SponCon & On & On...

SponCon & On & On...

Welcome to Inbox Infinity, a music writer's attempt to recapture excitement via his Gmail inbox.

On Monday, Complex ran an interview with Donald Glover. That, in and of itself, is newsworthy, because even on the rare occasion that he sits down for a print Q&A, there's a chance that he's going to act like the multi-hyphenate he is and play both the interviewee and the interviewer. There's never been less incentive for celebrities to allow themselves to be profiled by reputable outlets—they already have their audience in the palm of their hand, and it's a hell of a lot safer to curate your own image than it is to allow a sharp critical mind to probe around in your life—so any time someone of Glover's stature opens his mouth near a writer's recording device, it's a W for the profession as a whole.

Complex head of music Eric Skelton conducted a much more engaging, thoughtful interview than I could've, getting Glover to open up about contemporary music, his public image, and his opinions on artificial intelligence. But there's one part of the whole profile that stuck in my craw, one tooth-shattering grain of sand in an otherwise tasty, well-rinsed salad: the Bose headphones—I'm sorry, Bose's new QuietComfort Ultra headphones, which pop up in the sub-headline, the introduction, an embedded video, and the interview itself. (Note: since I started writing this, Complex has edited a sentence that once included the entire name of the headphone model, so what once was "Bose's new QuietComfort Ultra headphones" is now the less glaringly promotional "Bose's new headphones." They did not issue a correction. Fortunately, I have a screenshot of the original text.)

Sponsored Content, or SponCon, is everywhere. It's how influencers make money; it's why television channels still exist. It's only when SponCon bumps up against media that's claiming to be unbiased that it becomes a problem—Tonight on Channel 2 News, brought to you by Toyota: why your Honda Accord is slowly killing you—that sort of thing. Journalistic outlets have to sell ad space too, but ideally that space is in between paragraph breaks, not inside the paragraphs themselves.

Acting like this is unheard of, and that this is a bridge too far for Complex, is silly. There's been a number of well-publicized cases of poorly disguised SponCon in media journalism (the field I know best) within the past few years, my two favorite being Business Insider's "How an LA band completed a tour around North America in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van" (comically published on March 22, 2020) and Uproxx's "Breaking Up In Joshua Tree Helped Me Understand My Own Twisted Heart" (an ad for Fairfield Inn and Buick disguised as a breakup essay). Coincidentally, one year ago today, Complex also ran a holiday gift guide that opened with a paragraph of copy shilling for Swedish fintech company Klarna ("with Klarna, you won’t have to break the bank"). In all of these cases, there's no disclaimer, none of the "paid for by..." messages that accompany, say, a political ad.

The blame for these irresponsible articles rests almost entirely on these publications' upper brass—no writer I've ever met is openly courting a brand tie-in over a straight-up, no-holds-barred interview. Especially for staff writers, who are gainfully employed by the publications they write for, it's probably frowned upon, if not a fireable offense, to turn down SponCon if and when it winds up in your lap. It's easy to sneer from my high horse as an underpaid-but-unbeholden freelancer.

I've never been presented with the opportunity to write outright SponCon, but I have eaten my fair share of shit sandwiches in my work as a writer. As an editor at HotNewHipHop from 2014-2015, I was often asked to bump up review scores of artists with whom the site had a "relationship" (or wanted a "relationship"), and I only pushed back a few times. At the same job, I wrote a blurb about a Father/OG Maco concert that the site threw for the launch of a clothing brand that they owned, and I was asked to not disclose the connection between the site and the brand. And the worst one: While putting together a 2020 GQ profile of a director who worked on The Weeknd's After Hours, said director asked if he could see the transcript of our interview so he could "make corrections," which is a big no-no in journalistic ethics, but I complied because A) English was his second language and I didn't want him to fuck up his career by accidentally misspeaking and B) I wanted to stay on his good side so he would provide quotes from The Weeknd for the profile.

If you want to make some semblance of an income as a culture writer, you're going to encounter sticky situations like these. There are undoubtedly writers out there who've been more morally upstanding in their careers than I have, and I applaud them. This isn't political reporting, where protecting a source's name is sometimes a life-and-death matter, but this integrity shit is still important.

