The 2017 BAMcinemafest ends this Sunday, and this dispatch concludes our coverage. Among the takes below, you’ll find several more holdovers from Sundance—including hit comedy The Big Sick and Alex Ross Perry’s unfairly panned Golden Exits—and two films (a narrative and a documentary) from American indie film director Michael Almereyda. Be sure to also check out our first dispatch, which featured new films from the Amer-indie scene’s Aaron Katz, Stephen Cone, and Koganda. You can also find the remainder of the fest’s full schedule here.
The 2017 BAMcinemafest kicked off yesterday, and it offers, frankly, a much more exciting lineup than did this year’s Cannes—especially if you have a vested interest in the Amer-indie film scene. There’s new stuff here from Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth), Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child), Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather). For InRO‘s first dispatch, you’ll find a couple of the aforementioned covered, in addition to some even more under-the-radar titles. Check back here over the next week for more, and find the fest’s full schedule here.
2017—so far at least—hasn’t been spectacular. In between the deaths of beloved auteurs like Jonathan Demme and Seijun Suzuki, you had 25 beating Lemonade at the Grammy’s, Tom Brady smugly winning another Super Bowl, and Donald Trump being sworn into office (this one might be a little worse than those other two). But as Lil Yachty once
The 46th edition of New Directors/New Films concluded this past Sunday with Dustin Guy Defa’s much-discussed Person to Person. Our final dispatch from the festival takes a look at Guy Defa’s “pleasantly low-key” film; tries to parse the intensions of Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita’s docu-drama hybrid on a UFO-worshipping cult; revisits Angela Shanelec’s film festival whatsit The Dreamed Path, as well as another oddity of “macro- and micro-fictions” from independent Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong; and plenty of others. Check it all out below.
Many ND/NF entries have demonstrated an admirable scale in their ambitions, but few have had the confidence to do so as unassumingly as Dustin Guy Defa’s pleasantly low-key Person to Person. This feature expansion of short by the same name, true to its title, tracks the sprawling, loosely connected misadventures of its varied cast across New York City. Two reporters investigate a suicide or possible homicide; a zealous LP collector looks to obtain a rare Charlie Bird LP; and a girl argues with her girlfriend about the new boyfriend she’s been seeing. Sharply observational and lightly comic, Defa’s is the kind of film that’s bound to be overshadowed at a larger festival, since its subtle pleasures often threaten to shade into inconsequential. Granted, it doesn’t ride the line of purposeful awkwardness as adroitly as it needs to, sometimes coming across as labored or amateurish. But Defa demonstrates genuine promise, both in his rhythm (an extended, placid chase scene is a highlight), and in the way he draws light, gossamer threads between the micro-stories, allowing their thematic heft to emerge naturally. By the end, a lingering sense of sadness permeates; the various characters are stuck in the familiar, unsure of exactly how to proceed. If there’s one thing certain, it’s that, with Person to Person, Defa marks himself as a talent to watch. Lawrence Garcia
Julia Murat’s Pendular is filled with impressive compositions: it opens with its central couple — credited as He (Rodrigo Bolzan) and She (Raquel Karro) — jointly and joyously bisecting a large warehouse’s upper-story with a roll of red tape. This space, which will serve as both home and studio for the lovers (He an abstract sculptor, She a modernist dancer) acts as a simple visual metaphor for their relationship: issues of emotional encroachment and loss of independence define the characters in Murat’s sparse script. Unfortunately, little happening here expands this idea — with an affectively forceful performance and some captivating choreography from Karro providing the exceptions. The film is undermined by its fundamental inequity: She is gifted a far richer, more expressive arc, leaving her partner feeling wrongly underdeveloped. If Murat had sought to reflect deeper on her exploration of space or her characters’ art, something bolder and less reliant on tangible characterization could have emerged; instead, He is directionless, She is indulgent — so an art critic friend tells him, so a newspaper review tells her. Murat clearly seeks to externalize this couple’s turmoil, but beyond a Footloose-esque cathartic dance (after which She literally strips herself bare), we’re left with few incisive moments amidst much tedium. Luke Gorham
Starting out as a bit of meta-commentary on a notorious massacre, Anocha Suwichakornpong‘s By the Time It Gets Dark quickly and deliberately questions its own point of view by filtering it through multiple layers of macro- and micro-fictions, ultimately suggesting the inability of art to truly process experience and trauma. In a strong resemblance to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, planes of existence are layered one on top of the other, and frequent visual allusions to disparate images share the same space…a filmmaker interviewing a survivor of a student protest-turned-atrocity; a series of vignettes set at a tobacco farm; a magic mushroom trip; a cleaning woman at a hotel…elements of all of these stories are revealed to be manufactured, in one way or another intermediary devices through which histories and societies are cataloged. Matt Lynch
As InRO‘s Lawrence Garcia put it, the best thing about film festivals is seeing something that will completely surprise you — and he and I definitely agree that The Dreamed Path is surprising. Angela Schanelec‘s film opens with a couple — Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob) — in a forest in Greece. Kenneth gets a phone call from his sick parents, and decides that he must return home to take care of them. Theres then gets a teaching job in Germany. Soon the film changes location and time, moving about 30 years later, and to Berlin. We begin to follow a brand new couple, Ariane (Maren Eggert) and her husband David (Phil Hayes), lovers who as well suffer from an eventual falling out, and with the same level of non-descript drama that affected the film’s first romance. The four characters end up interlocked with one another, though Schanelec doesn’t initially seem interested in developing why each person has gotten to this point. Rather, her focus seems more on the hypnotic mood of her film; her long takes don’t feel purposelessly ponderous, but more intentionally telegraph an uncertainty. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker in this year’s ND/NF lineup who wants to use their film in a genuinely questioning fashion, and not just as a showcase for their rigorous technique. The Dreamed Path can often be a baffling experience, one that doesn’t start to reveal its complexities until its second half — when the overall structure begins to make more sense. Up until this point, Schanelec refuses to state any intention, much to the chagrin of many who’ve sat through her film. But the prize for being a patient viewer in this case is one of the strangest and most unique features to grace the festival circuit this year. Paul Attard
It’s hard to imagine French director Alain Guiraudie going for mainstream appeal, but if he did, the result might look something like Jérôme Reybaud’s road trip movie Four Days in France. In what’s surely a coincidence, Reybaud’s film bears some superficial similarity to Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical: A restless protagonist, Pierre (Pascal Cervo), takes to the road with a manuscript and has various odd encounters of a sexual nature and otherwise; numerous POV shots from the car set the film’s peripatetic rhythm; Pierre even has a run-in that strips him of his belongings, just like the wayward writer in Staying Vertical. But those similarities only underline how wan Reybaud’s vision is by comparison — how sharp, interesting detail can easily come across labored in a different context. That’s not to say Reybaud brings nothing to the table: his film works as a tour of France, not just in terms of its lush landscapes, but also of its people, particularly those that live in the French countryside. (Pierre’s Parisian identity is brought up multiple times.) The fact that Pierre leaves behind a lover (Paul, played by Arthur Igual), who then decides to take off after him, also means that there’s an underlying tension here, even as the interest inherent in any given scene varies wildly. And although the film is digressive and overlong (at 145 minutes), its conclusion—which brings together two strands long kept apart — is touching all the same. L Garcia
John Trengove’s The Wound is a thematically blunt but visually dynamic film, one built around intimate, observational camerawork and an integrity for character development. Impressively choreographing a delicate dance between tradition and modernity, while allowing his camera to mirror that dichotomy through some interesting incongruities (aqua-hued running shoes worn with tribal garb and body paint), Trengove imbues The Wound with a mythic aura, an inspired counterpoint to its tender interpersonal underpinnings. With the rural Xhosa people and their ceremony of initiation into manhood as the backdrop, Trengove could could have phoned-in a coming-of-age story here, but instead, The Wound smartly subverts those expectations throughout, most notably by focusing on the years-old parasitic relationship between two adult mentors and their psychological motivations for always returning to a mountain and their custom. Primarily concerning itself with differing notions of masculinity across generations and within a community, The Wound also shows out with its trio of vulnerable, expressive performances. If the end hits a bit heavy-handedly (underlining a fundamental paucity of narrative innovation), it isn’t enough to undermine the affecting, aching beauty, nor Trengove’s obvious filmmaking chops. L Gorham
