In his review of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 from the October 26, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones opined that hip-hop was no longer a progressive or forward-thinking genre: “If I had to pick a year for hip-hop’s demise… I would choose 2009… hip-hop is no longer the avant-garde, or even the timekeeper, for pop music.” One of the central theses in his argument is that rap had gone disco, that four-on-the-floor, unsyncopated beats had taken over where lilting, blues-based soul and R&B samples once reigned. He had reason to be concerned, and it is not hard to find examples to support his claim: turn on any “urban” radio station, and whatever five songs are in rotation this month will likely fit Frere-Jones’ description. Another issue Frere-Jones raised is the presumed audience of hip-hop: instead of rapping to (and about) young black men (and the young white men who admire/emulate them), hip-hop in 2009 seemed to be for and about (young, party-going) white women. Audience aside, I would go one step further: as a consequence, the traditional drive to climb the rap mountain by out-performing the competition with superior rhymes and lyrics had been replaced by come-hither verses and the injunction to dance.
But 2010 has seen this kind of dance-oriented pop-hop spin off and form its own genre, one that has been taken over by the likes of Ke$ha, Katie Perry, Taio Cruz, Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias, Rihanna, and of course Lady Gaga; though this format may dominate radio and iTunes singles charts, there aren’t a lot of rappers on that list, because a large number of hip-hop artists have taken a decidedly different turn. With apologies to Frere-Jones, whose comments were prescient and incisive at the time they were written, what we have seen during the intervening 13 months has been the opposite of hip-hop’s demise as a relevant, forward-thinking genre. If you haven’t been paying attention, 2010 has been an explosive year for hip-hop, with an equal number of attention-grabbing story lines, quality new releases by veteran artists at the top of the charts and deep underground, and promising debuts by exciting up-and-comers. There’s more to the story than a series of good albums, though: from top to bottom, established hit-makers and new faces have been raising the bar in terms of production, lyrics, and flow. Rappers, instead of merely enjoining us to shake our asses, are once again making names for themselves by trying to out-rap each other.
Much of this story has been overshadowed by two message board-filling phenomena: Kanye West’s magnum opus and Waka Flocka Flame’s boogey-man braggadocio. In West’s case, the hype proved to be justified: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a bona fide masterpiece, and I have not thought as much about any other West album to date. To say his ambition is Wagnerian does not just refer to scope; he truly seems to believe that his work can and will elevate all of popular culture, raising the bar and pushing things forward. I wouldn’t bet against him at this point: when he tweets about how many man-hours were invested working on “Power” (by his estimate, 5,000), it’s not just to boast about his work ethic, it’s to challenge others to do the same. The impressive list of guest artists on the album all report on both his infectious fecundity and what a joy it was to work with him, while rising to the occasion themselves, stretching to put their best efforts forward. It is also clear that West is improving as an MC, but whether or not you agree on that point doesn’t matter; the fact that he aspires to be a better rapper, and to out-rap his competition, is highly significant for an artist who is already critically acclaimed and on top of the charts. West doesn’t just want to be on top of the world; he wants to take on and defeat all challengers, and to do it with his rhymes. It’s akin to Wilt Chamberlain, already the NBA’s best scorer and rebounder, deciding to lead the league in assists in 1967 in response to criticism that he was a selfish player.
Waka Flocka Flame is the opposite: reductive, reactionary, backwards, obnoxious, style-less, effort-less in the worst sense. He openly espouses a lack of dedication to his craft, claiming he doesn’t actually compose any of his “raps,” and it shows: often neglecting to rhyme at all, Waka Flocka songs consist of incessant shouting over abrasive beats. Don’t get me wrong: I can support shouting over abrasive beats if there’s some political impetus, à la Public Enemy, and I can support the choice to value improvisation over composition if you’re a free-association savant, à la Lil Wayne. Waka Flocka is neither, because his approach is openly cynical: he claims to not concentrate on lyrics because MCs who write great lyrics don’t make any money. His flow has no charm, his voice has no charisma, and his lyrics tell no stories; it’s bland hostility, against or about nothing in particular, hardly “CNN for the ghetto.” If I were making a hateful parody of a trap-rap record for a comedy sketch, it would sound exactly like “Hard In Da Paint” — “a contender for rap-anthem-of-the-year” according to Pitchfork. That the (white) media has fawned over Waka Flocka is troubling, and I dare to say racist, in a year when other black musicians are putting out the most experimental, innovative, state-of-the-art recordings in the industry. Applauding moronic caricatures of the oft-mythologized Troubled Urban Black Male while ignoring various movements among black entertainers towards sophistication, style, wit, humor, satire, and Uplift — if it’s not racist, let’s just say it’s been the indie rock press in Waka Flocka’s camp, and not the hip-hop press.
