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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More on Rap: The Evolution of Rap as seen through the Prism of Art History

I've been overwhelmed at work lately, so I've been rushing to get some of these posts done. Which is why, in retrospect, I may have been a bit premature in declaring rap dead. As many e-mailers told me, good rap isn't dead at all - it's just buried underneath all the mainstream rubbish you hear over and over again on the radio. Some of the good stuff is pretty far underground, but a lot of it is right beneath the surface. Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli, who continue to "hold it down" (as the kids are wont to say these days), are all pretty accessible. So, consider this a mea culpa.

Additionally, some of you took me to task for failing to mention Puff Daddy's (P-Diddy's? Puffy's? Sean Combs'?) notable contribution to the demise of rap. Fair enough - it was an indefensible omission.

But now that I've had some time to reflect, it's overly simplistic to pin the demise of rap exclusively on the individual efforts of Master P, Juvenile, and Mr. Combs. That's why I thought it would be useful to examine the brief history of rap a little further, using the various movements of art history to construct a convoluted extended metaphor that will neither (1) enhance the reader's understanding of the subject nor (2) serve any contstructive purpose whatsoever beyond providing me with a diversion as I slog through another day in the office.

Now, you may be asking yourself: "What the hell do you know about art history?" The truth is, not much. I occassionally go to the National Gallery, but mostly to satisfy gelato cravings. Oh, and I once took an art history class in high school under the guise of "Western Civilization," but that was so long ago I hardly remember a thing. I did, however, stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so off we go...

1. The Early Renaissance: The early renaissance of rap took place between 1980 and 1986 with the emergence of Grandmaster Flash, UTFO, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, and their contemporaries. These guys were like the painters of the Early Renaissance, especially Giotto. Look at some of Giotto's works. You can certainly see early signs of perspective - nothing like what comes later, but the use of linear perspective perfected by the Italian Renaissance painters was undoubtedly the fruit of Giotto's labor. Similarly, the innovative beats and complex lyrics of the golden age of rap can be traced back to the efforts of these early rappers in popularizing a nascent genre.

2. The Renaissance: The golden age of painting corresponds with golden age of hip hop, which lasted from 1986 to about 1993. The rappers who emerged during this time - Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, and the early manifestations of Tupac and Biggie - were true masters of their craft, skillfully laying down complex lyrics over engaging and innovative beats. These guys are the Michaelangelos and Da Vincis of rap. Indeed, some of the more politically/socially- conscious artists of this era - such as Public Enemy and KRS-One - can even be compared to the artists of the Romanticism, which was "a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms" and "a reaction against the rationalization of nature." (Thank God for Wikipedia.)

3. Impressionism. The Impressionists weren't nearly as technically proficient as their Renaissance/Baroque/Romantic predecessors. Instead, they used "short, thick strokes of paint" to "capture the essence of the subject rather than its details." To me, this describes the golden age of West Coast rap, which lasted from 1992-1996. The various members of NWA and the Dogg Pound weren't gifted lyricists like their predecessors. But their music was innovative and emotionally raw. And, just like the Impressionists, who often chose ordinary subjects as their subject matter, West Coast rappers focused on everyday topics such as cars, blow jobs, or simply a typical day in one's life.

4. Pointillism - I've reserved this brief, post-Impressionist movement for two of my favorite rap groups of all time - Gang Starr (1989-) and Wu Tang Clan (1993-). Pointillism is a style of painting "in which non-primary colors are generated by the visual mixing of dots of primary colors placed very close to each other." The process is very formulaic, but the product is aesthetically pleasing- very similar to the formulaic yet fresh beats of Gang Starr and Wu Tang. Just like I can spot a Seurat from a mile away, so too can I immediately identify a DJ Premier or RZA beat when I hear one.

5. Found Art - I think this movement succeeded Cubism and occured in tandem with Dadaism, but I'm not quite sure. Anyway, Found Art describes art "created from the undisguised, but often modified, use of objects that are not normally considered art, often because they already have a mundane, utilitarian function." For instance, Marcel Duchamp - the patriarch of Found Art who coined the term "readymade" - once took a toilet and tried to pass it off as art. It is clear to me that Puff Daddy is the Marcel Duchamp of the rap world. Between 1997 and 2001, Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Entertainment flourished by blatantly stealing old hip-hop and R&B tracks and overlaying them with weak lyrics, ultimately adding very little value to the finished product. I think Mos Def put it best in "Children's Story" when he said: "They jacked the beats, money came with ease. But son, he couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease. He jacked another and another, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. Set some R&B over the track for 'Deep Cover' ..."

6. Cubism - OK, this is where the wheels really started to fall off. To me, the Cubism movement is an apt metaphor of the rap era dominated by Cash Money Records and the No Talen.., er, Limit Soldiers, which lasted roughly from 1998 to 2002. During these four years, Master P, Juvenile, Mystikal, and their contemporaries burst on the scene and just starting tearing up the English language, groaning, screaming, randomly adding "HAs" at the end of words, etc. Just like Pablo Picasso and the Cubists. I mean, have you ever seen some of Picasso's works? There's an eye where a woman's ear should be, an arm growing out of her stomach, and her ass is growing teeth. Picasso's portraits do not resemble humans, just as Master P's and Juvenile's lyrics do not resemble rap.

7. Modern Art - Just because you take a canvas, paint it green, and hang it on a wall, it isn't necessarily art. You may try to pass it off as art, but to any objective observer it's just a green fucking canvas. I mean, the ingredients are all there - there's a canvas, there's paint, there are some colors, etc. But it's not art. Similarly, these countless new "rappers" who have emerged recently - Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Little John, just to name a few - aren't rappers. Unfortunately, they just so happen to be hanging on the wall...


A few lingering thoughts I had as I was listening to DJ Sixth Sense's "Wrong Songs" segment on WKYS this morning...

  • I probably should have mentioned that there are still a few skilled rappers operating in the mainstream, such as Nas, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. While the early rhymes of Nas and Jay-Z may intersected the golden age of rap, their heydays came later. In this sense, they're the Neoclassicists of the rap world.
  • For you Outkast fans out there - I'm sorry, they're simply unclassifiable. They're in a different stratosphere. So, I guess they're Sculpturists or something.
  • I also should have thrown DMX in with the Cubists. DMX, who peaked between 1998 and 2001 (before his crazy-ass got arrested for impersonating a federal agent at Kennedy Airport), is the only rapper I know who thought he was a canine. He constantly barked and growled like a rapid dog for no apparent reason at all. It was all very disconcerting.
  • My closing argument for why mainstream rap today is an inferior product: As Fifty Cent has demonstrated, the ability to open one's mouth is no longer necessary to become a commercially successful rapper. Back in the late 1980s - early 1990s, that would've been a serious impediment...


  • Well done. 6 and 7 are my favorites here, as they remind me of a treatment for a cable program I once proposed.

    By Blogger Conor, at 8:55 PM  

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