Monday, May 30, 2016

How to fix Drake's "Views"

We're witnessing a change in discourse regarding music that's both a gift and a curse.  Spurred on by the rise of surprise releases and the ubiquity of social media giving us an all-access pass to the thoughts of critics and fans alike, the gestation period for albums is becoming shorter and shorter.  In a way, that's exciting.  Even as a mild Radiohead fan, I couldn't help but get swept up in the fervor a few weeks ago when they dropped a new album on a Sunday afternoon with very little lead-up.  That collective listening experience is intoxicating.

But it also leads to everyone feeling the need to be the fastest one to deliver the hottest take.  Can we really determine if Beyonce's Lemonade is a masterpiece on the first night of listening to it?  Likewise, was The Life of Pablo really the mess everyone instantly declared it to be after Kanye West finally let us listen to it?

This year's biggest victim of this phenomenon is Views, Drake's expansive sad-rap rumination on fame, loneliness, and the city he calls home.  Once it dropped, the early opinion deemed it a bloated, monochromatic letdown.  Official reviews ran with that idea too.  Pitchfork, one of Drake's biggest acolytes, gave the album a 6.8.  Stereogum, The AV Club, Hip Hop DX, and various other sites were similarly lukewarm.  Advance copies weren't given out for this album, and if you look at the dates that these reviews were posted -- some of them on the same day it was released -- it's clear that reviewers didn't give Views much time to marinate.  I can't help but wonder if the general consensus on the record would be a little different if there wasn't such a rush for everyone to get their official opinion on it out into the world.  After all, the album has a 68 on Metacritic, a score far more mediocre albums regularly eclipse.

I, too, was in the negative camp when I first heard the album.  I've always had issues with Drake's music, and Views initially felt like all of his worst impulses compounded into an LP that heavily emphasizes the L.  After a few listens, it started to grow on me considerably, to the point where I've become somewhat of a champion for this deeply underrated album.  Views has some gems to offer up.  The problem is that it asks the listener to sift through a little bit of rubble to locate the shiny bits.  So I've proposed a solution, what I like to call Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut.  It looks a little something like this:

1. Weston Road Flows
2. 9
3. U With Me?
4. Feel No Ways
5. Hype
6. Controlla
7. Redemption
8. With You
9. Still Here
10. One Dance
11. Child's Play
12. Too Good

The biggest sin Views commits is that it's way too long, clocking in at 81 minutes but feeling more like 100.  So the initial step is to start chopping off songs.  First to go is "Keep the Family Close," which actually is a good opener in concept, but in execution it's mostly just a slog.  Nix "Faithful" because it's boring and not very memorable.  "Grammys" sounds like an outtake from What a Time to Be Alive, a mixtape that already feels like a collection of outtakes.  Every incarnation of "Pop Style" stinks, so that can go too.  "Fire & Desire" feels twice as long as it is, and the fact that it's near the end of the album doesn't help matters either.  Once that song gets cut, there's no real reason to keep "Summers Over Interlude" either.  Trim all of that fat and you've got a lean 53 minutes of music, almost the perfect length for a rap album.

Then there are finishing touches to put on the sequencing.  Without "Keep the Family Close," the album is lacking a fitting opening song.  The terrific "9" has 40 and Boi-1da combining their powers to create a beautiful, chattering beat but it doesn't exactly set the stage for the album.  That's why I propose putting "Weston Road Flows" in the leadoff slot.  With no chorus and four minutes of Drake spitting some of the best bars on the album, it's a perfect shot in the arm to start the record with, and it bookends nicely with the straightforward rapping approach of the album-closing title track.  The only other minor problem is that "Controlla," "One Dance," and "Too Good," the trio of dancehall-tinged tunes that are all highlights, are way too clustered together.  Moving "Controlla" closer to the front of the album helps spread that sound out a little bit, and also keeps the three songs in an order of increasing excellence.

Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut isn't a perfect album.  It can't escape one of the other big issues with the record: Drake's persona, which has grown more oppressive and exhausting with each release.  Reducing the track length also reduces how much of Drake you get, but you're still bound to hear alot of his weird issues with women and his "woe is me" posturing, only seeming half-aware of how much he actually sounds like a jerk in most of the scenarios he describes.  And for what it's worth, this is a mood piece album that's trying to evoke some very specific vibes, so removing the sprawl makes it harder to appreciate what Drake and 40 are aiming for.  Still, this streamlined version of Views goes down much easier.  If it had been released in this incarnation, it would be considered one of the best rap albums of the year.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Preacher

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 9:00 PM on AMC

When it was first announced that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg would be adapting the acclaimed 90s Vertigo comic Preacher, it seemed like a bizarre choice.  Though they're avid fans of the comic, it was hard to envision what a version of its story from the guys behind Pineapple Express and This is the End would look like.  If the pilot is any indication, they were the right men for the job.  With the help of Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin (who will serve as showrunner for the series), they have made an adaptation that doesn't follow the source material's narrative beat-by-beat, but feels perfectly in line with its spirit.

Translating Preacher to the screen is no easy task either.  It's a story that involves an Irish vampire, a man with a face that looks like a rectum, literal gods and angels, and couldn't be more 90s if it was draped in a flannel shirt.  And yet Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin deliver all of that in a location-hopping, temporally loose opening episode that mostly makes sense in its own way.  And where it doesn't all track, the show is able to coast on its chaotic, gleefully violent tone.  That sense of fun is best exhibited in the scene where it introduces Cassidy (the terrific Joseph Gilgun from Misfits), the aforementioned Irish vampire, with a kinetic fight sequence on a plane 30,000 feet in the air.  A little bit later, we meet Tulip (Ruth Negga, also terrific) in the midst of a tussle taking place within a car swerving through fields of corn.

Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the protagonist and titular preacher, gets his own opportunity to enact violence but so far he's less distinctive than his counterparts.  That's not to say he's a bad character, but it's hard for him not to come off as a little flat given all of the colorful characters that populate the show's world.  Overall, Preacher feels completely unlike anything else on right now -- a series we didn't even know we needed until we got it.  If it builds off of this rock solid start, we could have a show as classic as its comic book counterpart is.

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Episode of the Week: The Americans - "The Magic of David Copperfield..."

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 4, Episode 8

A great episode of TV often sneaks up on you.  But sometimes you know right from the beginning, because the episode announces its greatness straight away.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." the eighth episode of The Americans' white hot fourth season, is an example of the latter, hinting at its greatness right in its opener.  The nearly silent cold open is an epilogue of sorts, closing off the Martha story that dominated the previous two episodes by showing Philip driving her to board a plane that will begin her journey to Russia in the dead of night.  There's a heaviness to it -- we're not used to television being quiet for so long.  But it's perfect at capturing the feeling of going somewhere in the middle of the night, with only the howling air and your own breath soundtracking the evening.  This will be the last Philip sees of Martha, maybe the last we see of her too, and the episode lingers on that farewell and the wide shot of him watching as her plane floats out of view.  It's a devastating beginning, one that immediately tells the audience, "Sit back, because this episode is going to be a doozy."

It's interesting, then, that the episode downshifts from there for a little while.  After all of the ratcheting tension of the last few weeks, a breather is necessary, but it's almost defiant how low-key everything starts out here.  There's an elegiac feeling over every scene, as if there's more air and space surrounding the characters.  Lots of focus is given to the downtime that we rarely see these people engaging in: Philip reads a book on the couch, Elizabeth prepares lunch while Henry and Paige express excitement over David Copperfield's next stunt, Stan comes over to the Jennings' for a beer, the FBI solemnly takes inventory over all of their leads on Martha that have gone cold.  Later, Elizabeth goes to see a movie with Young-hee.  Even the operations feel like idle time.  But of course, this is just to trick us into feeling soothed, because nothing stays serene for too long on The Americans.

It all starts with EST, about which Philip is reading early in the episode.  These seminars have been a part of the show since they were introduced via Sandra Beeman in the third season, and even though EST is sort of a goofy footnote in the 80s chapter of our history books, The Americans has always been very earnest about it.  Still, who would have thought that it would be the fulcrum of season four?  All of the characters on this show are people who, for all of their skill and intelligence, aren't very in tune with their emotions.  They lack self-awareness and the tools to really dig into their emotions and address what's bothering them.  Instead, they just tamp things down until they leap out like a starburst.  So naturally, EST would be what causes a divide between Philip and Elizabeth, after he latches on to it and she doesn't understand what power it could possibly have for him.

