The Sky in Upside-Down Land
It begins the way so many conventionally existential works of art do: with two men waiting for something. At the beginning of Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a favorite at this year’s Sundance film festival, best friends Jimmie Fails IV (played by himself) and Montgomery Allen (Jonathon Majors) are perched on a road and set against nature, facing us. Only here, Jimmie and Mont are waiting for a bus that may or may not come. “They do not move,” Waiting for Godot’s famous set directions, would certainly apply.
Jimmie and Montgomery wonder about the bus schedule and watch a street corner preacher critique the forced migration of the city’s people of color. The scene is all Bay Area hella chill; it’s a brisk morning, and the men are so laidback you wonder if they have anywhere they need or want to be. You can practically see the frost in their bored yawns. The action unfolds in quasi-slow motion, as languorously as the fog drifting in front of the men’s faces. We soon learn that this action is set in a near future San Francisco (or a present day one, depending on your point of view), in the midst of crises of environmental catastrophe and displacement that have pushed black people to the region’s periphery, migrants of both climate and housing. It becomes increasingly clear, in the film’s opening minutes, that this is a Godot where the protagonists do move, because they have to.
Instead of further luxuriating in—or lamenting—the pearly beauty and chaos wrought by unseen ecological and political forces (and to avoid being late), Jimmie opts to skate as Montgomery rides along with him. We get a vision of the Bay by board, establishing the film’s main arguments through a series of bewitching tracking shots. It turns out that Jimmie’s preferred mode of transportation—like the cyclist in Bicycle Thieves—is symbolic of his place in the rapidly changing city where he is a fourth-generation resident: it’s a solo mode of transportation, telegraphing Jimmie’s loneliness, his rebelliousness, and the way he is perceived as a black man doing a conventionally “white” thing like skateboarding. Elsewhere we see Jimmie cut a striking figure, surfing through the city’s dreamy, foggy landscape.
It becomes increasingly clear, in the film’s opening minutes, that this is a Godot where the protagonists do move, because they have to.
Hanging on to the back of a bus like a marginalized Marty McFly, he is, like the star of Back to the Future, trying to save his own future. It’s an iconoclastic image, if a familiar one, of a solo male character striking out on his own. The title articulates the film’s penchant for performative hyperbole, but by its conclusion, you wonder how accurate it is. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about holding on to territory, both interior and exterior: preservation, conservation, forestalling exposure to toxins and foreclosure. At a pivotal point in the film, Jimmie asks, “What if we shouldn’t be here?” Mont replies, “Who should be here more?”
Montgomery’s rejoinder is a question that organizes the film. The San Francisco the men live in is one familiar to any reader of American real estate prognostications or listicles about the country’s most expensive cities. To say that it’s being developed is a gross understatement, San Francisco’s mountainous streets being the least of its uphill battles. But Last Black Man’s demarcation between the city’s mostly white, mostly wealthy upper class and the vanquished people of color is particularly effective. The naming of the character Clayton Newsom, a classic shit-eating-grin-type real estate broker, hits hard at the commingling of the business sector with the corridors of municipal power—the broker shares his surname with California governor Gavin Newsom, who was once San Francisco’s mayor. The film’s subject matter is not new; Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and his speculative short film Remigration (2011), as well as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which premiered at Sundance last year, all deal with the same questions about the area’s sustainability for poor folks and people of color amid the changing economic and racial climate.
Jimmie and Montgomery have been fixing up the home Jimmie’s family used to own, a beautiful gold-trimmed Victorian on Golden Gate near Fillmore, which he says his grandfather built. After the older white residents have to abdicate the property amid an estate dispute, the two men squat there, hoping to lay some claim to its opulent engravings and charming fixtures. The house provides a place for both men to live and to scream. As they rehab the house, they visit Jimmie’s aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) to gather some of the family’s heirlooms, another part of his legacy. The saturation in the movie’s color palette, or the way its cinematography uses light to dial down the intensity of its hues, leaving everything gorgeously washed-out, feels related to the film’s argument about concentration and dispersal, using color theory to more immediately connote a sociological one. “What are you doing here?” Jimmie asks the house’s former resident, a boomer hippie white lady, at one point. “What are you ever doing here?” she shoots back. “In this crazy fucking city, you’re still here.”
Last Black Man is obviously influenced by theater. Mont, a playwright, produces a play called The Death of the Last Black Man in San Francisco and references Stanislavski, Brecht, and Chekhov in a conversation with the Greek Chorus, a group of guys who hang out and harangue each other—Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing corner men updated for the twenty-tens. Last Black Man’s verbosity and ontological themes also evoke Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over (another work that’s primarily a two-hander) and the aforementioned Waiting for Godot. But the most obvious point of reference is The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks.
