Last week, CBS published the results of a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll about music. Among other misguided and flawed questions, the survey asked its participants to pick "which musical form has reached its peak" from the choices of "rap or hip hop, country, rock, pop" and "R&B." Somewhat surprisingly, "rap or hip hop" received a whopping 50% of the votes, beating out the other genres in every age group. While a poll given to the notoriously greying audience of 60 Minutes may not be the most trustworthy source for a biopsy of hip hop, its sentiment of "hip hop has reached the limit of its creativity" has been echoed by everyone from Nas to Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker.
Nas was Angry about the State of Hip Hop in 2006
A wealth of conversations pertaining to this subject sprung up eight years ago around the release of Nas' eighth studio album, released under the blunt title Hip Hop is Dead. The album's title track had the Queens MC "reminiscing when it wasn't all business, bemoaning the fact that commercial hip hop had become less intellectual and providing a thinly-veiled diss to Dem Franchise Boyz, who were a popular target for "real rappers" to attack in the mid-00s. Nas' position is better explained in an 2006 interview with Pitchfork, in which he said, "To me, hip hop's been dead for years. We all should know that, come on. With that being said, then, the object of the game now is to make money off of exploiting it."
If that's the case, and rap was only alive before it became exploited for monetary gain, then hip hop's earliest hit, Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," might have been released after the death of hip hop (if you believe Kurtis Blow, who has said that the group "ripped off" many elements of more legitimate artists' music for a hot single). In addition, there are now more hip hop artists than ever releasing their music for free, thanks to the growth of online mixtape culture -- if anything, hip hop has become more participatory and less exploitative of young artists in the last two decades. Nas' confusing answers continued later on in the interview when interviewer Ryan Dombal brought up the aforementioned Dem Franchise Boyz diss. When asked if there was a place in hip hop for the Atlanta group, Nas responded, "Definitely... I rock with all their records," all but negating his slight against their song "White Tee" in "Hip Hop is Dead."
Now, Nas circa 2006 seems less like the Nastradamus moniker he's frequently used, and more like a disillusioned veteran of the old school trying to light a fire under hip hop, as well as his own career (Hip Hop is Dead garnered more first-week sales than any of the five Nas albums that preceded it). While Nas' words may not have been based entirely in fact, he later said they were meant to inspire the next generation of hip hop artists.
The New Yorker Pronounces Hip Hop Dead in 2009
The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones took Nas a little more literally, introducing his October 2009 article, "Wrapping Up: A genre ages out" (bearing the much more attention-grabbing title "Jay Z, Freddie Gibbs and the end of hip hop" in Google search results) with direct references to Nas' "Hip Hop is Dead." However, Jones said that if he "had to pick a year for hip hop’s demise," he "would choose 2009, not 2006."
What followed was a fantastic takedown of Jay Z's ill-received 2009 album The Blueprint 3, which counts two great albums as forebears in the Blueprint series, but is, as Jones puts it, "a mildly entertaining patchwork of styles, anchored by lots of guest singers and rappers." He's echoed by Metacritic and even Jay Z himself, who recently ranked The Blueprint 3 eighth out of his twelve solo albums. So yes, without much exception, we can all agree that 2009 brought us one of the worst Jay Z albums in history, but is that really indicative of anything else going on in hip hop -- is the genre really "wrapping up"?
Jones seemed to believe so, using little other than that album as evidence for his self-shouldered task of acting as hip hop's coroner. He pits The Blueprint 3 against Lil Wayne's similarly-titled, almost-undisputed classic album of one year prior, Tha Carter III, and tries to use that album's superiority as evidence that, from 2008 to 2009, hip hop had taken a nosedive. Following his logic, you could note that Kevin Federline's much-maligned foray into rap, Playing With Fire, was released the year after Kanye West's Late Registration, but does that herald the death of the genre?
