Hip hop is dead.
At least, that’s what we always hear.
The days of hip hop as an artistic medium; as a collision of poetry, african beats and rhythms, urban musical sensibilities, angst, joy, and community have gone the way of the buffalo, making room for the southern invasion of practically lyric-less club music unambiguously and entirely about blow jobs, strip clubs and swimming pools.
Yet, to quote lesser hip hop god the RZA, “How can hip hop be dead if Wu-tang is forever?”
Seriously though, to quote what the RZA has to say which is a bit more helpful, “How has the South dominated hip hop for the last four, five years without lyrics, without hip hop culture really in their blood? Those brothers came out representing more of a stereotype of how black people are.”
If it’s not hip hop, then how can it be dominating hip hop? Well, it isn’t. Just because some dumb-ass at Mtv or BET says it’s hip hop, that doesn’t make it so. It’s why I think we actually need a stronger distinction between the genres of hip hop and rap, commonalities may exist to a great degree, but the differences are too important to ignore. Yet, that is better left for another post.
This could also lead to a critical conversation about Jay-Z, the self-professed greatest rapper alive, but out of respect for Kanye, I’ll leave his friend out of this post. Either way, hip hop is not dead. Quality hip hop has still been produced, it just hasn’t gotten the commercial attention of folks like ‘lil Wayne or 50 Cent, but it’s been there, and it’s been amazing.
Yet, the reality that it hasn’t gotten the commercial attention has one HUGE exception. Kanye West.
Usually, when Kanye is in the news, it’s all about him being nuts. Granted, he’s done plenty of things over the years, and recently, to reinforce this, but it baffles me how we are still surprised by all this. We’re all crazy, and to go further, what artistic geniuses have there been throughout history who weren’t also idiosyncratic and a little bit insane? For some reason, crazy and genius go hand in hand.
Case in point, Miles Davis. That guy was one crazy mother fucker. Yet, he’s as prolific a musical genius as the world has ever seen. He was nuts, and he was brilliant, and one doesn’t cancel out the other.
However, I don’t think it is fair to draw much of a comparison between the insanity of Miles and Kanye. Miles destroyed every personal relationship he encountered, often seemingly without apology or remorse. For much of his life, people were disgusted by being in the same room, and yet were drawn to his musical carisma in a way which made it impossible to keep from collaborating with him artistically. Kanye, on the other hand, is adored by those who know him personally. His public persona is often one of angry, raging, arrogant insensitivity. Yet, every single interviewer, collaborator and friend speaks of him as a quiet, sweet, intelligent guy who is easy to talk to and be around.
No, the comparison I want to draw between Miles Davis and Kanye West isn’t about their insanity, it’s about their genius. That’s right, Kanye West is in the very early stages of becoming the Miles Davis of Hip Hop.
Let me explain.
Once Miles Davis entered the bebop scene in the 40’s, he was at the forefront of every major transition in jazz that followed during his lifetime. Everything that happened in jazz during his life was either his invention, or else he impacted it so much that it might as well have been. His singular talent was obviously a huge part of what made this possible, but more than his talent, it was his vision. Davis was never satisfied, never content with things as they were, and he forged into new ways of creating music that no one had encountered before. He was able to dream up what was next, and then it was his talent that helped him make those dreams a reality. Thus, there were certainly musicians and producers in the 20th century who influenced music as much as Miles did, but there were none who influenced it more.
Miles changed everything. Again, and again, and again. His talent, his relationships with the best jazz musicians and producers of his time, his imagination, even his insanity, resulted in the remarkable phenomenon in which he was jazz music. As he reinvented himself over and over again, he was also reinventing the rules of jazz music.
Thanks in huge part to Davis, jazz moved from bebop, to cool, to hard bop, to modal, to fusion, from golden age to golden age.
Kanye West is just such a figure. Hip hop is not dead, and with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is very possible that, right now, Kanye is making good on the progress he has orchestrated the last five years, and is now establishing a new golden age of hip hop.
Don’t let there be any confusion about it. Kanye West is a genius. He was shaping hip hop before any of us knew who he was, producing as early as 14 years ago, working behind the scenes to create beats and samples that would come to reshape the hip hop milieu.
I’ll leave a full biography to wikipedia and the like, but West’s influence on hip hop simply cannot be overstated. I still remember one summer, when I had given up on mainstream hip hop altogether. I avoided radio stations like the plague. Yet, I was doing work at a high school, cataloguing text books, and they were playing Top 40 radio through the PA system. Thank God they were, because it is how I first heard “Through the Wire.”
I was hooked immediately. It was something fresh, something smart, something innovative, which doesn’t even get in to the audacity he had to make his first single a song in which he performed through a jaw which was wired shut following his near fatal car accident. I had no idea that this song was setting the tone, both as a producer and as an emcee, for a career that would continue to impress and amaze me.
