Niela Orr

1 March 2023

Cookies and Yogurt

De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising is to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back what Bob Kaufman’s Abomunist Manifesto is to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: a text that’s less a rallying cry than a high-concept hosanna for outliers. Where Kaufman was surveying the Bay Area’s brain fog, the Cold War and the menace of the A-bomb, De La Soul looked out at the macho rap landscape and added their small-pond sensibilities and day-glo colours to an overwhelmingly leather and gold NYC rap scene.

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2 December 2022

Tutti Frutti

Bernadette Mayer died on 22 November, aged 77. Earlier in the month, New Directions published the career-spanning collection Milkweed Smithereens. In ‘The Joys of Dahlias’, a nonsense taxonomy of sensual feelings inspired by flowers, Mayer writes:

sleep now, smart pants or the midnight dancer
will tutti frutti your fabulous memory

I don’t know who the midnight dancer is, but if I’m up late, grinding away for some deadline or other, they’re someone I might hallucinate. Listen how lovely Mayer’s invented verbs are: ‘tutti frutti’ could mean to chop up, desiccate and sweeten, like the ice-cream topping, or to reduce your ‘fabulous memory’ into little more than a rolling playback of Little Richard’s rock and roll squeal. (‘A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom’ might be sound poetry produced in the witching hour, the cry of an insomnolent artist under pressure to make a hit.)

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20 May 2022

Heart and Hood

Kendrick Lamar’s recent single ‘The Heart Part 5’ samples ‘I Want You’, Marvin Gaye’s torch song for Janis Hunter. The 1970s saw Gaye whipsaw from socially conscious poet (What’s Going On, 1971) to lover man (Let’s Get It On, 1973) to lovelorn Janis-stan (I Want You, 1976). (Maybe he was all of these things at many times in his life, as David Ritz’s biography suggests, but his public-facing self seemed to transform with each new record.)

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2 December 2021

Figures of Speech

Virgil Abloh, the artist and fashion designer, died on 28 November of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was 41. The news was unexpected, as Abloh had chosen to keep his diagnosis private. An exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 was called Figures of Speech. One of his best jokes was to put the words ‘FOR WALKING’ in bold, all-caps lettering on a pair of women’s cowboy boots.

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10 September 2021

Omar comin’

The death of the actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54, was reported on 6 September. He had been found unresponsive in his Brooklyn penthouse. Williams was a major player in The Wire, one of American culture’s sharpest analyses of what happened to the country in the wake of 9/11.

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2 April 2021

Welcome to Montero

‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’, a sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts and Connecticut in July 1741, takes as its text Deuteronomy 32:35, ‘their foot shall slide in due time.’ Edwards warned of the ‘fearful danger’ people were in: ‘There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment,’ he said. If the events of the last week are to be believed, Lil Nas X is a singer in the hands of an angry God, and certain ultra religious, homophobic segments of the American public, including Edwards’s televangelical heirs. Made famous in 2018 by his smash single ‘Old Town Road’ and its chart-topping remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X is now at the centre of a media firestorm.

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