Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Nicki Minaj's "The Pinkprint"

There's so much good music in the world, and it brings on so many good feelings. I love reggae music, I love soca music, I love old school R&B and hip hop, I love trap music, and I can get down to pretty much anything else with a nice composition. Pop. Rock. I love music. Period.

What I love most of all is when you hear brand new music, and it hits you. Either it passes right through you briefly, or maybe you hear it but it doesn't affect you, or you immediately forget it...and sometimes you listen to it, like it and can't explain why. Sometimes the sounds completely translate into a feeling that is directly speaking to you. A vibe that perfectly resonates with you. A composition that you must hear again, and again. A noise that makes you physically feel fabulous. Well, on some level that's how I feel about Nicki Minaj's latest album The Pinkprint, that was just released earlier this month.

I wouldn't call myself a "super fan" of Nicki Minaj, but I must say that I like most of her songs to date...and her craziness really doesn't bother me. I like her, as an artist. I shouldn't...but I do. I agree that the Anaconda antics were kinda over the top, but I think it was fun and harmless. The bootie phase of 2014 will pass, and everyone would have had their moment to shake dat ass. Including Nicki.

And I think that's why I dig this album...because even with Nicki's querkiness, and odd behaviours publically, I feel she's maturing into more of a woman and less of a caricature. She used to feel like a cartoon character to me...catchy beats and a bright, colourful, and ridiculous fashion sense. She couldn't be taken that seriously...but now I think her music speaks for itself. She's growing up.

I like her music of the past because it was feel-good pop music. Trendy beats and memorable catch phases. I liked most of the hits that were hits, and it wasn't anything too serious.

But with this album, I feel a different sense of appreciation for Nicky Minaj as an artist. I can hear her growth as an individual. I can hear the maturity in her style. The increase in vulnerability in her voice. The intimacy of the lyrics. This album is different.

It starts off sounding almost like an R&B album, with Nicki singing, and with the instrumentation sounding more symphonic, and less street. The lyrics alone make it feel more personal, like she's speaking straight from a broken heart. It's a different level of emotional disclosure...and the music mimics that. It starts off more introspective...mellow beats. The album begins in a dark, sad place...and sets the tone for what's to come.

The Pinkprint gets lighter as it progresses, less vulnerable and more club. The lyrics are less painful...Drake and Chris Brown show up. Ariana Grande. Beyonce. Works it way down to Anaconda, and then closes with the Pills and Potions, signature Nicki sounding track...singing her vocals, the regular Nicki flow.

Overall, I like the way this album makes me feel. Even at a glance, there's an arch to the music that follows a nice audio story line. From darkness and heartbreak, that slowly and gradually eases into triumph by the end. There's hope at the end...and the mood of the album supports that.

I look forward to playing this album for the next couple of weeks, listening carefully to the individual songs, taking in the lyrics, and appreciating how this project was put together. Right now I am really feeling "The Crying Game" and "Grand Piano." I hear that she has released a mini-movie to go along with a few of the tracks, and the essence of these songs in particular remind me of soundtrack-type songs. Full of emotion.

I don't "purchase" CDs often, but this is one I actually got up and went into the mall to buy. Like physically made a trip to the store to make sure I had this in my possession for Monday morning, and the subsequent sitting in traffic I was about to embark in for the week. This will be my entertainment, and my inspiration. Music is amazing that never fails to bring out the creative energy in me!

After watching Nicki's Power 105.1 interview with Angie Martinez the other day, I got a different energy off of her and her story, and her behaviour as she discussed the end of her 15-year relationship with Safaree. There was a vibe she gave off in the interview that directly translated into the vibe of the album. It was a vibe of Nicki the woman, telling her story of adult heartbreak. A story of strength, but still with enough spunk to make it unpredictable.

This album sounds great, and it is a fabulous representation of Nicki's career, and even her public growth. It's nice to see an artist getting better with time and with wisdom...I'm pleasantly surprised that Nicki Minaj actually became one of those artists. I have to respect that.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

ENTOURAGE: Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric & Ari Coming to the Big Screen...YAY!

