Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip-Hop May Fade, But It'll Never Die by Ben Wener
So I'm at the denim-and-diamonds gala opening of the new Samueli Theater tucked amid the Segerstrom sprawl last week – not exactly Hip-Hop Central, you realize – and Sheryl Crow's perched on a stool about to strum and sing "The First Cut Is the Deepest" when the most telling thing happens.
Sheryl starts telling this story about growing up in the '70s and listening to radio in the golden age of eclectic AM – that's how she learned the Cat Stevens tune, via Rod Stewart. And somehow, don't ask me how, she shifts from exalting the glory of classic rock to this quip: "You know, this rap thing – it's just a phase."
She wasn't being serious. Anyone could tell from her ironic tone of voice.
At least I thought anyone could tell. But as a few people chuckled at the intentional ridiculousness of her remark, the guy behind me let out a heavy sigh, leaned toward his wife/date/mistress/secretary/whatever and said:
"Yeah. It really is."
'Cause, you know, he knows. You could tell just looking at that straight-up gangsta p-i-m-p, in his off-the-rack blazer, crisp Oxford shirt and absurdly overpriced designer jeans. He's got the inside dope. He knows hip-hop is on the outs.
Fo' shizzle. Dawg.
It was in that split second that I suddenly regretted every negative rap review I'd ever written.
Not that they weren't justified, mind you. I'm picky, I'll say that – but my selectiveness comes from years of hearing the same unimaginative album again and again, only with a new face and different guest rhymers. And as with recycled rock, there are only so many guilty pleasures to be found.
I continue to gravitate toward the innovative, the daring, the experimenters, whether they land squarely in the mainstream (Kanye, Common recently, OutKast until recently, Nas when he's on, and have you heard Lupe Fiasco?) or nearer the fringe (Mos Def, the Roots, I'll get to Rhymefest in a sec, and I still haven't heard enough of Murs and 9th Wonder).
But that one ignorant comment from Mr. Out-of-Touch Suburbanite had me wishing more mindless, misogynistic, ultraviolent, homophobic, race-baiting records were about to storm the charts and set stupefying records. Just to prove a point, y'know? Just to remind this so-and-so that, even at its most repugnant, a quarter-century of an art form makes it a bit more than a phase.
Trouble is, the longstanding wishes of guys like him have come to pass. Though such people continue to decry the perceived dominance of hip-hop throughout pop culture, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. Hip-hop is undeniably ingrained now, as much a part of fashion and film and advertising and youth rebellion as rock 'n' roll ever was.
But is it selling? Not if you believe Billboard.
At press time there were exactly two rap albums in the Top 10 – the abysmal G-Unit drone of Lloyd Banks' "Rotten Apple," surely moving units because of 50 Cent's involvement, and Ludacris' meager "Release Therapy." Only four more rank in the Top 50. And if you count hip-hop-influenced albums from Justin Timberlake and Fergie and Christina Aguilera and the like, the number only rises to about a dozen. That's paltry compared with how resolutely rap ruled even five years ago.
Even on the Hot 100 singles chart, where hip-hop and its corollaries fare better, there's been a drop-off. Now that downloads are being considered, the Top 10 is more a mix of whatever's blowing up on Power 106 plus Middle America's favorite hits, which this year have spanned from Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" to the latest Weird Al parody.
Yet rap-is-crap naysayers persist, their cumulative condescension often louder than jet engines. You'd think someone would have told them their battle has mostly been won.
Already there's been a stemming of the tide of boring, by-the-numbers discs – though there is a new Chingy record. I doubt that lousy listen, with its repetitive, hook-free stream of come-ons, empty boasts and five-minutes-ago slurred speech, would even get bodies moving in a club, its clear target.
Meanwhile, there's a new smorgasbord from Diddy – formerly P. Diddy, formerly Puff Daddy, Sean John, sir if you're on his payroll. "Press Play" may be his first official offering in five years – and, surprise, it's marginally better than everything else he's issued under his name – but it's also exactly the sort of bloated beast that's never gonna go away.
At 80 minutes, it's at least 30 too long; for starters he could have dumped the survivor brags that sound ludicrous coming from a multimillionaire who has supped with Regis Philbin.
What's good about it is its final two-thirds, from Xtina's spotlight on "Tell Me" (in which Diddy imagines what it'd be like to be unknown) through to Mary J. Blige's wail on "Making It Hard." In between, the parade never lets up: Here comes Big Boi; now Timbaland; look, there's Nas and Cee-Lo and Keyshia Cole and Brandy! As usual, there are plenty of memorable singles, but Diddy the pseudo-rapper himself often gets lost in the mix.
Also not apt to die: West Coast thug jams, whether from Ice Cube or Kurupt or Daz or Snoop or Xzibit or all of them at once. Daz's "So So Gangsta," abetted by Jermaine Dupri, is softer than usual, but Xzibit's "Full Circle" is one of his strongest efforts, a tough yet rollicking work that veers from the gritty street-life portraits ("Ram Part Division") to a series of unusually insightful pieces, from the mantra chants of "Concentrate" to the lift-yourself-up promise of "Family Values."
Like Cube, though arguably more appealing, Xzibit has matured, his work more thoughtful, less impulsive. But his lapses into old ways can be just as off-putting as something from the other end of the spectrum – say, "As If We Existed," from a group called Sol.illaquists of Sound. The feel is all right, pitched somewhere between Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest. But check the would-be inspirational lyrics – for veganism, against cigarettes and alcohol – and you might begin to feel like you're attending a heavy-handed lecture from self-righteous politicos.
The sole benefit of the muting of hip-hop, then, is that the best stuff becomes easier to spot. Apart from the Roots' "Game Theory," I've heard exactly two great ones lately, and they both come from Chicago newcomers: "Blue Collar," from Rhymefest, and "Food & Liquor," from Lupe Fiasco.
Both are consistently varied, no two tracks sounding quite the same. Both draw from a deep well of '70s soul and old-school hip-hop, much as Kanye does – which makes sense in Rhymefest's case, given that before his own record was out he had already nabbed a Grammy for co-writing "Jesus Walks."
And – most importantly – both unveil rappers with thoroughly fresh approaches to the genre, armed with unique voices, off-kilter grooves, expectedly twisty but unexpectedly potent lyrics and plenty of depth among the more superficial bits (like Lupe's irresistible skateboarder anthem "Kick, Push").
That, plus Jay-Z's hardly surprising return from retirement (he will own Christmas), is enough to give a skeptic like me hope that the only rap on its way out is the stupidest kind. But whether a spike in intelligence will finally silence know-nothing armchair critics, well, don't count on it.
Ben Wener can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appears in the Orange County Register.
Friday, October 27, 2006