The Black Box

How to reduce the errata of summer 2015 into a signal moment? There was Drake vs. Meek Mill, which was quickly subsumed by Dr. Dre’s Compton, Straight Outta Compton and, according to a deliciously provocative Byron Crawford e-book, Beatings By Dre. There was Vince Staples, Boogie, and the new wave of West Coast street rap. There was the rising tide of novelty rap, which initially felt refreshing and charming (hi, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”), but now feels increasingly noxious and cynical (thanks, 300 Entertainment).

There was the #FutureHive, which proved to be substantially smaller than the #BeyHive, but at least helped Future snag a number-one chart position for his DS2. There was the industrious Mello Music Group, and the indefatigable Adrian Younge. There were plenty of “surprise” albums, some widely discussed (Lil Wayne’s FWA), others barely noted (B.o.B.’s Psycadelik Thoughtz). And there was the usual slow bleed of fuckery: Action Bronson “dissed” Ghostface Killah, Nicki Minaj “tone policed” Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne vs. Birdman & Young Thug, Kanye for Prez, Troy Ave’s album sales, blah blah blah.

Sadly, a few of our voices didn’t make it through the season. RIP to Pumpkinhead, Hussein Fatal of the Outlawz, Capo from Chief Keef’s Glo Gang crew, Sean Price, DJ Swiftrock, Joey Robinson Jr., and Japanese producer DJ Deckstream.

The wonderful world of rap felt relevant, in a way it hasn’t in some time. Some fans have giddily claimed that this is the best year the genre has ever had, but given its forty-year history that’s entirely implausible. (Please refer to the years 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998…) Still, it’s clear that it is bouncing back from a creatively fallow 2014 that neither Run the Jewels nor YG could rescue, and a four-year drought of black stars in the top tier of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart that, intentionally or not, often appeared like a whitewash.

Yet as rap increases its presence, we continue to invest in assumptions about how the industry works, how the music is produced, and how it eventually reaches our ears. When Meek Mill revealed that Drake used a ghostwriter for his guest verse on Meek’s “R.I.C.O.,” some websites were quick to follow-up with listicles, as if the practice has been completely aired out. But more remarkable was when Funkmaster Flex played a few reference vocals made by Quentin Miller for Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. He turned corporeal rumors into undeniable facts…or were they? Drake has yet to directly address the accusations, and his longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib as well as Miller categorically denied them.

A similar quandary faces Dr. Dre’s “legendary” career. He’s never commented on evidence, compiled over decades of sundry interviews and rumors, that Warren G, Daz Dillinger and Colin Wolfe produced large chunks of The Chronic. Yes, much of his talent lies in weaving strands of music, from beats made by others to interpolations of samples (some of which he claimed was original music, only to be sued later on), into a patented Dre sound through console mixing and other engineering tricks. And since Timbaland, Kanye West, and other mainstream brands are known to outsource their actual music making, perhaps we don’t need the hoary hip-hop myth that the producer makes the beat, and the rapper writes the rhymes. The first part of that is easy to let go of, but what about the second?

With little hard evidence, inconsistent liner notes, and sometimes nonexistent ASCAP and BMI credits, any number of self-promoting types that claim to scribble lyrics for the rich and shameless can attempt to sway us with unverified tales. Remarkably, and in spite of our inexhaustible appetite for any morsel of celebrity news, we’re collectively resigned to the fact that the question of authorship in mainstream rap may never be settled. We continue to imagine that rap music hails from a singular (and usually male) voice rising from the urban wilderness, speaking truth to power, even though the reality is that the genre is a black box, powering a complex and rancorous multi-billion-dollar industry, yet itself sealed from outside view. All we can do is enjoy the finished product.

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