Weight Of Chains review
The Muslim Film Festival held in Washington, D.C. from April 19th to 27th, 2011 and organized by the American Islamic Congress and Project Nur presents a diverse group of five films under the general rubric of Generation: Muslim. Considering the fact that an estimated 65% of the world Muslim population is under the age of 30, the films embody a youthful, vibrant ethos and offer a glimpse into a world that is quite removed from the plucked-from-the-headlines “angry young Arab man” stereotype—simply put, they show that subversive is not equal to “angry mob.” The protagonists in the films break dance, play in indie rock bands, paint graffiti, throw punk rock shows and, in general, provide quite refreshing, nuanced, and trenchant answers to the question of what it means to be a Muslim. To an audience bombarded with images of the Islamic world’s troubled relationship with Western culture, the Muslim Film Festival paints a picture of diversity and narrates how Islam fits and lives within the social fabric of Western settings.
The 2009 Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize selection No One Knows About Persian Cats explores the difficulties Iranian youth face in trying to produce and perform rock music—it’s a breathless expose on a cat-and-mouse game but the movie does not take on a fatalistic, cynical view of that. If anything, it shows that even under repressive regimes, there is such a strong undercurrent of creativity—case in point, Iran has metal and indie rock bands, too, and even Sufi musicians who have to record their music underground.
The Tunisian Making Of is an interesting meta-approach-taking film-within-a-film about the making of a film about the radicalization of youth. It frames in a rather innovative way the question of just how that could take place.
The 2010 Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Un Prophete, screening on Wednesday, April 27, is a tour-de-force thriller of a young Muslim man’s experience in a French prison and his alliance with the Corsican mob.
The 2010 Sundance Film Festival selection The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, depicts the electrifying underground subculture of Muslim punk-rockers in Buffalo, NY. Based on the Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 cult novel The Taqwacores, the movie does an incredible job of portraying the ultimate in-your-face punch of the mashing of two “counter-mainstream-cultural,” if you will, phenomena—being punk and being Muslim in America. Zahra’s direction is superb in showing us that the characters in the movie are not on some contrived faux-rebellion tip against society—if anything, they are simply living only as they know how and accepting in a sort of resigned, almost cynical way that simply being who they are by definition makes them subversive. As the pink-mohawked guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains) puts it, he is the embodiment of “mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures.”
In addition to the absolutely stunning cinematography [the movie’s cadence is really unique and true to its ’80s zine-punk aesthetic], the cast of characters is thrilling to watch—there is shy Yusef (Bobby Naderi), an engineering student, ever- angry, moral-enforcing straight-edger Umar (Nav Mann), and Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), a burqa-wearing feminist-of-sorts, whose attire baffles even her roommates but who Jehangir simply sums up as “must be the kind of girl who reads in a burqa.” When Jehangir decides to put on a punk show, hosting Muslim punk bands from “Khalifornia,” [the soundtrack of the movie features those real bands, btw], things get ugly in a good and bad [punk] sense. The Taqwacores is also full of clever, funny dialogue such as Jehangir’s description of the chastity battle as a “jihad against my nuts.” Ultimately, the theme is that even through the rebellion and struggle, there is an ever present thread of faith and spirituality–“Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.”
Director Eyad Zahra commented that, “I was not certain that this film would be ‘Islamically-accepted’ but there has been no negative response to it. It has seen nothing but good.” If there is any message, he expounded, it is that “the Muslim community is wide and diverse.” The paradigm of “big tent” underscores the very pluralistic nature of Islam and the DC Muslim Film Fest’s film selections showcase both the struggles and triumphs of being Muslim in a modern context. The take-away message from the Festival was that through the struggle of defining one’s identity in a subcultural vs. mainstream sense and even with the difficulty of discrimination and repression, the “performance” of a Muslim identity takes many different forms and in the process raises a series of incredibly interesting questions.
The title of “Happythankyoumoreplease” is quite apropos — you will leave the theater grateful and wanting more of its offbeat charm. If you are already groaning at the prospect of yet another contrived indie rom-com à la “500 Days Of Summer” or the movie version of “Friends” or the millennials’ answer to “Singles,” you will find yourself pleasantly surprised.
