Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ancient Jigga

Before cristal, Atlantic Yards and Beyonce, there was Jay-Z speed rapping about Nubians in a high top fade:

Via Te-Nehisi Coates.


Anyway, had an interesting discussion with KG on gchat yesterday about Jay-Z's complex endorsement of revolutionary figures. Most notably, I was raving after finally having gotten around to listening to Mike Love's Nigerian Gangster. KG pointed out that that it was ironic that Jay-Z, the unrelenting capitalist, was paired up with Fela Kuti, one of the 20th century's most vehement anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist public figures. It's definitely complex, as is everything in our political and artistic landscape, but ultimately it comes down to the one thing that transcends political allegiances: good music.

Jay-Z is easily one of my favorite rappers of all time, and it has nothing to do with his politics, and everything to do with his honesty. And word play. I don't think that any artist should be burdened with touting the views of anyone but themselves.

And, quite frankly, a lot of underground, so-called "conscious" rap bores me to death. Not only is it preachy and, at times, cheesy as hell, but it's also lyrically stagnant. In his brilliant new book Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop*, CMC English Professor Adam Bradley argues that this point:

"Some rap critics, and a fair number of rap fans, have bemoaned the limited thematic range in mainstream rap in recent years. The culprit they most commonly blame is big business -- the record labels, radio comglomerates, and other commercial forces that treat rap as product rather than poetry. Undoudbtedly, rap's growing commodification plays a significant role in limiting the variety of raps we hear, and yet another answer lies in rap's rhymes themselves. When MC's settle into familiar pairs of rhyme words, they also tend to settle into familiar themes and attitudes. Someone who set out to sound like 50 cent will likely use many of the same rhyme words that 50 cent employs and, as a consequence, end of rapping about the same topics."

I would also extend this analysis to underground hip-hop. There's only so much you can do with the word "revolution" in 16 bars. Stylistically, I think it pays to pay homage not to any one person or experience, but to how complex reality can be, and how no opinion ever stays the same. Not only do you have more to say, but you have more ways to say it. Cee-Lo, Outkast, Weezy, hell, even Eminem, are good examples.

*Nerd Alert: Book of Rhymes is a must-read for any hip-hop head and/or literary dweeb.

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