Author: Stephen Albertini

My Grandfather’s Flannels

I’ve always modeled my own personal style on the dichotomy between the two most influential men in my life, my father and grandfather. While my father has always been a spread collar, Windsor knot wearing man, my grandfather’s style is the antithesis of that look. He was an outdoorsy, handy, renaissance man who only wore a suit when needed. I’ve grown to be just as comfortable wearing a 3-piece to a wedding as I am wearing jeans, boots and a hoody to the corner bar. If my father was the inspiration for my dressed up look, my grandfather was certainly the inspiration for my casual style, particularly casual button-down shirts.

Where my father introduced me to tailored suits and pocket squares, my grandfather showed me flannel work shirts, buffalo check and brushed plaid patterns, and denim jackets. He made the everyman look cool for me, usually because he was always constructing something with his bare hands or reading a book outside–he was a voracious reader–with a cigar in his mouth. Maybe I didn’t inherit his handyman skills, but I like to think I got some of his intellectual curiosity.

My grandfather would wear flannel shirts while working in his garage or while helping my mother tear wallpaper off the walls in her new house or while putting together toys for me on Christmas morning when I was a kid. He would unwind and sit on the bench outside of his Philadelphia rowhome with a cigar and a glass of vodka while wearing a flannel in the fall months.

He never particularly cared about fashion, nor spent a second putting together an actual outfit, and he didn’t have to. His style was rooted in authenticity, just as it was authentic for my dad to wear suits and coats and loafers. My grandfather wore work shirts and boots and actually worked in them. Instead of a peacoat in the fall, he wore a vintage satin Flyers jacket from the 70s with his name embroidered on the chest–the only heirloom of his I insisted on having when he passed. On Christmas and Easter when the family tended to dress up a bit, he wore the same check-patterned flannels. Then while everyone else was extending dinner with small talk, he would exit to the backyard or front porch, where he would hold court over a drink and a smoke.

I’ve incorporated flannels with plaid and check patterns into my button-down shirt wardrobe in recent years, partially as tribute to him and partially because I’ve just grown to enjoy the versatility. I like that I can wear them on a brisk fall walk to get coffee with my fiancé or for a night at a dive bar with friends. I enjoy the wild color schemes and bold patterns. I appreciate that it’s a common style bond between us.

On the day my grandfather passed away, I wore my red and black flannel and went to my mother’s house with the rest of my family. I sat in his favorite spot by the fire pit in the backyard and drank wine and recalled old stories, trying to carry on if just a shred of his legend. The last picture I have with him where he’s able to stand, we’re in that same yard, both wearing red flannels—our favorite color.

It made sense that he wouldn’t wear a shirt and tie in his casket. He wore his blue blazer, which my grandmother loves and he always wore at dressier events, and a turtleneck. The shirt and tie just wasn’t authentic.

As the season changes over and the chill finally starts to creep in, I’ll undoubtedly break out more and more flannels. I’ll take walks for coffee and go out with friends, the holidays will come and go, but every time I throw on a flannel or a brushed plaid button down shirt, I’ll think of my grandfather, who unbeknownst to him, was always one of my fashion inspirations.

4:44 Review

Jay-Z has been at the forefront of rap and pop culture for the better part of three decades now. Twelve number one albums, one high-profile marriage with Beyonce — one of the few artists who’s more popular and beloved than he is, an endless string of successful investments and finesses that famously elevated the businessman Jay into the fully-formed unstoppable business, man. All these years later and he’s still at the forefront of the culture.

It’s been so long, in fact, for the calculating Jiggaman who is seemingly always one step ahead of the game and his peers, that we nearly forgot all the times he sidestepped multiple landmines where all of this could have slipped through his fingertips.

These missteps and past transgressions form the blueprint for 4:44, his 13th studio album. They range from his legal issues (his admitted stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999) to modern-day tabloid fodder (his infidelity, namely). The latter serves as the “crux” of the album, as Jay puts it, and seemingly serves as the inspiration for a project that is his strongest in years, and most personal, perhaps ever.

The album is hardly a direct response to Beyonce’s “Lemonade”, a 2016 visual stunner of an album that outlined the perceived infidelity of her famous husband, no matter how badly some want it to be. The famously quiet couple’s rocky private moments were put on display for the first time in their decade-plus romance and Jay’s perfectly cropped public persona showed chinks in the armor. Big Homie needed to grow up, according to his wife, and at least some of that showed in 4:44’s construction and delivery, inspiring some of his most personal bars in recent memory, none of which shine brighter than when he addresses his marital shortcomings on the album’s title track.

In “Smile” he brings up his mother, Gloria Carter, and informs his fans that she is a lesbian, and he openly wept when she found true love. She nearly steals the show at the end of the track when she speaks on the importance of being true to yourself, no matter what people think they already know about you or what your facade may portray. It’s hard to imagine that strength didn’t inspire Jay to do some soul-searching of his own.

“My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes” he says to his daughter at the end of the album’s title track. The a-ha moment that one day he’s going to have to explain to his daughter all of his transgressions, and the admittance that–even worse–she’ll read about it all online on her own, is searing. Keeping that superhero facade for his daughter is all he wants, and he realizes one day that might not be the case.

For the first time in seemingly forever, Jay places emphasis on atonement over his typical self-mythologizing storytelling. Not that it doesn’t have a place here–it’s a focal point of his entire discography–but it always has been served up as a cautionary tale to his contemporaries and those coming after him: Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.

Credit to No I.D., the MC whisperer/producer who helps bring out this side of Jay with his beautiful sample selection and guttural drums throughout the album. Credit to Jay for stripping himself of current trends for a more cohesive feel—a torn-down Blueprint-era exoskeleton.