Ala Eddine Slim’s The Last of Us is the type of film that’s inevitably described as “spare,” “rigorous,” and “conceptually bold.” Unfolding over a distended 94 minutes, without a single word of dialogue, the film follows two (unnamed) immigrants attempting to cross from northern Africa into Europe. Along the way, one of the two men is captured, hauled off and never seen again; the other continues on. After stealing a motorboat boat, which subsequently breaks down, the remaining man finds himself stranded in an island forest, at which point the film begins to shift into a more mystical, magical-realist mode. There’s an inherent political (and social) interest built into Slim’s chosen subject, which is enhanced by both his background in documentary filmmaking and Amine Messadi’s appealing (often low-light) cinematography. But owing to the film’s (over-)liberal use of negative space — both formal and conceptual — The Last of Us fails to resonate beyond the theoretical, remaining strictly, and frustratingly, skeletal. Slim’s strenuous symbolism overwhelms any human specificity: There’s some appealing detail in the margins, particularly when the documentary interest of his subject comes to the fore, but the overall experience is akin to watching someone laboriously draw obscure symbols on a page for ninety minutes. However gorgeous or necessary those symbols may be, there’s nothing interesting about their presentation. The final shot suggests transcendence, of a sort: the man (or Man) returns to his primordial roots. But suggestion is as far as the film goes; the image disappears from view and then—like the film as a whole—promptly evaporates from memory. L Garcia
“I hope we’ll have fun and party, that’s why I’m here!” This is what Lilly (Laure Calamy) tells an excited crowd of French retreaters in The Happiness Academy. The crowd is there courtesy of the Raelian Church, a religious institution steeped in the belief that aliens have created Earth — the only difference between Lilly and the rest of them is that she’s played by an actress while her audience is not. Part drama and part documentary, Happiness Academy observes the believers as they try to better their lives — in between being fed propaganda by the church’s leader and having extravagant pool parties. Directors Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita never cast a blanket judgment on these people, but instead use Lilly as a conduit to explore the more petty reasons some of them may be there (i.e., just to have wild sex). The criticisms feel half-cocked though, never developed or specific enough to have an impact beyond that of mud-slinging. The Raelians don’t come off as much different from any other religion, or at least one that’s based heavily on, er, UFO-worship; they’re often just regular people with different beliefs. It’s hard to then really understand which direction the film wants to go in: It occupies a weird, warmed-over middle ground, generally not particularly that critical, but pretty ugly on the occasions that it tries to be. PA
The 46th edition of New Directors/New Films kicked off last Wednesday (March 15th) and ends this Sunday (March 24th). For our first of two dispatches from the festival, we look at a “cheeky” documentary about falconry; a “formally assured, but familiar” new film from It Felt Like Love director Eliza Hittman; a movie about Chinese immigrants in Argentina that is, appropriately, built around an understanding of language; Korean filmmaker Jang Woo-jin’s second feature, a reflection on “distance and longing”; and others. Check it out below and look for Dispatch 2 later this week.
Almost entirely without verbal exposition, Yuri Ancarani‘s hypnotic, purely observational The Challenge spends 70 minutes hovering around a falconer’s auction/competition in Qatar. Offering the barest of narratives, the documentary is primarily shot after gorgeous shot of the birds, their masters, the sport itself, and its attendant rituals, set against miles and miles of the otherwise empty, golden Sahara. Some of it might seem a bit cheeky or even a bit on-the-nose incredulous, like scenes of a bunch of falcons cruising in a private jet or a guy taking his pet cougar for a ride in a Lamborghini, but there’s a quiet investigation of community and tradition here, and the ways in which they bump up against modernity. Auctions are conducted via close-circuit TV and phone, but communal meals are still prioritized. Then there’s just the awesome sight of a bunch of millionaires tear-assing around sand dunes and ripping donuts in the desert with their tricked-out luxury SUVs. Matt Lynch
In this modest second feature, Jang Woo-jin demonstrates a canny eye for separations between people and within space and time. Autumn, Autumn tells two stories neatly partitioned by a title card 35 minutes in, both originating from strangers sitting together on a train from Seoul to Chuncheon. Jang’s deliberate framing places a stanchion between a quiet, anxious young man and a middle-aged couple having a conversation about losing touch with old friends. The film’s first half follows the younger man, Ji-hyeon, who we learn is unemployed and returning to Chuncheon after an unsuccessful job interview. An old friend spots Ji-hyeon coming down one side of an escalator as he ascends the other, and Ji-hyeon’s guilt over not remembering the man’s name lingers long after the two have been pulled in their opposite directions. Jang follows Ji-hyeon around a strangely desolate, grey Chuncheon as he visits a restaurant owned by another old friend’s mother; gets drunk with a buddy; and finally calls the friend he ran into earlier, Jong-seong, to tearfully apologize for falling out of touch and not remembering his name. “People forget, man. It happens,” Jong-seong responds, and though slightly bemused he honors Ji-hyeon’s request for him to sing a song over the phone for old time’s sake. The second half then follows the middle-aged couple from the same train, Se-rang and Heung-ju, over the course of a tentative, increasingly painful first in-person meeting following an online connection. Jang’s sense of changing landscapes and how they contrast with and evoke memories recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s short The Skywalk Is Gone, and knowing Chuncheon is this filmmaker’s hometown adds poignancy to Autumn, Autumn’s reflections on distance and longing—and images like the one of Ji-hyeon lost amidst a newly bulldozed vacant lot. Jang’s form is restrained (perhaps by limitations of budget, since the live sound recording seems oddly submerged or distant at times), but also closely attuned to how people interact with public spaces and how small shifts in ambient light add shades of emotional complexity to a simple conversation over lunch, as Se-rang and Heung-ju attempt to reestablish their connection over a childhood memory of playing with insects. At once distant and intimate, like a love song from an old friend heard through an iPhone speaker, Autumn, Autumn astutely captures separations that are not so easily overcome, despite forces that pull the disconnected back from across the divide. Alex Engquist
Eliza Hittman’s first feature, It Felt Like Love, was a promising, if familiar Brooklyn-set tale of a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality. With, Beach Rats, Hittman revisits the same setting, but with the focus now on a teenage boy’s nascent queer exploration. When the film opens we see Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hesitantly browsing a gay chat-room. “I don’t know what I like,” he says to the older men he talks to, his expression a mix of curiosity, fear and confusion. That certainly can’t be said of Hittman, whose direction here is formally assured, but familiar, trafficking in the kind of frank verisimilitude and “gritty” sensuality typical to so many indie films. If It Felt Like Love played a bit like watered down Catherine Breillat, Beach Rats feels like second-rate Claire Denis, right down to the way the film lingers on the chiseled male bodies of Frankie and his similarly aimless friends with whom he whiles the summer away. Despite some promising elements, particularly Dickinson’s admirably terse performance, it’s a little dispiriting how closely Hittman sticks to the expected story beats—a girlfriend that Frankie uses to gain social acceptance but eventually rebuffs; his younger sister’s sexual maturation; his terminally ill father and worn down but well-meaning mother—right down to a contrived, last-ditch attempt at some complicating drama. There’s a good, possibly great movie to be made here—and Hittman demonstrates that she has the chops to make it happen. But the lingering impression that Beach Rats leaves with its predictably noncommittal ending is that of unfulfilled potential. Lawrence Garcia
Sometimes all it takes to set a film apart is a distinctive milieu. In Deepak Rauniyar’s White Sun, the setting is a remote village in Nepal during the aftermath of the civil war between the Maoists and the Nepalese monarchy. The inciting event is simple: the death of the village chieftain, which sets into motion the arduous task of performing proper funeral rites on the body. “Customs exist for a reason… We can’t just forget everything,” says one of the town elders, despite the evident impracticality of the situation. It’s this tension between “tradition” and “progress” that drives White Sun, which Rauniyar explores through various conflicts: generational, political, personal, and otherwise. The chieftain’s Maoist son, Chandra, returns to the village for the funeral rites; his former lover, Durga, plans to marry Chandra’s Royalist-leaning brother, in an attempt to legitimize her daughter, who in turn thinks that Chandra is her father (although he is not); Maoists and royalists maintain an uneasy coexistence. All this is captured with an admirable physicality, which is never more evident than during the funeral procession, delivered in a series of precisely timed, tension-maximizing shots. Given the film’s overall accumulation of incident, however, White Sun at times feels both schematic and contrived, most notably in the climax, during which various story threads ludicrously converge in a violent standoff. But there’s something to be said for simply being immersed in the fascinating dynamics of this completely foreign narrative, all the way up to its satisfying conclusion—a pointed generational shift that’s at once open and resolute. It bodes well for the future in more ways than one. LG
