Review: Todrick Hall’s Expansive And Incisive “Forbidden”

Hall's exploration of race and gender politics is musically and visually ambitious and successful. Plus, RuPaul, Brandy, and Tiffany Haddish!

Todrick Hall’s success as an artist has long been dependent on others. As a contestant on American Idol Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Ellen Degeneres, and the viewing public determined his outcome. And he’s been simultaneously blessed and burdened by the creative decisions by his best friend, pop star Taylor Swift.

But with the release of his new visual album Forbidden, Hall proves he’s the master of his own fate. Comprised of 30 songs, and over an hour of corresponding video Forbidden showcases his colorful vocal ability as well as his talent as an actor, writer, choreographer, and director. The day after Forbidden’s release Hall told Billboard, “I wanted this [project] to be uncomfortable for people to watch.” Hall was successful.

In Forbidden, Hall, who is black and gay, depicts Nacirema (American spelled backwards), a fictional place name coined by anthropologist Horace Mitchell Miner. In a satirical 1956 journal article entitled “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” Miner describes a tribe of people in North America who are obsessed with the human body. It’s an explicit critique on racism and American narcissism.

Hall’s rendering of Nacirema examines America’s persisting injustices including heterosexism and racism. It moves black LGBTQ folk away from the margins of society into positions of power and control. Hall’s character, Noland Renner, is the son of the black gay men who serve as Nacirema’s Mayors.

With impressive ease Todrick Hall blends elements of fantasy and reality. The album begins in a 1960’s styled aesthetic, a time in which white people largely believed their safety to be dependant on the enforcement of racial violence and legal segregation against people of color.

Courtesy of Todrick Hall
A time many Americans remain nostalgic about. Last year Nicole Hemmer wrote about how romantic reminiscence of the American past exacerbates current racial tensions and fostered the election of Donald Trump. With Forbidden Hall’s objective is to demonstrate feelings about America’s past as part of what cripples progress. Opening credits include a album being placed into a record player with Hall’s name on it. The names of supporting actors are listed as brands on kitchen items including a cereal box, flour, rice and syrup; products standard in the 20th Century American middle class pantry.

As a viewer who is a queer Black male, there were instances when my emotions were mixed. During “Wanted,” the album’s second track, Noland Renner is arrested and jailed because of his identity, an experience too familiar to people of color. Here Hall’s visuals point to the same systemic problems that were noted in findings in a study by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR that found “LGBTQ people of color were over twice as likely to report experiencing anti-LGBTQ discrimination when applying for jobs and interacting with police than their white peers.” This is the very reality and “discomfort” Hall seeks to unpack.

Imagery of 1960s is consistently displayed throughout the album but Hall doesn’t keep viewers in that period. Time travel aids Hall’s desire to perform in the various styles he’s acquired performing in theatre, on American Idol, as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and online. Genres range from the gospel-inspired “All American” to “Wanted,” a song laced with electric rock, to the trap driven song “Ka-Ching,” on which Hall raps. Hall’s gender presentation audibly and visually shifts while he sings and raps. All these techniques consistently supplement the story arc. And, in doing so Hall accomplishes a gargantuan task.

Courtesy of Todrick Hall
Courtesy of Todrick Hall
Jenifer Lewis and Tiffany Haddish

His method also provides space for numerous guest stars appearances, to textural and theatrical effect: On “Lullaby,” Brandy sings a ballad urging Renner not to forget his origins and worth; and Tamar Braxton sings Nacirema’s “National Anthem”; actor and singer Nick Rashad Burroughs’s feature on “Ordinary Day” is a nod to Broadway’s storytelling tradition (Hall was a lead on Kinky Boots and Chicago); and Bob the Drag Queen’s representation as Nacirema’s newscaster provides a combination of comedic relief and suspense between musical numbers. A duet between Tony-award winner Cynthia Erivo and singer and Instagram sensation Jade Novah, exhibit Hall’s deep understanding of his own audience, and demonstrate he’s made meaningful relationships with artists on the social platforms on which he’s thrived. (With each of his projects, Hall manages to lure fans away from television and the theatrical stage onto his own world on the Internet. Hall’s YouTube channel has accrued more than 544 million views for his videos.)

Courtesy of Todrick Hall

Forbidden reimagines race, gender, sexuality and the very power Hall has acquired professionally. Whiteness and heterosexuality are challenged. Hall’s character, for instance, experiences victimization, a turn that suggests that white supremacy and the queer antagonism harms everyone who values freedom regardless of identity. On the track “Ordinary Day” an innocent unarmed white youth is gunned down in spectacle fashion by a black police officer and witnesses sweep the murder under the rug. The track “Silver Spoon” illustrates a white singer with abundant talent perform only to go unrecognized and under-appreciated by a black audience. After she exits the stage, a black singer with limited vocal ability performs and receives a thunderous standing ovation. This reversal of the mundane predicaments of anti-black racism shows that black LGBTQ+ people experience the assault of white supremacy on various levels.

Courtesy of Todrick Hall

Nacirema operates as a mirror that allows critical thinkers to examine pervasive issues—an extremely laudable pursuit for any popular artist. With the exception of “Boys Wear Pink,” however, the album’s closing track, Forbidden, is historically inaccurate. For example, few black people were able to obtain employment in 1950–60s white establishments or access housing in white neighborhoods as the video seems to depict. Inclusion of this imagery is a misstep. White supremacy thrives off of denial of the real ways in which systemic laws and violence work to oppress marginalized people. As a result, in regards to discrimination on gender, sexual and racial identity, even our fictional narratives need to affirm historical accuracy. But I also understand this gaffe as indication of Hall’s deep expertise in popular culture. In 2016, journalist Robert Fieseler, interviewed anthropologists Dr. Michael Baran and Dr. James Herron about racism’s persistence in America. Dr. Herron said, “If you think about it, what is race? What is racism? At its most basic level, racism is a lens through which people interpret, naturalize, and reproduce inequality.” With Forbidden Hall understands that all Americans simply don’t view inequality the same way. Flipping the traditional roles of white and black characters ensures viewers of Forbidden are on mutual understanding, a valuable step towards progress.

Courtesy of Todrick Hall

Todrick Hall has always remained committed to producing thematically cohesive music. It’s a formula that seems to be a working for Him. Forbidden charted No. 2 on iTunes overall albums and gained over 130 thousand views on Youtube the night of its release. Under the video’s play button is a link to purchase tickets for “America: The Forbidden,” Hall’s national tour covering an aggressive schedule of 46 cities.

Hall is a black gay millennial artist covering a wide terrain of the entertainment industry with great success. When was the last time your fav brought broadway, gospel, pop, and social justice to Youtube? At 32 years old, Hall seems to understand how to combine his artistic tactics with business strategy to create results for his career. What really makes him a winner is willingness and ability to to utilize his talents to help America as a whole examine its positive and negative attributes.

Courtesy of Todrick Hall

Bryan Epps is a Newark native who now writes about politics & art.