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.

Rap’s New Consciousness

Since the Ferguson, Missouri protests last August, there have been an increasing number of songs addressing socio-political issues like overzealous law enforcement and economic inequality. But even before the powder keg explosion that was #Ferguson, the trend towards a newfound hip-hop consciousness seemed imminent.

Of all the various groups that have suffered as a result of declining music revenue, the urban music industry may have suffered the worst in terms of raw sales. No rap albums went gold during the calendar year of 2014. (However, late December releases such as J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint have since earned the mark.) And until Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” set off a fresh wave of top 40-bound pseudo-trap anthems, pop radio seemed wholly unforgiving to rap music, and black rappers in particular. There were no number-one singles by the latter in 2013 (unless you count T.I.’s assist to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”) In 2014, radio only seemed to make room for white rappers such as Eminem and Iggy Azalea.

There are wider cultural forces at work. As people grow more accustomed to being interconnected through technology, especially social media, they’ve begun using it as a platform for activism. The world of music reflects that shift as well. More subtly, however, the evolving relationship between rap and mainstream acceptance has forced many artists to wonder if their music means anything more than a conduit for money and success.

Of course, rap’s current generation (2008-present) has made millions from losing themselves in self-absorbed soliloquies about the price of fame. But some have begun to ask more pointed questions. “Same thing my n*gga Elvis did with rock ‘n’ roll/ Justin Timberlake, Eminem, then Macklemore,” raps J Cole on “Fire Squad.” “Look around, my n*gga, white people have snatched the sound.” Some misinterpreted J Cole’s lines as a diss, but he was really wondering if his skin color had become an obstacle to going pop. Kanye West’s controversial Yeezus mulled over the same issues. From Lil Boosie’s “Crazy” to Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” much of recent rap argues implicitly for the value of black identity in all its forms, and questions why it became devalued in the music industry.

#Ferguson highlighted more pressing concerns, of course, such as whether a teenager of color can walk down the street without getting harassed and killed by the police. Regardless, it’s clear that rap artists want to address their physical and mental survival. That must be welcome news for anyone who complains about the genre’s decades-long slide into a decadent refrain of money, cash, and hoes. But I’d counter that critics who believe that canard don’t pay close enough attention to all of rap music, and not just its most popular forms. Now, with widely publicized works like Run the Jewels’ RTJ2 and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, we have definitive proof of rap’s new consciousness, whether radio stations decide to play it or not.

(March 21, 2015 – Rhapsody)