In last season’s “New Jazz,” Al is faced with a kind of guardian angel in the form of Lorraine, a fabulously sarcastic young woman named after his mother. As Lorraine leads Al through Amsterdam as he stumbles over the space cake, her line of questions makes him reflect on his status as a black rap artist. The title of the episode is an obvious nod to the fact that rap music has become the new jazz music, mirroring itself almost identically in terms of popularity, racial backgrounds, and the possible unfair commodification of the art form. Black musicians in the Jazz Age were often exploited by white music executives who knew how popular and lucrative black music was becoming. 1920s blues singer Big Bill Broonzy once said, “I didn’t get royalties because I didn’t know about trying to demand money, you know?”
I consider tonight Atlanta to be a continuation of “New Jazz” and its themes of control, power, and who ultimately “owns” the culture, especially since this episode ended with Al discovering that Earn negotiated full ownership of the masters of Paper Boi when signing the recording contract. Although now, in season four, Al earns a significant amount of money after his tour and has the security of owning his catalog of music, he begins to realize that there may be a limit to his current success after having met other rappers in the same predicament. After a performance at a bar mitzvah, aspiring white rapper Benny’s father approaches Al and asks if he can teach his son to be a rapper. He asks Al how he makes his expressions and behavior “real”. Al rejects the offer until the father offers him $1 million to work with his son in the studio.
When Al arrives at the studio, it first sounds like the typical situation of rich white kids desperate for culture: there’s a white boy yodeling to trap beats and there’s a song recorded by Lil Rick called “The Ricky Rock”. with verses like “I rick, I rock, I tick, I tock.” Lil Rick’s manager, Bunk, joins him in the studio and asks Al if he wants to slip away for a real talk. They talk shit about the young boys they’re helping, then Bunk tells Al he should make ten million instead of one. He invites Al to an upcoming meeting with other like-minded people in the same position, which begins with one of the leaders saying, “If you’re here, it means you care about your future.” He launches into a spiel about how rapping alone doesn’t make you real money — the kind of money that separates the rich from the rich, that is. He explains how rapping is all about optics, which means white people will continue to be more profitable. He then comes up with a system of acquiring and mentoring YWAs, aka young white avatars, just like the kids Al was with at the studio. The goal? Give those kids a Grammy and get some cash.
Al dismisses the idea of having to rely on a YWA to maintain his wealth, arguing that he could just do another album himself and use the influence to do another tour. Bunk ends that argument by saying, “Nobody wants to hear from you…because you’re old.” You can never get bigger than your last album. They then show him a slideshow of the three stages of the rap game, going from street rapper, to OG, to someone who acts in family movies. Bunk tells him that there isn’t much room for Paper Boi to grow now that he has reached the stardom required for arena tours. He is right; there are only a limited number of Jay-Zs in a generation. The prophecy is already being written because, as Bunk points out, the kids at the studio had no idea who Paper Boi was. Unconvinced, Al says people fuck with him because he speaks for the streets, to which the leader of the meeting replies, “The streets can’t feed you.” Do you want to end up like Blue Blood? I loved this guy and didn’t even know he had released an album until he was in the ground for five months.
Season three recap Jordan Taliha McDonald beautifully compared Al’s grand journey during “New Jazz” to a dance called the cakewalk that originated on the plantations as a contest between slaves judged by their slavers. McDonald included this quote from Amiri Baraka: “If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance?” This quote stuck in my head for the duration of this episode; I kept thinking about how much of rap culture has become black rappers caricaturing certain white customs (lewd wealth, capitalism, gun violence, etc.) but the increase in white people appropriating the hip-hop aesthetic creates this weird circular situation of white people acting like black people who desperately want white power. Atlantadoing what he does best, goes one step further and overturns the stereotype of white executives exploiting black artists.
