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.
Could Kanye West ever make a bad album? It’s a question many will strain to answer as they’re confronted with the acid house shocks, drill rap stabs and Jamaican toaster rants of Yeezus. If 808s and Heartbreak, his prior art-for-art’s-sake experiment, turned the breakup-album cliché into an Auto-Tuned R&B warble; then here he nearly disengages with song structure altogether, haphazardly throwing out disconnected lyrics as he hurtles through self-orchestrated chaos and disorder. Coupled with a portentous God complex, this may be the pretentious excursion that listeners want to tune out.
If anything, it should finally (hopefully?) disable the “instant rap classic” complex that haunts the genre. Classics are made through time and memories, not crowned through five-star-review groupthink and instant Twitter feedback. West’s maximalist approach to rap gleefully encourages our zeal to proclaim his genius from the moment he unveils his latest triumphs, and well before the listening tests are complete and his hypotheses can be proven or disproven. If Yeezus is to be saved – and there’s much on it to suggest that it will be — it will be through repeated spins, not the thunder-thumb indexes of a public salivating for his ascent and/or downfall.
To understand why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy earns its title, sounds both sensuously epic and a bit of a dick joke, and manages to combine deep melancholy and triumphant hubris into a stunningly intense experience, let’s backtrack to Kanye West’s debut, 2003’s The College Dropout. On “Never Let Me Down,” Kanye multi-tracked John Legend and Tracie Spencer’s backing vocals into a full-blown gospel chorus as he ruminated on how his parents participated in lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and how that legacy made him different. “Niggas can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership/ But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership/ That’s why I hear new music and I just don’t be feeling it,” he rapped. Matched against Kanye’s earnestness, guest rapper Jay-Z’s Cristal-stained boasts were woefully out of place.
Seven years later, Kanye has become another errant choir boy. His religious upbringing and Black History Month studies help him make outrageous claims of being a pharaoh, a deity similar to Allah himself. “Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention,” he claims on “Power.” He speaks about light-skinned girls as if they were new Bentleys to be licked and humped. (Cue R. Kelly’s “You Remind of My Jeep.”) And suddenly, Jay Hova himself sounds right at home. He murders “Monster.” Even Rick Ross, who repeats his familiar shtick of personifying big-balling hustlers on “Devil in a New Dress,” is apropos to this tall tale of adult children lost in a world of designer clothes, luxury vehicles and scantily-clad women, with TMZ and Gawker keeping score. Brilliantly, Kanye couches these fantasies in a hip-hop context. By inviting the aforementioned plus the RZA, Pusha T, Swizz Beatz, Raekwon and Kid Cudi, he demonstrates that materialism and hubris are essential to understanding hip-hop culture as it is lived, if not necessarily how Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa first envisioned it. As Pusha T says on “Runaway,” “I’m just young, rich and tasteless.”
“Wasn’t I a good king?” complains Jay-Z near the conclusion of Watch the Throne, his long-awaited full-length collaboration with Kanye West. Who can blame his haughtiness? The natives are restless. Last year was an embarrassment of riches, as Thank Me Later, Teflon Don and, yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy redefined the contours of luxury rap. But 2011 is the comedown, ruined by pretenders like Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers and Big Sean’s Finally Famous, which trumpet the virtues of overnight celebrity with none of the sweat, vigor or hard-won respect.
And so we sink our teeth into Watch the Throne, and find the taste rather funny. When two superstars get together, we expect frizzy blasts of energy that wow us on first listen and slowly dissipate in the morning, like a pleasant dream. We’re looking for impact, not resonance, like B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s Riding with the King. We expect incredible verses (or guitar solos) and catchy songs before we return to the drudgery of our pedestrian lives.
But instead, here we get the specter of 2010’s cash crop, and the distant yet still visible peaks of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s past glories. The critics, bloggers and rap fanatics are waiting, too, ready to write virtual term papers on this pay-per-listen event, and turn WTT into a metaphor for the debt crisis, or the yawning income gap between rich and poor, or whatever. If this bloated hour-plus enterprise fails, albeit admirably, it’s from our two heroes’ attempts to fulfill our contradictory expectation for shameless pop carnality and weighty artistic sustenance.