F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender is the Night

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The same warning signs that told me Frog Music is an abomination appear again. The first sentence is stiff. We spend a whole page setting a scene, but the atmosphere isn’t interesting. I know France is an exotic, exciting place. This cliche was boring the first time I read it. Characters appear, and we get their visual descriptions first of all. There is no reason to picture a character in one’s mind if you haven’t given a reason to care about them.

A little later we meet more people. We’re told who’s unpleasant and who’s not. What separates the Divers from the rest isn’t very clear. Dick wears a hat, that was clear. Other than that, Rosemary just tells us how amazing and cool and fantastic they are and how she loves him. It’s another romance where people fall in love at the first sight.

Maybe if Rosemary was developed, I could connect this odd behavior to something. There is something with her mother, but Rosemary’s main role is to be a nail in Dick’s coffin, and to tell us how great he is. Her arc isn’t resolved. She vanishes when Dick decides so. It’s okay to have characters whose main purpose to help push the protagonist somewhere, but even side characters are people. When they act odd, we’ll want an explaination.

From here on out Tender is the Night is a predictible ‘literary’ failure. The main character hits the bottom with alcohol. There are a lot of psedo-philosophical passages trying to explain the relationships between the characters using sentences that are much longer than this one. It’s like The Golden Notebook, with weaker prose and less imagination. There is a lot of telling how the characters feel. You will also be told, over and over, how exciting, exotic and foreign France and Italy are.

I read this story of a rich man going down his spiral with a glass of whiskey before. It was called Appointment in Samarra. It was just as shallow, but O’Hara didn’t cover up his story with such stiff writing.

I wish I could find a reason why Dick reached the bottom of his spiral. I know why the protagonist hit the bottom in that Nine Inch Nails album, and it’s not even marketed as a rock opera. If Reznor can use a few lines to make us understand the downfall of a man, why can’t Fitzgerald?

There is a bit of a Jesus complex here. Dick is a man obsessed with saving people, especially women. This brings me back to my virtual days. Only, when I wanted so much to have heart-to-heart conversations with girls and help them with their issues it was because I wanted the same, or that I wanted power. I won’t start to self-psychoanalyze, but I could connect this ‘wanting to save people’ to a few inner attributes. Good superhero stories also relate this desire to save people to some inner struggle of the characer.

Throughout the book I kept waiting to see what was Dick’s flaw. I waited for the chink in his armor, the same one that made characters like Max Cohen so great and fascinating. I couldn’t find it. Again, it may be the drinking, but that’s external.

It’s hard to be emotionally invested in a man falling down for no reason. It’s sad, sure, but how do you relate or connect to it? A man falling down is no different than a stone falling down. They’re both objects trapped in Earth’s gravity. Humans tend to have much interesting reasons for falling down than rocks, but you wouldn’t know it in Tender is the Night.

” “He’s a spic!”, he said. He was frantic with jealousy. He didn’t want to be hurt again.”

I don’t even know what spic means, but I could tell from the context of the conversation that it’s not synonymous with “The guy makes me wish I was a homosexual”. This is how you show a person is ‘frantic with jealousy’. Why was that extra line necessary? Nowhere in the book it’s implied that Dick is a masochist, so telling me he didn’t want to be hurt again is like telling me there’s nothing wrong with his digestive system.

“He left a call for noon, stripped off his clothes and dove literally into a heavy sleep.”

What is the word ‘literary’ doing there? How do you ‘dive’ metaphorically? After all, diving is either plunging into water or to fall head down through the air. It’s like saying ‘he literally bit the steak’. It’s an extra word, like a lot of words.

That’s the biggest problem with the novel. It has a lot of words and complex sentences, but none of them lead anywhere. It’s a rambling novel, but its ramblings are closer to King’s Cujo than Catcher in the Rye or any Paul Auster novel. Fitzgerald’s crazy relationship with Zelda is always brought into the disucssion, but it doesn’t give new insight to the novel. It explains why it’s so bad.

Catcher in the Rye and Something Happened felt like they came from deep pain, but they trapped you in the character’s heads and made you feel what they feel. They weren’t written to tell a clear story but to tell you what it feels like. Tender is the Night tries too hard to tell a steady story, but its writing style is the ramblings of a depressed.

