"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Importance Of Being Escobar: The Role Of Persona, Studio Gangsterism and Reality In Hip Hop

You don't really believe these rappers, do you?

"The shit is real." - Hip Hop, traditional.

There is no bigger fallacy than when a rapper tells you he's "real." He's not "real." Chances are that super thug who claims he sold more white product than Dairy farmers has a master's degree in comparative literature and is simply lying to your face about his glorious tales of his criminal past. I hate to be that punk-snitch kid that told you at recess that "Santa Claus wasn't real but your favorite rapper is most certainly not Superfly, The Mack, Frank Lucas or Cyrus from "The Warriors" . Your favorite rapper is really just Malik Jackson from Brooklyn, music, art student and actor, and you know what? That's actually kind of awesome.

"Reality" as defined by hip hop law is a loose (if not an outright fantasy) approximation of the truth based on a rapper's actual life experiences, the experiences of their communities and the depiction of their world in the media. Rap reality is like margarine. It sort of tastes like the real thing and you make actually prefer it (and it sure as hell spreads easier on a bagel) but it is decidedly not butter irregardless of what Fabio and his glorious flowing locks of hair might tell you. It's simply not the real truth of the lives for 99.9% of rappers. When gangster and hardcore rap was first conceived in the minds of a few like-minded individuals across the inner cities of America, it was primarily the creation of somewhat middle class "art school" kids who grew up near or around the 'hood but were not necessarily affiliated with the gang life they were writing their songs about. For example, Ice Cube was an architecture student enrolled at a college in Phoenix and Dr. Dre earned a scholarship to study mechanical drawing. They crafted songs depicting things that happened to their friends and family around their neighborhood but in a sense, they themselves were able to escape the fate that trapped many of their peers because of their talent and intelligence. They were witnesses to the destruction of the inner cities by the crack trade and the gang life that was birthed by it but they weren't participants.

However, what made early gangster rappers different from their peers was that they made a brilliant intuitive leap in their art that made the burgeoning art form of rap music far more powerful and palpable. Instead of telling inner city stories of gang and criminal life from the point-of-view of an omniscient third person narrator as Melle Mel did, rappers began crafting elaborate and mostly fictional personas for themselves and started rapping from the first person. Thus, the studio gangster was born and rap has become a much richer art form because of it. All hail the Studio Gangster! Bask in his glory!

Perhaps, unlike any other art form before it. Hip hop has done more to blur the lines between reality of an artist's life and the persona he creates in his or her art. Rappers play fast and loose with their personas that help them create dark and immediate pieces of art that not only speak to the actual realities of modern day urban life but the darker parts of soul. Brad Jordan (Scarface) in his early work with the Geto Boys and on his brilliant solo debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back, created a murderous possibly deeply disturbed schizophrenic gangster who challenges our notion of morality. On songs like "Good Girl Gone Bad," can we truly condemn Scarface for his actions even when he does something as heinous as cynically adopt the son of a man he murders when there is a strong chance that Scarface isn't truly evil but simply deeply and truly clinically insane and thus not responsible for his actions? That's some dark and deep shit. Critics of violence and sex in rap music rarely acknowledge the literary merits of rapper's music and the role of the fictional persona choosing instead to simplify and associate the fictional persona that rappers' create for themselves with the reality of their lives. It's hard to believe that Snoop Dogg is a gun-toting violent gangster when he is coaching his kids football team.

However, there has been one persona in rap music that despite the general consensus of brilliance and canonization of his creator has been unfairly maligned over the years since the character's debut on misunderstood but criminally underrated album, It Was Written in 1996: Nas Escobar, the red-headed step cousin of Nasty Nas, himself. For the five of you that don't know... in the year of our lord, 1994, Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones gave to the people of Earth his debut album in the slums of the Queensbridge Project, the Holy Bible of Hip Hop itself, Illmatic. The album was instantly hailed by critics and hip hop fans alike for it's undeniable lyrical brilliance and Nas was soon crowned the Poet Laureate Of Hip Hop.
What makes Illmatic so special is that it feels like a true slice-of-life portrayal of a young artist living in the slums of New York. We feel over the brilliant ten records on the album that we get to know Nas as a confused but brilliant young artist trapped between the allure of the street life and the hope of a dream that he'll make it of the notoriously violent projects by the only way he knows how...rapping. No other piece of art in hip hop has been able to capture better what it means to to be young, black and gifted in the projects as Illmatic does. We feel that we get to know the real Nas at the end of the record which helps to understand the befuddlement so many people had when Nas returned in 1996 adorned in a pink suit not as Nasty Nas the Rebel to America but as Nas Escobar, black mafioso.