If there’s one thing The Future Perfect has going for it—perhaps more so than any other film playing ND/NF this year—it’s how its premise builds out of its central character’s development. Living in Argentina, Xiaobin (Zhang Xiaobing), a Chinese immigrant, can barely speak a word of Spanish. Her family encourages her to stick to her roots, but Xiaobin decides to enroll in a language school, where the world around her begins to slowly open up. She later meets Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik), an immigrant from India who also has trouble with his Spanish speaking skills. The two form a bond over their general misunderstanding of language, allowing for director Nele Wohlatz to explore the awkwardness the two face on a daily basis. Entering a restaurant to order some food becomes an ordeal quickly, when the only word Xiaobin knows (“barbeque”) doesn’t appear on the menu. Her classmates serve as a Greek choir, parroting questions the audience may ask in the form of language exercises, fitting somewhat clunkily within the narrative (the only time the film’s ponderings become intrusive rather than organic). Once Xiaobin begins to learn more Spanish, The Future Perfect becomes less focussed on its premise, resorting instead to an escapism that doesn’t work and an unnecessarily cruel reveal towards the end. Still, until its denouement, Wohlatz’s film shows promise in understanding how fragile language—and the language of cinema—really is, by addressing it on its most human level possible. Paul Attard
Arábia opens with a teenage boy biking home to take care of his sick younger brother, his parents nowhere in sight. He spends the next day sitting around smoking, sketching at his desk and helping his aunt around the neighborhood. Not long after, there’s a roadside accident and he’s made to get some belongings from the injured man’s house. That sounds like the start to a rote story of youthful ennui, but directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa scuttle that expectation by immediately shifting focus to a factory worker named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the man injured by the roadside, whose diary the boy stumbles onto by accident. Given the glut of films being produced nowadays, it’s all but necessary that fledgling filmmakers—especially in programs like ND/NF—attempt to buck expectation and grab a viewer’s attention. In the case of Arábia, Dumans and Uchoa do so by turning their lens to the margins of society and focusing on a character that would, in a different film, be a supporting figure at best. “Everyone had a story,” muses Cristiano in his diary, written during his travels around Brazil. Although the directors make that statement their (admirable) motivating principle, they don’t really make much attempt to enliven the material, resorting largely to dry voiceover and arthouse road-movie cliché to deliver the shambling, digressive story. By exploiting the gap between these vacuous formal choices and their chosen subject (Cristiano’s place in society as a factory worker), Dumans and Uchoa make a necessary point about both on-screen representation and the types of stories that get told on the film festival circuit. But apart from a few standout sequences (such as a nighttime drive that occurs in near-complete darkness) and some heartfelt bursts of musical energy, not much lingers beyond the implicit statement; and the film isn’t nearly accomplished enough to sustain a purely formal interest. Possessing neither narrative momentum nor documentary fascination, Arábia is caught in a nebulous, painfully inert middle-ground, its larger intentions notwithstanding. Sometimes dull “by design” is just plain dull. LG
The Last Family details the life of painter Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), and wastes no time trying to catch you off guard with “shocking”humor.” An aged Zdzislaw speaks about the possibility of buying a model of an 18-year old girl to sit on his face and slowly kill him within the first few minutes, giving a good sense of the largely try-hard humor here, mostly coming from our protagonist’s son: Tomek (Dawid Ogrodnik), taken to emotional outbursts that threaten to tear his whole family apart, but are still mined for laughs frequently. There’s nothing director Jan P. Matuszyński is actually trying to say within all of this—about mental illness or work within such a melodramatic space—rather he just takes the surface level quality of Tomek’s “otherness,” and exploits it in a rather toothless way. A more puzzling admission in the film is how generally innocent Zdzislaw comes off most of the time; his wild sexual fantasies are never explored for deeper character psychology, and there’s a sense of genius the film wishes to bestow on him, allowing for his moral superiority over everyone else. The Last Family is an incredibly unpleasant experience from beginning to end, one that’s heavily misguided: signposting seriousness and introspection, as well as humor, at all the wrong times. PA
If there’s one noticeable (and troubling) trend in this year’s ND/NF , it’s a pointless rigor exerted in an effort to appear more “serious.” Case in point, Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone, a coming-of-age story about Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a young boy in West China, during his summer before middle school. Shooting in black and white rather pointlessly (or to appeal to the #OnePerfectShot crowd), Zhang utilizes mostly longtakes, trying to capture the mundane qualities of simple everyday life, with the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien as his clear point of influence. The problem is that Zhang has only picked up superficial elements from Hou’s cinema: the narrative here lacks the contemplative beauty it’s striving for, leaving Zhang’s film feeling less natural in its pacing. What Zhang does do is allow for random digressions that guarantee tugs on the heartstrings, and adding orchestral music to hammer down the emotional one. In fact, rarely does a moment go by that doesn’t feel overworked, from the aforementioned cinematographic technique to the deliberately slack progression. An argument could definitely be made that this is Zhang’s point, that life as he sees it is boring, but that sounds more like an excuse than a defense, pardoning and allowing for his generally uninspired filmmaking. PA
Through a career that’s spanned 16 mixtapes (four of them released commercially), three label deals (Cash Money Records, 1017 Records, and 300 Entertainment), and yet still no studio album, Young Thug has maintained a reputation as the most elusive rapper going; one really need only listen to his music to get a sense of his radically non-conforming style, which relies heavily on unpredictable, usually high-pitched vocal fluctuations. In a growing sphere of auto-tuned “mumble rap,” Thug stands out for his sound specifically. But that’s not all that’s worth attention here: The rapper’s radical views on gender and sexuality, his odd fashion sense, and his ability to co-exist within the gangster rap world while adhering to his own originality all add to Thug’s appeal.
A tipping point for Thug—for his artistry, his oddness, and his brilliance—came with the third project he released in 2016, one he simply titled Jeffery. Never one to release a project without some kind of controversy—he beefed with Lil Wayne on the titling of Barter 6 and orchestrated a funeral march through the streets of Austin to announce Slime Season 3—the rapper decided to change his stage name for this ‘retail mixtape,’ rebranding himself as “No, My Name Is Jeffery” (as in Jeffery Lamar Williams, the name he was given at birth). This went beyond a simple anticipation-building media ploy and crossed into full-blown career revision territory, which was a direction Thug had desperately been needing to go in anyway: his two previous projects, the aforementioned Slime Season 3 and its predecessor I’m Up, lacked the signature boundary pushing of his best work and felt more like stop-gaps for an already-announced (and yet still unreleased) studio album debut.
Young Thug’s radical views on gender and sexuality, his odd fashion sense, and his ability to co-exist within the gangster rap world while adhering to his own originality all add to his appeal.
On an episode of the CNBC show Follow the Leader—which shows two days in the life of successful business entrepreneurs—Lyor Cohen, a co-founder of Thug’s current label, 300, and also somewhat of a mentor for the rapper, didn’t shy away from suggesting that his own charge was slipping—in fact, Thug even acknowledged it himself. “This year, I want ten No.1 singles,” he declared in a boardroom conference, to which Cohen replied, “If you don’t freestyle, and work on the singles and record great choruses and develop your songs, yeah, you’ll get there.”
Thankfully, a (short-lived, as it turned out) name change wasn’t the only effort of reinvention Young Thug undertook for Jeffery: The cover art sports Thug in a powder blue Alessandro Trincone dress, his face obscured by a hat, an image that harkens back to the eye-catching imagery of Barter 6, for which Thug stood naked, with his head tilted down. But in many ways, Jeffery’s cover seems almost to be the antithesis of Barter 6‘s: Here, Thug no longer shrinks into the shadows, but rather there is a triumphant boldness to the bright white and purple color palette on display. And let’s just say that one Thug lyric (“Every time I dress myself, it go muthafuckin’ viral”) was afforded a true context thanks to Jeffery‘s art.
To add to the singularity of this set, each track on Jeffery is representative of one of Thug’s idols—Floyd Mayweather and Harambe among them. It’s actually touching, then, to find that the track “Guwop”—named after rapper Gucci Mane, who championed Thug—includes features from other up-and-coming Atlanta rap artists, namely Migos’ Offset and Quavo. (Gucci himself is also on Jeffery, but he features on the ‘Mayweather’ track.) These particular cuts go beyond just giving kudos to inspirations in Thug’s life by name alone; they provide a sonic corollary for their namesakes.
It’s clear as early as Jeffery’s opener, “Wyclef Jean,” that there’s a distinctively different vibe here than on other Thug projects. Rocksteady reggae guitars fade in as Thug’s vocals lock in with the beat to deliver the first, playful lyric: “Okay, my money way longer than a Nascar race.” The hook (“Play with my money, I’ma let them niggas do”) intensifies the song’s braggadocio, but the backing chorus (“I do mayne, I do”) begins to elevate ‘Wyclef’ from merely typical Thug swag-rap into a more personalized ode to the rapper’s Haitian idol, at least with regard to the music. It’s for this reason that “Wyclef Jean” feels like a kind of grand culmination—a veritable smorgasbord of vocal melodies and pitch-shifts. It feels like the most realized vision for a song Thug’s had in a while because it makes full use of the large assortment of style that he’s accumulated, from the gritty minimalism of Barter 6, to the more ambitious production of Slime Season.
