Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Event Review: I LOVE THE 90's Ol' Skool Concert Series & After Party

If you live in Toronto, grew up in Toronto in the 90's, or are familiar with the Toronto party scene, you know without a doubt that Saturday, March 14th’s “I LOVE THE 90’s” concert was a success. For a city that has its fair share of era-themed parties, be it the 90's, a particular genre of music from a particular moment in time, or a particular style of celebration, promoters and DJs have been coming up with innovative ways to enjoy themselves, to share their love of music, and to entertain the often hard-to-please Toronto audience, each and every weekend. From time.

There was nothing original about I LOVE THE 90’s. It’s been done. We’ve seen old school artists trickle through this city so regularly that we’re probably one of the main cities out there that embraces the artists of the past so warmly. If they had a hit in the 80’s, 90’s or early 2000’s..chances are they’ve passed through Toronto in the past few years. We appreciate classics. We don't forget the talent, or how they made us feel. We cling to it! We respect the art form. Toronto loves music, and this was evident at the response on Saturday. For an idea that is commonplace in the city, the I LOVE THE 90’s concert was still executed and received like a brand new concept.

The success of an event is often measured in VIBE, first and foremost. Whether it's a crowd of 150, or a crowd of 1500. One thing that’s undeniable is that the concert had a full house at the Sound Academy, plenty vibes, and this was consistent from beginning to end. The main indicator of the party's effect was that people were enjoying themselves. Immensely.

Before the 11:30pm concert start, the mood was set, and the tracks were running from DJ DOC…the tone was established. It was an evening of high energy, mixed with nostalgia, and the anticipation was heavy. Walking into the venue to an early crowd was a good indication that it was going to be a busy night.

Kudos to the event hosts comedian Jay Martin and MC Kid Kut, who are both staples of the Toronto entertainment scene, veterans of the stage, and clearly seasoned professionals when it came to keeping the crowd engaged, in good spirits, and most importantly, laughing! Jokes were running all night, and surprisingly turned the concert into a comedy show-slash-concert.

Performing a well-rehearsed dialogue about old school music, memories of growing up in the 90's, and paying due tribute to the artists present and those of their era, coordinated with Toronto’s top-of-the-top DJ Starting from Scratch, the routine orchestrated by the three of them was nothing short of excellent. Many surely would have paid full ticket price for this element of the show alone!

The male R&B group vs. female R&B sound clash between Jay Martin and Kit Kut was not only hilarious, but also had the crowd participating as they played SWV, Jodeci, and other classic songs that drove the audience to attend that night. They told stories, set up scenarios, and really brought everyone back to the era of love, romance, and SINGING. From you hear a full audience singing along at full voice to the songs playing, you know that everyone is feeling nice!

The concert was what it was, because of their wit and timing. And who doesn't want to see Jay Martin Bogle-ing on stage in a Rasta wig? Hilarious. They were the glue that held all of the elements together, made the show uniquely TORONTO, and made it a fabulous trip down memory lane, at the same time. Because of how they joined the 5 performances together seamlessly, and broke up the flow of the show by changing up the pace, and engaging everyone in the experience.

The first to hit the stage was R&B group Intro, coordinated in attire, and performing the dance moves and gestures that we expect and appreciate from a group of their calibre. Right away, they came with a sincere 90’s vibe, appreciation for the audience, and executed their familiar hits just the way they were remembered. The crowd was instantly responsive to the upbeat songs, as well as the slow jams, singing along, and vibing with the gentleman. They were great.

After Intro, Jon B blessed the stage with his band, and kept the momentum up singing his familiar songs, as well as hitting up the keyboards for a few interludes as he performed. A true professional, with the same swag that had the ladies swooning in the 90's, he was engaging, sounded fantastic, and made sure to the let the audience know about his upcoming projects as he thanked them and left the stage expressing his gratitude for the support.

Case, responsible for some of the 90's classic R&B bangers and early hip hop collaborations, was a clear welcome addition to the lineup, and definitely got up close and interactive with the audience as he performed the songs that many of the attendees grew up, in the club, and on stereo in the 90s. Many of his hits are easily on rotation at any given urban event in the city, to this day.

Mya hit the stage in full glam, with dancers, lighting, and an extra touch of electricity when it was her moment. Looking every bit as flawless and dancing every bit as tight as she did at the height of her 90's reign, her set was high-energy from beginning to end, and almost ran like a concert-within-a-concert for her segment. She performed a fabulous remix of her hit songs, while executing full dance routine, and even slowed it down a bit for an “unplugged” version of her own tunes, as well as classics by Aaliyah and SWV. The essence of female performers in the 90's was felt strongly through Mya's performance, and it seems as though she hadn’t left the stage at all. Again, a consummate professional and excellent performer.

The only hip hop artist on the lineup, Mr. Cheeks definitely brought a different vibe to the closing of the concert. The Lost Boyz, as well as Mr. Cheeks as a solo artist, were responsible for so many hip hop anthems, that the crowd rapped and grooved along with him as he went through his segment with the wild vibes and that distinct New York energy that almost exclusively ran the hip hop scene in the 90's. His personality and energy were consistent with what we remember of Mr. Cheeks from that era, and his performance was the perfect way to end the concert portion of the evening.

It was at this point where event MC Puddy (aka the Mayor of Nova Scotia) was able to come out and drop his unique James-Browns-reminiscent dance moves, two-step across the stage, and share his east coast Maritime swag with the Toronto audience. The crowd loved him and let him shine as he bumped those shoulders and hit those splits effortlessly in his three-piece suit. Up and down. He was clearly meant to perform and entertain!

Event promoters Urban and Interactive also had a moment to thank the audience for their support, recognize the 40th birthday celebration of Dougie (aka 6Five Ent), and pay homage to their fallen brother Steve Hanslip (aka Sub) who passed away two years earlier, almost to the day. It was a heartfelt and genuine moment from Dougie. Star B also let everyone know that there was more to come from the company, in entertainment as well as community initiatives.