I like the Blueprint comparison. In many ways it could be its spiritual successor, even though in reality we’ve had two more “Blueprints” over the years. They lacked the original’s cohesion and soul. The Just Blaze/Kanye duo gave the album a sonic blueprint to go off of, and even though there was production from others, their sounds still fit in with the album’s mission. No wonder why Jay was able to finish it so quickly once he started. While it’s certainly unclear at best to see how 4:44 stacks up against the Blueprint historically (Blueprint is easily one of the best rap albums of the past 20 years), the move to hand the reins completely to No I.D.’s vision made for a solid album, one built around a central sonic vision and not chasing hits.

Jay is acutely aware of music history, and he knows that rappers are in somewhat uncharted territory. Has there ever been a rapper approaching 50 years old who managed to stay relevant and make quality music? He knows that chasing trends isn’t the answer. No one wants to hear Jay rap like Drake, and definitely not rap like Migos, 21 or any of the other young up-and-comers out right now. Fans want to see an evolution, and it sounds like Jay understands that. None of the greats before him were able to transcend into elder, relevant rappers. LL and Cube went the Hollywood route. Rakim faded away. Biggie and Tupac never had a chance. Jay managed to crank out a solid rap album at 47 by opening up about his family and his failings. For a man who’s family is worth a billion, it’s one of the few ways he can still connect.

Back in 2003, Jay emphatically rapped that no other rapper was “this good for this long” on the opening bars of “What More Can I Say.” Fourteen years later, with another number one album in tow, that line still holds up.

Streaming

For a while, I swore by a daily stream of consciousness writing exercise. Every day, for sometimes 500, maybe even 1,000 words, I would just carve out some time to crush the keyboard and knock out SOMETHING. The goal was two-fold; I would create a routine that forced me to write every day and hopefully, somewhere in that sea of mostly word vomit, I would find a nugget that could be the beginning of something. A new pitch for an online article, maybe even an idea for a novel, could be birthed from this simple writing exercise, I thought.

Then the months past and the exercise turned more into a therapeutic diary session than any meaningful writing exercise. I spent most of the time talking about all the things I wanted to write about, without actually writing them, because I was so busy knocking out this exercise every night. Each post was more ambitious than the next. This week I would start my novel. The next week I would knock out a book of poems. Success would just flow so naturally now that I was dedicating time every single day to writing. That was, after all, what all my teachers told me in grad school. If you want to be a writer…then write!

But success never came and my frustration mounted. I was finally doing what I had neglected doing for years (writing every single day) and I found myself publishing less and writing absolutely nothing of value for months. So I decided to take a step back and write less. I would read more, and read more carefully. I would focus on pieces that I wanted to write, in publications I wanted to be published in. I would carefully craft pitches and ideas with precision, instead of hoping that through a series of rushed writing exercises a fantastic idea would just find itself hiding in one of my rambling sentences.

It’s a delicate balance, especially when you aren’t a full-time writer. You work all day, come home and then the work really begins. You need to unplug from your day job and focus on doing whatever it takes to get your writing where it needs to be. It’s a daunting task, one I’ve neglected for quite some time. But this approach, when done thoroughly and consistently, seems to be working for me.

I compare my old daily writing exercises to streaming songs on Spotify. There are millions and millions of songs on these streaming services right at your fingertips. It’s beyond overwhelming. I find myself switching songs before they’re even halfway over because I’m so ready to jump to another song I haven’t heard in a while. There are songs I’ve long since forgotten, songs I haven’t had access to since my mom through out a bunch of my old CDs years ago, or old classics that bring me back to the old days when my friends and I were coming up. But jumping from song to song doesn’t help retain any of the words. It doesn’t establish any connection. I’d rather sit with an entire album, front to back and learn all of its nuances. Truly great albums, ones that are personal classics to me that have withstood the test of time, are ones I can play front to back any day.

I’m trying to adopt that classic album approach with my writing. Less streaming, more crafting. Less skipping, more focus. Less clutter, more clarity.

Searching for Inspiration

What’s a writer who never writes?

That’s the questions I’ve been asking myself repeatedly over the past few months while I’ve been searching for any inspiration whatsoever to write.

The answer, of course, is…well…not a writer.

I’ve been seeking out the advice of published writers from different aspects of the written world–journalists, communications professionals, authors–and when I ask them for advice, they all tell me the same things I heard on my first day as an English grad school student. If you want to be a writer, you only have to do two things to improve as a writer: read and write.

For about a two year stretch, I published multiple pieces per week on various web outlets. Some of those pieces received thousands of page views, some hundreds, some next to nothing. But the sensation of seeing my name on the author line, or being able to tweet out a link to something I WROTE to people was a high I never really experienced before. It was tangible. Over the past year I’ve worked hard on a few pieces that still haven’t seen the light of day. And even though I know how hard I’ve worked on them and how good they could potentially be, they aren’t tangible. The world can’t see them. And that’s where the doubt begins to set in.

People write for a lot of different reasons.

One of the most popular reasons is catharsis. Writers internalize a lot of emotions and for some, writing is a way to purge themselves of negative emotions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but many times a writer tries to write about something personal in the hopes that it could have a positive effect on a reader maybe going through the same emotions. I’m guilty of this sometimes. Sometimes getting the thoughts and feelings out on paper helps, even if no one ever sees it. You’ve purged yourself of that feeling or that event and it’s gone.

Another reason is because you genuinely have something to say. I read tremendous music and art critics who legitimately help me view that specific piece of art and the culture at large in another light. They have productive ways of breaking down what we take in every single day and they’re doing their best to help the rest of us digest it. I wrote a lot of sports articles over the past few years where I also felt that way, like I had an opinion that could slice through a lot of the noise that permeated the sports media, the bland, ridiculous takes that lack any semblance of nuance and analysis that I didn’t value whatsoever. So I wrote and wrote and published until I felt like I ran out of things to say.

