AUTHOR’S NOTE: When you’re covering an arena of entertainment like music, where breaking news and opinions are leaking out of the internet by the nanosecond, procrastination can become a columnist’s worst enemy. Especially when what you’re trying to do is predict trends. Sometimes it requires you to do a little backtracking. So let me tell you the story of the thought process that begat this column.
This summer, I became interested in trying to explain the state of hip hop in 2010 — a genre that, for better or for worse, has reached a rather terrifying turning point, one which threatens to either destroy the movement (at least in terms of what it was once meant to be), or give it a second life. I had read a rather inciteful article on Pitchfork (Grind to Get It: Rap’s Recession) written at the beginning of this year that, amongst other things, argued a theory of fragmentation; that as mainstream hip hop was sounding less and less like the traditional two turntables and a microphone, instead choosing to blend in with the techno-induced pop music of late, the more authentic forms of hip hop had become hyper-localized – with mixtape artists becoming more content to receive acclaim and acknowledgement from their specific scene, rather than going for the big break, to become the next Lil Wayne or 50 Cent (and were finding, in fact, this to be a more lucrative strategy). Moreover, these local scenes were growing in strength and becoming more supportive to up-and-comers, as rap communities became more cohesive, and more outlets in the digital world and the blogstream had been able to make a real difference to burgeoning young talent. And so now we have these solid, recognizable things called Houston rap, Bay Area hip hop, the L.A. scene, Bmore, etc – we’re operating on terms much more specific than West Coast vs East Coast. And more than that, the average hip hop fan knows what all these things sound like.
For me, the question then became, how would this affect mainstream hip hop, those artists seeking to establish themselves beyond a local sound? I originally intended on writing a piece on New York area rappers, and how, while mainstream names elsewhere like Drake, Weezy, Nicki, and Cudi had been bland-ing out their hip hop by rapping over trance and house infused pop songs (in addition to contributing to the ever-growing scourge that is emo hip hop), NYC leaders like Busta Rhymes, Cam’ron and Dipset, Fat Joe, and G-Unit spent this summer rolling out pure unadulterated gangsta rap, spitting hard rhymes about guns and money over more straightforward hip hop beats in the ghetto tradition. I intended on writing about how this trend spoke to NYC as a hip hop scene, as the birthplace of rap. At the time, to me, it all seemed very reactionary to the newly popular emotional rapper, the one who raps about his feelings, unable to even spit a rhyme about a stripper without serious contemplations about life and love. It also seemed to be intrinsically connected with the issue of local sound – that these NYC rappers were self consciously identifying themselves with the New York gangsta rap tradition, and standing in opposition to the change that’s been taking over the genre, robbing the streets of a music that was once theirs, and handing it over to the clubs. I was probably going to close with some kind of thesis that claimed this was the only movement that had the power to save hip hop from becoming completely diluted – because Fat Joe moved records this summer, and there wasn’t any other figure in hip hop with a hard bone in their body who could say the same thing (save perhaps Gucci Mane, whose strategy of going dumb rather than going hard OR sensitive (no homo) has always been a winning one in hip hop (OK, and then there’s Rick Ross, who seems to somehow be the exception to every rule)).
But then this new Kanye West record came out.
Say what you want about Kanye West, the man’s music, or his ego. A few things are undeniable:
1. He is one of the only artists in popular music today keeping the album alive as a legitimate art form and cohesive piece of music. Many pop artists are able to hype up a full-length release and build hope that they might create something meaningful when it finally lands in stores – almost none of them end up delivering on that hype. Just look at debut records from this year’s most promising new acts, Young Money nearly-weds Drake and Nicki Minaj. Both released a series of singles before their albums dropped that hinted towards a musical trajectory that could truly be capitalized upon in album form. Both had personalities big enough to create unique albums completely their own, with the potential to change the game. And then, both released totally forgettable LPs, whose biggest successes were the tracks everyone had already heard, sandwiched within uninspired blocks of filler. Of course these artists are still successes, and won’t be going anywhere for a long time. But they’re single artists.
2. Kanye is potentially the ONLY mainstream artist doing anything remarkably innovative in hip hop production today. The only one. On top of that, he’s doing so as one of the most powerful, ubiquitous names in pop music.
But at this point in the article, procrastination becomes my enemy once more. Because at this point I was intending on making a series of predictions, predictions which are now already beginning to come true – that this new Kanye record was going to be heralded as a masterpiece, that it would sell exceptionally well, that people were going to be calling it album of the year as soon as it dropped. Now that Pitchfork has awarded the album a perfect 10 – a score nearly unheard of for a non-reissue from the indie tastemakers (the last was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002, and only 12 “new” releases have received a 10 in the site’s 15 year history), in addition to a perfect score from Rolling Stone magazine, it seems these results are inevitable. And now that it’s actually dropped, the positive reactions are just going to keep coming. They’re going to say Kanye is saving hip hop, they’re going to try and draw in his recent Bush comments and “forgive” Kanye for his various scandals (the same way certain reviewers didn’t forgive M.I.A. when they didn’t like her 2010 LP), because he has done something amazing in pop music in a year when two disgusting whores and a glorified televised Kidz Bop dominated the charts. And the really amazing thing about it all? Kanye will have done it all without putting a single dance track on the fucking thing.
Sure there are some “bangers” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but they’re headbangers, not booty-bouncers. Previously released single “Monster” comes to mind as one that keeps you moving, but its an insistent, angry beat, one that keeps your head nodding, like so many metalheads at a Slayer show. On the other side, there’s the uplifting hip hop anthem (tracks like “Power” or “Lost in the Woods”), far too inspirational to ever be sexy. There is not one song on the whole record that you could play at the club. So how is this possible? How is it possible that one of the biggest rappers on the planet is about to be lauded as this year’s greatest success, on an album that both seems to be bringing new life to the original, authentic hip hop sound, just as it refuses to rely on any club-ready singles? The answer at once dawned on me – it’s a sign of the times.
