Rap’s new generation

When I posted my article on the so-called “Blog Rap’s Second Wave” yesterday, I realized I haven’t posted other entries from my Rap Is Not Pop column for Rhapsody.

Actually, I didn’t re-post this one because I wasn’t happy with it. I initially planned to make a grand statement about the hyped “rap’s new generation,” but realized that concept seems a bit outdated now, even if its leading artists have only begun to release major albums instead of just mixtapes.  (I freely admit to contributing to said hype.) So I tried to reposition the essay as a commentary on where this first wave of Internet age MCs is heading since emerging in 2006-2007.

This essay was posted April 28 on Rhapsody’s Music Stuff Place blog. I wrote it for my Rap Is Not Pop column.


Rap Is Not Pop: Rap’s New Generation

We’ve waited years for the much-blogged-about new school to emerge. It appears that moment has finally arrived. The music charts are teeming with hits by Drake, from 2009’s inescapable “Best I Ever Had” to the new “Over.” Kid Cudi continues to show up in the strangest places, whether it’s on dance-club tracks with Dan Black (“Symphonies”) and Sharam from Deep Dish (“She Came Along”) or on Vitamin Water’s new “Pursuit of Happiness” ad campaign. Asher Roth is courting MTV attention with Asleep in the Bread Aisle while maneuvering between frat-rap expectations and online haterade. And B.o.B is currently sitting at the summit of the pop charts with “Nothin’ on You,” his shaggy-dog ballad with Bruno Mars of the Smeezingtons; his soon-to-be hit debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, is now landing at online and brick-and-mortar vendors.

Meanwhile, Cool Kids, Pac Div, Blu, Chiddy Bang, Jay Electronica, Theophilus London and others wait in the wings. For those of us who suffered through nearly 20 years of gangster-ism and thug-ism as all-conquering ideologies, it feels like the clouds have lifted. No one is going to start wearing black medallions and claiming “word to the Mother” again — those days are over. And urban streets remain hip-hop’s cultural nexus, now and (hopefully) forever. But more goes on there than just drug dealing, pimping hoes, random acts of violence and being confronted by law-enforcement overseers. The new generation of rap nerds hanging out, spitting rhymes, chasing girls, playing with genre and dreaming of stardom isn’t brushing over society’s ills in favor of a suburban wonderland. It’s expanding the narratives.

Much like punk rock — an amorphous sound and style that coalesced with ‘zines like Creem, Punk and Sniffin’ Glue — the new school draws from Common and Kanye West’s boho/buppie aspirations, the true-school heroics of Little Brother and Tanya Morgan, Detroit’s slum village realism, and Los Angeles’ array of beat technicians and future soul interlocutors. It merged on blogs like the New Music Cartel (2dopeboyz.com, Nahright.com), sympathetic websites (ByronCrawford.com, Okayplayer.com) and the occasional magazine (URB). (And yes, MySpace played a role, too.)

Just as punk shed styles as it evolved, like power pop and mod, the new-school sensibility grew and contracted. The so-called “hipster rappers” who ruled in 2007, including Spank Rock, Pase Rock, Amanda Blank and Kid Sister, would hardly be considered part of it now. Meanwhile, the intricate lyricism and storytelling abilities of Mickey Factz, Charles Hamilton (before he ethered his career), Wale and Kidz in the Hall have become mere rocket fuel for the requisite moon launch toward mainstream pop stardom.

One trait of hip-hop in the new millennium is that rappers no longer tell you they’re successful a la Public Enemy’s “we ride limos too” assertion on “Bring the Noise.” They demand you make them successful, beg you to make them successful, predict that you’ll make them successful. Drake’s recent singles, including “Successful,” “Forever” and “Over,” reveal an artist with conflicting emotions, feeling anxious and empowered, as he stands on the precipice of Making It Big. “It’s far from over,” he half-promises.

The same could be said for B.o.B, who sings of alienation, feeling like a “Ghost in the Machine” and decrying the limits of “Fame” on The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Still, he pursues the audience’s rapture, stocking the album with big keyboard melodies and chimerical pop stars like Hayley Williams and Rivers Cuomo. He’s not the only one pursuing the arena moment. Every rap star with an eye toward supplanting Jay-Z, or at least opening for him, uses the same slick musical packaging, whether it’s Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco or even Lil Wayne.

Some crusty old punks might blanch at comparing their beloved anti-establishment heroes with the over-marketed new school. To be sure, there’s nothing grassroots about it: most of the aforementioned names benefit from savvy, well-connected management and flashy street marketing teams straight out of Rob Walker’s Consumed. But while Talking Heads struggled through Fear of Music paranoia and The Clash dissembled en route to the proverbial brass ring of platinum sales and stadium tours, there were smaller, less burdened bands like The Feelies and Dead Kennedys who continued to push sound forward. (Bear with me, I’m generalizing here.)

Unfortunately, hip-hop’s all-or-nothing credo endures; perhaps an outgrowth of its impoverished, Horatio Alger origins, it now feels like the monkey on its back. For every Tanya Morgan that seems content with a creatively rich, commercially modest existence, there are hordes of “blog rappers” that haunt email inboxes with zShare links to MP3s, issue freestyles over the latest hot beats like Just Blaze’s “Exhibit C,” and will do anything to get noticed — and simply postpone the realization that they aren’t going to be media stars.

I would love for rap’s new generation to establish a vibrant indie network that feeds and anchors its pop exploits. But after watching the rise and fall of ’90s underground hip-hop, I’m not holding my breath. If they can continue to illustrate their interior lives, create a thematic landscape that not only includes the inner cities and cracked ghetto streets but also the suburban sprawls and sparsely populated plains, and maybe even deliver some form of gender equity, then they will have accomplished plenty. It’s a vision of hip-hop as a universal state of mind that has been lost for decades. But if youth movements are good for one thing, it’s boundless optimism.

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