“I don’t like rap because all they do is rap about cars, clothes, bling and bitches.”
For the past seven years, I have heard this very same statement countless times. I’ll run into a complete stranger at a party, on the bus, in a classroom or at work and spark up a conversation about music with them. I will sit next to this person and wax poetic about all different genres, slowly becoming infatuated with the intoxicating dialogue about music. But then we breach the subject of hip hop and rap and things get tense – everything backfires and we are both left wondering what happened. So what did happen to hip hop?
Personally I thought the last decade was amazing. From 1990 up until the present date, music listeners have been graced with classic records from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Dr. Dre, Outkast, Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, Eminem and that’s just the list of major hit artists. I haven’t even delved deep into the halls of the unsung heroes, citing notable artists like Organized Konfusion, Count Bass D, Onyx, Cannibal Ox or Mr. Lif. Hip hop and rap fans have had the privilege of watching hip hop grow from an angry infant genre to a completely commercial and mainstream entity. Hip hop has moved from dim-lit and blunt smoke filled basements to huge stadiums and arenas complete with massive light rigs, expensive projectors and PA systems the same price as a hybrid Lexus (*the blunt odor still has not left the room). Nonetheless, I hear more debates about the negative aspects of hip hop and rap than anything else.
My question is this, what do the fans genuinely expect? I fully understand and acknowledge that the level of lyricism is not the same as it used to be in the late eighties and early nineties and it has in fact degraded. However, there are plenty of classic rap records that I can think of that didn’t involve lyrical gymnastics, “100 Miles and Runnin” and “Hard Knock Life” are two that immediately come to mind. Those are just great songs and classics because of their hard hitting message, arrangement and dope production – no verbal calisthenics involved. In addition, not all music is meant to be packed to the brim with heavy philosophical and sapient content or angry political tirades about the streets. However, I will still admit that something is amiss.
The flip side of my argument is that we lack balance in hip hop and rap. What gave the genres their true life and vitality was multi-dimensionality and complexity. A rapper could tell a graphic tale about a gruesome shooting incident that occurred in the neighborhood, but then write a song about a fun, drama free block party that happened the same week. What made rappers like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Biggie and 2Pac so interesting was not only their hardcore lyrical content, but the fact that they could balance it all out with songs about happiness, depression, hooking up with hot chicks, being rejected by women, pissing off and evading the cops, getting busted by the cops; it was all there. Nas and Jay-Z took that same blueprint and elevated it to the next level.
In addition to the lack of balance, we, as hip hop fans (specifically the young generation), allow ourselves to believe that trends are more than mere illusions. I recall 2006-09 being particularly horrendous at times because everyone wanted to do or talk about their “swagger.” Younger rap fans would hear Auto-Tune records, and instead of being smart and paving their own paths, they would copy these piss poor recordings in the hopes of making a hit for themselves. I feel that the up and coming generation of hip hop fans lacks foresight and has a poor tendency of judging what is obviously a trend and fad as the new law or principle of the genre. We stifle hip hop and rap when we make these judgments and it pressures many rappers and producers to create music that is not wholly reflective of who they are as artists – it stifles all creativity. Unfortunately, whoever has the most swagger and coolest image is still a popular craze and I predict that it will be over the next couple years. When Cash Money created the slogan, “bling bling” I never predicted that rap as an entire genre would sink down into an even lower level of superficiality and frivolousness. While I enjoy many of the tracks I hear from artists like Lil Wayne and Drake, I can’t take it seriously – it all reminds me of “GQ” or “fashion” rap, music that’s suited to looking clean in your John Varvatos button down and vest while spraying on Burberry cologne. Weezy can say he’s the best rapper alive all day, but he won’t get any more brownie points in my book until he finally comes out with a solid album that doesn’t just talk about weed, codeine, guns and bitches.
Overall, I am a proud hip hop fan and I see the genre is going through a vital transformation period. I have faith in the rap and hip hop music that will be produced in the coming decade and am excited when I hear new artists paving their own way. Jay Electronica is currently my favorite rapper and I feel he could be at the forefront of a new movement. On an even smaller and local scale, I’m excited about my friend James Valmont, he’s a very talented rapper and shows promise. Nonetheless, there are several external obstacles that will pull hip hop and rap into different directions, further segmenting the genres. Music fans do not purchase records the way they used to and the entire music business has imploded and is also changing. Your once knowledgeable rap fan who rocked everything from Tribe Called Quest to Three Six Mafia in his Discman is now gone and replaced by a fan who listens to one specific form of rap and/or hip hop performed by a specific group of artists and it’s all compiled onto a shiny new iPod. I foresee these kinds of division and this segmentation as being very dangerous for not only hip hop, but all music. It turns music fans into isolationists and not universalists. Either way, some amazing things happened in rap over the past decade and as we enter the new one, I look forward to sitting back and watching the rest of this vast music dialogue unfurl itself.
*Here are a few of my favorite rap records produced in the last decade