In “Happythankyoumoreplease,” director, writer and star Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) forgoes the hipper-and-more-clever-than-thou approach in favor of an unassuming, natural dialogue and genuinely likable characters. And if there is such a thing as a New York “vibe,” the movie captures it spot-on.
The lead character, Sam (Radnor), is an aspiring novelist on the way to a meeting with a publisher who meets a boy named Rasheen (Michael Algieri) who gets separated from his family on the train. As a plot vehicle, Rasheen and Sam’s relationship is meant to assure us of Sam’s inherent goodness despite his ne’er-do-well, seemingly rakish lifestyle, delivering some of the more heart-warming, cute lines in the movie.
For example, Sam labels his suburban angst-free childhood as hardly “Dickensian” or conducive to writing the great American novel. Or when Sam discovers Rasheen’s art talents, he laughs at Rasheen’s drawing of him as a “dashing Russian aristocrat.” These sort of exchanges abound and make the movie terribly endearing with a low cheese factor.
The other characters are equally compelling. Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and her boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), who try to decide whether or not to move to Los Angeles, which Mary calls the “epicenter of all that is awful.” Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Akerman) is bemoaning her unfortunate choice in men, (dating “29-year-old 12-year-olds”) when she meets a seemingly dorky co-worker who seems to constantly hang out on her floor at work because “philanthropic giving is the cool place to be.”
Annie tells this story of an Indian cab driver-would-be-guru who advises her that a good way to perpetuate more gratitude in the universe is to simply say, “Thank you. More please.” Albeit hokey as far as mantras go, it’s veritable enough for hippie-esque Annie, who in the end gets over her abysmal dating streak and allows herself to be wooed by the uncool Sam #2.
Then, there is Sam’s love interest, waitress and cabaret singer Mississippi (Kate Mara), whose refusal to sleep with Sam due to her New Year’s avowal to “not be a whore” leads to their impossibly-cute three-day-stand/move-in session, complete with a hand-written contract and key exchange.
The characters in “Happythankyoumoreplease” feel very realistic with no tacked-on, contrived idiosyncrasies for entertainment’s sake. It’s definitely a feel-good movie, but not in a mawkish, fake sense. In the end, the characters all end up working through their various conflicts, but the resolutions are not fanciful and unrealistic.
Can one outrun one’s fate? The Adjustment Bureau answers that question quite literally. Based on the short story “The Adjustment Team” by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, the film is a sci-fi-tinged romance not unlike Gattaca or Code 46 in its ethos, and despite its fairly gravitas subject matter, it is incredibly entertaining and captivating in its human angle.
Matt Damon stars as a rising political star/Senator candidate David Norris, whose chance encounter with a contemporary modern dancer Elise [Emily Blunt], sets him on an inexorable path. Elise’s character is instantly lovable—she is irreverent, ebullient, and free-spirited. David has a reputation for being a “loose cannon,” but under her influence, he loosens up instead. So, their romance begins until David encounters the men of the Adjustment Bureau, who tell him, “You peeked behind a curtain you weren’t supposed to know exists.” Apparently, it is not according to the “plan” for David and Elise to be together. Even though the plausibility of the level of ardor they have for each from just a few encounters requires a leap of faith, both Damon and Blunt play their roles perfectly and their on-screen chemistry carries the storyline well. There are a couple of silly moments, such as when David is to be prevented from seeing Elise dance by the Adjustment Bureau because he will instantly fall in love with her if he does [gasp—he does], but these minor hiccups do not detract from the overall enjoyability of seeing their relationship grow.
Director George Nolfi’s [Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum] portrayal of The Adjustment Bureau as fate’s company men is incredibly amusing and easily makes this movie worth seeing for that alone. The use of corporate speak—e.g. the higher being is “The Chairman,” “angels” are “case officers,” “briefcases” are interventions—is really clever and apt in building the mythology. The various adjustments, calibrations, and irregularities are very reminiscent of “glitch in the Matrix” motifs and accessible to the viewer [no elaborate sci-fi mumbo jumbo here]. The droll, English-men-like bureau men have serious jobs, but they certainly have a sense of humor. The dapper bureau men are powerful but not omnipotent—as Harry, one of the bureau’s men who comes to David’s aide explains, it’s all science. They have an interest in making sure humans do not screw up too much, but they cannot read their minds or watch everyone at all times and can only predict outcomes based on the percentage of weights options-ha! Therein lies David and Elise’s out—there is margin for irregularities, chance, and the big one, free will.
