Welcome to “The What.” The ongoing goal of this column is to think through the ways in which hip-hop “functions” in our present milieu: as a genre, discourse, and touchstone for examinations of our life + times, from taste and representation to race and class. In this way, “The What” seeks to document the aesthetics and teleology of hip-hop as it presently reveals itself. Such dialogues may be about how hip-hop got here and where it is going, but it also might tell us how we got here and where we are going. Email me here.
Paragraph 1, wherein the matter of post-hip-hop arises. Hip-hop dies every year, or so it seems. In 2006, Nas built a whole album around this concept. New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones incited a digital firestorm when he proclaimed 2009 as the year of hip-hop’s demise, with the magazine receiving more mail about that article than for any single article it had published in the preceding 11 years and Brooklyn-based rap trio Das Racist most famously coming to hip-hop’s defense: “Stop trying to kill rap,” they pleaded. The more interesting question to arise out of this crusade was not how to save hip-hop, but rather why hip-hop was worth saving at all.
The end of the Aughts found America’s art form qua dream of upward-mobility more ossified and less influential than it had ever been. The commercial and artistic boon of the early Aughts, which brought Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and The Black Album, and the rise of Kanye West, had recessed back into the wax. Hip-hop’s most popular artists were releasing commercial flops (50 Cent’s Curtis, Nelly’s Brass Nuckles), and its finest works hearkened nostalgically back to times gone by (the cover of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III). Had hip-hop gone the way of the epic poem, or was it simply experiencing its own Great Recession? With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the grim reapers and the pardoners were right: hip-hop had finally died, but it was to arise askew like the undead.
Paragraph 2, wherein we meditate on the tribulations of aging. Hip-hop finally got old. Hip-hop as a genre was always going to eventually age, but its auteurs, history suggested, would stay forever young. More than any other genre, hip-hop has been a young man’s game. Its best, biggest, and brightest — Christopher Wallace, Tupac Shakur, Russel Jones, Lamont Coleman, Christopher Rios — were gunned down in their primes. As the most famous rapper to have celebrated a 40th birthday, Jay-Z is the first “old rapper.” On “Light Up,” Jay-Z exemplifies his newfound role: “Drake, here’s how they gon’ come at you/ With silly rap feuds, trying to distract you/ In disguise, in the form of a favor/ The Barzini meet, watch for the traitors/ I done seen it all, done it all/ That’s why none of these dum-dums could done him off.” In a verse that draws on that great American tale of power and patriarchy The Godfather, Jay-Z — CEO, mogul, bawse — clearly relishes playing the mentor and dishing out wisdom. Such a dynamic, however, does not come as easily to those not named Shawn Carter.
Earlier on that very track, Drake plays the role of the unwilling heir Michael. Or, take Andre 3000’s guest verse off Mrs. Carter’s “Party”: “Kiddo say he looks up to me this just makes me feel old/ Never thought that we could become someone else’s hero/ Man, we were just in the food court eating our gyros/ Yesterday.” The nostalgia, for yesterday, for youth, runs deep. Unsurprisingly, the anxiety of influence affects the father-less, the black rapper, more than most. How can you be(lieve) a father figure when you’ve never had one yourself? No matter; a generation of ol’ dirty bastards still graduated to fatherhood. Let the conflict ensue.
Paragraph 3, wherein we ask the obvious question: “What is GOLF WANG?” Hip-hop’s midlife crisis has led to an interesting outcome: a meta-dialogue about the genre itself. This dialogue has centered on hip-hop’s past and present, its antecedents, its generational shift. For the first time, hip-hop’s past, its roots and its founders, are not cause for reverence but angst and scorn.
The Swag Generation is at the center of this change. Soulja Boy, for one, attacked Ice-T for being “old as fuck” on YouTube, and Kanye West supported him via his blog. Then, we have hip-hop collective and cultural meme Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Their modus operandi is rebellion. They oppose conformity, the status quo, and institutions (religion, school), as when their 19-year-old figurehead Tyler, The Creator, who regularly uses the word “rebel,” angrily raps on “Sandwitches”: “Nigga had the fucking nerve to call me immature/ Fuck you think I made Odd Future for? / To wear fucking suits and make good decisions?”
Ultimately, you are either with Odd Future or against Odd Future, and their foremost ethos is youthfulness and, yes, immaturity. Odd Future want nothing to do with the old, the past, the conventional, the traditional. The very names of their mixtapes suggest this: Radical, Bastard. Odd Future, who also famously attack rap blogs and tastemakers Nah Right and 2dopeboyz, are attacking the very foundations of hip-hop. They are trying to detonate the hip-hop canon. Odd Future, as the very name suggests, are helping to paint innovative narratives that point hip-hop towards a new trajectory and an uncertain but ineluctable future.
Paragraph 4, wherein we revisit the sins of the Father. There is certainly nothing new or necessarily noteworthy about disenfranchised adolescents telling the world to fuck itself through the medium of pop music — just ask The Stooges, David Bowie, Ice Cube, or Marilyn Manson — or rappers trying to get a rise out of its audience by dropping a myriad of juvenile jokes about blasphemy, murder, and rape — peep The Notorious B.I.G. spitting “Beat you to a seizure/ Then, fuck your moms, hit the skins ‘til amnesia/ She don’t remember shit! Just the two hits!/ Her hittin’ the floor, and me hittin’ the clits!” or Nas being crucified in his “Hate Me Now” music video in the 90s.
