First Draft: Xavier’s Shadow, Or Stripper Booty with a Rack Like Wow
At a certain age, after enduring enough heartache, I started to see them differently. On one side of the canyon, the side where imprisoned lies the easily injured boy-child, they were luminous, impossible collections of flesh and bone and celestiality. On the other side, from whence the grown man-child occasionally glances back at his younger and more forgiving self, they’ve become bombshells or knockouts or stunners and if you listen to the way he talks about them, really listen, it is like they could really do him violence and injury, if they meant to.
A friend once asked me who was the greater civil rights leader, Dr. King or Malcolm X.
Listening to Malcolm’s speeches on YouTube, one forgets that his words were first spoken 40 years ago. Prescience has been contorted into contemporary insight. Contemporary, necessary insight.
The most poignant representation of Mr. Little I’ve ever encountered was Magneto, the other inevitable comparison being Charles Xavier to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Before Jim Crow and Reconstruction and Emmitt Till and the Black Panthers ever entered my consciousness, I knew, tearing through those early comics, that I was peeking into a debate that had shaped public American discourse for over half a century.
Another theory divorces Magneto and Xavier of their historical analogs and cocoons them in Jungian sarcophagi. In this arrangement, Magneto is Xavier’s shadow. Erik Lensherr is the part of Charles Xavier that Xavier cannot accept, that he rejects. Until reconciliation, Xavier will forever be at war with himself.
While compelling, the notion of evil as a function of good leeches the evil of agency. The hero subsumes the villain. Always. The villain is the rib removed from the hero, fashioned into an adumbration of his source material.
How much more compelling, how much more necessary, to have an evil separate and equal in strength and endurance to the good. The villain equal, in fortitude, to its opposite.
Christopher Edwin “Lonny” Breaux and I were born in the same month of the same year. At five, his family moved him from Long Beach, California to Louisiana. One imagines in the car with Breaux during that odyssey, Celine Dion, Anita Baker, his mother, the overseer, the conductor, the DJ, alternating R&B prevarication with the storytelling in The Phantom of the Opera. Jazz must have grinned its wide-toothed, welcoming crescent moon of a grin upon his arrival in New Orleans.
The money earned from neighborhood chores–washing cars, walking dogs–soon after went to studio time. By 2005, he’d fashioned his own recording studio. By the end of August, it would be gone.
Hurricanes whore themselves out to metaphor. Slate-cleaners, apocalypses, cleansings, the Earth in the process of shaking its fur dry after a bath. But the tangible truth, concretized in retrospect, seen from the other side of the canyon separating After Katrina from Before Katrina, is that whatever Breaux saw when he returned to his blasted, looted recording studio propelled him to Los Angeles, a name change, the rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (fronted by walking mathematical singularity event Tyler, the Creator), and the remarkable, nostalgic, imagistic nostalgia, ULTRA.
Critics to this day have been unanimous in their division on how exactly R&B plays into that mixtape. The influence is undeniable, sometimes because of the musical content, sometimes because the singer-songwriter-producer is a singer and black. But the panoply of other sounds, of The Eagles, MGMT, Coldplay, The Pharcyde, doesn’t feel so much out of place as passed through a keyhole in the shape of R&B. Columnists cheekily labeled this shapely chimera “PBR&B,” thinking they’d found a jar big enough to contain the sound, that this was music made by hipsters, for hipsters. But the critics, mystified by the orange Beamer 80’s fetishism and murder-suicide ballads, had no way of knowing, just like the rest of us, exactly how much music Ocean heard in that car during that fateful trip from Long Beach to NOLA.
I wouldn’t find that free mixtape–posted originally on Ocean’s Tumblr without any promotion, labeled on iTunes as bluegrass and death metal, with a surreal and seductive yet traditionally masculine music video for one single (Novocane) and an artful, Afro Samurai-tinted video for another (Swim Good)–until after I’d met J. And had fallen despairingly, hopelessly, thoroughly ass over teakettle for that dark-haired, freckled, French vanilla-colored bombshell, knockout, stunner.
