Ode To Rap

Rap may be my favorite art form. I don’t call it hip-hop, because I understand that term signifies more than music.

I’ve found myself… on a number of occasions, trying to explain to someone why I love a particular song. I summon all of the words I can to convey the message, but I can tell by my listener’s expression that it is not getting through. I wonder if they hear the same thing coming out of the speakers that I do. They do, just with a different set of ears.

So I realized more and more, that most people can never love rap (and ultimately hip-hop) the way I do, because they do not view it in the way that I do.

I used to pride myself on being able to decode all of the punch lines and references hidden in some songs. Over and over again, rap showed me that you needed to be a well-rounded individual to even begin to understand the message that was being sent in just one line. I loved growing with the music, and discovering the latent meanings of lyrics that I'd been reciting for years.

A few years back, when Loso’s Way was the album to listen to, my friends loved this one song “Fabulous Life”. Of course, the beat was crazy. When Ryan Leslie’s production met Fabolous’ smooth rhymes, it was always magical. I hummed that song all summer, when it finally occurred to me that my friends didn’t understand the undertone of the track. Throughout each verse of the song, and the infectious chorus, the artists are making numerous references to the old comedy show, In Living Color. When I tried to explain this to my boys, they just kinda nodded like “okay”. For myself, what made the song dope was all the allusions to the hit comedy that preceded it by nearly 20 years. For them it was about the most basic parts of the music, beats and rhymes. To the untrained ear, it was just a few nice lines. I’m sure for the focused listener, Fabolous cleverly added those easter eggs.

One of my personal favorites has always been “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common. He goes three verses describing a girl he’s loved since he was a child. He describes her journey from the east coast to the west, and her obsession with money as she slowly loses her Afrocentricity. In the final two bars, he explains that he was actually talking about hip-hop. It’s a great moment if your gears are grinding. You’ll probably want to re-listen to fully grasp all of the personification.

A more recent example is J. Cole’s “I Let Nas Down”. He details making music that was inadequate in the eyes of his idol. If the listener doesn’t know who Nas is, or what he has meant for MC’s everywhere, the song is almost meaningless. Cole’s conundrum becomes real to the listener that knows how Nas was always able to appeal without sacrificing creativity, lyricism, or substance. The song is essentially Cole’s admission that he made music to please his label and along the way lost sight of the art.

Every now and then, somebody will ask me what kind of music I listen to. I almost reluctant to name the genre because of what it implies. If I respond with “rap”, I know they’ll immediately begin thinking of Rick Ross, Drake, Silento, and a slew of other commercial acts that don’t represent the depth that rap can bring.

To fully grasp a rap song, you need to understand slang, sports, current events, history, oldies music, etc. Then you can begin to connect all of the poetry that’s being put forth. Like Q-Tip once said, it’s “the mental fitness”. If you don’t have this prior knowledge, the listening experience won’t be the same. You need to know old rap songs to know whether an MC is quoting, biting, paying homage, or sending a subliminal shot at a rival. You’ve got to hear old jazz, funk, and soul records, to spot when a producer is putting their own spin on a timeless sound.

None of this is meant to throw shade at commercial rap, and commercial artists, but I don’t always get the same feeling when I listen to most contemporary artists. I can’t knock anyone’s hustle, but I selfishly hope that artists will use the platform they’ve been given to make art they care about. I hope producers strive to make something unique, as opposed to riding the latest trend. There is a place for party songs (and some ignorant ones, at that), but I hate to see talent wasted and for anybody to think that’s all that rap is about.

It’s supposed to be about all of these things, and I think that’s the only real change from the 80’ and 90’s to now. Commercially, you will seldom hear a rap song with jazz/soul undertones, strong instrumentation, nor a rapper with much to say. What I am hearing more often than not is music meant to sell, not necessarily tunes that I (or even the artists for that matter) would consider genuine, heartfelt, or honest.

The last really positive radio smash I can remember was “Why?” by Jadakiss in 2004. Hearing it now just blows my mind that he used that platform for such a message. It still sounds great, but it’s certainly a relic from another time, and perhaps the last one we’ll ever get.