The Adjustment Bureau is a thrilling film with just the right mix of sci-fi plot elements and a strong human story—it is clever and funny, without being overbearingly technical or requiring extreme suspension of disbelief.
Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is a trenchant, chilling expose on the2008 financial meltdown. Like his most recent documentary on the Iraq War, No End In Sight, it is taut, well-researched, highly provocative, and impressive in scope. Ferguson explained that the choices he made in the documentary were with the idea of making the seemingly highly esoteric subject of this particular economic crisis “accessible to all viewers” and he sought to not only narrate what occurred but also in a more current sense, “explain why America is still in such economic difficulty.”
The documentary begins with an apt case-study, Iceland, which Ferguson describes in the film as “one of the purest experiments” in the potential outcomes of de-regulation. The very grim statistic that, at the time, Iceland’s GDP was 10 billion, and bank losses were 130 billion gives viewers a keen grasp of the sheer enormity of the collapse. Inside Job posits that the de-regulation policies begun in 2000 had an adverse effect on both the environment and the economy.
Inside Job presents a well-researched timeline of the series of developments that combined to create the perfect storm. After the Great Depression, the United States experienced 40 years of growth with no economic crises. The landscape began to change in the 1980s. At the time, many investment banks went public. During the Reagan era, de-regulation under Rubin and Summers allowed behemoth mergers to take place, such as the creation of Citigroup, which would have been impossible under the older legal standards set by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repealed part of that act, opening up the market for the existence of behemoth hybrid banking, securities, and insurance companies. Ferguson then touches upon the long-standing track record of nefarious activity by financial institutions—the litany of culprit banks who were fined for too many things to name and not the least of which for money laundering for corrupt politicians stretches far and wide.
Ferguson does a brilliant job of demystifying the often-heard during the crisis but rarely understood buzzwords of “subprime mortgages,” “mortgage-backed securities,” and “derivatives.” In interviews with a veritable treasure trove of who’s-whos including economists, business-school faculty, Justice Department officials, Federal Reserve chairmen, Congressmen, financial press members, foreign government ministers, he constructs a picture of a massive inter-relationship critical for the viewers’ understanding of why things got as bad as they did. To put it in the most basic terms, Inside Job diagrams that the historical chain of home buyers to lenders was essentially replaced by the home buyers-lenders-investment banks-investors chain, which allowed banks to make riskier and riskier loan offers because they were no longer concerned about the ability of the buyers to repay the loans directly to them. The creation of complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations [CDOs] came hand in hand with increasingly predatory lending since the interest rates on the subprime mortgages were the highest. As early as 1998, people like Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Future Trading Commission, feared the consequences of having a 50 trillion unregulated derivates market and lobbied for legislation, but Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan firmly objected to it and none passed. In addition, the relaxation of leverage standards, which passed SEC approval in 2004, allowed unheretofore seen shockingly high levels of borrowed-to-bank money, such as 33:1, having enormous implications for bank liquidity. Combine that with the fact that rating agencies continued to rate CDOs at super high grades [two days before its collapse, Lehman was rated as 2A] and later on washed their hands of this oversight error [to put it mildly] by calling their ratings at Congressional hearings mere “opinions.” In the increasingly complicated picture, the true testament to Wall Street greed was that investment banks were selling and betting against the same CDOs at the same time and routinely deceiving their clients about the quality of the investments. Inside Job also features interviews with the two leading voices of reason—Raghuram Rajan and Nouriel Roubini, who were sounding alarm bells as early as 2005. Rajan, IMF’s former Chief Economist delivered a paper, “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier” warning of the looming disaster. Other leading economists are also interviewed including Paul Volcker, Andrew Sheng, and Christine Lagard.
Ferguson does not shy away from tackling controversial issues and the courageous gusto with which he peppers his interview subjects with uncomfortable questions is amusingly droll. A major point that the documentary drives home is that almost entirely independent of political lines, the government remains a “Wall Street government,” as Ferguson put it. The fact that the financial industry routinely spends 5 billion in political contributions and the fact that most of the key government economics advisors are former financial industry honchos speaks to how deep this collusion is. Inside Job also delivers a searing indictment on the lack of criminal prosecution for the culprits, who not only walked away free but they walked away with staggering pay packages to the tune of hundreds of millions. Ferguson stated in the discussion after the film that, “the fact these guys are going to get away with this is a major public policy failure.” In further testament to the “structural corruption,” Ferguson also very smartly illustrates the ideological impact of having professors from the top business schools engage in blatant conflict-of-interest activities such as earning 80% of the their income consulting for the very same financial companies that precipitated the crisis.
