Some music writer I follow tweeted earlier this year (and I’m paraphrasing here), “all the rappers are sad this year.” It was probably just an offhand joke but it’s managed to stick with me until now. You can trace the very existence of that tweet back to this time five years ago, November of 2008. Hip Hop history in the twenty-first century has been divided into two time periods: pre-808’s & Heartbreak and post-808’s & Heartbreak. It’s an album that’s proven as important to the landscape of contemporary hip hop as the deaths of the genre’s two most celebrated idols were to its previous generation. If their passing informed a generation of thug life tatted hip hop in which, “keeping it real,” meant putting on your best tough guy face, then808’s bred a generation where, “keeping it real,” meant drunk dialing your ex to say, “fuck that nigga that you love so bad.”And in an art form so permeated by machismo and braggadocio, this newfound acceptance of male sensitivity has provided a welcome new three dimensionality to modern mainstream hip hop. I’ve never been more excited about the state of mainstream hip hop in my life. To be completely honest, as far as I’m concerned hip hop is music right now. Kanye West and Drake aren’t our Pac and Biggie, they’re our Beatles and Beach Boys. Which isn’t to say they’re more important than them, just that hip hop’s transcended where it was in pop culture over a decade and a half ago. Looking back on the year now it’s clear that rock’s just been, well, really slow. Actually now that I think about it it’s been like almost five years since my favorite album of the year wasn’t a hip hop album. So I guess it’s been that way for a minute Hedi Slimane.
And I’ve also taken to twitter this year multiple times to rant about how great of a year it was in hip hop, comparing it to what 2000 was for experimental indie rock (see this, this, this, this, this, and this.) The venn diagram of the most successful artists in hip hop and my favorite artists in hip hop is the closest to a perfect circle as it’s ever been, and this year saw releases from all of them, short of Kendrick. I mean just listing off all the memorable releases this year from memory in complete stream of consciousness-Yeezus, Nothing Was the Same, Owl Pharoah, My Name Is My Name, B.O.A.T.S. II, LongLiveA$AP, Acid Rap, (stopping for a mental breath) Indigoism, Trap Lord, Old, Doris, Wolf –I’m flat out astounded at the outstanding quantity of quality hip hop this year.
Commercial and critical opinion have always stood as binary opposite ways of gauging art, but with the recent fluctuation in music criticism towards what’s been termed a “poptimist” way of thinking, music journalism is finally catching up half a century later to postmodern ideas of breaking the segregation between “high” and “low” culture. This coupled with hip hop’s complete saturation of pop radio in the last decade has led to where we are now in music journalism- the zenith of appreciation for mainstream hip hop (and I’m obviously of no exception here.) Many of the flannel clad elite that once bore A Tribe Called Quest and Jurassic 5 as their idols have traded them in for 2 Chainz and Big Sean. I guess, “the backpackers are back on the bandwagon.” But it’s not just journalists fully embracing the art of party rap recently, it’s also an embracement by mainstream hip hop of what some would refer to as more, “substantive,” music lyrically. It’s inarguable that the three biggest rappers out now-Kanye, Kendrick, and Drake- are all around more complex, engaging, and mature artists than the forerunners of rap radio a decade back-DMX, Nelly, Ludacris, what have you. Kanye was raised in the underground, sure he got his break with Jay, but for every track he cut with Hov there was one more for Common, Talib Kweli, and Slum Village. And Kendrick Lamar is obviously just a hip hop purist’s dream.
So with all that being said, here we are, 2013. One year after GKMC. Two after Take Care. Three since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. These albums serve as the landmarks of the past few years, their auteurs the faces of contemporary rap’s Mt. Rushmore. Surprisingly, in a genre where calling yourself, “the best” is as ubiquitous as love songs are in pop music, two of these artists have yielded to the older third. In his talk with Elliott Wilson at NYU for the CRWN interview series Drake openly admitted regarding Kanye, “that’s my guy I aspire to surpass.” Where he saluted with words, Kendrick chose actions, taking on the role of opening act on the Yeezus tour. But despite the two rappers’ proverbial doffing of the hats to ‘Ye, their personal competitive spirit as peers has grown exponentially in the last year. “Control” didn’t just arguably, “raise the bar higher,” it also rang the bell to the verbal boxing match between Kendrick and Drake. Just two years ago on the “Buried Alive” interlude on Take Care you could hear Lamar rapping about how meeting Drake, “felt like the initiation.” If that’s the case, good kid m.A.A.d. city stands as his argument for equality between the two, and “Control” is his snatching of the fly from the sensei’s hand. And who can forget that barbing dig in his BET cypher, “nothing been’s the same since they dropped ‘Control’, and tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes.” In that same interview with Elliott Wilson, Drake rebutted to Kendrick and the “Control” verse simply stating, “that was a moment…are you listening to it now at this point?”, and he has a point… He also went on in regards to Kendrick as a possible rival stating, “Consistency, it’s been like one album.” But not exactly Drake. Section.80 found unanimous critical praise upon release. If anything GKMC is the Take Careto Section.80‘s Thank Me Later.
So if that’s the case Nothing Was the Same must also act as a raising of the bar in the game. I for one personally loved it. It’ll take time to sort out if it’s a stronger album than Take Care, but it’s shows no diminishing of quality.On one hand it’s leaner, nearly half the length of it’s predecessor, and it features practically no guest verses (two traits it shares in common with Yeezus.) Where Take Care succeeded on it’s impenetrable nocturnal mood and melancholic melodies, Nothing Was the Same thrives on his inarguable improvement rapping. He’s never sounded more athletic and brazenly confident on the microphone and his delivery fits the album’s lyrics like a glove. When he declares in third person on “Worst Behaviour” that, “the boy became the man motherfucker I done grown up,” you believe every word he says. It’s been the most divisive song on the album, even more than the glittery disco infused synth-pop of “Hold On We’re Going Home”. We’ve come to expect that from Drake, any crack about him being a softy at this point is as old as Monica Lewinski jokes (hey Em…) But with “Worst Behaviour” we’re offered the inverse of what we’ve come to expect from him, chest puffed bravado and a chin held high, and some people have had trouble believing it coming from Aubrey. But this duality is exactly what makes this current generation of rappers so exciting. Kanye West is “so self conscious” but he’s also a self-proclaimed deity. Kendrick Lamar released a tearjerking album last year that still includes lines like, “I hope my dick get big as the eiffel tower so I can fuck the world for seventy-two hours.”
So yes, all the rappers are sad this year, but they’re also as cocky as ever. They’ll brag about the notches on their bedpost in one line and implore their exes on the next. They’re fractured and self-contradictory. The reality is we’ve all been sad this year, and we’ve all been ecstatic and conceited. We’re human. And sometimes the best way to reveal the truth is through stretching it and driving people to pay closer attention and ask questions. So when Kanye West says, “I am a god,” he forces the entire world to focus on how imperfect he is, how impolite he can be, how bad his singing is, how arrogant he is, – how human he is. Still at the end of the day Kanye West really does believe he’s a God, in the same way we all secretly believe we’re the best, or we deserve the prettiest wife or the handsomest husband. The difference is Kanye also believes there’s a god in all of us. He’s not a rapper he’s a motivational speaker, he doesn’t freestyle, he rants. He’s “the shot of espresso in the morning.” Twenty years after Illmatic he’s just here to remind us the world is still yours. Self confidence at that level can be off putting, hearing it can make you insecure. But he’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.