community) become too comfortable, complacent, and/or "safe" to actually appreciate authentic and quality rap music that critics have been lamenting for the past ten years or more? Is it now harder to muster up M.O.P.- or Onyx-worthy levels of anger with a Black president in office? Has post-racial propaganda rocked us to sleep to where we're no longer receptive to messages of Black pride in our music? udging by the top five rap songs on your local radio, you'd think life was one big party, despite the recession and long-standing ills of ghetto life.
While some would argue that Kanye West's Yeezus brought substance to the forefront, anyone who has followed West's progression up until this point would counter that West is currently at his least effect and least substantive. Though West's voice started out as a very refreshing addition to the genre, West (perhaps inadvertently) seems to be more fascinated with shocking people than actually reaching hearts and minds and his very public persona and extravagance makes it difficult to look at him raging against the so-called machine without a tongue placed firmly within cheek. Chief Keef comes to mind when considering anger as an element of current rap music, but as is to be expected for a teenager, there's no indication of what the anger is directed at or why, on top of the repetitive, uninspired and overwhelmingly negative nature of the music he creates.
Today, many rap fans seem content to consume products packaged for the here and now, as opposed to art designed to stick with the listener for years. While one could simply attribute this shift to the attention span-destroyer that is the internet, to do so would indicate one does not truly understand the nature of hip-hop and its origins. Hip-hop in the 1990s reflected an urban Black experience from many different angles, while what we see in the mainstream today is an exaggerated reflection of lives that only a small percentage of people actually lead, Black or otherwise. This prevents people from making any real connection to the music, rendering it forgettable, a flash in the proverbial pan.
For example, many would name Drake as one of the biggest stars of the last five years, but it's hard to imagine seeing the same reaction to "Started From The Bottom" as you currently see to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" whenever it's played, almost 20 years after its release. While "Juicy" was a party song by tempo, there was also a story there of struggle, overcoming it, and appreciation for the journey. There was something there to relate to, something to stick to the listener's ribs, so to speak, not to mention the fact that the “bottom” B.I.G. speaks of is the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, while we have no choice but to assume that Drake is referring to...DeGrassi High? Despite the story he's trying to tell, there isn't anything to relate to for the average listener.
Unfortunately, there's no across-the-board solution or call to action here aside from preaching to the choir and asking that discerning listeners seek out, appreciate, talk up and support the scores of authentic musicians who are operating under the radar. For artists, it's a little trickier. One must decide whether they want to take a risk and make art or simply go the safer route of making what's already on the market and has been proven to be profitable.
Sadly, I don't believe there will ever be another era where authenticity and diversity will be as strongly upheld in hip-hop as it was in the 90's. At this point, the business has superseded the art, with labels asking for as little heart and soul as possible from their artists in favor of following protocol for selling records. Selling a fleeting feeling is encouraged as opposed to putting an experience on record and allowing the pieces to fall where they may. Not only are artists too comfortable making forgettable, uninspired music (because it sells), listeners within the 18-25 age bracket and younger aren't used to much else and will continue to perpetuate a watered-down mainstream, to the point we'll be looking back at the period after 2000 and wondering why we can't remember anything that came out during that period.
The substance and texture of hip-hop in the 80's and 90's was progeny of the civil unrest of the generations that fathered those who created it. Perhaps we now have too many things to distract us from the social issues and injustice that should still have us angry enough to make and appreciate inspired, authentic rap music.
Shaka Shaw is a writer in Washington, D.C.