In spite of its title and artwork, Akinyele’s debut album Vagina Diner1 is the least profane recording in the Queens native’s discography. All of the actual cusses are edited out and his lyrics rarely stray into the nearly pornographic territory of his later works. In response to this relative lack of salaciousness, reviewer Tom Doggett declares the album to be “surprisingly tame,”2 Â but this is not exactly true. A significant portion of the album is dedicated to frank, even psychologically penetrating examinations of the vagaries of urban life; claustrophobic living conditions, dysfunctional relationships, and the lure of criminality figure heavily.
Vagina Diner‘s treatment of Â such trying circumstances differs from the rap norm in that the narrator of its bizarre episodes wields a voice that is singularly, almost fiendishly abrasive. I am referring not to Akinyele’s annoying habit of emphasizing Â certain syllables with a kind of grunt, but rather the Â garrulous, uneasy, but likable persona inhabiting many of his early songs; imagine an inner-city adolescent on the brink of manhood with an id that knows few bounds. When I listen to a song like “No Exit”3 I envision Akinyele’s narrator as an inhabitant of the same densely populated, fast-moving, polyglot greater Corona, Queens world4 as Alejandro of the 2007 indie flick Chop Shop.5
Akinyele’s narrator and Alejandro could be foils if they were ever allowed to share screen or record time; the chasm of difference that separate their existences testifies to the staggering ethno-cultural and experiential diversity one can find clustered into this peculiar part of Queens.6 Akinyele’s narrator is a dapper streetwise thuggish manchild from the forty acre middle-income apartment development known as Lefrak City.7 He is a refined predator of sorts, and uses his preternatural insight into the vulnerables psyche of the around the way girl to lure them into abusive relationships.
Alejandro on the other hand, is an industrious, ultra-precocious orphan who just barely earns his keep working in the numerous brown market auto repair shops and scrap yards of Willets Point, Â a sewer-less neighborhood that stood in the shadow of Shea Stadium until the ballpark was demolished in 2009. Akinyele commandeers the voice of an arrogant nihilist with a Â juvenile world view, while Alejandro is uncannily adult; both characters are heavily stressed by their liminal position between an eroded childhood and an unstable, bleak version of what passes for adulthood in the city.
Both characters display an outward confidence that is undermined by their lack of power in a larger social sense. Alejandro is nonchalantly privy to the vice that rears its head in his impoverished environment but carries the burden of being unable to steer his chronologically older sister from the street life. He attempts to automate the process by securing shelter and work for her and incorporates her into his dream to purchase an operate a food truck, but he is too much of an innocent to realize that his attempts to control her life through surveillance and manipulation are futile no matter how well intended. Akinyele’s narrator is also increasingly frustrated by the impossibility of fullyÂ suppressingÂ another human’s autonomy, continually devising ways to keep his girlfriend in check.
In the absence of such control, both characters despair, and their behavior changes for the worse. Alejandro dabbles in petty criminal behavior and small acts of violence that he directs outwardly, away from his sister, while Akinyele’s narrator becomes physically abusive after psychological manipulation proves ineffective. These are not congruent characters —Alejandro is motivated by sincere brotherly concern, a far cry from the violent narcissistic rage of Akinyele’s narrator— but they are multidimensional beings whose lives are tremendously impacted by their shared predicament. They are familiar to any fan of rap music or Â “urban” films: young minority males growing up quickly, undereducated members of a superfluous labor force, and the heirs to zero discernible forms of power apart from their gender. — Thun
- I wrote a review for Vagina Diner back in ’05; looking back it is admittedly not a hugely insightful review but it’s an adequate description of the album’s merits. [↩]
- Read his otherwise informative review of Vagina Diner here. [↩]
- If you like this song, troop on over to Verge’s post from earlier today in which he brings you the rare remix. [↩]
- Dallas Penn has written extensively about growing up in this area. His blog isn’t easy to search, so here are some pieces of interest: “Grand Theft Auto” describes the lure of crime in Corona in the ’80s, “You Can’t Go Home Again” talks more about Corona, including Willets Point, while “Illmatic Cinematic” is his response to viewing Chop Shop. [↩]
- Peep the trailer above and read up on the flick here. You can watch in on Netflix Instant if you’re hip to that sort of thing. Alejandro’s role is brilliantly portrayed by Alejandro Polanco, in his first ever acting role. [↩]
- To say nothing of the characters such a place seems to inspire. [↩]
- Also known as “Iraq” to fans of Capone-N-Noreaga, of course. [↩]