Haters will hate.
Gen Xers will reminisce.
Ah, but I repeat myself.
There is a constituency among rap fans that supposes the only good music is rap that’s “down for the cause.” These are the sort of rap fans who will insist that Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. are the genre’s only commendable perspectives these days. “These days,” said with that nostalgic suck of teeth and hopeless glance back to the past. These are the rap fans who will tell you that Jay Z is a washed-up towel that needs to be thrown in the sink; and that Drake is stupid boogie music; that French Montana is sub-literate, etc. etc. These are the rap fans who believe in Harvey Dent.
For instance, from The Root this week, a piece written by hip-hop scholar Dr. Jocelyn Wilson called "Let's Hope Hip-Hop Steps Up in 2014," subtitled, "Hip-hop was just all right in 2013. Will the music we love be stronger in the new year?" Wilson writes:
"The hip-hop generation is now between ages 29 and 49, give or take a few years. We helped get President Barack Obama elected, and many of us are society’s key influencers, doctors, educators and intellectuals. Yet the promise of a generation is unfulfilled: Mass incarceration is at an all-time high. Racial tension is arguably more polarizing than before the civil rights movement. Socioeconomic gaps are widening, and our public schools—the space from which hip-hop emerged—are under siege. Unlike the material of 1988, the culture struggles to address these issues with any level of action or consistency."
Hip-hop lives and dies by this uniquely impossible standard, of being covered as either social ill or social panacea before a critic can ever manage to regard it as music. Imagine if it these had been our metrics for assessing whether the O’Jays or Whitney Houston were any good as musicians—or even N.W.A. Shouts out to Public Enemy and the Native Tongues, but “the hip-hop generation” that gave us It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Low End Theory also gave us "One Less Bitch."
But you don’t hear me, though.
Hip-hop lives and dies by this uniquely impossible standard, of being covered as either social ill or social panacea before a critic can ever manage to regard it as music.
It’s a never-ending fight, I think. A grudge match between folks who’re attuned to innovative wordplay and thrilling musical textures in whatever form they might arise, versus folks who think that hip-hop is only about, and must remain only about, whatever they wrote their graduate thesis on. Folks who want a genre to produce artwork that serves primarily—and often earnestly, awkwardly, ham-fistedly—as propaganda, monotonously supportive of one agenda or another. It’s critics daydreaming that they know the art better than the artists do. Presuming that the critic’s perspective—along with its biases, sympathies, and pre-programed inclinations—is the only worthy implement with which to consider the topic. It is, in a word, narcissism.
Consider Pusha T, and Meek Mill, and Nipsey Hussle—all of whom dropped highly acclaimed projects in 2013. They’re rehabilitated dope boys. They rap about trauma and loss, ambition and setbacks, and marginalization. Anywhere other than hip hop, in fact—anywhere else in American culture—these voices are marginalized, imprisoned, sentenced to irrelevance. Hip-hop is, in fact, a refuge for the narratives that America loves to hate, or discount, or shy away from. That's important.
Kendrick Lamar makes dope music.
Pusha T makes dope music.
Drake makes dope music.
Kanye, Jay Z, Macklemore, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, et al.
Hip-hop was dope in 2013. Don’t let the professors tell you any different.
Justin Charity is a writer in Brooklyn, NY who shouts out Richmond and D.C. He has a website here and you can also find him @BrotherNumpsa.
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