Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Rap Music Is Good Now Because Rappers Aren't Afraid To Be Weird

Proclamations that a certain era is "good" or "bad" for music are always specious. There's both good and bad music being made all the time, of course, in all different genres, and that's been true even during eras accepted as either "golden" or "dead" for whatever style you might be talking about. What's easier to talk about, what I think people are actually assessing when they talk in this way, is what's popular at a certain time in history—stylistic characteristics of the music that happens to be selling the most, or being played on popular radio stations. Of course, people often disagree about stylistic characteristics, too, whether they make for good or bad music. Different ears hear differently. Even among people as susceptible to group-think as music critics—who all proclaimed, every single last one of them, that Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a straight-A, five-star, 10.0 masterpiece and the undisputed, inarguable, scientifically proven 100 percent guaranteed best album of 2010, objectively speaking.

That said, objectively speaking, this, right now, is a really good time for rap music. What's popular, I mean. Except Drake.

Kanye's album probably has something to do with it. It was a work of great artistic ambition, and the fact that it succeeded as it did was bound to have a positive effect. More than Kanye, though, I'd give credit to Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane for leading the way to a point where, as G from the underground-championing site Grand Good put it:

"We should celebrate the fact that Jay Electronica and Tyler, The Creator can comfortably co-exist in that misty plane of rap popularity. And our freedom to consume and process and react to both, the adult and the child, without feeling compromised. Or something like that."

Jay Electronica is the deep-thinking New Orleans rapper who Jay-Z signed to his Roc Nation label in November. He's older for an up-and-comer, 34, and has been working for years below the mainstream radar. And you probably read about Tyler the Creator recently. (He's the 19-year-old member of the L.A. collective Odd Future, who made a huge splash with their performance on Jimmy Fallon's show two weeks ago.) They're both really good. What's more important, they're both proudly, defiantly, weird.

Here's another Odd Future video, this one for a song rapped by Tyler's colleague Earl Sweatshirt. It's excellent, but a warning: this video has lots of blood and gore. I find some of it extremely unpleasant to watch. You may want to close your eyes. (But keep listening while you do. The song is dynamite.)

Also very weird, and also getting a great deal of mainstream attention lately, is Berkeley, California's Lil B. A member of the Bay Area group The Pack, and the progenitor of a largely spontaneous style of rap (a style of being, really) he calls "based," Lil B is quite unlike anything hip-hop has ever seen before. (Though he is reminiscent, especially in his cold, nasally voice, of Oakland forefather Too Short.) Lil B calls himself "Based God," films videos in churches, and compares himself to Jesus, Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Beiber.

He also calls himself a "nerd" and a "faggot," though he says he's heterosexual. The faggot part is really, really different and new for rap. And, one would hope, might actually lead to a time when there could be a popular rap artist who was openly gay. Lil B is nothing if not interesting.

It's particularly interesting to see him working with Tony Yayo. Yayo is a member of 50 Cent's G-Unit, a brawny, unforgiving crew that in many ways represents the strictest sort of conservatism and conformity in rap. Which is very much mainstream rap. Rap is one of the most conservative forms of popular music going. Generally, rap artists break codes of dress, behavior and subject matter at the peril of their commercial viability. This is incredibly self-defeating. How ridiculous is it that Jay-Z needs to worry about what shoes he wears when he's on vacation, because someone's going to see a picture of him and use it to score points in a diss song? How many free-thinking MCs have shied away from rhyming about “that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense,” because someone else might not like it and punch them in their face "just for living"? (Some of this can be chalked up to the hyper-competiveness which also serves to make rap as vital and compelling as it is. So you take the bad with the good, I guess. It also speaks to the way that non-music aspects of a rap artist's life can affect the reception of the music—in this way, I think, rap was prescient of the 24-hour-news, reality-TV-style of 21st century entertainment culture in general. But that's a different essay.) Even an artist as brilliant and beloved as OutKast's Andre 3000 has had to strain against voices questioning his realness or his manhood—those who would punish him for expressing his individuality. It's depressing to think about what the world might have missed out on had his partner Big Boi's more traditional rap style not provided a sort of street anchor for Andre's artistic ambitions.