Now, the schism isn't truly about EST.  When Philip is on the couch reading that EST book in the beginning up the episode, it's no accident that writer Stephen Schiff chooses to have him and Elizabeth also discuss Martha, the other thing that has been wrenching them apart lately.  Again, when Elizabeth chooses to go to an EST seminar and she comes back and gets into an argument with Philip about it, it transitions to being a fight about Martha.  Matthew Rhys does some excellent directorial work in this scene as he slowly cuts to wider shots.  That initial tightness when you think Elizabeth is about to connect with Philip about these seminars gives way to a shot-reverse shot that shows just how far apart they are once they get to discussing what's really bothering them.  It's an ugly, terrifying argument where animosities from many seasons ago (Gregory, the mother of Philip's long-lost child, how much of their marriage is real) come out in a way that recalls the legendary Sopranos episode, "Whitecaps."

The Americans has always been a show about subtle moments of dialogue and body language.  That's part of the reason why there's a small subset of TV enthusiasts who don't respond to it as much as the rest of us do.  This is a series with emotions that you often have to find your way to, and "The Magic of David Copperfield..." might be the purest distillation of the show in that regard.  It's an hour of television that hinges upon the meaning and tension behind strained exchanges and loaded gestures.  The big fight in the middle of the episode explodes quickly, but it's one that is meticulously established, presaged by the conversation between Philip and Elizabeth where he bristles at her calling Martha simple.  "She was actually quite complicated.  People underestimated her," Philip responds, barely masking his rage.  It's there even earlier, in the conversations where they try to make small talk but find themselves unable to connect.

Really, it's all one contiguous body of feelings with The Americans.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is a masterful display of the emotional cause-and-effect that this show does so well.  Philip is upset about Martha, which causes Elizabeth to get upset with Philip, which leads to them getting into a big argument, which factors into Elizabeth killing one of her agents and blowing up at Paige, and so on.  In typical Americans fashion, we pop in for a little while on the Rezidentura and the FBI, but Philip and Elizabeth are what suck up all the air in the episode.

They are what the whole season is being built around, in fact.  Despite mostly being separated by their individual operations, Philip and Elizabeth's relationship has always been the key to the show.  And when they had that passionate sex scene scored to "Under Pressure" at the end of "Clark's Place," it felt like the last truly happy moment we would see between them.  So far that has borne out, as the two episodes that followed showed us just how hurt Elizabeth was when she learned that Philip had revealed his "true self" to Martha, further blurring the line between cover and real relationship.  That's why it's so surprising when we see them have a brief moment of shared happiness in this episode, when Gabriel gives them minor respite from the workload that has clearly been taking a toll on them.

Even more surprising is the cut that follows shortly after, announcing big changes in the form of a "7 months later" chyron at the bottom of the screen.  We're given a montage of Paige enjoying mini golf with Pastor Tim and his wife, Philip and Elizabeth merrily playing hockey with Henry, and Gad sharing a beer with Stan.  All is well.  But it isn't, not really.  It can never be with these characters.  Once Paige returns home and is behind closed doors, she solemnly gives her parents every detail about her peaceful outing with Pastor Tim.  But you can tell that there's darkness just over the horizon and it's coming quickly.

Hours before this episode aired, many critics were pre-hyping it, with some even going as far as saying it was the best the show had ever done.  This primed some people for a much different episode than the one they got, which led to a minor bit of disappointment. That's because we've increasingly become used to equating "amazing episode of television" with "something mind-blowing happened."  Nothing earth-shattering occurred in this episode, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an exceptional piece of television and a great example of The Americans' simmering, low-key brilliance.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is the best episode of television that I've seen all year, only rivaled by the two episodes of this show that preceded it.  So far season four has been a blazing wildfire.  If it's giving us this in the middle of the season, can you imagine what we have in store for us for the next five weeks?