That’s kind of where I’ve been the past year or so. Searching for the right topic to pitch, finishing a creative project I abandoned, hopelessly looking for something to say, something that will not only make sense, but maybe it will have a positive effect on someone. Maybe it will provide inspiration to someone else. Maybe it will just help me get the ball rolling.

They told me I needed to read and write if I wanted to be a writer. I do plenty of reading. Let’s get writing.

The Long Overdue Inclusion of Sports Entertainment at the ESPYs

The union of World Wrestling Entertainment and the sports world at large is long overdue. Thanks in large part to ESPN’s partnership with the WWE in the past year, casual sports fans get to see WWE Superstars on SportsCenter each week, becoming exposed to characters they wouldn’t normally see on their weekly channel surfing.

One of those Superstars, John Cena, the 15-time WWE World Champion and burgeoning actor, became just the third athlete in the history of ESPN’s ESPY Awards to host the show, along with LeBron James and Lance Armstrong.

If you’re going to bypass the comedian/actor/multi-dimensional musician route for an awards show host, going with a WWE Superstar is not a bad way to go. For one, WWE Superstars are inherently charismatic. One needs to be when speaking to 15,000-plus fans on a weekly basis in packed arenas around the world. Good sports entertainment doesn’t exist without good storytelling. If you can’t cut a good promo and get people invested in your upcoming match and your character, then your ability in the ring is instantly overshadowed. Just ask former champion Roman Reigns.

The great ones have a way of connecting with the audience. We live in a world where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. His movies gross billions of dollars all around the world. Twenty years ago, long before he transitioned full time to Hollywood and became a megastar, he was cutting his teeth in the WWE as Rocky Maivia, third-generation wrestler and future heir to the throne. Then came the eyebrow and the catchphrases, and the rest, well, is history.

Cena himself has appeared alongside both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in “Trainwreck” and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in “Sisters,” both with surprisingly hilarious results. He’s easily the most visible face among active WWE Superstars around the world, and if we’re going to have a night that honors the best in sports at an awards show in Los Angeles, why not pick someone who represents the best of both worlds, sports and entertainment?


The world of sports has always kept the WWE at bay. Despite its enormous popularity and high-flying athletes, WWE has never really had a seat at the big boy table in the sports world, and Chairman Vince McMahon has probably wanted it that way.

McMahon and his “superstars” have openly embraced the entertainment portion of their “sports entertainment” moniker. We get it, it’s scripted. Cena admitted what we all have already known for decades in his opening monologue. “Monday Night Raw,” its flagship show, is the longest-running episodic show in television history. “Raw” is essentially an athletic soap opera.

But it certainly isn’t “fake” and anyone that screams wrestling is fake from a mountain top with a megaphone is missing the point. This isn’t the 1980’s where a remark like that to a wrestler might get you a beer bottle cracked over your skull. It wasn’t fake when Cena himself was out for months rehabbing a shoulder injury, or when former champion Seth Rollins had reconstructive knee surgery last winter. Injuries arise just as much inside the ring as they do on the court, out on the field or in the octagon. There is no offseason and the travel schedule makes NBA players who rest at the end of back-to-backs hide in fear.

The two worlds have always been linked in one way or another. Muhammad Ali made an appearance at Wrestlemania I in Madison Square Garden, helping propel the event to the record-breaking spectacle it is today. NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor HEADLINED Wrestlemania XI. Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone and dozens of others have made appearances over the years.

Nowadays you can’t go far online without seeing the latest big hit spliced together with some Jim Ross (Bah gawd!) audio clips from an old WWE brawl. We couldn’t wait to see video clips of LeBron James, and more recently Kevin Durant, with their heads photoshopped on the bodies of the nWo and The Shield, during their respective “heel turns” in free agency.

The two worlds are inextricably linked by athletics and entertainment value, of course, but even more so because of the stories that they each tell. It’s about time these athletes, ones that have had such a unique influence on sports and pop culture, had a presence at sports’ version of the Academy Awards.


The ESPYs, more so than any other award show, honor athletes and inspirational men and women outside the world of sports on the merits of their courage, passion and civic duty. For years, the WWE has been at the forefront of many charitable causes.

Cena himself holds the record for most wishes granted at the Make-a-Wish foundation. The company has also partnered with the Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen, the Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as The V Foundation, to donate millions of dollars to these respective causes over the years and drum up support at their live events and in television spots. Not to mention the tremendous support they provide our military through special live events, overseas trips and charitable donations.

Most importantly though, the ESPYs honors the narratives that have taken the sports world by storm during the past year. The ESPYs give out an award for “Best Moment”, which rightfully went to the Cleveland Cavaliers for winning the NBA Championship this past season.

The city of Cleveland’s championship drought, the town’s prodigal son makes good on his promise, backs against the wall against the team who just had the best regular season of all time? Vince McMahon could not have written a better script himself.

On LeBron James and “Grit”

In Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit,” she examines achievement through the lens of grit and talent and compares which of these tools is most necessary to achieving a high level of success in a variety of fields. Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, provides examples from disciplines ranging from West Point to the Olympics to the board room, that grit, the power of passion and perseverance, is more integral to success than natural-born, innate “talent.”

While the book is highly informative and a great read, her theory is nothing new. She cites Nietzsche, the famous philosopher who once opined, “with everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.” Malcolm Gladwell has written books on the need to practice your craft for 10,000 hours before becoming elite. How many little leaguers have heard the phrase “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard?”

As we know from watching sports all year round, talent and grit are attached at the hip. In the book, she relays an anecdote about Olympian Mark Spitz. One day, a decade after Spitz cleaned up at the 1972 (check) Olympics, he races members of the current U.S. Swim team. They marvel at his speed, his fluidity. “He looks like a fish,” one of them says. The young swimmers awe at him as if he swam directly from Poseidon’s throne in the ocean, ignoring the fact that Spitz was really just like them: a man who spent hours, days and years honing his craft in the pool. 

