Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Rise of Curated Albums

After years focusing my public efforts solely on the comic book industry, I found I missed writing about my first love: music. What follows is the second piece of a new series called “Hip-Hop Revue”, analyzing recent Hip-Hop/R&B topics, albums, and personalities.


In 2016, there have been four major Hip-Hop/R&B releases: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Drake’s Views, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. With Views being the exception, each of these releases was accompanied by outside elements ranging from fashion shows and visual albums to Twitter controversies and rumor mills working overtime. It feels like the biggest releases of the year are not JUST albums, but rather comprehensive experiences that pull listeners in based on external factors then offer a reward for diligent interest.

Beyoncé’s release of Lemonade sparked wide discussion about the level of truth behind such an unsubtle narrative about Jay-Z’s infidelity. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo came out under duress last February when even Ye himself didn’t seem to know how he wanted everything to go down – TLOP was updated four times since that initial release, keeping interest in West’s ambitious album up even into the beginning of the summer. Frank Ocean one-upped himself by releasing a visual album called Endless only to drop Blonde, a much better collection of tracks, just 24 hours later. And these are just the big ones – Drake’s Views changed names at the last minute, and Young Thug’s JEFFERY features Thugger in a skirt and parasol hat on the cover.

Each of these instances points to the rise of experimentation and, more notably, curated releases in the world of hip-hop and R&B, more effort put into making an album worth celebrating beyond just the music. And while this might sound nihilistic, remember that Kanye’s been doing this since day one – every Yeezy album is a motherf#cking event:

College Dropout was a hit before it dropped because Ye understood pop technique and how to draft a catchy tune before blowing us all away with his devastating lyrics.

Late Registration was about Kanye proving he wasn’t a fad, that he was going to be the greatest someday, and this album was simply another achievement of genre-bent hooks and catalyzed melodies.

Graduation found Ye reaching father outside hip-hop to influence his sound while maintaining his underdog persona even as he was showing signs of going full-on narcissist.

After the death of his mother, Kanye’s ‘blue period’ is marked by 808s & Heartbreak, a personal reflection he undergoes that would eventually lead to the ego-maniacal, celebrity-obsessed, culturally influential artist we know today.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (my personal favorite) is a maelstrom of innovation and pageantry for the sake of it, musings on hip-hop and himself that give credence to his own introspection on “Monster” yet feels energetic and genre-defining even six years later.

Yeezus is chaos – beautiful, awkward, eccentric chaos that everyone knew was going to be chaotic before it was released.

Which brings us back to The Life of Pablo and my entire conceit, that curated albums are nothing new, only that their prominence is growing and artists putting effort into developing a larger narrative around their work is becoming more acceptable and attractive, not only to the industry, but also to larger mainstream audiences. Kanye used his own brand recognition to push TLOP when it was only available via Tidal for the first few months of its release, a brand that is known for creating impulsive, erratic, controversial pieces of art – why wouldn’t you sign up for the free month and listen?

Similarly, Lemonade succeeded not only on the merit of its music (which is incredibly, of course), but also because of the rumors about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship which were exacerbated by the accompanying visual version of the album (think Lana Del Rey’s Tropico) and the distinct lack of comment from either Beyoncé or Jay-Z. In this case, I still believe that the Queen B simply wrote a concept album not unlike The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute, but I don’t discount the possibility that everything Beyoncé expresses on Lemonade could be true. That said, from both business and artistic standpoints, it makes sense for the album to be conceptual instead of a literal extension of the artist’s feelings.

Curated albums really only share this weird label I’ve made up for them because I don’t know how else to express the concept, and also the fact that they’ve all made headlines that have nothing to do with the actual music. And that’s exactly why each album has been so successful. Yes – Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean (to a lesser degree) are huge names in hip-hop and R&B spheres, but there’s a tension in 2016 that’s pushed these big names to try new things, to experiment and play around with the tired, traditional album release and turn it into something wholly unique.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ranking Marvel's Modern Events

Since the Avengers disassembled in 2004, Marvel has published over 20 major crossover events including line-wide events, franchise events (cosmic, Avengers, etc.), and family mini-events (X-Men, most usually). That said, there are 12 major line-wide events that define the overall tone of the Marvel universe beginning with House of M through the current Civil War II. I've ranked each event from worst to best, (SO SPOILERS!) starting with the practice in self-loathing called...