In Parks’s surrealist play, a cast of black stereotypes, like the titular Last Man, as well as “Black Man With Watermelon,” “Before Columbus,” and “Black Woman With Fried Drumstick,” all ruminate on their place in the world. The play’s location: “A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of the Great Hole of History.” While Mont and Jimmie and the whole cast of Last Black Man’s characters are not overt types like the figures in Parks’s play, there is a kind of stock characterization in the chorus’s band of brothers chilling on the corner, fighting and joanin’ on each other in equal measure. Both Parks’s play and Talbot’s film are about place, and lack, and the treasure of reformed glory. In the former, a lacuna is made by white supremacy, and in the latter, white supremacy and capitalism push people out. In both cases the subjects exist on the outskirts, spreading to the periphery like the coffee ring effect, where the edges of a spill are always darker than its center.
As Parks’s play suggests, lacunae can also refer to historical narratives. A common corollary to this Trumpian moment is the Reagan era: its celebrity president, dog whistles, and discrepancies in approaches to opiate abuse. Enter the world of Freddie Gibbs, where the great hole of history is the size of every crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity, or the haul from every DEA raid and its impact on a community of color, or every D.A.R.E. sticker ever made. Roughly three weeks after Last Black Man’s premiere, Gibbs, along with producer Madlib, released the summer’s other masterpiece, the album Bandana. Both works are portraits of black men trying to hold fast to territory they’ve been told they should abandon, and together they usher in, along with Moonlight, a renaissance of artistic explorations of intimacy between black men. A resurgence of this magnitude and meaning, which also includes a recent episode of Black Mirror (as Tomi Obaro explains in BuzzFeed), has not been seen perhaps since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Marlon Riggs and John Singleton made art house documentaries about gay black men and tragedies like Boyz N the Hood, respectively. This was a moment in which E. Lynn Harris’s tomes about queer black men roughly coincided with the brotherly musical experiments of Eric B. and Rakim, KMD, and P.M. Dawn.
Gibbs is a purveyor of what’s called “coke rap,” a variously celebrated or maligned subgenre. Coke rap is a strain of hip-hop concerned with the ins and outs of drug dealing, and it’s almost pornographic in its detailed breakdown of drug math and its associated body counts. It is a more direct form of mafioso rap, which peaked in the 1990s and dealt more in the luxury of drug dealing as opposed to its grimy underpinnings. Where mafioso rap was all about the glorious sheen of a drug haul—the first half of Goodfellas versus its stoned denouement—coke rap concerns itself with the unfiltered, cold-hearted, gritty distillation of transactions—the musical equivalent of The Wire. Coke rap advances the Sisyphean struggle to push crack rocks, the folly of solidifying one’s spoils with both “hard” and legitimization. Both piquant and maudlin, coke rap is about coming down off of the high of distributing stimulants. More nihilistic than the mainstream version of trap music that’s popular today, with its melodious, catchy blues, coke rap is a singular hill (or mountain of powder) to die on.
A common corollary to this Trumpian moment is the Reagan era: its celebrity president, dog whistles, and discrepancies in approaches to opiate abuse.
In a 2014 interview, Gibbs declared that, despite the forces conspiring against coke rap, namely pop trends and the genre’s half-hearted commercialization, “The streets ain’t gon’ never die. As long as you got guys in the streets representing and talking about it.” In an essay for DJBooth called “Coke Raps Will Never Die,” Dylan Green echoed the notion, writing, “For those artists who lived their coke raps and were lucky enough to have surfaced on the other side, painting the reflections of joy and the pains and panic of a frantic life in song form are necessary.” The genre’s been kept alive by Pusha T, formerly of the duo Clipse, who has been holding the mantle for coke rap since before the group’s debut single “Grindin’”—an ode to rapper-hustlers like Pee Wee Kirkland—all the way to Daytona, last year’s standout album. Along with contemporaries like Pusha, Roc Marciano, and Benny the Butcher—whose latest album The Plugs I Met is a lean opus of gangsterism, rude awakenings, rude boy yearnings, and turpitude—Gibbs is leading the charge of resistance, and coke rap’s renaissance. His career has been steadily articulating an idea, the rugged duality of the sort Jay-Z sussed on his paranoid-hustler epic “Can I Live?”: Can Gibbs live, in the sense of flexing without folks on his back, but also, like, can he actually live? Can he survive? Can he push his picaresques while the whole industry shifts in another direction? Piñata, Gibbs’s 2014 collaboration with Madlib, enriched his argument. Suffused with soul samples and throwback comedy skits, Piñata is about hiding in plain sight, like its namesake item (the album was originally called Cocaine Piñata). On Bandana, everything’s been laid bare. The album offers both a swaggering exploration of the hustler psychology and standard braggadocio rap, plus a subversive critique of Reagan-era politics and its half-life over the ensuing decade.
