FICTION | The Feud
When you were in grade school during the nineties and aughts, you listened to “everything but rap and country.” Though your opinion of country has only worsened since then, rap has become your life’s indispensable soundtrack. The Echo on your kitchen counter plays Lizzo, Drake, and Audrey Nuna when you and Rebecca make dinner and wash the dishes, and you’re both relieved Evan won’t be able to start parsing Cardi B’s lyrics for at least another few months. Some of your most reliable coding playlists are built around Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, Hermit and the Recluse, and Meek Mill. If you couldn’t work out to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” Kanye’s “POWER,” or Snowgoons’ “Three Bullets,” you’d definitely have a terminal case of dad bod. And in late December, when Kendo Deus announced the release date for his new album, Kiss My Teeth, the first thing you did was schedule a personal day.
Kendo D has a special place in your heart. He’s a household name now, sure, but you were listening to him when he was still on Bandcamp. In August 2015, just a few months before his sophomore effort Apex Predator permeated the membrane separating the underground and the mainstream, you saw him perform at a small venue in Baltimore. You were probably the oldest person in the building that night, and one of maybe four white guys in attendance, and it was by far the most intense concert you’d ever been to.
In January, Kendo teased Kiss My Teeth’s first single: “The Valley.” The influence from the hyperpop artists he’d been tweeting about over the summer and fall was writ large in the track’s maximalist instrumentals, raspy bass notes, and lo-fi percussion. Astute critics detected an undercurrent of Afrofuturism in the lyrics, inviting predictions that Kiss My Teeth will be Kendo’s third reinventive concept album in a row, following 2017’s vaporwave-inspired 零 [ZERO] and the paean to Latin American electronica on 2019’s Ungovernable.
You listened to “The Valley” 20 times on the first day. It never found a spot on any of your playlists, but you were eager to hear the rest of the album. You’ve never been let down by Kendo before. He can do no wrong in your eyes.
The big night arrives: March 16, 2021. At 12 am, you park yourself at the PC in your guest room/home office, pull the tab from a 20 oz can of Red Bull, and pass the time listening to a randomized mix of Kendo’s first four records while getting a head start on some of next week’s projects.
At 3:01 AM, you download Kiss My Teeth and listen to its first track, “Matter.” At 3:55 am, the 18th and final track “Twilight (Fire)” reaches its conclusion.
You start over from the beginning. Two minutes into the seventh track, “Dusted,” you press Stop and go to bed.
The next afternoon, you follow through on your promise to repaint Evan’s room. While Rebecca videoconferences with her Aspen Institute colleagues and Evan naps in your bedroom, you drag a green paint roller up and down the walls, listening to Kiss My Teeth again and hoping to discover your initial reaction was a fluke.
After dinner, you answer some emails and Slack messages, and peruse the reviews.
Pitchfork gives Kiss My Teeth a score of 9.9 out of 10 — the highest it’s awarded to any of Kendo’s albums. “Deus, who has said that he rejects the idea of comfort zones, has created a sleek and deceptively listenable record whose capacity to startle is scarcely diminished with repeated plays,” its critic writes.
The AV Club gives it an A rating. Rolling Stone and HipHopDX both give it a score of 5 out of 5. The word “genius” appears in all of their writeups. “An epochal triumph,” Mojo concludes. “Talent like Kendo’s is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon,” declares Consequence.
You listen to it again, all the way through.
While Rebecca gives Evan her bath, you sit in bed with your phone and begin a tweet thread reviewing Kiss My Teeth. As a fan who’s followed Kendo’s career almost from the beginning, you feel obligated to say what’s on your mind.
Making clear that Kendo has done nothing to diminish your respect for him, you opine that Kiss My Teeth is the first album of his that’s less than the sum of its parts. The exaggerated artifice of the hyperpop production meshes awkwardly with his raw basso vocals, and the made-for-TikTok hooks and the instrumentation’s empty-calory bombast are at cross-purposes with the grandeur and gravity of the album’s concept. With the disclaimer that you’re a white man and can only weigh in as a remote spectator, you hazard to suggest that Kiss My Teeth inadvertently trivializes its own themes of pan-African pride, perseverance, and possibility.
What disturbs you most of all is the apparent decline of Kendo’s lyrical prowess on a pure nuts-and-bolts level. Even if his performance on Ungovernable fell a little short of the inventiveness and dexterity in his earlier records, the exuberance with which he experimented with the sounds of Cumbia villera and reggaeton wholly made up for it. Judging from Kiss My Teeth’s the by-the-numbers rapping and relatively brief incubation period, fame must have cured Kendo of his perfectionism. You sense he had a lofty idea for a concept and banged it out as fast as possible in order to make time for his clothing line and NFT ventures.
Rebecca dozes beside you when you finally hit Send and set your phone on the nightstand. Even if your critique will only be seen by however many of your 285 followers bother to tap the Show This Thread link under the first tweet, you’re glad to have gotten it off your chest.
The next day, you glance at Twitter before lunch. The 22 tweets comprising the thread amassed a total of 18 likes and two retweets. A few people replied to say they reluctantly agree with you.
At 4:03 pm, you receive a Slack DM from Jeremy: Oh my god what did you do
You receive a Slack DM from Jeremy: Oh my god what did you do
Jeremy likes to stick his nose into other people’s refactoring projects; he’s probably been snooping at your edits to the CTB script.
You caught me lol. I accidentally mixed some positional parameters like an hour ago but went back and fixed them, you answer. Did I miss one?
Check twitter, Jeremy replies.
You’d always assumed that the value displayed in the icon badge over the Notifications link on twitter.com’s sidebar topped out at 99 — not that you ever came close to reaching that number.
Right now it reads 451.