Everyone at the highest level of his or her sport is talented, that’s why they’re there. The special ones, the ones whose commercials get replayed ad infinitum and get bronze statues erected in their honor, are able to achieve a proper cross-section of talent and grit. Whether it be Michael Jordan’s maniacal competitiveness or Peyton Manning’s diligent preparation, the special ones become special because their grit matches their talent, and most times, exceeds it. 

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To truly appreciate LeBron hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, you have to be cognizant of his career trajectory–the long, laborious journey from gifted prodigy to now, battle-tested champion. 

From the time LeBron James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, no athlete has been under more scrutiny at every turn. No athlete has been both adored and reviled with equal fervor. And that’s probably because no one has been deemed so “talented” at such a young age, so preordained for greatness.

Some things cannot be taught or improved upon. James is blessed with an Adonis physique, ideal height for his skill set and tremendous foot speed. He can jump out of the gym. No player in the world can make the combination of game-altering plays — the chase-down block, intercepting a close-range chest pass, thunderous dunks — he makes on an almost routine basis. Because of this, we had to endure the same old criticisms when he fell short of a championship, “he’s so talented, he’s supposed to do that”; “he’s bigger and stronger than everyone else,” or my personal favorite, “why can’t he do that every night?” And when he did eventually break through, the criticisms were equally lame. “It’s about time,” or “he should have so many more rings.” 

After Sunday’s completion of the Cavaliers’ history-making 3-1 comeback victory in the NBA Finals, a series that saw LeBron average 35/8/13, while leading all players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, the King has exorcised whatever demons remained. His prophecy has been fulfilled, his dream realized. 
In the years since he left Cleveland in 2010, he put in his 10,000 hours learning not how to be a better basketball player, but learning how to win. He was already the best player in the world by all accounts. He carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once during his first stint with the team, leading a ragtag group to an eventual sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. He was on the precipice. No one is saying that LeBron couldn’t have won a title in Cleveland before his departure — some think he should have in the subsequent years and he was certainly capable — but after traversing through different obstacles over the past few years, you can see how better equipped he was for the mission the second time around. 
LeBron and the Cavaliers needed the last five tumultuous years to happen, both from a team-building standpoint and for LeBron personally. Thanks to LeBron’s initial departure, the bottom-dwelling Cavs were rewarded with three lottery picks in four years. The first one was Kyrie Irving, a dynamic player who has become the Robin to James’ Batman and the man who knocked down what would be the series-winning three right in the eye of the two-time MVP. The last one was Andrew Wiggins, who ended up being the centerpiece in a trade that would net the Cavaliers Kevin Love shortly after James’ return. While Love has been sporadic, and has sometimes drawn the ire of James and fans alike, he played exceptional when it counted most, in Game 7, hauling down 14 rebounds and forcing Steph Curry into a bad shot in the game’s waning moments. Those years of terrible basketball in Cleveland were necessary to build a winner. If the Cavs were middle of the road during those years, they probably wouldn’t have had the assets to lure James back in the first place. 

LeBron needed to go to Miami. He needed to become vilified for the first time in his career. He needed to learn how to build a winning organization under Pat Riley, to team with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and see what sacrifices were necessary for winning, to learn how to be a better leader. In addition, he’s become an obsessive student of the game. LeBron is famous for having a nearly photographic memory of past game sequences. He’s a historian, able to rattle off names of role players from championship teams past. He implores teammates to work out with him in the offseason and push themselves to another level physically the same way he always has. His dedication, his preparation, his “grit” as Dr. Duckworth puts it, has finally exceeded his talent. 

Most importantly, he needed to lose in 2011 to Dallas and again in 2014 to San Antonio. He needed to lose his two most talented teammates last year in the playoffs and despite his Herculean efforts, he needed to lose last year’s Finals. He needed to be down 3-1, staring down a deficit no team has ever recovered from, against the team with the best record in NBA history on their court. He needed to do the impossible. 

His teammates commented this past week that LeBron was supremely calm in the final days of the Finals despite the enormous task in front of him. The odds, the stakes, none of it mattered. He prepared himself for years specifically for that moment.
He needed to do all those things to make history, to cement a legend, and to rid the city of Cleveland from a 52-year championship drought. And he did just that. 

 

How To Conquer Comic Con

 

On June 2nd, the Philadelphia Convention Center will welcome Wizard World Comic Con, the four-day spectacular featuring some of your favorite movie stars, comic book artists, and thousands of eager fans dressed in costume as their favorite Marvel superhero or Game of Thrones character. Check out all the info here for tickets and scheduling if you haven’t already.

If you’ve never been to a Comic Con before, they can be overwhelming. There are dozens of vendors lined up from end to end, peddling their exclusive comics, one-of-a-kind artwork and Avengers t-shirts. While the Philadelphia Comic Con experience may not yet be up to the obscene levels of San Diego or New York, it’s still packed with excitement and energy, and tons of things to spend your hard earned money on, whether you’re a die-hard fan of superheroes, fantasy shows, WWE superstars or Japanese anime. This year, Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and old favorites like Michael J. Fox (Back To The Future) are just a few of the big stars expected to be in attendance.

If you’re like me, and don’t want to drop June’s car payment to take a picture with Chris Evans—or even some of the lesser, cheaper celebs in attendance—fret not. There are still thousands of items you can take home with you from the show’s collection of vendors. I’m a comic book guy myself—primarily old X-Men and assorted Marvel titles—and I enjoy going from vendor to vendor haggling about prices and flipping through bins in search of a hidden gem.

Last weekend, I took a stroll through Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Con, an awesome little precursor to the madness that will ensue at Wizard World in the coming weeks. I compiled a list of things to keep in mind if it’s your first Comic Con experience and how to get the most of your dealings with the various vendors, but most importantly, how to make the most of all the great items up for grabs.