“Novocane” was the only song to leave any lasting impression on me back when the tape dropped in early 2011. A nightmarish love song about Ocean and a dental student bankrolling her education by starring in porn videos, it seemed the closest thing to a traditional, emotionally violent fuck song. The nameless object of Ocean’s affection steals local anesthetics from her dental school to get high. Over a synthetic melody and hypnotic drum track, Ocean croons about how they met at Coachella, how far gone on drugs the girl was, and how ultimately, to reach her, to be close to her, he had to follow her into the numbing void.
Morose, decadent, vulnerable, efficiently dismantling the swift guy-gets-girl progression it sets up, the song, styled as a radio single, rose to the forefront of the collection as perhaps the most comprehensively indie R&B record in recent history.
The story of stripper booty and cocaine for breakfast was also my gateway drug to the second genre-expanding rise-from-obscurity release of 2011’s first quarter.
In March 2011, The Weeknd (né Abel Tesfaye, as we would find out later) posted on his website a nine-track mixtape entitled House of Balloons, the first in a trilogy of tapes released that year that trafficked in a nocturnal, crepuscular, morning-after sound crafted by Jeremy Rose.
In July of that year, the final season of Entourage used the first track off House of Balloons, “High for This,” in an image trailer. Increased word-of-mouth and buzz for the artist’s astounding command of mood led to accolades. House of Balloons was nominated for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize in Canada. The video for “Wicked Games” won the MTV O Music Award in the Too Much Ass for TV category, and the singer won their award for Best Web-Born Artist.
By the end of August, the second mixtape in The Weeknd’s trilogy, Thursday, had infected the Internet and iPhones with more handsomely-produced not-ballads purring, cantillating, confessing the psychic toll of Millenial hedonism.
And by that time, my increasing infatuation with J had been derailed by the abrupt, agonizing desinence of a fraught friendship with a former flame. …Ringtone on silent/And if she stops, then I might get violent…
The Weeknd’s heroin-chic white-girl fetish helped me forget the former flame, helped me forget J, who’d drifted further and further into unattainability, and left me with my own violence. I’m falling because I’m numb from the neck down…
The Weeknd, whose birthname was, for longer than usual, unknown, and pictures of whom started to surface on the Internet just after Thursday was released, had become a personal prophet of sorts. Frank Ocean, with his horn-rimmed glasses, may have physically resembled El Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. But The Weeknd spoke with his menace. Patient, louche, vulgar, ignorant, elegant, narcotized, plaintive menace.
By the time Echoes of Silence made its appearance just before Christmas of 2011, I was spellbound and perhaps as stoned on loneliness as the 21-year-old who sang to me.
In 2012, ascendant Frank Ocean (after the success of nostalgia, ULTRA, he wrote songs and provided vocals for two tracks on the Jay-Z/Kanye West luxury-rap opus Watch the Throne) had what Alexis Petridis of The Guardian and GQ called his Ziggy Stardust moment, “where the controversy and publicity surrounding an artist’s sexuality and the brilliance of his latest album combine to give his career unstoppable momentum.”
That June, questions rose about his sexuality. Certain songs featured lyrics that did not sync with the vision of Frank Ocean as a male hetero R&B artist. And on July 4th, one week before the release of his album, Ocean published on his Tumblr an open letter recounting his experience with unrequited love, revealing that his first romance had been with a man. Industry titans joined Ocean’s Def Jam record label and prominent cultural figures in praising Ocean’s decision. By the time channel ORANGE had arrived, with its filmic structure and its psychedelic, soul-infused, pop-funk sound, its creator had become a veritable hero of the genre. A seismic shift, not only in the music made, but in the type of people making it, this seemed to be the general sentiment among critics and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awarded Frank Ocean with six Grammy nominations, four of which were the direct result of channel ORANGE.
Ocean’s July 9 performance of “Bad Religion” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, just five days after the self-revelation of his bisexuality, became much more than simply a performance. That fateful letter, written originally in December 2011 when Ocean was 19, and the lyrics to that song (I can never make him love me/never make him love me) all made glorious sense in the public eye as the realized vision of a supremely talented and emotionally honest artist. Frank Ocean had been gracious enough to provide us with an historic moment in which we could all participate.