About three hours ago, @KendoDeus began replying to several items in the thread:
- stfu bitch. unimportant clown trying to be relevant. KMT is beyond you. i am beyond you.
- you sad man. who do you think you are really. what have you done what have you made? nothing
- call yourself my fan lmao. don’t think so my fans aren’t petty dweebs
- you ever listen to music? truly listened? i doubt it. people like you don’t listen they just consume. consume and complain because they can’t understand
- KMT is my masterpiece. KMT is my ancient soul. KMT is the tomorrow i make possible. you don’t get to disrespect it
You have to stand up and pace the room for a couple of minutes to compose yourself.
Kendo’s replies comprise only 18 of the notifications — including the 24 new ones registered since you began reading. The rest are from a cross section of Kendo’s 12 million followers, liking his replies, replying to his replies — and replying to you:
- no reply bitch got his tail between his legs lmao
- delete ur account u destroyed
- word of advice, take the L and gtfo
- I am shocked, SHOCKED, to see another privileged white male thinking his opinion on Black Art matters.
You close Twitter and force yourself to only think about sever-side script for a while. Panicking and acting impulsively probably isn’t in your best interest.
Kendo’s “Knock Ya Off Track” from Ungovernable comes up on Spotify. You mute the volume and work in silence until dinnertime.
As you spoon-feed Evan her Peter Rabbit kale-and-carrot mush, Rebecca observes that you seem a little anxious. You don’t tell her what happened.
Managing to avoid Twitter for the rest of the evening, you get in bed around eleven. But you can’t sleep.
delete ur account — probably good advice. But as humiliated as you are, and horrified that you offended your favorite musician, you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong. An A-list artist put out a new record; you, a consumer who purchased that record, posted what you felt was an honest and even-handed review of the product. Does Tim Cook personally attack Amazon reviewers who give one-star ratings to an iPhone?
You swallow a melatonin tablet. Maybe the best way forward will be clear tomorrow morning.
Rebecca has a WeChat video call with her parents in Guangdong at 8:30 am. You never got the hang of even basic Cantonese, and your in-laws barely speak English, so all anyone expects you to do is be present at the beginning of the call, smile, and clumsily slur nei hou maa. Afterwards you go upstairs and begin your workday.
You have over 3,000 notifications on Twitter.
Kendo was up late in Los Angeles, serially atting and quote-tweeting you, recapitulating and elaborating on your unfitness to comment on Kiss My Teeth, your effeminacy, and your general worthlessness as a human being. His followers have been piling on.
You don’t understand it. A 15-minute scroll through tweets containing the words “kiss my teeth” proves you’re not the only dissenter from prevailing opinion. Some of Kendo’s other critics have verified accounts, others have fewer than 20 followers. Some are women, others are men, some identify as neither. Some are white, some POC. Some heaped much worse abuse on Kiss My Teeth than you — and yet only your comments provoked Kendo’s wrath.
By 3:00 pm, you’ve absorbed hundreds upon hundreds of vicious insults, derogatory memes, contemptuous gifs, and bitter denunciations. You’ve been told that Kiss My Teeth isn’t for you; that your problem with Kendo’s Afrofuturist rap album isn’t about any shortcomings of the rap component, and has everything to do with your discomfort about the “Afro” part. Three different white women from three different Brooklyn neighborhoods have urged you to read White Fragility. Rappers whose names you recognize, mainstays in your playlists, are weighing in. At their most benign, they advise Kendo that you’re just some nobody who isn’t worth wasting his time on. They’re the cooler heads; they do not prevail. Azealia Banks — man, does she have words for you.
Looking back to your original tweets on Kiss My Teeth, you discover that most of the people who first liked and replied to them have either made their accounts friends-only or deactivated them.
Several prominent rap and celebrity gossip blogs have been paying attention. You read each of their takes, searching the texts for the words “meltdown,” “bizarre,” and “erratic” — but they’re all matter-of-fact affairs consisting mostly of embedded tweets. The authors contextualize the row in terms of Kendo’s history as a notoriously combative tweeter, and mention the praise and high marks Kiss My Teeth received from critics.
Just before your 4 pm Zoom session with the rest of the back-end engineering team, Kendo mentions you in a tweet consisting only of an image: your face, taken from your profile pic, peeping out from an open dumpster in a stock photograph. It’s very competently photoshopped; you look like an idiotic prairie dog. Right before your eyes, it accumulates 200 likes.
During the meeting, nobody mentions that you’re the main character on Twitter today. If Jeremy knows, so must the others. Why don’t they say anything? What are they thinking? When your direct supervisor Justin addresses you, do you only imagine the awkward reluctance in his voice?
The instant you close out of Zoom, Rebecca marches into the room and angrily thrusts her phone in front of your face.
“What did you do?” she demands.
They found her Instagram account through your Instagram account. She’s received some 80 comments from strangers telling her what a loser and/or racist she married, calling her a self-hating Asian for shacking up with you, or just saying childishly mean shit about her selfies.
She shows you a Medium post she found when she googled your name. Its author dissects your review of Kiss My Teeth and accuses you of no fewer than six racist dog whistles. Since it was published 40 minutes ago, it’s received over 300 claps. It’s absurd. There’s no merit to any of it. But by now you’re forced to accept that doesn’t matter, and your inaction has only made the situation worse.
“Apologize to Kendo and delete your account,” Rebecca tells you. “You could lose your job if this thing gets any more out of control. You’re right: you didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s awful — but you know how these things go now. Just bite the bullet. There’s nothing else you can do.”
“Apologize to Kendo and delete your account. You could lose your job if this thing gets any more out of control.”
She’s absolutely right.