Depression rarely produces coherent pieces. It can produce emotionally powerful ones, but music albums like Saturday Night Wrist take advantage of the messiness. Tender is the Night tries to find order in something chaothic, and all it does is make the chaos lose its meaning. It refuses to speak with it on its own terms. It’s a conversation where the people speak in different langauges, only without the humor.

1.5 psychologists out of 5

Saul Bellow – Herzog

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Feminists got it wrong with the whole ‘strong female character’ thing. Anyone who talked a little about fiction should know that by now. What’s more puzzling is how they got that idea in the first place. When they obsess over the strength of female characters, what are the example of male characters they wish to emulate?

Herzog belongs to the line of books that trap you inside the character’s head. It’s less of a story than a psychoanalysis of a character, which you probably already read in Pornoy’s Complaint and Catcher in the Rye. Like in those novels, a lot of effort is put into developing the main character. Also like these novel, the character is far from strong, independent and beautiful. He’s a wreck. He’s self-destructive. He’s a joke. Like the best characters, we’re encouraged to explore Herzog, not to wish to be with him.

That’s the key to making a great character. Good characters are not ones we wish to be, but ones who have an interesting psychology we want to explore. It’s easy to make a strong, independent women. All you’re actually making is a Clay Golem from Diablo II. Attempting a character like Moses is a harder and more rewarding effort. It’s not a wonder this style gave birth to a lot of acclaimed novels.

Herzog is weaker than those novels though. Bellow is talented, and the writing flows so smoothy it was jarring at first, considering I read Frog Music before it. Bellow has the skills to make enjoyable prose, but he doesn’t use it enough. He fails in the same way that other Jew failed, Bernard Malamud.

Paul Auster saw what was wrong and fixed it. A rambling style is fine. It could even lead to a great work, even if it’s difficult. This style works when all of the ramblings comes clearly from the character’s head. Everything the character says, then, reveals something about it. Even repetition, or copy-pasting paragraphs can have its purpose. The repetition of Something Happened is annoying, but it does wonders to build its character.

Bellow’s ramblings often seem to be outtakes from his essay collection. I understand Bellow was pretty prolific and had a lot to say. If you can’t say it via literary means, then maybe this fiction thing is not for you. Too often there are whole paragraphs which lose contact with the story. It’s not just when the letters Moses writes to others that these paragraphs appear. The novel is written in third person, which may make you want to take drugs. Any character study must be in first-person, because the third-person creates too much distance. When these snippets of essays appear in the mouth of the third-person narrator, the brain turns itself off.

The reason for this is because these snippets are pretty meaningless. There are people who think philosophy is pure bullshit and not worth anyone’s time. These people should have their rights revoked. Reading Herzog, though, you just might think these people may be on to something. What does a phrase like “the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization”? It’s a great Marilyn Manson song title, but its meaning is lost. Philosophy should use jargon only when it makes the writing more clear. Piling a lot of big words is a way to cover up the lack of ideas.

Worse, there isn’t any lack to cover up. As a satire of the intellectual, Herzog is pretty good. Bellow is too slack on him, though. As a person that this book makes fun of, I wish I had such a great sex life. Intellectuals are often criticized for not being able to experience life. Yet, Moses is a bit of a pick-up artist.

This is a theme ripe for exploration. Intellectualism, the desire to know shouldn’t distance us from life but to bring us closer. Yet you could easily find yourself reading too much instead of going out to see the weather has changed. Moses can’t enjoy a house out on the country, surrounded by green scenary, animals and quiet.

This intellectualism can easily wreck your relationships with other people. Spend too much time in heavy thinking, and you can become self-absorbed. We should gather new ideas and experiences not just from great dead authors, but with people who we can interact with. Bellow understands that too many books and you forget how to interact with a human being. Moses is a person stuck in his own world of ideas who can’t reach out to others. This causes wrecked relationships and with bad people, sometimes at the same. The reason he chose Madeleine was because of what it said about him. He managed to get a beautiful, intelligent women. Yet, he couldn’t see she was also not right in the head.

