The Complex Complex

By Jaylin Paschal

A Complex History

Complex was established by Marc Ecko in 2002 as a print magazine "aimed at providing young males a report of the latest in hip-hop, fashion and pop culture without regard to race."

"Complex is a community of creators and curators on a mission to expose the true face of modern America. Armed with the internet, we defy the stale conventions of the past by shifting the world's attention to the movements within convergence culture."

Complex's About Page

The first time I read this definition, it hit close to home. As a writer with a focus on cultural and sociopolitical commentary, "exposing the true face of modern America" is all I want to do as a storyteller. Defying "stale conventions" and shifting attention to changing cultural dynamics are two objectives that are personal to me. 

For years, Complex was one of my favorite publications. Anything I knew about pop culture, and most of what I knew about "underground" or countercultures, I learned from Complex. I scoured their Tumblr site on the regular, I followed their tweets closely, and I treated Complex as the cultural bible. I read through articles, scouting the next dream hampton, trying to find which crevices my own bylines could crawl into one day. I loved Complex, and I was convinced Complex loved me back.

How could it not? So much of Complex's content was centered around black youth culture. [Note: Complex is multifaceted, but that does not mean that an eye wasn't particularly focused on us, or "urban" culture, which usually means, of course, us. This isn't necessarily a fault of the magazine. They knew we was poppin' and they know we still poppin'.] The magazine featured what we were creating and saying and wearing and listening to. It was, in a way, a clear example of how black culture permeate(s/d) the mainstream; the way trends in our community seem to cross pre-existing sociopolitical barriers. Complex was, indeed, a "melting pot" magazine melding together the best from all corners of America's subcultures, but it would be naive to say that black culture and hip hop was not somehow centered. This is one of the reasons I loved Complex so much: I was able to see my people studied and analyzed and celebrated and critiqued as real artists and influencers. In Complex, our culture was not merely elective or extra-curricular or supplemental. It was crucial. And not for gimmick, or exploitation, or pandering. They wrote about us for us, and for anyone who cared about us.

And Complex wasn't superficial. It didn't gloss over the nitty-gritty, or do ten cover stories on one cultural trend. It wasn't just People for young adults; not a young National Enquirer or a print E! News. It was layered, honest, multifaceted content.


But, unironically, it's complicated; complex, if you will.

Within the past year or two, and probably further back than I'm willing to admit, I've seen Complex's content shift towards another direction. I find myself asking one critical question over and over again:

Why is simple shit on the cover of Complex?
— Mick Jenkins

I had begun to come to terms with the fact that this was not the Complex I knew and loved, and knew loved me back. This was not the publication air-tight with gorgeously-written reviews or insanely insightful commentary or meticulous cultural critique or tips delivered from the style-gods themselves or carefully curated artists features--all of the elements of Complex which "made culture pop." (And are still there, but becoming less prevalent.)

This was, more often, clickbait. This was predatation on and exploitation of black youth culture. This was five hundred fucking million articles on the Kardashians, not including those on the Kardashian-Wests or the Jenners. Or, this was coming to my school, Howard University, to trail black women while Kylie Jenner (who frequently disrespects the hell out of black women) is your covergirl. This was TMZ-style celebrity coverage presented as music news. This was Buzzfeed-style curated lists of nothing meaningful.

This was (is) the Complex Complex.

The Complex complex is the problematic tendency the publication has to abandon its standard of groundbreaking critical content for the sake of site traffic or cult clout; its habitual placement of clicks over culture.

And to be fair, it's not just Complex. Hypebeast and The Breakfast Club and Four Pins and other "culture centric" media outlets have resorted to similar methods of survival. Billboard reported earlier this week that Complex will no longer be printing issues, suggesting that the magazine is doing just about as well as most magazines--which isn't very well at all. Perhaps that's why substance seems to be secondary nowadays. Perhaps I'm just speculating. Perhaps Complex is increasingly superficial because we're increasingly superficial, meaning superficial sells.

If it is, in fact, our own fault for compromising the cultural integrity of Complex, I hope like hell we get our shit together. After all, we're the "complex generation," who has used modern technology to bridge the gaps between our minuscule niches and separate movements and various subcultures.

And please, keep in mind, all of this is coming from someone who loves Complex. Or at least loves the idea of it. Or at least tries to. The space for cultural commentary, the platform for young voices, and the sense of community is enough to make me hold the company close to my heart. But, you have to be critical of those you love, right? In their own words, Complex is not a magazine or a website, but rather a "call to action." Complex's Black Lives Matter statement was crucial, their 2016 election coverage kept millennials in the loop, and their creative delivery constantly shifts the definition of "journalism." But often--too often--the call to action falls silent.

I want Complex, more than anything, to return to the publication that always seemed to be bursting at the spine with content that overwhelmed the pages. And I won't say that Complex is empty now. But certainly less full.

I still believe that Complex is at its core, and has the capacity to be in its entirety, a tool to "expose the true face of modern America," "defy the stale conventions of the past," and shift "the world's attention to the movements within convergence culture."

Jaylin PaschalComment