Across four tweets, you say you’re sorry to Kendo, to the black community, and to anyone else you hurt with your ill-considered words about Kiss My Teeth. You promise to work on yourself, to do better, and announce your intention to donate a thousand dollars to Reclaim the Block. In a fifth tweet, you add that you’ll be deleting your account tomorrow morning, and are only preserving it until then to give people a chance to see your apology.
As you predicted, all your mea culpa accomplished was giving your denouncers something new to rub your nose in. Nobody accepts your apology because they never wanted one. But like Rebecca said, that’s just how these things go.
Hundreds of the thousands of excoriating replies refer to you by a curious acronym: “KWAD.”
Every once in a while, you come across a heartening note from someone telling you that you’ve got nothing to apologize for, that this whole thing is a hysterical farce. A closer look at your advocates reveals them all to be former Bernie bro dirtbags and “proud conservatives” who retweet Ben Shapiro and share articles from The Federalist. You would have preferred they stayed silent.
But the only response that matters is Kendo’s.
He didn’t reply to your apology and has been inactive since issuing a single tweet late last night: an embedded YouTube video unaccompanied by any text. It’s racked up 90,000 likes.
The video’s description reads: Kendo D (feat. Sour Boi6) — KWAD. Against your better judgment, you shut the door and click the video.
It’s not just a new song; it’s a full-on diss track. Though neither Kendo nor his collaborator (whoever he is) mention you by name, the static image of your photoshopped mug peeping out from a dumpster accompanies the song through its full duration. “KWAD,” you shortly learn, means “Karen with a dick,” and exhibits the same set of pernicious characteristics that define a typical Karen — meanness, myopia, an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and a talent for finding fault with others in spite of her own pervasive mediocrity — in addition to several that belong to him in particular. Most of the song consists of Kendo lyrically elaborating on the KWAD’s representative features, which he clearly gleaned from a deep dive into your social media history. Kendo’s KWAD works in tech and owns a house in an affluent DC suburb. He frequently shares opinion articles from The Washington Post because he has no original ideas of his own. He posts reviews of the things he buys because he’s under the illusion that his opinion matters to other people; he complains about GrubHub drivers on Facebook because he’s small-minded and spiteful. He shares screenshots that show him about to unfriend or block people because he’s too much of a milquetoast to actually threaten anyone. He has an affinity for East Asian women because he enjoys appearing progressive as much as he likes the idea of a pliable, uncomplaining domestic partner.
It just keeps going. Ludicrously distorted and deftly woven into Kendo’s treatise, the facts of your life become execrable and absurd.
Ludicrously distorted and deftly woven into Kendo’s treatise, the facts of your life become execrable and absurd.
It’s not that you don’t take it personally. It’s not like you don’t have to resist the impulse to put your first through the screen when Sour Boi6, in his 30-second guest spot, hammers out those bars about Rebecca screaming gweilo during your lackluster sexual performance. But at the same time, you can’t but listen to “KWAD” as a longtime admirer of Kendo’s work, and notice that it’s better than anything on Kiss My Teeth. The hyperpop influence rings clear as ever, but Kendo has made substantial progress in bridling the sound. In “KWAD,” the distended instrumentals reinforce his voice rather than compete with it. The pugilistic nimbleness of his lyrics evinces the line-by-line inspiration of his earlier work, whose absence from Kiss My Teeth he tried to conceal behind its over-the-top production and grand concept. He was really trying with “KWAD” — and had it written, recorded, and produced in the course of, what, a day and a half? How can you not be impressed?
You deactivate your Twitter account on schedule, and then delete your Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Afterwards you call Justin to ask if you can take a personal day.
“That would probably be best,” he says.
On Monday afternoon, you face a Zoom tribunal consisting of Justin, Justin’s supervisor Byron, and Byron’s supervisor Andrea. The four of you go over the text of your tweets word by word. They concede that you neither made any racist statements nor blew any dog whistles — and note that Kendo himself never claimed that you did. Peculiarly, Byron insists you acknowledge that the language you used in reviewing Kiss My Teeth might have been unnecessarily harsh, but that’s the full extent of the disciplinary action to which you’re subjected. The decisive factor was that after your retirement from social media, the company stopped getting emails calling for your dismissal. They believe this thing is on its way to blowing over, and would prefer to keep on board an employee who’s consistently proved his value over nearly 10 years of service — provided he doesn’t draw any more negative attention to himself.
Life returns more or less to normal over the next few weeks. You and Rebecca continue working from home, keeping an eye out for opportunities to get vaccinated. Your colleagues are as happy as you are to pretend the “KWAD” affair never happened. Evan seems to grow a little every day, and you eagerly listen for “da da” in her giddy babbling. Alexa plays NPR or true crime podcasts more often than music. Liquid drum n’ bass mixes have become your preferred work soundtrack, and your earbuds feed you metal while you lift weights and run on the treadmill in the basement. You’d forgotten how good Tool’s first three albums were.
You still haven’t told Rebecca about Kendo’s emails.
How he found your personal email address is anyone’s guess. The first message (subject line: the work, the future) arrived two days after your public apology. Kendo began with a conciliatory tone — let’s you and I try to understand each other — and then expressed his regret for what happened insofar as he was sorry that you pissed him off.
Your chest went tight before you got to the end of the first paragraph. Though you intended to read the rest later, it was easier to act as though the message never arrived. You already disgraced yourself, suffered your days in the stocks, and genuflected before the people you wronged. All you wanted was to move on.
For about two weeks, a new message from Kendo arrived every other day, with a subject line like PROVERBS, You KNOW why, and last chance. You deleted them all, unread.
During the third week of April, you notice the Reath family next door loading their things into a moving van. You were never close to them, and hope the next people to move in do something about those appalling juniper hedges out front.