The thing is, artists who care about lyrics and craft are making money hand over fist in 2010. Although its critical reception was lukewarm, Eminem’s The Recovery was conceived out of a desire to recapture the outstanding lyrics and rhyming technique from his peak, and it held the top spot on the Billboard 200 for almost two months. Ludacris went gold this year with Battle of the Sexes, once again using humorous sex raps as a Trojan horse for nimble technique and lyrics. Drake’s chart-topping debut album, Thank Me Later, is surprisingly strong lyrically, enough so that his potentially cred-crimping Canadian citizenship and child-acting career aren’t even an issue in the rap community. Big Boi’s acclaimed Sir Lucious Leftfoot, Bun-B’s Trill O.G., and Gucci Mane’s The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted are further examples of strong lyricists making a Top 5 chart impact. T.I. has rededicated himself to his lyrical craft, and his upcoming No Mercy will feature two singles, “I’m Back” and “Get Back Up” that have been moderate hits over the summer, apparently in spite of showcasing the form that made him King of the South. Even backpacker acts like Reflection Eternal and The Roots made strong forays, debuting at #18 and #6 respectively on the Top 200.
This year’s rookie crop showcases lyricism and flow as well. Curren$y, Das Racist, New Boyz, Young Money, and Nicki Minaj are all examples of wildly different, highly promising new hip-hop artists whose ambition and dedication to their craft are the opposite of Waka Flocka’s insistently aggressive, dumbed-down barking. On his solid debut Pilot Talk, Curren$y proves to be an adroit wordsmith with solid rhyme structure undercutting his stoner persona, leaning just behind the beat in the “classic” blues/funk/hip-hop form. Lead single “King Kong” is my favorite hip-hop track of the year, with Curren$y showcasing an economical flow over a moody beat while lobbing well-crafted boasts (“Wannabe pilots get swatted out the sky around I/ King Kong ain’t got shit on me”). The Young Money supergroup, formed around Lil Wayne, has produced a few strong singles (“Steady Mobbin” and “Roger That” being the best) and, more importantly, launched the career of one Nicki Minaj. Minaj is a firecracker of an MC, with styles upon styles, boatloads of charisma, and an outsized, cartoonish personality; she is easily the most vivacious and progressive female rapper since Missy Elliott, only with better lyrics and more range. Although she currently suffers from the curse of Ludacris (wherein her feature verses on other people’s songs outshine her own singles), Nicki is a highly entertaining MC with great potential — listen to her guest verses on West’s “Monster” or DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win (Remix)” and try not to crack a smile. Meanwhile, political provocateurs Das Racist have raised eyebrows and expectations with Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, and I can’t underscore strongly enough how refreshing and novel it is to be typing “political provocateurs” while describing a current musician. New Boyz may have scored radio hits with “Tie Me Down” and “You’re A Jerk,” but the real treasure from Skinny Jeanz and a Mic is opener “Cricketz” — all three feature memorable, well-structured verses that belie the performers’ youth.
If you’ve been nodding along with Frere-Jones’ eulogy or engaging in the great rap swindle that is Waka Flocka Flame, you’ve got the wrong picture. To paraphrase Jay-Z, 2010 has been about raising the status quo up. While indie rock has taken hold this year as advertising’s lingua franca, thus sliding ever further into irrelevance, hip-hop boasts a deep roster of ambitious, forward-thinking, commercially successful artists. Quality hip-hop is on the ascent; the boogeyman isn’t coming for us after all.
[Photo: Zac Bowling]