Events come and go in Toronto on a weekly basis. New concepts, various artists, familiar DJs, and new up-and-coming selectors. We are city of spoiled individuals because our musical IQ is so high, and our expectations are even higher. We’ve seen the best, heard the best, and expect the best. Fortunately for all, the success of the I LOVE THE 90’s concert was one that could be felt throughout the room as the night came to an end, and the music continued.

DJ DOC, joined by MC Brenton B, led the remaining dancers into a nostalgic mix of dancehall oldies, soca classics, house music hits, and 90's hip hop and R&B joints for the after party that concluded the night perfectly.

There is clearly a vibration to the 90's and an energy that is so unique to that era, that it can’t be let go. Events, concerts, and throwback sets will continue to run in Toronto because of the impact it had on those who had the honour of growing up in that era and appreciating and experiencing the music first hand.

Special thanks to all who attended the event, who supported Urban and Interactive’s first major production, and who came with positive spirits, open encouragement and welcoming responses to the artists, and overall appreciation for the movement.

Urban and Interactive successfully brought back the love, the dancing, and the great feelings that are remembered about the 90's, and will continue to expand on this Concert Series & After Party brand in the upcoming months. Stay tuned, and thanks again for the overwhelming support.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson (Urban and Interactive Admin & Social Media)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fifty Shades of Schupidness (book/movie review)

Nothing to see here.

I was curious about the movie...the soundtrack sounded dope. The visuals look enticing, helicopters, and pretty condos. It seemed like it might be something intriguing. Young girl. Rich dude. Why not? I refused to watch the movie without reading the books. That's how this journey began.

E. L. James hit the jackpot with this story, and what kind of writer would I be if I didn't at least attempt to check it out?! Well, I didn't make it through the entire book, maybe 65% according to my Kobo e-reader. I wanted to see what the literary hype was, and for the first say, 30% or so, I was into it. Typical fluffy love story, a light read, I could get down with it.

It wasn't half as "sexual" or terrible as I thought it would be...but after a while, it was redundant. Christian and his demands. Anastasia biting her lip...ooh, "don't bite the lip or I'll have to punish you"...at about 65% I just gave up on the book entirely, and decided to check out the film.

Womp. Womp.

I wonder if the movie flows better to someone who hasn't read the book (or a portion of it), with a detailed frame of reference. I wonder if there are romantic types out there that thought that Christian's on-screen pursuit of Ana was believable and sensual? I wonder if it's just me, or was this entire set up just terrible. Forced chemistry, with no real substance. 

First of all, as I was reading the book I couldn't help but picture the film characters, after seeing numerous commercials and media coverage. I kinda hate that, because it takes away from the imagination a bit. That being said, I think Dakota Johnson, as Anastasia Steele, was a good match. Innocent. Pretty. Naive. It worked. But Christian (Jamie Dornan)...for ALL the hype they had finding the "right" dude to play him, hiring and firing actors, and searching and trying to capture the perfectly sexy and appealing man to play this character. Like, no. Not attractive. Not sexy. Not anything, really. If anything...I thought Christian's character on-screen was creepy. Unemotional. Then too emotional. Always staring and popping up places. Who would actually tolerate a stranger like that?!

Creepy. There's a good word to sum up this entire Fifty Shades experience! I thought it was supposed to be sensual, and it was just weird. I haven't even finished reading the book, mind you, so it's possible there is some great revelation in the remaining 35% that I didn't get to, that might change my mind about the entire experience. But the fact that I don't have the energy to find out just goes to show how interested I am either way, in seeing if the film ending and the book ending measure up.

As many adapted novels-to-movies, the film seemed to jump around. I didn't see any natural chemistry building, and the couple went from 0 to 100 with no logical explanation. The book had many email exchanges, and at least an internal thought process to work with...but the movie was just cheesy as they exchanged brooding glares and felt these uncontrollable urges, with no other form of communication or understanding. Who does that?

The "Red Room" in the book didn't seem as terrible as that dungeon looked in the movie. As soon as Christian opened the door in the movie and Ana walked in, it took everything in me NOT to yell at the TV for that chick to run for the hills. Who would stick around for that? And he closed the door behind her?? Uh uh. No way. Red flag, girlfriend. Millions, billions, or trillions of dollars later...from I see that organized inventory of whips and shackles, I'm gone. Despite the gifts. The laptop was nice, and the red Audi was a fabulous touch...but otherwise, it was straight out of a horror movie, and the fact that she didn't even flinch just took away the realism of this movie for me.

What young girl...what VIRGIN, at that, is going to walk into that kind of situation and not bat an eye? Even after reading Christian's detailed contract, and witnessing his hot-then-cold attitude, I still found it weird that Ana managed to keep her cool throughout, and not think that this psychopath was out to rape, murder, or torture her.

I'm not going to knock anyone's sexual choices and definition of fun, but this movie wasn't it. The book was barely it. If this was supposed to be a fantasy, it fell really short. The best part for ME was seeing and hearing Christian play that Chopin piece on the piano. Now THAT was a fantasy, a man with some talent, working an instrument! Sweet! Otherwise, his whole woe-is-me I was starving when I was four-years-old and seduced by an older woman at fifteen sob story wasn't moving me. He, in all his power and success, truly just seemed manipulative and mean.

I loved the end of the movie when Ana decided to go home and walk away from this circus. When he whipped her, she cried, and she finally had that WTF moment, put on her clothing, and dipped. That was the most realistic part of this franchise of schupidness, when Ana came to her senses and realized this shit wasn't cool, on any level!!

Waste of time, but at least I saw first hand what the hype was about. The writing was just "meh"...I'm not even going to bother with the follow up books in the trilogy: "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed"...if Anastasia decides to go back to that dude and try to save him, and teach him how to love...I'm so not interested. If you ask me, her friend Jose was the man to be with. Loyal. Talented. Sweet. And HE (in the movie) was HOT.

