Why does listening to Kendrick Lamar feel so good? It might be more than just because of the artistic qualities of his music. It might be because he is a great expresser of the tragicomic and the tragic — the two hip-hop traditions that we believe produce cultural genius, and that how he expresses them matches this community’s customs. Commercialized hip-hop began its history as the expression of the comic. It then ambitiously veered to expressing the tragicomic, whether the subject was love, life, or liberty. Look up old rap albums and you’ll see them just having a good time. Then look at more recent hip-hop and it becomes about tragicomic self-hood. As hip-hop became an ultra-commercialized expression, tragicomic hip-hop was preserved as “real hip-hop,” whereas most of the commercial hip-hop came to be the expression of glamorous prosperity and, because of it, indifference. Rappers became hip-hop’s most interesting sign, which, to use a traditional African funeral rite as a metaphor, almost shattered the water jug. Certain commercial hip-hop artists, such as Jay Z, were able to play the romantically patrimonial game of expressing new ultra-commercial glamour, all the while being committed to expressing classical tragicomic emotion true to being young, soulful, and either living in a ghetto or having lived in a ghetto. A few hip-hop artists express tragedy and the tradition began with tragicomic hip-hop. Those who decide to, like Tupac, do it as a political or a social project. Tragedy is also given an aura in black culture, maybe because of the social history of this community.
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