By Nate Patrin
The year 2013 was when hip hop’s infatuation with art-world credibility and iconoclastic rejections of wealth hit critical mass. But this shift towards the conflation of artistry and status seems as much an adaptation as a movement, and maybe that’s because the money seems more finite than ever. Even the artists who do make it big – well, have continued to make it big, maybe – are cranking out high-stakes opuses that are polarizing at best. For every fan struck by Drake‘s emotional rawness on Nothing Was the Same, there’s someone who recoils at how manipulative it feels to them. For every head wowed by Eminem‘s tongue-twisting squibbily-flabbily-doo approach to lyrical-lyrics, there’s someone who desperately wishes he used all that virtuosity to say something, anything new. And for everyone wowed by Yeezus – which is probably the closest there is to a consensus rap album this year— there’s someone who finds it too far afield of whatever first made them like Kanye back in 2004.
I liked Yeezus plenty. It’s a confrontational album from every sociological and pop-culture angle, but not so difficult that it’s a chore to listen to in search of whatever deeper messages West might be embedding beneath its supposedly contradictory new-money class-war surface. It felt like one logical conclusion that follows the stretch where, “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ You celebrate the minute that you’re havin’ dough” – to quote Yeezy’s patron/cohort/peer Jay Z, whose own settling-down process has similarly skirted his own take on pop-art consumerism. It’s a very specific and personal form of power and recognition of one’s own ascendance to name-check all the Basquiats you’ve got, especially a dozen years after the album that started both Kanye and Hova on their paths to MOMA-set cred saw Jay Z itching to avenge another exploited icon of early ’80s hip-hop culture in the Cold Crush Brothers.
But it’s also a pretty loud statement of defiance that fellow pushing-40 NYC rapper J-Zone — who, after a disillusioned hiatus, unretired with the masterpiece of aging-head wiseassery Peter Pan Syndrome — cut a track where he pondered making money by stealing all those fine-art pieces from rich rappers. After all, living in poverty while somebody else makes millions off your work is the end result of Industry Rule #1, and being on the other end of that equation for once doesn’t make things any easier for everyone.
So with the continuing erosion of across-the-board “event” music, the rampant watering down of media support for less-established rap artists, and the independent internet’s tightening monopoly on the ability to break new acts, it’s starting to feel a lot like 1988 again. Not just like ’88 on some of Nas’s “Made You Look” business, but in the sense that most of the best hip-hop seems aimed at something much smaller and more loyal than a mass-cult audience.
That’s one way to make sure the up-and-coming eccentrics, rebels, and innovators maintain their identities. Last year’s big breakthrough from that field, Kendrick Lamar, had his spotlight shine brightest when he stepped up on Big Sean’s “Control (HOF)” and called out the old guard, the same group that some people thought he’d joined.
Then, a year after El-P‘s Cancer4Cure and Killer Mike‘s R.A.P. Music reestablished the strengths of two unexpected compatriots, their two-man wrecking-crew gem as Run the Jewels cashed in on the idea that a free album would give fans plenty of stuff to get excited about for their live show. Their success with that new angle to the indie paradigm is heartening, and the mixtape-based success that made names out of people who might otherwise be niche outliers – crime-haunted hedonist/grime aficionado Danny Brown (Old); detail-oriented kingpin gourmand Action Bronson (Blue Chips 2), queer-lens ultralyricist Le1f (Tree House), the live-Harlem-rap-Houston Tumblr-age tastemakers of A$AP Mob (Long.Live.ASAP and Trap Lord) – has kept them thankfully unconstrained by anyone else’s demands. Even the most anticipated homecoming in ages, the official post-Samoan boarding school full-length debut by Odd Future phenom Earl Sweatshirt, tempered expectations for the complex yet clearheaded autobio record. Valuing respect over sales is one thing, but valuing agency above both seems key here.
Alongside those breakthroughs and the Bandcamp-aided comebacks by the once-scarce indie-vet likes of J-Zone and Jean Grae (check for her Gotham City Down cycle), it’s been fascinating to see how both early-arc newcomers and enduring lifers have been getting in work. So on the one hand you’ve got the likes of Chance the Rapper going from under-known quantity to Justin Bieber (!) collaborator in the span of twelve months, thanks to a free self-released digital download, Acid Rap, that sounded more complete and ambitious than anything on a major. And on the other, you’ve got a battalion of artists who cut their teeth during the most fertile, competitive years of hardcore NYC street rap in the ’90s who have now grown into new, finely aged modes.
You hear it in boom-era headliners like Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, whose collab with the omnipresent producer Alchemist, Albert Einstein, is top-tier stuff, and Ghostface Killah finally going all-in concept-album with psych-soul impresario Adrian Younge on Twelve Reasons to Die. And two artists in that vein who didn’t hit immediately in those years – Roc Marciano and Ka – seem to have benefitted from their longer gestation, with the former’s grainy-cinema propulsion (Marci Beaucoup) and the latter’s clinical yet humanist minimalism (The Night’s Gambit) resonating in ways that put their perspectives somewhere between vivid reportage and elaborate world-building.
It’s hasty to call this the beginning of a new hip-hop golden era, much less the heights of one. But any year where you can get so much unfiltered self-expression so readily has to be marked down as a good one.