Through Hip-Hop’s Rapidly Growing Dishonesty, Artists Repackage the Familiar

In the 1994 film CB4, Chris Rock’s character Albert Brown, assumes the identity of an incarcerated gangster, named “Gusto,” to build a successful career as a rapper by borrowing Gusto’s street credibility. CB4’s intent was simple: to parody N.W.A. and the new wave of gangsta rap that followed in the late 80’s and early 90’s. However, it may now be more notable for its surprisingly accurate prognostication of the career of Miami rapper, Rick Ross, who like Chris Rock in CB4, capitalized by leveraging a real life criminal’s cred.

In the interest of full disclosure I think it is necessary for me to confess that I am not particularly fond of the current state of contemporary hip-hop and all of its devious condescension. From the recent embarrassing tabloid fodder Drake and Chris Brown “brawl” (bottles hurled from across the room) at a New York City nightclub and the disingenuous nature of their entire credibility, it is evident as to how a virtually paralleled figure like former correctional officer Rick Ross is able to successfully win over an entire culture, and how what he says is sermon to the streets by meticulously dabbling around with the contextualization of language and simple aesthetic. To speak in layman, Rick Ross is the clear cut alternative to the R&B laced hip-hop that presently floods airwaves night and day despite his serious lack of an authentic connection to hip-hop. And no, Ross, locking up criminals and stealing another one’s name doesn’t qualify.

But of course this isn’t only in the case of Rick Ross, I’m only using him as an example because of his massive commercial and hood impact. This sort of conman mentality in hip-hop has gone on since the heyday and will sadly loom for years to come. The problem with it now, however, is that there aren’t enough other options for people to choose from. These days Jay-Z is as relatable as Scrooge McDuck and Nas hasn’t been challenging or provoking in decades. So, who are the people to turn to? What else are they being offered?

Before the release of his 2010 album, Teflon Don, an album that can be said as being Ross’ prosperous image rediscovery, which would eventually slingshot him to super stardom, he is quoted as saying “I look at the game and the business and all different aspects, it’s [sic] a lot of great lyricists on the corner that will never properly understand the business and know how to market themselves and get in a position where they can gain capital.” A reason I am bringing up this quote from Ross is that it speaks tremendous volume about his character, concept and overall intention. We all know by now that all of his tales of kingpin life are straight theatrical bullshit. Yet, somehow, this is relevant and Rick Ross is a persona worth supporting.

The same year that Rick Ross’ rap collective Maybach Music Group released their first collaboration studio album, Self Made, Vol. 1, a boisterous, drug  rap vanity circle jerk, Drake released his second solo effort, Take Care, a verbose, unimaginative, sub-romantic, borderline pornographic sex fantasies that sound like the plots to made-for-TV “woman’s entertainment” films. Drake, an actor, naturally took his skills of faking genuine human emotion to neoteric hip-hop, a land of great opportunity where he can elevate his acting ability to an inconceivable level of excellence. At the center of Take Care is “Marvin’s Room”, a song about a woman, in a stable, loving relationship, who Drake tries to lure into a one-night stand. At risk of sounding like a conservative, out-of-touch sardonic “Marvin’s Room” is indicative of everything that is wrong with current hip-hop and exactly what makes Rick Ross the consensus pick for the easily manipulated and exploited. This asshole actually romanticizes holding a girl’s hair back while she pukes from drinking too much. Whoever people listen to for their hip-hop, be it Ross or Drake, is terribly losing.

I think that it’s worth noting that any time a particular style of music becomes popular, hot shit record executives with disposable incomes make note and eventually think they’ve become hip to the fact that there’s a boatload of money to be made. So the market subsequently becomes overflowed with big money attempts to cash in on hot new artists, resulting in corporate music that’s usually criticized by anyone who ever gave a damn about the music in the first place. There’s no better example of this than the evolution of rock music over the past fifty years. In the fifties there was Pat Boone, and in the seventies, The Eagles. Nowadays mainstream radio is practically a real-time scientific study, as Clear Channel and everyone else with power gather endless amounts of data in order to calculate what artists they should play and when they should play them so as to maximize their profits.

Of course hip-hop is a much, much younger form of music than rock, and while they’re getting awfully good at it, the music industry hasn’t quite mastered the art of shoving rappers down the public’s throats. Just look at the early 2000’s, when we had Nelly, Chingy, and every other artist who says “everybody” like “urrbody.” Who knew the likes of Murphy Lee and J-Kwon were capable of pumping millions of dollars into the American economy? It’s harder today than ever before to assimilate the overwhelming glut of rappers who are currently invading from every direction, to the point where you can almost forgive a man when he utters the words “I like Wiz Khalifa” with a straight face. The thing is, back then, for every Cassidy or Fabolous we had a laundry list of great alternatives to choose from.

