Everything moves in cycles. We knew this in the abstract, but we’d forgotten. Who could blame us? Shit got practically medieval between 2003 and 2006, when advocating for quaint, antiquated notions like coherence, depth and skill was apt to leave you feeling like you were a heretic ready for roasting at the auto-da-fé. Rap was an ad-lib packed jumble of “movin’ bricks” and “still tippin’,” and if you weren’t shaking it like a salt shaker, then maaaaan, you were just a hater. It was bullshit and we knew it. Hip-hop had been the soundtrack to all of our parties. But was it too much to ask for some J.B. drums or an Isleys or Funkadelic loop?
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Kid Sister: Will her fans show up?
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Pining for the golden age: Chicago's Cool Kids
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Blues Scholars: Discussing politics, not Bentleys
No one needed Nas to tell us that hip-hop was dead. Anyone with a pulse and a copy of Illmatic had considered the possibility. Or at least those who got in before Puff Daddy and Master P made it big business, the ones who vaguely remembered those twin paroxysms of genius that occurred between the Rakim/Kane/Public Enemy–led axis of ’87-’89 and the Nas/B.I.G./Wu wave of ’92-’96. It wasn’t a Southern thing or a “New York fell off” thing, it was a malaise worthy of Jimmy Carter in a pastel cardigan. Kids you remembered waiting in line at midnight to cop Wu-Tang Forever at the now-shuttered Tower on Sunset had grown up, grown beards and a taste for the Arcade Fire. Meanwhile, when presented with no new idols to call their own, their younger siblings who would’ve been pulled into hip-hop’s vortex a half-generation prior had migrated to the skinny-jeaned asymmetry of indie rock. And let’s not even talk about emo.
Of course, quality material surfaced sporadically, mostly in the Stones Throw/Def Jux–led underground, and occasionally a Kanye or a Ghostface slipped through. But mostly, it was the proverbial heap of broken images. Jay-Z retired. Scarface retired. Or maybe your favorite rapper wanted to be an actor. That is, if he hadn’t disappeared, or died. Downloading accelerated the descent. The majors got shook, fired A&R agents and stopped taking chances. With 50 Cent as its prototype, the genre grew so swollen that even the producers were on ’roids. Maybe it was rap’s hair-metal phase, with even Paris Hilton releasing an album produced by Scott Storch, featuring guest spots from Fat Joe and Jadakiss.
But some small shift happened not all that long ago. If you listen to the faint hum through the stethoscope, you can hear a different cardiac rhythm. Granted, the economy might remain in tatters and ABC might actually be airing a show called Wipe Out, featuring an obstacle-course challenge called “Dirty Balls.” But signs that this gruesome epoch is in decline are everywhere. The crude nativism of the post-9/11 climate has yielded to one tolerant enough to allow the presidential frontrunner to be a “Dirt off Your Shoulder” dancing dude named Barack Hussein Obama. The summer’s two premier popcorn flicks, The Dark Knight and Wall-E, offer complex, self-reflective glimpses into the human psyche. Hell, even rap’s pre-eminent coke-pushing caricature, Rick Ross, got melvined when the Smoking Gun illuminated his past as a corrections officer.
Rock the Bells is a manifestation of this new order, evidence of rap’s slow, tenuous healing. It’s more than just the names that catch your eye: a reunited Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, De La Soul; the instant adrenaline rush of Ghostface and Raekwon or Method Man and Redman; or even the living-legend factor of Rakim and Afrika Bambaataa. Indeed, the acts in smaller print are equally compelling, with Wale, Jay Electronica, B.O.B., Kidz in the Hall and the Cool Kids among the most promising products of rap’s fifth generation. Of course, not everyone’s great. I’d rather watch Blankman than listen to Amanda Blank. But the sense of that fresh, wild style looms, with the rising talents’ indie-rock-infused fashion and sonics jarring enough to engender silly “hipster rap” labels from a calcified old guard whose memories are too short to recall that the cover of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message album is a closer stylistic kin to the Village People than to Wu Wear.
The renaissance hasn’t arrived yet, and maybe it never will. The download-devastated major labels continue to peddle pablum like Ace Hood and Blood Raw, the second-string protégés of DJ Khaled and Young Jeezy, respectively. Yet with the ascendancy of champion eccentrics like Kanye West and Lil Wayne and the potential flashed by the new class, the environment seems more receptive to innovation than it has at any point in the past decade. Coupled with the thriving mixtape culture, the Internet’s ease of transmission and the emergence of prominent blogs like Nah Right and the Rap Up, the stage is set for another golden era. You can come back, guys, it’s okay to like rap music again. That is, unless you’re a hater.