In the Rubble of Hip-Hop…

Posted by on September 23, 2012

In 2006 when Nas claimed, quite controversially, that “hip-hop is dead,” he was on to something. One of hip-hop’s purest lyricists, Nas grew to fame in the early ‘90s through his poetic rapping and political subject matter—qualities that had become largely extinct from popularized hip-hop in the early 2000s. Hip-hop grew to prominence as the voice of disadvantaged America, but had become dominated by label executives; tastemakers prioritizing simplistic lyricism and rhyme schemes (along with incorporating the catchy choruses of pop music), and simultaneously degrading the quality of an art form.

Over the past decade, I have watched hip-hop become increasingly saturated, as pop culture continues to endorse formulaic hip-hop, typically including repetitious and easily accessible hooks, and raps using simple A-B rhyme schemes that delve lightly into a number of prescribed topics, such as the desire for fame, women, braggadocio, and partying. This sub-genre of “party rap” became widely popular in college environments, and seemed to promise any student with an aptitude for parties and a junior-high vocabulary the opportunity to earn a remunerative career as a rapper.

Through the surplus of undergraduates-turned-rappers, a new sub-genre, often coined “college rap,” began inundating blogs and steadily saturating the industry. These upstarts idolized the popular artists of the time, basing their craft off the lackluster wordplay and superficiality that dominated college radio playlists. When Asher Roth’s single “I Love College” rose to prominence in 2009, this movement hit the limelight, and suddenly students stopped studying law and medicine to follow their newfound dreams of being the next Mac Miller or Sammy Adams.

What is highly underestimated, however, is the amount of skill required to be an emcee of Nas’ caliber. If you take the time to listen to his first album Illmatic, Eminem’s Infinite, The Roots’ Phrenology, or any number of ‘90s or early 2000s records, the sophistication of the lyricism, content, and rhyme schemes is staggering. Becoming a prominent emcee used to require being sufficiently educated on the English language, as rappers constructed multisyllabic rhymes infused with alliteration, internal rhyme, and other complex literary elements. Just listen to Kinetics in his recently featured song, “Chris Nolan,” where he raps, “I spit sinister symbolism that’s killing all these silly simile single syllable singing simpletons.” Eminem has said in interviews that he used to study the dictionary as a child. If you listen to “Lose Yourself” closely, you can note that there is not a single word in the song that doesn’t rhyme with another. The reason it’s problematic to equate him to Asher Roth (besides the fact that it’s just rooted in race), is because Em rose to fame because of his pure lyrical power, and Asher made it off of artificiality.

The “change in leadership” that Nas referred to in interviews surrounding “Hip-Hop is Dead” highlighted that as the preferences of record companies have shifted, the music has changed with it. Political, socially conscious hip-hop is no longer seen as profitable, and thus labels won’t promote it. The biggest controversy surrounding this power battle occurred in 2008, when Atlantic Records shelved Lupe Fiasco’s third album for almost a year because of his defiance when asked to make a “radio-ready” single. Unfortunately, our Lupes are few and far between, and the majority of my favorite emcees are a far cry now from the substance-driven music they initially created. It doesn’t take long in the industry to understand what type of music is advantageous for one’s career, and it seems all but a few choose money over message. In this sense, rapping has become quite like corporate law; individuals work exceptionally hard to excel at a practice they believe in only to abandon their values in pursuit of a more lucrative opportunity.

I have always loved hip-hop, and that passion will always persist. But I want to live in a world where I don’t have to search for underground rappers to convince a friend that all hip-hop isn’t violent, misogynistic, and devoid of content. The reason that it became such a red flag for white, suburban kids to listen to hip-hop is that our mainstream culture assumed we were only listening to the 2 Chainz and Chief Keef’s of the world. No wonder they didn’t understand. Most critics of hip-hop have never heard It Was Written, Midnight Marauders, or Like Water for Chocolate. They haven’t paid attention to Macklemore on the new XXL Freshman List. Instead, they have seen Machine Gun Kelly and Roscoe Dash.

I’m not asking for you to agree, or to all of a sudden change your preference, but I’m asking us to be conscious of what we consume and what type of hip-hop we’re promoting when we share it. Our choices ultimately get reflected in who’s in the magazines, who’s on the radio, and even who’s getting a record deal. I’m always careful to promote new artists who have something special to share (see Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Blue Scholars, Logic, Kinetics, Dylan Owen, Accent—just to name a few), and I’ll continue to do so. But many of hip-hop’s forefathers are on their way out, and it’s up to us to make sure the right artists of this new generation end up on top.

