Rap music, specifically its lyrics, have been given numerous labels, but not necessarily the positive labels bestowed upon other forms of creative expression. No matter the divisiveness or repulsion, other forms and disciplines are usually accepted whole. Here, we explore some of the reasoning behind the subtle, and overt, rejections of rap lyrics as true art form.
“You are all...”
We are all here. Reading, trolling, complaining, praising, and generally over and under reacting to the apparently endless stream of consciousness that has enveloped rap music. We have long entered the invisible whirlwind of the growing existential crisis called hip-hop fandom, from the “hip-hop head” that knows where every sample in every track ever came from, to the casual fan. There is also something specific to rap music, the fan born into a particular casual system, not knowing (nor usually attempting) to know anything else besides for hip-hop. Rap just is, in and of itself. This fan is the most dangerous, as this person is the true believer.
“We don't even come to see our own, man. Listen, Freddy, listen...if we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death.”
Are we listening? Sure we are, now more than ever. We see ‘our own’ in contexts we can afford, or rather what we would like to pay, and not a penny more. Sometimes it can be one dollar for a track, or ten dollars a month for a subscription. There are times we do make it out to Best Buy, and hope for the best with our $9.99. However, compared to a recent past, the value/cost proposition for rap music has gone down to the price of mostly free. Can you hear that near-constant whoosh sound of a new mixtape being uploaded and downloaded?
There is a partially factual perception that the urban population does not purchase rap music. The obvious and full reality is that no one is buying music, of any genre, like they used to. This has been especially true of all traditional urban music, and specifically rap. Does the message of inner city youth matter less?
The preceding video is to a film made by Lars von Trier, a Danish director known for crossing most lines, especially with recent experimentation in sadism and borderline misogyny. But his work, and the output of many other film directors and artists in other disciplines, is called art. There are projects, from the minds of seemingly broken, sadistic people, that are given a pass. It is largely taken as art, at face value.
The significant question is the intrinsic value of the rap music versus other genres, and on its whole. The argument against rap’s value rests in its mouthpiece: the lyrics. Bitches, drugs, money, and the trap. "That’s all they talk about." This is obviously untrue, however, this is the bulk of the criticism by people outside of hip-hop culture, and some within it, that true believer. These rappers speak an aspirational reality they can visualize. There are substantial truths that come forward, that underline the hopes and dreams of people surviving the inner city. This not only includes the material, but also the self-analysis and ridding of suffering from the life that came before.
If there is tangible value in truth, why does it matter what’s being rapped about? You can paint, act, and sculpt materials with unadulterated candor and profanity. The aformentioned pass is centered around intention, what the artist is trying to bring across. Rap lyrics do not get this subjective pass. Does the truth of the intention behind the lyrics matter anymore?
“You've been out there. You on the bandstand. You look out there. What do you see? You see Japanese, you see...you see West Germans. You see 'Slobovic', you know, anything, except our people man.”
Who is “our people”? That depends on the artist. If you are Young or Li’l Anything, you have an idea who they are, especially if you live in disenfranchised, underserved, and run down parts of large metropolises, i.e. the birthing areas for hip-hop culture.
Jay Z’s people are not only those people, but also others, including the people with a penchant for showing up at private viewings of high-end art. These are over half of the people at the “Picasso Baby” art exhibit-slash-video set. Those particular people are likely not even fans of Jay Z’s music, but of Jay Z: the icon, tastemaker, and successful businessperson. Jay Z presents an ultimate platform for those listeners to co-opt the shiny parts of hip-hop culture for themselves, and vice versa.
That is not to say he's out front offering himself, putting on a shine as a hipster Uncle Tom. He is, in fact, the opposite. If the people on the supposed higher-end actually listened to the lyrics on Magna Carta, Holy Grail, and understood his purposeful imagery, they would understand he’s fully pro-hip hop, which is to say pro-disenfranchised. Are the functions, the messages of rap music, following the form? Which should come first, and why does this need to be asked?
“It makes no sense, it incenses me that our own people don't realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music.”
The supposed lower class sees Carter as someone from within, moving out outward. He is the gold standard, and a deserter. How does this happen to a self-made man, of the highest order? Do these perceptions come from his status as a newcomer amongst true wealth builders, or his creative output, which wholly supports the non-millionaire fan?
That's all bullshit. Everything, everything you just said is bullshit
You're complaining about-
I'm talking about the audience-
Is it the lyrics or production? Is it the turn-up factor? This depends solely on the listener. Perhaps, we have not consistently maintained proper custody of our message. Lack of acceptance is at the core of this custody case. More so than any other genre, there has always has been an inner battle on what rap music should be, instead of what it could be. This has created a slow, silent implosion, happening concurrently with hip-hop’s bomb-like mushrooming. Old heads say young heads are failing the culture. Young heads say old heads are, well, old. This spills into the listeners’ viewpoints in what real rap music is, which the delineation always centered around lyrics. Is one rapper's message more important than another's viewpoint? Is the actual viewpoint something to be validated? It wouldn't seem to be more than a barber shop issue, but it is much more. But, maybe it isn’t about the internal battle. Frankly, rap music, in most contexts, is mode of expression primarily built for the young, right?