If Moses is such a social wreck, how could he have all these affairs? Intelligence is not sexy. Having a lot of sex is always a good thing. It’s a sign you’re well-adjusted socially. Perhaps this was written before people understood that anyone who preached to you how awful sex is was afraid to admit he wasn’t getting any.

There is a great author buried in here, but Herzog is too indulgent. The book fails exactly where its main character fails. It’s too self-absorbed, afraid to reach out to others (in this case, it’s afraid to reach out to its main character) There are wish-fulfillment fantasies and incoherent paragraphs. It doesn’t reach out enough for the reader. Like Moses, though, when it does it’s great. Moses is less coherent than Portnoy or Caulfield, but he’s an enjoyable pinata. Bellow is a good enough writer to not let the pen get away with him too much. Despite the occasional pointless paragraph and weird sexuality, Herzog is a good satire of intellectualism. It’s a must-read for anyone who reads a lot. We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

3 Jews out of 5

Bernard Malamud – The Assisstant

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Bernard Malamud wrote a classic. He must have wrote one. There are too many good things in The Assistant. At its best, it’s a novel that gets why novels work. It’s a story primarily driven by the characters that still has a plot, instead of just a string of bad mornings. Malamud gets close to every character, and just when you think he wrote a villain he pulls back the mask to show us it’s a human.

He just had to spend so much time on inner monologues instead of showing.

If the novel was written by Raymond Carver, it’d be brilliant. Malamud writes the same kind of story Carver writes, but he fixes Carveer’s weakness. Despite being responsible for some of the best prose, Carver occasionally failed at plotting. Malamud manages to get the same intimacy of Carver’s writing while having a sequence of events that lead to a conclusion, instead of just a really nice closing sentence.

Malamud also knows that a plot shouldn’t be a series of hoops for the characters to jump through. Every event that helps push it forward has something to do with the characters. Malamud puts these events to challenge his character’s worldviews and see how they react to them. He even took the ‘dramatic death’ and found a way for it to merge with the story. He doesn’t pull them out of his sleeve whenever he’s worried that ‘nothing happens’.

It’s so good that it just emphasizes how useless these monologues are. Frank Alpine’s repetitive behavior of sin and redemption is clear enough. There are enough events to illustrate this. They make some of the best moments of the book. Malamud nails what it’s like to be a person so driven by good intentions. Frank wants to be, above all, a good person. He may try to achieve that by helping others, but in the end it’s a self-centered worldview. Whether you want to be a powerful or a good person, you are still the focus.

Alpine’s biggest mistakes are whenever he completely succumbs to this selfishness. He does plenty of less-than-worshipful things. Since he’s so focused on being a good person, he thinks that by trying enough he could get away with stealing and stalking. He doesn’t. If your aim in life is to be a good person by helping others, you’ll never be. The center of this worldview is still you.

Like Carver, Malamud also has the talent of describing the dull. The people in this story are ordinary working class people. They’re poor, but it’s a dull poverity. They will never go through enough to become gangsta rappers. Whenever Malamud tells what’s going on in an ordinary day at the grocery, he writes a perfect description of the emotional state. These are people who are living in the monotony that doesn’t get better. They have little, but they still have too much to lose in order to throw at themselves at something.

With such a talent, why are there so many pages inside the character’s head?

Maybe Malamud needed to pad the novel. Maybe he didn’t want this to be a novella. He could have at least padded with dialogues, or more scenes at the grocery. All the monologues about redemption and love just tell us what we already know. Since they’re not written in first-person and the language can’t help us the understand the characters any better, he just beats ideas to the ground that he really doesn’t have to.

There’s a good story and some lessons to learn from The Assistant. It’s a good novel, but it reads more like a talented author operating just in first gear. If you already went over Selby and Carver and need more, read this. If not, get to Carver quickly.

3 milk bottles out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

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Foundation is another novel where two styles clash. Unlike others, though, Asimov manages to make them merge. It’s especially impressive because these are two styles which shouldn’t work together. Asimov is a much better writer than people give him credit. He may not understand human beings, but few authors are so bullshit-free. Despite not even trying to create characters, there’s nothing that hides what works.

