Hip-hop’s history doesn’t need to be rehashed. To those who identify themselves as fans of the art-form, the history of rap music and by extension hip-hop culture is rich and complicated, albeit relatively new. What began as a form of rebellious expression against the sociopolitical status quo has evolved into a billion dollar entertainment medium that has served as a means for people from different walks of life to come together and learn not what separates them, but what brings them together. One can be dismissive towards its relevance if they choose, but the fact is that for all of the divisiveness that Hip-Hop culture may be at the center of, I have yet to come across a single vessel that has brought more people together culturally.
Yet strangely enough, especially for children of hip-hop who preside over generations older than mine, it has always struggled to garner the respect and creative significance that other genres seem to attain with ease. As it stands in the year 2015, hip-hop consistently finds itself at the epicenter of debates over its artistic credibility and merit, which is made all-the-more convoluted by the constant referendum on its questionable impact on behavior and decency in our society. The reasons for this are too many to list here, and they’re more or less theories than actual matters of fact. The truth is that although rock-and-roll, jazz, and even R&B are older musical genres, by the time that they were respectively as old as hip-hop is today (about 40 years give or take), they had garnered the adulation of the musical high brass as forms of expression that not only entertained, but served as inspiration and sources of unity for the collective masses.
This has manifested itself in a decades-long blood feud between the champions of hip-hop and the previously-established brain trust of musical integrity. Perceived slights at awards shows, in journalistic publications, and during interviews have spurred people like Kanye West into action at every possible turn. These people never relent at the opportunity to spout off about how hip-hop deserves its due and is disrespected and misunderstood.
Let me be clear, I don’t want to engage in an exposition that seeks to analyze whether hip-hop is being purposefully disrespected or not. This is because I don’t see this as the central issue. Whether you believe that hip-hop is disrespected based on racial motivations or a disconnect between cultures is irrelevant. Rather, hip-hop culture needs to understand why the edifice that is the musical ivory tower seems to not want to let it in so that it can determine whether it truly wants to be included, or whether it even gives a damn about being respected by the mainstream. What we need to talk about is the quality of the music itself and how that contributes to the perception of disrespect. Hip-hop is in a dire need of self-reflection, and until it does so, it really needs to shut up. Sorry Kanye.
I am most likely going to come off as an old hip-hop head, which is crazy considering the fact that I’m only 29. But that is just a reflection of how oriented around the concept of youth the genre is, and that’s okay. I was born in ‘86, right on the crux of the birth of gangsta rap, and I grew up being nurtured by the rap of the 90s. If that makes me an old head, then so be it. What I will defend to death, however, is the idea that the overall approach to hip-hop, from a craft and conception standpoint, has undoubtedly changed as new generations have moved into the forefront. What was once a form of music that was predicated on skill, uncanny work ethic, lyrics, and showmanship, has given way to a vessel of entertainment that no longer cares about creating timeless pieces of art, but is overly concerned with microwavable trends and flashes in the pan.
The quality of the music itself has suffered a precipitous decline. The need to work hard and have considerable showmanship still prevails – and these are no doubt talents unto themselves – but for the most part, reaching the mountaintop in hip-hop has been reduced to a formula that is as tangible as 1s and 0s. A single that will warrant considerable club and radio play and a catchy gimmick is all that it takes to get you in the door now, and that is okay, if we’re willing to accept that that is what hip-hop is and what that means in relation to the rest of the music community. The problem is that hip-hop seemingly refuses to own that acceptance, and instead internalizes its unwillingness to do so and project that internalization as a perception of disrespect.
In my estimation, this has contributed mightily to the current downtrodden state of the hip-hop industry as a viable means to acquire wealth for the artist. The impetus has been placed upon artists to almost disregard the importance of constructing classic bodies of work that will pay dividends generationally. Instead, the emphasis is placed on piecing together mediocre additions to their discography that will end up underneath the passenger seats of most cars within a matter of weeks, all so they can hit the road and make ALL of their money from show performances; and unfortunately, hip-hop fulfills its own prophecy in this regard because the music in totality is so bad yet the singles are so catchy, people turn out in droves and pay to watch performances but will never step foot into a Best Buy or log on to iTunes to buy the album.
Hip-hop likes to blame the proliferation of bootlegging on the decline of album sales, and it has taken its toll without question. But I am living proof that if the quality of the product was better, I wouldn’t be on Kickass Torrents downloading albums that are only comprised of about 40% quality. I’d be buying them, and I know I’m not the only one.