Gibbs isn’t the last black man of coke rap, but on Bandana, he sure as hell rhymes like it. Pairing his witty lyricism with the psychotropic soul collage of Madlib’s beats, Bandana is a cinematic crash course in all-American gangsterism (there are references to Tony Soprano and Johnny Sack), meted out with hard-won wisdom. Gibbs reckons with the complexity of his past and his attempts to overcome his demons (“My weed habit so close to snortin’ powder”), putting forth what he calls “a manifesto.” On “Crime Pays,” he raps, “Yeah I slang but I’m still a slave/ Twisted in the system, just a number listed on the page.” The three slightly tweaked choruses of “Freestyle Shit” chart an arc of stalled progress. And maybe the backsliding you find in the “Freddie Gibbs” persona parallels U.S. domestic policy vis-à-vis the War on Drugs, which has proven to be more regressive than helpful.
Sure, the detergents listed on “Palmolive,” (“Mr. Clean, Pine-Sol, Palmolive”) make reference to Gibbs’s bald headed ’do and habit of dishwashing drug paraphernalia, but they could also nod to the white-washing of history. Although featured artist Pusha T claims to be “way more chemical than political,” the song is rife with reference to the kind of gaps Parks mentioned in her Last Black Man, with Pusha admitting that his “coke hand is still sketchin’ out [his] memoirs,” which include “PTSD from what I weighed on the digital,” and a callback to the Iran Contra scandal (“It was snowfall and Reagan gave me the visual”). Gibbs likewise alludes to the holes of history. “Fuck the forty acres and a mule, they gave us niggas the eagle/ hot pot, spoons, and needles,” he rhymes, and you can almost hear his seething through not-so-clenched teeth, doubling the American eagle into its namesake automatic weapon the Desert Eagle, a menacing tool of mass destruction. A line like, “My neighborhood something like Fallujah/ Vladimir banana clip, move with Russian collusion shooters” links contemporary fuckery to this timeline. On “Flat Tummy Tea,” he takes it back further. “Crackers came to Africa, ravaged, raffled, and rummaged me/ America was the name of they fuckin’ company.”
Bandana is a surreal journey through a twisted, debauched landscape as eerie as America’s origin story or traumatic tales of the Middle Passage: “Stackin niggas like cargo over and under me/ Pick cotton bales and coca leaf off the money tree.” On the album’s penultimate track, “Education,” Gibbs and company conjure more dystopian imagery. As Yasiin Bey describes “a dead-end street with a lemonade stand,” he asks, “where is the sky in upside-down land?” Black Thought cements this strange, palimpsestic, historically sound vision, rapping, “Me, Freddie, Flaco, and Shot never forgot though/ that Plymouth Rock landed on top of New Morocco.” Much like the way Fails and Talbot explore the nightmare of losing a home and a city in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Bey and Black Thought dig into the sickness of some forms of domesticity, their bars bringing to mind the closed loop of cul-de-sacs and gated communities, or the white-guilt-fear of “Indian burial grounds” espoused in seventies horror flicks.
Can Gibbs live, in the sense of flexing without folks on his back, but also, like, can he actually live? Can he survive?
In the end, Bandana is about holding on to and ceding ground—the kind trodden by American colonialism. Like the legacy of the people annihilated by colonization and Western expansion, Gibbs has questions about other forms of domestic devastation. If there are still people ravaged by crack cocaine, why can’t he rap about it? For a man who rapped on “Fake Names” that “every time I sleep, dead faces, they occupy my brain” and “I done walked through hell in these size twelves/ Speak it from my own mouth before I let the time tell,” he’s made an album about reclaiming narratives, giving voice to his own near-annihilation and self-imposed turmoil. If there is a utopia in this album, it’s the 1970s, where many of its soul samples come from, just before the Reagan era. Bandana means to get something back, and its best line is about restoring a story. On “Palmolive,” Gibbs examines his trajectory, fast-forwarding over what I can only imagine are true horrors: “In 1998 I sold a Glock-19 chopper/ 2018, I’m finna reclaim my fuckin’ time and cop the Rollie flooded, Maxine Waters.” For Gibbs, who in 2016 spent months in prison over a sexual assault he was eventually cleared of—he faced ten years—reclaiming time is of the utmost importance.
To be fair, I used to think: Why don’t they rap about new stuff? Coke rap is monotonous, boring, repetitive. But then I was changed. Until you’ve heard a person rap about all the ways she or he can flip coke, or flip a coke metaphor, you’ll not have a full understanding of how nasty coke rap knows it is, how depravity and capitalism work together, or how rap and drug dealing can commingle to describe unlikely enterprise. It’s the ultimate come-up. Stack every misogynist double entendre about “white girl” and every reference to Lindsay Lohan, or the short-lived careers of briefly infamous women who came in her wake, and it amounts to a metaphorical assembly of white bodies the size of a March on Washington. It’s a population of fictionalized folks that leads straight to the White House.
