What Artistic Movements Do These Rappers Exemplify?
By Noah Hubbell
Stylistically, rap has exploded, and the pieces have fall everywhere from the mind-bogglingly complex to the unbelievably simple, from the brazenly dissident to the unapologetically mainstream.
Rappers' influences seem to come from everywhere, but the differences between, say, Aesop Rock and 2 Chainz are so stark, they got us thinking: Of ten of the most important artistic movements in history, which rapper best exemplifies each? This is science, folks!
Closely reading lyrics often helps pierce the mentation of the songwriter. In Aesop Rock's case, close reading is more likely to confuse than anything, and that's okay. Like abstract expressionism, where it is useless to try to understand individual brushstrokes that the artist likely doesn't fully understand himself, Aesop pulls together masses of seemingly unrelated allusions and references for the sake of the entire song. Although a song like "Daylight" doesn't make sense when read like an essay, it has a powerful overarching tone that pulls the disparate parts together.
Constructivism is the idea that art ought to inspire positive social change, and Brand Nubian did just that, seeking to empower African-Americans through the teachings of the Nation of the Gods and Earths. Tracks like "Wake Up" preached "the solution: Knowledge of self to better ourself 'cause I know, myself, that we can live much better than this." With De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian helped create an alternative to gangsta rap in the '90s.
Like Riff Raff, Dada was controversial in the early 20th century, when practitioners were viewed as the enfant terribles of the art world. Dadaists were distrustful and unsatisfied with reason and logic. As such, their artistic methods included practices that had been considered inartistic previously, such as assembling random words or pulling images out of context to form a nonsensical collage. That's similar to what Riff Raff does in his rhymes, of course. Unlike Dadaists, however, he is not acting in protest of conventional rap, though his work is being received in much the same way. He is likely not conscious of his Dadaist tendencies, though who knows, and in any case there's no doubt that Dadaists would love him.
Existentialism is not so much an examination of the human condition as a reaction to the human condition. The only true mistakes, they posit, are to act in a way that defies what a person thinks they know (or refuse to decide whether to act at all). In this way, Kanye's College Dropout was a defiant existentialist release. He affirms the importance of choosing one's own path, particularly on songs like "All Falls Down." On his recent "New Slaves," he argues that there are "leaders and there's followers, but I'd rather be a dick than a swallower." To exist as a shadow is not to exist at all.
Magic Realism is an artistic style that includes usually subtle supernatural or otherwise unbelievable occurrences within a narrative that is otherwise realistic. Jay Electronica's albums have thus far followed the three steps of a magic trick laid out in the film The Prestige, which is also magic-realist. His rhymes are steeped mostly in detail-oriented, ordinary life, but they're infused with a mysticism informed mostly by the Nation of Islam offshoot, the Nation of the Gods and the Earths, frequently alluding to the Godliness of the Black man. Jay often describes himself as a Christ-like figure and attributes himself supernatural abilities. On his song/tape "The Pledge," he calls himself "Jay Dogon," referencing a West African tribe believed by some to be descendants of ancient aliens. But for all the transcendental abilities Jay ascribes himself, he can never seem to escape the pains of mundane life.
2 Chainz is a big personality, and he doesn't try to complicate that with complex rhyme schemes or sophisticated tropes that are going to distract you from the image that he wants to present. The prevailing thought behind minimalism is that nothing else should be able to be removed from the work to improve it, and that certainly can be said for 2 Chainz, what with lines like "She got a big booty, so I call her Big Booty," which is simple but deceptively brilliant in its synechdoche and staying power.
In art, neoclassicism refers to the 18th century's return to the aesthetic ideals of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But since hip-hop is only around 40, eighteen-year-old Joey Bada$$'s revival of an early '90s aesthetic prevalent in hip-hop's golden age, is a similar phenomenon. Joey employs traditional boom-bap beats in the style of Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest, two of the era's preeminent groups.
Pop art challenged the methods of conveying the intended reality, high-concept and constructivism of other art forms by dipping into well-worn artistic techniques, particularly those used in advertisements, and removing context that could give the depicted object meaning beyond its ordinary use. Similarly, Soulja Boy, one of the first Internet rappers, took well-established, highly marketable rap tropes, like on "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," and created cookie-cutter music whose sole purpose was to sell and adorn.
Lil B is both a bottomless spring of positivity (such as on "We Are the World") and a swagged-out force of nature who wants to fuck your bitch, as in "Like a Martian." The common ground among these two apparently very different personas is represented by B's "based" movement, which has something to do with the freedom from convention and expectation. With both the positive and negative personas, Lil B takes his themes to such extremes that they essentially become parodies of themselves, deconstructing them in the all-encompassing Postmodern eye, and shattering all preconceived notions of what a rapper should be.
Lil' Wayne began his career as a pretty traditional young rapper, albeit with obvious potential. He has called himself the Music Child because of his immersion in rap from a very young age. He has "I Am Music" tattooed above one of his eyes. As he grew, he internalized the form more and more, to the point that he no longer had to write his lyrics down to record them. André Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement, called surrealism "pure psychic automatism," the expression of "the real functioning of thought." By conditioning his thought to operate in musical and hip-hop forms, Lil Wayne has brought the intersection of surrealism and rap to light, evidenced by strange images floating in a stream of consciousness, unfiltered, showing how Wayne's mind moves from one metaphor to the next.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.