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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.

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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.