Buy Your Tickets In Advance

It may seem like a simple tenet for pretty much any function, but it’s especially true here. While you’ll still have to check in and get a wristband, it’s a much more seamless process. You can save yourself $5-$10 by purchasing your tickets in advance, and the line to buy tickets on site is generally long. Five dollars might not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps, as you’ll soon see. If you’re planning on doing autograph and meet-and-greet sessions with stars, you must buy the tickets in advance to secure your place in line. If you’re going on Thursday, check a secondary site for a deal that could save you almost 50% off the asking price, like this one from LivingSocial.

Bring Cash

I understand that most people my age really hate carrying cash with them. If you or your company doesn’t allow us to swipe our debit cards then we really have no use for you. But I implore you, men and women of all ages, bring some cash with you to Comic Con. From a practical standpoint, most vendors only accept cash for purchases. There should be an ATM close by, but save time and aggravation by making a withdrawal in advance. Secondly, and most importantly, paying in cash allows for you to negotiate better with vendors. Always tell them that you’re paying in cash and I guarantee it will save you a few dollars, as long as you…

ASK FOR A DEAL 

Whenever you’re asking for something you want, always remember the worst thing someone can say is “No.” No one is going to kick you out of Comic Con for trying to finagle a deal, but please approach this delicate situation with caution. Don’t press a vendor who is disinterested. If he or she has put thorough time into the pricing of his or her products and stands by them, then you have to respect that, but it never hurts to ask. Here are two examples from last week’s Boardwalk Con of simple negotiating tactics that are guaranteed to save you a few bucks.

At one table, I spotted a comic I coveted, Limited Series Wolverine #1. I was with two friends who were buying some assorted $5 and $10 comics from the different bins on the table. I combined all of our purchases and simply said, “If we buy all these (handing him a stack of about 6 comics, Wolverine being the most expensive) and pay cash, can you do anything for us on the price?” He could have simply said, “No, those prices are firm, sorry.” Instead, knowing that we were good customers who were making a sizable purchase, he properly read the situation and took $10 off the total. It might not seem like a lot, but that money can go towards parking, or in my friends’ case, they basically got a comic or two for free, all because we asked.

On our way out, I spotted another comic I had eyed up earlier, Secret Wars #8 (first appearance of Spider-Man’s black suit). This copy was already cheaper than any other stand had it listed, and we were on our way out the door, so took a shot and said, “Is this the best price if I pay cash?” The vendor looked a bit ticked, probably because he was busy and he already had a competitive price on the sticker. But instead of saying no and potentially losing the sale, he knocked five dollars off the price. Within seconds, I paid cash and was on my way with another great deal in tow. Vendors want to move the product, so if you finesse the situation correctly, they won’t lose a sale over a few dollars.

Take a Lap

First and foremost, Comic Con is an awesome time. You get to hang out with fun people who share your common interests, meet new (and often masked) faces, and you can buy so many cool items. It’s a fun day, but it can also be a sensory overload with all of the merchandise for sale, not to mention all the cosplay. When you walk in, take a lap and soak it all up, especially if it’s your first time. Enjoy your time there from the moment you walk through those doors and see the first person dressed as Jon Snow or Captain America.

By taking a lap, you also get to take mental notes of all the items up for sale. Locate a few items you like and compare prices with some of the other vendors before you even think about taking out your wallet. When dealing with comic books especially, there can be a tremendous price disparity among vendors, all things—like quality of the comic itself—being equal. The Wolverine #1 I purchased for $40 in Atlantic City was for sale at another vendor down the aisle for $100, in the exact same condition. I experienced similar issues with Secret Wars #8, which ranged anywhere from $45 (what I paid) to $85. Amazing Spider-Man #300 (First full appearance of Venom) was at most stands for $200+, while one stand had it in good condition for $120. Uncanny X-Men #266 (First appearance of Gambit) was at one stand for $120 and another for $60, both in similarly great condition. Don’t be the person that overpays because they were impatient.

Soak it all in, enjoy your Comic Con experience, and by all means ask a vendor if that price is the best they can do.

On Coloring Book, Ascension and Artistic Freedom

In the opening lines of “Angels,” one of the many standouts from Chance the Rapper’s third solo mixtape, Coloring Book, he playfully boasts, “I got my whole city doing front flips.” If social media buzz and iTunes album charts are indicators of anything, it’s that the excitement surrounding Chance and his latest project extends far beyond his hometown of Chicago’s city limits, and that opening line might just be the understatement of the year.

Chance is a bit of an enigma, at least in terms of the traditional sense of the music industry establishment. If you’re unfamiliar with him, or if you hadn’t heard of him until his star-turning verse on Kanye West’s “Ultra Light Beam” earlier this year, well, shame on you and welcome to the bandwagon.

Chance doesn’t “sell” any of his music, at least in the traditional sense. His complete albums are not available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, with the exception of Coloring Book and 2015’s Surf, a project done in conjunction with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (a group of creatives in which he is a member), which was available for free through Apple. You can, however, grab 2012’s 10 Day and 2013’s Acid Rap for free from various mixtape sites.

As you may have heard earlier this year, since he doesn’t sell music, he technically cannot win a Grammy for any of his free material. “I heard you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy,” he bemoans on Ultra Light Beam. He’s since started a petition to allow free music a spot in the Grammy voting process and be recognized as such. His petition has thousands upon thousands of signatures.

Knowing this, when he raps lines like, “the people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” on the album’s final track, “Blessings (Reprise),” he’s exactly right. Few artists have both the clout and talent to stand alone without major label support, or without a co-sign from an established artist. While Chance is closely linked to Kanye, especially publicly in the months since “Ultra Light Beam” dropped, he’s not signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label and they share no affiliation other than being occasional collaborators. “He ain’t sign me but he proud of me,” he reminds on “Blessings.”