Eeeks! I'm so excited! The official trailer for the Entourage movie was just released, and I can not wait to see it next summer! I was a latecomer to this franchise. I jumped on the bandwagon after the HBO series had ended, but what I lost in timeliness, I made up for in dedication. I was a serial Entourage DVD watcher from seasons one through eight, until I was hooked on the stories of Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric, and Ari.

What's not to love? It's no secret that I'm addicted to entertainment, media, lights, camera, and action. Especially action. I love the fanfare, I love the creativity of it all...I love the unpredictability of the entertainment industry. It comes with such ridiculous lows and such extreme highs that the paradox just fascinates me. Especially when people make it to the top. And stay there.

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) was that top.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching ol' Vinnie and his boys (played by Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Conolly, and Kevin Dillon) navigate Hollywood, as four bredrens straight outta Queens, New a part of Vinnie's A-List entourage. I enjoyed the stories, the shenanigans, and I especially loved the soundtrack. Every episode ended with THE perfect hip hop track. Everything about this HBO television series was my kinda shit.

From what I hear, the movie will pick up six months after we left the boys back when the series ended in 2011. Vinnie got married, and Ari and his wife finally had some peace and quiet in their lives...until he was offered a job to head Time/Warner. It was a nice cliffhanger, especially after knowing all of the drama Ari had in his marriage to Melissa (Perrey Reeves) and how they struggled every single season to make their relationship work. Ari, Hollywood's top agent and resident asshole on the show, was easily one of the most likeable characters, despite his arrogance and trickery at times. As a supporting actor in the series, Jeremy Piven was nominated four times for an Emmy award for Entourage, and came away with the win in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

A critically acclaimed hit, it only makes sense that the boys would return to continue their story for those of us that are ready to see where Ari and the others have gone. Who they're with. What they're doing. It's a natural curiousity, the result of a series of interesting story telling.

Of course, I loved the Hollywood element to this program. The clubs, the parties, and watching Vinnie make decisions on various projects, co-stars, relationships, and financial issues, all while carefully balancing his self-worth and his actual talent. While the Hollywood element was crucial to the show, the theme of friendship was also equally intriguing.

The dynamics between the group of four (including brothers Drama and Vincent) was great, and I loved how everyone continued to "play their role" despite the changes and successes along the way. Vinnie was always the leader; Eric was always the brains, stability, and logic behind the operation; Turtle was the cool guy, the go-to-guy and the perfect wing man; Johnny Drama was the wildcard and comic relief...while also being the elder (and chef) of the group. A great mix of personalities and the actors themselves--true New Yorkers--were believable as blue-collar Queens men on the come up.

Entourage provided the behind-the-scenes look at celebrity life with extra access, minus the calculated image management present with similar reality TV programs, striving to provide the same access. The soundtrack, the clever dialogue, the cameos (Matt Damon was definitely my fave), and the likability factor with the cast (loved Emmanuel Chriqui as "Sloan" and of course Rex Lee as "FLOYD!") made it an exciting show to watch.

It felt real. Like if there were ever four friends from Queens (or Boston, like show mastermind Mark Wahlberg, that loosely based the characters on his own life) that really did make it to Hollywood, this is probably totally how they would live (smoking weed, beaucoup females/sex, blowing money, pool parties, hanging out, blockbuster movie premieres and film festivals, and fast cars galore), and you got the feeling that as much as they were on top...that everything could still disappear in a heart beat. And that regardless of what went down, that they'd still be boys in the end.

That underlying tension of the lifestyle all being a "fantasy" was what made the show great. It made you want to root for everyone. You wanted Vinnie to only pick hit movies and hit directors/studios. You wanted Johnny Drama to finally catch a break and have his career excel again ("VICTORY!!!"). You hoped that Turtle would find his way and develop his own career hustle. And you appreciated the stability of Eric, his commitment to Sloan, and hoped that he would be able to lead the group wisely, without succumbing to the jabs and attacks from the ever-powerful Ari.

And now. A feature film! Yay! After being on the air from July 2004 to September 2011...the cast began filming the new Entourage movie in February of this year, and we'll be able to see the finished product by about June 12, 2015 from Warner Brothers.

Here's the teaser trailer...let the countdown begin:

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Annie (2014) aka "Black Annie"

The new 2014 feature film version of the 1982 hit movie Annie was fabulous, and I enjoyed every minute of it because of the nostalgia wrapped up with familiar music and cultural advancement. It warmed my heart.

