Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Eight years ago, the Queens rapper Shirt cut and pasted together sentences music critic Jon Caramanica had written about other rappers and promoted it as a New York Times feature about himself. He even built a phony NYT website to host it. The piece was intended as art—a conversation about gatekeepers, since the plagiarized sentences could have just as easily been about Shirt instead of Jay Electronica and A$AP Rocky. But that wasn’t the conversation at the time. No one praised his creativity as “Duchampian”—that came later. Instead, he was marginalized as a “desperate for press” troll; at best, clever at marketing ploys.
All performative stunts must be treated equally, right? It’s 2022. What do we make of Drake and 21 Savage’s sham Vogue cover? Surely, there are more flags on the field besides a 30-page lawsuit from Condé Nast. Why is one provocative and the other desperate?
The gatekeepers of art are still in Shirt’s crosshairs on I Turned Myself Into Myself. Over the baroque strings of “Marni Invisibility Cloak,” he’s not rapping so much as thinking out loud: “Many artists are not easily pigeonholed as being only one thing.” Later, on “Death to Wall Art,” Shirt confronts the status quo, the supposed “revolutions” being treated as art movements: “Don’t show me a corny NFT of a shark/ Go swim with sharks/ Kill a shark.” Welcome to the woodshed, where Shirt works out his frustrations with art and art-making.
The album is built on the poet and professor Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” practice; essentially, all great writing is behind us, so our only choice is to recontextualize what already exists. For Shirt, the “uncreative” practice has resulted in gallery exhibitions that transpose the layout of experimental arts journal MSS’s (Manuscripts) 1922 cover with the query “Can A Rap Song Have The Significance Of Art?” or interpolating John Baldessari’s “I will not make anymore boring art” into a canvas that reads “I will not make anymore boring rap,” like Bart Simpson at the chalkboard. I Turned Myself Into Myself turns these same ideas into lyrics. “Dave Chappelle Is Wrong” brings the aphorism “art is dangerous” to life over a menacing baritone sax loop and a thumping backbeat. His first words on the song—and the album—are, “The ones willing to kill everyone/ Is the ones in charge” before admonishing that Chappelle’s jokes “…put people in danger/ The dummies think it’s funny/ I think you should be more careful who you make comfy.”
Explaining the album’s concept feels flagrantly academic, if not the antithesis of rap music. And the album itself would be, if Shirt and Jack Splash hadn’t thoroughly immersed it in Queens boom bap. “718 To The World” flips the McCoy Tyner loop from Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited),” yet it feels refreshing rather than redundant, while “Cancel Culture” recalls The Alchemist’s breakthrough work with Prodigy.
Of course, the Chappelle commentary—like his Duchampian plagiarism of Caramanica—won’t be met with universal applause, and not everyone will be tweeting how Shirt is brave for speaking truth to power. The mention of an “invisibility cloak” suggests he’s painfully aware of this, and chooses to recast it as a superpower. Marginalize him if you like; it’s not stopping Shirt from making art. He’s somewhere in Queens right now, with a sharpie on the sidewalk, writing a poem about walking.