Al continues to try to sign Benny as a client, stopping at one of his high school performances. However, it turns out that Bunk nicked Benny, adding him to his clientele before Al could. The studio’s Yodel Kid is at the performance, ridiculously high on percs, and Al ends up taking him home. Fast forward to Grammy season, where we see Al attending a party with Bunk and other YWA managers. Bunk asks Al if he’s nominated for anything, but Al reveals that it’s not Paper Boi who’s nominated, but his new client: Yodel Kid. With Al’s help, the aspiring trap yodeler went platinum within three weeks. Unable to reach Yodel Kid, Al asks Benny if he has seen his friend, and Benny informs him of the unfortunate news of Yodel Kid’s fatal overdose. But according to Benny, the good news is that he will probably win the Grammy. And of course he does.
In a separate storyline, Earn goes on a mission to sign R&B singer D’Angelo to the management company he works for. He decides to try to sign the artist after his boss demands an emergency to help with damage control for an author who is caught in footage of Ring pulling a gun on a black teenager trying to raise money . Earn says he’d rather sign a new artist than help rebrand the racist author. He texts someone who may know D’Angelo’s hair braider and is directed to a rally. The fast food chain’s restroom has one door labeled “employees only” and the other is simply labeled “D’Angelo”. On the other side of the D’Angelo door, there’s a cement room that’s eerily reminiscent of a prison cell with a cot on the floor covering a bloodstain, chalk on the wall, and a man sitting in it. guard in front of an ornate door. Days pass, but Earn remains determined, passing the time by chalking on the walls, reading, and throwing a ball against the wall. When Earn asks for water, the guard points to a random cabinet containing a single packet of Dasani. Yes Dasani. Expecting to drink Dasani water after days of captivity is cruel and unusual punishment and I will explain no more.
The Dasani (correctly) evokes an outburst from Earn, who shouts, “Where’s D’Angelo?” Can I see D’Angelo? ? He sits down and says, “What is D’angelo?” We are D’Angelo. Let me experience it, D’Angelo. Apparently, those are the magic words as the ever-silent guard opens the door revealing a tunnel that leads to an apartment with a man making a sandwich while listening to Al Green pretending to be, you guessed it, D’Angelo. Well, not exactly D’Angelo, but the “experience” of D’Angelo claiming that people aren’t worthy of the real singer. The man says that D’Angelo is really just a “complex network of men, women and D’Angelo’s spread all over the country”, and that Earn has proven himself, then wipes a part peanut butter from his sandwich on Earn’s forehead. “D’Angelo” reminds Earn of a dream he says he had when he was eight where he was swimming and underwater held hands to reach him, but he fought to keep them from pulling him. He asks, “why are you so certain that the hands intend to hurt you?” Other than that thought resonating with my anxiety and inability to ask for or receive help, the whole scene is absurd, like the best scenes in Atlanta are.
I don’t know if the D’Angelo scene is meant to make us wonder what black music is if not a shared experience with a few select figureheads in the lead; a metaphor for the cult of celebrity worship and the hurdles we cross for superstars; or maybe something else entirely. But I can’t wait to hear the different theories from viewers. It’s the Atlanta I missed last season, the Atlanta it made me think for days and became an active participant in the art even when it made me feel uncomfortable or confused. Because, as Earn said, “It’s not about what feels good, it’s about what survives.”
• During the YWA meeting, another participant offers Al a plate of Oreo cookies. Instead of the traditional Oreo, these had a chocolate cookie and a vanilla cookie surrounding the cream. They reminded me of my ruminations around the Baraka quote and how black culture and white culture clash and intertwine.
• Benny referring to Al as the guy his dad “bought” me a good laugh. The irony of such terminology coupled with the way his father approached Al in the first place is a reminder that in many ways white people still see Darkness as a commodity and not a culture born of real human beings.
• One of my favorite pasts Atlanta episodes is the one that revealed that Justin Bieber is black. In tonight’s episode, Chief Keef is still an established rapper as he is in real life, but on the show he ventured into Ice Cube territory by starring in family movies. Personally, I’d love to see Chief Keef opposite maybe Nicole Beharie in a movie about a rapper turned family man.