To be fair, Jones was partially correct in both his points that Jay's album was part of a larger trend that began to categorize "hip hop by virtue of rapping more than sound," and also in his observation that "The tempos and sonics of disco’s various children—techno, rave, whatever your particular neighborhood made of a four-on-the-floor thump—are slowly replacing hip hop’s blues-based swing." Tha Carter III, though much stranger than The Blueprint 3, was more rooted in classic hip hop sounds and motifs, and Jones seemed to think these two albums' differences were indicative of larger trends in the industry.
Yes, EDM is playing an unprecedented role in hip hop (though the same could be said about every genre, even folk / country) and yes, songs like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Can't Hold Us" are considered "hip hop" due to reasons of vocal delivery rather than musical style, but does that mean that any less "real" hip hop music is being made? Jones called Tha Carter III's "A Milli" "probably the last moment when hip hop was both popular and improbably weird," but what would he say about Young Thug, a certifiable weirdo who counts Weezy as an idol and whose song "Stoner" recently peaked at number five on the US Rap Chart? Other than the use of synths, which has become more omnipresent in hip hop over the last few years, "Stoner" is unmistakably hip hop -- no "four-on-the-floor thump" or "tempos and sonics of disco’s various children" here -- commercially successful, and delectably strange. No one could have predicted the success of a septum-pierced ATLien who wears the occasional dress, but Jones seemed certain that someone of Thugga's character would never again make commercially viable hip hop.
In the second half of his article, Jones began fawning over Indiana gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs, saying he was "the one rapper I would put money on right now." As a disclaimer, I'd like to say that Gibbs has one of the best hip hop albums of this year, and is amazing in his own right, but Jones' use of him in this article is preposterous. Though Gibbs' recent album bears many similarities to '90s-era hip hop, it's certainly not indicative of a year in which thoroughly modern albums by Schoolboy Q and Rick Ross have comfortably outsold it. Holding Gibbs aloft as the "ideal rapper" of the 21st century, Jones grossly misjudged the MC's current position as an underground favorite who is more of a black sheep in the industry than a trendsetter. Jones sounds a like a buffoon who listens to very little hip hop in his belief that Gibbs' mixtapes are unique in their use of original music -- Mixtapes began with MCs rapping over others' beats, but as time and technology have progressed, they've become more akin to the demo tapes or independently-released albums of artists in other genres. Case in point: of the eight most downloaded mixtapes on Datpiff.com (the unofficial mixtape headquarters of the internet) this week, seven feature original beats.
Jones closes the article with a quote by Gibbs -- "I think rap is about to go back to the early nineties" -- that, after the movements of trap, ratchet and even EDM-hop, was unquestionably inaccurate, and he seems to steer the article in a way that seems to suggest that the only way hip hop would succeed is if it circled back and retreaded the ground it already covered in the '80s and '90s. This mindset is defeatist, short-sighted, and above all, very depressing. The fact that fewer classic albums were being made with the blueprints (no Jay Z reference intended) of yore is something that should be celebrated, not lamented. Had Jones widened his critical lens a bit, and discovered the two EPs released in 2009 by Seattle's Shabazz Palaces, he would've found music that's unmistakably hip hop, but deviant to a degree at it resembles little else released prior to it.
Led by former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler, the group represents the antithesis to Jay Z's continued grasping for cultural relevance -- Butler went from making fairly typical jazz-influenced hip hop in the '90s to evolving his style to the point where "hip hop" only begins to describe it. Rather than poring over old school hip hop like it was the gospel truth and attempting to replicate it as best as possible (as Jones seemed to suggest would be admirable), Butler adopted a "been there, done that" attitude, and set out to reinvent hip hop as afrocentric, psychedelic music. The result plays like an attempt to take hip hop beyond its roots in disco, funk and R&B, and back to traditional African music -- Shabazz Palaces even use traditional African instruments like the kalimba in their music.
Any retrophilic attempts at recreating golden age hip hop can't come close to the level of ethnomusicology that Shabazz Palaces continue to display in their music. Younger artists like this were and are pushing the genre into the future, evolving it and creating their own styles in ways that Jay Z's Blueprint 3 could not, and to quote a younger Jay, "If you can't respect that your whole perspective is wack." (Note: Jones discovered Shabazz Palaces two years later with their 2011 album Black Up, and apart from mixing up Death Grips' name with the title of their first album and reviewing a track that isn't on Black Up, his review made it seem like he enjoys them).
