Hip-hop's mid-life crisis

By Peter Valelly

The last few years have witnessed an unprecedented drought of quality hip-hop across all styles. Sure, 2005 and 2006 had their fair share of both great radio anthems — T.I.’s glorious “What You Know” and Three 6 Mafia’s instant classic “Stay Fly,” for starters — and admirable underground full-lengths, like the Cunninlynguists’ “A Piece of Strange”. Yet for a while hip-hop artists and producers have been calmly running in place, playing their roles, and underestimating their audience. However, recent months have yielded a flurry of strange and surprising activity in and around hip-hop pointing, hopefully, to an interesting new year.

Perhaps most surprising is the return of Outkast’s Andre 3000 to rapping. While Andre contributed a few verses to Outkast’s last two albums, they seemed lazily decorative against his grandiose forays into pop and rock and his undeniable, if oft-denied, estrangement from Outkast’s other half, Big Boi. Though the 2003’s experimental “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” won the group a Grammy and the adoration of closet rockists everywhere, it was hugely disappointing for fans who admired the group for what they had done within and for hip-hop — their complex, effortless lyricism, their creative and rich production, and their unceasing ambition. Still, Andre’s best rap on that album —”A Life in the Day of Andre Benjamin (Incomplete)” — hinted tantalizingly at lyrical evolution. While Outkast’s 2006 album “Idlewild” finds Big Boi in fine form, Andre’s rap contributions are underwhelming. On “The Mighty O,” for example, his fairy-tale references suggest a riddle too tricky to decode, but his flow is awkward and his voice a timid monotone. Andre’s ambition, it appeared, far outstripped his enthusiasm, and the overwhelming impression of Andre on “Idlewild” was one of utter detachment.

It’s a shock, then, to hear him crop up on three recent remixes. The best of these, Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s (Remix),” was already an infectious single. Polow da Don, brilliantly sampling Switch’s 1979 disco slow jam “I Call Your Name,” has crafted a beat that is at once goofy, lush, and thunderous. On the overcrowded remix, this beat distracts from the other emcees, and Andre’s contribution leaves positively no reason to listen past the first minute and a half (except, of course, to hear Jim Jones threaten to “sneeze on a bitch”). But it also finds Andre struggling to maintain his footing. He manages impressive wordplay and interesting statements, but appears to struggle with exactly what he wants to say. On singer Lloyd’s “You (Remix),” Andre’s sloppy opening bars give way to a forgettable verse. His best recent showing is on the remix to DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out.” His flow is more awkward here than on the other two tracks, but he finally carries himself with the import he once had, commanding attention even during his most cryptic bars: “If you say ‘real talk,’ I probably won’t trust you/ If you want to go to war, the gun’s my pleasure/ Even Jesus had 12 disciples on the lever, trigger, whatever.”

Andre’s mixed success is hardly isolated, as 2006 saw numerous established emcees trying to reclaim glory. Busta Rhymes’ album was an ill-fated grasp at the “King of New York” title that saw everything that made him great subverted by an unbecoming lyrical gravitas. Jay-Z, meanwhile, ended his sham retirement with a faux-triumphant “return” album, “Kingdom Come,” that played second fiddle to its own extravagant marketing campaign. But if one hip-hop elder’s project is most drastic, it’s Nas, who recently released the audacious “Hip Hop Is Dead.”

The album isn’t very different from Nas’ other recent efforts. Starting with 2001’s “Stillmatic,” Nas has emphasized dramatic, complex lyricism, again earning a place among hip-hop’s greats. He has proven curiously unable to acquire good production, however, instead opting for uninspired regurgitations of 90s styles. His lyrics, too, can be boring, and “Hip Hop Is Dead” seems of a piece with impressive but lacking predecessors such as “Street’s Disciple.”

The album has a strong sense of cohesion, however. Its most boring beats nonetheless invoke the hip-hop Golden Age that Nas spends much of the album valorizing, and nearly every track wrestles with hip-hop’s alleged demise. The fantastic title track sports a passionate performance from Nas, who dispenses threats to those responsible for hip-hop’s death. “Black Republican,” the much-touted duet with Nas’ former rival and current boss Jay-Z, triumphantly executes a fantastic extended metaphor for hip-hop’s dual nature. The album’s highlight, “Can’t Forget About You,” is a gentle, catchy reminisce that avoids Nas’ heavy-handed tendencies.

Elsewhere, the emcee fails. A track titled “Money Over Bullshit” seems pretty hollow coming from someone who recently scored a $10 million record contract, and on “Who Killed It?” Nas executes an unlistenable Humphrey Bogart impression. It is the vacuous “Hustlers” which best encompasses all of the album’s failures, as a disappointingly anemic beat from Dr. Dre provides backing for Nas and The Game’s grave boasts about hip-hop credentials.

For all its flaws, though, “Hip Hop Is Dead” has brought crucial hip-hop concerns to the mainstream, prompting feverish responses. Nas’ justifications of the album’s title have varied from an evangelistic defense of the East Coast hip-hop mythos to a materialistic battle cry for other rappers to make money off of the genre’s demise. Many Southern rappers perceived Nas’ declaration as an attack on them. The ensuing media storm saw Southern great T.I. falsely quoted as dissing Nas’ “egyptian history rap,” while Young Jeezy argued furiously with deejay Monie Love on Philadelphia’s 100.3 The Beat, an altercation which many speculate cost the radio personality and onetime rapper her job.
With all this fervor, it’s tempting to draw a connection between Nas’ bold declarations and Andre 3000’s mysterious return. Why would Andre, whose boredom with rap has been such a successful muse in the last five years, be so eager to lace mainstream rap tracks with his cryptic verses? Perhaps he is responding to Nas, or perhaps he too is motivated by hip-hop’s slow decline. But their incomplete successes beg the questions of why the burden has fallen to their fading hip-hop generation, and whether younger rappers will take up the cause, too. The flurry of activity over hip-hop’s life and death shows no signs of slowing down, so while 2006 may have been a dull year in hip-hop, it will hopefully serve as the catalyst that will make 2007 a great one.