You can dub it ‘Space Opera’ all you want, but if you read a Robot book then you’ll settle into the format just fine. Asimov’s style consists of creating a puzzle and have the characters solve it. This is a pure intellectual exercise. There is no emotional weight there. There’s not even Saw’s cheap, either solve it die cliche. It’s as humane as a Rubik’s Cube.

The puzzles have pieces that sound profound, sure. Asimov just doesn’t try to explain why they’re profound. Among the pieces Asimov plays with include whole civilizations. There are video games that also deal with whole civilizations. Chess seems to tell the story of one kingdom conquering another. If you were an individual in those kingdoms or civilizations, you would care. Yet how much do players care about a single soldier in Warcraft III?

That’s Asimov’s weakness. He puts different names on the pieces, but they’re just pieces to play around with. Since there is no real character depth, not even one-note characters it’s hard to get to the bottom of Asimov’s ideas. Asimov has a lot to say about big things, like history and religion. Such a profilic author should have a lot to say, but the novel isn’t a good form for him to deliver his ideas.

They show you Asimov is smart and knows a lot, but that’s it. His treatment of religion is especially interesting. He confronts the claim that a lot of people believe scientists like they believe religious figures. A scientific theory, after all, is supposed to predict results. Doesn’t that sound close to being a prophet? The idea of a man seeing into the future, and then guiding humans how to cope with it is found in the Tanakh.

What is he trying to say by showing this common ground between religion and science? Science works, but the only people who are aware it’s science and not superstition are the scientists. Should scientists be a majority rather than a minority to prevent this? He doesn’t say. The Foundation survives because it’s a minority and keeps important knowledge to itself. It is the future of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be much criticism of it in the novel.

The novel doesn’t fail, again, thanks to Asimov’s bullshit-free writing. For a man who’s known to be important in ‘hard Sci-Fi’, he’s a great storyteller. He lays his interesting puzzles and finds interesting solutions to them. Even if they are shallow, Asimov’s puzzles are unique enough. Even when it’s clear there’s no depth and he’s just writing ‘civilization’ on a game piece, the illusion its important is entertaining enough, in and of itself. He doesn’t put anything else there but the bare bones, and so he lives to the promise of any good pulpy novel. It does weaken a little in the end, where Asimov gets more ambitious and the stories get bigger. They also get less coherent.

Foundation isn’t much of a great novel in terms of depth, but it’s a very entertaining story. It’s odd how the attempts at being profound neither elevate nor ruin the novel, which they often tend to do. It’s not the brilliant classic people say it is, but good, bullshit-free storytellers are rare. Asimov deserves some fame just because of that.

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections

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There are three novels fighting for dominaton here. Two of them can have a conversation, while the third one just stands there. There’s an intimate, expansive novel of character exploration, sort of like Atonement. There’s a satirical novel where characters represent stereotypes and Franzen fools around with them. Then there’s one of those ‘hysterical realism’ novels, where the author piles on the details and goes off the deep end. He doesn’t go further enough to make it fantasy, but the weird section in Eastern Europe is far less realistic than that Planescape video game.

Perhaps if Franzen connected these three elements, I could have forgiven the swings of quality. Even if he didn’t connect the first and second novels, there’s enough common ground between them to make it feel they belong together. The third novel sticks out sorely.

Near the end of the book, we get outtakes from a DBC Pierre novel. Franzen hinted it would come to this at the beginning, but dropping it for 300 pages felt like it was because he knew it was hopeless. The decision to start the whole thing is consistent with the character making it, but not with the mood of the novel. Alarm bells dropped the bass when he made that decision, and I could see him turning from a live-action actor to a cartoon.

We’re only given the climax of this arc, which is good. There is something funny and amusing about the idea of putting a country at the stock market, but Franzen establishes himself as a person who writes about characters, not about society’s workings. The climax just shows us the result of this fiasco, which is a dragged out action scene that you could find on any Mystery novel.

This failure doesn’t seem so bad as what comes before it. The idea was doomed from the first line, anyway. Seeing that it’s not that bad is actually fun. It’s the biography of Denise that comes before where Franzen drops the ball at what he does best. Like a lot of male authors, he thinks that females see a random guy, decide they’re attracted to him, and immidiatley have sex. I don’t think that Friend Zone would have been such a big thing if this were real. This is an important part of Denise’s story, and that it makes it worse.

