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.

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Album Review: /\/\ /\ Y /\ (Maya)

Although Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is often described as an “explosion in a shingle factory,” I think we can all agree that it is still a wonderful work of art. /\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A.’s new album, can similarly be described as an explosion in a haunted Home Depot. However, it is not a wonderful work of art. Listening to this album was punishing and grueling. The album is so excruciatingly awful that I am inclined to believe that her music studio also serves as an S&M dungeon. In fact, I hope it does because then I could say that she created this awful music with the intention of being heavily criticized for it, which would partially excuse her.

The album begins with, “The Message,” a short track that serves as the harbinger of the audio massacre that you will soon experience. The instrumental is classic M.I.A. –  obnoxious, tribal, boisterous, yet catchy – but the lyrics( Headbone connects to the headphones/Headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government) sound like a podcast from Conspiracy Brother.

The next track is “Steppin Up.” This song is one of the two songs on the album that I actually enjoy. The rambunctious instrumental features odd electronic percussion and sounds as if it was post-dubbed by a foley artist, but it works really well. Reminiscent of Missy Elliot, the lyrics display M.I.A’s confidence and ease. The fact that she is a British female rapper may put her on the fringes, but when it comes down to it, she can still rap.  Ultimately, the track is good because it is devoid of the obscure and poorly executed [pseudo]-political references and irritating overproduction that characterize the rest of the album. It is pure entertainment.

The next song is “XXXO.” If you told me that the artist behind brilliant songs like, “Bamboo Bangaa,” “Paper Planes,” “Bird Flu,” and “Come Around,” wrote, “you tweeting me like tweety bird on your iPhone,” I would call bullshit. Alas, I heard it for myself (3 times to be exact) so I cannot deny it. Even if you ignore the crap lyrics, the overall song is also terrible. The vocals sound like a collaboration between the Kids Bop kids and Madonna with a throat infection and the instrumental sounds like the title track from my dad’s favorite porn VHS from the 90’s.

“Teqkilla” comes up next. It’s about tequila, believe it or not. It’ s actually not a bad song. Despite my lack of experience with Tequila or heavy drinking in general, I found myself really enjoying it. Nevertheless, it eventually bored me. Unless you are Massive Attack, you probably shouldn’t have a song that is 6 minutes long as your 4th track. After “Teqkilla” comes, “Fighting.” Ha, I’m just kidding. I wish I wasn’t though, because the next song, “Lovalot,” is quite a tragedy. Although it began with the corny lyrics,  “They told me this is a free country,/But now it feels like a chicken factory,” I found myself genuinely enthralled by the synergy of the visceral instrumental and M.I.A.’s serious tone. However, upon hearing the chorus, I was wholly disappointed. “I really love a lot, I really love a lot./I really love a lot, I really love a lot./But, I fight the ones that fight me./But, I fight the ones that fight me.” Seriously, M.I.A? This sounds like the mantra for a group of kung-fu hippies (which would probably make a cool comic book ).

The next three songs, “Story To Be Told,” “It takes a Muscle,” and “It Iz What It Iz,” made me feel as if M.I.A. was truly missing in action. Luckily, however, she reappeared, for the song, “Born Free,” which is undeniably the best song on the album. The track begins with a dynamic drum roll that transforms into a synthesizer and percussion free-for-all. 40 seconds later, this segues into the surreal, echoing vocals of M.I.A. The echo effect amplifies her voice to a god-like frequency. The commanding tone works well with the simple, yet powerful statement, “I was born free,” which serves as the chorus. Although I will never see her perform this song live, I don’t mind because the song itself sounds like a live performance. Listening to it makes me feel as if I’m in a giant amphitheater. If you like One Day as a Lion you will definitely like this song.

Sadly, as Nelly Furtado (and others who aren’t as important) have said in the past, all good things come to an end. “Born Free” cannot redeem the tracks that succeed it. “Meds and Feds” is impossibly loud and overproduced. The difference in loudness between this song and the rest of the album is equal to the difference in loudness between a television show and its interstitial commercials (if you’ve ever watched Comedy Central late at night and seen those annoying Girls Gone Wild Commercials, you know what I’m talking about) . I genuinely have no idea why this song is so loud. Moreover, in addition to being egregiously loud, the track is just plain unintelligible, but not in that cool, creative, discordant-but-still-amazing kind of way. It just sucks. “Tell Me Why” and “Space” and follow suit, with the former featuring truly weak lyrics (Tell me why/Things change but it feels the same/If life is such a game/How come people all act the same?) and sounding like a song from Jay Sean’s digital discard pile and the latter being a lame response to M.I.A.’s NY Times and twitter fiasco (Whoa, she dedicated a song to dissing a journalist. She’s  a “real” rapper now).

Interestingly, one of the few things from “Meds and Feds” that I actually understood and can remember was M.I.A.’s use of the phrase, “digital ruckus.”  That is exactly what this album is. However, it is not a good digital ruckus. It not the cacophonous yet appealing, avant-garde masterpiece that M.I.A. wants it to be. It is just silly noise. Now, if she is aware of that, then goddamn, she is really pushing the frontiers  of music (but she isn’t).