According to the Kindle application on my phone, I’m 14% of the way through Mo’ Meta Blues, the new memoir from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. And while it would probably behoove me to wait until I’ve read, oh, I don’t know, at least a third of the Roots drummer’s book before I start sharing opinions about it, I can’t help jumping in with a quick reaction to Thompson’s relationship with record reviews.
You’ve probably heard the (frequently misattributed) saying that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a fun thought to pick apart — a paradoxical one, maybe — because it’s just as much an invitation as it is a dismissal. Dancing about architecture sounds kinda great, doesn’t it? It sounds like a challenge, and that’s just what dissecting and evaluating music can be. It’s an act of creativity unto itself.
Just recently, I ran into a fantastic illustration of the glass-half-full interpretation of the saying. If you caught my post on Monday, you know I had the opportunity to interview Brooklyn-based psych/free-jazz band NYMPH about their new album and overall approach to making such genre-bending, exploratory music. And, true to the forms they cozy up to, some of their answers were wonderfully colorful and abstract. When asked about the spirituality of New Millennium Prayer, here’s how guitarist and founding member Matty McDermott responded:
I look at the artwork while I think about this question: I see earth all around and in it. I see organisms wristing, twiggling. I feel color vibrations and primordial shape-shifting. My eyes absorb as if peering through the surface of the sea or a rain puddle. Ebullient moonlight gulley-sculpts the canyonic shadows. The sun toked the moon and spaced out. Bottoms up!
That’s an architectural dance party if I’ve ever seen one! I love that description; it’s made of words I may never see next to each other again (think Natalie Portman’s “original moment in human history” from Garden State), and more importantly, it’s like I’ve been handed an outlandish (in the geographical sense) road map for the next time I make my way through the album. I’ll see it totally differently and visit places I wouldn’t have visited if he hadn’t shared those thoughts.
In Mo’ Meta Blues, Thompson takes the idea that analysis can be constructive even further. In fact, he makes it literal. Before I even made it to the passage that inspired this post, I heard about it on NPR. Here it is:
In your book, you say that you write your own reviews of your albums.
I feel a little silly admitting that. I was obsessed with Rolling Stone’s lead reviews. At the time… it was rare that the music I would listen to would wind up as a lead review. Rare for hip-hop and rap to get that glory. Half the time I was trying to imagine, “What if it were a fair playing field?” For my first six albums, I would draw the illustrations and write the reviews — that’s how I craft the record. The perfect review is a 4.5, never a perfect 5. You study it and then manifest it.
I thought this was fascinating, and the pages leading up to that admission in the book are just as revelatory. He talks about being young and delving so far into Rolling Stone reviews that he pasted them to his bedroom walls and even made collages out of the art that accompanied the lead reviews. The fact that he took that love for the critical process and made it part of the creative process is, for me — someone who loves to tango to ionic columns whenever I’m moved to do so — incredibly inspiring. Sure makes it easier to see the architecture saying in a positive light.
I’m excited to learn more about Thompson’s life, and I envision recommending the hell out of Mo’ Meta Blues when I finish the other 86% of it. To get you in the memoir-buying mood, I’ve included two of my favorite Questlove moments below — his fittingly off-kilter performance on Fiona Apple’s “Not About Love” and a version of personal favorite “The Seed” on which he and his bandmates back up legendary “Green Onions“-cooking organist Booker T. Jones.