Five days after the Reaths’ departure, you watch through the guest room window as a moving crew unloads a truck. A bald, tanned man in a business suit stands among them, coordinating the operation while taking calls. You’re working against a deadline and haven’t stood up in five hours; greeting a new neighbor is a fine excuse to take a 10-minute break. You put on your mask and shoes and saunter across the lawn.
Seeing your new neighbor up close, you notice his suit is literally something out of a GQ advertisement (Zegna, if you’re not mistaken) and that he has a tribal tattoo partially outlining his left eye. He regards your approach with indifference, and cuts into your self-introduction to tell you “I know who you are.”
Before you can say anything else, his phone rings. He produces a business card, seemingly from his sleeve, and hands it to you before taking the call.
The card reads:
You know that name. You know that name. Yes! — he produced Nova Technik’s debut album Sick New and Fanatikal’s Parallel Lines, and probably deserves most of the credit for their success. He worked on T Ryker’s Hometown Smoke and Ali Old Soul’s 40-Proof Bullet…and co-produced 零 [ZERO], Ungovernable, and Kiss My Teeth with Kendo D.
When you look up from the card, Skidmore’s back is turned to you. Between terse remarks to the person at the other end of the call, he gives his instructions to the movers. Your conversation with him is over.
You return home, a nervous wreck. So is Rebecca after you apprise her of Skidmore’s arrival and his connection to Kendo. It was only last week that she finally felt secure enough to reactivate her Instagram account.
Two days pass before your dogged searches for news stories about David Skidmore turn up a relevant result. A short blurb on Rap Rehab states that he’s relocated to the Washington, DC area to get closer to the area’s experimental FX rap scene and scout for new talent. “They’re doing really interesting things here,” he’s quoted as saying, “things I’m not seeing anywhere else.”
You desperately want to believe it. Rebecca convinces you to. Yes — why not? It’s just a horrible coincidence. Skidmore is truly and only here to scope out the next big thing. Kendo has nothing to do with it. There’s no way that he reached out to the Reaths, offered to pay off their mortgage and buy their house for twice its market value, and installed a trusted member of his clique right next door to you. It just isn’t possible.
Four days later, you watch the Torres family — your next-door neighbors on the other side — cheerfully loading furniture into a moving van.
A week after they’re gone, Rebecca shows you an Instagram post by Chloe Barter, the wunderkind influencer and fashion designer who, back in January, announced her collaboration with Kendo on his clothing line. The photograph is a selfie with Kendo and her “boo” Sour Boi6: Chloe flashes a charming gap-toothed grin, the baby-faced Sour Boi screws his mouth and gazes at the camera through purple contact lenses, and Kendo wears his characteristic all-business scowl. The caption reads: hello DC!
In the background, you clearly recognize the fence and giant tulip poplar in the Torres house’s backyard.
Night after night. It’s like the Great Gatsby in stereo. As soon as the sun goes down, the house parties get underway. From your upstairs windows, you can look out over the backyard fences and see the long tables, the champagne glasses, punch bowls, and silver chafers. There’s a bounce castle at Skidmore’s place and a two-story tube maze at Barter’s, so guests can bring their children. Outdoor DJ booths are manned and pumping out beats from dusk till well after midnight. Live music performances are usually staged on Fridays or Saturdays.
Even on weekday nights, parked cars line the curbs throughout the entire development. Non-VIPs are admitted by lottery. Every day at 5 pm, the crowds form on your neighbors’ front lawns, hoping their numbers will be called. Everyone living in the neighborhood qualifies as a VIP, and can come and go as they please. People from down the block have been going on Facebook to show off their selfies with Dave Grohl, Sandra Bullock, and Dwayne Haskins. Actual celebrities are turning out for these things, and a small army of bouncers reportedly stands by to roughly eject anyone who spoils the atmosphere by fawning over or photographing them without their permission.
The very day you told Rebecca that you were hoping a rash of COVID cases might put a stop to the noise and the crowds, social media began to buzz with reports that each party hosts a small vaccination clinic. Anyone who gets inside is welcome to receive their jab. You don’t understand how it’s possible. They’ve got to be violating a zoning law. At any rate, if anyone at these parties is spreading the coronavirus, nobody’s talking about it. The gossip sites and Twitter only say what a wonderful thing Kendo is doing, encouraging and offering opportunities for vaccination, and bankrolling free parties and concerts to celebrate the end of the pandemic. Articles mentioning that the houses where it’s all happening are both next door to the subject of “KWAD” only remark on the audacity and inventiveness with which Kendo has always prosecuted his grudges.
Whoever manages these perpetual house parties on Kendo’s behalf has spared no effort in preventing conflicts with the locals and the police. The security team’ outdoor contingents send away anyone who has to stand on the sidewalk or street when the front lawn gets too crowded; they don’t want traffic blocked. Anyone who approaches your yard gets forcefully redirected. A hired patrol cruises the development in an SUV, scaring away out-of-towners loitering in places they don’t belong. As for the neighborhood residents, they get to skip to the front of the line whenever they want, and have all been vaccinated. After being locked down for over a year, they’re making up for every social occasion the pandemic cheated them out of, and having the time of their lives.
All the bouncers recognize you on sight, even when you’re wearing your mask, and they’re under strict instruction to bar your entrance — and to mention that Rebecca is welcome to stop by.
Kendo comes and goes. He’ll tweet from LA for several days, and then suddenly post photos from next door on his Instagram. In the pics Rebecca shows you, you’ve seen the young couple from the house on the corner of Reed Street chatting with Ronan Farrow, a private reading by Amanda Gorman in Skidmore’s living room, and Kendo’s selfie with Dr Know on Chloe Barter’s deck, taken during Joyner Lucas’ performance in her backyard.
