Friday, February 14, 2014

Reactions to The Lego Movie

I've been told I think too much. That I dissect things I like into little itty bitty pieces. So of course, it stands to reason I would take apart and dissect 2014's biggest movie so far, The Lego Movie.

Because Legos are supposed to be taken apart into itty bitty pieces.

I went into the theater thinking The Lego Movie was going to be a mindless kids' movie with great animation and offbeat humor. I had seen the Star Wars Lego videos and found them cute and comical, but nothing overly spectacular.

But The Lego Movie is far different. Far more dystopian. It reminded me a lot of a "Brave New World" and somewhat of Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We", the forebearer of Huxley's novel and Orwell's "1984".

It is a movie about finding that niche between complete anarchy and utter obedience, that "Hairball Orbiting" discussed by Gordon MacKenzie.

It is a movie about Fun and Play.

Unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle has completely milked the fun out of the movie, with both "sides" of the political spectrum claiming the movie espouses their world views. It's almost comical.

Here is John Sexton of Breitbart saying it promotes an idea "one would expect the late Occupy movement to embrace." and he is "not surprised Michael Moore is a fan".

Here is John Heyward of Breitbart saying the movie is actually about capitalism.
The joke is on the lefty fools who didn't see the movie, because it's evidently a devastating slam at socialism, particularly the Obama model of government-business cronyism.
The expressions warn by doctrinaire liberal parents who took their kids to see "The LEGO Movie" thinking it would deliver a wheezy Michael Moore Marxist screed against free enterprise and voluntary commerce must be priceless; they should have planted hidden cameras in the theater to capture audience reactions.  Or maybe those doctrinaire liberal parents are too far gone to think about what they're seeing, the way Mollie Hemingway did, their critical faculties short-circuited by the sight of a villain named "President Business" who looks like a Republican.
There is Molly Hemmingway of The Federalist, who gets closer to the mark when she opines that The Lego Movie is a subversive pro-liberty film.
This is not an anarchist cri de coeur, with the film also rejecting the absence of rules and government itself. In one pivotal scene, Emmet explains how rules help build teamwork, efficiency and the ability to meet objectives.
See MacKenzie's ideas on knowing the rules before you can play! Hemmingway also continues:
Even though the film is a 100-minute commercial for a business, it’s also an ad for personal responsibility, individual choice, meaningful work, natural constraints, the dignity of the individual and the fight against a government that desires control of the lives of citizens. Its message about heroism being based in creativity, hard work, and resourcefulness — not superpowers — is deeply unifying.

Then there is the conservative flagship station, Fox News, which wondered why leftist Hollywood would make yet another anti-capitalist movie that would try to teach kids how horrible and evil businesses are and attempt to brainwash them at their tender ages.

Gotta love the Fox News spin machine.

What most of these politicos miss is the key element of the Lego Foundation:
The LEGO Foundation has a goal of creating impact by inspiring and developing children and youth to become active citizens – and to empower them to create a better future for themselves – through fun, creativity and high quality learning.
Fun, Creativity, and High Quality Learning.

The Lego Foundation even gives out prizes for people who promote that mantra. If you thought a movie about Legos was going to be made and that wasn't going to be the message, you were wrong.

That's their thing.

From this Fast Company article in October, 2013:
A growing body of research shows that testing-focused education systems are stifling children’s creativity and critical thinking skills--the exact skills many CEOs say will be critical for success in the workforce in the years to come (see our related story “Why Solving The Creativity Crisis Means Looking To 3-Year-Olds”), not to mention the skills needed to solve looming societal challenges such as extreme poverty and climate change.

Grob-Zakhary believes the Lego Foundation can help preserve these skills by paving a path for more structured “hands-on play”--whether that is with a Lego brick, an Erector set, or a robotics kit--to be incorporated directly into school curriculums.
"Systems are stifling creativity" - the ability to play should be fostered. That's the manta of The Lego Movie.

Playing and creativity is not the 9-5 office job inputting data or digging the same ditch. Of course a Lego movie is going to attack that. Creativity and play is Miles Davis jamming, it's art, it's a group of college dropouts wandering the country playing gigs in coffee houses and rock bars trying to get their band signed. It's the reason open mics were established. To some, hippies are a burden on society, to others, they are living life on their terms without the burden of society.

But that's the classical dilemma. Conservative-minded parents want the college dropout to finish school, get a 9-to-5, and play life safe, but the dropout wants to create.

