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-regionalism arises. The history of hip-hop can best be read from the bottom up. That is, hip-hop postulates that physical matter is the fundamental reality. Its aesthetics on the level of the individual intertwine violently with the corporal: the body breaks as it dances, and the beat is boxed out of the larynx. On the level of the social, borders are erected along regions. Collectives form from allegiances based on material conditions: the play of lifestyle, fashion, dialect, et al.: hood is bond. When the rapper, in the incessantly reproduced refrain, “puts on” for his city, he is sublimating a regional unconscious. He speaks for the multitude. He is vessel, prophet, scapegoat, and impresario. Biggie was from NYC. Pac was from Cali. So they beefed. RIP. This was a beef between former friends turned rivals signifying the transcendental: the political, the social, the economic. Then, there is the Southern rapper; in the bounce, we can hear the resonance of an inferiority complex. Seen as a philistine to the solemnity of his hip-hop brethren, the Southern rapper never left the sandbox (or recess). Soon he was joined, and the building of sandcastles in the sky commenced. How deep the rapper could bury his hands in the dirt became less important to how high he could fly above the borders of hip-hop’s imagined communities. When Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I. (and M.I.A.) qua post-sovereignty conglomerate bragged that “no one on the corner has swagga like us,” they pointed toward a hip-hop-to-come that transcended notions like the corner and regional affiliation in favor of a trans-hood, post-regional sound and attitude. Little could we have known at the time that what was emerging was not only a stimulating, novel, and evolving form and content, but a burgeoning psyche and an off-kilter lean in the guise of a new hip-hop aesthetics.
“The future comes in the form of Harlem- and Miami-born rappers ASAP Rocky and Spaceghostpurrp, respectively, whose aesthetics extend well beyond their regional affiliations.”
Paragraph 2, wherein we consider the persistence of chopped and screwed. Few modes of hip-hop have more truthfully held up a mirror to reality than the chopped and screwed music of Texas. DJ Screw planted the germs of this sound in his own backyard of Houston. His modus operandi was simple enough: form an impression of his material conditions on wax. The pace of southern Houston is a little slower, a lifestyle that is related in the tempo and mood of chopped and screwed music to its mellow and heavy sound resulting from a slowed-down pitch, a harder and deeper bass, and oozing, molasses-like vocals. Chopped and screwed in its early iteration was truly the sound of a region, as it was constructed in opposition to communities both physically contiguous, namely north Houston, which would get its own chopped and screwed sound thanks to a DJ named Michael “5000” Watts and, far off, the persistent, ballistic bounce of Atlanta’s crunk. This merging of regional lifestyle and sound also importantly encompassed a pervasive drug culture. Much like crack in New York City and chronic in Los Angeles, the physical and mental effects of certain syrups (in this case, the prescription cough syrup Promethazine), with its depressant qualities, seeped into the aesthetics. As chopped and screwed spread out from the blocks of southern Houston, the importance of the lifestyle and material conditions of this region were forgotten, but the drugs persisted like an enduring hangover. Take the most recent DJ Khlaed hit “I’m One One.” While the Toronto-born Drake insists all he cares about is “the city” he is from, it is the psychotropic effects of being “on one” that the song really reps: “I’ma sip until I feel it, I’ma smoke it till it’s done.” The song is about the force of personality that arises from sipping on syrup: Drake does not “give a fuck.” It is a privileged remark by rap’s bourgeois prince, a far cry from “still tippin’ on four fours, wrapped in four vogues.” Such is the compromise of a once-regional sound persisting outside its original borders. But in this persistence also lies the promise of the new, the re-imagined.
Paragraph 3, wherein we evoke the power of the imagination. The effect of this drug-induced erasure of the material and transcendence of the psyche is not unlike that of psychosis. Namely, psychosis defined not strictly as a loss of contact with reality, but rather as a novel or re-thought contact with reality. If the material does not impose itself on the psyche, then, the individual through his mind can act to create the world. The world enters the realm of the imaginary and the imagination. An effective example of such an act of imagination is Soulja Boy’s recent mixtape hit “Zan with that Lean.” Few tracks in recent memory have as lucidly evoked a feeling of joy qua freedom. Soulja’s recurrent theme is “I ain’t worried about a thing.” Rather than putting on for his city, Soulja puts on for himself and his crew, Stacks On Deck. In fact, Soulja literally puts it on himself: “I got all these bandz on me/ All this ice on me/ All these hoes on me/ Everything on me.” What we have here is a reimagining of both the body and its environment. Soulja is creating something of a utopia (which in its literal connotation means both the “best” and “no” place), as the environment exists largely to fulfill his needs, wants, and desires. Notably, Soulja accomplishes this feat without resorting to a crude materialism that plagues much of contemporary mainstream hip-hop. YC’s “Racks” acts as an interesting counterpoint. While YC drinks “lean, rose, patron” and smokes “1000 dollas worth of strong,” these illicit behaviors are extensions of the material world, acting purely as signifiers of wealth. The opposite is true on “Zan with that Lean”: beginning with the line “I’m in that Zan with that Lean / Smoke nothin’ but Irene,” the lean and Irene act to create Soulja Boy’s idealistic world. “Zan with that Lean” is a poetics of psychosis.
