“Universal Mind Control” was a dud. Once billed as “the future of hip-hop,” the socially conscious rapper turned clubber, Common, was found guilty of lazy production and even lazier “party-starting clichés,” to quote a Pitchfork critic. Other lukewarm releases from the mainstream and underground; “Blueprint 3” and “Attention Deficit“ from Jay-Z and Wale, respectively, show that the strongest voices in the hip-hop industry have failed to define what’s next.
Poor African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, which carried hip-hop into existence, are more excited about the work of artists who still identify with them. Or at least pretend to. The party-style lyrics and syrup-induced sounds produced from artists like Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy is more popular than ever.
You could say that the past 10 years have been about experimentation. Kanye West and Kid Cudi (in “808’s and Heartbreak” and “Man on the Moon”, respectively) crooned and cried their way through emo-pop ballads, accompanied by public cries of “I’m an artist, take me seriously!” Theirs and other public acts of existentialism have moved hip-hop past a genre to a media spectacle.
But all of this is an image, one that artists use to sell their music. To really understand where the music, and our culture is going, grab a pair of headphones and visit YouTube. Instead of zoning out, listen and think.
Moment of Clarity
The Black Album, 2003
A good introduction to the artist-capitalist, Jigga writes: I dumb down for my audience/And double my dollars/They criticize me for it/Yet they all yell “Holla!”
In this case, when it comes to acknowledging obsession with financial success, Hov is straight to the point. Inspired by lucrative record deals, as Jay-Z eloquently explains, artists have become addicted to the hook, dispensing of storytelling in favor of a simplistic message. Simplistic messages lead to simplistic thoughts, and critics have mourned this change, while simultaneously acknowledging the new accessibility of hip-hop.
Party Music, 2001
Never Too Much Money (Remix)
Gucci Mane featuring Three 6 Mafia, Yung Joc, and OJ da Juiceman
Welcome II My City with Drumma Boy, 2009
Soulja Boy Tell’Em
Yes, it’s the 19 year-old everyone loves to hate. He may be younger than you, but undoubtedly he has more cars, jewelry and sex than you do, and he’ll be sure to remind you about it in every song.
Soulja Boy’s hypnotic dance moves spawned dozens of other copycats, and was even called out by Ice-T as the one who “single handedly killed hip-hop.” Rather, Soulja Boy can be seen as a nostalgic, someone who has a lot in common with DJ Kool Herc and Afrikka Bambaata, the founding fathers of hip-hop.
Back in the 70s, hip-hop wasn’t about Ice-T’s growling observations, but more related to the celebration of DJ’ing and dancing skills. Hip-hop was about community togetherness, which Soulja Boy has achieved, albeit through the internet. Grouchy artists like Ice-T are mad that people don’t want intelligent commentary in hip-hop, but is it the fault of the rapper? Or the consumer?
Universal Mind Control
Common featuring Pharrel
Universal Mind Control, 2008
100 Miles and Running, 2007
Critical of the consumer is Washington, D.C. rapper, Wale, proclaimed by XXL magazine as the “thinking man’s Lil Wayne.” In “DC Gorillaz,” Wale’s frustration with the industry is only surpassed by his frustration with music fans, observing: ’Cause they don’t want to think/ No!/ They just wanna dance/ And she ain’t tryin’ to learn/She jus’ tryin’ to shake her little ass/While they rain with that cash.
Wale tries to make his own thoughts danceable, choosing instrumentals that are pop-centered, (check out the song “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.,” while you’re at it) while still focusing his words on relationships and wellness for those who support him.
The Art of Story Telling, Part 4
DJ Drama featuring Outkast and Marsha Ambrosius
Gangsta Grillz: The Album, 2009
Storytelling is what much of hip-pop has aban-doned, as rappers have become wealthier and more focused on their development as “artists.” To find a gritty tale of life on the street, you can’t turn to 50 Cent, whose latest work sounds more like death threats from a mob boss over the phone than a struggling drug hustler.
Enter Andre 3000, who crafts his own sultry tale of sexual morality amidst insights on his environment. He weaves thoughts together in a beautiful way, but the part that stands out is this: 3000 feels guilty about wasting his money, and while he may enjoy the club atmosphere, his mind is preoccupied with the unhappiness of his people. It is this connection to his community that drives the artist to create.
Masta Killa featuring Inspectah Deck and GZA
Made in Brooklyn, 2006
Every Last One
Common Market, 2005
The National Anthem
Enemy of the State, A Love Story, 2009
Yo Gotti featuring Nicki Minaj, Trina and Gucci Mane
All Things White, 2009
When considering an artist’s connection to the community, the transformation of hip-hop from “street” music to “club” music can be attributed to a shifting audience. This has encouraged artists to become more sexual in order to connect to those in the dance hall.
Many who say running sexual themes produce misogynistic lyrics need look no further than Nicki Minaj for a feminist foil. Rappers like Lil Kim may have paved the way, but Minaj is as outspoken about sexuality as her fellow male rappers on Young Money Records, Lil Wayne’s label.
Some of her lyrics are playful; some are downright nasty, proving that music is a reflection of cultural ideas and not an attack system against women. Minaj is able to rap with her co-workers about the subject of sexuality in a way that is feminine-dominant, and eventually pushes her own agenda. Her catchphrase of “Step Ya Pussy Up,” is an encouragement to her fellow ladies to stay selective when it comes to bedfellows. But when speaking about her own relationship, Minaj says, “Music is her man.”
Webbie featuring Lil Boosie & Lil Phat
Savage Life 2, 2008
I Think I Love Her
The State vs. Radric Davis, 2009
Can’t Tell Me Nothing
“808’s and Heartbreak” was a sad story, but listeners saw it coming. The cocky beat, complete with dirty south horns, crazed Jeezy samples and a strained chorus, Kanye sounds like a man on the edge. Frantically, he slams his detractors, validating his own behavior in and out of the studio. He says, I’m on T.V. talking like it’s just you and me.; a strong example of what artists have had to do since their genre transformed into world phenomenon.
Instead of hopelessly trying to please critics, artists tend to expand the amount of interaction they have with other forms of media, spreading their image through interviews, appearances and marketing. Those who produce the movies, websites and licensed products try to appeal to those with disposable income: uneducated children. Those who are vulnerable in the socio-economic sense begin to see a rapper’s money as the only future, a lie. So expect rappers to be “role models,” but they never truly got into the business to be role models. They got into the business to make money.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Kid cudi featuring MGMT and Ratatat
Man on the Moon, 2009
I Feel Like Dying
The Drought is Over 2: The Carter 3 Sessions, 2007
That’s what hip-hop has become: a business. It’s a sad truth, but something the consumer must accept if interested in hearing something different. Hip-Hop is simply a reflection of our values, and if we think that today’s music is all marketing: money-hungry and uninspiring, then we are commenting on ourselves. Until we find a way to be beautiful again: to educate our children, to balance our material and sexual desires, only then will we hear beautiful music once more.