Given this, I simply find the views of people like Kanye to be sorely misplaced. Furthermore, it annoys the shit out of me when his misplaced ire results in the disrespect of other deserving artists who are more than worthy of the credit that they receive (Beck, not Taylor Swift, although she deserves some props in certain respects). In addition to my annoyance, I also find myself confused when the complaints come from people like Kanye, who I would think came from a line of thinking that isn’t too dissimilar from my own.
Kanye belongs to the generation that precedes mine. He was brought up in the era of hip-hop as a means of creative and artistic expression, not mindless zombie ratchet music. He knows all-too-well what it takes to be respected by those who proclaim themselves to be the arbiters of musical integrity. His own music, in particular his first two albums, speak exactly to that. Yet he defends the very antithesis of that. He regularly cosigns music today that he would never have cosigned during his backpack days. I understand that evolution is inevitable, but certain things you would imagine would stick with a person throughout their tenure as a culturally relevant figurehead. I’m unsure as to whether his own success has diluted his reasoning, and I would certainly not go so far as to disrespect him by suggesting as such.
Nevertheless, I find it puzzling that he routinely aligns himself musically with a paradigm that I thought he prided himself on denouncing. He said it himself, “Take that equipment back to the store/We don’t wanna hear that weak shit no more.” I can only surmise that it’s purely for financial gain and an increase in the impact of his personal brand, but that doesn’t make it any less odd for me to digest. He is gifted enough to achieve those things without acquiescing to such buffoonery.
What Kanye needs to understand – and again, I don’t doubt that he actually does understand this – is what institutions like the Grammy’s perceives to be musically artistic merit. Hip-hop needs to come to terms with what the Grammy’s has and always will stand for. As long as there are artists who are classically trained musicians with the ability to play multiple instruments and construct sheets of music note-by-note and provide their own vocals unassisted by technology, they will always be given more artistic credence than rappers and R&B singers. Many of these hip-hop acts DON’T even write their own lyrics or conceptualize their own songs, and many of them, quite frankly, produce content that isn’t distinguishable from the next track and is otherwise plain foolishness.
This isn’t to take away from the talent that they possess, but it is what it is and artistry is artistry. Don’t get me wrong; Alicia Keys, John Legend, many talented producers, Drake, Kendrick Lamar (personally not a fan but I acknowledge his abilities), and a host of others represent a stark minority. But this isn’t about them because they probably get it. When they lose, they probably are being slighted to a certain degree. This is about the majority of hip-hop and by extension Kanye’s whiny rhetoric, and that being representative of our inability to quit throwing stones from a glass house. If you haven’t listened to Beck, you can’t objectively comment on the reasons why he should’ve lost to Beyoncé or anyone else for that matter at this past year’s Grammy award show. The foundation for how the Grammy’s awards artists has always been one that’s based on musicianship. By now, you would think that hip-hop understood this and decided to make the decision once and for all: Do we comply with the standards for what music is and capitulate or just let bygones be bygones?
Rather, hip-hop has made the decision to continue to raise hell in the hopes that it’s successful in circumventing the system. The problem is that it won’t be. Artistry is a clearly defined concept, no different than the color red being universally recognized as the color red, and urban contemporary music simply does not fall into that category anymore by its own design. And that’s okay, because in its own respect hip-hop is very deserving of its place as the genre that is most relevant when it comes to moving the proverbial cultural needle. It should learn to be content with this reality because not only is it enough to be in such a widespread and influential position, but fundamentally, it doesn’t seem willing or able to produce content that is representative of what has historically been identified as musical artistry, save for the aforementioned minority and a few others, but that simply isn’t enough.
That influence makes hip-hop more powerful than the fulfillment that the awarding of any Grammy would suggest. But if hip-hop so desperately wants to start winning Grammy’s and getting Grammy respect at a higher level, only one thing is going to achieve that: STEP YOUR GAME UP AND PRODUCE BETTER BODIES OF WORK. Point blank. Because I’ll tell you this; the day that Rich Homie Quan, French Montana, Young Thug and Bobby Shmurda start winning Grammys will be the day that this music shit goes by the way of modern-day minstrel shows and flying pigs. As a matter of fact, I’d rather watch flying pigs than see those clowns win a Grammy.
Why do you think hip-hop culture is constantly fighting for artistic credibility? What’s the real root behind the divide between the Grammy’s and hip-hop music? Am I wrong and things are they way they are for different reasons? Let your opinions be heard in the comments below!
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current-but-not-permanent Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.