Paragraph 4, wherein we contemplate what it means to be lost in the world. What is meant here by psycho-poetics, if you will, is a new relationship to the material. In the post-regional era of hip-hop, the material must be rethought. If in the past, the rapper found solace in his block, his hood, today the lack of such locales can transform solace into existential discomfort: Where do I belong? As such, the material can become alien. The voice of the rapper is the key here. The community means a multitude — if at times a cacophony — of voices. A lack of community, as such, means the voice becomes hauntingly singular. Kanye West’s “Lost In The World” illustrates this point well. The song begins with a single, clear voice. However, dread punctuates his language: he is “down” on his mind, and soon he is “lost in the world” and “down on […his] life.” The reason? He is “new in the city.” He is community-less, alone, lost. This lyrical dread is mirrored in the instrumental, which envelopes the voice, leaving it grasping for air. Just as exemplary is the recent work of Dipset-producer AraabMUZIK. On his album Electronic Dream, he re-imagines a number of superclub anthems, transforming typically uplifting, transcendent music into an ominous, claustrophobic sonic landscape. Typically, such tracks build to a crescendo in which the female voice transcends the beat. However, throughout the album, this voice becomes trapped in the material surroundings, that is the beat, remaining firmly affixed and never soaring above. AraabMUZIK accomplishes this feat by continually turning the track back on itself both temporally (incessantly looping the track to its beginning) and sonically (employing his trademark hi-hats and trap-rap drums to bat the sample back down). This is the sound of dread, a voice caught in an unfamiliar world, a psycho-poetics of alienation.
If in the past, the rapper found solace in his block, his hood, today the lack of such locales can transform solace into existential discomfort: Where do I belong?”
Paragraph 5, wherein we arrive ineluctably at the heart of the matter of psycho-poetics. This relation to the material does not only have to be realized in alienation. Another mode exists in which agency rather than powerlessness emerges. In recent years, there has been a trend in hip-hop music of ossifying the immaterial into something material. Namely, of personifying the instrumental or beat as something real, even human. We can see an obvious early example of this on Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” off his 2001 album The Blueprint. Jay-Z, far from being trapped in the world he erects within his own song, becomes an artist par excellence qua Übermensch. The song weeps because Jay-Z wills it so. But such a psycho-poetics belongs to one rapper, Lil Wayne. Oftentimes, the most interesting dynamic on a Lil Wayne track is between him and the beat. On “Watch My Shoes,” the beat becomes his mistress: “I’ma fuck this beat.” On “Swag Surfin,” it becomes his opponent, his enemy: “Weezy beat the beat up like Sonny Liston.” No Ceilings (2009), on which both of these tracks appear, was a last-brilliant gasp for Lil Wayne and his trademark style, which began with Tha Carter II in 2005. A significant aspect of this era, during which he transformed into a wheezing, tireless, unhinged Goliath with the sickest bars in the game, was a particular lifestyle of excess. He sipped the most purple, he smoked the most chronic, and as is often the case he mulched and mulched. On the Da Drought 3, he can be heard audibly eating something, and smoking on the “Outro.” On “On Thrown Some D’s (Freestyle),” he raps about his incessant hunger: “Touch my medallion and meet my baretta, leave you looking like a burger with extra ketchup.” “Feed me rappers or feed me beats,” he once cried. And, soon, he would eat the sound: his language, his metaphors, his beat; that is, his imagination, his brain. The world Lil Wayne created on wax became something more like puddy or pudding. “I’m so motherfuckin’ high I can eat a star,” he wheezed on the unforgettable “Upgrade U (Remix).” The psycho-poetics of hip-hop, of which Lil Wayne is the forbearer, can best be summed up in that one exemplary line. Here, we have a truly novel relation to the material world: Soaring above the material, all the ceilings and borders of his environment and imagination, he achieves apotheosis, king-status, by swallowing up the kingdom. Lil Wayne ate his world before it ate him.
Paragraph 6, wherein having arrived a long way down we contemplate one last thing. That unmatched era running from 2005-2009, during which Lil Wayne was the most bizarre and the most prolific, and during which he was the self-appointed “best rapper alive” and we could not argue, seems like a long time ago. Gone is the lean-induced wheeze, the joyful chuckle, the satisfied burp, the psychosis-induced rhymes. Lil Wayne now seems tired, generic, restrained, too human. If Lil Wayne used to eat his world, today it gnaws away at him. He once flew too close to the sun, and ate it, before it could drown him. Today, however, he is exiled to a state-mandated labyrinth, in which he has forgotten how to fashion wings from the puddy he once molded out of his imagination. Such is the lesson gleamed from the reception to Tha Carter IV, which teaches us that “to spit is human, to wheeze divine.” As one reviewer concisely put it, “Weezy is dead. Long live Weezy.” While our Goliath was defeated, our Icarus drowned; the psycho-poetics he birthed lives on. The future comes in the form of Harlem- and Miami-born rappers ASAP Rocky (pictured) and Spaceghostpurrp, respectively, whose aesthetics extend well beyond their regional affiliations. ASAP Rocky’s Internet hit “Purple Swag” belies any resemblance to the emblematic Harlem rap of a crew like Dipset, instead opting to incorporate a DJ Screw-esque chopped chorus, a Mac Dre reference (“trill shit”), and a melodious twang reminiscent of early-Aughts Atlanta rap. Spaceghostpurrp, meanwhile, has adopted the ethos of dub music, which as this writer astutely points out, is inherently trans-regional and even hyper-subjective: “Dub’s sub-sonic echo is no mere FX — it is the effect proper of a certain subjective view of the world: the dark sonic mirror reflection of Rasta’s phantasmal worldview.” Both of these young rappers reflect and extend post-regional rap, aligning themselves not with the hood or their block, but rather their infinite subjectivities. Theirs is a poetics of the imagination, of psychosis that holds up a mirror to the purple haze, and what it reflects is only limited by what they dream up.