According to ‘Ye, Chance was one of the most influential voices during TLOP recording sessions. As much play as Ultra Light Beam has been getting on social media and streaming, other than one flamethrower of a SNL performance, there has been no music video or subsequent awards show performance. His rise has been completely organic. He managed to whip social media into a full-fledged clusterfuck in the weeks leading up to Coloring Book’s drop, willing it into the week’s Billboard Top 10 despite not selling a single copy or making it available on multiple streaming outlets.

Coloring Book starts off with a Kanye feature, as he lends his vocals to “All We Got,” a sped up, feel-good anthem about the powers of music’s positive influence, featuring the Chicago Boys Choir. It’s oddly reminiscent of Kanye’s “We Don’t Care,” the opening track off his debut LP, both in its upbeat nature and positive proclamations. Chance has always paid homage to his Chicago brethren, even naming Acid Rap’s opening track, “Good Ass Job Intro,” which was the long-time rumored name of Kanye’s post-Graduation album that has yet to materialize. His affiliation with Pablo and the project’s similar rollout (streaming only at first, social media heavy communication with fans), have perpetuated the Kanye comparisons, but it seems to be, at least from the FAR outside, that it’s a mutual admiration society. Kanye even went so far as to tweet out Chance has “god level bars” in the days following Book’s release.

The project is littered with lush soundscapes, and Chance tap dances through the minefield that has become rap in 2016 with grace and strength. He shines on the trap-infused “Mixtape,” featuring Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty, a beat that will surely thump in clubs around the world, not to mention the Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz assisted, “No Problem.”

It is incredibly poetic to have a song with Lil’ Wayne in the first place, given Weezy’s current issues with his label and Chance’s stance against the accepted practices of the music industry establishment. We all remember when Wayne rose to the top of the rap heap in the mid-2000s, in large part to the massive amounts of free music he released in between albums. He was constantly in the earbuds of the masses with new material, eventually culminating with the 2008 release of Carter III. It was on a much grander scale, but his movement was grassroots in nature, his ascension determined purely by the voice of the people, not by marketing ploys or industry collusion.

Now Chance is the star on the rise with unlimited musical flexibility, while Wayne, and his future projects, are being held hostage by his longtime label. It’s the total opposite of Chance’s entire mission as an independent artist, to provide good free music that’s both critically recognized (ahem, Grammy voters), and free from the shackles of archaic record label control. “Free The Carter,” Weezy wails in “No Problem,” pleading that his fans are in dire need of his new album. Chance doesn’t have that problem.

He glides over “Juke Jam,” a childhood love story featuring Justin Bieber that invokes melodies of R.Kelly’s “Feeling On Yo Booty.” It’s one of the album’s standouts, with syrupy drumbeats, accentuated guitar chords and an impossibly catchy chorus. “Smoke Break” featuring Future is equally intoxicating, ideal for dropping down all the windows and riding through the city during the impending summer nights. Chance is equally comfortable on songs like “Blessings,” where his gospel influences shine and the song is stripped down to its core.

He comes across as wise without being preachy and vulnerable without being whiny. He even cut out a lot of his trademark “Na Na Na” ad libs, which is appreciated. One man without a label was able to bring out some of the biggest names in the industry (Ye, Wayne, Justin Bieber, Future), and even managed to bring Jay Electronica out of his self-imposed slumber to go bar for bar with him. His growth as an artist and as a man (he’s a new father) is apparent throughout the album and it’s allowed him to shine as an artist, as well as put together his most cohesive project yet. The album is a 14-track musical equivalent of a summer sunrise, with each blast of Donnie’s trumpet emanating good vibes from intro to reprise.

If you take a close look at Chance’s three album covers, his gaze is pointed in a different direction in each picture. In 10 Day, Chance is staring up at the stars, about to embark on the first step in an incredible musical journey. By Acid Rap, Chance is seeing eye-to-eye with his fans and his peers. In a recent interview with Pigeons and Planes, the album cover’s artist, Brandon Breaux, said he took a picture of Chance holding his daughter, trying to capture the sheer joy in Chance’s eyes as he was looking down at his bundle of joy. He also, perhaps inadvertently, caught him looking down at the rest of the industry.

Rap Session: Drake, Kendrick, and What Makes a Classic

The following was an impromptu discussion between my friend Vince and I from earlier today via text message, transcribed and edited for clarity and typos. We’ve been friends for nearly 15 years and share the same love of hip-hop, so I both value Vince’s opinion and appreciate these little chats. We dove deep down the hip-hop rabbit hole for this one, talking about everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Drake and broke down some of our favorite albums. I’ve always wanted to get him on a podcast, but this will have to do for now. Follow him on Twitter @Turk_Jr. I’m the one in bold.

 

I had to take a break from Kendrick. It’s too deep. I’m bumping that Action Bronson Mr. Wonderful album.

I’m starting to peel through the layers. Alright and How Much a Dollar Cost are really deep.

This is random, but would you consider To Pimp A Butterfly a concept album? I obviously love him as a lyricist and appreciate everything about the album, but in my music library, it won’t stand shoulder to shoulder with good kid maad city over time.

I don’t know how to classify it really. Someone said it sounds like a kid just venting, which is kind of true about him as a whole.

That makes sense considering all the social issues he touches on.

It could be a concept album. But anyone with a vision of how an album is going to play out I think u could say that for. I mean, is Yeezus a concept album? I’m not sure where the line is. But to your point, yeah, I’d rather listen to GKMC at this moment. The grit appeals to me more.

