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.