The conflict at the heart of French drama “The Girl On The Train” is the plucked-from-the-headlines, real-life story of a gentile girl who claims to be the victim of a violent, anti-Semitic attack on the Parisian Metro. Yet the movie is about a lot more — and a lot less.
For one, it provides no answers whatsoever on lead character Jeanne’s motivation for inventing the crime. The audience is only given her sheepish admission of “I don’t know … I wanted to be loved, and the opposite happens.”
Instead, director André Téchiné takes us inside the summer of a French teenage girl, complete with the angst of being unable to find a job to pay for her Italian vacation (oh, such woe) and the requisite boy drama. In fact, throughout the entire movie, the only undercurrent of threat emanates from her relationship — the made-up crime is entirely out of left field, with no foreshadowing for its development.
Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), and seems to have few interests besides her headphones and roller-blades. That is, until she meets the inscrutable and intense wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The whirlwind courtship leads the couple to become caretakers of a warehouse full of questionable wares for the summer — the problem of no money for an Italian vacation solved. After a violent incident, however, Franck and Jeanne’s relationship implodes. Even though up to that point, Franck’s deadpan delivery, intense stares and questionable background make his motives mysterious at best and threatening at worst, it turns out that he had gotten involved in the shady dealings for her sake.
Rather selflessly, he just wanted to give Jeanne a summer vacation, and after the incident, the burden of consequences falls entirely on him, while Jeanne comes out unscathed. This is what makes her invention of the hate crime that follows next all the more bizarre — she wastes no time in grieving or processing what happened with Franck.
Instead, her outlandish reaction to the death of her relationship and her ruined summer, is to fabricate a story emulating the anti-Semitic attack stories she had seen covered on the news. Her story, however, is full of holes — therein lies the race relations commentary of the movie. The media are quick to jump on it — the president even calls Jeanne to offer condolences because this is such a “hot” issue. The matter is all the more convoluted because Jeanne is not Jewish and claims to be mistaken as such because she has the business card of a Jewish lawyer in her bag.
Her story unravels within a matter of days because it is that tenuous and outlandish. The interesting part, however, is that neither her mother nor any of the other characters in the movie actually buy it from the very start. Jeanne names “dark-skinned” inner city youths as her attackers, making this all the more perverse. By playing the victim, she victimizes a minority group.
Dequenne plays Jeanne’s role with an endearing youthful naiveté and Deneuve’s performance as an impossibly patient, bemused mother is also superb. The cinematography is also excellent — Jeanne’s rollerblading is a nice allegory for her floating through life. Had this been a summer vacation story, it might have been more successful. But by not really engaging the story of Jeanne’s lie, it leaves the viewer wanting.
“An Education” is a coming-of-age story set in 1960s London. The screenplay, written by Nick Hornby of “High Fidelity” and “About A Boy” fame, features his trademark clever dialogue and unconventional characters, aiming to inject levity into what could otherwise be the age-old school versus fun movie dilemma.
The main character, Jenny — played with a disarming charm by Carey Mulligan — is 16-years-old. She is intelligent, attractive and witty — think a ‘60s Rory from “Gilmore Girls.” She plays the cello, loves all things French and aspires to walk the hallowed halls of Oxford. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are not your typical overachieving parents — in fact, Molina’s performance especially shines in the film.
While the entire family is bent on doing everything to get Jenny into her dream school, they are not the career-obsessed tormentors a la “Dead Poets Society.” Their droll humor and cheeky exchanges with their daughter make for some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.
In one particularly amusing scene, Jenny’s father explains to her that Oxford wants “joiner-inners” and gives a hilarious analysis of one of her after-school activities and what the purpose of a hobby is in terms of college applications.
The banter between Jenny and her parents shows them to be, well — cool, which is yet another novelty in the coming-of-age film genre. It is precisely this coolness that introduces the conflict of why her parents, just like Jenny, fall for the ruses of a charming older man, twice Jenny’s age, David, played by Peter Sarsgaard.