Thug can transform seemingly banal lyrics into a sonic expression of his emotions, and his individuality. And by the end of Jeffery, it feels as if the rapper is largely without peer in this regard, that no one else out now could pull off such syllabic tongue twisters and inflated inflections.
Thug’s rapping also feels more accomplished in its delivery throughout Jeffery. On “Floyd Mayweather,” Thug lets his raps saunter through a slick piano melody; and on “Future Swag” he absolutely murders TM88’a high-BPM production, firing off breakneck bars like, “I’m dead fresh fuck her palm nigga/I’m on yo’ ass like some thongs, nigga.” But the wildest Thug gets is on “Harambe,” when he goes, well, ape shit, emphatically screaming, “I just wanna have sex/I just wanna have a baby by you, girl!” The largest complaint lobbed Thug’s way usually has to do with lack of depth in his lyrics, but many (especially J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar fans) forget that rap is about aesthetics as well as lyricism. Thug can transform seemingly banal lyrics into a sonic expression of his emotions, and his individuality. And by the end of Jeffery, it feels as if the rapper is largely without peer in this regard, that no one else out could quite pull off such syllabic tongue twisters and inflated inflections.
“RiRi” (named for Rihanna) is perhaps the track that proves this the most. The song’s hook sort even sort of quotes a Robyn Fenty smash: “Ah-ah-ah, work/Do the work baby do the work.” Thug holds on the pronunciation of the “r” in “work” to create a sense of desperation—and in the process of adding this emphasis, he builds up the passion he displays for the woman he’s referring to (assumedly his long-term finance, Jerrika Karlae). It’s not Thug’s first or his best romance track—and “Hey, I” remains his most beautiful, for its pure optimism—but “Riri” may be Thug’s most earnest song about love. The romance here doesn’t require any braggadocio—Thug gives his love through his voice. This is a side to the rapper that we rarely see, one that could easily be ignored in context of all the other attention-getting moments here. But that’s kind of the point: The Young Thug of Jeffery never lets himself be pinned to any one emotional expression, nor does he get stuck going in any one direction.
If Damien Chazelle’s recent film La La Land essentially uses its every frame to try and justify its pastiche nature, through a sense of disenchantment, then Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful is the kind of band that doesn’t really feel it necessary to make that kind of effort; they just let themselves be there for the audience that wants them to be. And if you’re with their freewheeling, kind of kookie frontman (who recalls Alan Cumming in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), then head to one of their gigs, grab a drink, and take it all in.
At the one that I attended (Thursday, Dec. 15th at the Slipper Room), the comparison to La La Land presented itself during the band’s lavish introduction. A wave of brass first signaled nostalgia as the “New York, New York” theme began to play. But before the end of the first verse, Benjamin came out on stage, stumbling a bit, and decisively declared, “We’re not doing that, I’m done with Sinatra covers.”
The frontman has informed me that traditional jazz scenes, both here and in Berlin (the New York-based composer was born in Germany), have been reticent to embrace his approach to the genre. And it’s really no wonder: What this band plays isn’t jazz, per se—at least it’s certainly not the rigid ideal of it that Chazelle’s La La Land proffered. Benjamin prefers a mix of swing, funk, and pop; at their best, his band, a Mighty Handful, has an aesthetic that resembles something like an orgiastic threesome between Sinatra, Stevie Wonder… and John Waters.
Benjamin’s originals sometimes struggle to wade through an intellectual experimentation within certain genres and styles; it’s his covers where verve and confidence meet for an almost seamless presentation of his ideas of both attempted innovation and homage. Benjamin reached euphoric heights, for instance, with a boa around his neck, bopping to a souped-up cover of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” unapologetic and enthralled to be in the spotlight.
I spoke at length with Benjamin about music (his and others’), sex, performance, art as politics, and what drives him weeks before his just-released debut album, Swing Migration.
Kyle Turner: How are you doing?
Joe Benjamin: Good. It’s 11, and we just came back from family dinner, and we’re drinking wine, so good. Things are good.
KT: So what was it like for you presenting [Swing Migration] in the way that you did? Like, you had a really great show, you had a really nice venue… this is really kicking it off for you.
JB: Yeah. I mean, in retrospect I think [The Slipper Room] really was the best venue we could have chosen. It was that, like, red, you know? That velvet-y looking, bougie, burlesque thing that definitely reminds of the swing and jazz that you can hear in what we do. I feel like this venue lets you be whoever you want to be. And I need that very desperately because Adam [Dishian, Joe’s boyfriend] and I both realized that jazz venues are not what we’re going for at all. The last jazz venue we played was in May and it was a disaster. I mean, the show was fine, and the turnout was okay, but people just don’t want to come to a jazz venue to see us, and in general, the kind of audience that I’m targeting is not going to come to a jazz venue. So this place had the exact right amount of jazz in it, and was open to what we do.
The turnout was fantastic, the audience was incredible. When I got off stage during that solo part to give my record to one, like, longtime fan who was sitting in the very back, I had to squeeze myself through all the way to the back, and I couldn’t believe that… That was towards the end of the show, and I couldn’t believe how many people there were. I didn’t see them because of the stage light! I think the ambience and just the feeling in the room was ignited. In that sense I’m super happy about the show. And when it comes to finally getting the album out, I think this is such a big relief. Artists are always already on the next project; I’m already working on the second album. This helps me move on, it keeps me going. And it was so necessary, because a couple weeks before, I was already almost kind of over it, you know. Like, I’ve heard it so much and I thought about it so much, so it being out now is really nice. And hey, I’m sitting at home and I’m getting all this money right now from people buying it, so it’s pretty sweet.
KT: What do you think is it about your persona, or your band’s persona and style, that doesn’t fit a traditional jazz venue, but does fit a place like the Slipper Room?
JB: The reason that one jazz show was so bad in May… It wasn’t so bad, but it didn’t work. And also, actually I just talked with my dad about this. We performed two years ago on our tour in Germany, we performed at a major jazz venue in Munich. I would say the biggest jazz venue in Munich. It’s the staple jazz venue called Unterfahrt. It’s been there for decades. We performed there, and I’ve asked them twice if we can come back and twice they said “no.” And I think the reason why is because at that venue in Munich, towards the end I performed the Spice Girls song “Wannabe,” and they were outraged.
There’s some sort of a conservatism and a little bit of an uptightness to the jazz scene, and that goes for New York especially, because there’s such a high expectation toward jazz there ‘cause that’s where it was kind of born. I don’t really fit into that realm, you know? I mean, you’ve heard it yourself. The music definitely draws from the genre, definitely. There’s such a heavy influence, no question. But it’s so much further beyond that, you know? In just so many ways, genre-wise.
KT: Jazz obviously has a kind of origin in New York. What was it like for you being someone not from New York, or the U.S., kind of experimenting with that genre, and experimenting with funk (which also has origins in the U.S., and a particular demographic)?
JB: You asking me that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is me being in a jazz history class at my college. I studied at the New School. And when I was sitting in class, there were all these kids who were American, who were from New York, or from Queens, who had parents who showed them Frank Sinatra… who showed them the real jazz musicians when they were kids. I didn’t even hear about people like Keith Jarrett. I didn’t even hear about him until I was 18 or 19. Many of the really big ones, Cole Porter, whatever, whoever, you know, Wayne Shorter, I didn’t know about these people until I was 19 or 20 years old. Because of the way I was brought up in Germany… I was brought up very un-musical, and when there was music in my house, it was never jazz. So I had some sort of a virgin approach to this genre, and I have learned it in my own ways, and I’ve picked whatever I liked, and I experienced a lot, a lot of arrogance. I don’t know what you would call it… misunderstanding? I’m so not jazz in so many of the eyes of so many other people. So, being in New York and doing my very own thing in that sense has definitely exposed me to a lot of arrogance.
I’ve asked them twice if we can come back and twice they said “no.” And I think the reason why is because at that venue in Munich, towards the end I performed the Spice Girls song “Wannabe,” and they were outraged.
KT: And what is your reply to them? Like, I just saw the film La La Land pretty recently. Are you aware of that film? It’s with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
KT: It’s a musical by the guy who did Whiplash. It’s about this guy who has a very particular idea of what artistry is and what jazz is, and he’s pretty conservative in terms of what he thinks jazz is. So, what is your response, or how do you deal with people who have this very conservative view of jazz and who encounter what you’re doing with the various genres you’re playing with?