Hip Hop's "Age Of Bloat"?
Closer to the mark of a level-headed checkup on hip hop's pulse was an article published this year by Grantland, entitled "It Might Blow Up, and It Will Go Pop." In it, writer Sean Fennessey begins by calling Billy Ray Cyrus and rapper Buck 22's abhorrent remake of the former's "Achy Breaky Heart" "emblematic of a genre in disrepair," but goes on to give a deliciously in-depth examination of hip hop's much-heralded "next big things."
Rather than taking the angle that hip hop is being watered down by other invading genres, Fennessey wisely notes that it's the other way around: other genres have never had more in common with hip hop than they do right now. He writes:
"Without hip hop, there is no JT. Or Rihanna. Or Beyoncé. Or Miley or Katy Perry. Likewise Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Skrillex, Lorde, Imagine Dragons, and more. The pace, the rhythm, and the vernacular of rap has codified the system these artists operate in."
He also admits that the flipside is true ("Actual new rap songs are ceaselessly weighing down the genre itself with the junky detritus of other styles"), but rather than declaring this indicative of hip hop's impending demise, he deems 2014 the genre's "age of bloat." Comparing it to rock's hair metal phase, Fennessey seems to suggest in the article's second half that hip hop just needs to find its Nirvana -- that is, an artist who feels fresh and revolutionary enough to usher in a new age, maybe even a new subgenre.
He too holds aloft Young Thug's "Stoner" as the "rogue operative" yin to Cyrus and Buck 22's commercially propped-up yang, and uses it as an introduction to the small-but-audible group of "weirdos, aesthetes, and fundamentalists" that persist in hip hop. I'll allow you to read the last section of Fennessey's article on your own, as summarizing its detailed observations of hip hop's current climate feels like a slight against the many artists named within. But for the lazy, suffice it to say that Fennessey lists songs and artists he hopes will conquer both commercial and critical obstacles to success, and concludes that though hip hop is currently "a ghost ship, piloted by the swaying waters of What’s Hot," it still churns out a wealth of slightly under-the-radar talents and is, in fact, still "alive."
What Goes Around, Comes Around Sounding More Like Hip Hop
The general problem here may be more about 60 Minutes' choice of questions and survey group, but their recent survey re-opened a can of worms that has existed since some random hip hop head became the first to jump the genre's ship years ago. Over the years, pundits of varying fields of study and occupation have been quick to declare the genre dead, ailing, or past its prime, but the only ones who sound intelligent in retrospect were not the ones to completely pull the metaphorical plug on hip hop. Hip hop is now not only influencing other prevailing popular genres (pop, R&B, rock), but it's also influencing the ones that initially created the foundation for rap music itself. The early electronics of Kraftwerk were sampled frequently by founding hip hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Biz Markie, and now look what the subgenre of trap has spawned in the EDM world. Electronic music only predates hip hop by a few years, and the genres have kind of grown in tandem, but more surprising is the effect hip hop's had on some corners of the jazz world.
In the '80s and early '90s, there was a brief movement of jazz stars like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis trying their hands at incorporating hip hop into their music, producing albums that retained characteristics of jazz while adding looped drum breaks and adapting to hip hop's rhythms and tempos. Most of these, including Davis' Doo-Bop, sound more like jazz attempting to "go hip hop" -- in the way that many rockers "went disco" in the mid-'70s -- than they sound like more organic, hip hop-influenced jazz, but it was a start. Jazz's ruling class had deemed hip hop something worthy of their time and artistry. To achieve a more seamless blend of the two genres, hip hop needed more time to become embedded in culture, so that kids who grew up listening to hip hop could begin making other styles of music that bore hip hop influence in less obvious ways than Davis adding 808s behind his trumpet.
