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Hip-Hop’s Dying, Ya Heard?

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“One of the tasks of the film critic of tomorrow–perhaps he will even be called a “television critic”–will be to rid the world of the comic figure the average film critic and film theorist of today represents: he lives from the glory of his memories like the seventy-year-old ex-court actresses, rummages about as they do in yellowing photographs, speaks of names that are long gone. He discusses films no one has been able to see for ten years (and about which they can therefore say everything and nothing) with people of his own ilk; he argues about montage like medieval scholar discussed the existence of God, believing all these things could still exist today. In the evening, he sits with rapt attention in the cinema, a critical art lover, as though we still lived in the days of Griffith, Stroheim, Murnau, and Eisenstein. He thinks he is seeing bad films instead of understanding that what he sees is no longer film at all.”-Rudolf Arnheim, 1935.*

Regions have splintered further into town-specific styles, there’s just a couple of discernible stars, a whole bunch of rappers it’s hard to get one’s critical bearings on, and it all meets on the streets and the internet, not the Billboard Charts or MTV. Hip-hop isn’t dead. It just isn’t as easy to write about anymore. That’s what Sasha-Frere Jones’ intriguing though problematic “Wrapping Up”, and Simon Reynolds’ confusing “Notes on the Noughties” are actually saying.

But instead of acknowledging the weird, new species that hip-hop’s evolved into, it’s gotta be just plain dead or at least, “ag[ing] out”. Skipping over these dramatic shifts in “the industry” and the ever-growing influence and eventual reliance on the internet–best represented with mixtapes–is a huge oversight if you’re diagnosing hip-hop in 2009.

These guys think they are hearing bad albums instead of understanding that what they hear is no longer an album at all.

Industry changes hover in the background of SFJ’s piece and bubble up through the focus on Freddie Gibbs’ mixtapes, but its Reynolds who out-and-out dismisses the mixtape, with the pithy adjective of “obscure”. Now, it’s depressing when a critic–even a pop critic–tosses out “obscure” as a negative descriptor (sorta how indie critics used “lo-fi” to negatively describe Wavves) but it’s another thing when that same critic both performs ignorance (that unfortunate “Gummi Bares” joke) and proves his ignorance (lumping Soulja Boy, Yung Joc, Gucci Mane, and Boosie together like they have much of anything in common) and then tries to tell readers anything about hip-hop.

Many of the mixtapes one could cite to prove hip-hop’s still vital aren’t really obscure–if you’re a notable critic and you declare them obscure, they’ll remain obscure–but more importantly, these “obscure” mixtapes are maybe the only way vital hip-hop can even get out there anymore. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rapper that’s debuted since 2004–the year Reynolds says rap started withering away–whose best work isn’t on a mixtape or at least, has some mixtapes competing with their albums in terms of quality. This isn’t a coincidence. It also isn’t a coincidence that 2004 or so is about when hip-hop and the internet really started mingling. Just saying.

You know, on Tuesday, new albums from both Clipse and Gucci Mane drop. Most of you reading have already heard them. Neither of these albums are particularly good, both of them have their moments, but only Clipse will truly suffer from making a sub-par album. Clipse made their proper debut in 2001–though their first album dates back to 1999–while Gucci debuted in 2005.

The reason Clipse will suffer and Gucci will not is because Gucci’s established himself as a creative rapping force via mixtapes, while Clipse fell back on the mixtape when their official stuff got mucked-up in label drama. Clipse need–or think they need–the album. Gucci’s using it purely as a means to an end: More money, more ubiquity, maybe some respectability. Indeed, even if The State vs. Radric Davis were a masterpiece, it wouldn’t sell better (it’d maybe sell worse) and in a world of “Gummi Bares” jokes by notable critics, it doesn’t seem like “Gucci Mane” and “masterpiece” could even be conceived of in the same sentence. So why bother? Go get Gucciamerica or the official unofficial Murder Was the Case which is structured like a tight, worker-bee album…which means it’s structured like a Gucci mixtape.

Clipse though, in part because they clearly care about rap in the long-term sense–Gucci does not, proven by the fact that he’s going to jail again–and in part because they’re undoubtedly from a different era, tie rap artistry to the album format. They also want to be successful. Til the Casket Drops is torn apart by this tension, neither as good as their past work nor pop-oriented enough to yield any hits, in part because the brothers Thornton translate “pop” as “stick a broad on the hook”. Til the Casket Drops misses both of its intended targets and farts around in no-man’s land. And unlike Gucci or plenty of rappers who’ve come since (but didn’t indeed, have a few singles like “Icey” and “Freaky Gurl” to buttress their street buzz) Clipse don’t promise a deluge of new material and so, this all we get.

The State vs. Radric Davis is a product and that’s clear to all involved: a guest-heavy, bets-hedging group of songs that hopefully maybe will sell a lot of copies and make a lot of money. It begins like Gucci’s mixtapes, rolls into a sequence of R & B jams, and wraps-up with a group of songs with big-name guests and up-and-comers. Gucci’s artistry is on display on dozens of album-like mixtapes, not the actual album. In 2009, rap fans just know this. Critics apparently, do not.

*More accurately: J. Hoberman in 1998 quoting Rudolf Arnheim in 1935.
further reading/viewing:
-”Wrapping Up” by Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker
-”Notes on the noughties…” by Simon Reynolds for The Guardian
“Audio: Gucci Mane Calls Into DJ Drama’s Show w/Young Jeezy” from Dirty Glove Bastard
“The Film Critic of Tomorrow” by Rudolf Arnheim
“The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today” by J. Hoberman

Written by Brandon

December 4th, 2009 at 5:41 am

Posted in Clipse, Gucci Mane, hmmmm