Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Lazy Post On My New Overarching Theory Of What Ails Rap

It's that deep.

I'll elaborate on this more sometime, but I was reading T.R.O.Y. and I saw this very interesting point:

Even rappers that dabble in contemplative or surrealist poetics deliver their messages with conviction. Rakim’s deadpanned intergalactic voyages on 1988’s
“Follow The Leader” foreshadow a generation of rappers who portray themselves as street level metaphysicians. It’s a peculiar, compelling performance exemplified by Nas’ impassioned declaration that he “represents the thinkers” with a stream of consciousness freestyle that’s “floating like I’m on the North 95 Interstate” on 1994’s “One Time 4 Ya Mind.”

Of course, you could come up with 20 million examples of this aspect of 90s rap, not just these two; my favorite would probably be when Rae boasted on 'Incarcerated Scarfaces' that "Wu, we got the collars, scholars, word life, peace to power." You just imagine hordes of scholars in Wu-Wear bunked up in the Wu-Mansion studying the Five Percenter Bible (actually, isn't that Poppa Wu's real life?). But it got me to thinking - where are the street level metaphysicians of today? It struck me that you have two types of rappers now - the street-level, and the metaphysicians. And then you have a third type, like a Kanye or a post-retirement Jay that isn't interested in saying anything metaphysical (or anything interesting), but isn't street-level either. And by street-level, I don't mean something stupid like whether a rapper's actually in the streets, I mean whether he pretends to be, which is what matters. And by streets, I'm including all kinds of streets, mean streets and ones that aren't so mean, just so long as a rapper spends time talking about wherever he's from in a real way. For instance, if Jay talked about wherever he lives (a high-rise in Manhattan? a super-posh suburb in Jersey?) instead of just dealing in jet-setting abstractions, he'd be street-level in my sense of the term. Although maybe that's a bit of a stretch - but wouldn't that be interesting?

Anyway, here's why this matters so much. Take the Clipse. The Clipse will never be Mobb Deep because P and Hav dealt in metaphysics and they don't. There's a lot of abstract shit going on in a Mobb Deep record, talk about reality and foulness and trife life and bastardized Darwin that takes what would otherwise be just a really good tales of life in Queensbridge record to another level. Without those deeper themes, the Clipse are just a couple of really talented crack rappers. On the other hand, Lupe will never be Nas because he's all metaphysics and no street-level, and without a street-level correlate to all his metaphysical abstractions, they don't really mean anything. So on the one hand we've got gangsta rappers who are entertaining but hopelessly limited, and on the other metaphysical rappers who sound like they're saying something deep but are just deeply vacuous.


Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

rappers do need to go back to describing what's happening in their environment, you're right. but thanks to the internet and videos, etc., couldn't you argue that the sense of place you desire is sort of implicit in the music?

or, in the case of a group like the clipse, their sense of place is implicit because their first album pretty firmly grounded them in VA, with tales of how they came up. then, they moved on to how they were 'living' in the present with HHNF (hello new world at the lease feels pretty connected to their old ways). but i like both their major releases.

yea, Lupe is a lame.

tray said...

Their first album did ground them, that's true. But I'm not complaining that the Clipse are lacking in a sense of place, I'm complaining that they lack a metaphysics. (They're on the grounded metaphysicless side of this way-too-schematic setup.) The deepest they get is "gee, it just occurred to me that selling crack is a sort of fucked up way to make a living." Okay, maybe that's a little unfair.