Rebecca handles the nights better than you. Once her earplugs are in and she’s able to ignore the vibrations long enough to doze off, she’s out till morning. Evan has evidently inherited her mother’s heavy-sleeper genes, and dreams peacefully from 7 pm to 5 am in the soundproof crib you bought for her. But even on the relatively quiet weekday nights, even with your ears plugged, the bass notes keep you wide awake until they peter out around 2 or 3 am. Your migraines are becoming chronic. Your work is suffering, and your embarrassed colleagues have begun taking you out of the loop.
For the fifth consecutive night of the fifth consecutive week, it’s half past twelve and you’re not sleeping. As the live performance kicks off at Skidmore’s, the volume climbs to the next rung on the decibel scale. The thrumming bass perturbates the walls, the mattress, the marrow of your bones.
Its cadence is acutely familiar.
You remove your earplugs and sit up. You’re hearing “Matter,” the first track from Kiss My Teeth, performed live.
From the guest room window, you can see Skidmore’s packed backyard, the massive bouncers controlling the crowd out front, and Kendo himself pacing and gesticulating on a small platform, chanting the first verses of “Soar,” Kiss My Teeth’s second track.
He’s performing the whole album. In order. Because he knows you’re listening.
You could open the window and scream until you coughed up blood and nobody next door would hear you.
Evan shrieks. You race to her room, where you have to do a quick diaper change. Dry, powdered, and in your arms, she’s still wailing. Implacably. Excruciatingly.
You can’t stand it.
You fetch your phone and dial the police to complain about a loud party next door.
“The noise woke the baby,” you tell them.
You gave them no choice. They had to fire you. The parallels between you and Amy Cooper were just too easy for Twitter to draw.
Though they’ve lowered the volume, the parties continue. Skidmore and Barter laid down astroturf because the trampled grass died.
You don’t go out much, but the neighbors give you dirty looks when you do. Every morning, Rebecca withdraws an armful of nasty handwritten notes from the mailbox.
She’s a mess. Three nights a week, she sees a psychiatrist.
You’ve stopped working out. You sleep until noon, and spend hours on end vegetating on YouTube while Monster, Indeed, and FlexJobs sit unattended in other tabs. You’ve sent out scores of resumes, but nobody has asked for an interview. No matter how good your CV looks, you’re certain that potential employers drop you from consideration as soon as they google your name.
No matter how good your CV looks, you’re certain that potential employers drop you from consideration as soon as they google your name.
Only Evan — her tiny fingers touching your face, her warbling voice — can compel you to pick yourself back up and try again. For her sake, you must get it together.
On the first Thursday in July, after Rebecca leaves for her therapy appointment and you put down Evan for the night, the DJ in Skidmore’s backyard spins glitchy, experimental hip hop — the music that formed the basis of Skidmore’s explanation as to why he moved here. You close out of spider solitaire and peer out the window.
The first person you see in Skidmore’s backyard is a strikingly handsome black man with dreadlocks, a clean-shaven face, and a wiry physique accentuated by his skintight and sleeveless red, yellow, and green shirt. Even from a distance you recognize his tattoos. It’s Kendo himself, standing by the champagne table with a coterie of men and women whose cocktail party attire could be valued in multiples of your mortgage payments.
Before you realize how badly you want to open the window and shout to him, a toady whispers something in his ear, and he crosses the astroturf to enter the house. Kendo is literally next door, though he might as well be in LA.
10 or 15 minutes after Kendo goes inside, you watch the security guards stationed along the backyard’s rear edge leave their posts to quell a lively but fairly minor altercation between two women and a man who’ve all had a bit too much to drink. One of the women brandishes a broken bottle. At least for a little while, the guards won’t be watching for uninvited guests climbing over the fence.
You put on a pair of jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and run downstairs to get your shoes and mask.
None of the minglers notice you emerging from the shadows behind the bounce castle. Having pacified and ejected the disruptive guests, the security guards return to their posts, walking right past you.
This clinches it: the hired goons are only looking out for you at the front entrance. As long as you’re already inside and keeping a low profile, you’ll be invisible to them. You pull up your hood.
You ascend to the elevated deck, where Skidmore sits at a patio table with Robert Duvall and a man whom you recognize from MSNBC as a Georgetown professor. He doesn’t notice you passing by and entering the kitchen through the sliding glass door.
Skulking from room to room, you spot familiar faces at every turn: an Instagram influencer, a YouTube-famous musician, a contributor to NPR or The Atlantic. Perfectly at ease, they sip wine, talk shop and sports, and trade jokes with perfectly everyday people they’ve never heard of. Under better circumstances, this would be the best party you’d ever attended: an affable meet-and-greet with a congregation of luminaries whom Kendo brought to your neighborhood just to dangle in front of your face, out of your reach.
He isn’t on the ground floor. You don’t find him among the people dancing to EDM in the finished basement. He’s got to be on the second story.
All but two of the doors in the upstairs hallway have been removed from their frames. You walk past the cramped, makeshift vaccination clinic, where a pair of masked nurses swab arms and go over paperwork with a handful of patients. Behind the other three open doorways are cushy lounges where guests recline on couches and beanbags, leaf through coffee-table primers on photography and modern art, smoke hookah, and watch silent avant-garde films projected onto the walls. You don’t find Kendo in any of them.
One of the closed doors is to the bathroom, and is labeled as such. You get in line behind a couple of men in tasteful sequined shirts who smell of hairspray and menthols. Kendo must be behind the other closed door — the one marked PRIVATE. What if it’s unlocked?
Kendo must be behind the other closed door — the one marked PRIVATE.
The security guard at the top of the staircase can only get out one syllable before you lunge for the door, shove your way through, and slam it behind you.
