Following the surprise release of Rhianna’s latest album ‘Pour it up’ earlier in the week Louder Than War’s Will Thomas was moved to pen an article questioning whether it’s the final nail in the every-spiraling decline in the quality of traditional hip-hop.
I was born in 1987, and therefore by the late 90s / early 2000s I hit upon an absolute prime era for hip-hop. What an absolute joy to listen to! My teenage angst / first world problems had a soundtrack that was made of artists at least ten years my senior and generally of a different ethnicity, talking about gangland culture, a broken home life, domestic issues, and political / social injustices. And YET I GOT IT.
Sitting alone, I open the album notes of Dre’s 2001 and encounter Dr Dre nose-deep in a bag of weed … at this point I’m not even sure I knew what weed was. Did it matter? No. Not one jot. I’d found my punk. Somehow I’ve taken these vivid images of being beaten down and pulled over by cops and I felt that these songs applied equally to a comfortable, middle class, mid-Walean lifestyle.
Through these images of ghetto-life, though graphic, I was able to extract something of substance from these records.
Maybe I just caught rap on the brink of white-ification with the rise of the artist Eminem? But no. Like with anything I find that I love, I have to research it more, the older I get I delve back and find this utter booty (pirate sense of the word) of a back catalogue. Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, NWA, A Tribe called Quest, Jurassic 5, Wu Tang Clan, Eric B & Rakim … and this only fuels my fire.
However, I don’t put these groups on a pedestal and say that their lyrics were free from misogyny, sexism, vulgar macho-male identity or homophobia. The nerd in me was utterly satisfied by the excellent production values of people like The Bomb Squad (see She Watch Channel Zero by Public Enemy) whose lyrics generally had a certain wit, even when crass! (See I Ain’t the 1 by N.W.A. for instance).
Come 2003, and Jay-Z releases The Black Album, and it is amazing. Rick Rubin’s production style is plastered all over this album, combined with fantastic lyrical heart-felt content from Jay-Z. Then closely behind it follows Kanye West’s debut and this furthers my hope that intellectual hip-hop is here to stay. However, this was not to be.
From the mid 2000s, I begin to witness a decline of the quality of hip-hop with the introduction of rappers from the southern states of America. I remember my first introduction to rappers like Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, D4L, and wanting to like this music. I thought it must be me. Am I getting too old? I see people younger than me enjoying this music. I hear it in clubs. My friends are listening to it! Is hip-hop an adolescent thing? Is it time to move on? Do hip-hop and I have to part ways? In desperation, I re-listen to these latest releases. Okay, I think, there must be something to hold on to? If not the lyrics, then production values? The music? No. Nothing. Even relative newcomer Kanye’s lyrics become more self-absorbed and less refined; though by all means he’s not the only culprit!
Fast forward to 2013. Rhianna releases Pour it up, and a weight has been lifted. It feels like my sanity has been proven. As a fan of Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella, Rhianna’s initial debut was sultry and sexy and though Umbrella wasn’t a particularly thought provoking song, it had a charm. It came from a good place. Pour it up though? Despite it being 2013 and an economic recession in full swing Rhianna’s singing about a frivolous, socialite existence, where you can spend money on a champagne lifestyle and your pockets are still brimming?! Is this music for the 1% or what!? Not only is she dull enough to return to the ‘windmilling’ Chris Brown, but she also releases a song that contains the lyrics “I don’t care how you haters feel, I still got my money”. REALLY Rhianna?! Is that why you are prime tabloid fodder?
It seems to me that the escalation of delusion has increased tenfold in recent years. The reality is that this song will get radio play; it’ll be played in clubs up and down the country and sung along too by girls that have sneaked hip-flasks in their handbags to avoid paying extortionate prices for alcohol in clubs! The sign of a true balla? I don’t think so.
The video? Who cares … it’s Rihanna sat on a throne, half-naked, girls on stripper poles … yeah, you’ve all seen it before. It’s a hip-hop video. This one though may as well have the tag line “I can’t be bothered to be a misogynist right now, Rhianna. Could you do it for me?”.
I’m not saying that this attitude is anything new, nor anything that this third generational wave of the MTV viewer hasn’t seen before, but it feels like this is the end. Lyrically and musically, hip-hop has been smoothed out and so slickened that I feel that there is so very little to purchase anymore. It is a commercial slush-puppy of over-produced R ’n’ B production with the titillation of sensationalism via softcore nudity and sex, which is solely marketed at impressionable teenage girls whilst simultaneously trying to adhere to lad culture.
However, it is possible to say that all is not lost. In recent years, arguably with release of Feel Good Inc. (Gorillaz feat. De la Soul) hip-hop has become more experimental / abstract. Notable acts to look out for here include Death Grips and Lil B. Politically; you may be inclined to check out Immortal Technique, and not forgetting of course that the big thing in rap right now is an artist announcing their homosexuality. Rapper Talib Kweli was asked recently about his thoughts on ‘gay rappers’, to which he replied that there needs to be one better than everybody, which is a thought-provoking answer. Is this not the same question we asked 15 years ago? “What if the best rapper in the world was white?” The fact that there are rappers out there who are trying something different, pushing boundaries, does encapsulate the spirit of hip-hop tenfold. I mean, we didn’t stick with blues music, did we? We invented rock ’n’ roll!
With this in mind, doesn’t talking about ballas, and gangs seem so incredibly dated? True hip-hop fans may have to search a little deeper for the future of hip-hop, but need no need to lose hope just yet.
All words by Will Thomas. More writing by Will on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. Will’s also on Twitter as @Will_theEnemy.