No Trivia

Archive for October, 2008

Final Notes on Post-Lyricism

one comment

A bunch of stuff that couldn’t find its way into the three “essays” but seems interesting and/or worth discussing and a few times, makes more sense than the “Post-Lyrical” entries…

“Post-lyricism” like all obnoxious terms, comes more out of a pragmatic want/need to discuss something than actually trying to be accurate. Like the apparently on-going fear and concern of “post-Modernism” in culture, within the rap world, what’s currently going on in mainstream or even semi-mainstream hip-hop freaks a lot of old fans out and kinda reminds me of reading old or new diatribes against “post-Modernism”. Also, like “post-Modernism”, “post-lyricism” is sort of a non-sense term that’s both all-encompassing and doesn’t really refer to anything.

Rap is and basically has to be “post-positive”. Here’s a wikipedia link to Positivism. Rap, as a “black art” primarily is post-positive because the argument made by most intellectual types that study and discuss black arts is that for so long, the concept of black people even making art was considered absurd and even offensive, that all black arts must oppose and conflict with conventional concepts of art, “beauty”, etc. This is fun to bring up because so many of the people that find themselves stuck on “lyrics” or “intelligence” or whatever in terms of determining what kind of rap is “good” and “bad” are kinda playing themselves by applying positivist terms to an art form that’s totally beyond such terms.

If we’re going to take rap seriously–which all bloggers do, even when they pretend not to–then we are taking popular culture seriously and if we’re taking popular culture seriously, then it’s sort of dumb to apply one’s subjective opinion of what makes something “good” onto it. That’s to say, if you’re gonna be some fucking aesthete about rap and hip-hop then you’re retarded. If something resembling conventional definitions of “quality” or some Platonic ideal of good’s what’s on your mind, go listen to like, Shostakovich or some shit.

As jay eff kay said in the comments section, the current era of rap–which I’ve selfishly dubbed “post-lyrical”–is still working itself out and gestating. To compare it to past ages which had more time to build and are in effect over, is sort of pointless. In that case, “post-lyricism” is figuring itself out and throwing shit out there and seeing what sticks. This is both exciting and endlessly frustrating. In time, the artist and musicians will figure it all out and keep going with the stuff that isn’t totally terrible or silly or has no shelf live and drop the stuff that does. In just the past few years, you can see how auto-tune went from being the thing that wannabe pop-stars did to stream-line their albums, to a goofball production trick, to an R & B staple, to maybe even something that can be meaninful or affecting (certain T-Pain songs, Kanye’s “Put On” verse and “Love Lockdown”). Auto-tune is now being used like “reverb” or something. Personally, I’d like to see it go away all together, but its use hasn’t been stagnant, even if it has devolved into another musical cliche.

On bad lyrics. There’s a difference between whatever-ish similies and some of the lyrical turds that Kanye or Lil Wayne drop. One’s a kind of place-holder between more poignant and successful lines–and in that case, connects my “rap minimalism” rant in Pt. 3 to an older tradition–and one is an active seeking-out of groan-inducing joke one-liners. There’s a sense of fun to these bad one-liners and it can be traced back to the earliest rap and stuff like “and the chicken taste like wood”. The bad lyric-dropping too, seems to be something of an extension of what was once called the “bling bling” era and before that, the beginning of rap when wearing crazy chain and looking outrageously fly and all that was a part of the culture. The implicit message of dressing out-there and handling over-sized chains was in part, something about looking absurd and being powerful enough to pull it off or just plain not giving a fuck. Making even your music this absurd and out-there is again, not something I’m too into or excited by, but I think that’s what’s going on when Kanye jokes “whipped it out I said/Bet you’ve never seen snakes on a plane”.

Blame the critics. The internet, file-sharing, and all this other good stuff has made the borders between genre significantly more porous. This has led to musicians, especially rap musicians, to be as exposed to numerous genres and musical ideas as the sophisticated or pseudo-sophisticated critics writing on the music. For many years, rock critics reviewed rock music and rap writers wrote about rap and only the smartest like say Ego-Trip really got how to bridge the two and not come-off as a jerkoff. Not anymore. Now, pretty much every critic listens to everything. So, the same guy who listens to bullshit like Of Montreal or something, is also Google Blog-Searching the new T.I album. In one way, it’s wonderful and democratic and all that. In another way, it’s horrible because in my opinion, you can’t really make any sense or have any kind of refined taste and like both of those things.

