The old masters understood the inherent contradictions between artistic compromise and creative integrity. Guru indicted those who “sold their soul to have mass appeal.” EPMD condemned the shamelessness of crossover seekers. But we’re now approaching a second generation raised to believe that greed is good, popularity always directly correlates to skill, and the only reasonable response to late Capitalism is to “get the bag.”
The rebellion against this corporate hegemony has been circulating in some form or another since the late ‘90s underground. But credit the genius of Shirt’s new work with producer Jack Splash, I Turned Myself Into Myself for making this subversion feel entirely fresh. These are nine avant-garde broadsides that bang. Spoken word darts. Someone writing a poem on the sidewalk outside the gallery– maybe more innovative in their approach than the ordained canvasses on the inside. It is the sound of stained glass orthodoxy being shattered by a baseball bat. Think something like the avant-garde minimalism of Ka crossed with the sentences of Nikki Giovanni, but steeped in the subway car rumble through contemporary Queens. This is an album that understands that the devil’s greatest trick is mobilizing our collective fear, to render us catatonic and indifferent to so much possibility around us.
“Marni Invisible Cloak” is double-barreled manifesto. Shirt meditates on the nearly invisible line between genius and insanity. He evokes Walt Whitman’s claim that he (and all worthwhile artists) contain multitudes. You can tell in my voice I might not come to the party: A unique communique from an artist repulsed by the corruption of culture for profit. Over processed guitars and mournful pianos, Shirt recites an elegy for those who refuse critical thought à la Bell Hooks, and those who never reach their full potential because they are perpetually settling for less (while always trying to reap more). Cold facts in searing language. As he says, “I make art from a frozen glimpse/I got the mindset of them boys in Timbs.” It happens in this moment and maybe never again.
Let the codes speak for themselves:
From “Death to Wall Art”:
“When I say “death to wall art” I mean, fuck paint by numbers/That’s a hallmark/Don’t just color out the lines, tear the wall apart. Don’t just show me a corny NFT of the shark/Go swim with sharks.”
From “Dave Chappelle Is Wrong (Beef With God)”:
“I might’ve learned to fight ‘fore I learned to talk/I got a slick mouth, you already know it/I don’t wanna hear your musty Chappelle opinion, I don’t need your review, I read a million/I’d tell that man to his face: You hurt people and put people in danger/Simple as that, the jokes put people in danger.”
From “No Magic No Music”
“I’m just leaning in. You become what you set out to be, but then you become rigid in your ways, can’t see the bend. Watch these fools on Fox News and CNN/Houses and personas like cards be in the wind. Break your own rules but even then don’t be stuck being a rule breaker, you feeding in.”
From “Cancel Culture”:
I’m tired of the bullshit/Every motherfucker nowadays on they pulpit/And they talk cancel culture is the culprit. If it’s really that what was it before?/If you being honest then you already know The way we treat women here for years been atrocious/From how we treat rape to wage gap…I don’t do the unspoken truth, you should know this.”
If you’re familiar with the last decade of underground hip-hop, you probably do know this. Over that span, Shirt has emerged as one of the foremost conceptual artists in hip-hop, an heir to another Queens hero, Rammellzee. He’s made several video works that are closer to documentary sequences – in particular, “Woman is God,” filmed during a revelatory 10-day stretch in Sierra Leone, and “Wolfgang Driving,” swiping footage from Wolfgang Tillmans,as well as presented many live performances, including, “Fine Art Of Rap,” in which he reads an essay of the same name, while playing beats on stage in London’s Royal College of Art.
Inspired in his teens by the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, and later the ideas and performances of David Hammons, Pope L, and Lorraine O’Grady, the high school dropout received his MFA from The School of Art & Design in Basel Switzerland, and completed a fine art residency this summer in an Italian castle. Currently, Shirt is a resident at Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side. Shirt’s visual art practice has earned frequent comparisons to Marcel Duchamp. He was the first rapper signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records. He’s designed conceptual clothing lines, has sold snowballs and phonecalls. In 2018, he held listening sessions for his new album by driving people home from work. His work hangs in museum shows and he guestlectured at the University of Pennsylvania. Shirt even famously designed a fake New York Times website to write a rave of his work – a stunt worthy of the wiliest Dadaist subversion.
In I Turned Myself Into Myself, Shirt has his mind set on rap music as sculpture. Fully committing to weighted production from the Grammy-Award winner, Jack Splash, the pair operate with both meticulous precision and fluid improvisation. Having produced for everyone from Kendrick Lamar to J Cole, Alicia Keys to John Legend, Splash bringshis grimiest palette. Yet there’s a remarkable versatility. The drums on “Dave Chappelle is Wrong” sound built for BedStuy, but they bleed into the celestial harpsichord elegance of “Marni Invisible Cloak.” “I Make Art” creates a downtown funk that you could imagine setting Danceteria aflame. “718 to the World” summons a vintage Low End Theory scenario. Over each suite, Shirt never fails to drop allegorical parables and throat-slitting propositions..
In an era where the consumption ethos threatens to consume us all, Shirt stays true. He repeatedly questions himself and society, evolving, second-guessing, making eversharper his vision. Like all great art, I Turned Myself Into Myself is fearless. It speaks truth to power and refuses to punch down. It is a reminder to relentlessly pursue your desired outcome through the pervasive shadows of avarice and self-doubt. It’s going out of your way to hear the kid better than Mozart.