It can’t be anything else other than Franzen’s sex fantasy. It’s the one part he writes like a teenager too busy reading GameSpot to read The Red Pill. Whenever Franzen deals to other topics where he could make a clown out of himself, like lesbian sex or a bladder out of control, he maintains his dignity. The few lesbians scene here are completely different. They make sense for the characters. They don’t just land on them. We see the progress towards sex. When they do get into bed, it’s mostly to show us the dynamic of the relationship.

When Franzen goes scatological, he also displays a maturity so rare you forget we’re dealing with shit and piss. Whenever Alfred loses control of his bladder, the focus is not that there’s piss and that it’s dirty, but how it affects the characters’ lives. Franzen writes it not as the punchline to a joke or as material to captute the attention after so many boring pages, but as a natural part of life.

The best display of Franzen’s skills is at the last 100 pages. The Eastern Europe thing is over, and the arc with the Axon corporation which is gibberish is also done with. Franzen gets all his main characters in one room, and he shines. He jumps from satire to intimacy sometimes jarringly, but he hits the mark at both. His characters feel human and real. They’re messed up and pretty awful to each other, but they each function out of a coherent philosophy. He makes fun both of Enid’s refusal to get back in reality, but gives us plenty of moments to feel compassion for her. Alfred is at once a close-minded douchebag, and a person who just wants to be left alone. Gary is at once responsible, active, and hard working. He’s also sometimes completely blind to other people’s feelings.

If only The Corrections focused on this for all its length. Maybe Franzen should have just chopped half the book and chucked it. The long digression to explain to us all about the economy and Axon corporations and stock market stock market stock market are gibberish. That part could’ve been written in ancient Rapa Nui langauge, and the last 100 pages would still be just as meaningful.

It may have something to do with Franzen’s weak prose. He’s better at creating characters than McEwan, but his writing is much weaker. McEwan always writes like every line is full of meaning, even when the line ends as a gigantic non-sequiter. Franzen’s prose is dull and bumbles like a gorilla in a glassware shop. It’s not too bad when he has the content, but when he tries to write like what people hate about Thomas Pynchon and William Gass, you think maybe they should sue him for defamation.

The Correction is another typical canonical novel. There are brilliant parts, particularly at the end and the beginning. There are awful parts, especially the whole middle. How much it was worth, I’m not sure. The last pages were brilliant, but it took me a long time to burn through the middle. The last time I took such a break in reading was when I read the Game of Thrones series. Now that’s an awful book. This one is much better.

3 deranged families out of 5

The Beatles – Abbey Road

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It’s good the Beatles broke up after this. It sounds different in retrospect. It probably sounds great if you brainwashed yourself that the Beatles’ gentle pop is the only original music that there is. If you’re listening to it as you would any other record, you might hear a band just banging away their last ideas with hopes of getting done with the thing. Exhaustion is all over the place. The last songs are short not to make a coherent, fluid piece that connects. They’re short because they’re too tired to record the rest.

The first half is a collection of B-Sides that has none of the imagination of Sgt. Peppers (It’s also a failure, but an interesting one) and none of the brilliant melodies of Revolver. There’s a great melody in “Come Together”, but they made it an interlude and instead based the whole song around an annoying shwoop! sound. “Something” has a nice slide guitar, but it’s hard to think such a lifeless ballad comes from the people who made “In My Life”.

They sound just as tired at the rest of the songs. Either they tackle a unique idea and completley ruin it – “Because”, “You Never Give Me Your Money” or they make a traditional song that begs for a different performer who actually cares about the material – “Oh! Darling”, which sounds like a parody, and “Here Comes the Sun”. There’s no excitement or verve here. They sing love songs not because they remember a woman they used to love but because they became professionals in it.

That’s how Abbey Road sounds. It’s a band who’s so professional just going through the motions and can’t get excited over anything. That’s why even the slightly innovative songs like “Because” sound terrible. You’d think that by breaking from the format of pop songs, they’ll find inspiration. The second half, though, is much worse. “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “She Came In…” are the best songs there, and neither sounds like they could be extended. The latter probably benefits from reminding me of Everlast’s “Blinded By the Sun”, which is the best song I will mention in this review.