Which is not to impugn Big Boi's own creativity or sense of adventure—he put his capital to great use a few years ago when he wrote and produced a ballet. And he's like the world's biggest Kate Bush fan. But in the OutKast schemata, he's the cool guy. As opposed to the freak. And that, the cool guy, is by far the dominant persona adopted by rap artists. Machismo is so important in rap, vulnerability so taboo. Most of the music's stars have held themselves like masters of their domains. Think of LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Master P, 50 Cent. The kings of rap act like the most popular kids in the school. The prom kings, the bullies, not the bullied, not the nerds. Misfits, for the most part, have had a hard time in rap.

There have been important exceptions, to be sure: Biz Markie, Flavor Flav, De La Soul. The Pharcyde, Wu-Tang, Kool Keith.

"I'm crazy" is a common attitude to cop in rap, but only in terms of "I don't give a fuck." Not in terms of "I am unhinged from reality." Even someone like Eminem, for all his enthusiastic exploitation of shock and exposure of childhood psychological damage, has never really let himself look out of control in public. If anything, he's always seemed coiled more tightly. As passionate as he is about his art, he has always kept a certain cool. And thus, kept himself more in line with standard rap behavior.

Again, there have been important exceptions.

Tyler the Creator eating cockroaches in his videos and rapping about dancing around his house in a pair of pink panties pays Ol' Dirty Bastard a appropriately terrific posthumous tribute.

But really, I think the roots of the freedom of expression flourishing in today's rap can be found in the way Lil Wayne shot to superstardom five years ago. (Popdust's Christopher Wiengarten made this point in a nice piece last week—though I actually don't so much hear the similarities between Tyler's "Yonkers" and Wayne's "I Hate Love" that Weingarten does. Different ears hear differently.) Wayne has been famous since the late '90s, when he was a teenaged member of Cash Money Records' troupe, the Hot Boys—a situation in which he played second fiddle to his cohorts Juvenile and B.G. Around 2005, though, Wayne enjoyed an explosion in artistry of a sort very rare in rap or any other genre. Suddenly, a rapper respected for his flow and charisma, but not previously known for elevated lyricism, was doing things with words we'd never heard before, and being rewarded and revered for it. And in the South—a region so long maligned as lacking great lyrical ambition and talent. Best of all, his technical blossoming was accompanied by that of a wild and charming (and, okay, openly drug-fueled) personality; a distinct and refreshing willingness to be different, nonsensical, silly—to be a weirdo. "We are not the same," he said to listeners, fans, rival rappers. "I am a Martian."

Wayne turned himself into the biggest star in rap by letting his freak flag fly. And this was very healthy for the music. In the past couple years, folks like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame have followed suit, with their own quirky takes on the mien.

Again, I think its great. And that rap music as a whole is very much the better for it. Everybody should get ice-cream cones tattooed on their faces. Metaphorically, I mean. Just that, everyone should have their own different flavor.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Thank you for bringing up Kool Keith – every OFWGKTA song I've heard reminded me of something that for some reason I wasn't putting my finger on. And suddenly I remembered: Dr. Octagon. #freeearl

Murgatroid (#2,904)

Rick Ross. That is all.

Matt (#26)

I think we also have to give credit to Jay-Z for being so horribly awful lately in the generally accepted post-Biggie "Best Rapper Alive" superstar mold, allowing everyone else to just say, Fuck it. We'll do what we want.

Also, Soulja Boy was much better than anyone ever admitted at the time.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

please to define "better"

Murgatroid (#2,904)

I mean, related to my previous comment and to also the Tony Yayo part, the most interesting part of this is how this strain of individualism is affecting/infecting even the most mainstream/commercial of "rappers": Diddy, for one.