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  • Nabokov and the Butterflies


    J Beezy has touched on a great subject. The prominence of sophomoric Hip-Hop that relies on tired metaphors and similes is a disappointing trend, and it is high time that intelligent Hip Hop gained importance. That being said, one can enjoy Gucci Mane- if only for the smallest of aesthetic gains.

  • aj

    this article fuckin blows. go listen to asher roths mixtape pabst and jazz and tell me that shit isnt lyrical before you judge him off one song (i love college) same with mgk go listen to “the return” or “see my tears” as opposed to just hearing him on “wild boy” or one of his radio friendly songs…

  • jeffwbaird

    AJ, obviously this article hit a nerve, and that means I’ve succeeded. I’ve listened to all the aforementioned tracks and this piece isn’t suggesting that an artist like Asher isn’t multifaceted or versatile, but it is acknowledging the fact that “I Love College” and “Wild Boy” are those two respective artists’ best known tracks, and considering why that is. Why are Asher’s more lyrically-advanced tracks lesser known? When did “I Love College” become the song everyone wanted to promote as the ideal of hip-hop? I appreciate your reaction, and hope we can start a more directed dialogue about this.

  • Anon

    I thought the article was really good overall, but I agree that the examples used (esp. Machine Gun Kelly) were off.

  • dsdsds

    I agree. There is plenty of kick ass hip-hop out there. Just have to look around.

  • J

    You couldn’t be more correct

  • Yung

    Lol where have you been for the last ten years. This isn’t anything new. If anything there is more dope hip-hop in the last year than in the last five years before it

  • jeffwbaird

    Obviously this article isn’t to say that there is no more quality hip-hop around, just like when Nas said “hip-hop is dead” he was simply acknowledging what was being incentivized. This isn’t necessarily a new trend, but the past five years have found the mainstream even more devoid of content than in the past. Hip-hop’s exposure to the world at the surface is at an all-time-low in regards to quality and lyrical ability.

  • Great article

  • I agree with most of what you said, but I don’t think people should assume that the music made by artists like 2 Chainz should be viewed as dumb or musically inferior. I think rap has always had its lyricists and is just now starting to realize where hook-driven, poppy, seemingly unintelligent rap fits in its world.

  • Brilliant piece of writing, you absolutely hit the nail on the head here man. Hopefully Hip Hop will be restored to its former glory by the new generation of artists. There’s too much positive and influential rappers out there for the genre to die. Long live Hip Hop

  • Yung

    When was mainstream hip-hop full of content? In 2008 when Lil’ Wayne was popular? In 2006 when D4L was popular? In 2003 when 50 Cent was popular? In 2001 when Ja Rule was popular? In 1999 when DMX was popular?

    There has always been alternate/underground/conscious hip-hop available, but it’s not like mainstream rap has been anything but shallow for the past ten+ years. I’m curious, how old are you?

  • Rolphy

    Hey Jeff have you had the chance to see Logic live?

  • jeffwbaird

    Hey Rolphy—no I haven’t, but I’ve heard he’s good.

  • Lan

    This article is pin-point accurate, though I’m not gonna lie, it did seem like a quick jab at Asher Roth. Sticking with Roth for a second, his current situation further adds to the topic of his article. We all saw “I Love College” blow up and put the “frat rap” label on Asher Roth, primarily because that’s all that was playing EVERYWHERE, and fans of the “underground” music were the only ones really checking for his lyrical talents shown on The Greenhouse Effect, and even his debut album Asleep in the Bread Aisle. Now, after hitting the mixtape scene with three top notch projects (Rawth EP, Seared Fois Gras with Quince & Cranberry, and Pabst & Jazz) he is seeing the pitfalls of his major label wanted him to replicate the success of “I Love College” with watered down, pop, chorus-driven songs, and him not wanting to jeopardize the integrity of his music, which has caused the delay of his sophomore album over the course of TWO record deals. We’ve come to a point in the industry where something’s got to give, because right now rap is at it’s farthest reach, and what it is right now cannot be the representation and future of the genre.