To reiterate and ask the aforementioned question again: So who are the people to turn to? What else are they being offered? While I can sit here and quizzically berate mainstream artists all day, it’s far too easy and emotionally draining. Nevertheless, the independent world of hip-hop isn’t quite in a state of creative utopia either. If anything, the characters devised in the independent circle are possibly even less pertinent than that of their mainstream counterpart. The principal problem of the indie/underground is it’s, to put it bluntly, corny. It’s corny because they abandon the grammar of hip-hop and fail to replace it with anything better. That’s like trying to build a house while ignoring the history of architecture. You see, hip-hop is all about using the conventions in fresh ways and redeploying signifiers. That’s something that indie/underground hip-hop doesn’t comprehend. Some of the wunderkind of this contemporary indie scene include Tyler the Creator, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar and SpaceGhostPurrp. Their amassed flaws lie heavily on their young age, with the average of these four stalwarts being 22 years-old. Attached to their young age is each individuals evident lack of maturity and self-identification; they may have gathered an astronomical amount of valuable knowledge on hip-hop culture from the hours they spend lurking on the internet but that doesn’t muster any original thought.

For example, SpaceGhostPuurp, a 21 year-old Miami rapper/producer, traces his musical sameness from that of gritty, hazy 90’s Memphis rap; utilizing in the violent, inconsequential and mystical nature of early Three 6 Mafia and company. There is something ineffable about the earlier history of Three 6 Mafia and their affiliates that has become very alluring to many young and credulous aspiring rappers/producers. While I’m sure SpaceGhostPuurp thinks he ‘gets’ Three 6 Mafia and Memphis rap, he comes off as being rather impressionable. He doesn’t live in their world, he’s merely a voyeur. And unlike Three 6 Mafia he refuses to come to terms with reality, opting to live in a fantasy world. While the Memphis rap scene raises complex and oftentimes harrowing issues through their lyrics, they don’t attempt to impress their listeners. SpaceGhostPuurp, on the other hand, tries to convince that abysmal antagonists are inherently good, sensitive, creative, and inoffensive. SpaceGhostPuurp’s music criticizes but possesses no real and substantial knowledge about whatever it is it’s criticizing. It is directionless and its young age shows. SpaceGhostPuurp was undoubtedly conceived haphazardly through the influence of the internet. I’ll place my bets and say Tumblr.

The case of A$AP Rocky is a wholly interesting one; a Harlem rapper with a Houston flow. A quintessential example of overexposure to music not necessarily translating to good artistic output. Rocky, who, born and raised in Harlem says he is greatly influenced by fellow Harlem troubadours The Diplomats, whereas in his music it seems like Rocky had never heard a single song from The Diplomats. Or any hip-hop from the east coast. Ever. Like myself, Rocky is a staunch advocate of southern hip-hop. That’s wonderful. The difference between Rocky and I, besides the obvious, is that unlike Rocky, I understand that purely being a fan is one thing and taking the regional distinction that makes southern hip-hop so unique and worth praising in the first place, and mending it into something that is nothing sort of abominable bastardization and gross misinterpretation is another.

Rocky’s much hyped mixtape, LiveLongA$AP is filled with references to lean, gold teeth and chopped and screwed vocals, such that a person unaware of Rocky’s upbringing would likely assume he was from the denoted Houston. And while being heavily influenced by different scenes might be typical for other musicians, not so for rappers. Hip-hop has historically been a divided genre in which its artists have proudly and perhaps stubbornly represented their neighborhoods, very rarely venturing far musically from their hometown, let alone into entirely different geographic areas. Ten years ago, it would have been blasphemous for a rapper from New York, the birthplace of rap, to release such a distinctly southern mixtape. But, of course, the internet seems to have all but eliminated the geographical dividing lines in hip-hop music. The issue is that A$AP Rocky doesn’t bring anything new to the table of southern hip-hop. In fact, he doesn’t even do southern hip-hop correctly.

