The Culture Report: A look ahead at 2023 with Chris Rock, the BMA and more

Last year was an interesting one, in that, it felt like the world’s grand reopening. Our first full year of restriction-free life since the pandemic started still felt, at times, like we were slowly easing ourselves back into a comfort zone.

Baltimore’s arts and culture was a microcosm of that feeling. Events felt sparse, but when they were in full swing, you could feel that collective excitement. This year will hopefully build on that with some promising things already lined up in the city. Here’s a look at a few events and scenes that I’m looking forward to this year.

Chris Rock’s live Netflix special

After booming applause welcomed him at The Lyric last April, Chris Rock gestured his hands in a downward motion and exhaled, “I’m okay.” It felt like everyone in attendance let out a deep belly laugh. Rock’s intro was, of course, in response to being the recipient of a face-shifting slap from Will Smith at the Oscars a month earlier.

The show at The Lyric was Rock’s first real public event since the incident, and he didn’t spend much time addressing the matter. He mostly talked about politics, pop culture and found time to mention — not convincingly — that he’d eaten some Baltimore-style steamed crabs before coming out on stage. It feels safe to assume that he enjoyed himself here because, in March, he’ll be making his way back to town to film Netflix’s first ever live comedy special.

I do wonder why Baltimore was chosen, considering Rock doesn’t have any notable ties to the city. But since these kinds of things don’t often happen, it feels like the making of a special night. Will any locally-adored comics open? Are there unnamed surprised guests? Can’t wait to find out.

The BMA’s “The Culture” exhibition

This year marks 50 years of hip-hop’s existence. An art form born out of the ghettos of the South Bronx by young people in desperate need to share their experiences with the world has now spread itself into every pocket of the world. That global impact is the foundation of an exciting exhibition coming to the Baltimore Museum of Art in April titled “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century.”

The BMA’s website mentions that the show, which is in collaboration with the Saint Louis Art Museum, examines hip-hop’s influence over the past 20 years or so, which makes sense if their focus here is to look into what impact the genre has had in the 21st century, when it went fully mainstream.

What feels high stakes here — and it’s a grand opportunity for the BMA to unpack it — is that visual art and hip-hop have been in more intimate conversation for about a decade now. In 2013, Jay-Z released his 12th studio album, ”Magna Carta Holy Grail,” which, to me, is toward the bottom of his musical output.

But something significant was that Jay-Z was entering a phase of his life in which he saw the value in investing in fine art as a way to, of course, accumulate more wealth, but also to present himself as a man of taste who could appreciate creativity in a different medium than his own. That spawned a corny span of years where the only artists rappers would typically reference were the obvious ones like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But over the past four-to-five years, that’s been smoothing out.

The visual art world has recognized the importance — and potential money to be made — by empowering Black artists. Now it’s commonplace to see regular engagement. In 2016, British-born artist Blood Orange used a photograph taken by widely-celebrated artist, Deana Lawson, for the cover of his “Freetown Sound” album. In 2021, the cover for Philly rap star Meek Mill’s latest album, “Expensive Pain,” featured a painting by Nina Chanel Abney as its cover art. Last year, painter Amy Sherald unveiled a painting of Baltimore dirt bike godfather Wheelie Wayne.

Everywhere around us, hip-hop and fine art are in conversation, and I’m excited about how this show will dive into that. I’m most curious to see whether Baltimore-specific art and music will be featured.

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Baltimore’s rap landscape in 2023

The city’s rap scene has had many ebbs and flows over the past decade, with micro-movements sprinkled in every few years. 2022 was a weird one. While there were flashes of exciting moments, nothing really broke all the way through in Baltimore.

The brightest spot felt like Infinity Knives & Brian Ennals collaborative album ”King Cobra,” which was acknowledged by big time music publications such as SPIN and Pitchfork as one of last year’s best musical offerings. Yg Teck released an album, as he tends to each year, but 2022 felt more like a warmup for something bigger.

In recent months, Teck has been hanging out with big national rap acts like Detroit’s Peezy and New Orleans newcomer Rob49. He even teased that he may have a collaborative mixtape with the legendary DJ Drama, as a part of the famed Gangsta Grillz series.

And with the popularity of club music-fueled rap from cities north of here such as Philly and Newark, Baltimore artists started to find their way back to their crazy-legs origins. If I had to make a few picks of artists I’m most excited about in 2023 (and ones I hope figure out a way to get in front of broader audiences), it would be OTR Chaz, Scudda, Baby Kahlo, Rican Da Menace, YTK and Runitup Jordan.

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