When Nas declared hip hop dead with his 2006 album of the same title, I took his word to be bond. At the time, the genre was flooded with crunk and cheesy instructional dance songs and Jay-Z, a personal favorite, had just released his weakest album to date. Hip hop was, by all outward appearances, dead. The only viable alternative was barely viable: the staid, keep-it-real, hip-hopper-than-thou underground scene that, frankly, has been a big ol’ parody of itself since early on in the decade. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that me, Nas, and many members of the hip hop-listening public had bid our beloved genre adieu. All good things come to an end and that, in my view, was exactly what had happened to hip hop.
So imagine my surprise when, over the past year or so, proof materialized to suggest hip hop has some life in it yet. Of course, it would be plain dumb to expect another 36 Chambers or another Big L or another beef as epic (and entertaining) as Jay-Z versus Nas. But, for the first time in years, I’ve found myself listening to rap albums on a near-daily basis. Also for the first time in years, it seems the people around me are doing the same thing: genuinely, sincerely enjoying the year’s hip hop records, listening to them without a twinge of irony.
It was a bad year for the Democrats and the Gulf of Mexico and the Iraqi parliament, but 2010 gave me hope for the future hip hop. And for the possibility that that future can be creative, inventive, and relatively free of the stereotypes and clichés that have come to consume it. And wouldn’t you know it? The year’s promising hip hop efforts did not come from the purists, or the underground, or the “heads” who’ve been pledging its resurrection all along, or even from the most skilled rappers out there. Rather, they came courtesy of two groups: On the one hand, there are the relative outsiders—people apparently far-enough removed from the genre to be able to take it seriously and move it forward at the same time—and, on the other, there are those who are straddling the line between hip hop and pop, the likes of whom have traditionally been shunned for watering the genre down and selling it out. Go figure.
In 2010, there were a handful of notable records from establishment-type rappers like Big Boi and Eminem and Ghostface. And we’re indebted to Rick Ross for his solid, summer-jam-providing Teflon Don. And much attention has been given to rappers like Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs and Pill and Big Sean. And indie dudes like Guilty Simpson and Black Milk put it down. Clearly, there is no shortage of technically proficient rappers. But, as skilled and talented as these dudes may be and as much as their records may have been beloved, it would be overly generous to credit them with pushing boundaries in any significant way.
It may seem like a cop-out to talk about Das Racist and Odd Future in the same breath. The former, a couple of Wesleyan-educated dudes and their hypeman, seem on the surface to have little in common with Odd Future, a collective of angsty teenaged Californians. But both groups play a similar role in hip hop this year: that of misunderstood, love-’em-or-hate-’em weirdos that have found unlikely—but well deserved—success. If you’re at all like the tiny corner of the Internet I hang out in, you’re likely a frequent defender of Das Racist’s brand of intelligent, hilarious, incredibly relevant social commentary. You’re also likely a fan of Odd Future’s super-DIY, strange, youthful, all-around-creative swag.
But, in a sense, the truly great thing about both groups goes beyond their music. I reckon many members of their respective cultish followings would tell you it’s “deeper than that.” For one, both Das Racist and Odd Future lean more towards relatable than they do aspirational, the latter a trait hip hop has long celebrated. They mark one of the few instances in hip hop history wherein the music is reflective of its middle-class audience, though that group has been hip hop’s largest consumer for decades. The homemade, down-to-earth style of both crews is refreshingly genuine, in a way that makes their mixtapes sound like a day in the life of hanging out with your friends. It’s an important shift, and one that suggests hip hop may be able to retain its relevance as it evolves.
Far on the other end of the spectrum, the music of Kanye West, Drake, and Nicki Minaj is as big as their personas; they are, without a doubt, among the biggest pop stars of the day. And, accordingly, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Thank Me Later, and Pink Friday sound like they were conceived for massive stadiums, not tiny New York City clubs. Kanye, Drake, and Nicki have sold millions of records, and each of their albums has spent time atop the Billboard charts. (Conversely, neither Das Racist nor Odd Future has yet released a record commercially, instead making their mixtapes available as free downloads.)
For My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that has received rave reviews across the board, Kanye famously spent months holed up in a Hawaii studio with his friends and collaborators. Drake and Nicki also worked in similarly big-budget environments and under big-budget expectations, and they both produced huge and huge-sounding records. But, more specifically, all three of them have delivered a hybrid form of hip hop that hearkens back to the brief, golden time during which hip hop, no longer just the domain of inner-city kids, was good and commercially successful. And that’s kind of a big deal.
The inclination of hip hop heads to be wary of pop-rap is understandable. Drake, in particular, is relatively safe, teeny-bopperish, and often cheesy. He’s not the best of rappers, nor does he pick the most inspiring of beats; in fact, quite a bit of Thank Me Later borders on forgettable. But, through his trademark sing-song style and in straying from the traditional hip hop formula of unmelodic verse-chorus-verse, Drake has energized the genre. Kanye and Nicki have done that, too. They’ve played with the building blocks of hip hop music, manipulating sounds and syllables and song structure, pushing and pulling to see how much they can get away with. Neither Kanye nor Drake nor Nicki is the first to do this—just the first to do it successfully in a really, really long time.
But just like Das Racist and Odd Future, Kanye, Drake, and Nicki’s reach goes beyond music. Part of what makes them so appealing is their rejection of the historically acceptable rules-to-being-a-hip-hop-star. They are revealing in ways that most rappers deny themselves. Kanye, for instance, actively uses his music and celebrity to give the public a glimpse into his schizophrenic, self-defeating paranoia. Drake, similarly, is the emo-est of emo rappers (sorry, Cudi) and is forthcoming about his personal struggles on record and in the press. And Nicki, who bears the additional burden of being a female rapper, controls her pop-star veneer and alternates between characters at her choosing. In essence, despite the fame and the wealth and the wigs, Kanye, Drake, and Nicki are just doing them. And doing it really well.