If you had told me a decade ago that him and two members of Danity Kane were going to make a sorta-concept album about trains or whatever (that's pretty good, to boot), I would have laughed myself out of the room.

Matt (#26)

And also! Is good you mentioned Outkast because as usual they preemptively solved this, and on a skit at that. "At first they was pimps, man. Then they was some aliens, some genies or some shit. Then they be talking bout that black rights in space, man. Whatever. Fuck them, I ain't fuckin' with them no mo'."

Ha!! I'd forgotten about that!

Isaac Katz (#10,142)

It isn't just rappers that are weird (or trying to be): Gaga, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj (ok, she's a rapper, but still), and many many more:


Isaac Katz (#10,142)

(shameless plug)

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

No Nicki Minaj? She's especially adept at creatively defying "established conventions"; pageantry that mocks gender perceptions, shifting voices that highlight her multiple personas, her refusal to become any one archetype, etc.

And it's nice that there are people out there discussing hip hop and black people in general (both of which are tough to find outside of specialized publications, a fact I'm sure is pretty obvious). But what about the aspect of rap that is beyond the realm of how white people define success or innovation? Maybe there's some other conversation that's taking place in the music beyond the specialty of rap itself? Not to be snide, but how much of this article is, really, just you kind of semantically saying, "Rap is qualified by rap" over and over?

I'm skeptical of the new weird trend. Certainly there is hot-weird and wack-weird. I think wack-weird is describes most of it. Grab attention through hot lyrics, not by eating bugs and acting pseudo-crazy, like the Wolfman Jacks or whatever their name is. Kool Keith, OutKast, etc., established themselves as originals and then branched out further and maintained their skills. ODB was a hit because there was "no father to his style."

Julian Hattem (#7,208)

I think, as always, technology is really important in this discussion. Rap came into being because of specific technological advances (cassette tapes, drum machines…), and the folks mentioned above largely came of age in an era where mixtapes and freestyles spread across the Internet, reaching fans all over the country. It's a lot harder to be "weird" if you're selling CDs or tapes out of the trunk of your car; on hyper-specific music blogs and the Internet, it's easier to find a few thousand people to think you're good.
If former weirdos (Andre 3000, ODB…) achieved prominence on the backs of their colleagues, it was because MTV will buy a weird sidekick to a cool guy; no one watches MTV anymore. Marketing oneself has changed, and as goes the medium so goes the message. It's not really weird, it's just virtual.

Matt (#26)

This is important — the fact that ODB didn't rise to prominence on the back of his weirdness but on the strength of Ghost and Meth and GZA's relative non-weirdness.

semiserious (#2,430)

This is a post about rappers being weird, and yet when I hit ctrl+f and typed in "Missy" nothing came up in either the article or the comments. I understand that the particular style of weirdness discussed in this very male-centric post isn't a direct descendant of Missy's weridness, but, still you guys, come on!

Dave Bry (#422)

That's a fair point. Missy probably deserved a mention in that list. But she has always been so far to the pop side of rap, the r&b side, so as to have sort of placed herself out of this kind of conversation. And that's not to knock her at all. I think she's great. She just always been her own other thing—demographically. (As well as creatively, which is more what this piece is about.)

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

Nicki Minaj????

Matt (#26)

Also there's something about the clinical cool of Missy's delivery that overshadows the weird. Putting her in the weird camp feels like doing her a disservice.

Dave Bry (#422)

I still… I don't know. Is Nicki Minaj that "weird?" Maybe? I don't feel like I have a good bead on her. She seems so acting-all-the-time. (Her funny-style voice changes continue to bother me.) I don't mean to be such a nattering nabob of hatertude. She can rhyme. She is very creative. Is she a weirdo? I don't know. I want to like her music more than I have. Lord knows it is a VERY good thing for rap to have another female superstar.

