An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

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Part 1 is here

Nas is indisputably one of the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic, as hip hop as rappers go. From what is widely considered one of, if not the best rap album ever, the gritty, streetwise Illmatic, up to the grown-man, nuanced, elegant hip hop on Life is Good, his discography is a play-by-play of the evolution of the genre through the eyes of one of its finest.

When he declared, then, that his beloved form of expression was “dead” halfway through his career on Hip Hop is Dead, then, the outburst of conversation was understandable. Fast forward 10 years, and Nas declares himself a proper fan of Future, the divisive rapper scores of hip hop heads declared as antithetical to “real hip hop.” He’d go on to explain his history with the genre on the watershed DJ Khaled track, Hip Hop with Scarface.

This dichotomy might seem contradictory to some, but to me, it’s where the spectacularly complex appeal of hip hop lay. There was a voice for every listener, and a listener for every voice. I was able to thus appreciate music across eras and stylistic evolution, and I grew to connect the dots linking a range of rappers.

I heard reflections of Tupac in Kendrick, Nas in J. Cole, Common in Kanye. But I also witnessed artists who’d carve out their own distinct places in hip-hop – Future, Mac Miller, Vince Staples, Childish Gambino, Young Thug and Chance the Rapper. The diversity of thought and sound in each of these musicians is perhaps lost on those ignorant to the genre’s nuances, but I had found a genre with an album for every mood, an artist for every day.

The street tales of Nas and Jay-Z drew me in with their vividness, with evocative descriptions of neighborhoods and lives completely foreign to me. Southern rappers such as T.I. offered another perspective towards the life of someone often, by their own admission, caught on the wrong side of the law. At times, it almost felt voyeuristic, but I was always educating myself about their circumstances – ghettoization, Reaganomics, racist power structures and police brutality. They led me to discover parallels between racial prejudice in America and casteist and communal politics in India.

It might be surprising to many, I attribute a significant base of my sociopolitcal awareness to trying to understand the contexts of the music I was listening to and its reflections in the contexts I was more familiar with. They were often revelatory, and as I dug deeper, I explored powerful voices such as The Roots, Black Star, Pharaohe Monch, and Killer Mike, who furthered my drive to understand the things they rapped about with such incisiveness.

But I was still a teenager – I had very adolescent emotions, and music was my go-to outlet for solace, sometimes for answers. Fortunately, by the time I was exposed to it, hip hop had begun embracing its sensitive side, thanks to Kid Cudi, Kanye, and yes, sometimes even Drake. Whether they be angst, heartbreak, or even anxiety and depression, I found a straightforwardness towards them in hip-hop that many other genres sidestepped.

Mac Miller’s Macadelic, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and Faces were some of my favourite albums from that time because of the unabashedly unsure, and complicated way Mac rapped about the addictions, insecurities and weirdness he was plagued by. I couldn’t relate to his exact situations, but they felt similar; genuine.

Cudi and Childish Gambino helped me through my bitter lonely teen phase with their own candid confessions of the same feelings – they might’ve often come off as immature, but to someone who desperately needed a sense of belonging in that time, they were kindred spirits.

So I grew; learning, failing, learning some more, all the while accruing a select, and colourful cross-section of rappers whose music I loved and always looked out for. As I shed my inhibitions and childish notions of ‘real’ hip hop, I also began to develop a taste for music that was just fun – bangers. Chance, Rick Ross, Future, and Young Thug quickly filled those gaps, and I found I had times where I just wanted to turn up. Depriving myself of these joys of the genre felt increasingly pointless.

Through all of this, I also grew to be acutely aware of the language employed in hip-hop. I learnt only on of the painful history and powerful reclamation of the n-word; it reminds me of the Dalit identity in India. Colloquialisms littered throughout hip-hop were finding its way into pop culture, and I tried to be consciously aware of their usage. It helped me understand just how much White America owed to the section of the population it had oppressed for so long, and discover how language, often used as a tool of the elitist classes, could be subverted. It contributed immensely to my love affair with writing too, and my cherished belief that words were only as good as the messages they conveyed.

It’s now been several years since I first started listening to hip-hop, and I’m as fascinated and enamored by it as I ever was. Listening to a song like 1 Train fills me with an inexplicable joy – pure lyrical acrobatics over an amazing beat, by a range of rappers each with their own distinctive styles. It’s why I listen to Joey Bada$$, and I listen to Lil Uzi Vert. I listen to Vince Staples, and I listen to A$AP Rocky. I listen to Big Boi, and I listen to Run the Jewels. I listen to Black Milk, and I listen to Big Sean. I love all of their music. I have never had to choose, and I never intend to.

I do intend to keep learning about hip-hop, and the environment it draws upon, and playing YG’s Fuck Donald Trump as loudly as I canHip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the USA, and for this young adult across the world in India, its gospel is one I will never stop preaching.

