In the 1990s, a new genre was being born. Hip hop emerged from New York, Chicago, and LA to comment on the chaos of globalising capitalism. Money, power, and luxury were the themes of early hip hop, themes which began to be substantially critiqued in Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill towards the end of that decade. In the early 2000s, Kanye West developed this critique of money and power in The College Dropout and subsequent albums, before briefly rejoicing in them in Graduation. Finally, in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he made the greatest album of all time by transcending these earthly concerns and at once engaging with them critically. It is a beautiful balance and transcendent commentary on commercial society, to which Kanye is ‘So Appalled’. Since then, some argue he has become the very being he sought to overcome, someone consumed by concerns of money and power, the personification of capitalism rather than the critique thereof. But he has also sought transcendence in religion on albums like Jesus Is King and Donda, which renews the critique of the cycle of ‘Heaven and Hell’ we live in in this earthly purgatory.
Kanye, in brief, succeeded in lifting music off from its economic basis in the 1990s to its transcendent potential in the 2010s, by way of the bridging era of the ‘90s. But now the ‘90s are back, and pop music is itself becoming like what hip hop once was, engaging with the themes of money and power in a new era of deregulation and marketisation. This new genre Wambop will be like hip hop, just as hip hop was like rock, etc., etc. It will also be different. But that is obvious. Kanye in the 2000s spoke of hip hop as the new rock ‘n roll: ‘We are the new Beatles’. He could have said ‘we are not the new Beatles, we are something new’, but that would be less powerful. Wambop will be different from hip hop, of course. That is not the interesting point. The interesting point is: How might it be similar? How might 2000s music be coming back in the coming aftermath of the new ‘90s moment we live in?
On The College Dropout, Kanye moved hip hop beyond obsession with the body, while also conceding to the desires of that body — ‘I had to look (sorry)’. But now we are firmly in the ‘90s: Lisa’s ‘Money’ echoes Dr. Dre and Tupac’s ‘California Love’ in its rejoicing in the Wild West of Mad Max-style market competition and monetary profiteering. PSY (‘Gangnam Style’) and SUGA’s ‘That That’ takes place in the American Wild West, encapsulating the globalisation and westernisation of K-Pop. Lisa in particular, whose Thai origins influence her original take on K-Pop in group Blackpink (while SUGA is a member of equivalent group BTS, which Lisa dethroned at the MTV Awards earlier this year), is noted to draw on Middle Eastern aesthetics and sonic landscapes on songs like ‘LALISA’ (her original name being Lalisa Manobal). LALISA, like California Love, has a Mad Max-style car race in the desert sequence. But what about the seeds of the new genre beyond K-Pop?
I have previously drawn analogies between Aitch and 50 Cent, on the one hand, and Lil Simz and Lauryn Hill, on the other. I have also drawn analogies between Tion Wayne and 2Pac, who has previously been compared to 2010s Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, who continues to dominate global hip hop. I think someone like Stormzy in British hip hop reflects Kanye more than anyone else, and therefore represents the conclusion of hip hop, rather than the origins of Wambop (although these are, in many ways, the same thing). Hip hop itself cannot be the birthplace of the new genre, which must find its own way in the world. But it can anticipate it, just as K-Pop can anticipate it. It seems the moment we are in is analogous to the turn of the millennium. The new ‘00s moment is beginning, but it is yet to mature, and is yet to find its College Dropout moment of the new genre firmly consolidating and gaining a form that can merge with popular music.
I have previously identified music in the 2010s as early Wambop, which may paint the 2010s as the last major decade of hip hop’s development and the first major decade of Wambop’s development. Hip hop is now firmly established along with jazz and rock as a genre in the canon of classical / modern music. Its development per se is over. The development of Wambop has just begun.
But this raises some confusion. What about Billie Eilish’s music, which seems to engage with psychoanalytic questions beyond merely economic issues? I think this represents the brief surfacing of alternative music in the mainstream, but also the mainstreaming of psychological issues beyond those of romantic affection. I am not sure what the significance of this is yet — but I am sure it is significant. I also believe that what Billie does distinctively is combine psychological analysis with religious and philosophical themes, as on ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’ and ‘Therefore I Am’, echoing early-modern philosopher Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ (Cogito, ergo sum). We are in a neo-medieval, late-renaissance, early-modern period in music, politics, and society: Beyoncé has announced the Renaissance — now we need a new Enlightenment.
It is sometimes said in philosophy that communication theorist Jürgen Habermas is analogous to Christian Wolff, a significant figure in his time but mainly remembered, if at all, for his influence on Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of modernity. As we enter a new historical epoch, accompanied by a new musical epoch, we are waiting for someone to usher us into this new age and awaken us, as Hume did Kant, from our slumber. If Hume had awoken Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumber’, we may need to be awoken from our ‘sceptical slumber’ in a newly nihilistic age. The 2010s ended with peculiar dogmatism in the form of technocracy, populism, and morally-charged forms of art, music, and poetry. The 2020s begin with a peculiar nihilism and scepticism about the good life. We now must transform this doubt not into dogma but into reasonable belief. Perhaps this begins with the bridge between nature and freedom, past and future, ‘is’ and ‘ought’: art, the philosophy of the present.
Music can help free us from the shackles of this world, but it can only get us so far. It cannot do more than make us aware of our condition, and therefore fashion the awareness and understanding needed to free us from it. Above all, music can help us live in the moment, free from other concerns. The trick is to remember the lessons of music when the music stops, so that music might become more than a good time, and truly become the path to a good life. That may be how 2000s music is coming back.