But boy, that Chopin piano song that sad Christian played in the dark sho' was beautiful, and the Weeknd song "Earned It" at the closing credit kills. Soooo dope. A perfectly wonderful musical soundtrack, for a perfectly waste-of-time story. I knew I should have just read my Canadian Black History Month selections in my down time this week. Shame on me.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

10 Reasons Why I Love the FOX TV Show "Empire"

This show is everything.

I've been saying that a lot lately, which is great. Which means that I can finally break out of my reality TV spell, and get back into a handful of great scripted programs. It started with "Being Mary Jane," continued with "Scandal," went on to "How to Get Away with Murder," and now keeps keepin' on, with the hit television show "Empire," that just debuted earlier this year on FOX.

I'm a sucker for a predominantly Black cast, Black writers/directors, and grew up watching and enjoying, and being inherently interested in their career paths and progression. I can't help but support the familiar faces and entertaining antics. Naturally, these shows were made for me.

The best part about these quote-unquote "Black" shows it that everyone is digging them. Not just Black female writers, like myself. Not just "urban" folks in "inner cities" who can relate. But these shows are clearly transcending racial and cultural lines, and appealing to everyone who loves a good story in general. That's the best part...while they speak to me/"us" directly as Blacks...they are also speaking to the television-watching audience as a whole because they are GOOD SHOWS. Period.

This speaks volumes for where our current generation is in terms of acceptance and awareness, on a very basic, basic level. Entertainment is often a microcosm of society at large, in terms of trends and influence, and the emergence of these shows is a great example of how Black representation is hardly an anomaly anymore. It's pretty much the norm.

Yeah, people were still vex about the movie Selma not receiving appropriate recognition from the Academy Awards this year. And yes, I'm sure the roles (and power roles on the executive levels) in Hollywood are still barely diverse, BUT it is a step in the right direction. An evident one. The ratings, the buzz, and the critical acclaim are proving that change is happening. We can feel it...and we can see it. Daily. Regularly.

I dig the thought processes and complexities of Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul on "Being Mary Jane." I love the feisty and strategic Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington on "Scandal." Viola Davis as the wickedly brilliant Annalise Keating is super fun to watch on "How to Get Away with Murder," and now I have another show to add to my roster of weekly entertainment..."Empire."

What is it about this show that speaks to me in particular?

1) TARAJI P. HENSON - What's not to love about Taraji? She is the co-star of one of my favourite movies of all times, Baby Boy (2001), and has also won my admiration from her roles in Hustle & Flow (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009), and Think Like a Man. I think her character Cookie Lyon is hilarious, and although some might argue that she's in a stereotypically negative black female role as an ex-con with a history of drug chargers...but I love that despite this setback, her character is emerging into a powerful business woman, and complicated woman. Most importantly, it's just great to watch her get moment to shine in the spotlight, because she has been acting for years and it's well deserved. Not everyone gets the change to be the "it girl" of the big, or small screen, but this is definitely Taraji's moment, and it's nice to see.

2) TERRENCE HOWARD - Again, another actor I've watched and enjoyed over the years, from his hilarious character in the The Best Man pictures, to various music video appearances, and excellent roles in movies like Crash (2004), Ray (2004), and of course Hustle & Flow (2005). Like Taraji, he's someone who's been around the big and little screen for years, but is finally getting attention on a wider scale, and you can't help but feel proud of the brother. He is awesome as Luscious Lyon, and definitely brings a depth and familiarity to the "hip hop mogul" star character on the show. Will I mention the numerous assault issues he's had in the past...no, I won't. I'll keep it positive and separate the art from his personal fiascos.

3) THE CAST - So great to see newcomers Trai Byers (Andre Lyon), Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon), Bryshere Gray (Hakeen Lyon), and of course old favourites Malik Yoba, Derek Luke, and Gabourey Sidibe in supporting roles. These ensemble casts really make the episodes a must-see affair, because you can see how many A-list stars (like Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love) have committed themselves to the project and believe in its impact.

4) THE STORY OF A GENERATION - The premise of Empire is loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear, and also influenced by the 80s primetime soap opera Dynasty, according to show creator/director Lee Daniels. Empire is the story of a generation, with various themes and characters reminding us of the faces and names we've watched develop over the years. It speaks directly to the "hip hop" generation that came directly from the streets, and through years of hustling, performing, creative excellence, and changing of times, have now emerged to millionaires, power movers, and icons. This is a familiar story as we watch various hip hop artists, and even the very actors themselves transcend their initial circumstances, and become staples in pop culture. This story wouldn't have worked 10-15 years ago, because not everyone had matured to that level of fame and riches. But we see it now with Diddy. With Beyonce and Jay-Z. With Dr. Dre. We see the power increasing exponentially, and the stories of these hip hop and urban cultural pioneers turning into Forbes cover stories, and business models. It's fabulous.

5) THE MUSIC - Produced by the legendary hit-maker Timbaland, the music on this show is current, authentic, and actually sounds GOOD. It makes the entire concept very believable when the hits actually sounds like potential hits. And tell me you don't catch yourself humming "you're so beautifuuuuullll..." as a result, every now and then?

6) IDEALS OF FAMILY LEGACY - This concept is fabulous to me. Because as the "hip hop" generation comes of age, matures, has children and grandchildren, you can't help but wonder what's next? Will the money be preserved? Will future businesses unfold? Will the legacy continue? We see the children of some moguls (like the Simmons) come into their own, and the history of influence and talent continue. You can only hope that this is the case across the board, that millions are wisely invested, and care is taken to ensure that the legacy is intact, and that the following generation only makes it strong. Again, but mirroring the current climate, it is a great look into the question of...what's next?...for those in a similar position. Who will be the next generation of influencers, and will they be able to successfully translate their parents' achievements into something equally (or more)  profitable and enjoyable? I love that this is the main premise to the show, and hope that it encourages viewers of lesser means to also be cognisant of this reality...

7) THE JOKES - Taraji as Cookie is pretty damn funny. Love it.

