Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fear of a Bland Planet

I love rap music. I have since the first time I heard PE's "Contract on the World Love Jam" to open "Fear of a Black Planet". My father, predictably, asked "What is that garbage? For the last few years, there has been an element of things coming full-circle. Most new popular hip-hop is, to my ear, garbage. I'm not one of those people who say "its too violent and misogynist". "The Chronic" was both, in spades, and it remains a brilliant piece of work which is as listenable today as it was back in 1991.

Eminem is popular not because his lyrics are violent or because he is white (though both do contribute to his fame and his controversial status), but because he has flow. He can write meaningful rhymes and then deliver them. Does he express ugly ideas? All the time, but he expresses them well. I've written previously about my reverence for language. Rap, at its best, shows how evocative the spoken word can be, whether it's Biggie setting the standard for Ghetto Fabulous in "Big Poppa" or "Juicy", Wu-Tang illustrating how "Cash Rules Everything Around Me" or Will Smith lamenting that "Parents Just Don't Understand".

No, the problem is that the art form has become completely commodified and derivative. Sex and violence sells records. So why, as a record exec, would you go beyond that to try and find someone who can, you know, actually rap? Find someone with a suitably gravelly voice and menacing aspect, throw some kind of thick beat down, and print money. If you're lucky you might even get to make a video with chicks in bikinis making come-hither at the camera. Thus, we have such forgettable tripe as Mystikal and...actually I'm having trouble remembering the names of individual acts because there is so little that is individual about them.

Is it any wonder that many of the more distinctive voices are moving away from rap and into business (Jay-Z), 'political commentary' (Kanye), or acting (Ludicris, Andre3000, Sticky Fingaz from Onyx)? Unfortunately, even this "cross-over" is becoming commodified. Witness the 50 Cent blitz going on now, what with movies, CD's and video games. (Spaceballs the Flamethrower, the kids love this one...). It's not an artist, it's a marketing plan. Here's an interesting take on 50 as not so much a paragon, but rather the embodiment of this trend:
Discussions about Fiddy are never really about Fiddy, he acts met[o]nymically for rap at large because he displays no uniqueness. He stands in for rather than out from his genre. He is literally a stereotype, and a wildly successful one at that. In one version of this theory, he plays the part and plays the game to perfection. In another, he is all that is bland and exploitative about rap.
(Via Lauren).


Frankie said...

Hmm...I am still reeling over the fact that you like rap.

The new Kanye album is a good one, but agree with you about the cookie-cutter rappers that are out there nowadays. While I may not always agree with the message rap artists are conveying (especially since all women are tricks and ho's, excluding their momma's of course) some of them still deliver it with a unique style...and talent!

Re rappers breaking out into other aread of entertainment: I can't believe you didn't give pioneers Ice Cube and Ice T their props! And don't forget Latifah. Those three were breaking out into movies and TV way before Kanye even thought about GWB.

Pooh said...

I didn't forget about them, I was mostly thinking of those who have *recently* made the switch. Hell, it surprises me when people actually remember that Cube used to rap (and was in NWA...).

Latifah is just an all around Diva and I have no excuse for neglecting to mention her...