JB: You know, honestly, in a way I’m happy that there is the, like, really hardcore jazz people out there. I’m happy that there’s all these people who care so very much about this particular genre ‘cause in a way it keeps it alive, it keeps the spirit alive of all these jazz musicians who, let’s face it, are all dead. I mean, there’s many great jazz musicians now, but you know, the ones that everyone is always trying… All the solos that people try to copy on their saxophone, it was always people who have long been dead or are dying right now. And so, there are people that try to keep them alive, and that’s a wonderful thing and I really don’t judge. I see the hardcore jazz community that has such a particular understanding for this very genre that sometimes I don’t even have. All these people are ecstatic about someone playing a solo and I’m not, and in these moments I realize, you know, I only understand so much about it.
So I absolutely have no resentment towards these people. The only thing that I do resent is not tolerating or not appreciating art in general. And if I go to the MOMA and I see an empty canvas in front of me, never, never will you see me walk into that room at the MOMA and say, ‘Ugh, what’s this? That’s not art.’ I always say, ‘I don’t get it, and I’m not feeling it, but somebody must have put a lot of fucking thought into this because it is here after all.’ You know, in art, I think the last thing you want to do is judge or make one look better than the other.
KT: I think the genre semantics is kind of a fun conversation to have, but sometimes it gets, like, a little anal-retentive, and people retreat into their camps and are super defensive about the way that they perceive art. I try to be a bit more open in most regards.
One thing I think was really fun about your show was when you opened it with “New York, New York”, and you… I think I heard you mention backstage that you were going to do that, and then kind of pull the rug from underneath people because you had spent so long doing those standards, and I was wondering what is your relationship to trying to reinvent the genres that you’re doing, but nod to them and pay homage to them prior? Does that make sense?
JB: Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. I’m happy that you noticed that because I was worried it would kind of get lost, but… So yes, I am incredibly fed up with it. I mean, not fed up, I’m just over-saturated and I’m so done with all this stuff that I did for a long time, especially when I was here in Germany. I sang with all these big bands who played the Sinatra repertoire up and down. I really have done it many times. I started doing it when I was 11. I was in my room everyday singing songs like “New York, New York.” So, for me, I’m so beyond it. But do I still listen to it? Hell yes. I definitely listen to the Sinatra recordings. Once in a while, once in a blue moon, usually I put that stuff on in those moments when you have many people over, and there’s a lot of drinking going on, and a lot of bottles of wine being opened and popped open, and you’re trying to create a playlist that gets people going, I put on “Come Fly With Me” because that stuff still totally pushes all my buttons and it gets me going, you know? But I have definitely learned from it so much that I’m done with it. I don’t… I no longer feel like I get so much inspiration from it. I already have, and I feel like I’ve moved on. It no longer fuels me and nourishes me.
Never will you see me walk into that room at the MOMA and say, ‘Ugh, what’s this? That’s not art.’ I always say, ‘I don’t get it, and I’m not feeling it, but somebody must have put a lot of fucking thought into this because it is here after all.’
KT: I want to talk about the different in your writing process for original material as compared to the covers you’re doing?
JB: So, for the covers, you know that I don’t have to write…
KT: Yeah, but you arrange.
JB: Good, good, okay, that’s what you mean. The process is shockingly similar. It’s actually the exact same process. When I arrange a cover like “Drops of Jupiter” or “Desafinado” or whatever you heard that night, when I arrange it, I take the song as I know it, I usually have it in my head ‘cause I’ve listened to it a million times, and I smoke it up, and I walk around my apartment and I just sing the melody however I want to sing it. So I assume that I came up with the melody, I assume that I came up with the lyrics, and I interpret it in front of me, in my room, the way that I would have put it onto paper. And when I write a song, and I try to arrange it, I do the same thing. I have the melody that I had already written, and I then interpret the melody or the lyrics however feels most fun to me. This comes back, by the way, to what we talked about at the show. It’s all just channeling. Sometimes I feel like I’m just opening up these two gates, and I just let it through. Because whatever sounds most fun to me, I don’t have a recipe for it, you know? It comes a certain way, and that’s what I like, in a certain way, when it’s, ‘Oh, this is how I like it.’
With arranging covers, I just open the flood gate and I take the cover, the lyrics or the melody or whatever I like most about the song, and I feel like, ‘How would I write the song? How would I change the song to make it interesting?’ And of course, sometimes you also make sure that you change things that are very fundamental. Things like the meter or the key or whatever. You try to change fundamental, basic elements of the song just so you make it your own, and you take it away from the original, to take it out of your comfort zone as much as possible. I certainly do that. But it’s all about interpreting it the way I would interpret an original.
KT: And why did you choose the songs that you covered?
JB: So, at the show, I covered “Virtual Insanity,” “Desafinado,” and “Drops of Jupiter.”
KT: “99 Red Balloons.”
JB: Oh, you’re right. I totally forgot.
KT: “Wannabe,” “Thriller,” “Ghostbusters”…
JB: True, true, true. Well, it’s a different reason for each one. “Drops of Jupiter,” it was Martin, my arranger, he’s the one who puts all this shit onto paper. Martin just said to me, “Listen, I have a wish.” He said to me, “I want to… I wanna… I have this one song I really want to do it. Trust me, people are going to love it.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he goes, ‘Drops of Jupiter.'” And I go, “‘Drops of Jupiter,’ what is that?” So he sang it to me, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I totally heard that on the radio before.’ And he said, “See! Everyone… trust me Joe, if we do this, everyone has heard it on the radio before.” So I said “fine.” I started listening to the song, and then I sent him a long, long email about how I want it arranged. And then with “Wannabe,” “Thriller,” and “Ghostbusters,” I mean… it’s pretty obvious. I just sat down with him and I said, ‘Listen, which covers are going to get the crowd most moving?’ And we have a list of at least 40 or 50 covers. We still have that list. And we really just picked the three songs that are the biggest crowd pleasers, and they just work so well. “Desafinado” I did because it’s one of my favorite jazz or latin standards that I’ve sung in my life. And “Desafinado” I believe is particularly interesting. Of all of these covers, that is the one that sticks out the most, in my eyes.
KT: There’s, like, 30 time signature changes?
JB: It’s unbelievable. That song is all over the fucking place. The time signature changes are insane. I mean, there’s probably 20 in there, or more. And the melody hits on different… it’s hard to explain to a non-musician, like, non-theory musician, if you know what I mean, but… I changed it up so drastically, it’s almost like reading a book backwards, you know? It’s really all over the place. Anyway, your question is why did I pick it? I picked “Desafinado” because it’s my most favorite jazz standard, and I wanted to do something of jazz merit, and then… other than that, “Virtual Insanity,” that’s the gateway to what I’m doing now. “Virtual Insanity” is one of the main reasons why I changed a little bit the style of this whole project. We started with “Virtual Insanity” about two years ago, and it was just such a funky, good-feeling tune. And I remember watching the music video to it, and saying to whoever was with me, ‘Listen, we need to do a cover of this. This is so good.’ And we did the cover, and it worked so well with people, it was always like the peak of every show, that I said, ‘I need to start writing music that falls into this atmosphere and feeling.’ And that’s what we’re doing for the second album.
He said to me, “I want to… I wanna… I have this one song I really want to do it. Trust me, people are going to love it.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he goes, ‘Drops of Jupiter.'”
KT: Your song “The American Dream” struck me as interesting, not only because of the current sociopolitical climate of the U.S., but because it reminded me of David Bowie’s “Young Americans”—particularly that song’s usage in the Lars von Trier film Dogville, which is this three-hour-long kind of melodrama about this woman who’s a refugee, who goes to this small town, and they protect her, but they protect her on the condition that she does things for them, like chores and whatnot. And as their sense of threat increases, the demands they make on the woman, played by Nicole Kidman, become increasingly more abusive, to the point where she’s physically and sexually abused, and raped, and it becomes like an examination and commentary on American society. It’s like this black box theatre, intentionally Brechtian. And at the end, there’s David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over these photographs of people in poverty in the United States, and it shows, obviously, that this American dream, as your song is called, is illusory. So what prompted you to write [“The American Dream”]?
