Jeru, Common, Nas, and Lil B: Genre Personification

Songs that personify hip hop as a damsel in distress1 or simply as a hapless victim are  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,  we are made aware that the domain of larger concerns overlaps with  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 2008 Hip Hop Is Dead, an album that 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  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  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 favors the enlightened unsigned artist to do so on his own terms.15 Thun

Bonus: A homemade compilation of Lil B rapping over classic boom-bap instrumentals, courtesy of Droptops and Stacy Lattisaw Tapes.

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  1. It’s funny to me that this type of song often criticizes  misogyny  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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
  5. Some might say bordering on idiotic. []
  6. There are likely more fans of Showbiz and AG’s Runaway Slave in 2010 than their were in 1992. []
  7. If the song blasted specific targets it would probably be heavy-handed and preachy, but it least it would feel confidently purposeful. []
  8. 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. []
  9. 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. []
  10. 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. []
  11. 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. []
  12. 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. []
  13. 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.” []
  14. Who enact their protests from within the industry. []
  15. Ironically, this seems much closer to the view of the creative process espoused by seminal hip hop films like Wild Style. []

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10 Responses to “Jeru, Common, Nas, and Lil B: Genre Personification”

  1. cenzi says:

    as much as I hate to admit it, this was a dope post. I really had no fuckin idea who Lil B was, as I had thought that avoiding him was better. I guess not. I might have to put some salt and pepper on a shoe.

    • Thun says:

      He’s hit or miss no matter who you are; he puts out tons of material and some it is really left field. He has a mixtape that is apparently him ranting nonsense over ambient new age music, for example.

      Your best bet is the 6Kiss mixtape, or the compilation I linked. He’s dope, kind of like Lil’ Dap meets Kool Keith meets some tweaked out Bay Area everyman.

  2. hl says:

    Wow you really tied that together. I like the breakdown of Nas’ Who Killed It”. Dude that had the Nas blog a while back (Rebel to America) did a nice breakdown as well. I’ll try to find the link later.

  3. done says:

    great post man.

    this is exactly the blog where people needa hear stuff like this from too insteada the preachin to the choir which every blog does. hopefully it sparks some debate, well done anyways.

    its very unlikely therel never be a consensus on what makes a great rapper but hopefully the abandoning of some of these ways of thinking will make people less likely to focus on what they dislike about rap, or more specifically, define what they like by comparing it to what they hate. “hes great cos hes not like those other rappers” etc

    especially from rappers themselves. im sure it felt good to hear someone diss the “bullshit” way back when (especially when ice cube did it), but it should never have been done to the extent that it was. it sucked a lot of the fun out of their music and created some of the most negative, annoying fans ever. im 22 and i hear people my age spout that “hip hop as something that needs protecting, true to the 4 elements, back to the old school” stuff and its really irritating. id much rather talk to someone whos simply ignorant of the music.

    hip-hop is not ONE specific culture with rigid rules and principles. most of that shit was agreed upon retrospectively by either nostalgic people or people who wish they were around “way back when” (whenever “when” was, tellingly no one ever seems to agree when the golden age was). Hip-hop is an ever evolving group of cultures with infinite different approaches to it based on region, influences, etc.

    yeah its not as obviously creative as it was (new york rap in particular) but its not simply cos of money, fame, overexposure etc. id say it has more to do with the fans either expecting something unrealistic and counter-productive from a genre of music thats actually making exciting, original music right under there noses under the guise of something theyd consider not “real hip-hop”. and also the artists. too often it seems theyr either doing what the fans want (be it for money/fame/respect/whatever) or theyr doing what they themselves consider “real hip-hop” by imitating what theyr heroes did.

    i think a good lesson a lot of modern rappers could learn from these people theyr trying to emulate would be to look to the attitudes they had as opposed to theyr actual music. the reason so many great albums came out in the mid-eighties to mid-nineties isnt because of the style of hip-hop they were doing but because they were trying to be original and push things forward. it wasnt because someone told them this is how hip-hop is “supposed” to sound.

    who decided rap had to be all samples with scratching on the chorus, poly-sylabbic rhym patterns talking about positivity etc anyways? didnt most early rap songs have backing bands (with syhthesisers!) and use overexaturated delivery and simple rhyme styles, often talking about “cold cash money”? so its supposed to stop evolving in 1994, when it reached “perfection”? or just keep getting more complicated? cos obviously complexity = great art.