Sarsgaard does an incredible job, portraying his character as a mixture of a disturbing borderline sexual predator and charming but thoroughly confused rake.
“An Education” raises a lot of class issues; David is able to charm Jenny only because he is able to take her on whirlwind trips to Paris, fancy restaurants and chic jazz clubs. Middle class Jenny bemoans that she has never had any fun and writes off her pre-David life as boring.
Yet there are plenty of warning signs that David is a conman, albeit a very charming one. This begs the question of why Jenny chooses to ignore what is right in front of her; after all, she is too clever and wise for such things. It is precisely this plot element that seems to be a stretch, yet our belief in it is pivotal. To loosely dismiss it all as “young love” and the folly of youth is almost too easy. Maybe it is precisely the glamour and wealth that makes Jenny and her parents go along with David’s elaborate web of lies.
One of the more poignant moments in the movie comes when Jenny demands to know why her dad, who is the old, wise and ever protective father, did not foresee the fallout. As she says, “Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous old men,” but that should not have been the case with her parents.
Therein lies one of the greater strengths of this movie — portraying the few options open to women in the 1960s. It seems that Jenny’s life paths appear to be limited to old-maidish schoolmarm or wife of a well-to-do man. In one exchange with her parents, Jenny sarcastically points out that apparently, education is merely an “expensive alternative to a dinner dance” and an end only in its enabling of one to become an educated housewife.
Ultimately, “An Education” asks which is more valuable: the school of life or formal education. The two are not evenly matched, however — David and his coterie are clearly not of ingénue Jenny’s ilk. As he says, “We are not clever like you.” They are, however, able to create their ridiculously fun and adventurous life precisely because of their questionably attained means, thus making the fun versus school dilemma not all that even.
Jenny’s English teacher asks her, “You can do anything, Jenny, you’re clever and pretty. Is your boyfriend interested in the clever Jenny?” The resounding “no” makes the end of the movie fairly predictable. Nevertheless, the film has enough idiosyncratic and enjoyable elements to make it worth seeing if one can suspend disbelief in some of the more far-fetched plot developments.
French turntablist Wax Tailor’s tour in support of his recently released third album, “In The Mood For Life,” made its stop at DC9 on Thursday, Oct. 8. Wax Tailor’s name is very apropos: his unique blend of trip-hop, hip-hop, downtempo, clever movie samples, jazz and soul has garnered him many accolades, with his 1995 album “Tales Of The Forgotten Melodies” becoming one of the best-selling electronic releases of the year.
Wax Tailor’s new album perfectly showcases how natural and symbiotic the blend between hip-hop and downtempo can be. Since the release of DJ Shadow’s seminal album “Endtroducing,” many musicians such as DJ Krush, RJD2 (whom Wax Tailor previously toured with), DJ Vadim and others have shown that turntablism by its very definition is a genre-defying art form.
Wax Tailor has always had a consummate ability to build sonic blends — an ability that comes from having feet firmly planted in both the DJ-centric hip-hop culture and the beat-and-atmospherics world of trip-hop.
Astronautalis opened the show with an interesting shoegazer, rock-talking, blues-punk, hip-hop-Beck-esque hodgepodge. The set-up of electric cello and flutes on the stage signaled Wax Tailor’s natural musical evolution on this tour.
“I would say this album is a lot more organic; I have been working with a lot of orchestral stuff lately,” Wax Tailor explained to the audience.
A constant element throughout the entire performance was Wax Tailor’s live turntablism — he could have very easily relied on laptop wizardry but he worked the wax with the seasoned knowledge of a pro. Yet, he did not take center stage or allow the scratching to overtake the performance. In a subtle way, he used the turntables and vocal samples to work with the other musicians. Songs flowed together seamlessly creating a sonic landscape, and the entire set felt thoroughly uncontrived and flowed together perfectly, incorporating both the free-style format of hip-hop and the improvisational component of live music.
The set list consisted of material mostly from his new album, and with 19 tracks on the new release, there was plenty to mine from. Chanteuse Charlotte Savary’s performance was especially spectacular — in the pantheon of female voices in downtempo music, from Beth Gibbons with Portishead to Martina Topley Bird with Tricky and Emiliana Torrini and Lulu with Thievery Corporation, she more than held her own. Her lilting, beautiful voice lent itself perfectly to the atmospheric instrumentals. Her first song “Dragon Chasers” is sure to be one of the hits from “In The Mood For Life” with its melancholy vocal loop chorus and languid flow.