Then there is this interview with the Lego Foundation CEO on
Play allows us to test our capabilities,  as all forms of learning should.  It stimulates children’s learning abilities by fostering creativity, building critical thinking, sparking intellectual curiosity, and facilitating learning by doing. Learning by doing deepens our engagement and understanding significantly, and strengthens the most important pathways our brains use to learn and develop.
When the rules are strict and mandated, there is no reason to develop. When the TV dinner is packaged, there is no reason to hunt. No development of that brain function. That is the element we find the hero in in the beginning of the Lego Movie.

While Hemmingway claims a key scene is when the protagonist insists the characters follow some rules and channel their creativity under some guidance, there is an earlier scene I think is more powerful. When needing to build an escape vehicle, Batman, a pink unicorn, a spaceman, and several other characters combine their ideas and cooperate to build a plane that moves the heroes out of immediate trouble. They do this by themselves, without instructions, and without a leader. They just find the pieces they need (Batman: "I only work with black, and sometimes dark gray"), work together, and create.

In 1921, the Russian State Committee for Publishing found Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" so anti-establishment that it was quickly banned. According to, the book dramatizes the struggle between freedom and security, nature and artifice, spirit and order.

In 1988, 65 years after it was written, "We" was finally published in the Soviet Union.

If it was written today, "We" would probably be taken apart piece by piece like The Lego Movie.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thoughts on Kendrick Lamar

Amidst all the hype and hoopla around his Grammy snubs and highly acclaimed cameo verse on Big Sean's song "Control", rapper Kendrick Lamar has been the talk of the hip-hop world for the last year, if not longer. Being in Afghanistan, I missed out the "longer" part, but since I've been back, Kendrick has been the world's biggest new rapper.

With more than a little curiosity, I bought the much-praised "good kid, mAAd city" album.

The first time I listened, I thought it was good. But I was surprised for a Compton/LA MC, how little "Compton" Kendrick Lamar was.

The second time I listened, "good kid, mAAd city" became great.

The second time I listened, I realized how "Compton" Kendrick Lamar really is. His Compton is buried in the nuances of his lines. Here is a dude who grew up in Compton, but didn't subscribe to the gangsta lifestyle of the early 90s rappers. He is not telling us to "fuck the police" as an anthem for rebellion. As a matter of fact, he is not rebelling at all. He is trying to survive.

From the track "mAAd city":
Ain't no peace treaty, just pieces BG's up to pre-approve / Bodies on top of bodies, IVs on top of IVs
"BG", or baby gangsta, is the "Lil Ass Gee" Ice Cube warned LA about in 1994 on the Lethal Injection album. They are the youngsters who grew up in the shadows of the gang wars of LA where the Bloods and Crips duked it out for street domination. But that's not Kendrick Lamar. He is the kid who wrote what he saw and tried to stay alive. In this regard, Kendrick Lamar is similar to Somalia-born rapper K'Naan, who, in his song "Dreamer" said,
And "The boys from the hood are always hard" / Let alone in Mogadishu it's a mastered art / If you bring the world hoods to a seminar / We from the only place worse than Kandahar
Which of course references Easy-E's "Boyz in the Hood", a Compton classic, making the whole conversation full circle.

Writing what he saw while others fought also aligns Kendrick with Chuck D's great hip-hop saying that "rap is the black CNN".  Instead of the protester image of NWA or Ice Cube, Kendrick is the storyteller, the narrator, and the bard. He is the Nas/"Illmatic" of the post-gangsta Compton.

But while telling the tale of his "new" Compton, a plain tilled by the plows of old school OGs and featuring the blossoms of the BG/Lil Ass Gee generation, Kendrick reaches out to one of those same OGs, the legendary MC Eiht. Some would look at the Jay-Z cameo or the cameo and executive producer title of Dr. Dre as the legends signing off on Kendrick, but Jigga and Dre follow dollars like Toucan Sam follows Froot Loops, sometimes at the expense of hip-hop.

When MC Eiht opens his verse of "mAAd city" with the line "Wake yo punk ass up", I said "with the 93 shot" out of instinct. It was "Streiht Up Menace" from the Menace to Society soundtrack 20 years later.
A fucked up childhood, is why the way I am / It's got me in the state where I don't give a damn, hmm / Somebody help me, but nah they don't hear me though / I guess I'll be another victim of the ghetto
While MC Eiht resumes the gangsta veteran in "mAAd city" , Kendrick plays the survivor of the streets, "aka Compton's Human Sacrifice", an acknowledgment to MC Eiht's "Compton's Most Wanted".

