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Portraits in Charisma

Pickup artists have one of the best definition for charisma that I think I’ve ever heard: Charisma is the ability to suck other people into your reality. People enter into every interaction with a frame: for example a dominant frame, a submissive frame, a negative frame, a positive frame, whatever. Every interaction between two people is a collision of frames. What happens when the two frames collide determines the dynamic between the two people.

For example, when an aggressively hostile frame meets a submissive and meek frame, the dynamic is dominance or outright bullying. Another way to dominate without resorting to outright bullying is to have a confident, yet larger than life frame that attracts people and sucks them into your reality. This dynamic is charisma.

If you actively and overtly try too hard to actively drag people into your reality, you’ll drive them away because you’re being too pushy or come off desperate or insecure. People who want to be charismatic but keep failing often can’t tell the difference between sucking people into their reality by being appealing and interesting and imposing their reality on people by being loud, bragadocious and eager to impress. The frame needed for charisma is like the movie Field of Dreams: if you build it right, people will come on their own, almost unconsciously and against their will. It’s the difference between “Hey, I’m acting crazy and over-the-top because I think it will impress you and I want you to like me” and “Hey, I’m acting crazy and over-the-top because that’s unapologetically who I am and what I enjoy. I’m just bringing you along for the ride, if you want to come. If not, no skin off my back.”

Some people use charm and charisma interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing. Charm is when you try to get people to like you. When you have charisma, though, people try to get you to like them. Charm is an external set of behaviors calculated to impress people. Charisma is an internalized way of being that naturally makes people want to impress you.

Using rap as an example, this is one reason why I think in the hip-hop world Nas was always inferior overall as a public persona to Jay-Z, regardless of what you may think of their individual talents. Nas always seemed to be trying to get people to like him by changing himself to suit their tastes. He came out on Illmatic as the spokesperson for the five pillars of hip-hop, rapping about keeping it real, celebrating classic hip-hop and its roots, using clips from the classic movie Wild Style on his album, talking about “one love,” talking about street corner drug dealing….he was being built up as the messiah to deliver crown back to the east coast and “real” hip-hop and away from the dominance the west coast gangster rap had over the mainstream in the form of Suge, Snoop, Dre, Tupac and Death Row records.

Although Illmatic was an instant classic among hardcore hip-hop heads, especially in the east coast where complex wordplay is the most important criteria, it failed to set the nation on fire and more importantly, it failed to wrest control from the west coast. Nas wasn’t charismatic enough, meaning he didn’t suck the nation into his reality enough. For all his complex lyricism, his personality was a cipher, his interviews were dull, his voice was monotone, nothing about him made you feel like he’d be fun to hang out with or made you want to impress him. It was great for rap nerds but not the general public.   His album seemed to be a bunch of themes and images that represented every stereotype of an East Coast rapper of that era: jazzy beats by DJ Premier and Pete Rock, talk about hip-hop history, name-dropping old school hip-hop figures, talking about keeping it “real,” a little bit of gangster talk, sob stories about the people in the hood who died, the pseudointellectual 5 Percenter knowledge dropping…all good stuff, but safe and designed to please without taking risk. His lack of vision and personal identity showed even more when you saw his production. Almost every track had a different star producer, making the album sound almost like a soundtrack or compilation rather than one man’s singular vision. The distinct styles of each producer helped drown out Nas’s individual voice even more and made it even harder to pin down who he was. Once the initial hype wore off, what was left was a solid, but ultimately forgettable album (yeah, I said it).  Illmatic remains one of the most overrated rap albums

Then three acts popped up seemingly out of nowhere and reestablished east coast dominance in a way no one expected: Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. All of them combined to play the east coast messiah role everyone originally expected from Nas. They succeeded where Nas failed is because they had charisma. They sucked you into their reality. Whereas Nas was a rappers’ rapper because his peers loved his lyrical dexterity, Wu-Tang, Jay and Biggie were forces of nature. People on the street changed how they dressed, record companies started racing to find ripoff acts, established acts became irrelevant overnight. It was crazy. Wu-Tang made east coast lyricism fun and marketable again rather than the cold and clinical elitist niche market it was on the road to becoming, like bebop jazz. Kung fu movies even surged in popularity thanks to Wu-Tang. Fat crispy black guys started buying ugly ass Coogi sweaters and suddenly getting more pussy thanks to Biggie. Jay-Z was an effortless cool that chilled your eardrums with just that first listen. They defined the new “blinging black mafia” and “grimy street soldier” swagger that defined east coast rap ever since for at least the next decade. Nas tried to do what he thought his audience would like, which is charming. Jay-Z, Biggie and Wu-Tang came out with their own image and told the public what to like and the public eagerly obeyed. That’s charisma.