Candles light the master bedroom. Kendo, with a violin under his chin and a bow in his hand, eyes you nonchalantly, as though you’d arrived at precisely the moment he expected. Maybe that’s the case: at the center of the queen-sized bed, Rebecca sits with her knees splayed out to the side, holding a glass of wine. Her expression transitions, like staggered frames of a flip book, from wide-eyed shock to that grimace of hers that invariably accompanies the words we need to talk, in the four seconds it takes for the security guard to barrel through the door and knock you flat on your face.
The Depot is exactly what you anticipated: a dilapidated club in a dilapidated neighborhood of southeastern DC. It shut down years ago — a fine layer of dust coats the brick walls, every movable fixture has been removed, and a pale rectangle discolors the cement floor where the bar used to be. But all the lights still work, and there’s electricity to power a sound system. On a small performance stage, Kendo sits erect but at ease on a stool 15 feet from you in a shaft of hot yellow light, gazing over the crowd from behind a pair of opaque sunglasses. You shift in your own seat, sweating under your own spotlight, trying not to look in his direction.
It’s a full house. The bouncers turn people away at the door.
The event wasn’t widely publicized. The composition of the crowd is mostly scene-savvy twentysomethings from the city and suburbs who heard about a not-to-be-missed rap spectacle via personal networks. You notice a few white thirtysomethings, mostly women, dressed in the sprezzatura chic of a Casual Friday at the Post or Times, flagging themselves as members of the cognoscenti come to witness and report.
You don’t see Rebecca anywhere. She probably stayed behind in LA.
You ascribe the holes in your memory to repression. You remember wrestling on the floor with a man twice your size, being dragged across astroturf, and deposited on your front porch. Your next concrete recollection is of lying alone in bed, still wearing your grass-stained jeans, on the following afternoon — or was it two days later? Rebecca and Evan were both gone by then, at any rate.
You retain few specifics from your conversation with Rebecca after she returned from Skidmore’s, but you’ve got the gist of it. She never saw any therapist. She’d pull out of the driveway, find parking several blocks away, and walk to Skidmore’s place, waiting for Kendo to visit. At first, she intended to speak with him and try to broker a truce.
She finally met him — and one thing led to another. The rendezvous you intruded on wasn’t their first.
You remember checking her Instagram and finding she changed her display name back to Rebecca Lam, her maiden name. You remember being appalled by the promptness with which the gossip sites reported Kendo D’s whirlwind romance with the soon-to-be ex-wife of the KWAD. You remember crouching over the toilet, puking up bile and phlegm after reading one that quoted Chloe Barter on the rapidity and effortlessness with which Rebecca and Kendo connected with each other, and the veritably mystical depth of that connection. You remember howling with miserable laughter when you found a week-old interview with Skidmore, in which he said of Kendo: “he’s obsessed with classical lately; you know, Bach, Brahms…I hear him thinking out loud about recording with an orchestra.” You remember throwing your laptop against the wall after browsing a Reddit thread in which a bunch of nihilistic mutants praised you as a chad for getting a rich celebrity to raise your kid for you.
What you still don’t remember is challenging Kendo to a freestyle battle while his muscle was hauling you off. The only evidence that it happened is an email from Kendo, timestamped four days after you crashed his party, in which he accepted your challenge and told you to be at the Depot at 8 pm on July 17.
That gave you 12 days.
The parties were already over by then. Skidmore and Barter both moved out within a week, their houses left empty. You broke every dish in the cupboards trying to hold at bay the silence you’d craved for so long.
Restless audience members raise their voices — lauding and exhorting Kendo, flinging epithets at you. You’re pouring sweat. The hoodie was a bad choice. Kendo sits cool as a cucumber in his Alexander McQueen suit.
It’s natural, at this juncture, to fear you might be in over your head.
Don’t think about it. Don’t worry. You’ve trained for this. You’re prepared.
For nearly two weeks, you spent virtually every waking hour memorizing rhyming pairs, ingraining stock phrases in your memory, roving about the house and freestyling until your voice became hoarse and your mouth dried out. When you could no longer practice, you lifted weights in the basement until you awoke on the floor, cold with perspiration, and resumed chanting, free associating, enriching the uranium for the bombs you’ll drop. You know from good rap — you’ve listened to yourself, and know you’re good at it. Good enough to knock Kendo down a peg.
You resumed chanting, free associating, enriching the uranium for the bombs you’ll drop.
Skidmore, the duel’s adjudicator, steps onto the stage. As he approaches the mic stand, Kendo gestures to him and whispers in his ear. Skidmore nods to Kendo and addresses the audience, explaining the rules: each combatant gets to freestyle for as long as it takes to get his point across. Sudden-death rules: one round only, and crowd response determines the winner.
People are shouting Kendo’s name. You hear a few boos, and you’re certain they’re not directed at you this time.
Kendo’s gone — disappeared from his seat.
Suddenly the room erupts with wild applause and shrill cheers. Skidmore’s amplified voice is barely audible over the uproar, but you make out the last words he says. A name: Sour Boi6!
While you were looking at Kendo’s empty seat, his protégé appeared onstage, dressed like an upscale thrift store David Bowie. He works the crowd, parading back and forth, stoking their enthusiasm to a delirious pitch. At a faint signal from Skidmore, Sour Boi parks himself on Kendo’s stool. “BOY-SIX! BOY-SIX! BOY-SIX!” the crowd chants until Skidmore coaxes them to a roiling murmur he can speak over.
Panic dilates the seconds. Skidmore’s tossed coin descends like a feather. What the hell is happening here? Where’s Kendo? Was this just another trap all along? What could Kendo and his ego possibly get out of sending somebody else to-
The coin comes up heads. You’re going first.
You stagger to the mic stand in a daze. The crowd sniggers. The sound system pumps out a beat. There’s no way out of this. You grab the mic and your words come sputtering out.