This is the dark age of hip hop.
In 2010, declaring the death of hip hop has become so passe that the debate over its existence has all but gone silent. But the truth is, it’s never been closer to coming true. In this age of Lady Gaga and Will.i.am, trance and house-oriented pop music has taken the center stage on the Billboard charts, and most hip-hoppers are happy to jump on the bandwagon. This has led to a series of disappointments for hip hop fans with all the major releases of late. Drake and Kid Cudi spent half the time on their debuts brooding over celebrity and loneliness on top of layered synth pads. Nicki Minaj decided at the last minute to drop sex appeal from her recent debut (4 the kidz!!!), instead replacing it with Walmart-friendly generic pop blisters like the Will.i.am-featuring-and-produced “Check It Out”. Meanwhile, Gucci and protege Waka Flocka both released records in the hood tradition this year – but neither were able to strike any new or interesting ground in the medium, and as a result haven’t been able to garner the attention that was once expected of the ATL rappers riding enormous waves of hype. Veteran names in the game like T.I. and Lil Wayne, who may have been able to rescue the fledgling genre, have instead spent most of the last year incarcerated (certainly not a new trend in hip hop, but definitely a situation of bad timing). And of course there’s this issue of localization – with a lot of the major talent in hip hop right now simply not seeking a center stage, unconcerned with revitalizing hip hop from a pop perspective.
This has all been coupled with an economic recession that has brought trends of dismay and disenchantment to every major industry, and even every genre of music. The indie community seems to have been reacting to hard times with escapism, producing a plethora of summery powerpop, disorienting psychedelica, and lazy beach music in the Obama era. For hip hop, the reactions seem to fall in the two previously mentioned categories of emotional brooding or gangsta reaffirmation. The reason Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy succeeds is because it explores both emotional resonances, without falling prey to any of the traps they create. When Kanye explores melancholy, he doesn’t sacrifice originality or attention to detail in his productions. He keeps his confidence and his good humor close at all times, allowing a sense of despair to pervade the new record but never feeling sorry for himself, and never seeking pity. The lyrical content on the record is careful to balance the heavy with the light, even in the guest verses (example: featured rapper CyHi Da Prynce rhymes “damn another broken heart” with “I keep bitches by the twos, nigga, Noah’s ark” on “So Appalled”). When Kanye explores new sounds atraditional to hip hop, it is done hand in hand with what may be called “that Yeezy we all know and love”. Kanye’s use of synths, 808s, and a multitude of vocal effects are all portrayed alongside classic Kanye production attributes – the R&B samples, the dramatic piano chords, the drum breaks. These are accomplishments neither Cudi nor Drake were able to achieve with their emotional debuts, and as a result their hip hop credibility was inevitably cheapened.
Couple that with the best rhymes of his career; jaw-dropping featured verses from Raekwon, Minaj, Pusha T, and Rick Ross; a sonic cohesiveness throughout, relying on both past and future hip hop elements; relentless exploration and experimentation from track to track (of the 13 tracks on the record, 7 of them exceed the 5minute mark, including 4 exceeding 6min); and of course, incredibly compelling production, including a particular focus on varied vocal effects which highlight a mostly untapped potential in the rap genre that the auto-tune craze only began to uncover — put it all together, and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is Kanye’s best work to date. Pitchfork’s score of 10 might be a little generous, but make no mistake, this is a contender for album of the decade, and could very well be remembered as one of the most important hip hop records of all time.
But context is everything, people, and remember that. For people who spend less time thinking about music than obsessives like myself, a record like this might pass you by, but it’s an important sign of the times. Only when hip hop is in such a dark place could such a record be created. Of course, “all pop music sounding the same” is nothing new – we just have a new sound for all pop music to commodify. Today it’s electro house, ten years ago it was latin music, twenty-five years ago it was New Wave, thirty-five years ago it was disco. The difference is, we’re coming off a long stretch of years when hip hop itself was the unavoidable genre controlling the charts. We’re not used to hip hop falling in line with the genres of rock, pop, country, and R&B when a sonic trend becomes all consuming. Hip hop used to be that all-consuming trend; but don’t get me wrong — this period of time that was hip hop’s dominance (say, 2003-2007) produced some of the worst rap music of all time. It required a complete drought of inspiration for an artist like Kanye West to release an album so surprisingly original.
So where do we go from here? Well, hip hop lives, apparently, at least for now. If you don’t believe it, look to Exhibit A, a major hip hop release from a major label rapper/producer/icon, faithful to the movement’s roots and showing new signs of growth. And that’s what’s been stunting hip hop these last few years – lack of creativity and motivation spurning a lack of growth. Perhaps Kanye’s latest will be an impetus that will breed new forms of creativity within the genre, perhaps we will see a new wave of hip hop, a new generation worthy of its past. Perhaps it’s already happening – Diddy’s set to release his big comeback album Last Train to Paris in a few weeks, and from the singles we’ve been hearing there’s true promise he’ll be able to return to his Notorious-era of production success within a modern context. Diddy, like Kanye, is a producer-first hip hop icon, which means he too has the perspective, understanding, and appreciation of the art form to hold true to hip hop’s past and bring it somewhere remarkable and unique in the present. Of course, it may be another big letdown like Pink Friday, an album even I allowed myself to believe in before it let me down. But given My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I have a rejuvenated sense of hope for the future of hip hop. At this point, anything is possible.