Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reflection on the past year

So for those of you who know me, know that I have somewhat of an borderline asperger's love affair/ obsession with music.
I recently watched a documentary on Quentin Tarantino, and how he got his career started. For those of you who don't know, he was a high school drop out who was obsessed with watching movies. He eventually went on to work at a video store, and it was there that he continued his study of film, into eventually writing, financing, and directing his first film.

They were interviewing his co-workers at the video store, who would say that if someone asked him about a movie, he would know when it was made, who directed it, who wrote it, who produced, three people who starred in it, and he could probably reenact some lines from the movie, as well.
And I thought "That is so cool, to have such a great love and obsession with something that you just live and breathe something like that. I wish I had that."
Then I realized that I do have that...
albeit with music.
I realized music is sort of like a memory anchor for me.
I look at music sort of  as like a time-stamp, or a marker for memories in my life.
I can hear a song and instantly be transported to the first time I heard it, the feelings that I was feeling at the time, where I was, the people in my life at the time. But because these songs make me feel so much, and add so much beauty to my life I am curious about them as well, and the people that actually created this music as well.
Who were the musicians, who were the people actually recording it, where did they record it, what was going on in their lives when they recorded it, etc.
That's why chances are if I hear a song I can probably tell you who wrote it, who played on it, who recorded it, what album it was from, what year it came out, and a few lines of trivia about it.
So tonight I was listening to my iTunes, something I do everynight.
And seeing that the year is almost over, I decided to look back at, what I can only call the memories of my life decoded in song-list, and see what music I had added to my iTunes library this time last year. (You can see "date added to library", which basically organizes song by date, and shows you the date a song was added to library).
Come to find 12/19/14 I added what I consider one of the most anticipated albums I have ever had:
D'angelo's "Black Messiah" album.
For those that don't know about D'angelo, he is somewhat of a enigma in the music industry and an absolute musical genius, as well.
His first album came out 20 years ago, in 1995, with "Brown Sugar".

It was a good album, with creative parts, but he had not reached his full level of artistic creative expression. 
That is until, he recorded his next album, which would come out a full 5 years later: 2000's "Voodoo"

"Voodoo" was (is) one of the greatest R & B albums of it's time. He was doing things with soul music nobody did before, and nobody has done since.
...And then he just disappeared. 
That is, until he released "Black Messiah" somewhat as a surprise to everyone toward the end of 2014 (somewhat around this time year)
It was his third album, released nearly 15 years since the release of his last album.

Originally, D'angelo wanted to release it in 2015, but because of the timely (and almost forgotten in our societal memory bank) decisions in the Ferguson and Eric Garner court cases prompted him to release the album sooner, so as to make a statement, which is what this album fundamentally is. 

In this day and age, it's so rare to find an album. 
People don't listen to albums, they listen to songs. 
People rarely take the time to sit down and listen to an album, song for song, as one whole work of art.
To be fair, that aren't that many true albums  released; albums where every song is great, and flows together one after the other, and where the album as a whole has a common theme. 
D'angelo's "Black Messiah" is an album. 

Being as "Voodoo" changed the face of music, and then D'angelo sort of left of all of us, and disappeared into the ethos with all of magical, musical genius potential, in a time that really needed it. 
"Black Messiah" was his first album in nearly 15 years, so needless to say, people were excited, including me.
I remember when it came out, I treated it like an event.
For me it was. 
I was excited because I knew it was going to be an important work of art. 
I knew it was going to include sounds no one has heard before. 
I knew it was going to challenge people's ears by offering delight in the form of unmet expectation and surprise.
This album would be almost like a savior to the music industry.
It was exactly what people most needed, in this sea of uncreative, pre-polished, fabricated commercial rock, that doesn't sound unique, it doesn't surprise you or challenge you, and most importantly, it doesn't make you feel anything. 

