“I don’t call it rap music, I call it crap music” is an age old #dadjoke, and while I’ve never actually heard a father make this pseudo-pun, it expresses a sentiment that’s shared by large swathes of the population, regardless of age. Two unrelated events have prompted me to think about this widely shared disdain in more than a passing way.
I had a conversation with a friend (whose taste in movies I hold in very high esteem, i.e. he’s not culturally moronic) and, to paraphrase, he said that he’s really, really not into hip-hop right now. Like he doesn’t know any rap songs today because he’ll just change the station if one comes on because the lyrics are so dumb. Like what do they play on Hip-Hop Nation, he doesn’t even know.
Sunday, 9 March was the 17th anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G.’s untimely demise. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Ready To Die, as well as many other classic rap albums (e.g., Illmatic, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Resurrection). So basically you just need to head to any of the canonical rap blogs to read posts on posts of tributes and “think-pieces” regarding Hip-Hop Then, and these articles inevitably make some comparison to the State of Rap Music Now.
ANYWAYS, re: hip-hop today, yes, the lyrics are often less than intellectually challenging, and sometimes they may even verge on being pretty fucking stupid. And yes, beats are very simple and minimal right now, and sometimes they may seem like a 16-year-old could make them, and sometimes it actually is a 16-year-old making them.
BUT, sometimes the magnitude and proliferation of available technologies allows more people than ever to access them, and thus more people than ever can use them to create things. Of course there’s no way WondaGurl or sadboys or any other really young hip-hop kids would’ve come into the level of prominence they now enjoy without the internet or Ableton, but that’s the state of the world today. There’s no way we would function without the internet now, so calling out rappers for getting famous “because the internet” is a moot point. And if you’re going to complain about their music being too simple or too apparently superficial, maybe consider that Mark Rothko’s colour field painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold for $87 million two years ago and that when he first showed “Campbell’s Soup Cans” many people thought Andy Warhol was a hack.
AND let’s not forget that, pretty much all the time, art is a reflection of life. As modernist (in art-speak, naïve) as it sounds, music, at least, is often a direct representation of lived experience (T-Swift, holla). So when we’re all horrified that Chief Keef and the rest of those Chicago folk are rapping about really ultra-violent shit, let’s remember that they’ve grown up in neighbourhoods where extreme violence is pretty standard, so what else do you think they’re going to rap about? It’s definitely not those kids’ fault that their families and communities are impoverished, they’re pretty much just sharing that fact. And when we’re all blasé about everyone in mainstream rap being all materialistic and money-obsessed today, let’s recognise that that’s not a new phenomenon. Like at all. Diddy and Biggie’s “It’s all about the Benjamins” came out in 1997. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ came out in 2003. Everyone who’s making hip-hop today has grown up listening to materialistic-ass rap from 10 years ago, in a materialistic-ass society where mass consumption is the system we are all part of. I would argue that the aesthetic and intellectual emptiness of a lot of hip-hop today is pretty much a direct mirror of society more broadly. Like, YAY North American corporate culture- let’s screw everyone else over so individually we can squeeze some more money out of whatever deal we’re engaged in… But let’s get angry and act surprised when the rappers rap about getting money by any means possible.
Rap music today isn’t shitty, we are all shitty, and it feels pretty bad seeing that turned around back on us.