“The people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come. Simple as that.”
Point taken. In a recent interview, mainly in reference to New York rappers, French Montana stated that there was a correlation between lyrical substance and financial return. Contemporary Danny Brown responded, basically saying that Montana's message was negative and regressive, and that rap artists should aim for greatness. However, greatness comes in many shades, and the lyrical rappers themselves are often caught in compromising situations, often punished for "dumbing it down" in the quest for mass appeal. The obvious questions, for this circular argument, are normally about how a rapper can leverage his technical skill into Montana-level paydays, and if it ultimately matters. It's a tricky set of scales.
Part of the issue with rap is its constant state of flux, preventing steady levels of balance. On one hand, this can be seen as favorable, as it is a dynamic form of creativity. The other hand suggests that the flux can be altered in unfavorable ways, by entities that seek only to profit from it. This is not just the record company and media programmer determining what spins, as a significant number of rappers, themselves, use rap strictly as a trap escape, and nothing more. Rap is being singed from the inside and outside, by something analogous to microwaves. Given the coming and going of acts, this makes some sense. Fortunately, this flux came equipped with a considerable resiliency.
“Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art.”
Is the message art? Does it depend on who’s wielding the paintbrush, or microphone? Does it matter if the topic is the trap spot, strip club precipitation, or uplifting the poor? There is some uncertainty, because everything else has been fair game. Everything around hip-hop music is actively showcased as art. Only recently, with the Wu-Tang Clan (and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) offering a single pressing for sale, has the message been presented as a standalone piece of art. Instruments, including a MPC used by J Dilla, will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum. The 20th anniversary of the Nas’ Illmatic has received much deserved acclaim and appreciation, to the point of near canonization of the Queensbridge MC.
There was speculation and criticism following Kendrick Lamar’s loss to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in the Best Rap Album category. The attention was on the denial of Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, as if it were just a snub of another album, in some random year. There was no serious uproar. Happens all the time. It can be easily argued that the Grammys are a pony show with an overriding agenda, and not a focus on creative achievement. Nevertheless, there is more to it than 'the Grammys always get it wrong.' Lamar’s loss was particularly troubling, for reasons left largely unsaid, reasons only partially due to race.
The Heist, a definitively pop-rap album, is decent work by most accounts. However, in a vacuum, every person with good taste in rap music (and perhaps music in general) would easily choose Lamar’s album. Even further, Lamar’s album is arguably one of the best albums in the history of rap music, on its way to be a veritable classic. Presenting The Heist as the best rap album suggests Macklemore’s message was somehow superior, to be remembered 20 years from now. It will likely be forgotten in less than five, and may not have even been his best work.
The denial of good kid, m.A.A.d city is the rejection of worthiness of a specific culture’s message, amongst the decision-making core of the music elite. It is the complete dismissal of merit of the base intelligence and creativity of the genre. Giving The Heist this particular award is akin to presenting any Michael Bay film with an award, in a category in which a Martin Scorsese project was also nominated.
Kanye West has seemingly realized nearly all of his other, overarching creative (and biological) desires, first on back of his recording output, then his image. He has reached the top tier of rap, and arguably all of music. Yet, certain doors remain closed to him. Some would say that he is an incorrigible asshole, or The Man refuses to have an outspoken black man making creative decisions that determine taste below surface level. The other, unspoken argument could be that his primary talents have no value within the institutions he clamors to be a part of, forever knocking from a distance. His keys will not open the doors he wishes to enter.
What Kanye, and his true believers, fail to understand is that his wealth of talents are made of something from the outside, and were never supposed to be truly mainstream. This is the reason Kendrick lost: his album represented the very best of hip-hop, an inherently outcast institution that unifies cultural outsiders. The core message of hip-hop music and its culture is primarily about survival from the outside, creating originals from scraps of our collective past, in spite of everything, against all odds.
Art is determined by who makes it, not by tastemakers or unseen controllers. No part of hip-hop culture needs integration or validation, especially from entities rejecting it on the surface or covertly. The lyrics, hip-hop's air horn, should not be muted, especially by its fan. Fans have to decide intrinsic value, and maintain this value, in every context. If hip-hop fans fail to validate the multitude of voices, others will completely dismiss what's being said, the intent behind it, and finally, its foundations. At this point, others would be able to determine its direction.
"The game's fucked up
Nigga's beats is bangin', nigga your hooks did it
Your lyrics didn't, your gangsta look did it
So I would write it if y'all could get it
Bein intricate'll get you wood, critic
On the internet, they like you should spit it
I'm like you should buy it, nigga that's good business"