12. Avengers & X-Men: AXIS
In One Word: Unreadable.

Simply put, AXIS is a train wreck from beginning to end, a story originally meant for the pages of Uncanny Avengers that Marvel more-or-less forced Rick Remender to expand into a crossover event that was neither wanted, necessary, or well-liked. AXIS is a prime example of event fatigue, not only for the consumer, but also for the publisher who only wrapped up Original Sin one month before the March to AXIS branded-titles began. The entire premise was ridiculous – the Red Skull becomes Onslaught and a plan to defeat him backfires which inverts all the heroes and villains – and the expounding plotlines about the X-Men and Apocalypse, Sabertooth’s redemption, and an alliance of villains all very much fell flat. It’s not fun.

11. Fear Itself
In One Word: Frustrating
Writer Matt Fraction relies far too much on contemporary motivations to inform Fear Itself, a narrative about the civil unrest in America post-economic collapse that turned into Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements. While it’s admirable of Fraction to want to incorporate real life situations in a comic book universe, connecting a nihilistic America to the rise of a Nordic god of fear is a flimsy premise at best, and the whole bit about evil hammers possessing Marvel heroes is just stupid. We get it: Thor has a hammer and this is about Asgard, so there are more hammers! Fear Itself begins with a bang and no context, then expects readers to know far more than they would unless they've followed Thor for quite some time. The entire event feels convoluted and disjointed, like there’s so much story yet no cohesive way to tie it all together.

10. Original Sin
In One Word: Boring
Honestly, Jason Aaron’s Original Sin isn’t all that bad – I just happen to think it’s rather boring. The main, eight-issue series is a murder mystery featuring various weird team-ups between Marvel heroes as they investigate the murder of the Watcher. Early in the series, Z-list villain the Orb ‘detonates’ (I guess?) one of the Watchers’ eyes removed post-mortem, which results in various secrets of the Marvel U being revealed to the affected parties. The corresponding mini-series and tie-in issues are WAY more enjoyable than the main series because those tie-ins delve into the animosity between various heroes and how they deal with these new revelations. Unfortunately, AXIS came about soon after, so much of the status quo set by Original Sin was either ignored or replaced rather quickly.

9. Civil War II
In One Word: Disjointed

Alright, I know it’s not the greatest and there’s a lot more talking than there is war-ing in the pages of the main series, but given all its flaws, Civil War II has actually been more enjoyable than I imagined it would be. The premise is still shaky because Iron Man is obviously in the right while Captain Marvel sounds more and more like a fascist every issue, the dynamics of future crime prevention are being presented in different ways by different writers which has allowed the concept to breathe outside Brian Michael Bendis’ rather rudimentary explanation in the main series. Could it be better? Of course. Is it necessary? Probably not in the long run. Am I having fun with it while it’s happening? Definitely.

8. Age of Ultron
In One Word: Misunderstood
The misunderstood little event that didn’t have a home. This crossover was seeded in 2011 with a Free Comic Book Day issue, yet the event itself didn’t appear until 2013. Originally, writer Brian Michael Bendis had it planned to come out much sooner, but the development of AvX and the succeeding ‘Marvel NOW!’ initiative meant too many different plans were in play, and Age of Ultron was pushed to the side until it just felt awkward. That said, this crazy time-travel story that starts with Ultron having already won comes with a fun House of M style alternate timeline and finishes with a major shake-up that ties into Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers saga that eventually led to Secret Wars.

7. Avengers vs. X-Men
In One Word: Chaotic

Yes, it feels disjointed sometimes because five different writer scripted issues round robin-style, and yes, twelve issues was way too long for what could have been done in eight, but Avengers vs. X-Men is still an explosive, engaging crossover that comes close to lampooning itself with the tie-in mini-series AvX: VS. As a natural conclusion to a number of plotlines as well as an organic evolution of the tensions between the Avengers and the endangered mutant species, Avenger vs. X-Men succeeded in bringing about real and lasting change to the Marvel universe (Charles Xavier is still dead, Cyclops is/was? still a radical revolutionary, the Unity Squad is still a thing) and doing so with an air of fun and whimsy that doesn’t detract from the nature of the story.