Well to be honest, when I put on the new album and heard the first track, I wasn't all that impressed at first.
Sure, it sounded great, but it didn't sound like something new.
It sounded exactly how a D'angelo song should sound.
Albeit, despite how "mediocre" I thought it was, it still did sound better than 95% of commercial music released today, and I knew it was also more important than 95% as well.
But what I noticed are the little details. 
Little details that you notice more and more in each listen.
For example, in "Ain't That Easy", the first song off the album, the sound that the snare makes, only sometimes. 
Little details like that are like little spices that you put on food.
So I kept listening. I challenged myself, in the way that good music wants to be challenged, and wants to challenge you, as well.
The next song I heard was "1000 Deaths"

This is where the album started to get real.
This is where it gets challenging. 
This song was meant to challenge you.
For an R & B song, the drum beat goes so against what's acceptable for an R & B song. 
But I knew that the message would be the most challenging part.
I knew right then, what the album "Black Messiah" was all about.
It was about sending a message. 

Here are the lyrics to "1000 Deaths" at the beginning:
"When I say Jesus, I’m not talking about some blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, buttermilk complexion cracker Christ. I’m talking about the Jesus of the Bible, with hair like lamb’s wool. I'm talking about that good hair, I'm talking about that nappy hair. That his body would be like beryl. Another scripture said his body would be like jasper. Another scripture said his body would be like fine brass, as though it had been burned in an oven. Jesus: the Lord, the Savior, the Master, the Redeemer. Jesus, the Black revolutionary Messiah. Taken up on the hill, up on the mountain by Satan, by the Devil. And the Devil talked about a New World Order. The devil talked about giving Jesus all of this world out there, if Jesus would just seek an alliance with him, if he would just bow down to him. And I say to you here tonight, devil: get thee behind me, Satan. Get thee behind me, Satan."

"Black Messiah"

"Black people need some peace, white people need some peace. And we are going to have to fight, we're going to have to struggle, we're going to have to struggle relentlessly to bring about some peace because the people that we're asking for peace, they're a bunch of megalomaniac war-mongers, and they don't even understand what peace means. We've got to fight them, we've got to struggle with them to make them understand what peace means."

These are not messages you are going to hear on a Katy Perry or Justin Bieber album.
These are real thoughts, that challenge you, whether you agree with them or not.
Just like the music, which offers you new sounds you have not heard before, and may break down your pre-conceived conventions of what music should sound like, the message is equally as important.
It makes you think things, and see things in a way you haven't seen things before.

I kept listening to the album, and it did keep impressing me, because each song was doing something new, and each song was breaking down conventions held in soul and R & B music. 
But, as I said before, each listen gives you something more each time.
Each listen, you start to notice these little details even more.
Like for example, this song "Another Life":

You can hear, prominent instruments such as the piano, the drums, and the bass.
The melody is something that is very pleasing to the ears, and the sound of the piano chords are so clean and delightful.
But there is so much more than the sound of a simple piano chord, and the memorable melody. 
For example, do you notice the sound of a sitar?
It is one of the most prominent instruments on the song, but unless you have it pointed out to you, you might not have noticed it.
The piano is also played like someone rolling up and down the black and white keys with ease as well, in between the sound of the piano chords and the drums being hit like a one-punch boxing hit.
It really is ....beautiful.

Unless you play music, you might not fully appreciate it.
How hard it is to play music like this, with such ease.
And unless you have tried to write music, you might not appreciate the song craft. It's not easy.
And unless you have tried to record a song, each sound separately, you might not understand how much work goes into it. This is especially not easy, either. 
With all of these things in mind, you might be able to more appreciate music like this.

The last thing I ever notice, are the lyrics of a song.
But on some songs they add a whole other dimension of beauty and poetry.
For a person like me, I'm interested in music, because of the way the sounds make me feel.
For example, I'm not interested in that a song is a G chord, a C chord, and then a D chord.
I'm more interested in how the G chord sounds, and how it makes me feel.
Does it sound like something I've never heard before, and does it transport me someplace I have never been before, either. 
For example, here is Nirvana:

Three members of a band, playing guitar, bass, drums.
Playing a song with only three chords, and distortion.
...That's about it.
But what's important about this song, is the intensity with how it was played.
You can feel it. 

What was important about punk rock, was it broke down the conventions. 
You didn't have to be a good musician. You just had to have passion.
Nirvana were also important because they challenged conventions.
They looked and sounded completely new, and made the music that was popular before them irrelevant.

