Hip hop is not what it was. Or is it? In order for hip hop to expand beyond its core bases of east and west coast radio stations and recording studios, as well as the Chicago scene which gave birth to the irreversible mainstreaming of hip hop, the now-universal genre of popular music has taken two steps back in order to take one step forwards. Reverting into its ‘90s form, hip hop has returned to some of its original concerns and drives concerning extremes of poverty and luxury, but without the distinctive political message that accompanied the critique of materialism that has always marked hip hop out among music genres. The ostensibly violent content of 50 Cent’s lyrics, for instance, was replaced with the moralistic fervour of Kanye West’s music, which ranges from the popular romanticism of 808s and Heartbreak to the devastating critique of hedonism and the system of ‘new slavery’ on Yeezus. Today, we alternate between neo-‘90s hip hop, such as Aitch’s revival of 50 Cent’s style, and the ‘90s rock tastes which our generation is nostalgic for. But Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is marked by its fusion of rock and hip hop sounds, after the soul focus of his early sampling, which now is returned through his protegé, Drake.
Drake has his own imitators, such as Jack Harlow, whose song ‘First Class’ is far removed from the excited energy of his earlier music. Meanwhile, Lil Nas X takes after the late ‘90s hip hop artist who inspired Kanye, and who now collaborates with Black Eyed Peas while still releasing his solo music. The Superbowl halftime show hosted ‘90s-era artists Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, but also their ‘00s successors Eminem and Dr. Dre, combined with the rapper who now carries the mantle of art hip hop: Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick’s case is peculiarly interesting, because it is unclear who is audience is. Caught in the middle of the 2010s, when pop music lost its way, Kendrick was releasing jazz- and rock-inspired hip hop that echoed some of Kanye’s brightest moments, and received critical acclaim to reflect this move. Eminem and Kendrick stand on either side of Kanye’s transformation of hip hop into an artform, as encapsulated by Bon Iver’s question on ‘Dark Fantasy’: ‘Can we get much higher?’ The closing question on the album: ‘Who will survive in America?’ Truly, hip hop has never been this magisterially incisive or morally decisive — and, perhaps, never has popular music at any point, before or since. Close calls are Lauryn Hill’s magnum opus which inspired College Dropout, Bob Dylan’s lyrical poetry, or Pink Floyd’s epic theatricality. Kanye West ties these moral, lyrical, and sonic threads together, weaving them into a tapestry of truth and tragedy on his 2010 LP.
Hip hop is back where it started, but not quite. Biggie, 2Pac, and Nas are too well-remembered and strikingly new to be forgotten. Their work is already immortalised. Kanye West’s music is being immortalised, but his political personality hampers these efforts with daily news stories of his latest antics. So we are back in the 2000s, bonding over Black Eyed Peas, to echo Sabrina Carpenter’s latest record. Billie Eilish’s influence from post-Kanye figures like Tyler the Creator is now forgotten, as is their shared artistic inspiration. Even Drake’s commercial hegemony is now fading. We are back to neither the beginning nor the recent near-ending of hip hop, but somewhere in between — ‘stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder’, to quote Michael Jackson’s opening track on Thriller, which remains the best-selling album of all time.
Aitch asks, ‘You know I got it baby[!] / You know I got it baby; [therefore,] what do you need?’ Perhaps what the people need is something new, and something old — something wise, and something blue. What we want and what we need can misalign, as the body can undermine the soul. On rare occasions when the soul breaks free, the body is forgotten, and overthrows the brief spiritual reign over its material rule. We are lost in shadows — and we do not even know it. The sun will shine again, but only when we realise it no longer shines on our godforsaken world. Hip hop can give birth to a new genre, just as the popularisation and subsequent artistic culmination of rock music allowed hip hop to fill the void left by rock artistically, and then commercially. But for this to happen, we need to learn from hip hop as the new genre is born, realising that bringing back jazz, or rock, isn’t enough. We need to learn from the past to build something good, but we have to forget the past to build something new. I think I know where to start.
Shall we begin?