More than anything, SponCon just bums me out. The media landscape is dire enough as it is without advertisers assuming that readers are dumb enough to mistake bald-faced product placement for objective content. But I'm done bitching; it's going to continue happening and the most productive thing I can do about it is write the type of music criticism/journalism/thinkpieces/tweets that I would want to read myself. How apt that Donald Glover said a similar thing in The Interview: presented by Bose:

I got bored with people saying, like, "This world is shit." It's kind of like when people say, "Oh, this traffic is so bad." I'm like, "You are traffic." You can't sit there and be like, "Oh man, the traffic was horrible. I'm sorry, I was late." You are traffic. You're in it. Without you, there would be no traffic. So if you're sitting here being like, "The world is shit," it's like, you are the world. You have to take that responsibility. So I focused on making sure that everything I'm making is shit that I wish was in the world.

Plug One

This morning, Stereogum published my 10th anniversary essay on Danny Brown's Old. It's an album I anticipated a great deal in 2013—I can't tell you how many times I watched the video of Brown performing the then-unreleased "Side B (Dope Song)" at Coachella that summer—but I now rank it at the bottom of his discography. Read the rest of my thoughts here.

Plug Two

Over the years I've tuned in and out of Daniel Lopatin's music. My introduction to him came via his wildly underrated 2010 vaporwave EP That We Can Play, released under his and then-frequent collaborator Joel Ford's short-lived Games moniker. 10+ years ago, I wasn't as interested in ambient music as I am now, so I didn't keep up with Lopatin's Oneohtrix Point Never project (with which he's now almost synonymous) despite all of the critical praise it was garnering. Getting to the party late via 2015's Garden of Delete, I've since come to enjoy a wide variety of his work, whether it be high-profile recent stuff (production for The Weeknd, Safdie brothers scores, an Alex G collaboration) or archival highlights that I missed the first time around.

Sam Goldner and Ted Davis are ambient/experimental experts and two of my favorite writers doing it right now, and they have much firmer grasps on Lopatin's career arc. Goldner reviewed OPN's latest for Pitchfork, and while I don't share his belief that Lopatin's work has yielded incrementally diminishing returns over time, he makes a very convincing case that the spark that first attracted him to the now-A-list electronic god is gone. Davis wrote lovingly about R Plus Seven, the first OPN album that connected with him, for its 10th anniversary at Stereogum.

BOI (Best of Inbox) #3

Absolutely - "Symphony"

Speaking of 0PN, this is the exact sort of pop music that he could have had a hand in (or even inspired?). In actuality, the latest single from British singer Absolutely's upcoming debut is produced by Dave Hamelin, a member of the now-defunct Montreal indie band The Stills who's gone on to work with Leikeli47, 070 Shake, and on Renaissance highlight "Alien Superstar," Beyoncé. Absolutely (great stage name, BTW) first popped up on my radar when she appeared on the title track of Tinashe's fantastic 2021 album 333, and she's making some very intriguing R&B-adjacent major label pop. Her first album, CEREBRUM, arrives on 11/17.

body / negative - "persimmon"

If you were into the Vyva Melinkolya song I posted last week, this will also be in your wheelhouse. In fact, Melinkolya's recent collaborator, Midwife, also worked on a few tracks from Everett, the upcoming album by body / negative, the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Andy Schiaffino. "persimmon" is bright but muffled, a fond memory obscured by layers of temporal distortion. I'm excited to hear what the rest of their album holds, especially upon learning that Slowdive's Simon Scott mastered it. Everett is out 12/08.

Charlène Darling - "Encore Un Soir"

This seven-minute stunner caught me off guard. I don't think I've ever said this about anything else released within the past 20 years, but "Encore Un Soir" reminds me of early Velvet Underground. The creeping dread, the stunningly minimal arrangement, the thinly-veiled sensuality—it's all there. Charlène Darling is a Parisian singer and multi-instrumentalist that I've never heard of in my life (though yet again, this is an album mastered by a musician I know of and enjoy, Mikey Young of Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Total Control), but I'll be paying attention from here on out. Darling's album La Porte is out 11/03.