8) THE FAMILIARITY - The cultural references are fabulous. It is everything I love about writing: familiar experiences, similar culture, understandable language and thought processes. It is a great way to recognize the current state of entertainment, and 20 years down the line will be extremely reflective of today's reality. It is so current that it's practically truth...the Lyons family could easily be Diddy's family, Snoop's family, Kobe or Lebron's family...it's just the place that young "stars" are in right now as they're suddenly not so young, and recognizing that the culture keeps moving, and they need to do everything they can to ensure they remain powerful and influential.

9) THE HYPE - I wouldn't have even tuned in if it wasn't for the buzz. "Everybody" was talking about Empire, so when I finally caught the episodes through a binge watching-spree, I was hooked.

10) WHAT IT REPRESENTS - Empire represents a new era of television, and the "return" of Black shows. The last great surge of Black television was probably in the 90s when shows like Martin, Living Single, the Cosby Show, A Different World, Sister Sister, the Jamie Foxx Show, Roc, and Moesha (to name a few) were a hit on the airwaves. The half hour laugh-a-minute sitcom was huge, and I definitely miss being able to tune in and get consistent jokes from the actors that I still love and admire...but the turn to a one-hour drama is great as well. It represents the change from the Black comedian (and there were dozens of them) to a great variety of interesting and complex characters. The change is nice. The depth is nice. And you don't have to worry about getting hung up on one particular depiction, because there are enough characters to go around. With varying personalities and passions, the accessible Black characters on television are truly just a common thing now. Nothing particularly racial or controversial going on...just another show, another cast, and another look at American life.

I'm all about documenting our cultural experiences, for future accurate representations of our generation. This show is spot on. Well done, Lee Daniels!

And P.S...I don't believe for a minute that Monique was the "original" contender for the role of Cookie. She needs to sit down, and let Taraji have her moment to shine. Unnecessary shade on a wonderful pop cultural moment. Who does that?!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: TRUE LOVE by Jennifer Lopez

I was expecting a celebrity tell-all book about fleeing nightclubs with P. Diddy, romantic getaways with Ben Affleck, dancing the night away with Casper Smart, or other inside-Hollywood tidbits, but True Love by Jennifer Lopez was surprisingly very different. It was a simple look at a woman, going through life, figuring out love, and learning how to love herself.

In fact, despite the ongoing concert/performance/American Idol references, and knowing who the book's author was, the story was an un-Hollywood as it could be. And even having mentioned her regular lifestyle, which by nature is glamorous, there was little glamour and glitz in this book.

I've always liked J.Lo. She seems personable, she is definitely multi-talented, and for years she has managed to maintain a clean reputation and keep it classy...all while looking fabulous. Consistently. What's not to love?!

So this book was surprising in that it showed readers a dark side to Jennifer, a side filled with sadness, insecurity, and confusion at times. A side of her filled with self-doubt and longingness...a side that the majority of women could probably relate to on some level. We may not all be familiar with having access to fame, millions of dollars, and prime-time television shows and blockbuster movies...but emotionally, the average reader could definitely relate to her journey as a woman, and her growth in character as a result of her life experiences.

This book was an easy read. So easy, that I was shocked with how quickly it took me to get through the pages. Although I read it on my Kobo, it was very nice to have a variety of pictures accompany the story, and it looks as though there's an audio/video element to it (that clearly my Kobo isn't advanced enough to process) which would make the experience slightly more entertaining.

An easy read, but an interesting one. And it read like a Jennifer Lopez story, and not something penned by a ghost-writer or "as told to" literary genius. It read like a girl friend speaking to another girl friend or family member about her experiences, with warm words of encouragement, and kind recommendations for improved living.

Basically, this book chronicles the period of time when Jennifer was going through her divorce from singer Marc Anthony, but also while she was going through a great period in her career, hit songs and a classic time in American Idol history. It takes you through her emotional journey, through the support she received from family and friends, the advice and guidance she sought, and eventually the strength she gained and how she applied the various insights she encountered.

I really enjoyed it. Partially because of shock value at how open and honest Jennifer was about her feelings...and partially because of the outcome, and reading about how she overcame her challenge and was better as a result. Who doesn't love a story of love and victory?! And this time, the love wasn't tied to another "big name" or celebrity scandal. The love was for herself, and as corny and cliche as that seems, it reads REALLY beautifully, and it feels great to learn the lessons over again with Jennifer.

My favourite line of the book: "Integrity is your own gauge of what is right for you."

I admire J.Lo for opening herself up to her fans and readers this way, and think that alone is a result of the journey she went though. You can feel her renewed sense of spirit, and the energy and excitement is both contagious and motivating as a reader.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Nicki Minaj's "The Pinkprint"

There's so much good music in the world, and it brings on so many good feelings. I love reggae music, I love soca music, I love old school R&B and hip hop, I love trap music, and I can get down to pretty much anything else with a nice composition. Pop. Rock. I love music. Period.

What I love most of all is when you hear brand new music, and it hits you. Either it passes right through you briefly, or maybe you hear it but it doesn't affect you, or you immediately forget it...and sometimes you listen to it, like it and can't explain why. Sometimes the sounds completely translate into a feeling that is directly speaking to you. A vibe that perfectly resonates with you. A composition that you must hear again, and again. A noise that makes you physically feel fabulous. Well, on some level that's how I feel about Nicki Minaj's latest album The Pinkprint, that was just released earlier this month.

I wouldn't call myself a "super fan" of Nicki Minaj, but I must say that I like most of her songs to date...and her craziness really doesn't bother me. I like her, as an artist. I shouldn't...but I do. I agree that the Anaconda antics were kinda over the top, but I think it was fun and harmless. The bootie phase of 2014 will pass, and everyone would have had their moment to shake dat ass. Including Nicki.

