Hip-Hop in 2012: An Annal

This is not an end-of-the year list. This is an annal. The annal is an interesting way of chronicling events because it explicitly shows the interests of the writer. I chose to make this annal just to highlight how one’s knowledge of a field is overwhelming influenced by one’s personal interests and tastes. It’s an obvious point, but in world of music writing, people often use descriptive terms like “timeless” and “classic” to mask how the things they praise are essentially just the things they like. The other benefit of the annal is that is helps to illustrate how one can amass significant knowledge of something (in this case, a genre) and still have a very limited perspective. In short, this is my 2012 hip-hop experience, y’all!

Date Unknown/irrelevant: XXL releases its annual 2012 Freshman Class List, further demonstrating the unreliability and silliness of the list. In retrospect, Angel Haze, Joey Bad@$$, Nitty Scott, MC., Azealia Banks, Gunplay and other artists with significant buzz, are noticeably absent.

January 20: On the third anniversary of Obama’s historic inauguration, Red Tails is released, showing the world that Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry aren’t alone in their inability to make shitty movies for black people.

Feb 8: Earl comes home.

February 24: Kevin Hart throws J. Cole an alley oop.

February 26: Travyon Martin is murdered.

March 7: I become an intern for RESPECT.

March 26: John Seabrook shows the world why so much pop music sounds the same.

April 6: Danny Brown and Ab-Soul team up for a potentially hard-hitting song and Ab-Soul nearly ruins it with his stupid hippie bullshit.

Good Friday: “Mercy” by G.O.O.D. Music is released, unleashing 2 Chainz to the world that now wants to give him back.

April 24: Santigold releases her second album. The album artwork is done by Kehinde Wile.

June 5: Big K.R.I.T. reminds us that 2 Chainz isn’t the only voice of Southern Rap.

June 17: Haleek Maul shows us the dark side of Barbados.

June 21: I enter the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne debate, then renege in the comments a few days later.

June 27: Clear Soul Forces talks with me and puts on one of the best live hip-hop shows I’ve ever seen.

June 27: Google introduces hip-hop to Kafka.

July 4: Frank Ocean is beautifully frank.

July 9: Nitty Scott, MC calls for interviewers to ask tougher questions.

July 9: Lianna la Havas releases the most beautiful album of the year.

July 10: Frank Ocean releases an album that’s also beautiful, but I don’t want contradict the entry above, so…

July 13: An NPR intern acknowledges the fact that old rap albums are oftentimes insufferable.

July 15: I Heart NPR Interns.

July 24: Brandon Soderberg writes the most important hip-hop related article of the year.

July 25: Lupe Fiasco reminds hip-hop of the pain that gives it life.

August 2: Rap Genius gets called out for being inherently shitty.

August 3: Kendrick Lamar readies the world for his upcoming album. Months later, this song is played at college parties.

August 11: Azealia Banks disses Jim Jones, poignantly saying, “It takes a Harlem bitch to execute a Harlem bitch.”

August 19: Slaughterhouse releases their mixtape On the House. It is better than their album, welcome to: OUR HOUSE.

August 20: DOOM releases Key to the Kuffs, a collaborative effort with Jneiro Jarel, a producer who’s name is way easier to pronounce than it looks.

August 20: Nitty Scott, MC talks to me about her first commercial release, boomboxes and Nicki Minaj.

August 23: Lupe Fiasco casually and arrogantly addresses the word “bitch,” confirming his decline.

September 3: Talib Kweli unimaginatively and wastefully appropriates the best movie of 2011.

September 14: Kreayshawn releases her debut album; it sells less than J.R. Writer’s debut album.

November 2: The RZA takes killer bee swag to Jungle Village. The soundtrack is the best collaborative release of the year.

November 29: I regret reneging in the comments on the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne piece I wrote in June.

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Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back*

My friend Cameron Kunzelman wrote a piece on his hatred of nostalgia in the video game world. He basically argues that nostalgia for old games should be regarded with caution because it can be a vehicle for reproducing problematic tropes and precluding innovation. The example that resonated the most for me was Duke Nukem Forever, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time.

I mention Cameron’s post because this kind of unquestioning yearning for the past is what I was getting at in my last post when I told commenters on hip-hop articles to stop invoking the 90’s. I’d like to expand that a little more.

To clarify, I don’t contest the claim the 90’s was an era of very groundbreaking and incredible music. I just contest the claim that that’s all that happened in the 90’s. Alongside Lauryn Hill receiving Grammys, Busta Rhymes having million dollar video budgets and P. Diddy dating J-Lo (Yes, that’s my synopsis of 90’s hip-hop), kids were growing up without parents, tough welfare reform was making it harder for people to receive [already limited] government assistance and the War on Drugs aka the War on people who were coerced into depending on drugs to make a living, was in full effect, among other things. 

I mention these few things as a reminder that 90’s hip-hop is underscored by an abundance of  pain and suffering. When that pain and suffering is ignored and the wish for the return of the 90’s comes true, we get Rick Ross, the lie that continues to grow bolder and bigger (literally). Brandon Soderberg sees Rick Ross’ persona as a misreading of the 90’s. I agree, but I think Ross’ persona is also a longing for the 90’s.

