I love rap and I think it's really good right now. I mean, to the extent that we can assess a type of art in the present tense, which I think is not very much, because of the not-being-able-to-see-a-forest-for-the-trees thing. We get a better gauge with ten or twenty years' perspective. But between El-P and Killer Mike, and A$AP Rocky and Danny Brown, and Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, and Meek Mill and Gunplay and the enormous Maybach Music beats, and the thing where Kanye West just keeps making undeniably excellent, important music: eight straight strong years, six straight great albums. (I don't know of any other rap artist who has put together this kind of run, ever. Maybe RZA, I guess. He made eight straight great albums, counting his production work on Wu-Tang solo albums, as I think we should, between 1994 and 1997. That's pretty incredible. Oh, and Dr. Dre's work with N.W.A and Death Row Records—those were eight flawless years. But neither of them matched Kanye's rapping.) And the forthcoming Cruel Summer albums seems to be shaping up in kind. And also considering how Andre 3000 continues to melt every microphone he touches for a guest verse, and that the venerable E-40 is making the best music of his career, and the thrilling singles from new, if as-yet-unproven stars like Azalea Banks and Chief Keef, rap seems really, really good to me right now. Like, I think 2012 will go down as a good year for the form.
All that said, something has been very much bothering me lately. And I'd like to complain about it.
I first noticed it when I was listening to a song on Rick Ross's new album, God Forgives, I Don't, called "Sixteen." The song features Andre 3000, so I was listening extra close. But what struck me came at the beginning of the song, as Ross is introducing it.
"This is special," he says. "Extremely special."
Hard to argue with. Andre is famously picky about the songs that he'll appear on. And sure enough, his rhymes here are jaw-dropping. And the beat is gorgeous, like so many of those that Ross has his producers construct. (Though Ross's rapping is as boring and as clunky as it usually is. I have come to appreciate his taste in music and his talent at finding talent. But I don't know why he is a rap star and not just an executive.) And Andre even plays guitar on the song—a terrific, sloppy, garage-rock solo that nods to his portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in the forthcoming biopic. So I guess this song is, technically, "special." But that is still such a lame thing to say. I mean, does Ross not remember Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" bit from Saturday Night Live in the 80s? Hasn't he ever heard my mom talk about what it's like when our extended family gets together for a meal? "Special?" That's the best he could come up with? Apparently so, since he really stresses it, with that "extremely" he puts before the repetition.
There are so many cooler ways to describe a song, or anything, than "special." How about "this is extremely dope." I mean, if you really want to keep the over-formality of "extremely" in there. But I wouldn't. If I was in Ross's position, introducing I would instead say something like, "Okay, everybody… Whooo! Whooo boy! I'm trying to keep it together here now, trying not to lose my shit, but… Really, you know what, don't even listen to anything else I say. Like, just, really, you should just skip ahead for the next three minutes, past whatever mediocre rap I'm about to waste your time with… Because, check it out, I got Andre 3000 on this song! From Outkast! And he is pretty much the crème de la crème when it comes to rapping. So, gosh, I dunno. Listen to this, listen to what he's gonna say. He's gonna rap for a really long time. Like more than four minutes. And he's gonna play the guitar, too!"
Or if I was Rick Ross himself, and so was heavily invested in playing it super cool, and also reliably over-impressed by five-cent vocabulary words, I'd say something like, "This is rarified rap." And I would draw "rarified" out long and luxurious, enunciate it in a way that implied that I knew I was being kind of silly, but I didn't care, because I knew that you, the listener, was about to learn that I got Andre 3000 on my album. "Rarified." That would do it. That pretty much means the same thing as "extremely special." But it sounds way better.
Things got worse a few days later, when I was listening to the radio, and I heard the DJ announce that the new DJ Khaled song. Now, DJ Khaled is another person who I can't figure out why I'm hearing his voice on records—he was a DJ and then he became friends with Fat Joe and got very good at assembling everybody around Miami at parties and in video shoots and stuff. (People like Rick Ross, for example. And Lil Wayne, and Plies and T-Pain and Flo Rida.) And then he became an executive, and now he's pretty much running Def Jam, it seems. And, good for him! From everything I've ever heard, he's a very nice guy. But for some reason, he started making records himself.
I'm never even sure what he actually does on the records, other than exhort his friends and colleagues to rhyme—which he doesn't really do himself, I don't think. And he always shouts these inane catchphrases like, "Listennn!" and "We the best!" and "We the best forever!" And the records he makes are terrible. At least those that I've heard, which are too many. ("I'm On One," from a couple summers ago, had an undeniably catchy synth beat—made by Drake's producer Noah "40" Shebib—and the usual impressive-but-still-detestable rapping from Drake. It's a well-written song. But even that one grates on me as much as I find myself singing along with it. And I don't much know why it's a DJ Khaled song!)
Anyway, so DJ Khaled has a new song called "Hip-hop," and it features Scarface, Nas and the scratching of Gangstarr's legendary DJ Premier (leaving Khaled even less to do, right?). These are three huge and important figures in rap music history, for sure, and bringing them together in collaboration qualifies as an event. It's something that I'm interested in listennning to. But, lo, what do I hear within ten seconds of the song's start? DJ Khaled's very serious voice talking to me. What does he say?
"This shit's special."
That made it so much less… special, just his saying that. Why would you say that? Why would anyone? Has DJ Khaled been hanging out with my mom? (Which, like, that would be fine with me. Again, I've heard nothing other than that he's a very nice guy. Very positive. They could go bird-watching.) Why is DJ Khaled making records? I don't get it. It's like P-Diddy. Same thing.
Then a couple days ago, I was checking Rap Radar to see what new music had come out recently. There's this guy from Lawrence, Massachusetts, DJ Statik Selektah. He's good at making the kind of rap music DJ Premier so magnificently defined with his partner Guru in the mid-90s: "boom-bap," people call it. There's a thriving underground audience for this stuff. Statik Selektah does what he does well. Solid, straight-up-and-down, traditionalist boom-bap. He often works as a duo with a rapper from Lawrence named Termanology. The two of them have a new song with another rapper named Ea$y Money.
It's all right. It's pretty good. I like the beat, the rhymes are fine. But that's a terrible title.