"Black Annie" (ever since the Saturday Night Live sketch, I can refer to it as nothing else, lol) follows the original plot, where a foster kid hopelessly waiting for her parents to return for her stumbles into some luck when she connects with one of the richest men in town. Given the opportunity to spend some time with him, she manages to win the ol' guy over with her charm, escape foster care forever, and dance her way into a happy and secure future filled with true love.

Nothing has changed, story wise. The sadness of the orphanage/foster home and the meanness of the foster mother are still the same. Annie's optimism and mischief are familiar. But what happens with this version is that society has changed, and some of the old elements have a new swing. For example, Daddy Warbucks is now "Mr. Stacks" (Jamie Foxx), and aside from the obvious addition of black main characters (with Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie), there are now cell phones in the picture and funky hip hop remixes to some of the original music.

It's the music that got me. The familiar melodies to "Maybe" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" made me smile, because these are songs I grew up on. In the 80s, Annie was a movie that me and my peers watched regularly, and loved immensely.

Quvenzhane was a cute leading lady of the movie: a little girl with grown expressions and a serious comedic touch...her sense of humour was adorable, and I have a feeling that her sharp-witted Annie characteristics weren't too far off from her real personality.

I like Jamie Foxx. I'm a fan, so it was really cute to see him in this warm-and-fuzzy role as Mr. Stacks, and to see him fully commit to this musical and do it in an authentic way that never made me question him as a man, or actor. It was nice to see him in this child-friendly movie, and it was really touching the way Black Annie changed his world.

The new spin on "Daddy Warbucks" was a major change, because the cell phone empire of Mr. Stacks really helps to drive the plot. In the end, rather than scaling walls and high-speed car chases, it is a series of Tweets and posts on social media from children across New York that help the authorities locate Annie after she has been taken away by her "fake" parents--a nice update to the story.

I pretty much enjoyed this film from top to bottom...however the one thing that that didn't sit well with me was the performance of Cameron Diaz, who I normally really like in movies. Her character Miss Hannigan, as a failed 90s pop singer, did deliver a few of the movie's laughs for me, but her remake of the character was the least authentic to me. Jamie Foxx made Mr. Stacks his own, and the remix of Annie's character was definitely original...but I felt that Cameron was trying too much to be like the original Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnette) rather than trying to make this character her own.

Also, while it was fabulous to hear Jamie Foxx singing show tunes, and the other musical inserts into the movie, Cameron's lack of vocal talent was a bit of a damper on things. I wouldn't have minded if they dubbed a real singer's vocals over her parts, for the sake of the movie. It wasn't unbearable, but it just wasn't right for a "musical." Cameron's a great actress, but I think in this case they could have found a Miss Hannigan with real singing talent, and less over-the-top antics emulating a character that has already been done wonderfully. Carol Burnette's role was so strong and such an iconic character in movie history, that it may have been impossible for any actress to come in and make that role her own.

But despite that small distraction from the plot and songs...the movie is really enjoyable. Cheesy...most definitely! At the end when the full cast is dancing and skipping their way down the streets of New York, I had to laugh. It's corny, but it's ANNIE! I would expect nothing less.

It's nice to see pop culture take the steps to recreate classic pieces, and to infuse realistic cast changes and visuals. I love that the generation of today's children can enjoy the story and music that I have always loved, and do so in a hip and current manner.

Great movie for kids, and for big kids like me who can relive their childhood through the adventures of this loveable little orphan. Black or white...Annie is an uplifting story.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: LOVE ENOUGH by Dionne Brand

There is something extremely comforting about picking up a book that you can connect to by default because of a shared living experience...yet still feel as though you are learning more about yourself (and your city), and the characters as a result of the literary closeness. That is what piqued my interest about this novel.

Dionne Brand's novel Love Enough is based in Toronto--a city I was born and raised in--and it tells the stories of a few intertwining characters and their individual experiences with love and life, all to the same familiar backdrop. Toronto itself is a character in this story; for any Torontonian just the mention of speeding down the Don Valley Parkway, or gazing down Dupont street brings such recognition and an immediate understanding of at least the physical journey.