For instance, watch this video:

What stands out to me about the making of Ross’ video is that it was filmed in Calliope Projects in New Orleans, Louisiana. Those projects are noted for being the place where Master P, Silkkk the Shocker and C-Murder, hugely successful 90’s rappers, all grew up. Their success makes Calliope Projects highly symbolic.Ross was definitely tapping into the symbolism when he decided to film his video there. In fact, he makes this explicit toward the end of the video during his short monologue (starts at 7:34).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with symbolism. In fact, the residents of those projects mostly seem to have enjoyed being symbols and participating in the making of Ross’ video. That being said, I think the guy in the orange shirt toward the end of the video (he starts speaking at the 8:00 mark)  really puts things into perspective. It’s unclear whether he is responding to the video shoot or to something else (maybe the renovation of the Superdome?), but I think we can get at the heart of what he’s saying when he asks, “But what about me? What about the children?”

In essence, I think this guy is saying that it’s cool that Calliope Projects and its residents are seen as symbols of “the struggle” but what does that do for his struggle, the actual struggle? Rick Ross and his company may have given the residents of Calliope Projects a day they’ll never want to forget, but where will his crew be on the days that these residents need to forget to continue living?

By reproducing a site of struggle from the 90’s, Ross does nothing to address that struggle. This is the problem that Cameron sees in nostalgia-driven video games. Ross, like contemporary video game companies, has the resources to innovate, to reinvent, to recycle, but all he does is reproduce.

On second thought, that’s a weak comparison. Rather than comparing Ross and video game companies, we should compare video game companies and record labels. After all, even though Ross pens his own verses, at the end of the day Ross is essentially just the medium of nostalgia. Record labels, presumably responding to consumer demand, peddle Ross, so they’re more culpable; they’re the agents of nostalgia. If that’s the case, then I think we’ve arrived at the heart of Cameron’s argument: consumers.

There is a certain type of consumer who wants to reproduce the 90’s. Cameron calls this consumer a “petulant childadult.” This term isn’t directly applicable to fanatics of 90’s hip-hop because a lot of people became fans of it retroactively, but Cameron’s description of these consumers is spot-on. They collectively view the era that they are nostalgic for as a pinnacle. In other words, 90’s rap fanatics truly believe that 90’s rap is the greatest rap of all time. Accordingly, artists like Ross fashion themselves and are fashioned by record labels in ways that hark back to the 90’s in spite of the fact that the 90’s are irreproducible and probably shouldn’t be reproduced. By trying to reproduce the 90’s anyway, we get videos like this, a bizarre bid for street cred where “the street” is contrived from a street where people actually live. We don’t want this to happen again.

*Note: In the end, the role of nostalgia in contemporary hip-hop is probably impossible to grasp without a working knowledge and understanding of the power dynamics of the music industry. That being said, I tried.

TailSpin: Lupe Dumbs it Down

When Kanye rapped, “Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick,” on “Gorgeous,” I laughed. I’m sure that Kanye had more to say about South Park’s over-the-top jab at him, but he elected to respond briefly with sharp humor and wit and that was it. I wish I could say the same about Lupe’s reaction to Spin.

It all started when Spin’s rap blogger, Brandon Soderberg, wrote a hard-hitting response to Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” video. For Soderberg, the song and especially the video, are mindless and irresponsible. The reductive, simplistic nature of the song’s main topic, the haphazard use of blackface in the video and the slightly patronizing chorus – “Lady better?” Says who? King Arthur? – result in a bloated and unnecessary track that crowds out voices in a conversation that’s been going on for decades. In other words, Lupe’s “contribution” to the discourse on the word “bitch” does nothing for the discourse. For Soderberg, the song is akin to Lupe tardily walking into a boardroom full of women and shouting over everyone: it’s rude, it’s arrogant as fuck and it’s a privilege (Hence the term “mansplaining.”

Lupe Fiasco took Soderbergh’s argument as a personal attack and decided to unleash his Twitter hordes. “Hordes” may seem hyperbolic, but there’s really no other way to describe the legion of people that took to Twitter and to Spin’s website to spew vitriol at this writer. He heard it all – faggot, Jew, zionist, bitch – yet he’s considered the bully.

https://twitter.com/LupeFiasco/status/239093701069127681

While I recognize that Soderberg’s rhetoric within the article is definitely charged, in the end, his argument holds up. When I first heard “Bitch Bad,” I also felt it was lazy and half-baked. From its delivery to its simplicity to is subtle chivalry, the song just doesn’t feel polished. The video made this laziness even more apparent. I expect more from Lupe than tired tropes, stunted flow and two-dimensional content. He’s done much better work in the past. In fact, if you watch the video for Lupe’s song “Dumb it Down” and listen closely, you might find a little irony in the chorus’ sardonic line: “Make a song for the bitches.”

I certainly believe in being held accountable for what you say on the internet, but Soderberg isn’t being held accountable for what he said. He’s being held accountable for what he did: challenge a prominent “intellectual” rapper. I read through Lupe’s myriad retweets and the comments on SPIN. A minority of the responses mentioned Soderberg’s argument. Overwhelmingly, the backlash against the article is just knee-jerk fan bullshit. Of course, these kind of reactions come part and parcel with criticizing things that people are fanatically devoted to. I’ve had my own experience with such things. Nevertheless, I didn’t have an entity with a million followers on Twitter TELL fans to harass me. This kind of reactionary, childish sensitivity is well-known in the music world (what up, M.I.A?), but there’s something gravely disappointing about it being seen from an artist who’s lionized as an intellectual and luminary. If anyone needs to be boycotted, it’s Lupe. Seriously, when Kanye appears to be more mature than you, you’re not being “hated:” you’re doing something wrong.