Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hard Knocks: A Farewell to Charles James II & His Happy Socks

Today the NFL kicks off his season and everyone is excited, as they should be.  Football is back!  My fantasy team looks really good.  So why do I feel so sad inside? Why does it feel like a piece of my soul is missing?  Why, in this high 90 degree weather, does the sun look grey and gloomy?  If you've been watching Hard Knocks on HBO, you know my pain.  It's the same feeling you feel when you lose somebody you love (on a TV show).  

A few years ago I used to watch Boardwalk Empire, another great show on HBO, religiously, first with my mom  and later with my girlfriend.  I loved this show so much.  I even created an entirely new blog just for that before the show ended last year.  (The blog was surprisngly well recieved.)  For those unfamiliar, the show was about the prohibition era, set in Atlantic City.  The main characters were Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, and Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt.  Many people, including myself became increasingly attached to Jimmy.  He was a WWI vet, a stewart to Nucky Thompson, and you could see his internal struggles.  Now, a lot of people died on this show, but when Jimmy went, it felt my a piece of me died as well.  There was a whole in my chest.  I didn't want to sleep that night.  It was the first time a death on TV devestated me.  My mom burst in tears when she saw him die.  She said it was like watching one of her own kids die.  It took a while to recover from that loss.  (For all those crying out "Spoilers!", I'm not apoligizing.  You shouldn't have been sleeping on this show.)

Years later I'm a little more seasoned.  I've seen enough of my favorite TV characters die that I've been hardened.  (I can thank Game of Thrones for that.)  But this season of Hard Knocks: Houston Texans was different.  First of all, Hard Knocks is a great show.  I was borderline addicted to it.  JJ Watt is not a human being.  Watt and Wilfork had the bromance of legends.  Brian Cushing is hilarious.  These are players we fell in love with and had secure spots on the roster.  There were also players who were fighting for their careers.  Obviously I knew coming into Hard Knocks that players were going to get cut and it was going to be sad to watch.  Kind of like seeing a marriage proposal where the girl says no.  Watching Kourtnie Brown and Lynden Trail get cut was like that.  I saw how hard they worked, I saw how they struggled to find their place, I saw them make good pays that gave them life, and I saw them give up plays that basically sealed their doom.  

The cases of "EZ" and Charles James II were unique because I got really attached to them.  "EZ" was great because he was essentially a child in an adults body.  I don't mean that in a negative way.  He just looked at the world with such joy and wonder normally reserved for kids before they are hardened by life's disappointments.  Charles II was my new Jimmy Darmody.  He had this "happy socks" that distinguished him from the rest of the players.  If he ever decided to start his own sock line I'd cop myself a pair.  He, along with "EZ", were by far the most charismatic of the whole bunch.  Unlike "EZ" though, I really though CJ2 was going to make the squad.  CJ2 was an undersized cornerback, and that really worked against him.  But he worked his ass off in practice.  He was tenacious, resiliant, competitive and any positive quality you would want out of an athlete, just not long enough.  He was good though, and he was versatile.  Coach O'Brian even tried him at running back and CJ2 looked like a natural.  Did I mention he had "happy socks"?  "There was no way he could get cut", I told myself after episode 4. 

A few days after that episode news broke that Charles James II had been cut from the Texans.  An overwhelming sadness came over me and I wanted to play sad songs in my car until I cried myself to sleep.  By the next day I had come to terms with the sad reality and I had to mentally prepare myself to watch the final episode.  It was like knowning your boss is going to fire you when you go into his office the next day.  Somehow, knowing made the whole ordeal worse.  When I had time to watch it I made sure to watch it alone.  I needed time to be depressed afterward.  And throughout the episode I saw Charles as he had bad practices and a bad pre-season game against the Cowboys.  I watched him wait in anticipation and anxiety to see if he got cut from the team.  It was hard for me to see him not know his fate when I knew very well what waited at the end of the episode.  But even with knowing how the episode ended, there was a part of me that was foolishly optimistic.  Deep inside of me I was able to convince myself that maybe those reports that Charles were fabricated to throw us off.   I was waiting for Coach O'Brian to call that other cornerback whose name I can't remember to tell him he's been cut.  In the end that other corner was just longer and... that's it.  Once again I was devestated.  It was Jimmy Darmody all over again.  The difference was Jimmy was a character and Charles was a real person.  Charles had dreams.  He had hopes.  He had socks.  All was wrong with the world and I needed a bottle of whisky to make it right again.  

But another difference between Jimmy and Charles arose.  Jimmy died in the show and never came back.  Charles James II got signed with the Baltimore Ravens and still has a future in the NFL.  I would be lying if I said I didn't wish he signed with the Raiders.  Usually when I root for a non-Raider it's because the player is originally from Oakland.  Or his name is Richard Sherman.  But CJ2 was an exception.  I'm happy for the guy.  And his socks.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Straight Outta Locash...

