On Da Reality Show

Young Dro Da Reality Show

Despite being at the epicenter of rap for well over a decade, and both launching and enduring major changes in the genre, the narrative of Atlanta hasn’t changed. In the collective mind, Atlanta is a land of constant succession, a place where artists build brands not legacies, where the moment an artist can afford a coupe is the same moment that artist is dethroned by a coup. In Atlanta, rappers are hitmakers, nothing else, the myth goes.

While this myth has some merit (e.g., Freak Nasty, Youngbloodz, K.P. & Envyi, Yung Joc), it is often more prescriptive than descriptive, resulting in Atlanta artists being filed away just because the myth and its believers prefer a pre-packaged narrative to messy facts. Some of these artists accept the myth, strategically cashing in and then cashing out once the spotlight recedes. Other artists retreat to their original bases, the streets, and churn out mixtapes ad infinitum until that mythmaking spotlight finally shines on them again. Young Dro is one of the latter kinds of artists, but even within that group he’s in the minority.

Da Reality Show, Young Dro’s third studio album, isn’t an event album, a swaggering red carpet catwalk like Ma$e’s Welcome Back. For Dro, this album is just his latest project. “Round 3,” Dro mechanically announces before his brief verse on “Black History,” unenthused. This album isn’t a glorious return to the ring because Dro never left. His gloves are still laced, his arms are still taut, and Grand Hustle is still in his corner.

Of course, longevity isn’t stasis. There have certainly been some major changes to Dro’s style since 2006. Dro’s famous swag talk is much more punctuated. His verses and songs are shorter and punchier and his cartoonish obsessions with Polo and multi-color cars have been dialed back in exchange for menacing lines about crime and vice. On “Dead,” a sluggish track that creeps along on stilts of scratchy percussion and muted keys, Dro runs through the pricing for contract killings: “I sell knees for 20/Ankles for 30/Wrists for 25/and 50 for the whole nigga, fuck it I’mma kill him.” This kind of gutter talk has always lurked in Dro’s music, but it hits harder in the absence of references to M&Ms and Tropicana.

When Dro actually does opt for swag talk, he tends to let the instrumentals do the heavy lifting. “We In Da City,” the album’s lead single, features Dro squeezing himself in between airy synths and a lively organ like cheese passing through a grater. Likewise, “Ugh” features in-the-pocket verses surrounded by a lush instrumental courtesy of Zaytoven that flutters between a chirping flute and crashing bass. The result is “Maybach music” as spoken by the Maybach itself instead of the rapper, swagger being evoked rather than insisted upon.

There are moments where Dro is a bit too insistent. The album tends to falter when Dro becomes overly sentimental. The last 3 tracks of the brief album (12 songs, 36 minutes) are cloyingly confessional, clumsily attempting to resolve Dro’s flirtations with crime and vice like a reality show settling an episode-long conflict in a two-minute scene before the credits.

But even as Young Dro aims for resolution, his own stubbornness holds him back. “Feeling Myself” is Dro’s version of “T.I. vs T.I.P.” (the song, not the album), an internal war between career-minded rapper and inveterate knucklehead dopeboy. While T.I. chose compromise, Dro firmly chooses to be a dopeboy, his final verse ending with a boast: “I’m realer than fucking real/ The hoodest nigga on BET, still.”

This choice to remain in the streets, in obscurity, likely won’t land Dro back “on MTV with Green Day,” as he boasted on “Gangsta” from Best Thang Smokin’. But this is probably a good thing. While the bird’s-eye-view of Atlanta rap continues to focus on emerging stars, Dro can flourish in the periphery, busting the myth of Atlanta, one album, one mixtape, one ongoing career at a time. 

Atlanta to the Bone

Last month, during a weekend visit to Brooklyn, I found myself in a kitschy dance bar, listening to early 2000s Atlanta music that I hadn’t heard since middle school. Preceded by aggressively undanceable hits from the 50s and 60s – that people danced to anyway because sometimes a good time is a mission, not an experience – the Atlanta songs were jarring. Though I quickly realized that I rarely had any knowledge of these songs beyond their first verses or choruses – the attention spans of 12 year-olds are pretty short – it was genuinely exciting to hear them, especially when I was so far from Atlanta.

But the excitement didn’t last long. As my veil of nostalgia and surprise slowly lifted, I started to notice how other people were receiving the songs. Most of them were executing the same generic dance moves that they had been employing throughout the night. I didn’t think much of this until the DJ played D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” the song that introduced the world, and me, to leanin’ and rockin’. Accordingly, I leaned, I rocked, I snapped, I did my step, and what do you know, I was doing it all by myself.

I was the outlier. Sure, no one said anything. But I could read their body language and the collective corporeal consensus was clear: my nativist, slightly judgmental dance moves were undermining the mission. I was making things weird. So I stopped, caught my breath for a few minutes, then quietly returned to the dance floor, adopting the rest of the bar’s generic dance moves in a fit of quiet rage.

As the mid-2000’s Atlanta hits continued to play and the crowd continued to carry out its mission, I pondered my rage. I have never felt particularly possessive of popular music, especially Atlanta music, especially mid 2000’s Atlanta music, which is often cheesy with parmesan sprinkled on top, but I was feeling it. I genuinely felt violated, like something had been taken from me.

Eventually the DJ moved to some other unduly appropriated era of music and my rage subsided. In retrospect, the rage was indefensibly obnoxious. In the future I’ll definitely try to curtail it rather than eagerly giving in.

Yet, I’m ultimately struck by how primal it was, how instinctively this rage materialized. On some level this worries me because who knows what other affective allegiances are lurking under my skin, but on the other hand, it’s refreshing to know that I’m connected to Atlanta and presumably other forms of music and identity, on this weird, inaccessible, visceral level.

That said, I’ll continue to decline those discounted Braves, Hawks and Falcons tickets. Geography is powerful, but I’m not its slave. (I hope)

 

 

Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81” are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81” shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.