Hip-Hop in Crisis, Pt. 1 Kanye: It’s hard to deny hip-hop is going through a crisis. It’s not a crisis of confidence, mind you — pop’s ascendant genre has more than enough of that — but certainly a crisis of purpose. Need proof? Well, by my estimation two major mainstream crossover rap artists have emerged in recent years — OutKast in 2003, with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Kanye West in 2004, with The College Dropout. In ’06 OutKast punted with their underwhelming Idlewild project. And Kanye? He was wending his way into our hearts — until he (his out-of-control ego) began to mimic less-talented crossover stars MC Hammer and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Where Kanye’s hubris once thrilled us (“George Bush doesn’t like black people”), it’s begun to kill us (viz. various award-show temper tantrums). History predicts it’s downhill from here. If you don’t believe me, note that sales of Combs’ new disc, Press Play, stalled at less than a half-million.
Apple’s iPhone It certainly looks like something out of The Jetsons, but then again, so did the Ford Pinto in ’71. Yes, I believe Apple will bring smart phones to the common man. Yes, the thing is prettier than a Bond girl driving a Jaguar. And yes, I want one. But I can practically guarantee the first generation of these suckers will be as glitch-prone and customer-unfriendly as the Motorola Razr — at twice the price! Status-conscious yindie pricks should go ahead and buy one; the rest of us might wait a few years until Steve Jobs and co. work out the kinks.
Hip-Hop in Crisis, Pt. 2: The CEO and the Seer Even if you don’t buy my theory on Kanye, there’s no denying hip-hop’s canonical acts are showing their age. Take recent albums by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Nasir Jones, a.k.a. Nas. Each emerged during what (in retrospect) appear to be hip-hop’s golden years. Today, the pair are over their youthful bluster. (A series of battle tracks once made them sworn enemies, but they buried the hatchet in late 2005, when Jay-Z signed Nas to Def Jam.) Both released new albums at the end of ’06, and each one shows obvious signs of worry and weakness.
Jay-Z — a performer who seemed unassailable in the comfy confines of retirement — watched sales of his much anticipated comeback album, Kingdom Come, drop 81 percent between its first and second week of release. That’s bad news for the assumed king of hip-hop, riding a ubiquitous marketing campaign (seen those HP commercials?) and debuting his album during the height of the holiday shopping season.
Nas’ album is another matter. Released days before Christmas, it sold 350,000+ copies in its first week. That’s half what Kingdom Come did, but more than enough to give Nas his first No. 1 Billboard debut since 1999. So saleswise the album is promising. Artistically? Even more so. Titled Hip-Hop Is Dead, it’s a stunningly cohesive effort, despite its all-star grab-bag of producers. Scott Storch, Kanye, Dr. Dre — even Black-Eyed Pea will.i.am contributes the cheesy, guitar-drenched title track, and “Can’t Forget About You,” with a sample of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
Hip-Hop Is Dead is unusually downcast for an artistic triumph. A classic James Brown sample sounds suddenly funereal; the record’s lyrics cite enough African-American icons to fill several halls of fame. (“Blunt Ashes” alone name-checks Alex Haley, Hattie McDaniel, Langston Hughes and Roger Troutman.) Nas’ lyrics are as no-nonsense as the album’s beats: “Hip-Hop been dead, we the reason it died/Wasn’t Sylvia’s fault or because MC’s skills are lost/It’s because we can’t see ourselves as the boss/Deep-rooted through slavery, self-hatred.” Nas’ feelings grow more complicated — the album ends with a song called “Hope” — and it’s enough to earn it a place as one of ’06’s albums of the year.
The Call of the Arcade Fire (Merge) Depending on how much of an obsessive Inter-nerd you are, you already know the Zeitgeist-invoking title of the band’s new album, Neon Bible (think: evangelical America meets the glow of go-go capitalism). You may have heard upward of four leaked tracks. And you may have called the hot line they set up — 1-800-NEON-BIBLE — only to reach band member Win Butler on the telephone. (Word has it he’s even returning some calls.) For once, though, I’ll withhold judgment until the album drops.
Hip-Hop in Crisis, Pt. 3: Southern Addictions Hip-Hop Is Dead was targeted directly at the Southern hip-hop community that continues to hit new heights in popularity, and new lows in quality. Some people, myself included, don’t like Southern hip-hop very much, and, yeah, it’s a matter of prudishness. It started for me in 2005, the year Houston’s slowed-down, syrup-dipped hip-hop had its moment in the sun: Mike Jones’ and Bun B’s slurry vocals sounded like the result of siz-zipping; both Paul Wall and Chamillionaire had minor hits in which they bragged about “ridin’ dirty” (drunk). Robitussin DM and codeine syrup aren’t my idea of sex, drugs and rock & roll, but at least the music wasn’t off-the-charts amoral.
Then came 2006 and the dominance of coke rap, the Southern subgenre also known as trap music, as in “it’s a trap from which you’ll never escape.” On the plus side, the trend brought us compelling records by Atlanta’s T.I. and Young Jeezy (a.k.a. the Snowman); the artier, critically acclaimed duo the Clipse; and Miami’s Rick Ross, whose party-down celebrations of cocaine culture are as detailed as they are bold. (His name? Borrowed from an infamous trafficker. His album title? Port of Miami. His songs? Subtle stuff like “Blow,” “Push It” and “Hustlin’,” wherein he helpfully notes: “See most of my friends still deal cocaine.” Never would have figured that one out!) Even New Yorker and former Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah dropped two albums obsessing on the topic —“More Fish” and “Fishscale,” slang for high grade ’caine. His desire to enter the fray is yet another sign of the movement’s widening gyre.
Sure, pop music has always been the place for reprobates to posture and thrive. Thing is, until now rappers have posited a life of crime as a beginning stage, a way to fund early recording sessions. Eventually, they would trade eightball bags for Louis Vuitton suitcases. Yeah, society needs an outlet for its worst/most hedonistic tendencies. It’s why white people love Van Halen, jam bands, Fleetwood Mac, nu-metal and Jimmy Buffett. What’s gross about this new rap movement is the conflation of crime and business — as if that’s the foundation our nation is built upon in our era of George Bush and corporate misgovernance. And if you doubt that connection, I need only point you to the name of the company Young Jeezy ran before he became a star: Corporate Thugz Entertainment. Yikes!