Rapper Mattic followed with a crowd-stirring performance of “Until Heaven Stops The Rain” and free styled effortlessly with the band and the turntables. Cellist Matthieu Detton and flutist Ludivine Issambourg’s performance was absolutely phenomenal — very unlike a typical set-up where these instruments support and weave in and out; they were an integral component of all the songs.
The flutist improvised and took center stage on many of the tracks, with this call-and-response pattern lending itself perfectly to the improvisation style of both hip-hop and turntablism. On “Fireflies,” when both Charlotte and Mattic took the stage, the seamless way in which all five musicians worked with and off each other showcased the sheer musical breadth and genre blending that is a hallmark of Wax Tailor’s work.
Toward the end of the show, Mattic offered a raucous take on “B Boys On Wax,” a truly appropriate homage to the MCing and turntablism culture that Wax Tailor clearly knows and contributes to. The band then performed two songs off “Tales Of The Forgotten Melodies” — “Que Sera” and the DJ Krush-esque “Out Dance.” The final song was the up-tempo new single “Say Yes.”
Wax Tailor has always shown a consummate ability to craft sonic landscapes, but what makes him unique is that, while he is an excellent turntablist, he never makes his work solely about that. While this new album incorporates more live instrumentation, it also doesn’t do so jarringly or take his style in an entirely new direction. “In The Mood For Life,” as its title suggests, is very much about a natural and subtle integration of the turntables and the instruments, the songs and the atmospherics, the slow and the fast, the melancholy and the upbeat.
“I am a phenomenon, never cheesy like Parmesan—believe me, you won’t catch me at Comic Con,” raps Ivan Ives on “Got It.” The Ives-directed video for it is a riotous, clever visual fest of pop culture references—think “The Office,” with various nerd lexicon figures like Stephen Hawking and Star Wars characters. The catchy song is Ivan’s take on the “this is who I am” song, in the vein of Eminem’s “My Name Is” and it showcases his skill. One thing becomes immediately obvious—Ivan Ives knows how to flow on a track. His staccato, nuanced delivery draws the listener into his music and shows just how hard he has worked at this—he is a prolific MC with many EP releases under his belt. To call him an “underground” rapper, while true, would not do justice to just how polished he sounds on his second full-length release, Iconoclast. Released on his own record label No Threshold Records, it boasts fifteen tracks, with none of those filler skits we all love to skip. Featuring guest appearances from renowned rappers such as Cappadonna from the Wu Tang Clan, 2Mex, Vast Aire, and O.C. from D.I.T.C., it is a breath of much-needed fresh air in the rap scene.
Musically, the beats, created by Ives’ longtime producer Fresh, aka The Hitman, are very innovative. They have an old-school feel, with soul song samples and superb scratching interspersed throughout. Nothing like the beepy, synthetic and often simplistic sound heard on so many other releases, they sound very organic and, well, jaunty. “Fresh (aka The Hitman) is a genius. His beats surpass a lot of other producers in the game right now. He has a throwback sound to his beats that other people try to replicate but don’t quite get there,” Ives says about his friend and collaborator.
Which brings us to the next point—Ivan Ives is originally Russian, now living in LA, yet his sound is very East Coast. “A lot of people actually hear my music and THINK I’m from the East. I did spend part of my childhood in Brooklyn after coming to the states from Russia, so I don’t know,” he explains. “The first album I ever got was Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle. At first, I was really into all the West Coast MCs (2Pac, Death Row cats, etc.), but afterwards I started listening to more East Coast rap: Biggie, Wu-Tang, all the D.I.T.C. cats. Big L is one of my favorite rappers of all time; I look up to him and aspire to be as good as he was one day.”