When you try to please everyone, you usually end up pleasing no one, including yourself. Charismatic people on the other hand unapologetically try to please themselves first and foremost, and their frame is strong enough to make people gravitate toward you and want to be a part of your persona. Of course you have to have at least some substance or talent or even the strongest frame in the world won’t be enough. If a powerful frame could do it alone, then those bad auditioners (auditionees?) on American Idol with superhuman delusions of their own talents would be stars.

After Biggie, Jay-Z and the Wu blew up, this was the critical juncture is where I think Nas permanently defined himself as inferior to the others: instead of sticking to his guns and making his frame stronger, or changing his frame to one better suited to his strengths to allow him to become more charismatic and suck people into his reality, his next step was to instead become more of a follower. He got into the bling. He gave himself a mafia aesthetic complete with a cheesy mob nickname. If Biggie was going to call himself Frank White and Jay-Z was going to have intros quoting Pacino’s Way, he was now going to call himself Nas Escobar and qupte skits from Goodfellas and have a mafia don persona too. Gone were the quotes from hip-hop movies like Wild Style as he started quoting dialogue from Goodfellas in skits. His homeboy got in on the act and renamed himself AZ Sosa after the character from Usual Suspects. He named his new supergroup (which was anything but super) The Firm, after a John Grisham movie. He was hopping on Jay-Z, Puffy and Biggie’s mafia and blockbuster movie referencing bandwagon. Meanwhile his albums just got wacker.

The worst thing you can do when competing against a charismatic person is to imitate them, because you just reinforce their image as a leader and trendsetter, which just ends up strengthening and validating them instead and making them appear more charismatic. To this day, Nas always seems to be introverted and uncomfortable in his own skin, and whenever he tries to put on a mafia don image and swagger, he comes off like a boy wearing his big brother’s clothes and play acting. He’s always getting sucked into the popular reality of the day instead of establishing his own dominant frame.

This was confirmed for me recently when I heard he signed with Jay-Z on Def Jam records. Now I’m all for squashing a beef. That’s mature. But to go as far as to agree to work for your former archnemesis who is a fellow artist and now become his employee? Wack move. Especially seeing as how this is the man who rapped about banging your baby mama and tossing used condoms on your child’s car seat after he was done.  I can guarantee you that Jay-Z would not do the same if the situations were reversed and he had a chance to work for Nas. That is why Jay-Z is an alpha dog and Nas isn’t. And later on, what does Jay-Z do with Nas? He repeatedly pushes back the release date of Nas’s album and releases his own highly publicized album American Gangster. Nas should never have put himself in that position. Nothing sucks you more into another person’s reality and makes your frame inferior to theirs as being their employee.

Related: Check out the charisma on this 14 year old Alex Goldberg, his frame is astounding. The article is called “The Littlest Hustler” and here’s how it opens:

The hotel room was boring.

So Alex Goldberg did what he normally does when he?s bored, which is often: He sneaked out. It was last year, and he was vacationing with his mom and sister at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. But Alex wanted to go where the action was. He shuffled out of the lobby of the Ritz and cruised down Collins Avenue along the row of Art Deco hotels. There was a party going on at the Delano. Alex marched through the crowd in cargo shorts, belly out in a baggy T-shirt, sneaker laces dragging. He found a spot on the edge of the pool and plunged his toes into the water.

“What are you doing here?” asked a woman in a bathing suit. “Where are your parents?”

“Taking a nap at the Ritz. I just wanted to check this place out.” She didn’t believe him. “C’mon. I know you. I did a casting with you in New York.” Alex shook his head. “No, you didn’t.”

“I did too. Your name is Josh something. You?re 11. What?s the name of the movie you were in?”

“I’m not in any movie. And I’m 12.”

Alex borrowed a video camera from the woman’s friend and disappeared into the crowd to interview people. He found his first victim in the shallow end. She was a blonde in a blue bikini, clumsily moving to the music.

“Are you a professional dancer?” Alex asked sarcastically.

She looked curiously at the four-foot-nine-inch-tall boy. “Are you making a movie for school or something?” she asked. “Is this educational?”

Alex was grinning. Her friends started getting ideas. “Show him some ass, girl,” said one. “Shake it a little.” And she did. She turned around. Jiggle jiggle jiggle.