... crazy mothafucka named Gusto".  And so begins the hit single by CB4, a gangsta rap group featuring MC Gusto, Dead Mike and Stab Master Arson.  Way back when, around a time my father was not considered old, CB4 tore up the charts with monster hits like "Straight Outta Locash" and "Sweat From My Balls", a song so versatile you can play it anywhere, from the club to your nephew's baptism.  CB4 rose to prominence in the rap game, gaining popularity in major part because of their explicit lyrics and gangsta attitude.  Their popularity, however, didn't come without some opposition.  Many people were deterred by the strong, suggestive lyrics and put off by the influence these trio from Locash had on the youth.  Parents threw out CD's found in their kids' bedrooms, ministers cursed the rap group into damnation, and politicians sought to flat-out ban CB4.  There's no denying their lasting impact.  Even today, in 2015, when my dad is so far removed from relevance he probably thinks the George Lopez show is still on air, we can sit back and play some classic CB4.

CB4 is not a real rap group.  CB4, rather, is the subject, and title, of the 1993 mock rap biopic by Chris Rock.  In this film, three losers from Locash, played by a young Chris Rock, Allen Payne, and Deezer D, take up false personas as thuggish, gangsta rappers in their rise to fame.  As MC Gusto's (Rock) popularity increases, he and the rest of the group become increasingly attached to this facade.  Meanwhile the real Gusto, played by Charlie Murphy, seeks to track the boys down, believing that it them that landed him in jail.  The rap group CB4 is most notably a parody of N.W.A, with the song "Straight Outta Locash" obviously mirroring "Straight Outta Compton".  But you could argue there was a table spoon of 2 Live Crew, and, in retrospect, some Rick Ross (the rapper, not Freeway).  I first saw this comedy with my dad, years after its release date.  I still find it funny after a 4th time watching.  I could make the case that it's one of Chris Rock's best movies.  It came out during Chris Rock's hot period in the early 90's while he was still a cast member on SNL.  Definitely in the top three, and I think you might agree with my argument.  But what if I told you it is the best rap movie ever made.  (I'm gonna wait for you to stop choking on your water...  Let it all out...  I know, it went down the wrong pipe.)  Yes, I'm being serious.  I'm gonna make this case.  This isn't a joke.  In film history, there has never been a better movie made about rappers, real or fictitious.

Now I'm not talking about movies staring rappers; that would be a whole other topic.  (Though CB4 does have plenty of cameos from prominent MC's.)  The movies I'm talking about are films where the subject is the life, or events, of a hip-hop artist or group.  CB4 is a great movie about a hip-hop group.  The group is fake but the movie isn't.  We'll slide the film to the top of the list.  Who's contending?  Well, there's Notorious, the biopic about Biggie Smalls.  I wouldn't crown Notorious, though.  The truth is that it wasn't that great of a movie.  A lot of it had to do with the performances, which were average at best.  The only performance I would call stellar comes from Angela Bassett, who plays Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mom.  Notorious wasn't a bad movie, but it felt more like a missed opportunity than anything, and in the end was rather forgettable.  Who's next?  8 Mile?  It was okay.  When you think about it the best part about the movie was the soundtrack, more specifically the song "Lose Yourself" by Eminem.  And even then "Lose Yourself" is either slightly overrated or very overrated in Marshall's catalog, depending on who you are talking to.  Hustle & Flow would be a better argument.  Terrence Howard's performance earned him an Oscar nomination.  However, I think this is another case of the soundtrack being more memorable than the film itself.  I still have CB4 reigning supreme though.  There haven't been a lot of contenders.  The problem isn't that hip-hop movies aren't being made right, so much as the problem being they aren't really being made at all.  To be frank, "hip-hop movies" isn't actually a genre.  If Blockbuster Home Video was still around less than half a shelf would be reserved for those types of movies.  So for years CB4 has been sitting pretty at the top just waiting for someone to knock it down, or at the very least just join the party.