And I think that's why I dig this album...because even with Nicki's querkiness, and odd behaviours publically, I feel she's maturing into more of a woman and less of a caricature. She used to feel like a cartoon character to me...catchy beats and a bright, colourful, and ridiculous fashion sense. She couldn't be taken that seriously...but now I think her music speaks for itself. She's growing up.

I like her music of the past because it was feel-good pop music. Trendy beats and memorable catch phases. I liked most of the hits that were hits, and it wasn't anything too serious.

But with this album, I feel a different sense of appreciation for Nicky Minaj as an artist. I can hear her growth as an individual. I can hear the maturity in her style. The increase in vulnerability in her voice. The intimacy of the lyrics. This album is different.

It starts off sounding almost like an R&B album, with Nicki singing, and with the instrumentation sounding more symphonic, and less street. The lyrics alone make it feel more personal, like she's speaking straight from a broken heart. It's a different level of emotional disclosure...and the music mimics that. It starts off more introspective...mellow beats. The album begins in a dark, sad place...and sets the tone for what's to come.

The Pinkprint gets lighter as it progresses, less vulnerable and more club. The lyrics are less painful...Drake and Chris Brown show up. Ariana Grande. Beyonce. Works it way down to Anaconda, and then closes with the Pills and Potions, signature Nicki sounding track...singing her vocals, the regular Nicki flow.

Overall, I like the way this album makes me feel. Even at a glance, there's an arch to the music that follows a nice audio story line. From darkness and heartbreak, that slowly and gradually eases into triumph by the end. There's hope at the end...and the mood of the album supports that.

I look forward to playing this album for the next couple of weeks, listening carefully to the individual songs, taking in the lyrics, and appreciating how this project was put together. Right now I am really feeling "The Crying Game" and "Grand Piano." I hear that she has released a mini-movie to go along with a few of the tracks, and the essence of these songs in particular remind me of soundtrack-type songs. Full of emotion.

I don't "purchase" CDs often, but this is one I actually got up and went into the mall to buy. Like physically made a trip to the store to make sure I had this in my possession for Monday morning, and the subsequent sitting in traffic I was about to embark in for the week. This will be my entertainment, and my inspiration. Music is amazing that way...it never fails to bring out the creative energy in me!

After watching Nicki's Power 105.1 interview with Angie Martinez the other day, I got a different energy off of her and her story, and her behaviour as she discussed the end of her 15-year relationship with Safaree. There was a vibe she gave off in the interview that directly translated into the vibe of the album. It was a vibe of Nicki the woman, telling her story of adult heartbreak. A story of strength, but still with enough spunk to make it unpredictable.

This album sounds great, and it is a fabulous representation of Nicki's career, and even her public growth. It's nice to see an artist getting better with time and with wisdom...I'm pleasantly surprised that Nicki Minaj actually became one of those artists. I have to respect that.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

ENTOURAGE: Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric & Ari Coming to the Big Screen...YAY!

Eeeks! I'm so excited! The official trailer for the Entourage movie was just released, and I can not wait to see it next summer! I was a latecomer to this franchise. I jumped on the bandwagon after the HBO series had ended, but what I lost in timeliness, I made up for in dedication. I was a serial Entourage DVD watcher from seasons one through eight, until I was hooked on the stories of Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric, and Ari.

What's not to love? It's no secret that I'm addicted to entertainment, media, lights, camera, and action. Especially action. I love the fanfare, I love the creativity of it all...I love the unpredictability of the entertainment industry. It comes with such ridiculous lows and such extreme highs that the paradox just fascinates me. Especially when people make it to the top. And stay there.

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) was that top.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching ol' Vinnie and his boys (played by Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Conolly, and Kevin Dillon) navigate Hollywood, as four bredrens straight outta Queens, New York...as a part of Vinnie's A-List entourage. I enjoyed the stories, the shenanigans, and I especially loved the soundtrack. Every episode ended with THE perfect hip hop track. Everything about this HBO television series was my kinda shit.

From what I hear, the movie will pick up six months after we left the boys back when the series ended in 2011. Vinnie got married, and Ari and his wife finally had some peace and quiet in their lives...until he was offered a job to head Time/Warner. It was a nice cliffhanger, especially after knowing all of the drama Ari had in his marriage to Melissa (Perrey Reeves) and how they struggled every single season to make their relationship work. Ari, Hollywood's top agent and resident asshole on the show, was easily one of the most likeable characters, despite his arrogance and trickery at times. As a supporting actor in the series, Jeremy Piven was nominated four times for an Emmy award for Entourage, and came away with the win in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

A critically acclaimed hit, it only makes sense that the boys would return to continue their story for those of us that are ready to see where Ari and the others have gone. Who they're with. What they're doing. It's a natural curiousity, the result of a series of interesting story telling.

Of course, I loved the Hollywood element to this program. The clubs, the parties, and watching Vinnie make decisions on various projects, co-stars, relationships, and financial issues, all while carefully balancing his self-worth and his actual talent. While the Hollywood element was crucial to the show, the theme of friendship was also equally intriguing.

The dynamics between the group of four (including brothers Drama and Vincent) was great, and I loved how everyone continued to "play their role" despite the changes and successes along the way. Vinnie was always the leader; Eric was always the brains, stability, and logic behind the operation; Turtle was the cool guy, the go-to-guy and the perfect wing man; Johnny Drama was the wildcard and comic relief...while also being the elder (and chef) of the group. A great mix of personalities and the actors themselves--true New Yorkers--were believable as blue-collar Queens men on the come up.

Entourage provided the behind-the-scenes look at celebrity life with extra access, minus the calculated image management present with similar reality TV programs, striving to provide the same access. The soundtrack, the clever dialogue, the cameos (Matt Damon was definitely my fave), and the likability factor with the cast (loved Emmanuel Chriqui as "Sloan" and of course Rex Lee as "FLOYD!") made it an exciting show to watch.