Meanwhile, Abel Tesfaye had also begun to reveal more and more of himself. A digital footprint that flickered in and out of visibility, enigmatic tweets, occasional live appearances, the near-invisible umbilical cord linking him to Drake, with whom he shared a hometown. Though, in the rare interview, he chalked it up to wanting people more interested in the music than in the person, the cynic postulates that the fog and falsettos were material out of which he crafted a specific identity. With the repackaged release of his mixtapes as one massive oeuvre, Trilogy, he entered the mainstream arena as a drug-soul apparition. A shadow made of slow tempos and moaned echoes, for whom decadent hedonism was an existential wasteland, he and the recumbent, intoxicated, zombified women who keep him and his drugs company all waiting for Godot. The “xo” he signed at the end of his tweets could have been the emoticon for a kiss and a hug, or it could have been shorthand for ecstasy and oxycodone. When September 2013 arrived, bearing The Weeknd’s major label debut Kiss Land in its arms, Tesfaye’s claim in a July 2013 interview comparing the album he was working on to a horror movie seemed to erase any mystery as to the meaning of that “xo.”
The album carries over almost seamlessly from 2011’s Echoes of Silence. Increasingly personal stories, amplified sonic quality, wider vocal range, but, to many, little more than a well-dressed lateral step.
With the novelty of the sound having dissipated, listeners were left with Tesfaye as storyteller, singer, songwriter. Increased scrutiny regarding his lyrics raised doubt that he was presenting critiques of the sadomasochistic dynamic between him and his lovers backstage, or that he was interrogating his own distrust of women, or that he was examining with any clarity the repellent aspects of the sex-and-loneliness musculature of his songs.
By the time I showed Kiss Land to a girl I liked in a park just as the leaves were in the process of changing and the temperature beginning to drop, Xavier’s shadow had morphed into a full-bodied Magneto.
That delicious, tremulous falsetto carried me through much of that time, a Near Eastern-influenced melisma the pink cloud which spirited me through the three weeks that followed.
Most songs from The Weeknd begin after the fact. They come after the after-party, the bad decisions already made, the coke half-sniffed on the table. They begin post-coitus at that point where the woman or the women have turned from desired things to weapons, to threats, things to be left. This type of song begins in the hangover.
But there is always that point, in the retelling of the story, where things shift. Where the drug trip goes bad, where the man becomes monster, where the darkness infects the bliss. That moment after the thing said, the thing done, when the girl who’s grown precious to you realizes what you are. When the bombshell, knockout, stunner sees through the surreality of the good time the ogre with whom she’s shared her heart.
If Frank Ocean offered music for the super-ego, for the listener laden with conscience, with the capacity for spiritual goal-setting, with ability to overcome the ego’s defense mechanisms, then The Weeknd offers music for the id, the instinctual drive, the damning of consequences, the shadow. The part of the personality structure containing the drives we are born with.
In response to hurt, violence is often the low-hanging fruit. Outwardly radiating or inwardly inflicted, it provides perverse solace. Vicariously lived through a song, it carries little of tangible consequence.
I still listen to Kiss Land, and there is a stretch of songs on House of Balloons–from “The Morning” to “The Knowing”–that will likely remain unskippable forever. But Ocean’s lamenting, melancholic wail at the end of “Bad Religion” cuts me to the quick as swiftly on the 500th listen as it did on the first. And “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” has served to severely soften me, to unclench the fist.
At the time my friend had asked me that question about Malcolm X and Dr. King, I’d replied that both were necessary. Sometimes one needed the self-empowerment espoused by Malcolm before they could feel capable of loving their neighbor and tormentor to the degree that Dr. King advocated. Then, I’d puerilely had them in my mind as opposites on a spectrum, and to a degree, they were. But they were also part of the same movement, pursuing peace and security for the same group of people. And while I never contemplated capturing military bases on islands or disarming semi-sentient robots and reprogramming them to attack the State Capitol, I did realize the allure and necessity of Magneto in that universe. I had to encounter Magneto. I was obligated to if I wanted any chance at understanding how difficult it must have been for Charles Xavier to be Charles Xavier.
Maybe the evil is equal to the good, or the capacity for each is equivalent. And maybe the two, cosmic and eternal, are part of the grander thing. Maybe that girl I like will see me again and understand that we contain multitudes. That the darkness is not all there is. That hero and villain are a choice.
Maybe she knows this already and has merely been waiting for me to realize the same.