Songs that personify hip hop as a damsel in distress1 or simply as a hapless victim are Â difficult to sit through. The listener is asked to accept the premise that the rapper playing the knight in shining armor knows best; that his intentions are noble; that his take on the history of the genre is informed and insightful; and that his critique is not merely an assault on a false dichotomy. This problem was overcome in the past when rappers penned witty, stylized odes to their genre and their contradictions were overshadowed by enjoyable music. Years later, however, songs like Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” and Jeru The Damaja’s “One Day” lose some of their luster. The moral rescue enacted in these songs is campy and antiquated; listeners no longer pine for a reclamation of the genre. Why bother, when any individual fan can utilize online social networking to rescue the music that correlates to their niche taste and place it in a conveniently labeled mylar pouch?
“I Used To Love H.E.R.” and “One Day” suggest that decidedly insular listening practices2 were nascent at a time when proclamations of a unified culture were considered prescient.3 Common and Jeru relate their fables with the authority of appointed statesmen but their lyrics reveal the degree to which these songs reflect a personal response to larger industry trends. Private listening rituals and creative processes are at stake; nobody likes to see their muse outgrow her subjugation. In both cases we can safely assume that the rappers considered their critique of the genre to be linked to their concern for the urban black collective,4 but when Jeru makes reference to scratching his nuts and Common likens his artistic development to trying to get a good nut, Â we are made aware that the domain of larger concerns overlaps with Â navel-gazing territory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this but it does make the hard-line anti-commercial rhetoric a little hard to take seriously.
Nas’s “Who Killed It?” is a barely coherent5, self-indulgent rant that effectively destroys the work that Jeru and Common put into developing an entertaining if problematic archetype. It is the centerpiece of Nas’s 2008Â Hip Hop Is Dead, an album thatÂ attempts to revive the discussion of hip hop as a unified culture by denouncing every trend and personality that ever deviated from the purist/traditionalist/East Coast stencil with the glaring exception of Nas’s mid-career dalliance with certified platinum Mafioso folklore. Nas’s use of an Edward G. Robinson-esque voice is actually a clever decision; it masks the even greater absurdity of the song’s hazy, aimless narrative. The hip hop culture of the late 80s and early 90s is dead not because interest in the music has waned6 but because fans no longer agree on who constitutes the good guys (formerly, good rappers) and Â the bad guys (formerly, bad rappers, especially bad popular rappers and their industry patrons). Nowadays, the discussion is far more complicated. “Who Killed It?” needs to be as decisive in its accusations as “I Used To Love H.E.R.” and “One Day” if it needs to exist at all;7 instead it is as amorphous and confused as the culture it condescends to lecture.
Download – Lil B “I Killed Hip Hop”
Oakland’s Lil B is a manically prolific rapper with an enormous internet presence;8 “I Killed Hip Hop” personifies the genre not as a corrupted young woman but as a crotchety old man9 sitting on his laurels, disdainful of change and innovation.10 Â The song is billed as featuring Cormega11 but he only drops by to give Lil B some pointers on how to keep his fanbase engaged.12 Lil B’s narrative is slickly delivered and brimming with earned confidence; he rightly posits himself as a hitman stalking hip-hop13 in its usual debauched Manhattan and Hollywood haunts. He is suspicious of both his elusive target and his shadowy client but eager to learn and play the game. His research into the craft and business of music leads him to conclude that remaining truly autonomous from the industry will allow him to continue kill shit, i.e. defy the expectations of naysayers and the conventions of the genre by freely churning out creative, provocative music. Rappers like Jeru, Common, and Nas view the genre as a princess that needs to be saved from her own jetsetting ambitions and pampered by middleground do-gooders14; Lil B wants to cause much damage and get his name up because the current historical moment favorsÂ the enlightened unsigned artist to do so on his own terms.15 — Thun
- It’s funny to me that this type of song often criticizes Â misogyny Â in rap at the same time that it personifies hip hop as a woman who does not possess any creative/sexual agency, i.e. a used up whore in need of corrective pimping. [↩]
- The advent of high speed dubbing and advanced fast-forwarding that sought out blank spaces between tracks meant that even those of us who resisted switching to compact discs were not enslaved to the album format. [↩]
- KRS-One’s “Temple Of Hip-Hop” rhetoric is the most obvious example; Tricia Rose’s seminal academic primer on hip hop Black Noise and similar texts further developed the notion that hip-hop’s audience could be considered a coherent collective that could be rallied around common social and political concerns. [↩]
- I recently wrote about how De La Soul genre critiques paralleled their concerns for the collective’s moral and economic progress. Their approach is much less heavy-handed than either Common or Jeru even though these artists are often grouped together under an “anti-jiggy” label. [↩]
- Some might say bordering on idiotic. [↩]
- There are likely more fans of Showbiz and AG’s Runaway Slave in 2010 than their were in 1992. [↩]
- If the song blasted specific targets it would probably be heavy-handed and preachy, but it least it would feel confidently purposeful. [↩]
- For more coverage of Lil B, check Steady Bloggin; Drizzle recommends his mixtape 6Kiss as a good starting point for those largely unfamiliar with his work. [↩]
- The song is titled “Message To Kanye West” and it has been said that the old man in the song in fact represents Kanye. I think the song functions just fine as a changing of the guard allegory even if the old man is not explicitly linked to a single real life figure. It is funny that someone as young as Kanye might be considered a washed up gatekeeper, though. [↩]
- The main title seems to refer traditionalist criticism of Lil B’s unorthodox music and branding; apparently some insist that he has killed hip hop, as if playing a Nas-inspired game of Twitter Cop N’ Robbers. [↩]
- Cormega’s “American Beauty” relies on the same basic conceit found in “I Used To Love H.E.R.” but credits the woman-genre with newly gained autonomy. [↩]
- The Cormega co-sign is a show of good will from an admiring elder. Cormega has caught a lot of flak on his own website’s forums for his endorsement of Lil’ B, and like a real mean he sticks by his decision. [↩]
- This reminds me of Black Thought on “Proceed”: “I could make you feel that I’m a surreal cartoon/With my pistol in the face of hip-hop, sticking for papes/ ‘Cause I’m on a paper chase.” [↩]
- Who enact their protests from within the industry. [↩]
- Ironically, this seems much closer to the view of the creative process espoused by seminal hip hop films like Wild Style. [↩]