Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hip-hop at the end of its tired decade

Before I began writing this entry, I read Simon Reynolds's "Notes on the noughties" series for The Guardian online, and was struck by his insights and odd sense of humor. (Beards as signifiers of musical authenticity, anyone?) I'm surprised at how much I agree with him, and somewhat annoyed and relieved that he put together observations that have been bothering me these last few years. Following the same vein, I'm going to put down my own thoughts on the decade in an effort to make sense of it all. For this first part, it might help to read the New Yorker article by Sasha Frere-Jones about hip-hop before continuing.

Hip-hop is moribund, if not dead as a week-old roadkill, at the end of this decade. Sure, there have been several albums and groups that have excited me in recent years, e.g. The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, MF Doom, J Dilla and so forth, but much of that has been what's called "backpack" or "underground" hip-hop and those camps will always have their devoted followers. To me, hip-hop stopped being interesting and/or popular around 2005-2006. Before that, the explosive experimentation in production, personas, album-length statements, and straight poppiness of the music propelled hip-hop to our collective consciousness. You couldn't avoid it — radio stations, clubs, school dancefloors, malls, iPods, stadiums, ringtones.

But then producers and MCs reached a point of rehashing and creative staleness. A sample, which became increasingly and prohibitively expensive as the years went on thanks to tight copyright laws and a lawsuit-wielding RIAA, from old, obscure R&B or soul music can only be used so often and manipulated in so many ways before it becomes predictable fodder for the next toothless MC. Even the artists themselves are struggling to get out of the corner hip-hop has painted itself in:

Lil Wayne might need guitar lessons

Kanye West sings on latest album

Most Jay-Z's lyrics since 2001

Timbaland gives up hip-hop for pop music

That last one hits hard. (That first one hits weird.) Timbaland's collaborations in the first half of this decade with Missy Elliot — untouchable. Their songs reached a critical focal point that included raga beats, warped sounds, fun(ny) and knowing lyrics, and nods to hip-hop's past. And it reached beyond hip-hop audiences to show how music from around the world can be synthesized for an American audience. How can anyone — MCs, producers, listeners — not raise their standard after listening to Miss E ... So Addictive or Under Construction?

When 50 Cent first showed up and blew up, (and eventually shut down to open a fragrance line and rehash the Terminator movies)

the signs were clear: hip-hop was regressing to the 1990s model.

Which, personally, was not good. My first major exposure to pop music was hip-hop and R&B of the 1990s. I grew up on the self-destructive Biggie Smalls v. 2Pac rivalry, the easygoing flows of Nate Dogg and Snoop (Doggy) Dogg, Dr. Dre's hit-friendly The Chronic, and Power 92.3, which was and has been one of Arizona's main sources for new hip-hop and R&B music. (I remember staying up till midnight to catch the premiere of its 2-hour, R&B-only program, which was unheard of for most hip-hop stations at the time.) The then-epic collaboration between Dr. Dre, 2Pac, and Roger Troutman, 1995's "California Love," dominated junior high and the first half of high school.

While the music was good and great, the lifestyle and culture that accompanied it — in the form of classmates who were wannabe gangstas, had several relatives who were in or died because of gangs, or were already initiated thanks to said relatives — were not. This exposure continued all the way through high school to my sophomore or junior year when a riot broke out at lunchtime. Two rival gangs had brought their idiotic feud to school grounds, and in an effort to confuse and scatter security, faked several fights away from the real ones. As in elementary and middle school, I was in the thick of it all while being a distant observer, standing on an outdoors table as the crowds jostled and swirled around me like a violent tide.

It's interesting to see that as the strain of hip-hop embodying gangsterism fades out of my cultural and personal experience, so too does it fade out from the consciousness of the critics, artists, and the general public at the end of this decade.

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