With the release of Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson’s debut album ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the hip-hop culture that was established remained a norm that was recycled many times in the years to come. Hip-hop, as a culture, was defined by the violence that it claimed to escape from and that became a way to locate a rapper’s ‘street credibility’. Like most others art forms, it seemed as though the idea of violence and telling stories that glorified materialistic concerns in an excess in the commercial world was the only way that one’s rap music was evaluated. Many rappers like Jay Z, DMX, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Nas became popular with the idea of gang violence or being the ‘boss’ in the business of selling crack cocaine.
The terminology that one encounters here is the terminology of a hierarchy that exists as a chain of a society. Even as African-American artists spoke about the struggle of the ghetto in a space that was dominated by a community that was white, they were still using the language that did not change. The constant use of the ‘n-word’ still remains a sign of that phenomenon. In Jay Z’s case, the use of the phrase ‘black bar mitzvahs’ in Roc Boys (And The Winner Is) clearly defines an aspiration that is materialistic to an extent that a certain community becomes an aspiration in itself. If one is to analyse this emotion of being a ‘boss’ who attends ‘black bar mitzvahs’ it is the negation of an identity and the stereotypical social personas attached with it; the ‘poor black man’ is completely debunked by this portrayal of, in Kanye West’s words[i], the black excellence. Where hip-hop culture has taken a definite turn in this decade is with the latest mainstream success of rappers with Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Critics who have reviewed Drake and Kendrick Lamar have commented upon the way these rappers have taken a very different approach to rap as compared to their peers. Among them Ann Powers gave a fairly detailed analysis of the album where she called it ‘emblematic of our moment of crashed markets and occupied streets, and it speaks to a generation beginning to question whether the All-American, celebrity-endorsed credit card lifestyle will make them anything but bankrupt’[ii]. Perhaps what she was referring to is the greatest change that hip-hop has seen since the release of Kanye West’s auto-tuned ‘808’s and Heartbreaks’. Since rappers like Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar have come to the fore, there is a quest in hip-hop to introspect upon their ‘self’ in the deepest manner. Drake is not interested in rapping about clothes and money. Money becomes the most important factor of Drake’s melancholia in his music. His melancholia is not unlike someone who is trapped in a context where one has to become a market product in order to be accepted in the mainstream. In the very first line of the song ‘Fireworks’ in his debut album ‘Thank Me Later’, he remarks, ’Money just changed everything. I wonder how life without it would go.’ That track perfectly captures the way fame and money has become a hollow refuge in our world. Even as he raps about his new found fame, he speaks about the way his mother is ‘more lonely than ever before’.
Drake’s music often subtly captures the way the hollowness of today’s celebrity culture affects one’s psyche. Marvin’s Room became a focal point for many music critics who commented upon the honest lyrics that reflect an indulgent celebrity who has no one to go home to which is more explicit with its muted and undermined melody. It is a futile effort for him to call one of his ex-girlfriends where he confesses how he is having a hard time adjusting to fame. It is however a vicious circle and the music that inspires that life will continue after the music gets over and that truly represents the tragedy of being a man who is trapped in fame and celebrity-culture. Here, the voice at the other end of the phone line is not just a listener. She is the voice that he must confess to and these confessions are not unlike Marmeladov’s in Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. The futility of both confessions is that at the end of the day, both would feed into their vice – indulgence. It is, perhaps, more explicit in ‘Cameras’ where Drake raps how the camera becomes a medium of fallacy. The camera, and by an extension the very idea of sight, becomes a medium that cannot be trusted. The idea of truth of love, celebrity and all other embellishments of tabloids are debunked in this song.
Drake’s laments are more than a pleads of a self-indulgent and narcissistic song-writer. What Drake represents is a generation that exists in a space that is full of simulations and false promises of love and glory. What is distinctive is Drake’s self-consciousness that is completely out of place in hip-hop where bragging is considered a virtue. He is, in his own words, selfish but there is no sign of any way that he can escape that space. He is located as a man who is of his times and, in his songs, shows characteristics of our own world and context.
Kendrick Lamar is as successful in locating his class position as a young black man living in Compton as he is in showing a philosophical bent of mind in his rhymes. The most emphasized themes of his music depends upon the context of the city and the gang violence that he was a witness to. His acclaimed debut album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City’ deals with the losing innocence in a space where all that can save him is a deep insecurity that makes him work harder than anyone else. The track ‘Black Boy Fly’ makes this explicitly clear when he pays a tribute to a fellow graduate of the same high school who went on to become a successful basket-ball player. The feeling perfectly captures the fears of a rapper who is not interested in, but equally affected by, violence around him.
His attitude towards money being the only way that can change his life is not very unique but what makes this rapper unique is the realistic portrayal of choosing either ‘Halle Berry or Hallelujah’. Halle Berry represents that picture of the world that is both pretence and yet a life that he might take and Hallelujah is the option that will finish him by death or at the mercy of a God even though he knows he is a sinner. Both are, in Lamar’s words, a ‘poison’ but that choice is an inevitable.
Kendrick Lamar also defends his role as the story-teller of the ghetto even as the lights go out. Even as he is surrounded by friends and relatives who are dying in violence, he is no longer just an individual and is turned into a man who wants to show the world what he comes from. This is the point that distinguishes him from other rappers who will not return to their stories. Lamar is a story-teller who is suffers with his characters and he is full of doubt about the way the story-teller himself will be remembered or if he is worth any memory. His role as the medium of the ghetto is questioned intensely when he speaks about being questioned and if he is going to be distracted by drugs and money in the music business. His poignant lyrics deal with life, memories, self-worth and religion. He introspects about the nature of love in ‘Real’ where love of everything else in the world overshadows the love of the self.
Here, Lamar is talking not just about the hatred of being but the hatred of not being ‘real’ in the world. The conflict that clouds that reality of life is a fundamental to the question of identity in this era. Kendrick Lamar is not just representing a progress from the refuge of family to being ‘real’ in a simulated world. He is representing a progress of hip-hop where breaking out of the box is about being introspective about the box itself. That becomes a marker of the rap generation about to come after Drake and Kendrick Lamar where the thinking man is replacing the ‘gangsta’ in popular culture.
[i] In his album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, ‘See Me Now’.
Image credit: Nahright