JB: Well, it’s pretty easy. What prompted me to write the song is that, to me, it never felt like an American dream. If I look at my situation that I’m in, and the situation that I am and was in is one that is very fortunate—my grandmother has been able to support me with most or all of the things I’ve done. The only reason I don’t have college debt, is because someone in my family happened to have enough funds to pay for all of my studying. And I see everyone around me struggling so hard, and I see what the government wants—how much money they ask for, how much proof of income, and all these other things. So I sat in my bed, in my 2,500 dollar studio apartment on 84th street, a couple years ago, after I had a really expensive meal at a nice restaurant, and I’m lying there and I think to myself, ‘Where do I get the right to assume that this is me making this all happen? Isn’t that what the American dream is? Isn’t the American dream you making it on your own? And if you really want something, you can make it? And it’s all, you know… If you really want this dream to come true, you can make it happen?’ That is utter, utter bullshit. The only reason I’m able to make these things happen is because I have money. And if there’s people who don’t have money, and even people who are not immigrants like me, but people who actually live in that country and who are citizens and they don’t have money and they come from low income families, none of this is possible. Which is why, at the end of that song, I say, “Let’s save this dream for families who cannot leave but not me.” So, that’s what prompted it. Realizing that the American Dream has nothing to do with equal chances for people. It’s about financial power, and nothing but that.
KT: ‘American Dream’ is, I think, the only overtly political song in your set list? Do you have any plans to go further down that road in terms of using your art as a form of politics or resistance, especially with regard to the coming regime?
JB: Yeah… Ugh, I don’t know, Kyle. I really don’t know what’s going to happen with us and this country. All I know is that art in these kinds of moments has always been a great channel for people to express things. I also know from the history of my home country that art has been suppressed and forbidden in administrations and governments like this. Pussy Riot is a wonderful example. I don’t want to say that I would love to go to jail, but I am definitely inclined to be one ending up in jail ‘cause I do speak up and I do say things. My art so far has not been very political because, as an immigrant in America, I feel hesitant about being highly political because it is very easy for citizens of America to say, ‘Well, why are you here then? Go home. If you don’t like it here, go home and don’t make music here.’ Me being in America also… I have a certain humbleness because I am very thankful that I’m able to be here… it’s not my country, I was invited in. Not invited, but I was let in because I did pay a lot of money for it, but I still feel a certain humbleness where I’m trying to… If this was Germany, I’d be very different, I think.
But with whatever we’re facing now in the year 2017, I can’t wait for a good idea to write a really, really insane song or lyric about what’s going to happen. I just feel like I’m so in it. We are all so involved in it right now, and it’s so fresh, and it’s so hurtful, what happened, right now I don’t have the foresight yet. I need to step away from it really far, and I also need to settle down a little bit, and I need to arrive in this new situation, and once that happens, I feel like I’ll be able to really start writing stuff, and I would love to do that.
The only reason I’m able to make these things happen is because I have money. And if there’s people who don’t have money, and even people who are not immigrants like me, but people who actually live in that country and who are citizens and they don’t have money and they come from low income families, none of this is possible.
KT: In the political, ideological sense.… do you identify as, like, a gay artist, or a queer artist?
JB: Hmm. First of all, I know it would help me to do that, and I know that within the gay community of New York, and in general in the gay community, I think [this band] would be a very successful project, and I’m extremely open to exploring that community. I’m very open to that and I love the idea of it. However, I just have an issue with the terms “gay” and “homosexual.” They’re just terms that I’m not feeling very comfortable with.
KT: Which do you prefer to use?
JB: Being part of that community… hell yeah. Of course I am. I was wearing a feather boa. But I don’t like being… homosexuality feels limiting to me. It limits me. It puts a dead-end to one side of me, which means, ‘Oh you can’t be with women. That’s not a possibility.’ And I would like to have that possibility forever in my life, to be able to be with women… to hook up with them.
KT: Yes, I totally get that. I’m talking more in the political sense. Like Todd Haynes is a “queer” artist, John Waters is a “queer” artist because the art that they make is inherently anarchic, or in response to a certain social structure, or societal infrastructure. I identify as queer because I think it, for one, better encompasses my romantic and sexual proclivities, but also because it informs my political beliefs. So I’m asking, in that sense, do you identify as a queer artist?
JB: Right. I definitely… I feel good about what you’re saying, and I definitely identify as an artist that comes from the queer community, for sure. What I want to prevent in my career and in my life is becoming that and only that. I want to prevent being an artist that is only associated with the gay community. That’s what I want to prevent. But I love that, and I embrace that.
KT: Do you know the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder?
JB: Yes, I do.
KT: I don’t like to think of “queer” as limiting, necessarily, because I think it opens up a lot of avenues, and opens up a lot of possibilities and ideas and beliefs. Fassbinder is one of those, I guess, icons. So I was talking within in that context. Which leads me to—
JB: Yeah. Because he’s not regarded as a “gay” director.
KT: Right, he transcends that label—because he was actually bi. But he’s regarded as a queer artist in the sense that his work is explicitly political, it is a response and comments on a certain aspect of society. And that leads me to my next question. Do you see the United States at all mirroring what happened to the Weimar Republic in terms of, like, the art that was happening in Berlin and the crackdown that happened as the Third Reich extended its reach?
JB: So, you’re saying we’re going into the Third Reich kind of idea, right?
KT: Yes, in terms of what happened to artists, in terms of their ability to produce art that was explicitly political, that criticized or critiqued the current regime.
JB: You know, I have the fear that this is something that is going to happen very soon to press, to freedom of speech, to artistry. But the one thing that is different between 1933 and 2017 is, first of all, in 1933, 1933 hadn’t happened yet. But in 2017, this has happened before. And second of all, we live in an interconnected world of internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, messaging… Facetime-ing to America with someone for free. We live in a world where that’s possible. And at least, even if it happens, at least people at other places in the world will see it and condemn it. So, I think the comparison is weak. But it has strong similarities, for sure.
KT: I was wondering, like, what is going through your mind, and if there’s anything in particular that informs or helps inspire what you do on stage as opposed as to what you do off stage, when you’re performing in front of people?
JB: Right, I remember you asking me that question after the show, and it was really difficult for me to answer because I really, trust me, Kyle, before getting on stage, I never think to myself, ‘What am I going to say? How am I going to act? What am I going to do?’ I really don’t. I used to do that a long time ago when I started out as a performer, and it was a bad idea and it never worked. I have no plan, I really don’t. The only plan I have is it to relax, chill, feel out the energy in the room, and do my thing accordingly. And I have stories that are attached to all of the songs, and I want to tell them. But that stage persona… If you hang out with me at night with many people, many people are involved—let’s say a group of eight—and we go out all night… I usually don’t take the center stage. I try to… I definitely learned in my personal life to not always take the attention; I love it, but I definitely try to tame myself to not always take all the attention when I’m out. But when I do, it’s the same thing as when I’m on stage. It’s just who I am, you know? It’s something that lives within me, and I can’t tell you that it’s fabricated in any way. I just like to… I just feel comfortable when people listen, even if I upset them.
KT: So, are you at your most comfortable on stage?
KT: So the stage is your home. Are you born a performer?
JB: Yeah, for sure. Definitely. That’s a very fitting statement.
KT: When was the moment you knew that you wanted to do this?
JB: The moment I knew that I wanted to do this was when I was 11 years old, and my mother signed me up for an audition for a musical where they were looking for a child star; you had to be 14 to be able to participate, so she faked my birth date on the application, and at the audition they immediately accepted me, and then somehow we made it work with the age. And it was a really big production in Germany that was going on tour and everything, and there was all these old, like, mid-30s/late-20s musical theatre professional artists and performers who this is all they do with their lives. And I came from a little cow town somewhere in Bavaria never seeing anything like this before, and I remember the way all these people interacted with each other, at rehearsal, after rehearsal, the way they got drunk together, all the things they did together. That, to me, made me realize this is all I ever want. For the first time in my life, I felt a level of comfort and of being understood that I’ve never felt before. And I was 11, and that was enough. That’s all it took. I mean, it was so clear to me this is all I ever want.
KT: So, if you feel comfortable and happiest on stage, what do you do to find that same level of comfort and happiness and solace when you’re off stage?
JB: That balance… Of course I surround myself with people like Adam, and dear friends and loving people who understand me and appreciate me and tolerate me and hear me out. But I do yearn a little for it when I’m not on stage. It’s a little bit of an addiction, you know? I don’t know if I could do it every day of the week, probably I couldn’t, but I wish it would happen a little more in my life. And it will, it will. I’ll get there. But you can’t really compensate for it. On the weekend, I wait tables, and when I wait tables, many, many customers ask me, ‘Oh, are you a performer? You must be a performer.’ Because I guess I do perform, you know, at the table.
KT: Is the joy in performing, or is the joy in the validation you get from performing?
