Essays from 116th Street

Self-therapy, since 2004...

Location: New York, New York

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Thierry Henry, The World's Greatest

That's right, I said it. It had to be said. Somebody has to be willing to step up and declare the honest truth when it is most necessary, and this is why I will be the one. Aesthetics and La Liga titles aside, the truth must be known, and the truth is that Ronaldinho is not the world's greatest player. If anyone is most deserving of the FIFA World Player of the Year for 2006, that person is the one and only Thierry Henry.
Henry missed out on the award in 2004, despite Arsenal's undefeated Premier League season, most likely due to the fact that voters couldn't decide who was more integral to the team's success that season, Henry or then-captain Patrick Vieira. Ronaldinho undeservedly took the award, after leading Barcelona to only a second-place finish in La Liga. In 2005, Arsenal's dip in form, coupled with Barcelona's Spanish title, gave the award to El Gaucho for a second straight season, and this, coupled with Brazil's capture of the Confederations Cup gave little room for argument against Ronaldo de Assis Moreira.
This season, however, I have come to my conclusion, which is that no player in the world contributes more to his team's success than Henry does for Arsenal. I saw Ronaldinho score a fairly spectacular goal to move Barca past Chelsea in the Champions League, but I also saw him fade out for most of two matches, while his teenage teammate Lionel Messi outshone him. Yesterday, against an inferior Benfica club, he was unable to lift Barcelona past a 0-0 draw.
Arsenal, meanwhile, has spent much of the season coping with the loss of their captain Vieira (he was sold to Juventus in the offseason), a rash of injuries and the integration of a handful of teenagers into the squad as a means of overcoming the loss of manpower. With the club in crisis, Henry was handed the captaincy, and with it the mantle of leading this team of kids toward the modest goal of a salvageable season.
After a shaky start to the campaign, Arsenal has responded in a big way, playing their trademark style of zany, attacking football, with Henry leading the way. Underdogs against Real Madrid in the Champions League, they effectively dismissed Los Galacticos, with Henry driving Real crazy, flying around the pitch, passing to teammates and generally inspiring the baby Gunners with his skill and leadership. If Arsenal's youth squad grew up by vanquishing the superstars of Madrid, imagine the confidence boost they gained yesterday by defeating their former captain Vieira and mighty Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal showdown. It should surprise no one that Henry was the lynchpin, setting up 18-year-old Cesc Fabregas for a goal, then adding a tally of his own. With Henry leading the way, Arsenal must feel as if they are capable of winning the whole trophy, for the first time ever.
Should Arsenal win the Champions League, Henry's career achievements would actually outshine those of Ronaldinho's. Like Ronaldinho, Henry is already a World Cup winner and a two-time league champion, as well as being a member of France's Euro 2000 and Confederations Cup 2003 championship squads. He has been Arsenal's top scorer in every season he has played for the club, and is its all-time leading scorer after only seven seasons. He has also been top goalscorer in Europe two years running, and with 25 goals thus far this season, is in the running for the Golden Boot again this year. If that doesn't sound like the "World's Finest" to you, what does?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