As a producer, Kanye is second to none. His movement as an artist is extraordinary, innovating from album to album, most notably with The College Dropout, where his promise made the whole industry excited; 808’s and Heartbreaks, in which he takes the seemingly irredeemable medium of autotune and uses it to create a remarkable piece of autobiographical art; and now My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which takes every bit of promise he showed in his career so far and creates a stunningly beautiful and complex work. The new album isn’t his Low End Theory/Midnight Marauders, or his OK Computer, or his Joshua Tree. This album is his New Testament, fulfilling the utterances of what came before and changing the game completely.
Lyrically, Kanye doesn’t get the credit he is due either. His ability to marry his production to words in a way that offers his soul to the listener is brave and unprecedented in the world of hip hop. Artists like Janelle Monáe are certainly doing similar things, creating a theme that carries over an entire album, mixing performance and autobiography while also combining existing parts to create something new. Yet, anyone doing it now owes some credit to West.
What Kanye did on “Through the Wire” was a sign of things to come. Kanye didn’t wait until his jaw healed to get back to creating, instead, he made his weakness a part of his art. He rapped through the wire, through the pain and injury, and made something wonderful.
Too often, Kanye’s lyrics aren’t listened to carefully enough to hear the ambiguity, the struggle, the embracing of his own contradictions. Sure, “Hell of a Life,” can be interpreted as a mere ode to the hip hop lifestyle, in the “Party Like a Rock Star” vein. But, if you listen more closely, it is that and more. West at once revels in and mourns the reality of his celebrity lifestyle. He has done so all along. It isn’t coincidence the chorus/title draw one’s attention to hell.
Kanye wrestles back and forth between the desire to be seen, and the desire to hide. I understand the desire to be known, while also becoming prickly and angry when I am seen. Kanye seems to deal with this all the time, creating art which bears his soul, only to become angry and afraid when his creation meets the insensitivity of the world at large, resulting in personal pain, as well as remarkable wealth and fame. West often seems terribly self-conscious and uncomfortable with much of what celebrity is, although he admitted to his self-conscious nature on his very first album, so that’s nothing new.
Yet, that discomfort only makes the triumph of his ballad “All the Lights” that much more palpable.
/turn up the lights in here, baby/extra bright/i want ya’ll to see this/
Kanye hasn’t started hiding his contradictions, and still lyrically takes responsibility for the harm he does when he makes mistakes, but he seems to be done apologizing for being human. As is the case with most artists, he is much more self-aware in his lyrics than he is speaking to interviewers and the like. This can be seen most clearly in the stark contrast between the sharp racial commentary he makes at times on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy vs. his well publicized rant about George W. Bush on VH1, in which his anger was more than fair, but his words and timing fell short of making a salient political point.
As an emcee, Kanye offers commentary on himself, hip hop, and the larger culture, which shows a depth people miss when they don’t listen closely. Kanye might be hyper-self-conscious sometimes, but it’s the necessary salve for the fact that most popular musicians of all genres are completely incapable of any self-awareness. Thus, in a way, Kanye is hip hop, offering the swagger, materialism, and sexual obsessions that are the hallmarks of popular music, but then mourning those realities in the same breath.
Across hip hop, from artistically credible acts like Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli, to the more dubious acts like ‘lil Wayne and The Game, West has produced tracks which continue to form hip hop. He introduces new acts with exciting, genre-transcending talent, like John Legend and Kid Cudi. And with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he has offered an album which will shape all the albums that come next, in and out of his primary genre classification.
Oddly enough, for a guy who is viewed by the public at large as a misanthrope, it is Kanye’s gift for relationship and collaboration, coupled with his ability to reveal his soul in his art, which show his true genius. Here is what Q-Tip had to say about collaborating with Kanye on the latest album (via kottke).
“I’d never worked the way Kanye was working in Hawaii. Everybody’s opinions mattered and counted. You would walk in, and there’s Consequence and Pusha T and everybody is sitting in there and he’s playing music and everyone is weighing in. It was like music by committee. [Laughs.] It was fresh that everybody cared like that. I have my people that listen to my stuff-I think everybody does-but his thing is much more like, if the delivery guy comes in the studio and Kanye likes him and they strike up a conversation, he’ll go, ‘Check this out, tell me what you think.’ Which speaks volumes about who he is and how he sees and views people. Every person has a voice and an idea, so he’s sincerely looking to hear what you have to say-good, bad, or whatever…
With Kanye, when he has his beats or his rhymes, he offers them to the committee and we’re all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he’s already started. By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone’s contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really.”
I’m sure the same is true when he is working on someone else’s track as well. It’s like his own beauty and pain are a filter, he takes in the talent and insight of those around him, filters them through himself, and the result is something extraordinary.
As he has set, and continues to set ,the tone and trajectory for hip hop; as he collaborates with artists like Bon Iver; as acts like Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco and outer genre acts like Janelle Monáe take cues from West, the future of popular music just might be golden.