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« In Which She's A Poet And Her Name Is Justice »

Janet, Looped


So rough, so tough, out here, baby / California knows how to party. / In the city, City of Compton, they poplock.

— Ronnie Hudson, "West Coast Poplock" (1982) 

Kendrick Lamar is rap's undisputed champion of the moment. A rapper’s rapper and winner of MTV’s “Hottest MC” title, he’s also a commercial force.  In March, the Compton native charted Top 10 for the first time with "Poetic Justice", assisted by a Drake verse, and the sampled voice of Janet Jackson. The song's title is an allusion to the 1993 Jackson / Tupac Shakur (bka 2Pac) big-screen vehicle.

Lamar was six years old when Poetic Justice was in theatres. The film was seen then as a curious sidestep from John Singleton's directorial debut, the explosive, if unsubtle Boyz N The Hood, two years earlier. That movie, preceding films like Menace II Society and Juice (which also starred Shakur), and coming on the heels of New Jack City a few weeks prior, was a famously important moment for New Black Realism. If it was manipulative, it was also undeniably political and had an impact on the national conversation about racial tension and inner city gang violence, which was at a boiling point. The year in between the two films saw the Rodney King riots and Lamar's hometown in flames.

But Poetic Justice doesn't comment on or reflect a change in the dynamics of the ghetto which unfolded following the riots. It's as though a landscape of violence, addiction, poverty and broken homes is an inevitable constant. The story is framed by two episodes of violent gang crime. However, this time gang wars are not the sole focus, rather these conditions mostly loom in the background while the camera examines how four characters fail to get along. In Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop, he describes the climate of 1992/3 South Central, and by extension, young America, following large-scale gang peace treaties and the merging of gangsta rap and pop:

The video for "'G' Thang" seemed to ask: didn't all boys everywhere just want to bounce in hot cars to hotter beats, hang out with their crew, party all night, and spray conceited bitches with malt liquor?

While a half-step in that direction from Boyz N The Hood, Poetic Justice is clearly not yet in the 1993 state of mind.

Even if it was a conscious effort to be a less male-centric project, the change in perspective is impressive given Boyz N The Hood's massive success. That said, Poetic Justice is pretty much a failure by any benchmark. While the scope may have narrowed somewhat to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, Poetic Justice is still over-ambitious. It's a love story in which there are just two brief kisses between the two characters, and in which the grim events accompanying the origin of this romance threaten to overshadow the film's happy ending. All things considered, it has to be seen as a tragedy, despite the central romance. Nor are the half-hearted attempts at levity or comic relief very effective. It's also a road trip movie that doesn't begin until a staggering 40 minutes in. Finally, it's a movie about poetry, which doesn't make for an automatic hit, or a coherent story. (Early in the movie, one co-worker sighs to another "I'm tired, you got a poem for me?"; in what world does this happen!?) At the time, the TV show In Living Color commented on what a mess Poetic Justice was (while mocking Jackson for her lack of street credibility) in a parody skit which referred to the movie as "Not just a movie, it's uh...we don't know what the hell it is!"

So it's a little odd that Lamar would cite this work as an Important Cultural Event. But it does still deserve attention now; it's already a very different time. On rewatching the movie, I found it to be intensely interesting in spite of its shortcomings. For one thing, this era (already 20 years ago!), in which fairly direct critiques of contemporary living standards and America's basic efficacy in general can occur in a mainstream youth film, seems very distant. Also, Poetic Justice's quirks are just a lot of fun.  

Essentially, the story is this: Lucky (Shakur) and Chicago are postal workers who drive their mail truck out to Oakland. Lucky has plans to meet up with his cousin, a rap musician living there, to help work on material. Iesha, Chicago's girlfriend, is along for the ride and she convinces her hairdresser friend, Justice (Janet Jackson), to attend too. Justice has endured a rash of tragedies, and her friends are eager for her to snap out of it. (She is a poet and her name is Justice, get it? Ugh.)

The basic formula for the narrative goes 1) an ensemble fight in which everyone is shouting at the same time 2) brooding scene in which one character won't talk to the others 3) smooth jazz 4) repeat cycle. Near the film's "climax", Justice exclaims "pull over somewhere, we need to talk, I'm sick of this shit", which really should have been the film's title. Fights break out in every locale possible  the drive-in, the hair salon (more than once!), Lucky's baby mama's house, a family barbecue, and so on. Throughout, the story's heavy-duty scenes are broken up by internal monologues in which Jackson recites/composes Maya Angelou poems (oh, of course…?). At one baffling point, though, we jump from Justice hearing another poem to cycle through every other character's thoughts (That 70's Show style), erasing any last vestiges of realism. The greatest WTF scene, however, involves Janet Jackson spontaneously filing Tupac's nails while launching into an unprompted monologue about her mother's suicide.