Next up: Jamie Foxx. The actor was near the bar, giving a woman a massage, and saw the crowd now gathered around Alex. Foxx offered to buy him a drink. “What do you want, little boy? ” A pina colada,? Alex said. The crowd laughed, and he got one, virgin.

Alex’s adventure ended hours later, at Nobu, where the pool crowd had migrated to feast on junket sushi. He had been chatting up Venus and Serena Williams at a nearby table, and mugging for cameras with a cigar hanging from his lips while eating a bowl of ice cream. Then the faces at his table went blank. Alex looked up and saw what they saw. His mother.


Note how he act unimpressed by everyone, regardless of celebrity status, age or hotness. Note how he only entertains you as a reward, not as a plea for you to like him. The kid is  something else. I highly recommend you read the whole article and not just the part I excerpted; you’ll see exactly what I wrote about in this article in how Goldberg constantly redefines the reality around him and leads social interactions.

Alex Goldberg

Alex Goldberg – The Kid Stays In The Picture

10 Responses to “Portraits in Charisma”

  1. That kid is so…GULLY! The article was awesome. Thanks for the link. ;)

    Desiree’s last blog post..Testimonials

  2. You are on point with the Nas/ Jayz Metaph….

    I’m planning on writing something similar on lil wayne and about how he’s taken his game to another level ready to take the tourch from JayZ and why he can.

    Thanks for the insperation

  3. I think I meant analogy rather than metaphor

  4. it seems that some kind of charisma is really zen, you know? or just a feeling of not needing as much as experiencing things as they come. why is it that 50 cent comes across as more like nas and kanye west like jay-z in their latest albums? is that more to do with lyrical writing/skill/overall production, or are there issues of charisma too?

  5. VK – Let me know when you write it. Actually I check your blog compulsively like a crack addict so it’s not like I won’t know.

    jess – i don’t know about the Zen thing. I mean I know what you mean, but Zen kind of sounds too passive, as if you don’t care whether it comes or not. I really believe the charismatic person needs it and strongly desires it as much as anyone else, they just want it on their terms or not at all. It’s not that they don’t want it or need it, it’s that no matter how much they want, they’re still willing to let it go at the end of the day if they don’t get it on the terms they want and define.

    As far as Kanye vs. 50 goes, I don’t buy into this whole revisionist interpretation of Kanye going around where he’s some type of conscious, more musical, deeper rapper and 50 is fluff or garbage. I think Kanye and 50 are exactly the same. Both talk about materialism, hoes, jewelry, their money, how cool they are, how popular they are, etc. Neither are especially deep in lyrical content. But somehow Kanye gets lumped in with the “conscious rap” crowd because he has middle class attire and hangs out with people like the Roots, Mos Def and Common. But despite his association with them, at the end of the day I’d lump him in more with 50′s style of rap, just minus the gunplay.

    I think 50 and Kanye are both charismatic, both of them pull you into their reality. They are both in the Jay-Z camp of setting trends and being leaders. When 50′s 1st album first came out, he had a stranglehold on the club scene, I mean you spent the whole night waiting for the 50 songs to come on. It was an eruption on the dancefloor when the first few notes of “What up Gangsta?” or “In Da Club” came on. Every car radio was blasting his music when you walked the street. He pretty much singlehandedly killed the rap career of the multiplatinum reigning artist of the time Ja Rule. Ja Rule sold millions on millions of records, yet after 50 was through with him you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’ll admit having ever been a fan, even now. I know it’s fashionable to hate him now, but he’s definitely charismatic. Kanye too. Both are definitely above Nas so far as sucking people into their reality, even though Nas is probably better lyrically than both put together.

  6. T… you’re just great. I’m loving how your mind works. I have NEVER thought about it like this. I have to be honest, I’m more in the “pro-Nas” camp probably because I appreciate lyricism more than anything else. But when it comes to the charisma factor, you’re ablolutely right. Jigga has got more swagger than Nas, hands down.

    Very interesting stuff. Perhaps I like to root for the underdog as well.

    Brownngirl’s last blog post..Ed-ju-kay-shun.

  7. Brownngirl – Yeah, it’s a funny thing about life. We build people up until they reach stratospheric heights, but once they get too big we start rooting for an underdog to take them out.

  8. T, all the people you named above who have charisma are extroverted.
    Question is how can an quiet and introverted individual draw people in without projecting a different persona?