The internet has its field day. Your inept performance and subsequent evisceration by Sour Boi, rack up millions of views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands of upvotes on Reddit, and trend on Twitter. A particularly disgraceful still image of you, and a particularly glamorous still of Sour Boi, have become the basis of a novel meme, a variation of the old “Drake Like/Don’t Like” template. Roxane Gay tweeted a photo of your performance with the annotation: confidence of the mediocre white man.jpg. 11,000 likes. 7,000 retweets.
According to the narrative that emerged (based on nothing but the speculation of confident gossipers with large followings), the whole thing was a ploy to earn Sour Boi some publicity. Kendo invited you on Sour Boi’s behalf, and you — the new poster child for the Dunning Kruger Effect — were arrogant and stupid enough to take the bait, to somehow believe you had any chance of going up against Sour Boi and not getting obliterated.
You still believe you would have performed passably well if you’d faced off with Kendo. Every sinew, follicle, and drop of blood in your body was screaming his name. You prepared for him. But Sour Boi? Christ, you had nothing to say to or about him. Notwithstanding his contribution to “KWAD,” he only existed to you in the abstract before he appeared onstage. He stood almost a head shorter than you and barely looked old enough to drink. How were you supposed to attack him? You inelegantly freestyled about his callow inexperience, his geeky sobriquet, and his flamboyant attire; you tossed out a few uninventive bars about the quality of his performance on “KWAD” — fully aware that none of your jabs were connecting. Your worst stumbles were during the verses in which you tried to mock his sequined jeans and painted nails. The most obvious tactic, resorting to the homophobic slurs that rappers have traditionally slung at their rivals, would have reflected worse on you than him. You repeatedly checked yourself, dropping rhymes and losing the beat.
And then Sour Boi took the mic and dismantled you in ways that made “KWAD” seem like a good-natured ribbing. With fierce eyes and a suave smile, he ridiculed your age, your clothes, your thinning hair, your perspiration, your adenoidal voice, the way you walk, everything about your whole visible person, caricaturing you more grotesquely than any carnival artist. During the 90 seconds he committed to a visceral reminder of your cuckolding by Kendo, he delineated the incontestable logic of Rebecca’s trading up while you balled your fingers and toes, restraining yourself from lunging at him.
You don’t blame Sour Boi. It wasn’t personal. This was just a gig to him. And good god — that young man can rap.
Over the next few weeks, you send Kendo email after email, demanding to know why he bailed on you and sent in a substitute. Coward, you call him. Fake. Psychopath. Ghoul. You often find yourself going back and editing out all the rhymes that steal into the text, rhymes which Kendo should have had spit in his face.
He never replies.
Eventually you reactivate your Twitter account and compose a thread, resolved to set the record straight. Atting Kendo in the first tweet, you make it known that he and you had a gentleman’s agreement, and he reneged on it. Kendo is a man without integrity, you tell the world; he’s a cheat, a morally bankrupt megalomaniac, a petty narcissist, a malicious sociopath who holds nothing sacred but himself. Now that you’ve got nothing left to lose, nothing at all, by being frank, you explain what it was like being targeted by him, bullied by him, how he destroyed your life and got the world to cheer him on while he ground you beneath his heel like an unwanted cigarette. You point out that Kendo, despite his street-hardened warrior poet rapper persona, was a child of the bourgeoisie: his father has tenure at UPenn and his mother is an archivist. Your father was an auto mechanic and you were the first person in your family to go to college. Which axes of oppression were truly relevant in Kendo’s “feud” with you? You demand to know: how is his behavior not the very definition of “punching down?”
You finish your screed and power off your phone. You’ve eaten nothing today and haven’t slept in two nights. Confronting the public right now is out of the question. Tomorrow, then, after you’ve made an attempt to get some rest.
It’s almost noon and your tweets have drawn fewer than two hundred engagements — mostly flippant, dismissive replies (Sir, this is a Wendy’s) and quote retweets (at several of which consist only of the “Old Man Yells at Cloud” Simpsons screencap or the “showing you the door” xkcd strip). You read a handful of incoherent tirades about how all you got was what you had coming to you, racist. But nobody with a verified account is getting involved. Kendo remains silent — though you see he’s been active, tweeting information about some new NFT releases, extolling the genius of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, and sharing a couple photos of Rebecca and him on the town.
You sit so long your butt goes numb, probing the people who did engage. How many followers do the ones who quote-tweeted you have? How many of those followers are influential? Why didn’t they retweet or weigh in? How can this thing not be gaining any traction?
It’s already after dark when you start tweeting at journalists from The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, every newspaper, magazine, and website of note you can think of, offering to tell them the story, the whole story, about what happened between you and Kendo. It’s relevant, you promise them. It’s important.
Only one of them replies, a staff writer for The Atlantic: I believe your story is already known, she says. About a dozen of the 56 likes the tweet earns in half an hour come from the other journalists you reached out to.
The rest of Twitter is talking about Joe Rogan getting COVID. About a Twitch streamer strike. About Zendaya’s birthday. About the QAnon Shaman’s plea deal. About somebody named Chris Chan.
The battery dies. Your phone’s screen goes black. Every light in the house is off. You toss your phone off the bed, and hear its muffled landing somewhere among the mounds of dirty clothes, empty pizza boxes, Chinese takeout cartons, and bottles of Blue Moon. You haven’t washed the bedsheets since July, and haven’t showered in a week. You’re shaggy, flabby, sickly, unemployed, and alone, and nobody gives a damn. Chastising and lambasting you no longer buzzes them, and they desire nothing further from you. They’ve moved on.