6. Civil War
In One Word: Dramatic

I like Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War. I know it’s not a complete story in seven issues, but I also recognize that almost no event tells the entire story in just the main series. Secret Wars and Age of Ultron aside, every event on this list either benefits from tie-ins and mini-series, or requires them for a full understanding of the event. Civil War pits Captain America against Iron Man over their political ideologies concerning the Superhero Registration Act meant to unmask superheroes and make them accountable by becoming agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Iron Man represents the US government in supporting the bill, while Captain America believes it infringes on personal liberties. Each Avenger rallies other heroes to his respective cause, then they all fight a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn fun story.

5. Siege
In One Word: Shocking
This reads a lot better if you’ve read J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor run because it sets up the entire “Asgard floating over Oklahoma” angle that makes Siege such an emotionally-impactful tale. The Asgardian gods have taken refuge in the floating city of Asgardia over Broxton, Oklahoma, and current head of international security and peacekeeping, Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn needs a major win to make his job and his various machinations more legitimate. He stages an attack that mirrors the catastrophe from Civil War that catalyzes the SRA and pits the death of hundreds on the Asgardians. Osborn lays siege upon Asgard and uses the full might of his army of villains masked as heroes to rain destruction upon the benevolent gods. It’s a short read at four issues, but the effects are many and the “Dark Reign” of the Marvel universe comes to an end.

4. Infinity
In One Word: Epic
Infinity doesn’t get nearly as much love as it deserves. Granted, no one much sh!ts on Jonathan Hickman’s cosmic event, but no one much talks about it either, which I think is a shame. Infinity presents a war on two fronts: The Avengers take to space to assist a coalition of galactic empires to stave off the threat of the Universal Builders, while the remaining heroes on Earth must contend with an invasion force led by the Mad Titan Thanos. This is a crossover that lives up to that name, as Hickman’s corresponding Avengers and New Avengers tie-in issues are essential to getting the full story. And what a story it is: what Infinity lacks in character development, it more than makes up for in all-out epic space battles, an insane Thanos/Inhumans story, and a huge conclusion that sets the stage for…

3. Secret Wars
In One Word: Everything

Jonathan Hickman’s insane, over-the-top, game-changing mega-series is a testament not only to his, Esad Ribic, and Ive Svorcina’s skill as storytellers, but also to Marvel’s overall gambit with a year-long event that ended the Marvel universe that had stayed in-tact since 1961. Secret Wars was an endgame literally years in the making (and for real; not like, say, Siege, which was really only in the making for two years) and paid off quite handsomely with a series that received critical and commercial success even under duress of heavy delays and a pre-empted ‘All-New, All-Different’ Marvel universe. This is how a crossover event is done – a phenomenal story, incredible art by a consistent team, and real consequences.

2. Secret Invasion
In One Word: Explosive
For some reason, I just love Secret Invasion. I wasn’t actively reading comics in 2008 when this event was being published, so I didn’t get the experience of reading it as it came out. That said, I read all the pertinent tie-in issues in the order they were published because a friend explained that was the best way. Boy was he right – getting the secret history behind the Skrull invasion while I read a story about the Skrulls making their final gambit and taking the world hostage before the planet’s heroes have time to react. Secret Invasion is non-stop action and one of the few crossover events not directly tied to any one Marvel hero or team, a rarity in this day and age. The distrust and paranoia already deeply ingrained after Civil War was exacerbated by Skrulls revealing they had been acting as some of the most recognizable heroes in the Marvel universe for years.

1. House of M
In One Word: Fun

There’s something about House of M that stands the test of time. Yes, it’s a plot-heavy book, but it also takes place over the course of just a single day in the House of M reality, so most of the heroes are reacting and not “growing” in the traditional sense. Logistics aside, House of M was amazing because it worked as both a stand-alone main series and as a gateway into this new world the Scarlet Witch conjured into existence – while Bendis didn’t spend much time exploring the world controlled by Magneto, the bannered mini-series and tie-in issues brought a resonance to House of M that still makes the main series by itself feel much bigger than it is even though none of it was required reading. Marvel took this concept to its natural conclusion with Secret Wars in 2015 where the dozens of mini-series set on Battleworld had literally no influence on the main series (outside a few off-hand remarks and one conversation in the Siege mini). But House of M did it first and is still my favorite modern Marvel crossover event.