Honestly, some of the best albums to come out in the last year or so are Big Boi’s Sir Lucious…, Jay-Z’s Blueprint III, Raekwon’s Cuban Links 2. All three of those albums got ridiculous hype but somehow managed to live up to, if not exceed, expectations. (Is this because hype usually tends to disappoint and our awareness of that leaves us shocked when a super hyped album is actually good?..Doubtful.)
The obvious question is this: Is mainstream rap getting better?
Let’s check up on some of my all time favorite indie rappers—I’ve desperately tried (and apparently failed) to coin the term “hipster-hop”—to see what they’ve done lately, for comparison. After 2 awesome albums and 2 more amazing EPs, Mr. Lif released the disappointing I heard it today, last year. (There is one really amazing verse on the album but it’s from Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks.) Sage Francis just released another album, Li(f)e, with one or two really good creative songs and a lot of intimate BS on it (this time really embracing his indie identity by collaborating with a lot of indie artists, at least.) Cage got too emo. Eyedea, eh. Immortal technique still hasn’t figured out where to place his punch lines. DOOM still hasn’t thought of putting his funny but quickly annoying sound clips in between songs so you can skip them after a few listens. Meanwhile Nas just released a surprisingly solid album with Jr. Gong.
I think I know what’s going on here.
Let’s look to indie rock for a hint. Bands like Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear (who put on a great live show, if you ever get a chance to check them out), and MGMT (who put on a horrible live show) for instance, all sold a shitload of records out of nowhere. What does this mean for hip-hop? Maybe that these indie cats are getting too comfortable with their indie identities, thinking that their small scope will get them big bucks. Popular rappers, on the other hand, like Nas are taking chances.
You know who the exception to that is? The mega mainstream rapper who decided not to take any chance; to play it safe; to release a po(o)p record, featuring the likes of rhianna and pink, that would easily sell well: eminem. And that shit is pure fucking garbage. Sure he can still rhyme. But, even as someone who mercilessly refused to not play him even on my underground hip-hop show (chill out, I only played shit from Infinite) I’m actually disgusted by the recovery. The really frustrating thing is that all his best shit came when he was taking chances, doing ballsy shit.
I’m not sure where to put The Roots. They’re a household name but I’m not sure you can call them a mainstream artist. Regardless, how I got over goes the taking chances route and succeeds brilliantly. Collaborations with Johanna Newsome and a bunch of artists I’ve never heard of actually enhance the record (similar to Sir Lucious…, on which Jamie Foxx delivers really the only disappointing stuff. Actually that Vonnugut shit is pretty weak too.)
But I have to be honest. Mainstream rap really isn’t any better than it used to be. It’s probably worse, actually. That makes the good shit really stand out. It’s not like Big Boi, Jay-Z, Nas, or Raekwon, havn’t released amazing albums before. (In fact, half of their new ones are officially sequels.) And some of the indie rap records I dissed I obviously have listened to enough to know about, which means they’re not really garbage.
So what have we learned, in this selective survey of hip-hop? Well, the reason I’m probably listening to so much mainstream rap is because it’s mainstream. Everyone’s talking about it. This is an important point about WCDB actually. There’s a lot of damn good music that you’re not going to here on CDB. But that’s alright because you’ve already heard a hundred times. The truth is there is amazing indie rap out there. I just don’t know about it because I don’t listen to enough CDB.