By Andrew Burton
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and when popular YouTube music video channel VEVO decided to interview Drake, his number was called. Whether he meant it or not (he didn’t), Drake managed to say something true about hip hop that I have been feeling for some time. When asked what he thinks the difference between Old School and New School MC’s is, he replied that “wordy, fast rap is not that appealing right now”, and that “the rapper now a days has to come with something more than just “I can rap””. Drake’s first point isn’t anything new; “wordy, fast rap” hasn’t been in the vogue in hip hop since Biggie died (if not earlier), but his second point actually got me thinking.
The ‘something more’ Drake is referring is a rapper who can ‘sing’, who can ‘dance’, who can ‘act’, who can ‘make people laugh’, and who has potential to be a crossover star. While Drake can’t ‘sing’, ‘dance’ or ‘act’ (amazingly he can make some people laugh), the rappers that interest me the most today are the ones who don’t necessarily have the deepest lyrics or most intricate flows, but are trying to install a new sense of originality into hip hop that Drake is hinting at. By traditional standards, many of them are crap, and this is what I love about them. They have no interest in being the next Rakim, collaborating with Jay-Z and getting a RZA beat.
Ever since the commercialization of hip hop in the late 90s, the validity of the genre has been often questioned (google ‘is hip hop dead?’ and proceed to waste the next ten hours). Traditional fans point to lyrics that promote misogyny, drug use and senseless violence (clearly they’ve never listened to The Chronic) as the catalyst in hip hop’s decline. I blame the lack of both innovation and desire to break hip hop stereotypes for the genre’s shortcomings. But with this new crop of rule breaking MC’s, the stagnation seems to be over.
So let’s talk about the best of the bunch, Danny Brown. At a ripe age of 30, the dude is missing his two front teeth, proudly rocks a Skrillex-cut, wears neon t-shirts, has a voice that falls somewhere between Jeff Mangum’s and ODB’s, and is blem all-day-er-day. He looks, talks, raps and acts like a hipster-turned-crackhead, and he’s absolutely hilarious. Last year, he released XXX, my favourite album of the year. It’s a twisted, cynical and comic look into the psychotic life of a down-and-outer who’s been struggling to find attention for years. Brown’s an accomplished rapper, but he’s far from a traditionalist. His voice takes some time to get used to, and his beats and absurd subject matter can be off-putting at first. But once you spend some time with the songs, you’ll realize that these are the most interesting aspects of the music, and the reasons why Brown excels. By all means, laugh along.
But if Brown doesn’t take it far enough, Death Grips certainly do. This trio consisting of MC Ride and producers Flatlander and Zach Hill completely destroys anyone’s preconception of hip hop. If a homeless dude (why is this a reoccurring theme?) screaming over ‘beats’ that simultaneously recall Einstürzende Neubauten and Lil’ John entertains you, then you need to seek mental help. You should also listen to Exmilitary and The Money Store (I can’t vouch for No Love Deep Web), two of the most unique and terrifying hip hop albums ever made. But before this, throw away all your previous preconceptions of what hip hop sounds like. These records are Molotov cocktails of industrial grind, anguished vocals and surprisingly poppy choruses. Embrace it, and then decide whether or not you’re down with it. If Odd Future really wanted to shock people, they would sound like this.
Many hip hop traditionalists seem to forget that the genre they care so much about started out as party music. The DJ was the star, while the MC’s role was simply to hype up the audience. When done well, super ignorant and energetic trap rap is undeniably fantastic. Waka Flocka Flame is the ultimate summation of thirty years of party rap, and a walking stereotype of everything hip hop traditionalists hate. He has no flow and his lyrics are terrible (in the best way possible), but never has there been a rapper as passionate and charismatic as him. And don’t act like he doesn’t have talent; no one on this planet sounds as confident and as natural over Lex Luger’s hard hitting trap beats as he does.
While Waka’s singles are excellent, his downfall is that he has a tough time carrying an album’s worth of material. If you’re in the mood for a full record of party rap, do check out A$AP Rocky’s LiveLoveA$AP. Rocky is just as fun and just as explicit, but his sound comes from the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. His beats, made primarily by wonderkid producer Clams Casino, are lo-fi, spaced out, ethereal, and sound a lot closer to Slowdive than they do Gang Starr. If Waka is for the moments when you want to break everything in sight, Rocky is for the aftermath, when all you want to do is lie on your couch (and probably partake in lethargy on a grandiose adolescent style).
So back to the question: is hip hop in it’s second golden age? I would have to say yes. Never since the late 80s/early 90s goldrush have there been so many distinct artists working within the genre, creating distinct, forward-thinking music. Seriously though, thank the Internet for this rush of innovation. Hip hop always has been, and hopefully always will be, a young persons genre. Now a whole generation of kids, no matter where they come from, are uploading their work to the web for free for anyone to listen. The amount of ideas is staggering, and it’s not slowing down. With that much content available, someone’s bound to be doing something interesting.