The story is more identifiable with a larger audience: a young kid commenting on all the craziness going on in his hometown (Compton) with his family and crew. Everyone can identify with that. Someone wrote something interesting about the new album and it kind of echoes how I feel. The author talked about how strong the “Control” verse and his BET cypher were and all his guest appearances, really, from the time GKMC debuted until now and how he just diverted from that “I’m going to crush every other MC” mentality to what TPAB eventually became. It was somewhat disappointing. His content is so strong and his skill is elite, but it’s just diverted into being an instrument of social change and a voice for his people rather than devouring fellow MCs and “spitting”, for lack of a better term. But I guess hip-hop needs that. Kind of like what Cole did on Forest Hills Drive, but on steroids.

I actually didn’t listen to the whole Cole, to be honest. I agree with you completely. I’d rather hear him spit. I think his whole thing is, “I’m gonna rap circles around y’all on features and then go make a classic album of substance.” Kind of like, this is how it’s done.

I can’t argue with that. He’s really managed to carve out this lane for himself where he’s both so respected as a rapper for his talent but he’s also a symbol people look to. Dissecting his albums is like dissecting LeBron’s MVP seasons. You compare them to his already ridiculously high standards instead of just saying, “Fuck, this is still better than everyone else in the game.”

It’s nitpicking. You’re comparing him to himself, which is kind of irresponsible. But as a fan that’s just how we look at it, I suppose.

Someone tweeted that this was It Was Written, referring to the fact that it was an underwhelming follow up to a classic.

We weren’t in the moment when it came out. Who knows how we would have reacted at the time. There’s no way to follow up Illmatic.

Illmatic is a fucking seminar. It’s literature. It’s a class in a PhD program.

I think Biggie is the only one not to disappoint on a sophomore album for real, and I still personally like Ready To Die better. I see the parallel with Nas and Kendrick though. It’s just like, which sound do you prefer?

Big did a really good job of blending street shit (which there is a TON of on Life After Death) with the pop shit.

And Puff said he didn’t really want to do it at first. I hate saying shit like this, but I think when it comes down to it, he’s pound for pound the best ever. I don’t recall a single wack verse.

Although he had some disturbing bars occasionally. Some lines from Me and My Bitch and Dead Wrong stand out. But he put out two classics. No blemishes on his record.

Everyone has his or her freak moments I guess. Kanye has a book’s worth.

Eminem made a career out of it. Where do you rank the younger guys in the game today, not in terms of skill, but in terms of how much you like them?

In terms of who I enjoy listening to it’s Kendrick then Drake, even though I probably listened to Drake a lot more based on how much more content he has. After that…I’m trying to think. I actually really liked Wale’s Ambition, even though I think he’s got some dweeb in him.

There’s a steep drop off after Drake and Kendrick. I love guys like Cole and Wale but they don’t put out enough consistent shit. I’m really looking forward to the Album About Nothing. I thought his mixtape More About Nothing was the best thing he’s ever done.

Big Sean, I thought his new album was his best shit, I just can’t take him seriously. Cole, I just want more from. He’s the clear third best, I think.

Agreed on Cole. Sean low-key steals some songs with his verses. Cole’s developed a really good following. I love him as an artist because he gives a shit and really cares about the music. I just wish he’d have a different producer to infuse some new life into him. His production is so bland, I think he’s spreading himself too thin trying to do it all himself.

Just how you said you like when Kendrick spazzes out, Cole never really did it in the first place and his flow and lyricism could support it. He’s got that Nas thing going on (with his production). Jay always crushed him on beats.

Cole murdered some really good MCs on “Looking For Trouble”. I wish he did that more and I wish someone like ‘Ye would give him some beats. Going back to your Jay point, he went from Primo to prime Swizz and Timbaland to Just Blaze and Kanye. And he had Neptunes hits for days.

Yeah there’s no comparison. Producers make 90% of these rappers their money.

Although, I like the fact that all these guys have “their” sound and I think that’s what makes them shine as artists. Drake doesn’t make sure he has a Kanye/Pharrell/Timbaland beat on his album like people used to. He has his team of producers and they cater to his sound. In the mid-2000s, everyone was seeking out beats from big producers for hits and I think it hurt their overall quality. That being said, I wish Cole’s sound was cultivated by someone else and molded around his lyrics. Sidebar: I think a J. Cole/Roots collabo would be amazing.

The rappers, in total, were better back then. Especially the Philly/New York guys. But they didn’t have thematic albums really. They weren’t sonically similar throughout. Drake does that exceptionally well.

40, Boi-1da and his guys really know his sound and what he likes to do and I think that’s part of the reason why his shit always pops.

That and his lyrics being really identifiable to the masses. That’s his recipe. A lot of people don’t want to sit there and figure out Nas/J. Cole. They just want to hear bangers.

Drake really does have his finger on the pulse of the masses.

He’s got it figured out. Funny thing is, he said he gets a lot of creative input from Kanye and vice-versa, but they never impede on each other’s sound really.

Kanye always praises him, which is somewhat surprising. He knows he’s his biggest competition. He said “it’s Drake season” on a radio interview.

Yeah it’s a little weird. He’s always put people on though; I got to give it to Kanye. I guess he feels like it easily could have gone the other way for him, not getting a shot.

I think he and Jay have both alluded to this point before too: they know they don’t speak to the same generation Drake does. They know that there already is a generation or two of young people that grew up on their music. Hell, they inspired this entire group of rappers now. Without 808s and Heartbreak there’s probably no So Far Gone.

It’s definitely smart of them to be so self-aware. If Rakim went into 2002 and tried to “point out the bounce,” it just wouldn’t have worked. You’re so right about 808s though. And it’s funny because everyone hated it at the time. Now some people say it’s their favorite/most influential Kanye album.

Yeah, which I never would’ve imagined in 2008, but it really introduced a new sound that Drake ran with.

One of the things I appreciate about music the most is artists going across genres and saying, “I’m going to take this risk.” I always loved Kanye for that. I was listening to The Doors last week and I said to myself, dude really took a rock song from the 1960s, mixed it up and said, “Jay-Z, I think u should rap on this.”