It felt real. Like if there were ever four friends from Queens (or Boston, like show mastermind Mark Wahlberg, that loosely based the characters on his own life) that really did make it to Hollywood, this is probably totally how they would live (smoking weed, beaucoup females/sex, blowing money, pool parties, hanging out, blockbuster movie premieres and film festivals, and fast cars galore), and you got the feeling that as much as they were on top...that everything could still disappear in a heart beat. And that regardless of what went down, that they'd still be boys in the end.

That underlying tension of the lifestyle all being a "fantasy" was what made the show great. It made you want to root for everyone. You wanted Vinnie to only pick hit movies and hit directors/studios. You wanted Johnny Drama to finally catch a break and have his career excel again ("VICTORY!!!"). You hoped that Turtle would find his way and develop his own career hustle. And you appreciated the stability of Eric, his commitment to Sloan, and hoped that he would be able to lead the group wisely, without succumbing to the jabs and attacks from the ever-powerful Ari.

And now. A feature film! Yay! After being on the air from July 2004 to September 2011...the cast began filming the new Entourage movie in February of this year, and we'll be able to see the finished product by about June 12, 2015 from Warner Brothers.

Here's the teaser trailer...let the countdown begin:

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Annie (2014) aka "Black Annie"

The new 2014 feature film version of the 1982 hit movie Annie was fabulous, and I enjoyed every minute of it because of the nostalgia wrapped up with familiar music and cultural advancement. It warmed my heart.

"Black Annie" (ever since the Saturday Night Live sketch, I can refer to it as nothing else, lol) follows the original plot, where a foster kid hopelessly waiting for her parents to return for her stumbles into some luck when she connects with one of the richest men in town. Given the opportunity to spend some time with him, she manages to win the ol' guy over with her charm, escape foster care forever, and dance her way into a happy and secure future filled with true love.

Nothing has changed, story wise. The sadness of the orphanage/foster home and the meanness of the foster mother are still the same. Annie's optimism and mischief are familiar. But what happens with this version is that society has changed, and some of the old elements have a new swing. For example, Daddy Warbucks is now "Mr. Stacks" (Jamie Foxx), and aside from the obvious addition of black main characters (with Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie), there are now cell phones in the picture and funky hip hop remixes to some of the original music.

It's the music that got me. The familiar melodies to "Maybe" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" made me smile, because these are songs I grew up on. In the 80s, Annie was a movie that me and my peers watched regularly, and loved immensely.

Quvenzhane was a cute leading lady of the movie: a little girl with grown expressions and a serious comedic touch...her sense of humour was adorable, and I have a feeling that her sharp-witted Annie characteristics weren't too far off from her real personality.

I like Jamie Foxx. I'm a fan, so it was really cute to see him in this warm-and-fuzzy role as Mr. Stacks, and to see him fully commit to this musical and do it in an authentic way that never made me question him as a man, or actor. It was nice to see him in this child-friendly movie, and it was really touching the way Black Annie changed his world.

The new spin on "Daddy Warbucks" was a major change, because the cell phone empire of Mr. Stacks really helps to drive the plot. In the end, rather than scaling walls and high-speed car chases, it is a series of Tweets and posts on social media from children across New York that help the authorities locate Annie after she has been taken away by her "fake" parents--a nice update to the story.

I pretty much enjoyed this film from top to bottom...however the one thing that that didn't sit well with me was the performance of Cameron Diaz, who I normally really like in movies. Her character Miss Hannigan, as a failed 90s pop singer, did deliver a few of the movie's laughs for me, but her remake of the character was the least authentic to me. Jamie Foxx made Mr. Stacks his own, and the remix of Annie's character was definitely original...but I felt that Cameron was trying too much to be like the original Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnette) rather than trying to make this character her own.

Also, while it was fabulous to hear Jamie Foxx singing show tunes, and the other musical inserts into the movie, Cameron's lack of vocal talent was a bit of a damper on things. I wouldn't have minded if they dubbed a real singer's vocals over her parts, for the sake of the movie. It wasn't unbearable, but it just wasn't right for a "musical." Cameron's a great actress, but I think in this case they could have found a Miss Hannigan with real singing talent, and less over-the-top antics emulating a character that has already been done wonderfully. Carol Burnette's role was so strong and such an iconic character in movie history, that it may have been impossible for any actress to come in and make that role her own.

But despite that small distraction from the plot and songs...the movie is really enjoyable. Cheesy...most definitely! At the end when the full cast is dancing and skipping their way down the streets of New York, I had to laugh. It's corny, but it's ANNIE! I would expect nothing less.

It's nice to see pop culture take the steps to recreate classic pieces, and to infuse realistic cast changes and visuals. I love that the generation of today's children can enjoy the story and music that I have always loved, and do so in a hip and current manner.

Great movie for kids, and for big kids like me who can relive their childhood through the adventures of this loveable little orphan. Black or white...Annie is an uplifting story.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: LOVE ENOUGH by Dionne Brand

There is something extremely comforting about picking up a book that you can connect to by default because of a shared living experience...yet still feel as though you are learning more about yourself (and your city), and the characters as a result of the literary closeness. That is what piqued my interest about this novel.

Dionne Brand's novel Love Enough is based in Toronto--a city I was born and raised in--and it tells the stories of a few intertwining characters and their individual experiences with love and life, all to the same familiar backdrop. Toronto itself is a character in this story; for any Torontonian just the mention of speeding down the Don Valley Parkway, or gazing down Dupont street brings such recognition and an immediate understanding of at least the physical journey.

The emotional journeys are complex, and rightfully so, as each character's story unfolds. It is an authentic urban Toronto tale, highlighting the city, yet highlighting the very distinct lives of the main characters. The middle-aged June, a social worker who reflects on her lovers of the past, while reconciling her differences and connection with her current partner. There's Bedri and Ghost, the young thugs who are trying to make sense of their criminal actions while frantically navigating the streets of the city. There's the young woman Lia, battling emotions about her drug addicted mother, while daydreaming about her carefree associates out exploring the world. The characters all have a connection, yet all are grappling with issues of love on various levels, and making sense of themselves in the process.

