Okayplayer T-shirt

Okayplayer’s Future

On September 29, Okayplayer.com's editorial staff revealed on social media that they had been laid off without warning. (Full disclosure: I wrote a story for Okayplayer earlier this year.) The ensuing dialogue around their collective dismissal led to fears that Okayplayer was "dead," so to speak; or that it may turn into a "zombie site" — to borrow a phrase from journalist Jeff Weiss — that only posts AI-generated content and the occasional advertiser-friendly article. Then, on October 4, the site's owners posted a statement from Okaymedia CEO Isha Sesay on Twitter/X. "For many years Okayplayer has been a mainstay for lovers of black culture," Sesay wrote. "So it is with tremendous sadness that the growing challenges within the digital media space and the ways in which content is being consumed today have brought us to the point of having to say goodbye to some of our friends and colleagues." That same day, its social media accounts began posting banal fodder about sundry pop events. Last week brought a handful of new articles, including an essay on Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron and an interview with Anthony Hamilton. (Those pieces may have been edited before the September 29 layoffs.) The intrigue surrounding Okayplayer comes amid a dearth of sites that cover hip-hop with journalistic integrity. Many of its onetime peers are either shells of their former selves (allhiphop.com), focused on rap drama (hiphopdx.com), and/or overly solicitous of celebrities (vibe.com). Meanwhile, young fans seem content with following ad hoc accounts that traffic in sensationalism or waiting for a mainstream outlet like Pitchfork or the New York Times to take notice of trends. Okayplayer has had its ups-and-downs since Questlove originally formed the company in 1999 to spotlight the Roots' adventures and his "Soulquarians" friends like Mos Def, Common, and Erykah Badu. However, recent years also brought increasing acclaim as the editorial staff generated sharply written essays, interviews, and news items. Okaymedia wouldn't be the first music media company to jettison staff for cheaper talent: the Fader, for example, is notorious for periodically downsizing its bylines. Meanwhile, Okaymedia figurehead Questlove has yet to comment on the matter, even as he promotes his various projects. His silence speaks worrying volumes.


MIKE, Burning Desire

Brooklyn rapper Michael “MIKE” Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single “Mayors a Cop.” His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly “African Sex Freak Fantasy,” a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that’s larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Real Love,” and ends “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” with the Notorious B.I.G.’s chorus on “Crush on You.” His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to “a Sistine” on “Sixteens.”) The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, “I couldn’t cope with my feelings like Romeo” on “Snake Charm,” which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on “Should Be!” The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album’s strongest cuts, “What You Say You Are.” As MIKE raps, “I’m Michael Myers with the dreads,” he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city’s elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, “What You Say You Are” lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)

Shabazz Palaces, Robed in Rareness

“All I want to do is see the girls get a chance/All I want to do is see the bros getting bands,” chants Ishmael Butler on the chorus for “Binoculars.” To that end, the Seattle rapper and bandleader stocks the 24-minute Robed in Rareness with younger prospects of varying experience, from relative unknowns like Royce the Choice and O FINESS to his son and melodic rap veteran Lil Tracy. None of them add much. Instead, the project’s success hinges on Butler’s bejeweled production, which weds electronic funk with spooky, spacey tones. Only “Gel Bait,” which sports an appearance from Geechi Suede of Camp Lo, brings much needed vocal aggression as the two complain about sundry opps and haters. This is Butler’s second major project this year, following an enigmatic outing as Lavarr the Starr on Illusions Ago. That excursion turned Butler into a singer, a shift he has toyed with since Shabazz Palaces’ excellent 2017 single “Shine a Light.” By contrast, Robed in Rareness feels a bit slighter although it closes nicely with “Hustle Crossers.” “Take me away from here,” he pleads in a melodic voice. “I’m lost in a dream.” Rapper/singer Porter Ray appears on “P Kicking G.” Robed in Rareness was released on Sub Pop Records.