And it was a monster.

Drake hopping on a Lykke Li song and making it better than the original was a risk, and it worked perfectly.

It goes on and on. Frank Ocean samples Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles on nostalgia.ultra. The guys that break down those walls and try new things are usually the ones we sit around talking about years later. Even what Puff did, making Biggie rap over some old disco beats. Fuck, all of Bad Boy’s epic late-90s run was on the shoulders of shitty 80s music. I guess it all kind of comes full circle back to Kendrick now, because that’s where he is on this album, drawing inspiration from so many musical genres to make an excellent hip hop album.

Did you ever think about what your ranking of Kanye albums would be?

It varies day to day, but it’s usually MBDTF and College Dropout in one tier, Graduation and Late Registration in the next tier, then Yeezus and 808s at the bottom. Again, it’s nitpicking, but over the course of time that’s where they kind of fall for me.

I go back and forth with College Dropout and MBDTF all the time. I think 808s and Yeezus should be in same tier, they are the “polar fucking opposite but potentially groundbreaking tier” and then ranked with a) and b) based on preference.

For me, I still go back and listen to songs like Street Lights, Amazing and some others. Other than Blood on the Leaves, I really don’t consistently play anything from that album. Not even New Slaves and Black Skinhead, which are both good.

I’m the exact opposite. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to 808s. Which likely means I’ll go listen to the whole thing after work. Tier 2 is really unique. It’s so close. Both albums have their skips for me, songs that’s could have been left for a G.O.O.D. Friday release, even though that hadn’t happened yet.

I actually think Graduation’s two bonus tracks, Good Night and Bittersweet Poetry, are significantly better than some of the chosen songs. But the highs were really good. Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing (flame emojis).

I just think We Major, Gone, and Addiction for me beat that. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor. And Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing and Glory are some of my favorite songs ever. It’s so damn close I might change my mind tomorrow.

How about ranking Drake’s albums. Where do they stand for you? (So Far Gone and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late included.)

So Far Gone is far and away #1.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: So Far Gone is the best mixtape ever. I play it just as much now as I did in 2009/10.

I’d probably agree and that’s even with Wayne’s murderous flurry of mixtapes that were probably better than his albums. Nothing was wasted on So Far Gone. I thought about it a few weeks ago and I was stuck after So Far Gone. I don’t know how to rank them.

I have Take Care in an almost dead heat with SFG. I think it’s mostly for nostalgia reasons. I listened to that shit so much for like a year straight and it really has some of my favorite Drake songs on it. After that, I might have IYRTITL over Thank Me Later, with Nothing Was The Same last. I may just be in the moment, but I think IYRTITL is really good. They’re really close. NWTS was underwhelming for me. There are only a few songs I keep going back to.

Interesting. I’m honestly not sure what the big fuss is over the new joint, but I haven’t studied it enough. Initially, I think it’s like a Drake “Stan” overreaction.

I may feel differently a year from now, but I think you can throw on the first half of that tape and you have a string of bangers. I wish he would’ve combined the best songs from the tape and from NWTS and it would be great.

Great call. I felt that way about Blueprint 2. I just feel like Drake has a bit of a “Beyhive” following, then the same “dropped the album out of nowhere” made people go crazy and the music doesn’t live up.

A common theme amongst my favorite albums though, whether it’s Drake, Kanye, Jay or whomever, all resonate with me because of where I was when they came out and what I was going through. There are very few albums that I love that I just kind of stumbled upon and they’re mostly just albums like Illmatic or Ready To Die or Reasonable Doubt, that are just undeniable.

The feeling of nostalgia can sway you.

You live with music. Take College Dropout, Black Album, 50’s old shit. Everything we used to bump in high school. You can pinpoint the time and place and how it affected you. 

No way Out, Harlem World, too. I remember I hated the Black Album when it first came out, same with Take Care. Now I actually prefer to listen to the Black Album more so than Reasonable Doubt. Take Care is probably pound for pound his best album, but I was going through it during Thank Me Later. Plus, I think the first three tracks are criminally underrated.

No Way Out, Harlem World, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Hard Knock Life were the first rap albums I ever listened to.

Back when we were coming of age. I think it’s fair to say that Drake hasn’t made a classic album, even though his body of work the last five years is better than pretty much everyone’s.

That’s fair, as long as we’re not counting So Far Gone. Take Care is a personal classic for me but I can see it not being a universally-recognized classic. His body of work from 2009-now > everyone though.

Yeah I’m not counting that. I jus don’t like throwing around classic like that and I don’t think any of them have the firepower for me. But I think you’re right, it’s the best of his three albums. TM101 is a personal classic. It speaks to me. But in the whole rap pantheon, I don’t know.

That’s a regional classic, wouldn’t you say? I think a lot of people in the south would label that a classic.

Maybe that’s a bad example. It’s not in like the top 50 rap albums of all time though I guess is what I’m saying. GKMC might be already.

It’s funny that’s the album you use, because I’m pretty sure Kendrick is a huge Jeezy fan.

I think if I had a count of how many times I listened to an album, TM101 would be up there with The Blueprint and them.

I think rap is in a good place right now. The game is so different than it was ten years ago with iTunes and streaming. Artists don’t even make their money from albums anymore. But good music is winning out more than before. These artists cultivate fan bases and really put out quality music because these fans are going to pack in arenas and stadiums to see them on the road. Cole could’ve never debuted at No. 1 ten years ago. Kendrick might have gotten lost in the “throwback” era. I like when artists drop songs or whole mixtapes out of nowhere online. I think rap is fun again. The music isn’t about “what sells” because nothing sells anymore. No one’s buying albums. You can’t really go platinum off a hot single anymore.

I’m loving the content right now. It’s just…so much has changed in 10 or 15 years I guess.

Everything’s changed.