Brand's writing style is very beautiful. Needless to say, as a former Poet Laureate of Toronto (from 2009-2012), her novel is also extremely poetic. The sadness, the anger, and the joys are described with careful precision, and poignant phrasing.

And while Toronto itself is described within the journeys of the characters, the book is fragmented as it moves between the various individuals with each chapter, and tells pieces of the story, bit by bit, jumping between locations, feelings, and story lines.

June and her lover Sydney share their space, yet have distinctly different ways of viewing the world. June is a practical woman, skeptical and realistic, while Sydney is a dreamer, a believer, and a lover. And very early in the book, Brand summarizes that despite their constant arguing and differences...love is enough to keep them together. "Perhaps..."

This theme resonates throughout the entire story...that "perhaps" love is enough.

What I love about this book is the way the elements of multicultural Toronto touch all of the figures that appear, regardless of their race. Tamil, Somali, Caribbean, Latin, or European...they range in ethnicity, yet still have a grittiness of the city that influences their daily experiences.

Along with this grittiness, is a constant feeling of longing...of yearning for something, someone, or somewhere that the characters have yet to come to terms with. While they go through their routines, work, leisure, or home life...you sense that they are all seeking more. They are seeking stability. And, of course love on some level.

"Here again, June did not understand the mysteries of intimacy..."

"Mercede's love could not hold out against her panic of never being loved enough..."

Photo via Toronto Star
I was most moved by the character Da'uud, father of Bedri, and his thoughts about returning to his home country of Somali--his internal description of the long travel process, the switching of flights, atmosphere of the various airports, and the eventual arrival. There was a feeling of hope in this passage, when he recollected the power of being "home" and how it made all other issues insignificant, once he was back in his comfort zone.

Along with the feelings of longing for love, Da'uud's passage reflected the need for acceptance and comfort in all of the characters. Taking long journeys to find a place they were familiar with, accepted as is, and comfortable navigating. Yet despite originating from another location in some cases, the story is a reminder that they are all now a part of the big and fast-paced city of Toronto, and their moods and thought processes reflect the city life.

"The Don Valley Parkway swallows sound, it crushes time..."

You don't have to be a Torontonian to appreciate the stories, but it is the mentions of the patty shops on Eglinton West, or a character's emotional ties to the Yonge subway line for example, that makes the references so culturally significant. When the young men commit a crime, while proudly yelling out declarations of mischief...you can feel their tension as they navigate the westbound 401 highway towards the Allen Express. The city is a natural part of everyone's experience, despite what they are going through.

"But if you walk down a street and find a parallel version of your life, then you must become aware of the world and being aware of it means you can do something about it..."

There is no "happy ending" to Love Enough. This book is simply a moment in time in their lives, and concludes just as it begins...on the subject of love, and it's ambiguity. In a state of confusion, on the brink of revelation. While the characters do not change much as individuals by the book's end, you do get the sense that they are more aware of their positioning in the city and in their lives, as a result of the constant reflection and discussion about their individual battles. So while the challenges are evident, there is a bit of hope that things will work out if they continue to analyze and progress in this direction.

This was my first full reading of a Dionne Brand book (extremely long overdue), and I was moved by her writing, her ability to create feelings of sadness, yearning, and uncertainty in the city, and yet still perfectly line it with enough possibility of love, and of being loved, that it felt real.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Monday, December 1, 2014

VH1's "Love and Hip Hop" is Raising my Blood Pressure

Like, whoa.
I am all for pop culture, urban culture, hip hop music, entertainment, glitz, glamour, and taking an inside look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In fact, if I have a choice...I usually choose to watch reality TV, music programming, awards shows, or something with entertainment value.

But this show! My goodness!

Fortunately, I haven't had access to VH1, as a Canadian. I've only had second-hand references of most of their television programming, or occasionally we get to see some of the shows on our networks and see what's up.

But this shit. Wow.

I thought I'd take a look at the show I've heard much about, and started with Love and Hip Hop seasons 1 and 2, from back in 2011. It was interesting, right off the bat. I can't lie, I was immediately drawn into the drama and the intersecting story lines. Most importantly, I was really digging Chrissy Lampkin and her strong personality, her values, and the relationship she had with rapper Jim Jones. I didn't know much about either of them beforehand, but watching the show really made me a new fan. I think they're adorable...and real. Without being tacky.

I read that they had their own spinoff after season 2, so I just switched from Love and Hip Hop and took it to Chrissy and Mr. Jones show instead. Besides, Chrissy and Jim were the main reason I was watching after the end of the second season, so I chose to follow their story. And I did as far as my television access could take me.

Only to discover in passing that there's yet another spinoff called Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood that was filmed this year. Instead of living in 2011 and trying to catch up on old stories, I thought I'd give this series a look. Ray J was in it. Omarion and Apryl. A few other recognizable faces, so I thought it might be interesting....but I'm only like 3 episodes in, and I cannot.

I cannot complain about a show that I chose to watch. And I certainly can't discuss it with anyone, because I don't think anyone I know is actively watching this ratchet program...

But what the eff??

First of all, they do realize they're being televised, right? What I've seen so far is soooo embarassing in terms of adult behvaiour, that I can barely watch. My own pride is hurting. My own blackness is shamed. My own sense of judgement is being questioned to the point where I just had to stop. I HAD to stop because I felt myself getting angry! Like, who behaves like that?

Furthermore...is any amount of money worth that humiliation? Do these women realize how grimy and ugly their behaviour is? Is it really that entertaining to see people make fools of themselves, all for a cheque and some fame? Is anyone going to profit long-term from being a part of this mess?

Aside from some of the few authentically talented individuals on the program who can most likely sustain a career afterwards, and who managed to keep their cool and act maturely...what is the goal with this?

