Hip-hop is in its twilight, and has been for some time. A dearth of a classic albums in the last decade suggests the genre has reached the end of its creative tether. Drake's 'critically acclaimed' 2010 release Thank Me Later pretty much sounded its death knell, in my eyes.
Virtually everything I once loved about rap music was missing; rhythmically exciting drum patterns, baselines and hooks inspired by 70s soul, and a charismatic MC capable of both street toughness and thoughtfulness. Drake came across as a simpering, emasculated wreck, as if to appeal to a modern and sexually egalitarian society his record company decided to surgically suck out his machismo. I wouldn't be surprised if he carries his testicles around in a dainty testicles purse.
Because that was always part of the fun of hip-hop. The genre is unashamedly masculine. It provided young (middle-class) males a gateway to a fascinating world they dared not tread and were grateful they didn't have to. For three and half minutes you could feel the rush of being a notorious gangster, feared and admired in your ghetto, enjoying the spoils of your ill-gotten wealth. Then with the song over you'd return to your tube train, without having to deal with the repercussions of shooting half your neighbourhood to establish a drugs empire.
I understand the genre's evolved, and mindless street posturing has been replaced by introspection on major themes like the nature of fame, politics, and society's ills, and I think that's a good thing. Nas' 1994 debut album 'Illmatic' was as philosophical as it gets. Krs-One has always challenged his listeners' prejudices and appealed to their intellect. Even whilst signed to Death Row, hip-hop's 'Gangsta Rap' staple, Tupac continued to pen lamentations on desperate, crack-addicted single mothers.
But these rappers all had a good enough understanding of their audience to maintain a balance. The music remained crowd-pleasingly funky, even whilst the lyrics could provide the basis for a thesis. Street kids could bump it in their car (apparently), whilst the detached intelligentsia could hail its 'rawness', 'dexterous wordplay', and 'haunting depictions of a low-income stratosphere trapped in a cycle of poverty'. And this is where much of the new breed (Drake, Kid Cudi, Wale, Kendrick Lamar) fall down. Never mind that modern 'pop rappers' wallow in neurotic self-doubt and desperate yearning for unrequited love, as though they're ghost-written by a particularly self-regarding teenage girl.
I have nothing against softness in rap music, some of my favourite tracks are love songs (see Ghostface Killah's 'Back Like That', LL Cool J's 'Hey Lover'). But hip-hop always needs that edge, both musically and lyrically. In fact, in my opinion any music does. Otherwise it just dissolves into a gooey mess and you sit there, nonplussed, wondering if you prefer broccoli or cauliflower and how long you could slap Bon Iver before he started crying.
Hip-hop's icons are still making music, but most have either stagnated artistically, poorly mimicking their fresh 90s output with uninspired production, or attempted to move with the times and descended into that weirdly bland emotionless electro-synth dance, which is presumably designed to appease our robot masters should Apple products ever gain sentience and rule us through telepathy. The most creative artists have moved on to pastures new, with Kanye West increasingly distancing himself from his soul-sampling 'chipmunk' past by delving into baroque instrumentals and rock collaborations, and Outkast (well, Andre 3000) giving up rapping entirely to sing a garbled mix of blues, folk and funk.
Fortunately, one rap artist has poked his head above the sagging parapet. Last year's Cole World: The Sideline Story was a breath of fresh air: an open window in a room full of farts. It was original and creative; as J Cole produced the album himself, the stale sounds of over-used producers Timberland and Swizz Beats were mercifully avoided. The music had a live, organic feel, with liberal use of piano and clever sprinklings of acoustic guitar, bass, and flute. The drums were forceful and hard-hitting, with J Cole unafraid of a heavy impact snare. If the sensitive Drake was forced to rap over the punchy 'Rise And Shine' he'd be bedridden for a week, shivering and pale-faced, with his mum bringing him hot chocolate and cheese on toast to calm his nerves.
Cole is a versatile MC. His voice has a strength and conviction belying an ego ready to best all challengers, in a rap battle or one of hip-hop's juvenile 'beefs'. There's a toughness about him to suggest he can fight his corner. But his lyrics are considered and self-aware, and never self-indulgent. Songs like 'Breakdown' display an appealing openness and convey empathy and depth of emotion. Cole is equally adept at intricate wordplay, seductive romance, and vivid storytelling.
So it's with great anticipation that I await J Cole's new releases and his second self-produced LP, expected next year. In the meantime I shall be studiously avoiding the respective outputs of Flo Rida, Nicki Minaj and the aforementioned Drake, and attempt to musically freeze myself in 1994 by listening to Notorious BIG's 'Ready To Die' on repeat.
(For a good introduction to the varied talents of J Cole, check out "Who Dat" and the softer "Sideline Story".)
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