The most hilarious way that this has manifested itself is in rap writers and rap bloggers who often dip their toes into the indie rock pool and so, you have guys who complain about how rap’s not like Mobb Deep anymore and then are going to tell me Wolf Parade are the shit. Guys who make fun of Pharrell or Kanye for dressing like homos and then go watch the guy from Of Montreal rip-off David Bowie. Besides the kind of unfortunate racism inherent in these expectations, it’s also not a surprise when rappers would respond to taste-making critics and follow through. So, quirk and tween-ness and overall sense of juvenile fun is celebrated and embraced in indie rock–basically a mainstream genre now mind you–it shouldn’t be a surprise that rappers would start to employ a similar sense of all-out fun and goofiness in their music. This again, explains jokes and one-liners as being really pervasive in rap.

Another point that’s been brought up a great deal is how rap is, in some ways, moving back to its original “roots” of facilitating dancing and partying and first and foremost, entertaining. I’m not totally comfortable with the comparison but there’s some truth there. The biggest difference of course, is that simply by MC-ing and breaking and all that stuff, even when it wasn’t explicitly political or “meaningful”, the simple act of doing those things made it political. The same can’t be said for Kanye West.

Still, this sense of a return or homage to earlier and the earliest era of rap is kind of palpable. The same way early rap moved between different areas and art circles, rappers like Kanye or Wayne are collaborating or sampling other genres, working with those artists, and coming up with something newer and different than what’s come before. For better and worse, post-lyrical rappers are really open-minded, reaching and grabbing from all different places to forge something new.

Now, let’s never speak of this again.

Written by Brandon

October 7th, 2008 at 4:14 pm

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase Pt. III: What’s the Point of Post-Lyricism?


First, before reading this or uh, in addition to reading this, go back and read the comments in the other two parts which totally take this discussion in places I hadn’t thought of or connected. My apologies for not being able to more actively engage the comments like usual, I was too busy buying comic books this weekend.

As suggested in the first part of this, the point of “post-lyricism”–whether it knows it or not–is a sort of total breaking away of “the Nas formula”. There are plenty of flaws in calling it “the Nas formula” (the formula certainly existed before Nas) but it’s also an easy way to communicate the kind of lyricism that’s both undeniably great and simply not happening as much anymore (certainly not on the radio) and not really working anymore either.

The word “formula” too, is used advisedly, not as any kind of slam against Nas, but to note the way the signs and signifiers of Nas and company’s type of rapping has devolved into a bunch of things you can do to get a lot of dumb people (which is most people and therefore, most raps fans, including “serious” hip-hop heads) to think you’re good or celebrate because it opposes say, Soulja Boy.

Certainly, it isn’t this simple and the assertion I’m about to make’s a little too cynical, but following or not following “the Nas formula” is in part, an economic choice. And not in the sense of rapping like Nas makes you “serious” and not rapping like Nas makes you a sell-out. In the current rap climate of declining record sales and all that crap, choosing to rap in one way or the other determines your rarified audience. Take someone like Immortal Technique, who no doubt, thinks he’s in the vein of Nas or something. His choice to be in some ways “throwback”, along with his contact, has given him a very specific and dependable audience of nostalgics and left-leaning rap fans (these categories of course, overlap a great deal).

When there’s some college open mic or when your favorite college radio rap show opens the phones for listeners to kick a free style, following “the Nas formula”, if you’re not completely wack, will get you a lot of love right off the bat. By following “the Nas formula” you court a small, but powerful and devoted groups of listeners that will like you. In many ways, “the Nas formula” is easier and safer too. Who knows where the hell say, T-Pain came from, but if you stuck him on any stage as an unknown, he’d get laughed the fuck off the stage! Now, that could be used as evidence that it’s absurd this rappa ternt sanga’s so big right now, but it also points toward the way very popular music is often weird and uncool before it’s popular.

Even the Soulja Boy-style fan of rap music, when confronted with “the Nas formula” in person or without the context of it being hot or not on MTV or the radio, will respond positively to this tried and true formula, because it’s still what kids do in middle-school when they’re “freestyling” with their friends. Of course, stick that freestyler in the studio with access to some real equipment, maybe some background singer girls, and corporate pressure to make a hit and he won’t make the next “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”.

The economic choice in rejecting “the Nas formula” isn’t really worth going over, is it? Slower, simpler, makes it easier on the ears, more crossover appeal, etc. etc.

While many would be quick to defend “Nas formula” rappers as not making so much of an economic choice, but as keeping it real or true, that argument or that simple argument rather, can’t be made for the post-lyricists. And no doubt, a lot of rappers (or “rappers” if you want to be a dick about it) adopt the post-lyrical style out of a lack of talent or creativity of patience, and while the tone of this makes Kanye and Wayne into hyper-innovators that they are not–as I said, they’re kinda hopping onto a trend, they just happen to be more famous–there is a sense that a whole bunch of rappers are simply not interested in doing “the Nas formula”. Whether they lyrically have the talent to do it or not is not the issue, at least for me. It’s probably true that Picasso couldn’t paint like Titian or some shit, but who cares and we save the discussion for ‘Post-Modernism in Art 101′ or some shit.