Saying your album is "hip hop influenced" is now almost a cliché in indie rock, with children of the '80s and '90s unable to escape the genre's reach, but a younger jazz group has concocted a blend of their genre and hip hop that doesn't need to be named after hip hop legends to make its influences apparent. Jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD (abbreviated as BBNG) began "covering" hip hop songs on their first two mixtapes, using rap beats as foundations for freewheeling jams, but their latest release, entitled III, is their first full-length of original compositions. Whereas their first two mixtapes were loose cover albums more than anything else, III may be one of the most seamlessly hip hop-influenced jazz albums (that isn't, to use Sasha Frere-Jones' words, "hip hop by virtue of rapping more than sound"). Usually working within hip hop's standard 4/4 time signature, BBNG craft grooves that may be challenging to rap over, but bear definite hallmarks of hip hop. Take first single "CS60" for example.
The track begins jazzily enough, using a 6/4 time signature, but around the 2:08 mark, things slow to a hip hop tempo and rhythm, bassist Chester Hansen lets a riff loose that would have RZA drooling, and drummer Alexander Sowinski plays a slower, more nuanced version of the beat to Rihanna and Jay Z's "Umbrella." No one would mistake "CS60" as Top 40 hip hop as it's still jazz first and foremost, but BBNG have begun to craft jazz that isn't self-conscious of its hip hop influence in the way that led Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to give their "hip hop albums" incredibly cheesy titles (Doo-Bop and Dis Is Da Drum, respectively). Hip hop feels so imbued in their music that they don't even have to think about incorporating it anymore; it just happens.
Long Live Hip Hop
Coincidentally, another question in 60 Minutes' poll was, "Jazz or hip hop: which one is more important?" 73% said jazz, which isn't that surprising considering that genre's now-hundred-year-long lifespan and influence on other styles of music, but could hip hop be in a similar position in 65 years, a century out from its creation? As it's currently intertwining with elements of pop culture in unprecedented ways, that could very well happen.
Hip hop has survived one of its first superstars declaring it dead, a whole host of pretty regrettable Jay Z albums, one New Yorker writer's attempt at intellectualizing Nas' previous argument and of course, a horrible collaboration between Billy Ray Cyrus and Buck 22. No one's taken to a baseball stadium to host "Hip Hop Demolition Night" yet, no droughts in output have necessitated the label of a "hip hop revival" yet, and there's been nothing billed as a genre-wide "reunion tour," so suffice it to say that in close to 35 years since it began, hip hop has avoided the pitfalls that have effectively announced the death (or longstanding comas) of other genres that also began in the 20th century. In fact, when compared commercially to other genres, rap / R&B was the only category that saw an increase in digital sales last year, and while that doesn't necessarily speak to the quality of content sold, it shows that it's still a viable genre in the digital age.
Outside of Young Thug, Shabazz Palaces and BADBADNOTGOOD, there are plenty of other hip hop artists who seem hellbent on keeping the genre fresh and free of stagnation:
• Flying Lotus has taken a jazz influence to the next level in his instrumental hip hop, creating the most free-form incarnation that the genre has seen to date, and even jamming with a live band at many of his concerts.
• Chicago's Lil Herb and Lil Bibby are still working within their city's notorious drill scene, but eschew artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk's rather braindead stylings in favor of quick-witted, lyrics-first hip hop.
• Amid the cluttered mashups of genres that appear on Top 40 radio today are superproducer DJ Mustard's compositions, which prove that simplicity and a powerful signature sound still go a long way.
• Death Grips, whose noisy, industrial-influenced music is certainly on hip hop's outskirts, are nonetheless vamping up the genre's aggression and starting conversations about its boundaries.
• Even Kanye West, who's no doubt one of hip hop's most visible figures, hasn't gotten as comfortable with fame as Jay Z has, and constantly reinvents himself between albums while still achieving critical and commercial success.
Hip hop won't be definitively past its peak until we see a sharp downturn in listenership, sales, creativity and new artists per year. The fact that an audience largely composed of senior citizens deemed the genre unable to reach its previous heights tells us nothing of what's actually happening in rap music right now, and is just a continuation of the same trend that made the elderly wary of Elvis' provocative dance moves in the '50s. Wake up and smell the hip hop, America, because it's not going anywhere for a long time.