Asap Rocky stars as Barack ‘JFK’ Shakur in this new provocative video by our favorite misunderstood star, Lana Del Rey. What a pairing. What an alignment of constellations around the boardroom table. While executives rubbed their hands together at the demographic crossover multipliers, however, some real heads (including but not limited to director Anthony Mandler) were cooking up a show that’s sure to make many a head spin.
Lana Del Rey “National Anthem”
What makes Asap sound new and different is that he’s a slacker rapper. His lyrics and vocal delivery are just not that earnest or intense, and the same goes for the beats. He’s a great match for Del Rey, with weepy strings in so many of his jams that aren’t so much nostalgic as they are just a new synthetic melancholic sound. He overlays the repetitive string or synth pad with a cloud of weird samples, vocal and otherwise, that are hardly poppin’ or melodic, they’re more spookily mixing together with reverb, and there are enough confusingly unrelated sounds going on it’s possible to enter a sort of musical k-hole where you don’t focus on any one thing and it all swirls around and mushes together. He presents only a slight twist on get-money rap with his oddball up-to-date designer clothes, the main thrust is the same, I love material things, and I love to smoke weed. But put the get-money vibe in Del Rey’s hands, and suddenly there’s some real color. In this video she’s Lady MacBeth, Keith Richards, and Peggy Bundy all at once.
When music goes slack, and the center of attention drifts from the real-time execution and intensity of riffs or vocal lines, listeners’ hearts are invited to go somewhere else and quickly do. The appeal is nicely summarized in the work of my friend Dirty Beaches. It transports instantly, cause there’s nothing instantly present going on that’s forcing you to pay attention to it. And once you’re being transported, well, what are we all ready to be transported from? The answer, I think, is the now. Not this moment in time, but the idea of this moment in time being the most important, the most anything.
Remember retro? Remember when Y2K loomed and every couple of years, a different decade of the previous five or six was ‘it’ and artists didn’t have to work so hard for a little while? On paper this video could come across as just capitalizing on a weird current retro trend in the Mad Men direction, complete with this submissive woman thing, which is creeping back into music all over the place (even Die Antwoord did it in their first single ”I am your butterfly I need your protection“)… but it doesn’t feel ironic or even stylish. It feels like this is a generation that can actually live with the idea that such women could exist in our society.
And there’s something deciedly un-retro about this video. It doesn’t say much, the subtext is thin, but it is not retro. It’s an appeal to the historical. The boomers have been pushing The Beatles, Woodstock, even U2 and their descendants for long enough. Rap has ridden the steadily rising stock of way-earnest present-tense party mentality sounds in mainstream music from Arcade Fire to Nicki Minaj for a while. When I watch this video I get the feeling Rocky’s strings on his mixtape, and Del Rey’s hairdo in this video, aren’t a lazy retro copout; they are appeals to a time when America actually worked better in a lot of ways. The tax rate on the top income bracket before Kennedy was 91 percent; Motown was really popular and was a post-slavery American experience laced with some sadness, but positivity too. How many of those songs had the theme of putting on a brave face but being sad inside? Think “Tears of a Clown” or “Tacks of my Tears.”
This video is provocative because it appeals to the sense of the continuity and circularity of human drama. So a Catholic President who did sleep around while everyone ignored it, is called on while we have a black one who doesn’t, but who has women making songs about sleeping with him and millions of people seeing it. Rocky’s record comes out September 11. Everyone is cashing in on the historical tip. This video is by no means deep, but it is some much-needed weird provocative entertainment that functions on both the level of what they’re portraying, and with what they’re saying about these two stars, by having them appear in it together. Score another point for Lana.