“I Want You” is the only song where the Beatles sound like the Beatles. As in, they sound like a band with great melodies and interesting ideas. It’s not just that it’s the boldest thing here. There’s focus there that makes it sound like it came out of another album. It might be slightly too long, but it’s a song that sounds great even after Doom Metal became a genre. It doesn’t just rely on the cool idea but there’s a great melody and some great riffs. The two nonsense songs here are also decent (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Octopus’s Garden”), and imply that maybe the Beatles’ should have made an album for children.
Abbey Road is may be worth a spin to absorb its ideas, but only one of them actually works. If you want to hear a band being absolutely tired of music and try to get by on their talents, it’s the album for you. If you ever wanted an album about how the round world turns Lennon on and with one minute songs about Polythene Pam who’s so good looking but she looks like a man, you’ll have a great time with it. Its main purpose though, is to make you scratch your head and wonder how come the Beatlemania existed in the first place.

2 silver hammers out of 5

Mobb Deep – The Infamous…

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The Infamous has a very one-dimensional sound. Every song is a collection of street tales over hard drums with creepy piano lines. There is almost no variation.”Drink Away the Pain” deals with relationships, and it and a few songs have slightly softer drums. They do little to break from the general atmosphere of the problem. This is both the album’s biggest strength and weakness. Despite its simplicity, it’s one of the more confusing canonical rap albums.

The Infamous‘ main attraction is what it does to Gangsta Rap. Although most rappers use this sound just to tell you how tough they are, Mobb Deep add a layer of emotion. The piano hits and the hard drums are not just there to provide enjoyable and banging beats. There’s something cold and paranoid about them. The atmosphere is not of toughness, but of fear. Prodigy and Havoc sound more scared than confident.

It’s unique in a genre that’s known for its hedonism. It sounds pretty far from “Gangsta Gangsta” or Doggystyle. There’s a joylessness that’s all over the album. “Party Over” is about the party being over. On “Eye for an Eye”, they rap as if they stick together only for the sake of survival. The alliance doesn’t run deeper than that.”Drink Away the Pain”, although deviates from the gangsta stories, best illustrates this depth. Unlike a lot of songs where rappers talk about the pains of being an alpha male, sex in Mobb Deep’s world is just another drug that gets the pain away. Prodigy doesn’t sound like a tough guy who gets every girl on “Drink”. Instead, the messy world of sex is just as fucked up and hopeless as selling drugs in the streets.

This emotion layer is why Mobb Deep have been praised for being ‘real’, despite their background. Selling drugs and running from the police doesn’t seem very fun. The fear and paranoia in The Infamous makes it more real than any other rapper that’s confused over whether he shoots more niggaz or fucks more bitches.

The problem is, this extra emotional layer is the only thing the album has.

Mobb Deep don’t explore the street life from various angles like the Notorious B.I.G.. They only rap about the scary side of it. All they do is add an extra dimension, and not much beyonf that. Most of the songs are interchangeable. “Right Back at You”, “Party Over”, “Eye for an Eye” and “Shook Ones” are all variations on the same idea. They’re all really good, but they all do the same thing.

The problem is that Prodigy and Havoc aren’t very capable rappers. They’re competent, but they add nothing special to their raps. They’re both cursed with fairly generic voices and have few catchy lines. When Nas and Raekwon pop up, it’s a blessing just because there’s someone else rapping. The production is also one-note. It’s brilliant – every beat here hits hard, but they still all revolve around the same idea.

Only two songs manage to rise above. I already talked about “Drink Away the Pain”. The other great song is “Temperature’s Rising”, which has some coherent storytelling that make for the best lyrics in the album. It’s impossible to choose the third best song. “Shook Ones, Pt. II” is pretty good, but is it better than the hard drums of “Right Back at You” or the piano in “The Start of Your Ending”? It’s hard to choose a standout when all the songs sound the same.

It’s a good album, but it’s successful at just one idea. Don’t expect the variety of Ready to Die. The Infamous is just a single song looped for an hour. It’s a good song that I can listen to for more than ten minutes, but it begs for a standout. It’s better than most of the canonical rap albums I heard, but it beg for a “Life’s a Bitch” or a “We Can Get Down”.

3 shook ones out of 5