Back on my grind: rap music. There’s been a lot of emotions and electronic music and self-reflectiveness afoot in rap music for the past few years. Blame it on Kanye: most of what we hear now is directly or indirectly linked back to that dude. (On a sidenote: I used to defend everything he did. But due to recent events that are too low-brow for even me to mention, I can’t handle him at the moment.)
Something really odd is going on now, though, and I’ve noticed it in a spate of releases from the past couple months. Apparently, women-led 80s gauzy British art rock is making a play for major sleeper influence in rap music.
This didn’t start with Kanye, but just so we’re clear, it couldn’t have been born without him. This fad, rather, is fathered by one of Kanye’s spiritual spawn, the once-villified, now-totally-established Drake. Take Care, which I once called “thoughtful, dextrous, and mature,” Drake’s 2011 album, continues to be a force to be reckoned with in most rap releases. The chilled-out, ambient production favored on that album’s contemplative (errr…navel-gazing) tracks struck me as sounding really nostalgic. They were nostalgic to me and my musical past, though, not nostalgic in relationship to rap. It’s because Take Care’s first jam, “Over My Dead Body” sounds basically like a Cocteau Twins song. (And I love the Cocteau Twins!!!)
But what I’m more interested in is not the trends in electronic sounds, but the production and voice choices for back-up vocals in rap songs. Whereas lady R&B singers could rest assured that they’d be included on a tune or two if vocals were needed a few years back, now the intrusion of indie into rap all but guarantees that some unknown English lily (get what I’m sayin’???) is lilting somewhere in the mix.
FOR INSTANCE: That Florence lady is on the ASAP Rocky album. She’s no good, if you ask me–all flim flam and no real guts. Her idol, I’m sure, is THE KATE BUSH, but you can’t just sing like you’re on the brink of orgasm/emotional breakdown all the time and think you’re THE Kate Bush. Kate Bush isn’t afraid to sound like a man/sea monster, isn’t afraid to stretch the limits of what the voice can do in the mold of some avant-garde Meredith Monk shit.
Along the same lines: the new Big Boi album features neither lovely chanteuse who appeared on his last album (Janelle Monae and Mary J), but rather some lady from “Phantogram.” I have never heard this band, but their wiki page tells me they belong to the “electronic pop” genre. The songs on which Phantogram appears are pretty okay, but they are very much “electronic pop” songs that will sound extremely silly in two years. One friend, upon hearing the Big Boi feat. Phantogram song “CPU,” likened it to Robyn. SO YEAH.
So, now you’re waiting for me to make a racist argument that rap music should feature soul singers. That black music has to be black. I am not saying this. I am saying, however, that the recent heavy hitters–this ASAP fella, Big Boi, Drake–are indulging in Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins, to some mixed results. Is this genuine experimentation, or are these albums just pushing genre barriers because that’s what rap is supposed to do nowadays? I know Big Boi can do Kate Bush–I KNOW HE CAN! But this album, mired in the bleep-blops of 2011-sounding club-ready indie jams–is not it.
Gotta bring it back to Kanye. Kanye is a borg who, on MBDTF, assimilated genres (King Crimson? James Brown? Gil Scott Heron spoken word? Black Sabbath? All of the above!) and made one of the best albums ever (yeah, I just said it). It was celebrated by rap and rock critics alike, and probably made a lot of doctrinaire rap fans even crankier about his rap-dilettantism than ever before. But art dies the moment it becomes doctrinaire, if it adheres to the conventions of genre, and, in the case of rap music, stays within the confines of its regional sound.
But you can’t push it. It’s a delicate process. If your thing isn’t indiscriminately devouring all kinds of music which organically results in some genre-hopping expression, then… stay boring. Or, I mean, to bring up that old adage: Write/play/sing what you know. An EMCEE everyone respects is Freddie Gibbs, who has literally no ambitions to do anything new. He’s a gangsta rapper and he knows it. Pitchfork sent some dumbass to interview him in his trailer in a junkyard in LA and asked him to spin a yarn over a beat. The dumbass played Gibbs two different beat tracks–one a fairly standard beat clearly not produced by Skrillex, and the other beat a bunch of dubstep womp womps and flambouyant synths that was maybe produced by Skrillex–and Freddie was like, “Uh, I’ll take the first one.” And then he rapped about how he still sells drugs over the standard beat, and it was all good.
Some other dudes would do well to do like Freddie and stay true to their hearts. Or hire producers who aren’t second-rate chop shop jobbers jumping on a genre-bending band wagon. Being a good rapper, and staying relevant, does not mean you need to go into an enchanted English forest and pull out some fairy lady to back that track up.