Dave Chappelle's Intimate Trilogy: Transcendent Art
I love things that evoke true and pure human emotion in me. Things made by people different from me but contain an accurate example about what it feels like to be alive. Even if I haven’t lived that specific experience, I’ve felt that emotion. I can feel that archetypal emotion. Art has a way of doing that. The great jazz players improvised emotion. They knew what notes needed to be played and why they needed to play them to convey their pure emotion through their instruments. The feelings they evoked are transcendent in meaning because they are archetypal. It's the same with impressionist artists. These artists focused on conveying a feeling as opposed to a realistic scenery. They knew what needed to be played to help us emotionally understand the work.
Dave Chappelle just released a stand up special on his Instagram, because he’s dope and can do dope shit like that. This special is a continuation in his series of intimate specials he’s worked on in the last few years. Since his return, Chappelle has released 7 stand up specials in 3 years. The prolific rate in which this guy produces quality is astounding. 4 of these specials followed what you would expect from a stand up show with a superstar like Chappelle, they are filmed inside packed venues with great lighting, and a tight, well structured show from Chappelle. Those specials have all been great. Age of Spin and Equanimity are some of the funniest stand up specials I’ve ever seen.
Then there’s the other 3. Starting with The Bird Revelations, 8:46 and the newly released Unforgiven. Like many artists before him, Chappelle is connecting these specials through different motifs but under the same premise. This is reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky who had a series of paintings titled ‘compositions.’ Kandinsky considered compositions as main declarations of his artistic ideas. They have a number of characteristics expressing this monumentality: impressively large size, conscious planning of composition and transcendence of presentation expressed by development of an abstract image. Just as symphonies are milestones in the career of a composer, the compositions of Kandinsky represent the culmination of his artistic vision at every moment of his creative career.
"From the very outset," the artist wrote, "that one word "composition" sounded to me like a prayer." The first composition dates from 1910, the last one from 1939. Thus, the Compositions are a common thread running through all the work of Kandinsky. These specials, like Kandinsky's compositions, have been done like musical pieces. They are lit similarly, the crowds are more intimate, and Dave is sitting down. Sitting down during the stand up specials is one of the motifs that ties them together. Chappelle sits on a stool and slouches forward, while smoking his trademark cigarette. The shows feel raw, less refined and improvised, they feel like less of an attempt to be funny and more about evoking emotion. These specials, despite appearing to have lower budgets, seem more meaningful and significant.
There are laughs within these specials but they are far and few. They are usually shorter, more insightful and topically dense. They feel like a jazz artist that has mastered his piano, pouring out a range of emotions at a smoky speakeasy. Chappelle dramatizes his stories, slows down his pace of talking and always sounds like he is about to say the most interesting thing you have ever heard.
During these specials, like the impressionist artist he is, Chappelle tells stories that make you feel where he’s coming from, even though you haven’t been in those specific circumstances. I am not a pimp or a bottom bitch but that Iceberg Slim story connected with me emotionally and helped me understand the transcendent meaning to the story. The story is an obvious metaphor for Chappelle’s infamous life experience, but it's also a metaphor for life within greedy capitalism.
Unforgiven is a more obvious sequel to Bird Revelations than 8:46 because of the red lighting and the direct continuation of the previous material. Chappelle’s thesis in these specials centers around the negative effects of rapacious capitalism. Chappelle has often stated the pitfalls in the collision of art and corporate interest, the way the media and the concept of celebrity is used to manipulate and distract people, and the effects this type of industry has on an individual.
In his latest special, Chappelle reminds people of his Iceberg Slim story, he tells us the circumstances that landed him on Comedy Central before his infamous hiatus. He tells the story of this wide eyed and naïve child protégé that steps into the dog eat dog world of rapacious capitalism. He enters idealistically with high expectations, his talent level was undeniable, but the people around him knew it too. He tells the story of an older comic who scammed him and forcefully stole his joke when he was 15, he conveyed the fear he felt when he was threatened in the process of asking for his joke back. He painted that as a moment he would never forget because it was the first of the many times people in positions of power have stolen the fruits of his labour, profited from them and then attempted to intimidate and flog him when he asked for what he was owed.
Chappelle often talks about the predatory nature of rapacious capitalism and has likened his experience to the Me-Too movement and slavery. He exclaimed how young he was, how poor he was, how desperate he was, how as an expecting father, he was willing to do anything to achieve success because of his real life responsibilities, and how the industry was aware of his desperation and naivete, and preyed on it. Chappelle likened himself to the prostitute in the Iceberg Slim story because he sold himself for wealth. Chappelle had no leverage outside of his talent level, and that is not a guaranteed metric, he had a child on the way and he wasn’t educated enough on the nature of the business, so like many artists before him, he signed a deal that sold his likeness away in perpetuity, which means forever.
This is a tale as old as time, it's not news that industries, and specifically the entertainment industry, are predatory. That's why great businessmen are called sharks. Artists have been talking about selling their soul for fame and fortune for centuries. Chappelle even references other similar stories like when Prince came back as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, because of his legal disputes with his record label over the ownership of his likeness and Masters. Prince also wrote the word slave on his face to signify how the entertainment industry was treating him like one.
Now I’ve never been involved in a high level contract negotiation, I’ve never signed an entertainment contract, I’ve never had my intellectual property stolen from me forcibly and disputed with multibillion dollar corporations, but the way Chappelle puts it makes me understand the feeling. We can all relate to the naivete and idealism that comes with youth, we can understand the feeling of being pushed around by someone more powerful, we can understand not getting what we feel we deserve, many of us can relate to the struggle and desperation that leads to exploitation, we can relate to moments of immense fear when real life rears its ugly head through our youthful idealism.
Chappelle shines a light on universal truths, he paints himself as just another person in a long history of exploitation going all the way back to slavery on the plantations. Chappelle tells his stories like folklore, with biblical language and a vagueness akin to 'All Along The Watch Tower' by Bob Dylan. The song has puzzled audiences who have tried to decipher it for decades. The story is specific yet timeless and relatable everywhere. The story in 'All Along The WatchTower' is about a joker and a thief speaking, its a specific story but it's transcendentally meaningful, with universal archetypes like the Thief, Joker, Businessmen and Plowmen. The story is specific yet vague enough to be applicable to a deeper and timeless human truth. This is the effect Dave Chappelle achieves through these specials.