The emotional journeys are complex, and rightfully so, as each character's story unfolds. It is an authentic urban Toronto tale, highlighting the city, yet highlighting the very distinct lives of the main characters. The middle-aged June, a social worker who reflects on her lovers of the past, while reconciling her differences and connection with her current partner. There's Bedri and Ghost, the young thugs who are trying to make sense of their criminal actions while frantically navigating the streets of the city. There's the young woman Lia, battling emotions about her drug addicted mother, while daydreaming about her carefree associates out exploring the world. The characters all have a connection, yet all are grappling with issues of love on various levels, and making sense of themselves in the process.

Brand's writing style is very beautiful. Needless to say, as a former Poet Laureate of Toronto (from 2009-2012), her novel is also extremely poetic. The sadness, the anger, and the joys are described with careful precision, and poignant phrasing.

And while Toronto itself is described within the journeys of the characters, the book is fragmented as it moves between the various individuals with each chapter, and tells pieces of the story, bit by bit, jumping between locations, feelings, and story lines.

June and her lover Sydney share their space, yet have distinctly different ways of viewing the world. June is a practical woman, skeptical and realistic, while Sydney is a dreamer, a believer, and a lover. And very early in the book, Brand summarizes that despite their constant arguing and is enough to keep them together. "Perhaps..."

This theme resonates throughout the entire story...that "perhaps" love is enough.

What I love about this book is the way the elements of multicultural Toronto touch all of the figures that appear, regardless of their race. Tamil, Somali, Caribbean, Latin, or European...they range in ethnicity, yet still have a grittiness of the city that influences their daily experiences.

Along with this grittiness, is a constant feeling of longing...of yearning for something, someone, or somewhere that the characters have yet to come to terms with. While they go through their routines, work, leisure, or home sense that they are all seeking more. They are seeking stability. And, of course love on some level.

"Here again, June did not understand the mysteries of intimacy..."

"Mercede's love could not hold out against her panic of never being loved enough..."

Photo via Toronto Star
I was most moved by the character Da'uud, father of Bedri, and his thoughts about returning to his home country of Somali--his internal description of the long travel process, the switching of flights, atmosphere of the various airports, and the eventual arrival. There was a feeling of hope in this passage, when he recollected the power of being "home" and how it made all other issues insignificant, once he was back in his comfort zone.

Along with the feelings of longing for love, Da'uud's passage reflected the need for acceptance and comfort in all of the characters. Taking long journeys to find a place they were familiar with, accepted as is, and comfortable navigating. Yet despite originating from another location in some cases, the story is a reminder that they are all now a part of the big and fast-paced city of Toronto, and their moods and thought processes reflect the city life.

"The Don Valley Parkway swallows sound, it crushes time..."

You don't have to be a Torontonian to appreciate the stories, but it is the mentions of the patty shops on Eglinton West, or a character's emotional ties to the Yonge subway line for example, that makes the references so culturally significant. When the young men commit a crime, while proudly yelling out declarations of can feel their tension as they navigate the westbound 401 highway towards the Allen Express. The city is a natural part of everyone's experience, despite what they are going through.

"But if you walk down a street and find a parallel version of your life, then you must become aware of the world and being aware of it means you can do something about it..."

There is no "happy ending" to Love Enough. This book is simply a moment in time in their lives, and concludes just as it begins...on the subject of love, and it's ambiguity. In a state of confusion, on the brink of revelation. While the characters do not change much as individuals by the book's end, you do get the sense that they are more aware of their positioning in the city and in their lives, as a result of the constant reflection and discussion about their individual battles. So while the challenges are evident, there is a bit of hope that things will work out if they continue to analyze and progress in this direction.

This was my first full reading of a Dionne Brand book (extremely long overdue), and I was moved by her writing, her ability to create feelings of sadness, yearning, and uncertainty in the city, and yet still perfectly line it with enough possibility of love, and of being loved, that it felt real.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Monday, December 1, 2014

VH1's "Love and Hip Hop" is Raising my Blood Pressure

Like, whoa.
I am all for pop culture, urban culture, hip hop music, entertainment, glitz, glamour, and taking an inside look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In fact, if I have a choice...I usually choose to watch reality TV, music programming, awards shows, or something with entertainment value.

But this show! My goodness!

