Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Those Who Hate Rap Music Should Listen to More Rap Music (L-O-N-G)

I've got three or four partially started posts/columns about the rapper known as Nas sitting on my hard drive. I just can't figure this guy out. He's a prolific lyricist and his 1994 debut Illmatic is considered one of the most important albums of its time. Yet, an abject lack of charisma has kept his (commercial) star from ascending to the heights of several less talented peers. Consequently, he's made a few head-scratching self-promotional decisions in the last year that have made him an easy target for those too lazy to actually listen to the guy.

An editorial page writer for the Palm Beach Post – Elisa Cramer – attempts to use one of these decisions as the foundation for an anti-rap rant that, in accordance with the usual media modus operandi, is ill-informed, unfocused and, oftentimes, outright untrue.

The old news: The rapper first known as Nasir Jones is planning to release an album titled N*gger.

The new news: Nas announced this week that instead of his planned December release, N*gger will debut during Black History Month.

Such shock value. So Imus-like.

To be fair, on this point, the esteemed Ms. Cramer and I agree. Like Nas' Hip Hop is Dead album released last year, the N*gger title is the marketing equivalent of a child's tantrum: full of flailing legs & arms, hot air and holding your breath until mommy and daddy give him an audience.

In the face of criticism from the Southern rap community, Nas softened his proclamation that Hip Hop was indeed "dead". He subsequently whored out his album title (with his full endorsement) as a punch line for a Los Angeles radio station's holiday promotion. Nas' values have always seemed to be available to the highest bidder, be it Columbia Records, former enemy Jay-Z and Def Jam…or Power 106FM ("Where Hip Hop isn't dead…it LIVES!")

The rapper's desperate plea for attention proves that the long-awaited death of gangsta rap, in all of its misogyny, materialism and violence, finally is imminent. Sales of rap albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, are 43.6 percent lower than in 2000. Rap albums didn't even crack the Top 10 in 2006, the first time in five years. Even 50 Cent - whose second album, The Massacre, sold more than a million copies immediately upon its release - in September had his worst opening ever: 691,000 copies.

Now, one of the coolest compliments that I've received over the years was from readers who told me some variation of "I don't even like rap, but I read you, anyway". So, for any of you who are still around, let's tackle the preceding paragraph in reverse order of idiocy:

1.) The 691K units that 50 Cent moved during the first week release of Curtis still placed him in the top five of first week sales for 2007. Number one? Kanye West's Graduation. Of course, Kanye's not a "gangsta" rapper, but, as you'll read later, that won't matter to Elisa Cramer.

2.) Cramer's creamed-panty anticipation of "gangsta rap's" demise is couched in her own cherry-picked statistic. Thanks mostly to the internet, CD sales are down across the board in every genre – from country to rock to rap. And, her essential "exhibit A" is an album that went gold in seven days and is now already platinum?

3.) And, sweetheart…gangsta rap IS dead. This is not news, nor was it news 10 years ago when the industry wrote its epitaph after Death Row Records, for all intents and purposes, closed its doors in 1997. Y'know, not all rap is "gangsta" rap, despite what the media would have you believe.

Artists such as De La Soul warned: "You tried keeping it real, but you should try keeping it right." But efforts to restore hip-hop didn't prevent such rappers as Nas, whose lyrics in 1999 included: "Shoot 'em up, just shoot 'em up, what? Kill, kill, kill, murder, murder, murder."

More selective lyrical criticism. Y'see, with this approach, the writer makes it seem like ALL of Nas' material is this inane. The "shoot 'em up" lines are from the song of the same name. It's on his Nastradamus album, which most rap fans either kinda-sorta liked or hated, hated, hated.

The funny thing is that Nas devotes large chunks of this album to warning his listeners about the consequences of life on the streets, but, not surprisingly, Cramer can't be bothered to print any lyrics from "Life We Chose", "Project Windows" or "God Love Us". Nas is as much a gangsta rapper as me.

A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of blacks believe that rap is having a bad influence on society. And, no, that figure was not reflecting only those of us who rarely or never listen to rap. Nor was the rejection the typical generation gap between "art" and "noise." In fact, 63 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds agreed that rap is having a bad influence.

Most polled cited rap's offensive language, negative stereotypes of women and the promotion of violence or gangs. Much of the offensive language is about treating women violently, often through sexual abuse. So it was disappointing but not surprising that the survey found that more black women (74 percent) see a negative impact than black men (67 percent).

Wait…I'm confused. Is this one of those "Black polls" that I'm supposed to summarily dismiss like the ones that say Blacks (much more than whites) feel Barry Bonds is being mistreated? And, it never fails to amuse me how every editorial stance that criticizes Blacks or Black culture has to include supporting words (or stats) from Black people that agree with the author's position. It's the journalistic equivalent of "I'm not racist…I know LOTS of Black people!"

Of course there's not a lick of context in Cramer's discussion of these polls. How is rap negatively affecting society? Would there be no gangs without rap? Would Black women feel better about themselves without rap? For all we know, those who responded could be blaming rap for the proliferation of stupid new dances at the club. The "societal circle" of an 18-year-old is different from that of someone 25 or 35 or 55.

But I considered the results on rap promising from a survey on racial attitudes that also revealed some depressing views. The poll (is) titled "Optimism about Black Progress Declines." Among the findings:

"African-Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race."

Blacks are "less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983. Looking backward, just one-in-five blacks say things are better for blacks now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44 percent) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57 percent who said so in a 1986 survey."

I fear that those views hint at a resurgence of the hopelessness and miseducation that drew too many young African-American boys to gangsta rap's hype of a fast money-sex-and-cars lifestyle.

So, that was "gangsta rap" that promised "fast money, sex and cars"? Not sports or drug dealing or numbers running or whatever else "they" do in the "ghetto". Good to know.

Help me out here: what do any of the above stats on the State of the Black Union have to do with music of any kind? If any other "conscious" Black author were to dredge up similar data, he/she would be dismissed with the right-wing's latest label for us: "self-pitying" (or is it "self-loathing" or "self-hating"? Obviously, I don't watch enough Fox News Channel.)

And, with Cramer's concern about the resurgence of hopelessness in the Black community, it's obvious that she doesn't watch enough Black people.


eddie the aussie said...

Hey, Aaron...longtime reader from your IP days and just found out about your blog o' goodness.

It's just mind-blowing that of all the truly negative targets in the rap industry that this writer goes after Nas. He's certainly no angel, but he's also not the thug caricature that this writer is painting him as.

I can't believe I'm bringing up the corniness of "I Can", but I could "selectively quote" that song all day and paint Nas in an entirely different light.

Anonymous said...

I liked your point about the presence of "black people testimony" in every "anti-black culture" commentary.

Also, when rap is the subject, there must be a counter-point by De La Soul, Common, Arrested Development or any other rapper that's "above" all this.

Mathan said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Let's not lump De La and Common in with the likes of Arrested Development.

De La and Common not only have props but careers. Arrested Development is much more akin to P.M. Dawn in that they're relics of the 90's and most of us would like to forget. Y'know, like wearing your clothes backwards.

I mean, not that I ever did that.

Oh and Cam nice piece, way to stick up for Nasty.