Adouble (#1,300)

Related to this weirdness being male-centric, I'm going to hold off on heralding rap as the music of the iconoclast when it continues to be scaffolded by a constant strain of misogyny. And I'm saying that as someone who loves rap, etc. But if everyone is going to be saying the same thing about half the people on the planet, it's not particularly novel.

Slava (#216)

Were you surprised? Have you seen his Top 50 Rap Songs list?!

Suzi Lea (#5,187)

Since I am a lady, I am going to call cop-out. I mean, she pioneered some of that crazy video stuff yo! Also possibly the "space alien" stuff!

semiserious (#2,430)

Yeah, Missy is on a whole other slice of weird than these guys, but then after posting this I tried to come up with a female rapper who's on this kind of vibe. The best I could come up with is MIA at her worst, and even then barely. (at her best she's got more in common with Missy).

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

I keep thinking about this and I think I located the sore spot: within the hierarchy of socioeconomic power, the higher up in the social structure you are, the less freedom you have to "be weird" or veer from the expected conventions of the culture. The corollary, then, is that the lowest rung of the social ladder has less societal obligation to maintain convention or tradition.

I know the point of your article is that rap music is great right now because the "weird" and "bizarre", the iconoclastic, is shaking things up and creating new contexts and meanings (not to mention financial success! Rap is commercially profitable! That's certainly an indication of success!). But consider the fact that, arguably, one of the most successful and important modern figures in the genre, Kanye West, is almost expected to act irrationally and "weird". He has x-amount of followers on twitter, sells x-amount of records, and speaks to a huge swath of people; but is he taken seriously? Or is he simply the spokesman for an artistic form that is constantly considered to be outside of the bounds of the artisanal power structure?

Matt (#26)

"Bikini Kill are activists, not musicians."

deacon (#7,432)

Or is he simply the spokesman for an artistic form that is constantly considered to be outside of the bounds of the artisanal power structure?

Rap is now part and parcel of "the artisanal power structure". Kanye, if anything, is the spokesman for that being so. How can it be considered otherwise? He has to do what he does, he is compelled by the inertia of the commercial music marketing structure. And Kanye as wierd…I would instead describe as attention grabbng; we expect him to create headlines, perhaps through irrationality, for sure, but less for manifesting "iconoclastic wierdness".

And all this hoopla about modern rap being good, healed perhaps even, because all rap has reached some saturation point of wierdness is specious. It presents a very surface reflection of the last 10 years of rap, (basically, post hip hop infinity, haha).

deacon (#7,432)

yeah what caught my eye is really the headline (nicely done!)

"Rap Music Is Good Now Because Rappers Aren't Afraid To Be Weird"

Rap music has always been its best when artists arent afraid of inhibiting themselves and embracing new and provocative approaches (except dose one), this is not anything new.

And the "good now", that implies…in a favorable view of the phrase that; well that, yay, the marketing paradigm of rapper as gangster is less viable and monied interests are taking note. What you are aware of because of these monied interests is not all of "rap music".

deacon (#7,432)

iconoclastic wierdness, to me, being say, your frank zappas and george clintons.

mouth almighty (#8,116)

I think the acceptance of some of the more mainstream "black weirdos" (Nicki Minaj, Janelle Monae, Kelis, Cee-Lo, Rihanna, etc.) also has a role in why rap suddenly seems to be inundated with a new wave of weird rappers. There's money in that image, when there wasn't before.

