The brain trust at MTV recently released their list of the top ten “hottest” MCs working in Hip Hop music today and to the shock of nobody my eyes rolled back into my head so far that I looked like I was one of those creepy kids from the Village of the Damned for a week. Surprising absolutely no one, Weezy F. Baby the so-called “Best Rapper Alive” won and the rest of the top ten were filled with such “titans” of raw lyricism as Jim Jones, Young Jeezy, 50 Cent and the corpse formerly known as Jay-Z (I kid, Jay, I kid). Let me get this straight, I don’t necessarily disagree with the choices of the panel. Lil’ Wayne with the possible exception of T.I. and Kanye West is just about the most popular rapper working in music right now. The notorious hater that I am even has to give it up to him that The Carter 2 was an excellent album and his mixtapes have be sufficiently listenable (which is triumph in the mixtape world. Note: I hate mixtapes.) even if he has dropped more inexplicably overrated lyrical clunkers than Young Jeezy could ever dream of. What struck me as particularly telling about the state of hip hop is how traditionally unskilled half of these rappers were and those who really are truly traditionally skilled (like Wayne, T.I. and Common) weren’t hot because of their lyrics but rather a nebulous quality known as “swagger.”
What is swagger? What defines it and why has it become the defining characteristic in determining what defines a rapper as hot? First, let me discuss a brief history of the evolution of the MC. Before the birth of the MC in the the prehistoric days of hip hop, there was only the DJ. The dude sat behind his turn tables and spun, mixed, and scratched records to get the crowd amped. Soon DJs such as DJ Hollywood began to experiment with call and response type chants and employing elementary level rhymes that encouraged crowd participation and helped brand their name to the public. From there, this evolved into what more commonly known as rappers or MCs who began to spit more and more complex rhymes who would virtually compete each other with who could come up with the more clever lyrics in their raps. For about ten years in the evolution of hip hop, the most important aspect of an emcees weaponry was considered their lyrics. Lyrics began to evolve from the simple couplets and basic stories of Kurtis Blow to the complex metaphors, wordplay and storytelling of Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee. Lyrics were all you had to be determined to be a hot emcee but soon the great evolutionary leap forward began with the God MC himself, Rakim, in 1986 who is generally considered to be the creator of the flow as well as the greatest living lyricist. Rakim changed the way an emcee sounded instead of shouting your lyrics over a beat you talked over it in a smooth, melodic fashion. A breakthrough. However, lyrics still remained your most important aspect in determining what actually defined a great emcee. This changed in the years between ‘93 and ‘95 when the Holy Triumvirate of Flow emerged on the scene when Biggie, Method Man & Snoop became the three biggest emcees on the planet (with all due respect to Pac and Nas). These three while great lyricists in their own right became known as what I have dubbed as the first “flow-ers” or rappers whose primary weapon was the delivery of the words or flow instead of the words they said themselves. They rode the beat, they bounced words off each other, their flow was complex and played off the rhythms of the song and all of this translated into millions of records sold and influence on a new generation of emcees that prided themselves on being able to “flow” instead of being lyrical. Ten years have past since the revolution of flow and we are in the midst of a new change, the Age of the Ad-lib and Swagger.
The Anti-Hip Hop Is Dead crowd consistently states that the music should be allowed to evolve and shouldn’t be trapped in an outdated mode of the boom bap sound. Fine, I’ll denote grudgingly that Hip Hop producers today are doing interesting and unique things with the music that don’t sound exactly like T.R.O.Y. and that's great but its hard to argue that the level of emceeing has fallen off tremendously from the glory days of Rakim to the days where Jim “I Never Met a Cliché’ I Didn't’ Rap About” Jones can knock off motherfucking Nas off a top ten list of hot rappers. The reasons that MTV brain trust offered were that Jim Jones has a tremendous amount of swagger that Nas does not. People want to dress like Jim Jones and not like Nas so apparently this qualifies him as hot. Personally, I wouldn’t really want to dress like either one because Jim Jones is a 50 year old man (31 years old, my ass. He’s already kicked in 40s door and he’s already at 50’s door with an axe. I want to see a damn birth certificate) and Nas dresses like my grandfather. Jim Jones, who prior to dropping We Fly High, was best known as the old man getting his ass kicked at the Rucker while his weed owner, Cam’ron, hops over the fence and books has become a huge star on the strength that people really like screaming “Ballin” when drunk at a bar. He’s a star not because he has vicious rhymes or a flow that could cure cancer but because he has stripped hip hop back to its root of a call and response chant, the ad-lib.
The ad-lib has become important in the games of numerous emcees most notably the Patron Saint of the movement, Young Jeezy. I don’t like Young Jeezy. He can’t rap in either the sense that he’s about as lyrical as an instrumental or the sense that his flow is simplistic to the point of laughability and half the time he doesn’t even bother to rhyme instead choosing to use the same word twice. He also makes some of the most generic and cheesy coke rap the world has ever seen. Even his production which some as praised as “monolithic” and “epic” to me define the words “monotonous” and “boring.” Listening to a Jeezy album is like listening to a slow downed generic version of an already generic 50 Cent gangsta rap song only if you put the song on repeat on your iPod and listened to it 20 times in a row. Its painful but miraculously some people seem to find this charming. Why? Jeezy seems to radiate something as miraculously nebulous as swagger. Jeezy has a charm that escapes a lot of rappers as he is capable of making himself appear to be a larger than life cartoon character that appeals to a large audience of hip hop fans.
Fine, whatever. Jeezy has an appeal that will forever escape me as I struggle to understand why you want to listen to the same bad song on repeat for an hour. New School Hip Hop apologists claim that Hip Hop is Deaders need to let the music grow and evolve but we should take care in noting what the music is evolving into. It is my opinion the current state of progress in hip hop is more devolution than evolution. The ad-libs of Jeezy and Jones are more in common with the call and response type chants of DJ Hollywood than with the complex lyricism of Rakim or even the creative and innovative delivery of Biggie. Hip Hop audiences seem to crave simplicity than complexity at the moment and artists like Jones and Jeezy have a quality that radiates with today’s hip hop fans at perhaps the expense of lyricism. Why is this? I don’t really know. It could be that corporatization of hip hop has stripped it of its nuance and complexities leaving us with the pale imitations of the greats of yesteryear and audiences have grown accustomed to being condescended towards or if you believe Bill Cosby and his ilk is because today’s youth are dumber and more rebellious than their elders. Or, it could be because audiences taste have simply shifted and they yearn for something fun without the proslythizing of the KRS-One's of the past.
Whatever the reason, hip hop music is devolving from the complex music of the mid-90s. As I watched Rap City the last week, I couldn’t help but notice that not many new school rappers appearing on the show seemed to aspire to be lyrical. The desire seemed to be who could come up with more fun hook, the more outlandish dance, the more unique swagger, the more ubiquitous ad-lib. In fact, it seems the Lil Wayne's of the New School are almost an anomaly and a throwback to the old school when the desire was to be the dopest lyricist around. Lil’ Wayne maybe limited in a sense as an emcee but I definitely appreciate the desire to be a great emcee in the traditional sense. What I’m wondering though will emcees eventually die out. The success of a lot of the songs on radio and Rap City seem to be almost superfluous to actually having any rapping actually appear on it. If Young Jeezy were to make any album of nothing but his signature production, him screaming his trademarks ad-libs over the song, and then a big gigantic catchy hook would it be just as successful as The Inspiration or is there still a level of rapping however minimal required to sell a record. Everybody wants to be a mogul these days and nobody wants to be a rapper. Will the day come when the DJs come to reclaim the earth?