What is new is the way in which Odd Future engages with their vile, lewd, often indefensible rhetoric. Rather than presenting their music without any sort of explanation or feeling, particularly remorse, they are the sound and fury of cognizant adolescents trying to figure out the world around them and their place within it. Odd Future is a work in progress. The work of Odd Future is a working-through. Tyler best exemplifies this mode of thinking through the structure of his first two solo releases: therapy sessions with his fictional therapist Dr. TC, in which he discusses his feelings, his art, and his identity as an artist/role model.
Here, a major difference opens up between Odd Future, particularly Tyler, and similar artists like, say, Eminem. Whereas Eminem displaces his vilest fantasies and impulses onto his alter ego (the id-embodying Slim Shady), Tyler deconstructs any such binaries. At the end of Goblin, Tyler’s alter egos Tron-Cat, Ace the Creator, Wolf Haley, and even Dr. TC, are revealed to be facets of Tyler’s fractured, vulnerable consciousness. The revelation “I’m… me” concludes the album: Tyler thinks and therefore he is. This is hip-hop on some Kantian sublime shit. Far from distancing himself from his own thoughts, his own art, as some reviews of Goblin have suggested, Tyler’s art prompts an awareness that we are moral, reasoning beings. As such, if Tyler’s powerful words trigger feelings of pleasure as well as pain, it is because he is forcing us to engage with the limits of our imagination. Tyler’s (and Odd Future’s) ethic is the difficult but necessary ethic of responsibility.
Paragraph 5, wherein we arrive inexorably at the matter of hip-hop’s future. What Odd Future and their Swag Generation compatriots, Soulja Boy and Lil B, have tapped into is the power of youth. Soulja Boy’s excellent ode to the most daunting but exciting day of the year, “First Day of School,” recalls a time when anything seems possible: “Back then when I was inside Penola/ I did days drive top in my Rova/ I hate to say it but god damn I took ova’/ S-beezy.” This is youth imagined as will-to-power. In this way, the artists behind the Swag Generation are actually really healthy for young people: a Bloomsbury Group for the Twitter generation. They speak to a youthful creativity — part Apollonian reason, part Dionysian hedonism — through their precociousness and mastery of the internet.
While hip-hop has always spoken to the youth, the artists of yesteryear pushed a more conservative agenda. For them, being real was about fitting a particular type: black, male, straight, stoic, street-guy. For this new generation of rappers, to be real is to “just be yourself.” When they extol this truism, it does not come across as corny because there is the weight of action behind it. Lil B titled his latest album I’m Gay (I’m Happy). While he distances himself from the gender politics of the title through the subtitle and not rapping about his own sexuality, Lil B is at least engaging with one of hip-hop’s oldest and deepest taboos.
Tyler, meanwhile, has adopted “I am a unicorn” as a personal adage, invoking both the power of imagination and the limits of the self. What this rhetoric shares is the opposition of any conservative agenda, in hip-hop or otherwise. The Swag Generation is seriously extolling the belief that youth can truly be anything that they want to be. History be damned. The Swag Generation has ditched philosophy, with its institutional, academic foundations, in favor of thinking. Lil B’s sonic dreamscape provides graphic evidence for this. From his new-agey synths and hypnotic looped samples to his unchecked running monologues about identity and being, Lil B’s music is about both personal immersion and becoming just another drop in the stream. The Swag Generation is not concerned about certainties, conclusions, or even meaning, but rather freedom, opportunity, and uncertainty. This is a poetics of the wound of non-meaning. Swag.
Conclusion, wherein having arrived a long way down we contemplate one last thing. The Swag Generation’s message feels even more powerful during our present moment, because it brings together two of the most prevailing forces working in the world today: youth and technology. From the consequential (rebellions of the Arab Spring and support of WikiLeaks) to the minor (Justin Bieber’s Twitter account), youth around the world are making their voices heard by taking control through a medium of which no one is in control. Beginning with Soulja Boy’s transformative zeitgeist-capturing music video for “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” and continuing with Lil B’s takeover of MySpace and Odd Future’s lively Tumblr account, The Swag Generation have built a fanbase not dissimilar to the Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalos, but even younger and more tech-savvy.
This is what separates these teenagers from the last group of rappers: community. While the critics may waver and the hype don’t ever feel the same next year, through their mastery of the internet Soulja Boy, Lil B, and Odd Future will continue to speak directly to their fans (and future fans). Through community and numbers comes power, the power to change what we might call the Thought of hip-hop. This is not hip-hop’s coming of age; it is more interestingly and powerfully a becoming. The evidence is palpable. An assortment of female rappers, from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to Kreayshawn and Kid Sister, have deconstructed the sexed-up Lil Kim/Foxy Brown paradigm, ensuring that less conventional styles, types, and voices have a place in hip-hop. Sonically, through the likes of Drake, Araabmuzik, Pitbull, and Wiz Khalifa, hip-hop is again dictating the sound and attitude of mass culture by pushing and pulling the genre toward R&B, pop, and house music. Now, in its postmodern condition, what was once a grand narrative has atomized asunder. Hip-hop more than ever before has an opportunity to grow in new and unexpected ways to identities and sounds neither black/white, male/female, rich/poor, straight/queer, nor real/fake. The future of hip-hop will be written not in the stars, but rather the space between, and it is certain to be odd.