What amazes me is how the most BEAUTIFUL of women can act sooooooo disgusting. Who wants to date that? Marry that? Support that? Respect that? Like, they are living in the city of dreams, with access to money, power, fame, television executives, music industry folk...and somehow this is the behaviour that they see fit to get ahead? I guess so, because I see a lot of them bringing children into the world together, co-habitating, and I guess some people really have normalized this behaviour and the lifestyle.

Maybe it's me? OK, maybe it's not that serious....but honestly!

Maybe I'm being naive, and a lot of this is scripted and deliberate, and a part of a master plan to fame and fortune. And maybe I'm sensitive to this freaking circus show, because I also have refused to watch the Real Housewives of ANYWHERE, or even allow myself to get caught up in the wine throwing, name calling, and weave pulling reunion shows and uber-successful programming that clearly millions of others are in love with. For years now.

But this shit ain't for me. I swear.

I can't even finish the season. I can't even check to see what happens to Ray J and his ex-girl, or Omarion and his mama, or Souljah Boy and Teddy Riley's daughter, or the bleach blond chic with the pink lipstick who just moved out from her roommate's apartment and thinks she's dating that dude Young Ferg or Berg...or whomever. Or the Latin dude with the two girlfriends.

I can not.

I gave it a try. Thank you VH1. Thank you to the producer Mona who is clearly getting PAID off of this very popular brand. Thank you for bringing me into the world of hip hop "behind the scenes"...but I think I'll just stick to being a consumer on the digital music end, a listener on the radio or in the club, and a passive observer of music videos and AMA performances.

P.S. I really feel for the children, teenagers, and young adults who are eating this kinda entertainment up...and I pray that somewhere along the line they can differentiate between entertainment value, and ridiculousness. Because the gold chains, the pretty handbags,the cars, the beautiful people, and the palm trees and VIP access is really enticing on screen...but let's just hope the behaviours are truly an anomaly that are captured, and that the real professionals are operating with a bit more civility.

I'm going to go back to calmer pastures, and quieter programs. I'm going to read a new book to un-train my mind from this million dollar GHETTONESS, maybe do a little more writing, and just call it an evening.



OK...maybe just ONE more episode. And then I quit. For real.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: The Poetry Express by Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete

I purchased Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete's book Shadow Walkers: The Glory of Kings at the recent Toronto International Book Fair, and received The Poetry Express as a bonus gift. I was drawn to read the poetry first, after reading the individual titles, taking a quick scan of the images, and realizing that this snippet of creations from Nabutete would be a great introduction into his other projects.

In this first edition of The Poetry Express, entitled "What Would I Want to Be?" Nabutete presents 17 pieces that explore a variety of topics, emotions, and writing styles. One thing is consistent: Nabutete is a compassionate artist, and also a thinker. A deep and critical thinker.

For me, it is difficult to assess and review poetry because the perception of each piece and each message will depend on the reader, the reader's state of mind, and their knowledge of poetry and experience with this form of writing. As a fiction writer--and someone who is admittedly not extremely familiar with the unique and beautiful art form of poetry--I was challenged to look at each piece as its own story and at the end of my reading, take a look at the collection as a whole.

There are 17 pieces, and they all resonate well on a social awareness level. Readers of all backgrounds can find familiarity, truths, and will be moved by the carefully constructed phrases, and the numerous questions that are highlighted within the writings.

In Vision, Nabutete discusses leadership, responsibility, and what we base our personal evaluations of life on. The Day I Met Myself explores the progression of life and the internal quest to self-discovery by challenging oneself. The Question is Why investigates why he has chosen the field of poetry/spoken word to express himself, while The Wave that Swept Away the Sea gets romantic and describes Nabutete's time with a particular woman and how he learned to put her needs first.

The poem The Wind That Blows explains how we never really know which direction political powers will move, and What Would I Want to Be explores the creation of Nabutete's art and how it should always evoke a positive feeling, elements of leadership, and reflect value. Few and Far In-Between investigates thoughts about time, opportunity, human hope and belief, while I Didn't Pretend continues to explore a romantic relationship and his role as a man.

How You'll Remember My Name reflects on racism, and Nabutete's understanding of Canada (I loved the line that read "they didn't realize I was a king"), and I The African Leader continues in the same direction, as he contemplates how he will create an inspirational image and legacy. The poem Nathaniel's Ode is about a childhood locale named Spruce Street, his humility and coming of age as a quiet soul, with a few words of encouragement for setting a plan and purpose for life.

Shisha and Tea (my favourite poem in the book) describes the shared pleasures between a man and woman, highlighting their deep connection, and the impact that special moments have on their lives.

The Horn of Empty, the longest piece in the book, is a writing that addresses the political upheaval in Kenya following the presidential elections of 2007, and the resulting climate. In this piece in particular, Nabutete's passion for Kenya is evident, as well as his dedication to understanding leadership, his hopes for the future of Kenya, and his recommendations for change.

Honey and Creation is a charming play on the natural beauty of honey, while comparing it to the emptiness of money and what it represents to the human soul. Coin Flip proposes that it is a sin to hide one's talents, and the importance of staying true to one's heart. Love and Joy reflects on the two "pillars that have been tried and tested," and I Took A Walk outlines the writer's reflection through his own personal history, and his journey towards self-knowledge.

From love to violence, politics to honey, internal exploration to external questioning, this book of poetry leaves you feeling as though you have touched on a variety of subjects, yet they all still hold the same central themes: understanding, awareness, progression, and purpose.

Through exploring these themes by constructing these poems and spoken word pieces, Nabutete proves to be a writer that is not afraid to expose his personal weaknesses and challenges, yet is also not afraid to celebrate his natural powers and culture, while aspiring for continued greatness. There is a quiet strength to his writing, and as a result lends to the perception that as a writer he is someone who is prepared to take on the toughest of challenges and subjects, but with the sensitivity and insightfulness to understand the bigger picture and social implications.

I was pleased with this introductory book of poetry from Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete, and recommend that others use is a tool for self-evaluation through the various questions posed. It is an entertaining read, with helpful social messages as well. A great combination of Nabutete's knowledge and creativity.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.