Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Worst Enemies

When presented with rap music, there seems to be a questionable characteristic running throughout most of the reviews of largely-white, more rock-centric media outlets, e.g. Blender, Rolling Stone, etc. While I haven't satisfied the necessary Wheaties requirements to make some grand accusations of racism, I do see at least a common trend: Hip-Hop music is primarily portrayed through the mainstream American culture as base or without artistic merit--even if they acknowledge that it's not going away at this point, it still is maligned for its techniques, not respected, and merely commercially appropriated for novelty's sake. However, when some rock-mag rap messiah does emerge, the punk kids go crazy. These token saviors can be described as turning away from the perceived mega-macho attitudes of Hip-Hop, openly criticizing the music for a laundry list of self-congratulating reasons, and adapting outside genres to their sound in order to demonstrate just how sophisticated they are. Waiting at the end of this road is a Rolling Stone, the anti-establishment establishment, applauding these modern CJ Walker's for coming over to their side, dropping the guns for guitars, the slanging for singing, and trying to push Pink Floyd on the savages. So Outkast gets canonized and Phrenology gets The Roots their best reviews.

Beyond this genre-pandering, rappers also commonly receive their most mainstream praise whenever they buck the labels of hard-bitten thugs and emotionless creeps, i.e. since rap is a music so clearly concerned with the misogynistic and cruel, when these Neanderthals find just a moment to make a "dead homies" or an "I'm lonely" song, no matter how trite or unconvincing, a standing ovation arises from the back of the room, as if Frankenstein's monster has just shed a tear. How splendid! And he speaks so well! But, as has been notoriously argued elsewhere, rap music was not begun by bookworms or the sensitive types. However, wanting to satisfy their own pretensions and love-ballad biases, critics who still view Hip-Hop as a second-classic citizen get hyped up at the slightest hint of these wild Negros taming themselves.

However, on the other side of this story is the too-cool-for-school faction. Rebels in Bapes, they fight back against this applause. They'd tell you that critics and fans often confuse quality with vulnerability, hotness with honesty, 2Pac with greatness, for instance. They'd tell you that Pac--and he's merely the poster-boy for this type of reaction--wasn't lyrical, that he kicked that corn for the 'burbs, and they ate it up. They'd tell you that critics are simply envious of the laidback cat who shrugs off pain, so they naturally embrace and exaggerate the skills of whoever clings to and speaks through that pain. This is why, they'd say, quite unfairly, Jay-Z gets pinned down as this bling-mogul and Nas gets crowned the poet.

Nas' God's Son, with its constant allusions to the passing of his mother and the subsequent sadness which he was facing at the time, is the perfect battleground for these two groups. For the first crowd, there is Nas at his emotionally rawest, therefore his lyrical best. For the second squad, there is Nas standing with a frown, championed by gullible listeners under the impression that a strained facial expression is all it takes to make good music. In a specific song example, there is Dance.

Directly dealing with the death of his mother, Dance spotlights a most personal Nas. Again, because of this, some would herald the rapper for shedding the common tough guy front and putting all his grief on record. Conversely, others would suggest that while the sentiments expressed are to be noted, the raps themselves, cliché and poorly written, cannot be given a pass just because they are motivated by pain. Me? I guess I happen to fall in with the latter group, in this case. I sympathize with Nas' experience completely, but that experience isn't ultimately articulated in any especially interesting or compelling manner. Dance is more clunky than careful, more mundane than moving. In fact, it is Olu Dara's concluding horns that prove the most effective element of the song. This is not, though, to suggest that Nas always gets tripped up when his mood is more in a silent way. On the contrary, The Lost Tapes' Fetus provides an enduring tribute to the deceased Anne Jones, plus, even the second verse of Warrior Song says what needs to be said just right. And these are only a couple of his most passionate and equally productive tracks. As another example, one cannot overlook the unreleased My Worst Enemy.

Recorded around 1999, and in a remorseful moment, My Worst Enemy showcases an unguarded Nas reflecting on his previous tendencies to play into the all-that-glitters-is-gold myth and the recklessness that followed. In disclosing this, the conscience has supplanted the ego as the primary guide of thought. With equal parts fear and regret, Nas continues, commenting that he's witnessed too much death, too often "bloody shirts on niggas while they hollering 'til their lungs don't work." Charting back this violence to a life of posturing and excuses born even out of childhood days, we're witness to the resolutions he's committed to achieving with the coming of the new year and century. It's a candid confession and a hopeful step forward. But this song doesn't succeed in spite of or simply because of its honesty. Its success is all in how it's framed, the imagery, the rhyme scheme, the story, the references, the picture painted. This is because in rap music what you say is not enough; you win or lose by how you say it. And Nas says it at least as well as any rapper ever.

One side of me wanted out of this life
Glued traps on the floor for the mice
'Til a nigga saw the light
I wanted money, when I got it, I would spend it
I wanted jewels, but when I heard it, I wouldn't listen
Nas: My Worst Enemy

4 Comments:

Blogger Fletch said...

as a fun little example of what i was talking about in the first couple paragraphs, compare and contrast the following:

http://www.metacritic.com/music/artists/nas/godsson
http://www.metacritic.com/music/artists/nas/stillmatic

http://www.metacritic.com/music/artists/roots/phrenology
http://www.metacritic.com/music/artists/roots/tippingpoint

these critics only know how to "deal with" rap music when it caters to their predispositions formed by rock music, of sound and emotion.

March 14, 2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger neo said...

I completely agree. The rockist-mentality criticism of hip hop almost always has somewhat of a racial slant/bias towards it. Its like if you don't rap about what we like you're wack to us.

P.S. I'd love to contribute to this blog in any shape or form I can..get at me.

March 16, 2006 3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome, awesome blog topic! Raw, real and 2 da point. The only thing I can offer is that hip hop, for better or for worse, continues to grow and reach new audiences. Of course mag's like Rolling Stone will reach out and meet-halfway acts like Kanye, Common and the Roots b/c of their obvious intelligence and non-threatening images. But will this be the case in 15 years? 20 years? 50 years? Hopefully not.

May 08, 2006 4:57 PM  
Anonymous Ronny Jackets said...

Great entry. I just laugh when I look at the scores certain albums get in those type of magazines, its so predictable. The guy called 'Jack K'(fan review on stillmatic metacritic page) has sort of got a similar point.

May 17, 2006 10:34 AM  

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