On Bandana, Gibbs, Yasiin Bey, and Black Thought collide on the chorus of “Education” like antic versions of Montgomery and Jimmie’s corner-dwelling adversaries and friends, chanting, “I may not be here, I’m feeling like I might just leave/ before I start a fire or a fight.” Last Black Man is similarly conflicted over whether to stay or to go, and it teases out the tension between its characters over whether to dip or to stand their ground. Jimmie makes a decision as they’re at the crux of their crisis over the house and tells Montgomery:
I understand if you can’t, I do. But I’m not leaving . . . where am I gonna go? My dad’s in an SRO, my aunt’s out in bumblefuck. I’m not leaving. I’m the last one.
It brought to mind this similarly tortured bar by Pusha T, on “Grindin’”: “I make a buck, why scram? I’m tryna show y’all who the fuck I am.” Why scram? I’m tryna show y’all who the fuck I am.
In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, after a character’s death, Jimmie says, “People aren’t just one thing.” It’s a plea for complexity, for the kind of duality Gibbs lets exist within himself. During one crucial scene, Montgomery pleads with Jimmie to temper his one-track fixation on keeping the family property: “You are not this house!” Remarking that a fallen character “had dimensions,” Mont exclaims, “What if he could’ve shown more of himself? The world put him in a box.”
People aren’t just one thing, and neither is coke rap. A bandana can be a gang signifier, a flag, or a makeshift mask. In this respect, the film and album work together to articulate a vision of intimacy between black men and the meaningful pairing of odd couples. Just as Mont and Jimmie talk to each other throughout the film, Gibbs and Madlib communicate on the album through the exchange of instrumentals. (A frequent anecdote of the Bandana press tour is that Madlib doesn’t have a phone. Gibbs had to talk to him via text on Madlib’s iPad mini, where he also makes beats.) It’s touching to see Gibbs and Madlib embrace, in a video, where Gibbs explains that Madlib helped him grow up; he cries on his producer’s shoulder. “[We’re] really an odd couple,” he said, “but I love that man to death.”
That real-life reunion recalls a moment from Last Black Man, when, after telling him to “get the fuck up outta here,” one guy leans into Jimmie’s shoulder and bawls. In an ensuing scene, Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover) tells Jimmie, “I hope I never made you feel like you weren’t welcome here . . .” and then speaks to both of them: “You two stick together.”
Both Last Black Man and Bandana weave in threads about the cost of men staying the course and sticking together as drugs and drug addictions engulf those around them. Each, in its own way, deals with demolition. Bandana’s artwork is dark; it looks like someone did start the fire they threaten to light on “Education.” It also echoes Last Black Man’s imagery and themes; the cover illustration depicts longtime Madlib mascot Quasimoto on top of the Hollywood Hills, overlooking a burning California, a pink Cadillac overturned at that precipice. I couldn’t help but think of Last Black Man’s dystopian portrayal of San Fran while examining this image of a state under siege and onlookers watching the destruction.
Madlib and Freddie Gibbs are out to do what Montgomery and Jimmie could only dream about.
Although they are divergent depictions of black men, both works feature women in a similar capacity—that is, in limited roles. In Last Black Man, Jimmie’s aunt appears in a few scenes as a matriarch of sorts, a holder of family jewels, an elder whose insights shape Jimmie’s decision-making in the film’s final minutes. His mother also appears briefly. On Bandana, the women mentioned are predictably sex objects and drug mules, although occasional mentions of Gibbs’s ex-partners, and their advice, elicit some introspection from the rapper. Even when they’re sidelined, black women manage to loom over each work, respectively, as the archetypal “sisters and bitches”—Jay-Z’s early aughts spin on the Madonna-whore binary. The difference between being revered and reviled is significant, but when you’re rarely seen, the distinction in that contrast is harder to draw. Ultimately, both projects are what they are: Last Black Man is a film about intimacy between black men and is mainly invested in two characters; Freddie Gibbs doesn’t give a fuck. In these cultural artifacts of a dystopian nature, about everything falling apart, the limited appearance of women is telling and makes each unintentionally more cataclysmic.
This gloom and doom may be the point. Bandana and Last Black Man are artistic synonyms to the scene of Bodie Broadus standing in front of his trap house in season four of The Wire, tearing up before being torn down. But both of these projects are more hopeful than that. It’s no wonder Gibbs and Madlib are reportedly calling the last album in their collaborative trilogy Montana. Not only does Montana track with their self-referential mythology, in which the state recurs, but it’s also a place where, statistically and stylistically, black people are rare. (The idea is both absurd and geographically interesting; in other words, perfect material for a Suzan-Lori Parks play.) In this way, Madlib and Freddie Gibbs are out to do what Montgomery and Jimmie could only dream about.