    money obviously changes things, but it shouldnt be the main scapegoat. the fans and rappers needa take responsibility for their influence and accept the fact that rap has moved on and still is moving on.

    ha i obviously needa learn less is more. and yeh i get the irony of complaining about nostalgia or whatever on a site called “they reminisce over you” ( i know your referencing a song, but it just occured to me – is the “you” hip-hop?, thatd be pretty hilarious if true)

    • Thun says:

      Done, you seem to have a pretty good head on your shoulders. At age 22, I wasn’t half as open minded or insightful, more so just declaring war on anything in a glittery suit rapping over synth beats or obvious samples. It’s good to see a younger fan take advantage of the numerous resources at our disposal, including the benefit of hindsight, to make informed critiques.

      I don’t take your words to be an attack on all nostalgia, and I don’t think any reasonable person does, either. I think you are correct that one aspect of hip-hop early spirit or ethos or whatever you might term it, that gets ironically swept under the rug when people let nostalgia guide their criticism, is change and innovation. Lil B seems to embody it, and that’s a great thing. The fact that he can embody it while being aware of it, and make songs that enact it as well as analyze it, is impressive, especially given his age. He isn’t a perfect artist — and given his release schedule we get to hear all of his imperfections, but he isn’t some kind of hip hop antichrist, like the the reactionary folks at Cormega’s site were claiming. The Witch Hunt for the hip hop antichrist really needs to stop, already. The genre is alive and thriving, it’s just different than it used to be.

      I like how you take issue with two different but equally annoying schools of thought – the one that suggests that hip hop stay frozen in 1994 and the other that says that it should become more complex for complexity’s sake. It is kind of fun to theorize about where and how these notions developed though.

      The “you” might as well mean hip hop, I don’t think too many people these days are mourning Trouble T-Roy!

  4. done says:

    thanks for the compliment but to be honest the internet had far more to do with my current perspective on rap then any effort i consciously made to be open-minded or whatever. if you read certain blogs you end up listening to a lot of music you wouldnt have dreamed of listening to previously. man i remember bein really turned off ghost and rae when i was young cos i finally understood their gun references on 36 chambers ha. appreciate it tho.

    im not as up on lil b as most of his fans seem to be ( it seems like anyone who likes him knows his entire catalog, though thats probably impossible) but i love some of the songs iv heard and more than anything i like his approach to it. he flipped something a lot of current rappers mis-use or at least dont seem to use to its potential, bombarding the internet with music. he does it in a way thats original, interesting, entertaing and in a way that works for him. i think thats important too in that, especially nowadays, there are so many different ways (and potential ones) to release music that rappers really need to get out the old music-model mindset and embrace the possibilities.

    i agree with you about him being a great example of bein innovate and how his self- awareness is an asset. i love how him having all these songs you can almost track his development as a rapper and really get an impression of how he thinks, as opposed to creating a false image to hide behind. i mean, he is, its just that were in on it too so it makes you feel more connected to what hes doing. or something. maybe im misreading/overanalyzing it.

    “It is kind of fun to theorize about where and how these notions developed though.”

    in my opinion, a lot of these notions were pre-existing local/minor prejudices that just got amplified and made more concrete by the internet “echo-chamber” (as i think noz or maybe someone else put so well once). but i think, or really just hope, that the internet can be the solution to a lot of these things too, cos despite it creating a lot more niche communities and the problems attached to that, theres a surprising amount of interaction between schools of thought that might have never crossed paths pre-internet. (the cormega forums a good example of this. and it gets fairly hilarious when it descends into debates on religion and gayness, people needa quit bein so sensitive.) cos it really is just as easy as a click of a link or google search. whereas before there were countries and oceans separating shit and you had to go extra out of your way to discover it.

    think of how many non-southern three 6 mafia fans there are now as opposed to pre-internet times. and theres a million other examples. i myself am just realising that i there is so much shit im yet to discover and never would have even wanted to had it not been for the internet. (jesus i sound like some door-to-door broadband salesman) there are a lot of downsides to this new ease of access but the positives outweigh em i think

  5. done says:

    fuck i really should have better things to do then leave 1000 word comments.

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