Still, this was an interesting piece and I liked it.

emmacar (#8,833)

i'm disappointed that nicki minaj and missy elliot didn't make the cut, but i'm more interested in what white people reveal about themselves/us when they/we celebrate "weirdness" in hip hop. we had this at my college all the time: white kids with dreads dancing around the quad with “Keep ___ Weird” signs. there and here, there's gotta be more to it. i think it’s true that odd future going on jimmy fallon and jay electronica signing with roc nation is an indication that hip hop consumers and labels are ready to allow black male rappers to maybe dissociate themselves from this very narrow public idea of what black male rappers can look like, be interested in, and say out loud, and that's really important. but i also think that a lot of white people, including me, and maybe you?, initially became interested in jay electronica because he made songs using samples from "eternal sunshine" instead of, say, "the godfather." when white people celebrate rappers like tyler & electronica being "weird," i think we might be demonstrating some subconscious comfort & relief at the music's characters becoming more accessible and intriguing to a very specific group of people. and it’s a people the music isn't really intended for in the first place.

all this to say that i'm also loving the weird shit.

little boy toucher (#10,154)

Am i mentally deficient or did i just read several comments agreeing with this joke of an article above. Now i know that everyone has different tastes in music and different idea's of what makes a song, a 'good' song, but several points made by the author could be partially interpreted as blasphemy. HOW THE FUCK COULD YOU SAY THAT LITTLE WAYNE PAVED THE WAY FOR THE "expression flourishing in today's rap", the only thing little wayne has done to the the rap/hip hop genre is make it a fucking joke. Rappers have been experimenting for years with different flows and styles, little wayne's untalented lyrics just encouraged him to fuck around with his shit and chuck it up on the radio where deaf 12 year old white kids would buy it in the drones because "the guys black so his music must be good". Personally i do believe that rap today is dead, but if your going to try to convince me otherwise dont use "lil b" (who compares himself to justin bieber), little wayne and kanye west to prove your point. Real rap/hiphop is about the struggle with day to day life,poverty, about kids who would make their shit out of their basements with actual lyrical skill, not kanye west some rich kid who got lucky and now uses million dollar music producing equipment with no lyrical talent, singing stupid little love ballads. im all up for creativity but keeping the crux of hip hop(a good flow, lyrical skill and a good beat)is vital for artist to actually be generally successful, not just commerically.

Slava (#216)

"Now i know that everyone has different tastes in music"

Ramón Ramirez (#10,162)

Nicki Minaj was a must mention on this list until she dropped a major label debut album full of conventional, poppy, what's-hot-now hogwash.

Dunno man, I think the biggest catalyst here is the ubiquity of region-less, often times rap-less rap songs penned by the likes of B.o.B, Bruno Mars, and Flo Rida. Any nondescript American bar is playing songs like Usher's "OMG" on a loop right now. Not to hate on Jason Derulo, but something has irrevocably altered when countercultural forces like Lupe Fiasco are about to drop an album full of songs and beats they've admitted to detesting in interviews (Lasers is full of stupid choruses and beats from nowhere). Something has to balance that in the culture.

Kanye isn't really that avant-garde or weird, he just has college newspaper editor taste (Daft Punk, Bon Iver, King Crimson, Aphex Twin, The Mojo Men, Jon Brion), is undeniably good, and more importantly undeniably established after a decade of making top 40 hits. Is Cee-Lo weird? Is Lil Wayne making weird songs today? Is Wiz Khalifa weird? Rick Ross certainly isn't weird. Are Lil B and Tyler the Creator indicative of what's popular or what's heavily written about in GorillaVsBear, Cocaine Blunts, and Pitchfork? Gucci’s biggest hit “Lemonade” is awesome but par for the course (bouncy hook, a wealth of video vixens eating candy).

It's cool to hypothesize the rise of weirdness and use Lil Wayne circa 2008 as the inspiration, but I think it comes down to artists like Odd Future making themselves (1) in reaction to a lack of identifiable hip-hop superstars; and (2) because the internet allows for a world where street smart rappers don't have to rob and threaten A&R executives. Because here’s the thing, the intro to Tyler’s mixtape, Bastard, was him complaining about hip-hop blogs not posting his material. Now he’s doing Funny or Die clips with VH1 comedians. Nicki was zany until she had to write a pop hit, let’s table this discussion until Odd Future drops an album backed by investors.

pixieg (#10,184)

I love Odd Future's sound, but all the fantasy rape stuff puts me off completely.

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