  • JFk

    You forgot to mention one of your best recent posts, David Dallas

  • BenWellingtonNZ

    Despite the difficulty I had with reading your terribly written comment, (making it hard to trust you when it comes to lyrical brilliance) but I had to respond. You aren’t actually disagreeing with this article which you say “fuckin blows.” He is not saying that there isn’t good Hip-Hop, nor is he even saying that MGK (of whom I am a fan) nor Asher Roth write terrible songs. He is pointing out that 90% of people know “Wild Boy” and “I Love College” as their only reference points for these two artists because that is all they’ve ever heard.

    His main point is that the industry itself has regressed to the promotion of “Fuck Bitches, Make Money (and drink Patron” as opposed to pushing well written, intelligent Hip-Hop. This article is not an attack on Asher nor MGK but rather the labels that refuse to push anything that isn’t a mass appeal radio single. The blame is widespread, however, as it must be recognized that labels are inherently businesses, intent on making money. As the general public’s tastes shift away from bland, cookie cutter Hip-Hop towards more socially conscious music, the music promoted will change.

    That being said, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • BenWellingtonNZ

    Alas, a typo. Ignore the “but” in my first sentence.

  • Lonner

    This article has some fair point but fails to miss the larger issue. This list: Macklemore, Logic, Blue Scholars, Kinetics, Dylan Owen, Accent contains a few people that are doing some cool things. But you cannot use Nas as a measuring mark when Macklemore, Kinetics, and Dylan Owen are in a completely different genre, one that is more poetry than hip-hop. If you really want to talk about up and coming hip-hop artists, that can bring back what Nas brought to hip-hop you need to be talking about people like Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Joey Bada$$, the A$AP MOB, Topaz Jones, Thelonious Martin, Phony Ppl, The Roots, and one of the artists you name, Logic. If you as bloggers really want to restore authenticity to “hip-hop,” these artists need the proper exposure. I cannot explain to you how upsetting it is to see people like Huey Mack, Mike Stud, and the rest being labeled as chill rap. Chill rap is Blue Scholars, Common Market, and Atmosphere, these “frat stars,” shouldn’t even be considered college music, its college POP. It is music with less substance than every fucking song on the radio.

    Asher Roth is a perfect example of someone that understands the difference I have just explained. While his greatest success may have come with I Love College, it was the song that lead to a black whole in his career. Asher Roth is an incredible artist, it is a shame that I Love College has left such a shadow over the rest of his music. His mixtape Pabst & Jazz was a perfect example of an overlooked mixtape. I could go on with a review of it, but any true hip-hop fan knows that the mixtape was at a minimum a strong display of lyricism, content, innovative instrumentals and new ideas. Something none of these college “rappers” are close to capable of.

    If you are going to run a blog and be a trendsetter, these artists and these facts are things that cannot go by unnoticed.

  • can’t forget D Dot!!

  • BWolf

    Totally agree. I’m spanish and I have had confronted feelings with american hip-hop… until now. The reason is that french, spanish, german, italian even czech hip-hop are very critics with the society, the power, the real problems of the real people. They don’t yell against other MC’s or boast for guns and bombs. They don’t need to say “bitch” or “motherfucker” to be the boss. They have to use the brain and be more closer to the people, critics with the social injustice. They have to be clever to be the bests, not to be in the radios or in all the media because the have insulted a “nooneknowswhois” famous.
    Old hip-hop is death, long live to new hip-hop.

  • Fuck You

    shut your bitch mouth about DMX, bitch

  • Get A Grip…

    This article is a great example of someone outside of the hip hop culture, critiquing hip hop. Fans screaming “real hip hop” are the worst kind of “fans.” This is perfectly exemplified by you using Dylan Owen and Logic as examples for your misinformed stance on the genre. Are. You. Serious? Dylan Owen? Logic? Logic, someone who openly admits to never have listened to hip hop growing up, let alone actively being apart of the culture, but yet started a rap career buy mimicking Sam Adams, than ditching it the second the market become too saturated… than joining a band? Fresh New Tracks is not a hip hop site. You are not a hip hop writer. You are not even apart of this culture… so step back into your frat house and get a grip. Nothing, let alone music or hip hop, stays the same. EVERYTHING CHANGES. Hip Hop is bigger and better than it has ever been… there is something for EVERYONE. Now, please, go back to studying for your finals and never look back at this sorry attempt at “journalism.”