Lil Simz, 90s hip hop, Lauryn Hill, and where Nas, Jay-Z and Eminem went

First published on 14 August 2022.

Something is missing in contemporary popular music. Male pop stars have left the scene, or are leaving it rapidly, while most male rappers who aren’t direct descendants of the Kanye/Kendrick golden age of hop hop are returning either to 50 Cent’s brand of earth-bound hip hop (the UK’s Aitch) or to the classics of Dre, Snoop, 2Pac, and Biggie (the foci of most casual hip hop listeners I know). This completely misses the three most game-changing rappers in hip hop: Eminem, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar. There is the faint homage to Nas in the name of Lil Nas X, without quite the same polemical challenge as Nas posed: ‘The world is yours’ — or even 2Pac’s ‘F— The World’. Biggie’s equation between ‘money’ and ‘problems’ is definitively lost on our uncritically hedonistic revival of ‘90s rap, without much of that era’s depth in the critique of shallowness at the end of history.

Lauryn Hill’s debut album, which transformed hip hop and paved the way for The College Dropout by Kanye West. It is also, in my judgement, one of the greatest albums of all time.

Lil Simz follows Lauryn Hill’s lead in launching a critique of capitalist society at a whole, but risks distributing the appeal among discrete identities, harkening more to Malcolm X than MLK, who is now echoed in Justin Bieber’s eerily hollow ‘Justice’ era of R&B/pop faux-artistry. When Kanye West came to the fore in the early 2000s, the ‘fake s—’ he critiqued had a lot of truth to it. Today, where is truth outside of the fantasies of the ego?

Music has definitively declined in lyrical content and message, even as production increases in technical quality, risking over-saturation. If music reflects the world, I am concerned for our future as a civilisation. Therapy is no substitute for political critique. Indeed, if it is, then it is no good one. If we have lost the ability to critique the world around us, putting all the blame on ourselves for societal illnesses, then we have truly lost our way. Maybe there’s a better way. Let me lead the way. I am ye.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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