Interesting discussion over at Culture Bully on Brother Ali. I made a somewhat short remark on how as talented as he is, i'm tired of hearing him talk about himself-- how he raps, how he's great, how he's great at rapping, etc.. It maybe wasn't entirely fair, especially considering the fact that he's one of a very few emcees out today whom i think is worth a damn, but it raised some interesting points.
For me, particularly as a rapper myself, the most interesting is "what separates great emcees or albums from transcendent emcees or albums?" Because as great as Ali is talent-wise, he rarely ventures outside the box. And that's perfectly fine-- most people don't want to and there's nothing wrong with making straight-up hip hop. But it got me thinking.
The last "exciting" hip hop albums i can name are El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead," K-os' "Atlantis: Hymns for Disco" and P.O.S.'s "Audition." That isn't to say these are the only good hip hop albums to come out in the past year, but they're the only ones that have made me really stop and say "damn" or listen to more than once.
What do they all have in common? Let's break it down:
1. Musically, they all challenge conventional notions of "hip hop." K-os sings most of the time, "Audition" has incredibly dissonant and harsh production, and El-P is really on another world production-wise. It's all very much grounded in hip hop aesthetics, but it's taking hip hop somewhere new and interesting.
2. They're all definitely "albums," not just loose collections of songs. All three are remarkably cohesive and almost cinematic. I'll add to this the Roots' "Game Theory," which i think is brilliant for what it is, and is also extremely well put-together. I love concept albums, and while these don't exactly qualify, i think hip hop could use more of them.
3. They all feature creative songwriting. I'm not talking so much about content or lyricism here (K-os isn't a very good lyricist by any stretch of the imagination) as i am talking about song structure. There's not so much 16/8/16/8 stuff going on-- you hear long verses, pre-choruses, bridges, all those elements which make songs more dynamic.
By this criteria, i'm kind of excited to hear Jay-Z's "American Gangster," and i still have to pick up that Grayskul album, which looks promising. Maybe Lupe's album will be good... not really feeling the singles so far. The Wu are the Wu, and kind of sit on their own plane in the hip hop universe-- i'll probably pick that up too when it drops. Haven't heard much about Rhymefest's next album in a minute, but from what i remember it sounds really interesting.
Anyways, i think i'm just in the process of figuring out for myself what kind of music i like and what kind of music i'm going to be making in the next few years. I love straight-forward, throwback boombap or soul sample hip hop, but i have to admit i think it's getting kind of stale, particularly when you consider that thousands upon thousands of people are making it at this very moment.
I felt like i had heard Brother Ali's new album before, with the exception of the trio of songs that close it out. "Shadows on the Sun" was such an incredible piece of work, with concept songs and an emcee actually taking some risks, i felt that "The Undisputed Truth" was kind of a step backward-- rather than reaching for the stars (more concepts, more creativity, more risk-taking), he made an incredibly "solid" album (monumental intro, a bunch of shit-talking songs, some simple political songs, a few concepts, the emcee at the center of it all), which i think is what the indie hip hop crowd idealizes and demands these days.
And there's nothing wrong with that, really.
But Ali is talented enough to get away with that, for the most part. But at what point do we move on from these formulas? Why aren't there more hip hop concept albums? Why aren't there more low-key, folky hip hop artists? Why are there so few hip hop love songs compared to other genres? Why isn't there more hybridization with electronic music or bhangra or indie rock or industrial or whatever? Why do 90% of hip hop live shows sound and look the same? Why is subject matter so often limited to: rapping, being a rapper, wack emcees, or everyman struggles? Why are lyrics, whether simple or ultra complex, so often devoid of that spark that says "this is important shit you should listen to?" This is a music born of innovation; why are we (with a few notable exceptions, of course) so content to color inside-the-lines these days?
These are rhetorical questions-- anyone with some knowledge of underground hip hop culture and history knows the answers. But they're still important questions to think about. Everyone keeps talking about how attendance is down, CD sales are down, it's getting harder to be an indie-rapper (at least the people i've talked to). Do you think it has anything to do with the above questions? Has the average concert-going and album-buying fan seen and heard it all before by now?
And because i can already hear the negative comments, let me say that i can't stress enough that this post isn't about "what el guante thinks hip hop should be;" it's about my personal preferences. Because rapping-about-rapping over boom-bap beats while wearing hoodies IS hip hop. It always will be. It's just not ALL that hip hop can be. And THAT's what i'm interested in-- pushing those boundaries and trying to create something new and interesting. Shout to Outkast, Public Enemy, Atmosphere, the Pharcyde, Lauryn Hill, Lyrics Born, Busdriver and the Coup.
This is something i'll continue to struggle with here on the blog for a long time, probably changing my mind and overthinking this forever. I also devote a chapter to this in my book, which should be out in late November or thereabouts.