“Hip-hop ain’t pop…or is it?”
It’s no different today. Kendrick Lamar rapping on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” gave it some edge and perhaps gave Swift a little street cred. Macklemore and Iggy Azalea had hits that traveled outside of rap and hip-hop into pop. Sprite is and has been using rappers to sell its products for years. Now it seems like the artists themselves are determined to make that cross over.
Kanye West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian has undoubtedly broadened his fan base to more mainstream audiences. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s union and subsequent tour brought in droves of Jay-Z fans who probably hadn’t heard a Jay-Z record before Magna Carta Holy Grail. Nicki Minaj won fans when she went over to pop with “Super Bass” and “Spaceships,” Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” was one of the top songs of the summer and now everyone and their mother, father, neighbor down the street and 70-year-old history teacher are whipping and doing the Nae Nae.
Hip-hop seems to no longer be a genre for black people by black people despite desperate attempts to maintain its authenticity. It’s widely disseminated and almost bastardized in the pursuit of cool. But in this pursuit, is hip-hop now one of those genres that people claim to love but they are only really casual fans of? Will it go the way of jazz, blues, ragtime and R&B? Are the golden days of hip-hop and rap behind us? Or should hip-hop and rap be like any other genre to be open to change and experimentation?
Pop music is not particularly special in the way that it’s made. It’s music that’s manufactured — not created — following a set of guideline that has been proven to make the most amount of money possible for a record label. In fact, pop music is not just about the music. The persona, the image and the marketing are all part of the package known as pop. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, One Direction. They have good songs in their catalogs, sure, but they are not associated with those songs immediately upon mention of their name:
Rihanna: Carefree black girl, IDGAF attitude, you wish she was your best friend.
Katy Perry: Cutesy girl power, tongue in cheek humor and she kissed a girl and liked it
Lady Gaga: Avant-garde art, boundary-pushing sartorial choices
One Direction: Cute UK boys that can carry a tune, each with his own persona that appeals to teen girls.
They’ve all built up a fan-base based on accoutrements and meticulous pandering to seemingly irreverent sensibilities. Lyrically, pop is just a revolving door of platitudes and navel-gazing banality. Musically, it has a tendency to sound like corn syrup. In short, pop music is for having a good time. Whether this is good or bad can be up for debate, but the challenge for these performers to move audiences with this art form apart from pretense is one that still remains a challenge. And that’s fine. If sensibilities lean that way, who is anyone to say that it shouldn’t, but that isn’t at all what hip-hop is or set out to be.
The creation of hip-hop was revolutionary. Making break beats and speaking rhythmic rhymes on top of them was as alien as anyone could know music to be. Daring to be so brazenly political and hearing the voices of vexed MCs was disarming. It was an emphatic ‘F*** you. This is me and I’mma do me’ to everyone. In the creation of this new genre, rise was given to lyrical prowess and storytelling. Hip-hop evolved from a reputation of party songs such as Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to pivotal songs such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and real depictions of the neighborhoods and circumstances the rappers grew up in. Hip-hop was the format in which blacks and latinos could advocate for themselves.
That’s hard to see now. For every Kendrick Lamar, there are approximately four Post Malones, a Silento, five Flo Ridas and two Pitbulls. And for every time Erykah Badu comes through with a remix, there’s a Taylor Swift reaching for proof that she’s a hip-hop fan. And the cycle goes on: rappers will make hits, middle-class kids will co-opt it in the pursuit of cool and spin into something else and the music turns into a shell of its former self.
This is not to say the sound of music can’t be played with.
Experimentation is what pushes music forward, in any genre. Classical violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain composes violin works that are made to sound like a DJ at the turntables. Chargaux, the duo composed of Charly and Margaux, compose works that are fused with hip-hop. The core of the music is still honest while it stretches beyond its boundaries. But in an effort to stretch the sounds of music, the essential properties that make hip-hop hip-hop are burned up or watered down. We are then left with not hip-hop as a whole, but hip-hop in parts: hip-hop and Rap.
Hip-hop, in earnest, is our modern-day jazz. The same pulsating emotion, the same straight-off-the-dome improvisation, the same ruckus and the same calm that we know jazz for are the bedrocks of hip-hop. When one hears ‘jazz,’ Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald come to mind. Just as when one hears hip-hop, the greats come to mind: A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Tupac and Biggie. There’s a reverence reserved for the artists because their artistry was exemplary; a model by which any artist that comes after adheres to.
Rap, however, is the vocal styling that is synonymous with hip-hop but can be extrapolated and used in different styles of music. Anthony Kiedis has employed rap with The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Zack de la Rocha rapped all the time with Rage Against the Machine. Even LFO was trying to sell us their raps. Just as there are people that sing, but sing in boxes, there are artists that can rap, but they’re…boring.
This divergence is lost on audiences. Rap is hip-hop and hip-hop is rap. And rap, when used in a pop song, ostensibly gives a song “flare” and “edge.” Kerry Perry has had a host of rappers featured on her songs, Nicki Minaj lent her talents for Justin Bieber’s “Beauty and the Beat” and Wiz Khalifa and Lil Wayne have jumped on Maroon 5 and Joe Jonas tracks, respectively.
And as this continues to happen, hip-hop as an art is cheapened and defined by appearances. So much so that Nicki Minaj and Kanye West have singles that are on a Kidz Bop tracklist and helicopter parents around the country think they’re “hip” and “Getting Jiggy With It” for knowing who Outkast is.
This is not the culture that hip-hop created for itself. This is not pushing the culture forward.
Testing and blending new sounds will happen and should happen. But ripping away its essence and calling it by the same name is almost sacrilege. It’s similar to when Jamie Oliver called that rice dish he made Jollof and all of West Africa recoiled in shock and anger. Although hip-hop in mainstream is really bombastic, oversaturated and over-hyped rap, hip-hop is enduring. We will always have our De la Souls, our Rakims, our Jay-Zs and even a crew like Odd Future. Rattling off names of favorite MCs still producing music and others like them can give hope that hip-hop can be hip-hop once more. Or turn on the radio and think maybe hip-hop is another era in its twilight years.
So what do you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Chinwe Oniah is a freelance writer in New York City. She writes about music, culture, television and film.