Blacklisted from the professional sphere, you had no choice but to seek an hourly wage someplace. Even the Starbucks supervisor who called you in for an interview asked if you were the same man involved in “that ugliness on Twitter with Kendo D.” When you confessed that you were, he proceeded with the rest of the interview solely out of respect for protocol.
The manager of the 24-hour Dunkin’ on the main drag at the outskirts of Takoma Park didn’t share his competitor’s scruples, if he even bothered to google your name. He hired you to work the third shift.
By then it was all but certain you were losing the house, and your paychecks from Dunkin’ weren’t going to make a difference. You relocated to a dingy one-room apartment in Wheaton, Maryland, too small even to be called a studio. Most of your old stuff was left behind after nobody in the neighborhood wanted to be seen browsing your yard sale. Not having a computer or television in your new home was a deliberate choice, as was downgrading from a Samsung Galaxy to a flip phone. You work from eleven at night to seven in the morning, and spend most of your leisure time doing calisthenics, drawing, and reading page-turner novels borrowed from the library.
Now and then you use one of the library’s desktop computers to check on what’s happening in the world. After seeing the photos of Kendo and Rebecca at the Grammys (just a week after the divorce was finalized), you swore off searching for news about your erstwhile nemesis, and stuck to reading the top stories on MSNBC, the BBC, and The Washington Post.
Somehow or other you found out about Rebecca and Kendo’s split, and took a mote of satisfaction in the discovery that Kendo apparently lost interest in Rebecca as abruptly as he got over you. The gossip about his dalliance with the 25-year-old actress and musician Prisha Kulkarni was all over supermarket tabloids’ covers.
Rebecca took Evan and moved back to Guangdong, where she had an NGO job waiting for her. She never deactivated her Facebook or Instagram, but hasn’t updated them in almost two years. Both of you, you suspect, are ashamed enough of yourselves to forgive each other for everything if it came to it, but your reciprocal embarrassment at the other’s public humiliation precludes any effort to start a conversation.
Maybe Evan will reach out to you when she’s older.
Technically you’re the shift supervisor, but you always work by yourself. Most of your customers are cops, adolescents who live within walking distance, and homeless people who are welcome to occupy a table as long as they buy something and don’t fall asleep. The work is easy enough, all routine, and only stressful during unusual spikes in traffic or when a drug addict locks him or herself in the bathroom and doesn’t respond when you knock. Nobody to whom you serve coffee and donuts knows or cares who you are, and even now that remains a comfort.
At 2:30 am on a slower night than usual, the semi-lite FM digital radio station the manager insists be kept on at all times gets itself stuck in a loop of late-2000s pop songs. Katy Perry. Ke$ha. Gwen Stefani. Fergie. After Danity Kane’s “Damaged” winds down, the next track opens with a downtempo beat that ramifies into a droning rhythm riding a subcurrent of piano chords and frantic synthesized violin tones. Though you seldom hear an unfamiliar song at work, your interest isn’t aroused until a deep voice begins to sing in the sludgy drawl popularized by Lil Peep and the emo rap milieu. It’s a harsh sound, but glossed and processed enough to come off as harmlessly poppy in spite of itself.
Just to make sure, you ask your only customers — a dreary teenaged couple nursing iced lattes in the corner — what you’re listening to.
“Kendo D,” one of them answers listlessly.
You help yourself to a cruller and lean on the counter, taking it in.
This must be one of the singles from Sun Machine Symphony. Evidently it was stale enough for the station’s curators to slip it into rotation less than a year after its release. You understand the record had a troubled production and earned very mixed reviews, but this is your first time listening to any of it.
When allusions to Kendo’s falling out with Sour Boi6 came to your attention a few months back, you couldn’t say you were surprised. That night at the depot was prophetic: when the Gen Zers in the audience were more stoked to see Sour Boi than Kendo, the writing was on the wall. Since then, Sour Boi has become one of the rap world’s leading enfants terribles, topping charts, guiding Twitter trends, creating hooks and dances that explode on TikTok and YouTube. You’re not clear how his spat with Kendo began, but you’ve a good idea who came out ahead. From what you can gather from tangents in the comments sections of Washington Post articles, 2019’s Ungovernable is generally regarded as Kendo’s last good record. In the wake of Sun Machine Symphony, one of the Post’s contributing music critics admitted to wondering if he’d been too kind in his initial assessment of Kiss My Teeth. Kendo’s subsequent breakup with Kulkarni, the liquidation of his clothing brand, and his outburst at the Met Gala didn’t do his reputation any favors, and then Sour Boi tweeted those juxtaposed photos of a fiery-eyed Kendo in the studio circa 2015, and of present-day Kendo on the golf course, declaring everybody knows u peaked years ago. That may have been the final nail in the coffin.
Whatever the song is called, it’s decent enough. Inoffensive. Perfectly suitable for an algorithm-populated playlist of pop stardom’s has-beens piped into a Target, CVS, or fast-food joint.
The teenagers at the table in the corner don’t even bob their heads as they quietly stab at their phones. Kendo D is background noise to them.
You certainly felt some schadenfreude when Kendo’s woes came to your attention. How could you not? But hearing his voice again for the first time in years, turning in a mediocre performance at three in the morning in the cold fluorescent gaudiness of a lonely Dunkin’ Donuts — for a moment you’re moved to something like pity. No, not pity — not for Kendo, not for yourself. You can only call it nostalgia, a somber remembrance of the irrevocable prime of your life and of Kendo’s, intersecting as they did, when he was an undisputed epochal genius for all time and you were briefly the most important person in the world to him.
The song ends, and LFO’s “Summer Girls” comes on for the second time since your shift began. You toss out your half-eaten cruller and check the coffee timers, thinking it might be a good idea to give the front door a hit with the Windex while business is slow.