And while we’re on the subject of Three 6 Mafia’s influence on hip-hop, we arrive to Lil Ugly Mane a white rapper/producer from Richmond, Virginia who, according to the internet, produced black metal and harsh noise before taking on the irreconcilable duty of recreating Memphis rap. What does his race have anything to do with what is in discussion, you might ask? I’ll get to that in a second. Some criticism lobbed towards the direction of Lil Ugly Mane comes from this, and the fact that he opened for “witch house” savants Salem, hint that he is, and I hate to use this word, because it’s insignificant in this context, a hipster. I say this with no derogatory intention because, unlike the above-mentioned SpaceGhostPuurp, Lil Ugly Mane masterfully reproduces all the plays in the Dirty South playbook on his full-length Mista Thug Isolation, both as a rapper and producer.

The important thing is that, regardless of how many influences Ugly Mane’s beats take on, they ultimately retain their appeal. One might look at Lil Ugly Mane’s approach and call it a gimmick. One might even be as brash as to call Lil Ugly Mane’s approach to hip-hop as modern day blackface. But that would just be irresponsibly provocative, race has nothing to do with it. Sure, Lil Ugly Mane raps about shooting people in the face, selling drugs and driving around the hood, which is safe to say he doesn’t do in neither his personal or professional life. But with Lil Ugly Mane it isn’t dishonesty, no, it’s actually a continuation of the hip-hop language and culture. Lil Ugly Mane epitomizes good charisma on his music, and commands any beat he’s on to a perfect degree. “Maniac Drug Dealer III” shows him at his most menacing, whereas “Breezem Out” shows him toned down in order to suit the ethereal beat. It’s a small thing, I know, but he obviously has that chameleon-like ability to adapt to his surroundings that so many rappers seem to miss out on.

Take Detroit rapper Danny Brown, who has been hard at work for nearly a decade, seemed destined for a career breakthrough when, in 2010, he befriended G-Unit member Tony Yayo. Brown, whose only media attention at this point was for the lead single “Yes”, which received mild rotation on local radio stations, when he part of the short lived rap group, Rese’vor Dogs. Brown’s G-Unit association led to an ardor discussion of a possible signing to 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records. But this speculation came to an abrupt end when it was revealed, by Brown himself, that he and 50 Cent were unable come to terms on an agreement. “It was a real thing. 50 was with it; he just didn’t sign me because of my jeans,” said Danny Brown in an interview regarding 50 Cent’s ultimate decision. “He liked the music, but he didn’t like the way I looked.”

In the end Danny Brown, who favors fitted jeans and a vintage rock-inspired wardrobe, didn’t fit with G-Unit’s image. News of this led to much talk concerning Brown’s flamboyant attire, essentially leaving his music overshadowed and largely unheard by the masses. It’s a pity because Brown’s colorful individuality doesn’t solely rest on his puzzling choice of clothing or stupefying hairstyle, but his music. Brown spits out extremely tough, raw verses with an impressive touch for delightfully smart puns. XXX, the 2011 album that warranted Brown univeral critical acclaim, new found fanbase and respect, is also the most convincing at proving that hip-hop has a future, and can definitely exist with those new kind of beats, sounds and textures while never forcefully attempting to fray from the pack. XXX is too vivid of a portrait displayed by Brown to be forgotten. You’ve been bitch slapped by Detroit’s newest liaison.

Hip-hop is a self-contained bubble, a universe that only corresponds with the one we actually inhabit as an absurd exaggeration. Did Pimp C really “get pussy from these bitches every goddamn day”? Maybe, it’s likely, but probably not. Was the late 90’s to early 2000’s Eminem in actuality the giddy psychopath he portrayed on his albums? No, but it was an extension of his world. Ice Cube scared the shit out of posh, sheltered white America with releases like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate but went on to become the Bill Cosby of the hip-hop generation. And let us not forget Snoop Dogg, who prior to becoming as much of a household name as Martha Stewart, was linked to crimes like drug possession and distribution, firearm possession, assault and even murder.

Rappers like Lil Ugly Mane might not hold any credibility but you must first understand that hip-hop fans are deceived by the value of credibility on a regular basis to the point of desensitization. Most fans even have trouble contradistinguishing between fantasy and reality. Danny Brown, while differing in style, retains hip-hop’s motifs and simultaneously contributes new, fresh ideas. Hip-hop is now a never ending game of Chinese whispers; what initially began as homely Romper Room fun with the reflection of ghetto street life, manifested into something irreparable and beyond anyone’s control. It’s hard to say what the future holds for this nondescript music culture, but whatever it is will be scrupulously sculpted, remolded and inevitably repackaged the familiar in unexpected ways.

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