JB: No. The validation, it’s nice, no question. I mean, you could argue why did I really go to the exit right after the show [at the Slipper Room]? Did I go there to receive the validation? Or did I go there because I felt like I owe the people to show my face? And really, the reason I went there is because I wanted to create a liaison with my audience and put myself on the same level with them, and not make myself the superstar who doesn’t show his face. The validation came and it felt fantastic, and I would have been sad if I hadn’t gotten it, no question. But the validation really comes just by being on stage. But I guess that is something I do look for— feeling validated and happy and fulfilled in what I do. But not hearing it from other people.
KT: So as an artist, as a continually evolving, morphing artist, what has been the greatest obstacle for you?
JB: It’s always hard to single out one thing, but the greatest obstacle has always been myself… me putting all this pressure on myself. Me not being a great singer. A couple years ago I just technically was not as advanced and as good as I am striving to be. I’ve improved in the past years and I’m proud of that. I’ve worked very hard on that. But I was always the biggest obstacle. The way I thought about things, the goals I set for myself, the expectations I had…
The one thing that is different between 1933 and 2017 is, first of all, in 1933, 1933 hadn’t happened yet. But in 2017, this has happened before.
KT: What do you see in the future for Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful?
JB: I see the future of this band where the present is. Just keep doing what we do. I primarily want to tour, and that’s the most important thing for me. I really want to get out there and tour, and get this music out in the world A.S.A.P. In North America, Germany, France, Italy, Europe in general… China. I want to go out and tour the entire world. If I go out with it making eighty-thousand dollars a year, and not more, trust me I’m happy. I’m not looking primarily to become a millionaire. I don’t care about that. The only future that I want is us performing, and me having a solid financial background to make my art without being a waiter.
KT: OK. One, do you think you’ve carved out an identity for yourself as an artist, kind of like, what your art says about you? And two, what do you think that is?
JB: That’s a touchy subject that you bring up, and I think I’m still… I’m towards the end of figuring out, but still am figuring out what’s the exact image, who do I really want to be. What should the website look like? What should the music videos look like? What clothes should we all wear? I’m going to be honest with you, the image is something that I need help with, and I, like… because I’m only good at certain things. There’s a lot of things I’m really not good at. The show was on Thursday at night, and Thursday morning at 10:30 I wrote a message to Adam, saying, ‘Oh my god, what should I wear tonight?’ You know, where other people would think about it two weeks in advance. I don’t think of these things. They don’t come to my mind. And I understand they’re very important, so I’m being neglectful in this sense. So, I do need help a little bit with people who are better at that, and… What do I really look like or who am I on stage? I am definitely myself. But when you talk about image, you know, I mean, I don’t like the idea of having an image on stage, and then going off stage and doing ten lines of coke and being a total asshole. I would like to be myself, you know, I want the joy that I experience in my life to come out in stories on stage, so it’s being the same thing, going hand in hand. And in my personal life, I don’t have any image problems. I feel very confident about who I am. Obviously you always change and have often become better than people tell you, you know. You always understand that you make mistakes, and things are not how they’re supposed to be, and you try to change and you try to become a better person, but apart from all that, I think I’m doing fine.
KT: What role do you think sex has in the way that you write your music and—
JB: Ugh, so much.
KT: And craft your art…
JB: Sex is everything. Sex is so important. I’m a sexual person. I’m a very sexual person. Other people aren’t, and I don’t judge. It’s… you know, there’s nothing wrong. You shouldn’t strive to be a sexual person. Sexuality is just one of many things that are… that define people, and I happen to just be very sexual, and I talk about it all the time, and I make jokes about it all the time, and I make comparisons to it all the time, and I think about it so much. [laughs] So, consequently, I think sex will always be… or sexuality will always be a very big part of my art.
KT: In what way?
JB: Just in the wicked ways that sexuality fucks with you, and your brain, and how it clouds your thinking sometimes, and how it influences your life in such funny ways. How sometimes you’re so driven by your hormones, and you do stupid things ‘cause you can’t think straight. I find that so hilarious, and it’s such a pathetic and sad struggle that our reason and our common sense has with our crotch, you know? But sometimes it can also teach you so much about yourself and about life, and that’s kind of, I guess, what I’m trying to bring out.
KT: Do you think that the way that sex has informed your art has changed or evolved since you started writing music, or started performing?
JB: Yes, definitely, because I had one song that kind of touched on the subject of sex, and it was such a successful song. People loved it in particular, and they were so fond of it that many people in my band said to me, “Oh man, sex really sells. Sex does sell.” People said that so much to me, and I was like, ‘You know what, maybe I should write a song about sex?’ And then I wrote the song “Three Days No Sex,” which has the word “sex” in the title, so I mean, you can’t get more explicit than that.
Sex is everything. Sex is so important.
KT: So what do you find most erotic about music? Or about performing?
JB: The foreplay. [laughs] All the work that’s involved to get to the peak. That makes it very exhilarating work, you know? The show you saw on Thursday, that was the peak, and there was so much work involved in it, and that’s almost kind of erotic.
KT: That’s very interesting—and fun. Do you sense, like, a different approach to, I guess, the sexual atmosphere of your shows between the United States and then touring in Europe?
JB: People are very open and very open-minded in Europe, but the topic of sex, it feels to me like it’s a little bit easier to talk about in New York. But I’m talking New York. I haven’t performed somewhere in Ohio or Illinois yet, so I guess I need more performance experience.
KT: You’re working on a new album. How is that going?
JB: Incredible. You know, on [Swing Migration] I have three covers, and I had to obtain the rights to put them on an album. And as I obtained those rights, I had to go to the Harry Fox Agency website and I saw who was writing these songs, and I was so surprised to see that “Virtual Insanity” was not just Jason Kay—it was four other people. So I looked them all up, and I found out they were his rhythm section! I started looking through all these other songs by him, and everything he does, he writes it all with his rhythm section. So I decided to do the same instrumentation. Those are probably the biggest challenges for me. Vocally, I don’t think there are so many challenges, but I think working with instrumentation and with genre—and branching out in both of those realms—is going to help me keep myself challenged.
KT: What is it that drives you? What drives you to keep going? You said that you know that you’re not really going to make any money off this album, but what drives you to keep doing this art, and to keep telling these stories?
JB: So, I didn’t say that I think I’m not going to make money off this… I believe it’s the right expectation to say that I’m not going to make money off of it.
KT: Well, the cost-benefit ratio…
JB: We all have seen these cases where a small band brings out an album and it’s somehow picked up by someone. Norah Jones is a wonderful example. Her first album just hit it so fucking hard. So, you know, anything can happen. But what was your question? What drives me? The only thing that drives me is that when I go to bed at night and I fall asleep and I wake up, the first and last thing I think of is always music. So, I have to be a musician… I don’t do it for fame or anything, I just do it because I need to, because it’s all I want to do. And if I have to be a waiter for the rest of my life, I’m going to do that as long as I can make music. So, it’s just the same drive that you have to keep yourself alive. It’s a survival instinct, to me, in a way—or it’s very similar to that. Eating, surviving, and making music are all on the same level.
You can order Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful’s debut album Swing Migration from their website, or stream it on any of the major streaming music services.