Watching Poetic Justice is like when a lovers' quarrel gets so convoluted so as to lose all meaning, leaving you dizzy and wondering what the topic was. Except there are two couples doing this, in every pairing, for two hours. The film's view of the battle of the sexes, the last few frames notwithstanding, is very pessimistic and draws on every conceivable gender stereotype. The Justice character has to start out ice cold for the main plot device to work, but her bitterness, especially towards Lucky, whom she has just met, is so extreme that it's unbelievable and laughable. Justice is counseled by her friend to treat men as disposable objects as a kind of emotional preemptive attack (partially because so many of the men from their hometown wind up dead or in jail.)

An extreme mutually distrustful environment is portrayed, in which everyone operates under the assumption that they're being played. Iesha is a gold digger and a cheater. Chicago is physically abusive. And there is practically no scene in which a woman is not some kind of "bitch" or "hoe". (Someone should make a taxonomy of "bitch" uses in Poetic Justice). Justice stands up for herself on several occasions, signaling that there are limits to how much sexism the women can tolerate. Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman", which is heard towards the conclusion, acts as both a statement of self-empowerment and a feminist response to the obstacles she's faced, including casual misogyny. 

The film is also about escape and (frequently interrupted) progress. The characters are heading towards the party that never happens. The foursome are physically and metaphorically leaving South Central, with Lucky literally chasing his music dreams, which he hopes will let him quit his job. In some impressively overwrought mise-en-scene, their van's progress around an intersection is shown from inside the frame of a mostly demolished building as they leave the 'hood. Justice is told "you've got to move on" and to stop mourning, which can be read allegorically according to Chang's history. But gang violence haunts them at every turn, especially when finally reaching their Oakland destination. It turns out the problems of the ghetto are the same everywhere, that a holiday is impossible in 1992 California. Further, race lingers in every frame — even Justice's cat is called "white boy". In every setting  the gas station, the corner store  there are examples of white/black and latino/black tension. Whenever the party's forward movement ceases, scenes like that of a family barbecue they stop in at are thinly veiled social commentary set-pieces, both astoundingly loaded and boring. 

The soundtrack also has a lot of really interesting moments. The movie-within-the-movie that opens the film features the beginnings of a sleazy love scene set to The Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets". As we are zoomed out to reveal the movie we are watching is taking place at a drive-in, a police helicopter passes overhead, reflecting off the screen. The music transitions to a beefed up version of the same instrumental, with Q-Tip rapping over top (the "Bonita Applebaum" Hootie Remix). Q-Tip can still be heard rapping even as his character is introduced, one of several such cases which add to the overall confusion of the film. 

The extratextual connections get even more “6 Degrees...” from here. With Justice riding shotgun, Lucky sings the chorus of Apache's "Gangsta Bitch" ("I wanna gangsta boogie, with my gangsta bitch".) The single was produced by Q-Tip, and Apache also appeared on 2pac's 1993 album. 

In another scene we hear Snoop Doggy Dogg singing "real niggaz don't give a fuck, nigga." Clearly this is Snoop in non-peace mode; the peace/party era Chang describes hasn't fully kicked in yet. 

The score for the film, like that of Boyz N The Hood, was done by Stanley Clarke. It's mostly modern, light jazz and within these compositions a saccharine theme pops up periodically, part of a melody from Jackson's "Again". The first words of her own version begin, after being teased the duration of the movie, while she is still on camera, making it even harder to suspend disbelief through the sentimental final moment between the two leads.

Kendrick Lamar, whether by design or not, appeals to many subsets of rap fandom and the broader pop listenership. His 2011 mixtape Section.80 gained him a bigger fanbase and caught the attention of many critics. In two spoken passages on "Ab-Soul's Outro" he revealed something of a mission statement:

See a lot of y'all don't understand Kendrick Lamar

because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence.