Now take a listen to another one of my favorite bands: My Bloody Valentine.
This a band of 4 people, but roughly the same dynamic: 2 guitars, bass, and drums.
But just listen to the sound these guys have created, with just guitars, bass, and drums:

It's incredible!
It's one thing to just play a G chord, but what if you play a G-chord, add 10 levels of distortion, add thirty different levels of reverb and echo,  re-record that sound in a hallway, and then leave the tape out in the sun so it can get a little warped. 
It's amazing. That's essentially the sound they created.
How does one create that sound?
Anyone can play a G-chord, but not everyone can play a G-chord the way these guys play a G-chord. 

So obviously I get all of this beauty by just listening to the feelings the sounds evoke in me. 
For me paying attention to lyrics is like noticing that there was a beautiful poem hidden in one of my favorite paintings that I never noticed before.
So my favorite song of the album is "The Charade".
Just listen to how the song makes you feel, and if you want pay attention to the lyrics, also, it adds a whole new dimension of beauty:

Crawling through a systematic maze to demise
Pain in our eyes
Strain of drownin', wading through the lies
Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries (doo, doo)
All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we relay on
Inundated by media, virtual mind fucks in streams

All we wanted was a chance to talk
'Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we've walked
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade

[Verse 2]
Perpetrators beware say a prayer if you dare for the believers
With a faith at the size of a seed enough to be redeemed (doo doo)
Relegated to savages bound by the way of the deceivers
So anchors be sure that you're sure we ain't no amateurs


With the veil off our eyes we'll truly see
And we'll march on
And it really won't take too long
And it really won't take us very long

Revealing at the end of the day, the charade
All we wanted was a chance to talk
'Stead we only got outlined in chalk
'Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade
All we wanted was a chance to talk
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade
All we wanted was a (the charade)

It's a very powerful statement about what it feels like to be a black man in America today, something I know nothing about.
But like a good novel, I can feel it.  
I am transported to somewhere new, and I can feel something new, and in that I can grow as a human, and learn from it.
This is what good art is all about.

Well, there I go like Quentin Tarantino ranting about my passion.
(Seriously, go watch a video where Quentin Tarantino talks about movies, it's fascinating)

All of this, is a reflection of my past year. 
D'angelo "Black Messiah" has been the album that I have listened to the most as a whole this year. 
There have been so many times where I have talked with people about this album; whether I have recommended it to them, or have literally put it on for people to listen to.
This album has so many memory anchors for me this year. 
I can literally tell you everywhere, and with who I listened to,  or talked to, with this album. 
But I'm amazed because so much has happened this year.
This album came out in a time, as a protest for two people killed by police.
As of today, there have been 1,190 people killed by police this year in the United States. 
But it's more memories than the French roommate I had, going back from crazy United States, back to Paris, where he would be around not one, but two terrorist attacks. 
There's so much more that happened to me personally, and I can't believe because it seems like years since this album came out.
This album came out before I fell in love with my girlfriend.
It came out before our first date.
It came out before our first kiss.
It came out before our love grew (and continues to grow).
This album came out before three of my friends got engaged.
It came out before my brother found out he would be having his first child.
This album was here before I moved to a new country, that country being Japan, of all places.
This album was here before I started working in Japan.
This album was around before I started going to school in Japan.
This album was here 365 days ago before I knew any of these things would happen. 

And in a way, it was there all along, ready to be played during these memories.
And it is still here now, as I listen to it while writing this. 
And it will be here in 50 years, after many of the people who I love in my life will no longer be here.
And I can listen to this album and think about this time in life, and I can think about what has happened since.
I could think about all the new memories I will make listening to this album, and I will think about all the billions of people who may also potentially share their own unique memories and interpretations of the exact sounds I will be listening to.

This is what is so beautiful about music.
It is endless and eternal.
It connects us with out past, present, and future selves.
There was a time before this album existed.
Before the first note was even just an idea in D'angelo's mind.
And there we were, too, in a sense waiting for this album to be made so we can here it.
If you are reading this, in a sense you have been waiting your whole life to hear it, too.
Take some time, to appreciate that the reason you are here now, reading this, is no accident. 
It was meant to happen.
Enjoy the memories of the past, by listening to music that brings those memories back to life.
And appreciate the ability for you to have your own personal soundtrack in life, by playing beautiful music in the background of new memories you will form this coming year.
Happy new years everybody.
I appreciate all the times we have spent together with music, and I look forward to the coming years, and the music that we haven't yet heard together. 

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