Daniel Villarreal Feat. Jeff Parker & Anna Butterss - "Salute"

This just fucking grooves. Daniel Villarreal is a drummer from Chicago who just released his debut album, Panamà 77, last year, and his upcoming Lados B (translation: Side B) is, as its title suggests, a collection of outtakes from those sessions. The crucial thing to note is that those sessions featured fellow Chicago fixture Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Makaya McCraven, his own revelatory solo work) on guitar and Anna Butterss (boygenius, SASAMI, Aimee Mann) on bass. "Salute" finds the chillest point between jazz, funk, and R&B, and hangs there for a cool 3:24. Lados B is out tomorrow, 10/06.

Dying Wish - "Path To Your Grave"

Whenever I press play on a song by a metalcore band I've never heard, I prepare for the worst and pray for the best. "Path To Your Grave" is a down-the-middle example of what I enjoy within the genre—emotionally rewarding composition, skillful musicianship, and a clear throughline between the heavy and melodic parts. It's great. Dying Wish's Symptoms of Survival is out 11/03.

Gabriel Birnbaum - "Something Happened That Seemed To Point At Me Like an Arrow"

Gabriel Birnbaum fronts Wilder Maker, a Brooklyn indie rock band that I've never listened to, and says he caught the "pandemic-ambient" fever back in 2020 when he released an instrumental album under his birth name. He's now back with a follow-up entitled Nightwater | All the Dead Do is Dream, and it's not hard to see how this sort of serene music acted as a balm in the early days of COVID. "Something Happened That Seemed To Point At Me Like an Arrow" is a tranquil amble featuring warbling synths, reverb-y nocturnal guitar, and even some spectral saxophone. Lovely stuff. Nightwater | All the Dead Do is Dream is out 11/03.

HUNNY Feat. Justin Courtney Pierre - "ring in ur ear"

I'm not 100% sold on this band's whole thing, but my god is this song catchy. HUNNY are an L.A. band who blur the lines between power pop and pop punk, so what better choice for a collaborator than the frontman of their similarly focused forebears Motion City Soundtrack (you remember him, he's the one with the hair)? At other times on their upcoming album HUNNY's New Planet Heaven, the band can be a little earnest for my taste—reminding me why I never got into another '00s L.A. band, Rooney—but "ring in ur ear" is too hooky and too infectiously wistful for me to deny. I love the way the first verse contrasts with Courtney Pierre's, showing the different role nostalgia plays across the two singers' age gap. HUNNY's New Planet Heaven is out tomorrow, 10/06

Lady London & Dreezy - "Yea Yea"

What you want, for me to lie to you?/Talk to you like I desire you? What a way to open a track. "Yea Yea" doesn't let up for a second, with Lady London and one of my longtime favorite Chicago rappers, Dreezy, just getting ruthless about their respective collections of sidepieces. To wit: "If that card decline, I'ma do the same to your phone call," "Boy, you in the NBA and on an NDA (Sign here)," "Don't try and get for me to pose for your pictures, scary/I'm just lookin' for mimosas and missionary." Hell yeah.

Prize Horse - "Your Time"

The way this Minneapolis trio manage to blend Jesus Lizard-style post-hardcore, '90s slacker vibes, and some tasty, shoegaze-adjacent effects is admirable. Very Midwest in a "could've signed to Touch & Go in 1992" way. A press release accompanying "Your Time" hints at more new music at the top of 2024, so stay tuned.

Shuta Hasunuma - "Emergence"

This is the only song I've heard from Japanese "sound artist" Shuta Hasunuma's upcoming album, but between it and the guests he's got lined up, color me excited. "Emergence" is a peppy, beepy-bloopy dancefloor jam that sounds equally inspired by Chicago footwork and Yellow Magic Orchestra's jarring synth-pop. The impending album unpeople is set to feature Jeff Parker (hi, again!), sampledelia legend Cornelius, experimental legend Keiji Haino, workhorse drummer Greg Fox (Uniform, Owen Pallet, Lingua Ignota, Liturgy, etc.), and several other Japanese artists from all over the musical spectrum. It's out tomorrow, 10/06.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson