“James, I didn’t know you listened to hip hop!”
With these words, my friend sparked the fire inside me to talk about my newfound love for hip hop. Let me say that I was a card carrying music snob/critic/elitist, but those days are long over. These days I try obscenely hard not to push my musical taste on others. I listen to what I like and I respect the fact that you listen to what you like. Since we only have a short time on this fine earth anyway, it’s really important to make the most of it. This means maximizing the good, minimizing the shitty, and listening to some fine ass music.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t exactly fit the profile of the hip hop or rap music aficionado. I’m a Chinese-Canadian guy from the ‘burbs. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon (maybe a knock-off one?), and I had a relatively well-adjusted West Coast upbringing. I possess no strange facial tics or compulsive behavior, save for an unhealthy, unrequited love for a certain girl back in Grade 12. I thought “One Headlight” and “Smooth” were the best songs circa-1998. I am now gainfully employed by a huge multinational corporation as a white collar worker. Therefore, I haven’t had to worry about living on the streets or how many bottles of Cristal to rock at the club. Hell, I can’t even drink more than one Heineken without going red in the face. I’ve experienced essentially none of the things chronicled by the members of the Wu-Tang Clan or by Kendrick Lamar.
As for you–well, I’m sure that you don’t need to be convinced that [insert your favorite musical genre] is the Greatest Genre Ever. But I’m going to share with you why I listen to hip hop, and why it might be (gasp!) under appreciated. Once in a blue moon, we have to put our Annie and Arcade Fire albums aside, yo.
Emotion, storytelling and experience are fundamental to hip hop. I “use” music in different ways, whether it’s for driving, working out or intellectual pursuits. For me, hip hop is a direct intravenous line into situations, environments and emotions. Hip hop artists bring their backgrounds into the picture to tell stories. I never really knew this before when (1) it was all about the radio singles and (2) I never paid attention to the lyrics. Now, when I put my headphones on, I know I’m being transported into a world that’s gritty and raw.
And these situations…man, they are crazy. In the case of a concept album like The Roots’ Undun, it’s the chronicle of a protagonist who goes through several stages of life, including drugs, incarceration and a tragic downfall. In other cases, like Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, it’s street fable about the drug game. Good albums serve as somber reminders that we are often born into situations larger than us.
Sure enough, “party tracks”–cars, booze, ladies–get a lot of attention. Having a good time and smoking a blunt is good for airplay. Listen carefully, though, and you may find some underhanded irony. Take Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”–it sounds like a party anthem, and has been appropriated as one, but Kendrick talks about the dark cesspool of addiction and inheriting the sins of the father. At some point, when shit get cray and the pool is filled with booze, or chainsaws start to fly, we have the chance to peel back the layers of social commentary to think about what’s really goin’ on.
Words have power, and hip hop artists harness them for maximum impact. As a result, I listen to what they have to say in the same awestruck way I’m enthralled by a well-made film or work of art.
It’s about the struggle. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can be white or black or yellow or brown or purple. You can be sweeping floors or working overtime on that Ph.D. No matter who you are, struggle is a part of ALL human existence. We all struggle and we all hustle. In a me-first world, it’s incredibly easy to over-magnify our own personal challenges–that’s why there’s something conducive, even redemptive, to experiencing other people’s problems.
Sometimes the problem is comical–“I’m so famous and I have to deal with all these millions of dollars”–and sometimes the problem is disconnected from our personal lives–“I’m locked up in jail and my kids can’t see me because I done fucked up.” But I’m of the opinion that absorbing hip hop, consciously or sub-consciously, gives us a sense of empathy for other human beings. The emotion of struggle can be applied to all of us and that’s why it’s so powerful.
Look, I’m 31 years old. I’ve trivialized some problems and completely bypassed others. I’m a pretty cynical, self-centered dude. But my quest now is to understand the world at large without falling into some silly caricature. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, but I’m trying.
Bravado. Bravado is magnetic and it shouldn’t be shunned. Hip hop artists display this in spades and when I listen to them I am looking for incendiary attitudes and proclamations of greatness. I’m not looking for someone to shoe gaze and make allusions so that I can go home to think about some deep meaning that might not be there. I want a dose of attitude, dammit. All my life, I’ve been critical of hip hop artists for their misogyny or negative lyrics, and now I want to flip it around. I want these guys to speak their mind, and in return I’ll judge them on both the good AND the bad. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
You know what? Bravado is awesome. There is something incredibly raw and honest about artists putting themselves on the line and telling their story with relish and confidence. They’re putting themselves out there for the world to judge. They think they are the greatest fucking thing alive, and God’s gift to music. They possess a magical, contagious confidence that I’m attracted to.
As a human being, I don’t want to celebrate individualism in our culture, and then turn it around to deride public figures (who aren’t role models, by the way) for being overly brash. There’s the Kim Kardashian “I made a sex tape” attention-grabbing camp, and then there’s Drake’s proclamation that he “killed everybody in the game last year.” I think Drake’s earned that right. I mean damn son, did you see his SNL skits?
Sometimes though, we create monsters. Kanye West’s head is so big and inflated that I think it may explode at any time. But that’s fine with me because it creates conversation. I have friendly debates about the goodness of Yeezus all the time. Kanye’s a divisive figure and that’s alright with me.
The wordplay. Oh, the wordplay! If you think that hip hop or rap music isn’t real music, this will be hard to swallow: there is no handbook that says verse-chorus-verse, loud-quiet-loud, or playing in a band with instruments is a prerequisite for making music. In fact, the voice is the ultimate instrument. I’ve come to appreciate the gift of gab that rappers possess.
Have you ever stopped whatever it is that you’re doing in order to witness the setting sun, an amazing act of nature or work of art? That’s what it feels like to me when I hear spit-fire delivery of incredible rhymes or Eminem’s sped-up rapping on “Rap God.” It’s incredible to see Childish Gambino talk-rap over a beat in the studio and have it sound smooth as silk. These hard-working individuals dedicate themselves to their craft so that they can bring us their most clever, straight-from-the-heart verses. It’s compelling stuff. It’s why I’ve wasted over a hundred hours of my life watching YouTube freestyle sessions and I totally need to get a life.
What it really comes down to is that I’m at the stage in my life where I will admire anything that takes blood, sweat and tears to produce. Tell me this is easy when Jay Z locks himself in a room for days to get the verses just right. I’m a fan.
The need to understand. Here’s the thing about the re-appropriation of “urban” culture: it only goes halfway. Most of the time, we want things to be neat and tidy and avoid the grey areas. Let me give you an example. When we watch Miley Cyrus twerk or re-enact our versions of the Harlem Shake, do we know anything about the roots of such behaviors and customs? Do we assess the intent of the performance and see beyond the initial titillation? Don’t get me wrong, music is about taking the good and re-using it–without inspiration and copying, there’s no progress. There is plenty of genre cross-pollination. But over the years, as hip hop culture has gotten more “mainstream,” I’m challenging myself to understand where things truly come from.
As a student of culture, I want to be mindful of history and tradition. These days, I’m making full use of Rap Genius and Wikipedia to understand what went on in rap’s last twenty years. I never, ever want to be doing the hip hop equivalent of hearing the Clash and saying to myself, “hey, this sounds like Green Day!” That’s just a recipe for disaster.
More than anything, I’m naturally curious, sometimes to the point of being annoying. But when I think about the alternative–which is ignorance–I’m much happier probing into new frontiers and asking questions. Now if only they’ll start rapping about the Qing Dynasty, maybe I’ll get off my ass and learn a little bit about my own heritage.
Authenticity is overrated. Wait…what? Let me give you a few examples of authenticity: Rick Ross wasn’t a drug dealer, he was a corrections officer. 2 Chainz had a great college education. Drake never “started from the bottom,” unless growing up in the suburbs of Ontario, Canada is comparable to rock bottom. The great crossover kid, Justin Timberlake, well…we all know his humble beginnings on a little ol’ show called The Mickey Mouse Club. I can go on, but then I’d bore you, and that wouldn’t be good.
I’m certainly not pointing out the backgrounds of these guys to denigrate their achievements. In fact, I’m saying that you can tell excellent stories in hip hop without having to prove how “real” you are every five seconds. Performance means putting on a persona or alter ego of a slightly elevated stature. Being “100% authentic” is complete bullshit. Have you ever had a friend who could tell awesome stories? He embellished key bits but everyone went along with the conceit because it was entertaining? That’s what good hip hop is like. It’s performance art that requires a certain suspension of belief and puffing of one’s chest. Besides, strong vernacular skills ARE authentic. Last I heard, there was no Milli Vanilli in hip hop.
I’m going to go one step further to say that I initially rejected hip hop because I didn’t fit the profile. “Well, he’s talking about an experience that I’ve never had, and I’m not black, so I’m going to go listen to Radiohead instead.” That’s not the point! If your friend told you about an experience that you’ve never had, would you walk away just because you’ve not experienced it? Of course not! It’s NOT always about us. More importantly, there can be no market for music without a sufficiently large audience to consume said music. They want you to listen because they need you to listen.
I have a man-crush on Drake. This is a key factor for me. I truly believe that the man known as Aubrey Graham is the renaissance man of hip hop. He can sing, rap and act – the proverbial total package. He’s Leonardo Da Vinci on steroids. I, like many others, fell into the trap of believing that he was an emo douche at the beginning. Something, however, clicked into place with repeated listens of Nothing Was The Same. I now find myself in magical Drake-land, where terrible live singing performances can be forgiven and confessionals are duly welcome. If you’re not on the Drake bandwagon, you’re missing out on something great. I have to mention this last because I sound like a Drake groupie right now and I am concerned that you’d kill me if you read it first. And no, I’m not trolling. And yes, YOLO baby, YOLO.
So to all my music-loving friends: hip hop in 2014 does not start and stop with Macklemore’s The Heist! There’s some crazy good stuff out there if you’re willing to look for it. Hip hop transcends all boundaries, so don’t be intimidated by its rich history and cultural barriers. Just dive in and enjoy the ride. For some great subversive rap, I highly recommend Childish Gambino or Tyler, the Creator. Have a listen and let me know how it goes.