Who’s Next?

Portrait by: Karl Staudinger

There you were.

No one really knew you back then. Shit…we still don’t. You had just dropped a single and garnered a little bit of fame from it. We were in L.A. for a music and awards luncheon celebrating Earth, Wind, and Fire. No big cameras out in full force, no autograph seekers. It was cool. I had my drink and was mingling. I nodded my head in true bruh fashion. Not downward toward the thin, outdated, wine-stained carpet that almost seemed as if it didn’t belong with the rest of the surroundings in the Beverly Hills Hotel, but toward the sky.

“What up.” You nodded back. “What up.”

I wondered if you were thinking the same thing as I was: couldn’t they have at least cleaned the fucking carpet? Hunnit dollas for this shit? Probably not. You were talking to someone when suddenly another brother approached you. “Kanye, can I get a picture, man?” “Not right now, I’m speaking with somebody,” you said kindly. “Let me finish my conversation and I’ll get back with you.” I don’t know why I found that surprising. You actually looked a little embarrassed as you attempted to smile that now-famous accident-altering smile of yours. Yup, that was you alright.

Beats were fire. Flow was ok – but give it a few years. A popular analysis back then was, “He can flow but he’s not a lyricist.” You weren’t anywhere near my Top Five. Your production, though? Wooo…

Over the years, you turned into that dude. Your flow got better. Or maybe it had been the same all this time, it’s just that we were only now catching up to what you already knew. Your name became known in popular culture’s circles more than ever. Along with that type of popularity comes a voice that reverberates beyond the pretty soundproofed studio walls where classics are made. Some desire it, some don’t, but it’s an invite that can seldom be declined. Whether celebrities want that responsibility or not, part of society will attach a degree of importance to their words; their views. Rest assured, everyone knows that you are aware of this.

Between then and now, however, something changed. You changed. And I think I know what it was.

It was your barber, fam.

Part of me can’t help but think that you’re playing us like an MPC and looping the track. But part of me just wants to take you back to a real barbershop. Infinite Designs if we’re in Lake Charles, Louisiana. K-Cutz in San Diego. Kenny Mac’s since you’re from the Chi.


Who’s your barber? Nah, just asking ’cause I’m going to get my beard lined up and was wondering if you wanna roll. Bet. I’ll drive. I’m about two minutes away. Meet me out front.

You good? A/C too strong? Don’t touch my radio. I know it ain’t you but I like to listen to Kendrick too, bruh. What’s that? Yeah, I heard your last jawn. It was cool. I mean, it wasn’t Childish Gambino cool but it was cool. You want me to stop where? Nah, I can’t stop at Starbucks, fam. I know they got a drive-thru. But they got a Sip and Savor right around the corner. Support Black-owned business. You want a coffee or not? Alright then…

Yes, ma’am, let me get a 12-ounce Black coffee. Yes, ma’am. Just Black. Thank you. What you want, Ye. With what? Ah, ok. Uhm… Can you make his unicorn frappe with a side of orange extract…and stir it with the horn of a baby giraffe? Oh, and can you put the leprechaun tears in a separate container, please? Thank you. Sorry. Yes, ma’am, he’s from here.

We’d get there late. Around 9 or 9:30. You’d have to wait for a good couple of hours before your turn.

The barbershop is a place where they’d clown you for that bum-ass clothing line you started. Where they’d be able to hit you with a well-placed Negro, please. Ain’t nobody wearing that. Not that I condone that type of speak all of the time but a good one of those (as opposed to its more reticent cousin, Child, please) is like a cold splash of water on your face when you’re trying to wake up wake up wake up wake up (as Marvin plays in the background), get up get up get up get up, I think I’m capsizin’, the waves are risin’ and risin’…

Where Mr. Ned would ask you, “What’chu know ’bout that, young buck?” And he’d laugh. You’d laugh. Somebody would tell you not to sample Marvin because you sampled just about every other artist there is. Even though it was jammin’…just leave Marvin be. Where they’d be able to switch gears and ask you where was your free thinking then? Or did you need a crutch in the form of someone else’s creativity to hold up your own musical shortcomings? That your so-called free thinking is void of any critical thought; that it’s irresponsible and it’s dangerous.

Where they’re not only referring to what you said about slavery, they’re talking about that shit you said to Sway. Where they’d let you know you were only talking reckless like that to him because y’all were on the air in the safe confines of a studio and a crew.

And what was that about Warhol? Walt Disney? Don’t you know they were white? Nah, we know what you meant but that’s not the point. Don’t you know that minor detail makes a major difference? You’re more Basquiat than Warhol, anyway.

Jean Michel Basquiat

Where when it’s your turn to sit in the chair, a real fine woman would walk in the shop with her small son and Smitty would let her smooth cut in line. Cause she fine and he trying to hit. Simple as that. You’re just going to have to wait. Where after she’d leave, everybody would stop watching the game for a few moments to exchange glances. Nobody says a word…unless you consider mmm, mmm, mmm a part of the language.

Where you’d finally get in the chair and your barber decides it’s time for a lunch break. Wouldn’t tell you anything, would just open his lunch and start eating. Standing up. Then have the nerve to ask you if you want some. I might just scoop you a plate from down the street at Meek’s. The white Styrofoam to-go carton with the barbecued chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread on the side. No raisins. Or sometimes with that one slice of white bread that’s always got a smidgen of barbecue sauce on it. Might do you some good. Might get you two plates. You’ve got time.

Where they’d tell you that they care about you and they’re sorry for the loss of your mother. But where they’d also tell you about another Illinois kid who lost his mother – he just didn’t have your voice or the luxury of being luxurious. Where they’d let you know that with every passing day, Black people are getting the cops called on us for just existing. But not you. You’re good. You’ve always been good. Because if you come from a place where you’ve ever felt that kind of pain, you don’t forget it. And, brother, I’m not just talking about the south side of Chicago. You get harassed on a first name basis but it’s a different kind of harassment. The consequences aren’t life-threatening. The people who follow us aren’t just found on our Instagram. They’re cops. And store security. And those privileged cowards who cast their implicit suspicious notions upon us in the form of dialing 9-1-1 for the damnedest of things: golfing, residing in a Yale dormitory, or buying money orders to pay for rent.

Where’d they’d give you the freshest cut you’ve had in a while. Transform you. Not just that taco meat on top of your head but change something on the inside of you. Have you feeling like the ice in your cup is colder than the next guy’s. Bring you back like a remix. Wake up wake up wake up wake up. And even after all of that roasting, they’ll give you some dap and a hug; tell you to come back next week.

But don’t you dare come back around here with that same bullshit.

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