Well we finally have a new member in this small club with the release of Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and directed by F. Gary Gray.  Since rumors of an N.W.A movie circulated I had been anticipating it's release.  The only other summer movie I had been more anxious and excited about was Jurassic World.  I saw it in theaters the Monday after its weekend release.  I had heard nothing but great reviews from my friends and the critics wrote favorable pieces as well.  I went into that dark theater with my friends, excited, anxious, and even nervous, and when I left the theater I had one thought on my mind... I loved it!  "Finally!" I thought.  "A rap movie done right."  Straight Outta Compton wasn't just a great rap movie, or a great music biopic.  It was actually a great fucking movie.  Who knows?  It might win some awards.  The movie was very long, but I never really cared what time it was because I was enthralled.  The subject matter was relevant, even when the subject matter is a rap group from the late 80's.  You didn't even need to be a N.W.A fan, or even a rap fan, to appreciate the film.  I knew who N.W.A was, but even if I didn't the screenplay was good enough to get an unfamiliar viewer invested in the live's of these characters.  The performances were superb across the board and we weren't subjected to weak, shitty dialogue.  In particular, the performance of O'Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father, Ice Cube, stood out.  Sure he looks like his dad, but he can really act as well.  This was his first acting job and I gotta say, I see a lot more jobs coming his way if he plays his cards right.  Unlike his father, O'Shea Jr. has a lot more tricks in his repertoire and compared to the rest of the actors in the film, not including Paul Giamatti, playing Jerry Heller, O'Shea has the most range and most potential.  Speaking of Paul, glad to see him again.  Even if the movies he's chosen to do haven't always been successes, Paul is a great fucking actor and embraces his roles.  More of the same in Straight Outta Compton.  And if that wasn't enough, F. Gary Gray does an exceptional job shooting this film.  The visuals, the creative choices and the pace of the film all blend well with the great performances and worthy story to make a great movie, and, if you care about this kind of stuff, a box office success.

All this is good, so why not just call it a day and and say Compton is the best rap movie of all time?  The more I thought about how this movie, the more certain things started to bother me.  Most of these things you've probably already read about.  The movie glossed over the groups history with domestic violence and violence towards women, especially Dr. Dre's history.  The movie mainly focused on the rap group's stance against police brutality and censorship.  These are things that N.W.A. rapped and talked about, but the movie made the group out to be saints for Christ's sake.  Dr. Dre was a do-no-wrong guy with nothing with a dream in the movie, and as much as I love Dre and acknowledge his impact on hip-hop, I can't just pretend he never hit Dee Barnes.  Look, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube produced this movie about themselves, so I shouldn't be surprised when they tell their story the way they want to tell it.  I do the same when I tell the world my adventures.  I always tell the story in a way that makes me come out in a good light.  So this means I might omit some bad things and really highlight some positives.  It's the nature of storytelling that makes it so unreliable.  Everybody does this except Young Jeezy who "never exaggerated one line, one dime/ never lied to the people, not one time".  So I'm not shocked that if Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are going to tell their stories, they are going to make themselves look as good as possible.  But that doesn't mean I can't call them out them for it.  Compton lacked what most biopics tend to lack: honesty.  Most biopics tend to portray their subject as the perfect human when what we really want is to go more in depth and learn about this ordinary human being who did these extraordinary things.  I didn't learn anything about N.W.A. I didn't know about before, nor gained a new perspective on the matter.

But let's get one thing clear: I'm not trying to vilify N.W.A. and I'm not trying to disregard their importance in rap culture and L.A. culture.  Eazy-E, Cube and Dre (along with MC Ren & DJ Yella) didn't just make an impact on hip-hop, they left a crater.  And this movie did a perfect job making that known.  I also don't believe anybody in this movie is a bad guy.  They were kids who made bad decisions, but not bad people.  (Except for Suge.  That motherfucker is a bad guy.  And scary also.  Jerry Keller might be bad too.)  This movie's take on the rap group was undoubtedly a good one and I don't disagree with that.  I just wished that weren't spoon fed our take on the group.  Honesty would have taken Compton a long way.  Even the aforementioned Notorious did a solid job of not over-glorifying Biggie.  Obviously the movie was very pro-Big (and anti-Pac) but we were given a glimpse into both the pretty sides of Big's life and they incredibly ugly sides.  Just too bad it wasn't a very good movie.  Compton is the inverse.  This brings us back to CB4 which was a good comedy movie while also being an honest movie.  (But CB4 isn't a real rap group.)  Too true, but it might as well have been since you could buy the soundtrack.  But even with CB4 not being about a real rap group, the candidness about the movie is still refreshing.  It's a spoof about music biopics, except the joke is that it's the most honest one ever created.  (CB4 could have been released this year and it would have served as the perfect response to Straight Outta Compton.)  The fake characters in CB4 can feel more authentic than the ones portrayed in Straight Outta Compton.  Look, Straight Outta Compton is a great movie that I would recommend to anyone.  And if it wasn't a biopic and I wasn't forced to think about all the things left out, I might have called it the best rap movie ever made.  But it is a biopic, I have to consider those things and CB4 is still the GOAT (for now).

Straight Outta Compton received a Guapo certification.

El Guapo is a talented blogger on the rise, regarded by many as a cross between Bill Simmons and Socrates.  Through real life experience and expertise in many facets of life, the Guaps aims to provide readers with unique takes that will enhance the way they think and live.  Keep up with his main blog Infinite Wisdom From El Guapo’s Brain.  NBA fans have to place to go with his basketball blog, Infinite Wisdomon the NBA.  Like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.  Leave comments in the section below.  Stay Guapo out there!