I'm not the next pop star, I'm not the next socially aware rapper

I am a human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation

He then appeared on Drake's monstrously successful Take Care album (and supported Drake on tour.) For many fans and critics, Lamar's first official album actually met the exceedingly high level of expectation. good kid, m.A.A.d. city also featured his idol and mentor Dr. Dre. Lamar has been able to nod back to the heyday of West Coast gangsta rap, while also displaying the technical artistry featured in classic New York street rap. He's been able to maintain links with a hip hop lineage while also seeming like something genuinely new. He is seen as fashion-forward and has also helped bring back the (not-so-high-top) fade hairstyle of the late 80s/early 90s. On Section.80, he rhymed elaborate tales of 80's babies trapped by a slew of inherited and mutated societal challenges. good kid, m.A.A.d. city, on the other hand, predictably leans a little more towards radio-friendly rap.

“Poetic Justice”’s production, by Scoop DeVille, draws you in immediately.  Janet's voice, frozen in time, is intoxicating. It sounds a little like the chipmunk soul that Kanye West and Just Blaze were famous for producing in the early 00’s, except that Jackson's voice is left relatively untouched  that's her natural register. "In the thundering rain, you stare into my eyes…" It recalls the hypnotic effect of Timbaland's birds-and-babies beats that he used on Aaliyah records.

The song is about women, art, and possibly a whole bunch of other things  fully connecting dots is not something Lamar does very often. The sample source is not the song Jackson wrote for the film, but another of her songs from the same year, "Any Time, Any Place". The original is a straightforward sex jam, while Lamar uses it for something more complicated. Lamar had expressed his desire to have Jackson appear in the song's video, but that didn't materialize. As it is, Lamar's tribute/hero-worship extends all the way to lifting the typeface that adorns the janet album.

When the video clip for Lamar's song appeared, its parent album had already been out for some time, and this seemed like the final chapter in the "Poetic Justice" saga. But unbeknownst to me, Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip had already released a mixtape freestyle over Scoop DeVille's beat even before the song became a hit. And it's entirely about Janet Jackson. Busta recounts his crush on Janet during the filming of his video for "What's It Gonna Be?!" in 1999, while Q-Tip gives a very belated behind-the-scenes look at the Poetic Justice set.

While somewhat charming, these odes differ a little from Lamar's appropriations, as Janet is still first and foremost a sex object in Q-Tip and Busta's verses. Busta brags "we rubbed up on each other / But I'm a little jealous, Tip - your tongue went in her mouth in that Poetic Justice movie" before Q-Tip takes over, describing "me and Pac rolling L's in the trailer / both of us steady schemin' how to nail her / first movie bout to come out in the theatre". It seems reality is not so different from the world of the wannabe playas in the film.

Even less official is a fan-made Youtube blend which combines Pac's vocals from "Can U Get Away" (not an irrelevant theme here) with the "Poetic Justice" beat. The raps ride the beat so easily so as to be a bit eerie. But the female vocals of both songs' hooks clash, slightly out of tune with each other, though still in dialogue. "In the thundering rain..." "so much pressure in the air - can you get away?"  "...any time, any place."

A couple of years after starring in Poetic Justice, with West Coast gangsta rap by then firmly established as a lucrative chart formula, 2pac would release one of his most successful singles, with Dr. Dre. "California Love" was a straight up party track, and a smash. It derives it's chorus from an early 80's funk classic, Ronnie Hudson's "West Coast Poplock": "In the city, City of Compton, we keep it rockin'…". The Dre/Pac version strips the old anthem of its foreboding dualism ("So rough, so tough, out here, baby"). Lamar cites the "California Love" video as a formative and lasting influence on his music career. And it now seems Lamar is the one driving the culture, while mining his history for trends and icons to revive. Section.80 contains a song called "ADHD", which refers to the disorder in generational and societal terms.

It's not hard to see Lamar's curatorial choices as an extension of the style-first Tumblr Generation's hyper-consumption, making vague links between cultural fragments. Drake and Lamar both revere Aaliyah, with Drake repeatedly referencing her as a major influence and Kendrick devoting a whole song to her. 2Pac and Aaliyah are obvious heroes because of their early, tragic deaths, as well as their artistic output. 2Pac's first film, Juice, is well-regarded and it's soundtrack is important to hip hop history." So it makes sense that Lamar would reach back to tap "Poetic Justice. With 90's nostalgia still going strong, and revival cycles shrinking, it shouldn't be long before there’s a remake of "California Love" itself, or maybe a Poetic Justice 3D.

Luke Bradley is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He is a writer living in Toronto. He tumbls here and twitters here.

"Poor Man's Poetry" - Naughty by Nature (mp3)

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