Friday, May 13, 2005

Quelling the Hip-Hop Hullabaloo

Last month, rapper 50 Cent became the first artist since The Beatles to have four singles concurrently in the Top Ten of the music charts. The very explicit music video for one of his songs, "Disco Inferno", features scenes with scantily clad women groping each other and another scene where 50 is pouring bottles of alcohol down a woman's...derriere. 50 himself has described his new album, The Massacre, by saying "I attempted to be as sexual as possible." Not that we noticed.

50's crude, violent, and derogatory lyrics enjoy such remarkable popularity that the New York Times' Brent Staples has stirred up a whole hip-hop hullabaloo. His May 12 editorial ("How Hip-Hop Music Lost Its Way and Betrayed Its Fans") carries a serious charge. As a teenager who has grown up in an era where rap has dominated popular music, I was interested to find out why Dr. Staples has such a forcefully negative opinion of the genre. Yet after reading his arguments I remain unconvinced. As much as he would like to hold up the almost-comical excesses of 50 Cent as proof of the deterioration of the hip-hop culture, his argument just doesn't hold water for numerous reasons.

In characterizing rap as a "medium for worshiping misogyny, materialism, and murder," Dr. Staples worries about the effect that the hip-hop culture has on African-American youth. He contrasts the supposed characteristics of hip-hop with those of the stereotypical "white", "middle-class". Dr. Staples himself probably realizes that idea to be meritless since it is whites who buy the most rap music, which in and of itself does not cause anyone to "[embrace] violence, illiteracy, and drug dealing." The focus on sex, money, and even drugs is not a phenomenon unique to rap music; rather, it has been an inherent part of popular music for at least the past half-century.

Furthermore, the violent agenda of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.'s era has faded since their shooting deaths in the mid-90s. Since then, the legacy of popular rap music has shifted from authentic "gangsta" rap to a more simplistic, hedonistic agenda. Witness the obsession with the "crunked" party-minded rappers who dominate the airwaves today: Lil Jon, Ludacris, Nelly, Outkast, etc. The only "beefs" going on are, as they say, "on the wax"--exchanges of lyrical disses between sparring rappers in song lyrics. Dr. Staples turns the isolated incident of a dust-up between 50 Cent and protégé The Game into evidence that today's rap stars still have their guns blazing. For the record, the aforementioned squabble was settled in a week, the only effect having been some excellent publicity for both of their new records. Coincidence? You tell me.

In his article Dr. Staples also refers to current rap icon Eminem. Eminem didn’t become a living legend from talking body counts and bulletproof vests. He did so by speaking--at times with comic absurdity, other times painfully candid--about the hardships of life in the dead-end towns of America. Rap music has always been a vehicle for insightful social commentary, ever since Grandmaster Flash's 1982 classic "The Message" up through Public Enemy's rap-rock in the early 90s and the tradition continues today with songs like "Mosh", Eminem's scathing anti-war diatribe.

The claim that hip-hop has "lost its way" is disingenuous. It may not be the music of the Woodstock generation, but rap can be serious when it wants to, as demonstrated by the examples above. Perhaps rap's critics are just disappointed that the current trend in popular rap music does not tend towards social consciousness. The truth of the matter, whether you approve or not, is that the current generation of rappers simply has different interests than their predecessors. The situation of the current generation is completely incomparable to the gangsta rap generation, in much the same way that no one would compare N.W.A.'s "F*** Tha Police" (1988) to Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" (1980).

Brent Staples thinks that hip-hop is reaching a "tipping point" where its vices will finally become too great to tolerate. I doubt it. Sure, rap today celebrates material excess, but that's not a betrayal. It's an evolution of a genre in much the same way rock has feted different themes, many of them not "wholesome", over the decades. Based on the way rap's flying off the shelves now, it hardly seems that people have had enough. They can't seem to get enough of this stuff!

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