Is Hip Hop Really Dead?
The loss of a clear narrative thread
In the past month or so, there have been two high-profile articles from renowned critics outlining the death of hip-hop: The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones' initial piece and Simon Reynolds' expansion in The Guardian. A core of both articles seems to bemoan the loss of "Blackness" in current hip-hop beats. The trend, they say, is to go European, obscuring the "swing" of classic rap in favor of pulsating, four-on-the-floor-inspired synthesizer jams. Reynolds cites early 00s artists like Ludacris, The Neptunes, Lil Jon, Nelly, DMX, Cash Money, and Ying Yang Twins as the genre's peak, while lamenting the recent horde of "unmemorable cookie-cutter ballers" like Jim Jones, Gucci Mane, Soulja Boy, and Gummi Bares. According to Reynolds, hip-hop has simply dropped the innovation baton, losing it's tastemaking position in the broader culture. Where have all the new rap superstars gone? Despite Lil Wayne's hugely successful Tha Carter III, the genre isn't selling what it once was, and it's not leading the pack of popular tropes.
There is truth to all this, of course -- "classic" rap hits are scarce -- but hip-hop (or rap) has always been about adaptability. Partly to survive on popular radio, hip-hop has continued to twist and mold into new forms. As a genre initially based around samples, it felt hybridized from the beginning, mutating as different flavors were incorporated under the umbrella of a steady beat. Throughout the 00s, the genre's reach has continued to expand, incorporating seemingly unlikely trends, like the shift towards ultra-minimalism. Listen to the Ying Yang Twins "Wait (The Whisper Song)" or David Banner's dirty-as-hell "Play": neither track is traditionally ‘catchy' or sanitized for mass consumption. Rather, they slither into your subconscious, providing respite from typically bumping radio back beats. They also sound European-influenced: slick, minimal, hushed, the aural equivalent of speeding around in the middle of the night. But it's almost as if some hip exec had to take a chance on them. Would Snoop Dogg's now-classic "Drop It Like It's Hot" have been popular in 1999? I don't know, but in 2004 it certainly felt like a gambit that paid off.
Surveying Snoop's other hits reveals a rapper trying to maintain relevancy in a microcosm of trends. "Gangsta Luv", his new single with The-Dream, is no exception. Typical of recent synth-driven hits, it was produced by Chris "Tricky" Stewart, a young record exec and musician at the helm of the new fad. Just browse his resume: "Touch My Body", "Umbrella", "Single Ladies". They're all slathered with shimmering keys and propulsive beats, and they all have undeniably catchy, glossy hooks. A stark difference to, say, Lil Moma's completely drum-based 2007 track "Lipgloss", which was still immediate, but made no real attempts at the heartstrings. Stewart is clearly reveling in the marriage of glamor and gangsta personae, and while new in subtle ways, the resulting sound is riddled with earworm catchiness and the 80s style that has been particularly in vogue across other genres this decade.
Meanwhile, in Frere-Jones' piece, he singles out the track "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" from Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 as the only vital slice of ‘classic' hip-hop amidst the album's sea of R&B-tainted synthesizer pop. And it's true: turn on pop radio and you'll hear rap songs with plenty of R&B hooks, not what people consider the classic sound developed in the 80s. Drake's posse cut "Forever" and Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind" both feature choruses that would be at home in a Miley Cyrus song, with throbbing beats and R&B crooning beneath boisterous, "hard" verses about being the shit and loving New York, among other things. Even a fairly straight R&B cut like Jay Sean's "Down" (on Cash Money, featuring Lil Wayne) is steeped in the current hip-hop sound.
However, is this trend toward pop hybridization a sign of watered-down hip-hop? There remains a variety of underground scenes, but clearly nothing is rising to the top. So rap music as an innovative, relevant, zeitgeist-defining movement must be in its death throes, right? According to Reynold, yes, though he says the death of a genre isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a necessary step in order for new styles to emerge.
But hold on. Why should we be viewing the zeitgeist through, essentially, mainstream radio? Doesn't that seem particularly antithetical to what the past 10 years of American culture have been all about? Maybe what's really dying is the old industry mentality: a hot track gets made, it's put on the radio, it becomes a hit and makes a ton of money, it influences future generations. Applying those standards to, say, rock music would have a seemingly devastating effect. Critics would be saying that "real" rock music died with Nirvana. But it would be ignoring the vibrant underground, the currently burgeoning DIY scene, and even bigger indie acts like Arcade Fire (whose Neon Bible sold 10,000 copies but still landed at #2 on the Billboard charts). In 2009, just because a track or an album isn't selling millions of copies doesn't mean it isn't reaching millions of people. This is a new cultural environment, so why play by old rules when defining music's cultural importance? Now a song or trend doesn't need to have an mass media outlet to influence culture.
Perhaps the genre malaise is linked to the entire industries woes. The way people experience music -- how they connect, obtain, digest, and contextualize it -- is changing rapidly, and the the culprit is nothing new. Innovation has provided the catalyst for change in society since, you know, forever, and record labels are currently floundering, desperately trying to catch up with skyrocketing advances in technology. The music industry is on the precipice of a great shift, but no one has either set any new parameters for it or figured out how to make money in a climate where young listeners feel that music should be free.
Of course, mainstream rap hasn't exactly figured out how to navigate this new landscape either, which probably gives the appearance of decay to those who view radio and charts as measuring sticks for a nation's collective taste. So much popular rap is focused on getting money and fame, a fetishization of the old industry glamor, when being signed to a major label was the surest sign of success. So how does that instant rags-to-riches mentality reconcile with America's expanding culture and contracting economy? I suppose baller rap runs the risk of sounding "out of touch." The least interesting aspect of The Blueprint 3 is hearing Jay-Z rap about his clout, while one of the most interesting Kanye tracks finds him rapping about his relationship with Jay-Z.
But forget the current crop of movers in the rap world. Any claim that the genre is dead, that it has lost its relevance, assumes that the music, at some point, had a "pure form" that is now fading. But rap has always been in a perpetual state of change in both form and content, and its current ubiquity has only proven how ingrained it is in the social woodwork. That genres can easily slip in and out of hip-hop points to how it may in fact be the new "rock" -- that is, an exceedingly broad title used to describe a resilient music. Plus, saying this hybridization is a harbinger of death would completely write off millions of young artists. Rapping and making beats has become as fundamental a musical experience as picking up the guitar or drums; in fact, its easier to (illegally) download Fruity Loops and bang out a remix than it is to become proficient enough to cover The Ramones on guitar. (It's cheaper, too.) For the genre to lose its cultural hold, we would have to disengage from the music overnight. There are plenty of future rap stars out there, and there will continue to be as long as the genre is handed down through technological innovation and hybridization. Kids will keep filtering their experiences through an expanding base of influences that will not dilute the spirit of hip-hop, but maintain it. Besides, if rap doesn't define the zeitgeist, then what does? Nothing? Everything? Maybe that's the point?