It’s heartening to realize that in a year of seemingly constant death—one in which the passing of great filmmakers was no exception—the best films here seemed intent on never forgetting those losses, to mine the past and the passed for new inspiration in the present, and in movingly reverent ways. Our great new filmmakers looked to the old ones to guide them
In a year most of us would rather forget for one reason or another, 2016 was welcomingly giving when it came to dispensing albums from some of both this and last century’s greatest performers. The sheer wealth of material this year means fantastic work like Leonard Cohen’s swan song, Young Thug’s most cohesive effort to date, and The Avalanches nearly two-decad
Just another year gone by—except songs seemed particularly vital for getting through these last 12 months. Not that you need me to tell you, but we lost some of our greatest purveyors of the form in 2016, and if the 10 selections below can’t compensate—if there’s no “Kiss” or “Mama Tried” or “Modern Love” among them—most look struggle, and sacrifice, and the indefatigable march of time, head-on, as much a reflection of their times as the classics that came before them. And if a few others merely throw a party at the dawning of our apocalypse, who could blame them? Sam C. Mac
10. Margo Price fills most of her breakthrough album, the phenomenal country & western hardliner Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, with straight-up shit-kickers, songs that take their cues from Outlaw Country’s flare for rhythm n’ blues. The set’s opener, though, is a different thing altogether: “Hands of Time” is an impeccably poised, composed, and performed bit of lush cosmopolitan country pop, a show of pure formal skill—as if Margo’s just proving herself capable of that standard. Were it merely an appeal to cross-genre tastemakers, it might read as a compromise, but instead it opens Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on a moving note of self-actualization: “All I wanna do is make my own path,” Price opines over gorgeous weeping strings and hammond B3 organ, “…And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time”—which, at this point, is an actualized narrative we can all wish for. SCM
9. With his sophomore album, Still Brazy, rapper YG largely traded the personal for the political—and somehow in the process gave up very little of the partying that has made much of his music so ingratiating. It’s no coincidence that the hook of this song, “fuck Donald Trump,” works in all these contexts: “FDT” honors the object of its ire by never mincing its words. YG and featured artist Nipsey Hussle ruthlessly mock Trump’s policies and lob the kinds of schoolyard-worthy personal attacks that our (uuuuuugh) “president elect” made a hallmark of his repugnant campaign. Unsurprisingly, these two’s taunts are way more entertaining (“Where’s your L.A. rally?/We gonna crash your shit!”) and their off-the-cuff, freestyled flows—along with the protest march and picket signs of the song’s music video—make the raw sentiments resonate with their irrepressible outrage, and our own. SCM
8. Birds of Chicago’s breakthrough album, Real Midnight, is an album of voices; like Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark, it taps gospel music for its sonic qualities, not its religious ones, and imagines every tune as a kind of raucous singalong. The album’s second song, “Remember Wild Horses,” is one of its best examples: Showstopper Allison Russell weds her voice to JT Nero’s weathered croon, trading verses and taking choruses together. But it’s a songwriter’s showcase as much as a vocal one. Each verse offers a character who’s haunted by what was, or what might have been. “There was not a single one among us/Who thought she’d be alone,” Russell sings of the first verse’s woman of solitude; “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me,” offers Nero, voicing the second verse’s broken-hearted fool. They’re haunted by regret, but the chorus brings consolation: “You don’t have to wipe away your tears/Come on and let ‘em fall.” Time plays tricks on all of us; some days, you just gotta cry. Josh Hurst
7. “Tiimmy Turner” started out as a 45-second video—of a XXL Freshman freestyle—but once again this year, Desiigner turned nothing into something. Both haunting and uplifting, “Tiimmy Turner” has the Brooklyn rapper’s charisma (and Future-sounding voice) melodically concentrated on producer Mike Dean’s menacing synthesizer. The song showcases an angrier voice—one Desiigner used rather unsuccessfully for his mixtape, New English—but it’s often not what he’s saying, but more how it comes out, turning largely hard to decipher lyrics into emotional cries. Just the hook itself (“Timmy, Timmy, Timmy Turner/He been wishin’ for a burner”) starts to sound mantra-like, creating a spiritual energy akin to a modern day gospel hymn. Still huge off of “Panda,” it’s easy to dismiss this 19-year old as another flavor of the month, but “Tiimmy Turner” suggests that appeal still has its surprises. Paul Attard
6. As the first single from Miranda Lambert’s post-divorce double album, The Weight of These Wings, “Vice” confounded expectations: Neither back-to-basics barnburner nor tabloid-ready tell-all, it starts a cappella but picks up subtle production touches—a buzzing synth; a lonely, reverb-heavy snare—the way its narrator accumulates bad habits, while the languid rhythm and restrained vocals evoke the sense of crushing inevitability that comes from seeking escape in the same old things. “If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me,” Lambert sings, with the weariness of someone who’s pulled their share of geographics. “Vice” is particularly devastating in context as the wounded but clear-eyed centerpiece of Wings’ spirited, rambling ode to “freedom in a broken heart”: the weight pulls Lambert back into a cycle of old records, familiar whiskey, and new one-night stands. There’s a recognition for the strange comfort in knowing one’s own particular powerlessness—but a fiery coda, complete with guitar solo and affirming backup vocals, is just rousing enough to necessitate hitting repeat. When it hurts this good, you’ve got to play it again, and again, and again. Alex Engquist
5. “Formation” is the most urgent song of 2016’s America. Producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s Southern-fried, alarm-sounding beat stokes momentum to a chorus that’s among the year’s most exhilarating, deriving its twangy sound effects from the bounce genre. The lyrics, meanwhile, rival Xenia Rubinos’s “Mexican Chef” as the most politically plainspoken in a year when we needed a powerful, inclusive voice to unite us while at the same time propel and embody its own specific identity. “Formation”’s twice-repeated verse is scrupulously structured: at first, Beyoncé is deflecting common petty ad hominem and replacing criticism with style and strut, including a dominating glance thrown her spouse’s way (remember, this was months before we quite had an idea what was going on there). Then, she escalates into the intoxicating refrain that centers the song in a racial community, time, and place: “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils/Earned all this money but they never take the country out me.” More than the slickest Rae Sremmurd song, “Formation” spawned memes and catchphrases that fiercely embedded themselves in the cultural landscape, its “best revenge is your paper” kiss-off a telling nod to the internet-age capitalism that this eternal anthem dominated. Charles Lyons-Burt
4. Too often on SremmLife 2, the rap duo Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi sound like they’re trying to redefine what Rae Sremmurd is: the infectious hooks that made the group’s first album a hit take a backseat to competent verses designed to prove a point. But “Black Beatles” is the platonic ideal of a Rae Sremmurd joint, as catchy as “No Flex Zone” or “No Type” but delivered with the acquired cool of a group that can make hits in their sleep. Over an ear-worm Mike WiLL-Made-It instrumental that sounds custom made for driving at night, Swae and Jxmmi play to their strengths and craft another ode to fame and partying, interpolating the Beatles’ lyrics and making John Lennon lenses cool again between drinks. And because Swae Lee’s hook approaches sublime beauty and Slim Jxmmi turns in his most energetic work of any on SremmLife 2, “Black Beatles” didn’t really need to add the best Gucci Mane feature of a year that already had many—but of course, it doesn’t hurt. Chris Mello
3. Mitski took to Facebook in May to clarify that “Your Best American Girl” was written to be an earnest love song, countering a narrative that had cropped up and positioned it as an ironic counterpoint to the possessive love songs of white boy indie rockers. Either way, it’s the best rock song of 2016, and maybe the year’s best love song as well; it entrenches itself in the specificity of heartache across an irreconcilable cultural divide while encompassing depths of feeling. Love here is massive, worthy of the shift into the loud fuzzed-out rock that characterizes the song’s most cathartic moment—but it also carries preexisting conditions, namely history and culture: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me.” With “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski aspires not to an assimilation into a greater culture but to fit in with just one person, only to find the distance overwhelming and become caught in a heartbreak that’s been seemingly predestined. CM
2. From its ebullient opening notes, joined within seconds by Young Thug’s melodic yet caustic bray, “Pick Up the Phone” exemplifies the platonic ideal of a crossover track. In other words, the song works-in the kind of dichotomies that best satisfy many demographics—shades of light and dark, with lyrics that profess earnest romanticism (“Never will I cheat on you…blowin’ a bag on you/Do all of that for no reason”) alongside narcotic urges and sexual deviancy. Travis Scott, who boasts no proper verse of his own, nonetheless furthers his persona as shadowy midnight marauder, a cloaked and hard-bitten party animal, contrasted with Thugga’s image as rambunctious, gender-fluid wordsmith and generous father. (The line “I need all this cash, I got hella kids” now has an enjoyable illustration after this memorable recent Instagram post.) For years, Thugga fans have known his potential for melding genuine idealism (“Mama told me I’m her brightest star/Mama told me don’t hate on the law/Because everybody got a job/Because everybody won’t be a star”) with a penchant for turning booty-call blips into weird, grandiose bangers. This one, with Scott’s help, adds some patience to that sound, rendering the beat a bit less ADD than usual, and allowing Thug’s pop instincts to fully come to the fore. CLB
1. Sonically, “Ultralight Beam” is a decade of Kanye West, synthesized: experimental auto-tuned vocals with boom bap percussion, thundering choral harmonies, and a patient, pounding back beat. It also represents the very best of Kanye’s approach, featuring precious little of the performer himself, and instead accentuating his penchant for accumulating talent, a righteous recrimination to all who find his particular brand of hubris and self-aggrandizement unforgivable. Here, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin all play indelible roles, but it’s Kanye’s handoff of the track’s lone rap verse to the song’s original author, Chance the Rapper, that proves most astute. And yet, “Ultralight Beam” is ultimately still Kanye’s vision, and his publicized struggles at the twilight of 2016 lend fresh power to its nu-gospel form of confessional. The-Dream croons, “I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more,” and it hits even harder now (at the end of this year), while the intro sample of a young girl’s Pentecostal recitation, paired with Kirk Franklin’s full benediction in the outro, work in tandem to convey Kanye’s yearning, amidst the turmoil, for the steadying faith of his youth. Luke Gorham