Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hip Hop, ours.

I want to write about hip hop, and what it means  to me. I’m not ?uestlove, I’m not critiquing from within. But there’s a place, I think, for me, and for my voice.

Listen with me to Danny Brown’s  Fields. Read along with the lyrics. Hear the spaces in the chorus - “And where I lived...It was house, field field. Field, field house. Abandoned house, field field.” You’re driving with him down grey-blue streets in Detroit, each word is a lot you pass. He’s gesturing out the window. Live it with me, he asks. So if earlier on the album, he becomes his most repulsive self, a consummate misogynist, what do you do? Do you think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing: “The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel,” and feel pity for Danny? Or do you hold him to the same standard you’d want to be held to, and wish to tell him that this performance is evil? And if off-stage, he still seems like his demonic self - gosh, I don't even want to link to it; I'm so embarrassed for Danny, and A$AP to boot - what do you say then? Are we still listening? 

I think all of us - people who are into hip hop, people probably my age and probably not much older, anyone who wants their art to channel anger into skill - remember the first time we capital L Listened to a rap album. I certainly liked Black Star. I still hear the B A S S bass in Astronomy and am back to early college, when I still had hair and spent time in Katonah, when the quality of their lyrics astounded me. But no, it was on a train home to DC from Princeton in Winter 2011, sunny Northeast bleak day. Kanye’s MBDTF. Listen to the chords that open Can We Get Much Higher, the way they twist. And maybe you’ll forget everything you think you know about Kanye the human and do nothing for 80 minutes but listen to the stories that unfold over thirteen tracks. You’re not judging, and you’re not identifying, not if you’re with me. But we are listening carefully. And if you’re with me still, then we start looking backwards. The perfect synthesis between beats and story-telling on We Got it For Cheap- from crack to rap to back to selling it pure. The outlandish perfectionism of the early Wu-Tang, their knack for picking exactly the right words. The disquieting nihilism of Biggie. The power and grace of Nas at the top of his game, battle-scarred and victorious. 

There’s a place for people like you in the culture! Here’s Peter Rosenberg on the radio, Rick Rubin consulted by everyone, How about your first cousin going by Mr. Green, making beats for strivers, turning spontaneous art into polished blueprints. So you hear repulsive things by people who you think just don’t get it. Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, even people you like (Pusha), talking about women like they’re consumption goods, always speaking to a male audience. You recognize how pathetic the masculinist fantasy is that moves it, and sometimes you’re just singing along, hey, it’s got a catchy hook by Kelly Rowland! But wait, are you identifying? 

Of course. It’s your best available option, the genre that’s innovating and has something to say. What should we do about our ambivalence? The aspects of the performance that are horrifying and harmful? Nothing. I’ve already paid up, I’m going to governor’s ball to see Outkast, Run The Jewels, Earl, Tyler, maybe Childish Gambino if Dan insists. 

But first, here, have a taste. The beat is so butter. Be a discriminating audience, and consume carefully. But there’s no going back now. Hip hop, it’s ours, we’re its.

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