather than weight what remains aside from Picard's life in realistic science, we get a lot more action. In fact, what technology can do or cannot do seems entirely dependent on what is easiest for the story. (Spoiler Ahead) If the science and tech exist to recreate Data's consciousness form one positronic neuron and taking for granted all the miracle medical advancements we've seen in Trek, how the heck can Picard be so fragile to a brain abnormality? It's just total disregard for any realism and, in many places, a move backward in technology. Another example, now the ships are controlled through holographic interphase. Is there some reason to think this is an advancement? They've had holograms since TNG began. I guess it looks more futuristic, but that's not the Star Trek way to me.
Next, there's the social conscious. The entire season arc is based on the rights and treatment of synthetic life. Now, this on its own is a Trek worthy idea. So much so, that we've seen it explored more than once on TNG through Data-centric and Borg-centric episodes and even movies. Revisiting it alone doesn't bother me, but the notion that somehow Starfleet has taken huge steps backward in this area is hard to swallow, and the explanations seem more convenient then well thought out and intelligently explored.
I wanted to love this series, but instead, I just like it.
That's right, I still really like it. I am a fanboy in some regards here, so see Picard in any way is delightful. Getting throwbacks to Riker and Troy, 7 of 9, and Hugh, that's right the borg Hugh. These are all wonderful. And a season 2 promises more. I also very much liked most of the new characters. I'd like to have seen better fidelity to the Trek of old in spirit, but Picard is superior to the recent movies, and I'll take it. See you for season 2.