While Ives clearly has the lyrical chops to nerd it up on par with the other underground rappers, it is apparent that he does not have an interest in showing off by pontificating on politics or esoteric topics. Sure, his songs are peppered with various quirky references—on “Carpe Diem” he pokes fun of the stereotype that Russians are good at Tetris and chess and affirms his skill in both—and Ives clearly has a lot of cheeky cleverness to go around, don’t mistake him for a nerdcore rapper. “To quote myself on ‘Nice’ off of the LA Heat EP, ‘Some care more about lyrics, some more about flow, s*** man, I care more about both.’ There are a lot of underground emcees that have some interesting stuff to say, but unfortunately they can’t flow and so no one will care about it. If you don’t have your presentation down, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say. If you listen closely to my music, I have a lot to say about society and the struggle for survival, however, I embed my messages into more accessible formats and more catchy flows, because I want more people to enjoy my music and hear what I’m trying to say.” Ivan Ives clearly incorporates the element of good delivery, seen in mainstream hip hop, with the lyrical chops and brainier leanings of underground hip hop. “Most mainstream hip hop nowadays is trash. I remember back when mainstream hip hop was actually good (although that was mostly golden era hip hop stuff). I’m trying to bring back a fusion of the golden era sound with more modern influences, and that is possible, of course, because of The Hitman’s amazing skills behind the boards. But I hardly even listen to any underground rap that is coming out now, because unfortunately I think a lot of that is also shitty. It’s getting way too artsy. Too many kids that lack real-life experiences making up fantasy worlds filled with stories of fake struggling and fabricated tales of redemption.”
Ives’ Russian heritage also adds an innovative quality to the mix. He raps in Russian briefly on several of the tracks, showcasing his equal skill in both languages. “Victory” sounds like a Russian communist march, complete with the, “They’ll never defeat us,” Russian samples. So while Ivan Ives is not a “Russian rapper,” his interesting background certainly gives him rich lyrical fodder. As to whether he feels pigeon-holed by it, Ives responds
“I have fun with it. I’m obviously by no means an ‘ethnic’ artist…Honestly, I do feel that my background and my father’s struggle against the KGB with his art have influenced my music and the direction I am ultimately heading in, and it definitely does set me apart from other MCs.”
Iconoclast finds Ives exploring the trials and tribulations of an up-and-coming rapper. A lot of the tracks feature the hallmarks of hip hop—braggadocio and claims of one’s awesome skill. When he waxes on about his lyrical superiority, however, it’s always done in a smart, punny way and any “arrogance,” is tempered with humility. “I got wicked game, call me Chris Isaac” on “Lay Low” is one of the clever punch-lines often found on this album. On “Mad Game,” he raps
“I build a legacy founded on leprosy; an outcast outlasted everyone next to me. Bitter wrath for most rap critics, I rap for cynics and real heads still in it.” On “Life Is A Bitch,” he talks about the struggles of his career, “Working shitty jobs for cash; I can’t smile–we are out of laughs. With dreams as unattainable as mine the question usually asked is why. Why do I strive to be the best that ever was and make tracks for nerds and clever thugs,” and declares “I am not arrogant. I am damned.” “The Recipe,” another really standout track, is a riotous showcase of Ives’ love for hip hop, in the vein of “Got It.”
“Olivia Josephs” is one of two tracks that finds Ives addressing relationships—in other words, don’t look for him to be stereotypical rapper with songs “for the ladies.” It’s all business on this disc. On this track, he bids goodbye to Olivia Josephs, an amalgamation of his exes. He raps, “I hate your blond hair; I hate your plastic life. Tired of you and your friends playing ‘pass the knife.” The other track, “Revenge,” is the only real-deal linear narrative track on this album. Over a trippy, eerie non-beat of a beat, Ives narrates a grim story.
Iconoclast is the narrative of a workaholic. Love him or hate him, one Ivan Ives is one hard-working MC and this album reads like the diary of an underground rapper trying to make his name known. Devoid of the vapid cotton-candy stylings of bling bling rap, it is also refreshingly free of pontification and boring exercises in spouting off philosophy. Fifteen tracks of excellent beats and lyrics showcase his growth from a more abstract to a mass-appeal emcee. The tight verses and good hooks harken back to an older sound, thus making this record all the more enjoyable. With his forays into film—Ives has made some award-winning shorts and videos—and the growth of his No Threshold label, as well as various other collaborations, Ives clearly intends to keep his fans happy. His East Meets West tour hits the 9:30 Club on October 10th. Other acts on this bill are 2Mex and Vast Aire. You would be remiss to miss this great Russian hope, who is worth all the hype.