Fortunately, I haven't had access to VH1, as a Canadian. I've only had second-hand references of most of their television programming, or occasionally we get to see some of the shows on our networks and see what's up.

But this shit. Wow.

I thought I'd take a look at the show I've heard much about, and started with Love and Hip Hop seasons 1 and 2, from back in 2011. It was interesting, right off the bat. I can't lie, I was immediately drawn into the drama and the intersecting story lines. Most importantly, I was really digging Chrissy Lampkin and her strong personality, her values, and the relationship she had with rapper Jim Jones. I didn't know much about either of them beforehand, but watching the show really made me a new fan. I think they're adorable...and real. Without being tacky.

I read that they had their own spinoff after season 2, so I just switched from Love and Hip Hop and took it to Chrissy and Mr. Jones show instead. Besides, Chrissy and Jim were the main reason I was watching after the end of the second season, so I chose to follow their story. And I did as far as my television access could take me.

Only to discover in passing that there's yet another spinoff called Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood that was filmed this year. Instead of living in 2011 and trying to catch up on old stories, I thought I'd give this series a look. Ray J was in it. Omarion and Apryl. A few other recognizable faces, so I thought it might be interesting....but I'm only like 3 episodes in, and I cannot.

I cannot complain about a show that I chose to watch. And I certainly can't discuss it with anyone, because I don't think anyone I know is actively watching this ratchet program...

But what the eff??

First of all, they do realize they're being televised, right? What I've seen so far is soooo embarassing in terms of adult behvaiour, that I can barely watch. My own pride is hurting. My own blackness is shamed. My own sense of judgement is being questioned to the point where I just had to stop. I HAD to stop because I felt myself getting angry! Like, who behaves like that? any amount of money worth that humiliation? Do these women realize how grimy and ugly their behaviour is? Is it really that entertaining to see people make fools of themselves, all for a cheque and some fame? Is anyone going to profit long-term from being a part of this mess?

Aside from some of the few authentically talented individuals on the program who can most likely sustain a career afterwards, and who managed to keep their cool and act maturely...what is the goal with this?

What amazes me is how the most BEAUTIFUL of women can act sooooooo disgusting. Who wants to date that? Marry that? Support that? Respect that? Like, they are living in the city of dreams, with access to money, power, fame, television executives, music industry folk...and somehow this is the behaviour that they see fit to get ahead? I guess so, because I see a lot of them bringing children into the world together, co-habitating, and I guess some people really have normalized this behaviour and the lifestyle.

Maybe it's me? OK, maybe it's not that serious....but honestly!

Maybe I'm being naive, and a lot of this is scripted and deliberate, and a part of a master plan to fame and fortune. And maybe I'm sensitive to this freaking circus show, because I also have refused to watch the Real Housewives of ANYWHERE, or even allow myself to get caught up in the wine throwing, name calling, and weave pulling reunion shows and uber-successful programming that clearly millions of others are in love with. For years now.

But this shit ain't for me. I swear.

I can't even finish the season. I can't even check to see what happens to Ray J and his ex-girl, or Omarion and his mama, or Souljah Boy and Teddy Riley's daughter, or the bleach blond chic with the pink lipstick who just moved out from her roommate's apartment and thinks she's dating that dude Young Ferg or Berg...or whomever. Or the Latin dude with the two girlfriends.

I can not.

I gave it a try. Thank you VH1. Thank you to the producer Mona who is clearly getting PAID off of this very popular brand. Thank you for bringing me into the world of hip hop "behind the scenes"...but I think I'll just stick to being a consumer on the digital music end, a listener on the radio or in the club, and a passive observer of music videos and AMA performances.

P.S. I really feel for the children, teenagers, and young adults who are eating this kinda entertainment up...and I pray that somewhere along the line they can differentiate between entertainment value, and ridiculousness. Because the gold chains, the pretty handbags,the cars, the beautiful people, and the palm trees and VIP access is really enticing on screen...but let's just hope the behaviours are truly an anomaly that are captured, and that the real professionals are operating with a bit more civility.

I'm going to go back to calmer pastures, and quieter programs. I'm going to read a new book to un-train my mind from this million dollar GHETTONESS, maybe do a little more writing, and just call it an evening.



OK...maybe just ONE more episode. And then I quit. For real.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.