You Better Thank Dave Chappelle

I was sitting in the world's worst movie theater, on 86th Street, watching the first two-thirds of Dave Chappelle's Block Party, when the picture suddenly cut out. As the boos from the audience poured in, and the technical crew scrambled (unsuccessfully) to get the movie back on, I thought to myself how transcendent the experience of watching the first 2/3 of this movie, with this audience, had truly been.
It was 2000, and I was in my college apartment, watching BET's Rap City, when the video for Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)'s "Move Something" video aired for the first time. Having already been forever altered by the lyrical brilliance of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, as well as moved by Mos Def's solo debut, Black on Both Sides, I was thrilled to see the less-famous half of the groundbreaking duo get some shine (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek [Reflection Eternal]'s 2000 album, Train of Thought is also a must-listen, by the way). "Move Something" was an average song/video (in true Kweli fashion, the second single, "The Blast," was far superior), but there was one thing about it that I couldn't shake: what the hell was Dave Chappelle doing in this video?
The thought of Dave Chappelle, hilarious albeit obscure comedian, not to mention the guy from Half Baked, somehow being down with Kweli, at the time a seriously underground rapper, was beyond the realm of comprehension. My first thought was that the label had arranged this, to make Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek seem more recognizable. Then, I realized that both Chappelle and Hi-Tek were from Ohio, so that must have been the connection. Still, my questions lingered: was Dave Chappelle secretly a backpacker? Was he down with the Soulquarians? Could he even be (gasp) an Okayplayer?
It is now 2006, and much has changed. The laptop has replaced the backpack, and the Soulquarians (the true ones, at least - Jay Dee [R.I.P.], ?uestlove, D'Angelo and James Poyser) are less closely associated with each other than they once were. As for Okayplayer, their artists are no longer underground, Angela Nissel is a best-selling author and Aaron McGruder has a hit TV show you may have heard of. The underground of 1999 has become the mainstream of 2006, enabled by a number of forces, among them the rise of Kanye West (who successfully attempted to merge underground sensibilities with a mainstream sound, and whose various collaborators have included representatives of both camps), the popularity of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott (who brought their brethren in the hip hop world along for the ride) and the best efforts of... Dave Chappelle?
Dave Chappelle, fairly obscure comedian and star of Half Baked, did a number of guest spots on Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)'s fantastic 2000 album, Train of Thought, in which he spoofed a few public figures, including Nelson Mandela and Rick James. He followed this with a hilarious opening to Talib Kweli's 2002 release Quality, confirming at the very least his fandom of Talib Kweli. When Chappelle's Show debuted in 2003, his experimental nature and commitment to personal authenticity carried over to his selection of musical guests. His very first musical guest was Mos Def (who later would become a regular sketch contributor), performing "Close Edge" from his forthcoming album, The New Danger. As the show progressed, it became a forum for some lesser-exposed artists to gain a new audience, and Chappelle's Show became the biggest showcase for alternative hip hop since MTV's short-lived (and probably not very good) Lyricist Lounge Show. Chappelle's Show featured a back-in-the-game De La Soul, a reunited Mos and Kweli as Black Star, and, perhaps most famously, a live performance of Common and Kanye West's "The Food," the recording of which was actually used on Common's 2005 album Be. By the time Chappelle appeared on the cover of XXL magazine in 2004 with Common, Kanye West, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez, his mission of bringing conscious hip hop to the mainstream had become clear as day.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party is undoubtedly the biggest and boldest of Chappelle's hip hop endeavors. In 2005, he organized an all-day concert at a secret location in Brooklyn (which I tried to get tickets to and failed), featuring Mos, Kweli, Erykah, Jill, The Roots, Dead Prez, Kanye, Common and (gasp!) a reunited Fugees, and had Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) shoot and direct a documentary of the event. Chappelle referred to it as the concert he's always wanted to see, and I'll be damned if it isn't the concert I've always wanted to see, too. With his comedy sprinkled throughout, and a positive vibe presiding over everything, the movie is an incredible event, especially if watched with an appreciative audience.
As I watched the first two-thirds of the film, I wondered to myself whether or not this is the end of an era, or merely another transient period. Very little of the artists' newer material made it into the film footage, causing me to think that the best work of their movement is already behind them (Erykah Badu's "Back In The Day," from her latest, Worldwide Underground, was especially compelling, however). At the same time, I also noted how critics were amazed to discover this pocket of artists previously unknown. Perhaps an entirely new segment will discover the genius behind Black Star, Things Fall Apart or Like Water For Chocolate, and we won't even need more classic material. Or maybe the best is yet to come for all of us, whether backpackers, Soulquarians, Okayplayers or partially-employed temps. All I know is that the horrible theater on 86th Street gave us two free passes each for #*^%ing up our movie, so me and Joe went back to make it through to the end. It was so much fun, it made me want to go to my job and tell my boss, "#*^% you, give me my money - HIT ME!!!"