By: Norman Yallen
There was once a young man who dreamt about changing the world. He told tales of societies outcasts, its lower rung, and illustrated the injustice he saw around him. These tales led to that man becoming incredibly popular, wealthy, and powerful. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he lost sense of what made him great in the first place. Now, instead of telling stories about poverty and despair, and bringing light to the issues, he remarks about himself and his own possessions. While his gift may still be there, he is laying it to waste. He simply cannot tell a story that the people listening can relate to. That is the problem with rap music as we begin the second decade of the 21st century.
Watch the Throne is a compilation album released earlier this month by Kanye West and Jay-Z, who are arguably the two most popular rap artists alive. Therefore, it should provide a good indicator as to the state of rap music, in both lyrical content and stylistically. Stylistically, it stands very high, with the catchiest hooks and snappiest backbeats for the songs that money and talent can buy. The song “Otis” serves as a duet with Otis Redding, which seems like a great idea, as does the whole album. That is until the two rappers begin to do what they are supposed to be famous for doing. Jay-Z follows Otis’s refrain by saying he ‘invented swag.’ It all degenerates from there, with Maybachs and Benzes, cigars, ‘poppin bottles’, supermodels, and all sorts of tidbits from the good life. It was very well produced, very well said, but it was something I could not listen to. That is not to get on a moral high horse; I didn’t hate it for its profanity, or for that matter any perceived immorality, it was just that there was nothing in that song I could identify with. Now here might be the part where people say that rap isn’t meant for me, it’s meant for people, lower class people, and predominantly it is meant for black people at that. Well, the lower someone’s income is, the less they will be able to identify with two talented, rich men, talking about how talented and rich they are. An art that was originally performed and enjoyed by people not so well off has turned into one with a bigger disconnect between the performer and the listener each passing album.
In 1993, fresh off the smash success of NWA and Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg released his debut alum, Doggystyle, produced by Dre himself. He rapped about his life, about smoking pot, and fucking women, and being in a gang, and even about killing people. Critics found it obscene, and repulsive at times, but most of all critics and fans found it real. He was rapping about a lifestyle and a people that were being disregarded by most Americans, and whether people liked it or not, he was showing them what life could be like for a lower class minority in Southern California. His later albums have also been about the good times, the women, and the weed, but none has caught on the way Doggystyle did. He is missing that realness, when he raps about the bad times it feels contrived, and when he raps about the good times it feels irrelevant. For instance, in the early 1990s when Snoop Dogg, or Dr. Dre, or Ice Cube cried out, “Fuck the Police,” it felt real in that they really had a distrust of cops at the time, as did much of the black community. Today when they cry that, it doesn’t really seem to add up, since police are guarding their performance. The tipping point for Snoop, and Jay-Z, and all of rap music came about the murders of Tupac, and the Notorious BIG.
In the early 1990s Tupac Shakur (2Pac) and Christopher Wallace (Notorious BIG) led warring factions of rap, with 2Pac running the West Coast, and Biggie running the East Coast. On the streets the Bloods and the Crips would fight, and on the mic 2Pac and Biggie would fight. The content, the flow, and the bile were something deeply connecting with much of America at the time, and it really served to put rap music on the map to stay. Unfortunately for these two men, and for the entire genre, that bad blood carried out into the streets as both men were murdered. Although there would be feuds, and gangster talk, it wouldn’t be the same after. There might be an invective about someone’s wife, but there would no longer be death threats on a song. Rap music had become too real, and in its urge to end this feud, it became something more corporate and less relevant for the lives of its listeners.
To be clear, I am not bemoaning the good old days of rap music. I am thankful that today music icons aren’t dying over silly feuds. I don’t believe most people listening to Pac or BIG were really in gangs, and as a matter of fact, I probably identify more with Kanye’s jet-setting life than I do with Pac’s stint in prison. In a way, I am not entirely sure why the latter for whatever reason feels more real than the former. Perhaps because it fits the stereotype of the black man as a gangster, as opposed to a globetrotting entrepreneur. For better or for worse, rap became less violent, broadened its base of listeners, and that changed the music that was coming out. In a way, both Pac’s America, and Ye’s America are entirely contrived creatures. Almost anyone listening to Pac, or Snoop Dogg, I am willing to bet, had no idea what it felt like to ‘cap someone.’ Almost anyone listening to Jay or Kanye, has no idea what it feels to drive a Maybach (that car must be mentioned in every single rap song.) In that way, rap isn’t about the music and never has been, and that is why many old people will never understand it. Rap music is selling us not on the reality, but on the fantasy, whether it is being rich, or being a gangster, or maybe being both. There is a reason people love Tony Montana, because although most people don’t actually want to be a gangster, they find there to be something desirable about it. Almost anyone will confess they would like to jet around the world in the way Kanye talks about doing.
That’s why for all the posture, I don’t believe I ever really liked rap music then or now. It was never so much for the music for me, as it was the idea of being a gangster, or being a star. The irony is that a style started by street poets and MC’s attempting to talk about real life, turned into an almost contrived selling of a fantasy that the average listener will never experience. There are exceptions of course, K’naan talks about Somalia, the hardships of Africans, and the eternal hope in moving forward. Last I checked, K’naan is not on the throne of rap music however, it is Kanye West and Jay-Z. Eminem has endured over the course of time, with a talent and style no one can match. He has taken an enormous amount of criticism for his misogyny. I would contend that secretly, many of his male listeners get a kick out of degradation of women. Maybe they don’t personally find it appropriate, but all Eminem fans are giving it a tacit approval. Call it almost a fantasy, if you will. I am not going to say I am morally against Eminem, that is not who I am and is not who I want to be, but if you think all of Eminem’s fans think it is the jest he says it is, then I urge you to listen to ‘Stan’ and you’ll soon see why Eminem and I would beg to disagree.
Rap music is not the people’s music. It does not chronicle life as it is for the poor people; it is not the modern day folk music. However, it certainly says something about us as a society. We are people that like to dream, that sometimes buy houses when they can’t afford it, that sometimes do things that they shouldn’t but wish that they could. We don’t want someone chronicling our reality, as perhaps a second recession draws near. We want the fantasy, whether it is the gang or the Maybach. So for giving the party people what they want, I must give three cheers to Kanye West and Jay-Z. You’ll find me in the corner, unsure of just how to listen.