 

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An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

4:44 by Jay-Z

The hyphen in Jay-Z’s name might be back, but 4:44 isn’t really Jay-Z. For possibly the first time in his career, it’s an album by Shawn Carter, the multimillionaire businessman, the African-American man, the family man. In shedding the larger-than-life image of the rapper in the very first track, aptly titled Kill Jay-Z, he owns up to his past failings and in a lyric unprecedented for a rapper of his mythology, implores himself to be emotionally vulnerable (“Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/ But you can’t heal what you never reveal”).

Throughout the album, this sense of being brutally honest reveals a side of the man, the myth, the legend that few would expect the notoriously insular Hov to see, 13 albums into his epic career. On Smile, he acknowledges his mother’s homosexuality in a disarmingly sensitive moment – he doesn’t linger on it, simply expressing his support and admiration. Coming from a notoriously homophobic genre, it’s a powerful statement by one of the most influential voices in the community. On the title track, and the crux of the album, it’s clear that Shawn’s marriage with Beyoncé, his infidelity and his relationship with his children weigh heavily on his mind. He’s realized that his rap superstar lifestyle and image is untenable if it adversely affects his personal life.

The parallel track on 4:44 to Jay-Z’s maturing as an individual is his commitment to being rap’s elder statesman. Far more than on his last album, the frustratingly myopic Magna Carta Holy Grail, he confidently delivers sermons on his rags-to-riches story, wealth accumulation and distribution, and generational wealth in the context of being a Black man in America. Jay’s brags aren’t merely exhibitionist – they are repackaged as lessons to financial success, and rewards to be reaped. The Story of O.J. is a treatise on Black capitalism, delivered succinctly in a manner only Jay can (“I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”). Family Feud and Legacy reiterate the need for uniting under the umbrella of Black excellence, and pushing the people forward on their own terms. Even as an outsider to the culture, it’s inspirational in its aim of inclusiveness and hardened determination.

With everything that’s going on in 4:44, it could’ve easily been a rather boring, draggy album. But it seems being Shawn Carter has broken the rapper’s chains (shit, the wordplay’s rubbing off). Jay weaves vivid tales with storytelling ability we haven’t heard since American Gangster using some of his best flows – the kind that gave him his legendary status – over painstakingly tailored production, all of which comes courtesy of No I.D. Clearly, Jay has been incredibly invested in this project, explicitly picking out and building songs around specific samples he grew up with. Jay’s brevity is well-documented, but applying it to such personal stories ensures we’re hooked on every word, and they hit with their full weight. When he turns up the aggression, like on Bam and Marcy Me, it’s with the cool head of a man who knows his power, and his confidence is evident in the many instantly-quotable one-liners he drops (“Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too”), his pop culture references on point (“Put that drum in your ear, don’t get Srem’d/I’ll Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of”).

4:44 is the 13th studio album of a rapper with nothing left to prove – so he proves himself as a musician/businessman, a successful Black man with a complicated personal life. He sounds rejuvenated both as Jay – Z and Shawn Carter, and hence delivers one of the finest albums of his career. It’s an impeccably crafted, lucid elegy that will go down as proof a 47-year old rapper doesn’t need to rely on his stereotypical image to make waves in the culture.

4:44 by Jay-Z

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

1. Keep it Low by Generationals

An indie pop-rock gem driven by lo-fi vocals and serrated guitar licks, this track has a catchy melody that keeps its edge intact. If you like your pop music with a bit of a punk aesthetic – a la The Strokes – this is worth a listen.

#2. Cool Your Heart ft. Dawn Richards by Dirty Projectors

From the first album to come out since Dirty Projectors basically became David Longstreth’s solo project, this dynamic, vibrant track is, in his own words, “an anti-co-dependency anthem.” The production is by far, one of the most intriguing pieces to come out this year – minimal, with blocks of sound moving around and snapping into each other like Tetris pieces. Dawn Richards fits into this puzzle perfectly, her vocals a perfect foil to David’s deadpan delivery. Quite the satisfying concoction.

#3. Shining by DJ Khaled, Beyoncé and JAY Z

DJ Khaled keeps outdoing himself. After a supersized – “major” – 2016, he brings together the power couple of music, Beyoncé and JAY Z, for a toast to success, the black tie variety. The production is appropriately luxurious, and Bey is at her swaggering best, soaring with confidence few rappers have the right to. Jay’s verse is short, but as he is wont to do, carves his niche with cool assurance, and deftly hands the mic back to his woman. This is the suave anthem.

#4. Kinda Bonkers by Animal Collective

The wonderfully weird Animal Collective return with a psychedelic-pop beauty, the production slightly glossier than than one is used to from them, but with their trademark irreverence. The background vocals add another interesting layer, while the primary vocals themselves are fun, with esoteric lyrics and an insanely catchy hook. This one’s going to be playing in your head for a while to come.

#5. Mask Off  by Future

Future cannot lose. After a 2016 where he saw his profile rising, but also had his detractors saying he’d lost touch with his original trap sound in favour of a more pop-ish sound, 2017’s self-titled Future album is enough assurance he’s always going to be a trapper at heart. Mask Off is one of the best tracks off the project, with an audible sneer and chest-thumping production to accompayny Future Hendrix’s boasts. You know he’s going to be around for a long time.

Five Songs For the Weekend – II