I wrote a similar post about this earlier this year, but I want to bring up the topic again: why is modern hip hop/rap considered so . . . hip? I'm talking about the people that love the orchestral folk of Joanna Newsom, the poppy rock of Destroyer and the brutal metal of Mastodon who also love modern hip hop. I ask this as Jay-Z's "comeback" record, Kingdom Come, arrives in stores this week.
Full background recap: I've never been a full-fledged fan of hip hop/rap. There were times in middle school and high school where it seemed cool, but never as cool as classic rock, grunge and metal. I couldn't understand how white suburban males found solace and inspiration in this stuff (from the music to the fashion). I couldn't understand how guys my age found Too $hort singing about prostitutes and Public Enemy singing about racial tension cool. What was so appealing with songs about gritty street life? What was so appealing about wearing Los Angeles Raiders jackets and baggy jeans? I didn't understand it then, but I think I have a slightly better understanding now.
There was something so appealing about the attitude and grit found in this music. This was stuff that was not a part of everyday suburban life. The fantasy was safe to have because the suburbs are mostly safe as compared to the ghettos. While grunge and hard rock played into people's anger, hip hop was something that played into a desire for confidence. I've had self-esteem issues since adolescence, but I have yet to see hip hop as a way raising my level of confidence. Why? There's too much materialism discussed. It's not everywhere in hip hop, but it takes up most of what's eaten up by the mainstream. I'm not going to gain the confidence of finishing and publishing my book by hearing songs about rims and gold chains.
The lyrics are just part of the story; the music is a big part of what I can't get into. No matter how many warm melodies are put on a track, when the rapping kicks in, it gets annoying. I have yet to hear many melodic colors in rapping and I doubt I'll ever hear them. Plus, too much of rapping feels mechanical and talkative. I'm wired into warm melody and all kinds of warm melody, be it Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, Tom Waits or Barry Manilow. That's just me.
So I wonder about the people that are my age, who have been through the teen angst phase and are settling into adulthood whether they like it or not. What's the appeal of hip hop at this age? Is there still a fantasy element involved?
It puzzles me when I see Pitchfork's Track Reviews section praising a number of new hip hop tracks from Jay-Z and Nas, Clipse, Trick Daddy and Akon. Yes, they reviewed indie rock stuff like Voxtrot and Matt and Kim, but that's a minority. Granted, Track Reviews is usually pretty balanced with all sorts of styles of music, but I'm just amazed at how much hip hop is covered on the site and on MP3 blogs in general. How can Voxtrot's Smiths-meets-Strokes rock be as acclaimed as a Jay-Z and Nas track? Does my lack of understanding hip hop impair me with this?
I've asked this to people over the years and I've never really received a straight answer. And I don't take "I don't know, I just like it" and "If you don't understand, you'll never understand" as suitable answers. One answer I have heard over the years is the production quality. There's something about the beats and the orchestration, but I usually find this stuff cold and robotic. Plus, the production is just the beginning of enjoying a song. It doesn't make up the beginning and ending for me. The melodies are key.
Again, what am I missing here?