In many ways, “post-lyricism” can be stuck on Andre 3000. Certainly one of the brightest and more lyric-oriented rappers from any region, Andre’s also been pretty weird and out-there since the first Outkast album. Over time, he increasingly played with meter and rhymes and adopted a purposefully rambling, off-topic style, all while remaining, for the most part, conventionally “lyrical” or lyrical enough to not be labelled wack by anybody.

Take a listen to ATLiens, the album before Outkast got rock-critic “weird” and were just weird and an inarguable rap classic no matter where you’re from. Sure, it contains plenty of brilliant lyrical moments resembling “the Nas formula”, but it’s also got plenty of purposefully bad similes (“tight like nuts and bolts” from “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)”), or tangential near-non rhymes (“Elevators”). His recent “return” to rap, which some people perceive as “overrated”, dives further into these post-lyrical tropes and comes out at times awkward or weird, but always affecting.

The moments of conventional, “Nas formula” brilliance are punctuated by stranger rhymes, jokes, nonsense, and round-about ways of expression. From the conventional “lyrical” definition, Andre’s inconsistent, but all those inconsistencies and idiosyncracies are being used towards a greater point/message/feeling whatever and wouldn’t resonate half as much if he stayed within the bounds of “the Nas formula”. Take Ghostface’s work outside of the Wu since Supreme Clientele and you’ll find a greater breadth and depth of emotion than is found on even really real shit like “Tearz”. What those two greats did was take parts of “the Nas formula” and build upon it and occasionally, fall back on it.

Of course, you’ll get barely anybody complaining about Andre 3000 or Ghostface they way so many complain about Kanye or Lil Wayne, but their post-lyricism comes out of Andre and Ghost’s post-lyricism. It’s got even less to do with “the Nas formula” and therefore rhymes less and takes the lyrical carnival games and joke punchlines to even goofier places. And still, despite what their detractors say, Kanye and Wayne can still drop a brilliant line or verse and are quite good at moving from the obnoxiously dumb to the really poignant.

Worshippers of “the Nas formula” might call this inconsistent but that’s sort of the point. Additionally, there’s some added level of emotion to these lines because they’re dropped in between a lot of shit talk and cutesy douche-baggery. You’re caught in a loop of the latter two things for a bunch of lines or even a few songs, and then Wayne drops something like his domestic abuse reminisce in “Playing With Fire”–”Remember when your pussy second husband tried to beat ya?/Remember when I went into the kitchen, got the cleaver?”–or another obnoxious Kanye song about why fame and money sucks stumbles into a lyrical, almost like conventionally poetic line like, “You’re on the other side of the glass/Of my memory’s museum”. Because it’s not hot line after hot line, or even poignant emotional detail after poignant emotional detail, the ones they focus on have added weight.

In the past, I’ve called this “rap minimalism” and it works a lot like Minimalism as a music genre in general. Basically (and I’m super simplifying here), through repetition, the slightest variation takes on greater meaning or importance. Clipse are certainly rap minimalists–and sorta post-lyricists too–because they fall back on almost nonsense punchlines and repetitive material, but every once in a while, the guilt and world-weariness fumbling around in the background gets really clear for a verse or line. We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 is pretty much a whole album of post-lyrical tropes (although delivered in “the Nas formula”) until we get to Malice’s “All the money in the world…” verse on the last track, “Ultimate Flow”.

Young Jeezy, a more clear-cut example of post-lyricism, is pretty much not even rapping most of the time, so that when he does enter something resembling flow or reveals something, it means a lot more. For whatever reason, Jeezy’s “They lock us in cages/The same nigga that’s a star when you put em’ on stages” is something that more than one teenager has brought up to me as a line that made them think.

So, the point of “post-lyricism” outside of some general want to move away from “the Nas formula” is to in some way or another, take bits and pieces of “the Nas formula” and meld it with less tried and true lyrical formulas and create something new, which has the emotional resonance and effect that “the Nas formula” once had. There’s no denying that rappers of the “Nas” mold are simply not engaging new and younger listeners to rap, while Kanye and Wayne certainly are. And for all that’s annoying or terrible about them to dudes like me and most of my readers that grew up on “the Nas formula”, they are in their own way, as bizarre and rarified as any of those inexplicable Golden Era personalities that also had some pop appeal.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2008 at 4:01 am