Last month I found myself caught up, as you do, in a lengthy Facebook discussion concerning the thinkpiece catnip that is cultural appropriation. Things soon took a detour into the general state of current hip-hop, and one of the participants went on to express astonishment at how “anyone in their right mind” could defend the music in its present form. It seemed to me I’d heard this song before. Being that I’ve been listening to rap all my adult life and am older than dirt, I’ve probably heard it more often than most, so I took this as a bit of a challenge.
In my experience this line of argument usually follows a number of familiar patterns; new rappers aren’t saying anything, they can’t really rap anyway, the beats are trash, not enough of that ol’ boom-bap, their pants are too tight (and hold up, is that dude wearing a dress..?), it all sounds the same, and so on and so on – real Grandpa Simpson stuff, in other words. Essentially, or so the argument runs, the big problem with rap music right now is that not enough of it sounds like the rap music that was being made 25 or 30 years ago. To which the obvious rejoinder is; why on Earth should it?
“The four-elements Taliban are likely to find it both infuriating and utterly perplexing”
My mind wandered back to this discussion a week or so ago while listening to SremmLife, the debut album from Rae Sremmurd, a couple of teenage Mississippi goofballs with an unpronounceable handle that inverts the name of their mentor-slash-svengali Mike Will‘s production company/record label. They’ve made an album that’s precisely the kind of thing the four-elements Taliban are likely to find both infuriating and utterly perplexing, being that it’s full of songs about getting turnt up, blowing racks on strippers, macking on girls and generally having fun. There’s the occasional change of pace via a couple of attempts to muscle in on Drake territory, but for the most part the energy level hits the red early and stays there. It’s music about having a good time all the time, and it’s purpose-built to facilitate exactly that. Yet it seems a lot of people get upset, and even angry, over the mere existence of music like this. We’ll get to that later.
What does it sound like? Well, even if you managed to miss either of its big hit singles, “No Flex Zone” and “No Type”, little about it should be unfamiliar to anyone who’s paid any serious attention to rap music over the last three or four years. If you wanted to be reductive, I suppose you could break it down like this; take a few superficial elements of Young Thug’s style with the more demented aspects filtered out and replaced by a touch of Lil B’s based philosophy, then drop it onto Soulja Boy’s swag blueprint accompanied by a sound that’s travelled from mixtapes to worldwide pop radio in a few short years. Finally, front the whole thing with a couple of exuberant teen tyros who put you in mind of a 2015 Kriss Kross, only with weed, ecstasy and Henny replacing the backward clothing. Or perhaps the new Kid-N-Play with mini-dreads instead of hi-top fades. In fact, here’s an idea – Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy starring in a remake of House Party. You can have that one for nothing.
“There’s a rose-tinted perspective that overlooks the origins of the “message rap” sub-genre”
Because it appears to have been designed with the specific objective of crossing over on as grand a scale as possible, it’s perhaps inevitable that the success of SremmLife will be held up by a few ascetic purists as further evidence of hip-hop’s slow, inexorable drift away from its roots. But where exactly do those roots lie anyway? If you’re one of those people for whom rap existed as little more than a novelty before Public Enemy emerged to dramatically expand its range of possibilities, or who still adheres to Chuck D’s definition of rap as “the black CNN” (in the age of Don Lemon?), then the likelihood is you imagine it to have always been driven by some sort of revolutionary imperative. But that view largely hinges on a revisionist, rose-tinted perspective that overlooks the origins of the “message rap” sub-genre not as something that rose organically from urban discontent, but in opportunistic attempts by local preachers or aldermen to cash in on the rap “craze” and snag the attention of disaffected youth in the process, or in just plain, old-fashioned marketing tactics.
While music critics of a certain vintage will invariably declare The Message to be the point when rap began to say Something Meaningful and Profound About the World instead of just “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn”, they’ll probably draw a veil over Sugarhill capo Sylvia Robinson’s unsuccessful effort at strong-arming Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five into recording it (Melle Mel’s the only member to feature on the record). Robinson had observed the punk/New Wave audience beginning to gingerly approach rap via the patronage of acts like the Clash and Blondie, and surmised – correctly, as it turned out – that the music might benefit from the kind of harder lyrical edge that would draw that audience close enough for its lucrative commercial potential to be unlocked.The thing is, the acts that eventually grabbed this particular ball and ran with it – PE, Brand Nubian, X-Clan and so on – were outliers. They remained anomalous despite their success, but in an age where the market for rap was much smaller, their significance became amplified with the aid of a critical community who’d become fixated upon a notion of hip-hop as the authentic voice of inner-city struggle at the expense of everything else the music had to offer. Now that the popularity of rap has reached a level where it’s not pop, yet somehow it is not not pop, a section of that community reaches for the corporate card to prop up their argument, routinely making the kind of logical leaps which declare performers like Rae Sremmurd or Lil B or Soulja Boy or anyone else trading in the persona-based aesthetic known as ‘swag’ to be dependent for their success upon an undiscerning, spoon-fed audience that doesn’t know what’s good for them.
“Political” can mean talking about where you’re from or how you survive”
People who place greater value upon nostalgic style studies than actual progression will insist that this is music so lacking in merit that it couldn’t be enjoyed by “anyone in their right mind”, except perhaps ironically. Never mind how gloriously weird and off-centre and almost avant-garde a great deal of it often is (nor that the kick drum sound from “Crank Dat” (Soulja Boy) could have been straight jacked from “Rip The Cut” by the Skinny Boys). Forget the possibility that there might, in and of itself, be something of real value in young black kids making the music they want to hear and go crazy to, simply because nobody else is bothering to make it. Ignore the fact that rap began as party music, a function it never lost sight of, even during a time when hardcore black nationalist rhetoric and “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” could comfortably co-exist and be enjoyed by the same crowd without anybody feeling the need to pick a side based on what they believed their choice said about them as individuals.
If it bothers you that a rapper like Immortal Technique continues to languish out at the margins, perhaps it’s time to accept that it’s less to do with corporate brainwashing and more to do with rap’s core audience never having had any serious time for the musical equivalent of a dry-as-dust Cultural Studies lecture. As the YouTube clips of Ferguson protesters chanting Lil Boosie lyrics at the cops illustrate, “political” can mean talking about where you’re from or how you survive as much as agitating for a cause, or even, in the case of Rae Sremmurd, celebrating the pure joy of being alive at a time when young black men are having their lives snatched from them on a daily basis. In any event, rap music is youth music, and it always has been – pretty much every significant performer it’s ever produced did their finest work as a youth, after all. And if those performers seemed like something else back then, perhaps it’s because you were more like them back then. Rap is under no obligation to reflect the concerns or values or tastes of old people. Either accept it on its own terms or move on. As a wise man recently said, everything ain’t for everybody.