Maybe that's why the Grammy voters gave their awards to Macklemore and passed over Kendrick Lamar. Not because "the Grammys hate rap", although past snubs can build that argument, but because "good kid, mAAd city" transcended the music in a way that was tough to digest unless you knew the backstory. Unless you knew how South Central LA was affected by the Bloods and Crips, unless you knew about truce between the gangs, unless you knew why LA rioted after Rodney King, and unless you knew how those events molded and shaped Los Angeles rap music. Unless you listened to Ice-T, NWA, Ice Cube, MC Eiht, and their peers. That backstory was Kendrick Lamar's life. It's where Kendrick Lamar came from and what he wrote about. When Ice Cube left Compton for Hollywood, he left kids like Kendrick Lamar behind.

Music, especially hip-hop, is a sum of its culture. Whether Grandmaster Flash in "The Message", Nas on "Illmatic", any Public Enemy album, early Ice Cube, the political stylings of Boots Riley, or the urban poetry of Kendrick Lamar. That's why so many rappers miss the point rhyming about cash, gold, or drugs.

That's why I am buying the hype. Kendrick Lamar's album is that good. But it had no choice but to be that good. It is poetry from an American war zone. Not quite Somalia or Afghanistan, but a first world struggle for survival. A struggle for control. Prophetic then that Kendrick's next big statement was in a verse on a song called "Control".

After the Grammy uproar and his transcendence from the underground to the mainstream, Kendrick Lamar now has control of the rap game. But the "rock star" life and its fortune means sacrificing other areas of control. Fame claims its victims as well. See the backstory on another '90s icon from a few states north of California, Mr. Kurt Cobain.

[Update: I was listening to the song "Sing About Me: I'm Dying of Thirst" with it's religious speech in the end and it reminded me of one of my favorite West Coast gangsta rap cultural laments. On the 1993 song "Lord Have Mercy", Da Lench Mob rapped:
Lord have mercy, the devil he cursed me / I heard you had the cup of life, and I'm thirsty / My niggas keep fightin for a street, the white man own / So many died, before they got full grown
Kendrick Lamar's "I'm Dying of Thirst" uses the same religious metaphor 20 years later. Coincidentally, both songs are also bookmarked by the voice of older woman commenting on the youth. In Kendrick's song, she tries to convert them to the ways of God, and in Da Lench Mob's track, the woman offers only an ass kicking. Hopefully the view in the more recent song is representative of a real change in attitude of those surrounding the plight of modern day Compton.]

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Sad Farewell to Mello Bondz

I've often used this website as a way to say goodbye to people I know who have passed on. People who I have met, spent time with, and smiled with. Some I have known since Day 1, others only for a moment or two. But all I feel deserve more than just a "RIP" on Facebook or Twitter, where acknowledgements are quickly buried by other news of the day.

So it is with a sad heart that I am writing here about the passing of Tampa Bay area musician/rapper Melvin Curry, aka "Mello Bondz".

I didn't know Mello all that well, especially in regards to other friends who knew him for many years, but my experiences with Mello were always pleasant and he always seemed to be in a good mood.

The first time I met Mello was during his affiliation with All-Stars Wrestling of Florida, a small independent wrestling organization. He wrote and performed the ASWFL theme song as a favor for longtime friend, music cohort, and ASWFL owner Nick Major. Not knowing Mello, I joked with him, saying he looked a lot like Cee-Lo Green.

Around the same time, about 2009-2010, I met with Bill McArdle of XtraMedium Productions in Largo, Florida. Bill showed me some of his music video work, and sure enough, there was Mello Bondz in the video "I Dropped It".

Mello also contributed songs to some of Bill's media projects, and they had a longtime partnership. A few years later, I again crossed paths with Mello Bondz. In January 2012, I attended Nick Major's "Unity Jam" concert in Ybor City. Nick had returned to music and contacted Mello to host the showcase of some of the best in Tampa-area hip-hop. This time, I knew who Mello was and we spoke briefly about our mutual friends and a bit about his musical work. During the show, Mello gave a shout out to his son, Ajay King, who passed away a few weeks before the concert. Mello and his son appeared in this video together in 2007.


 Sad to hear Mello Bondz is gone. He leaves behind a lengthy list of music and if his Facebook is any indication, an even longer list of friends.