It's important to remember that, in '96, mafioso rap had taken off due in large part to Raekwon's success with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Biggie's chart dominance after Ready To Die. Those artists had created memorable narratives based on their supposed gangster past and the population was eating up their large than life characters. Nas felt that he had to compete with these bombastic portrayals of gangsterdom and thus Nas Escobar was born. The Escobar character was a radical depature from the way many hip hop fans had been introduced to Nas and many of Nas' original fans felt that he was selling out because of it. Where Nasty Nas was quiet and subdued, Escobar was flashy and violent often dressed in loud, expensive suits and smoking a large cigar. The image didn't seem to necessarily gel with the image that Nas had portrayed and perhaps because of this a lot of people found It Was Written to be very disappointing.

Time has been kinder to It Was Written and it's generally accepted these days to be a damn good album but still people mock Nas for attempting to go "gangsta" with the Escobar character and failing to an extent. However, I think if we dig deeper into the work of Nas we'll find the Escobar experiment to not be that far from the music that he's created. Nas is one of the few mainstream rappers that experiments with the notion of concept and persona. Over the years, Nas has made numerous songs (both successful and unsuccessful) that experiment with a traditional notion of narrative. His most brilliant and famous example, "I Gave You Power," uses the device of Nas' speaking from the perspective of a gun. On a song that could have wallowed in cliche', Nas brings pathos and personality to the gun who itself grows tired of the endless violence that he is a part of. The song becomes a metaphor for the cylce of violence as the gun believes that he is going to escape the drug trade but is instead dragged right back into the thick of violence. It's powerful stuff. Nas has many other examples where he experiments with narrative and persona as when he raps from a female perspective going as far to distort his voice on "Sekou Story" and "Live Now", as well as telling a story backwards on "Rewind" and from the perspective of an unborn child on "Fetus." In this concept, Nas portraying himself as a drug lord doesn't seem that out of character. Over the course of his storied career, Nas has continued to remain an enigma and in part because he keeps changing and experimenting with his persona.

Ultimately, what critics of rap fail to understand is that it should be treated as fiction. While, it often maintains a first person voice in the music, gangster rap is ultimately on the same literary plane as film, television and literature. It may shock and offend you but Notorious B.I.G. is no less an artist than Mario Puzo. Biggie just happens to rap even if he wants you to believe that he's a hustler. Now if we only get rappers to stop believing their own damn hype. Fuckin' studio gangsters...

Nas' - Street Dreams from "It Was Written" (1996)

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Artistic Amorality Of The Clipse (I Just Think They Could Do Better)

Still Part Of The Coke Rap Genre...

There is a particularly perplexing moment on the Clipse’s frustrating new mixtape, We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3 - The Spirit Of Competition (We Just Think We Better), where Malice (or maybe it’s Pusha T...I still can’t figure out who is who in this group. Pusha’s the one who is supposed to be the second coming of Christ, no?) inexplicably claims that the Clipse are “not part of the coke rap genre” which is particularly ridiculous when you consider that the Clipse are the poster boys of the “coke rap” brand of hip hop. When not bitching about how the white people at Jive are not playing particularly fair, the Clipse rap about cocaine and only about cocaine. There is a certain admiration I have for hip hop that makes music so gloriously ignorant that you can’t help but sit there in stunned disbelief when somebody has the balls to take it “there” and the Clipse’s myopic dedication to all things white and powdery fits that bill. The Clipse are crack rappers, plain and simple. Sorry, Malice but if it walks like a duck...well, you know.

However, being utterly dedicated to something as vapid as rapping about selling cocaine (as if that was all that interesting...) doesn’t preclude the Clipse from being fantastic rappers which they are. They really, really are. The Clipse have a fiery, impassioned delivery that is as good as anybody and their punchlines are really well-crafted and witty (well as witty and well-crafted as dumb-ass punchline lyricism gets but still...). They make stunningly dystopic music that has a natural charm that belies its underlying misanthropy. The much-maligned production on Hell Hath No Fury provided by the rotting corpse of Pharell Williams was the perfect compliment to Clipse’s dystopic and bleak vision of the world. For those who want to Clipse to rap over Kanye or Just Blaze beats are completely missing the point, the Clipse need to be rapping over sinister post-boom minimalist production because anything else would take away from the bleakness of the Clipse’s rhymes. They would sound ridiculous doing their cocaine talk over Journey samples or bombastic organs just as Dipset and Young Jeezy do. It wouldn’t work.

Despite all of the qualities that the Clipse’s music possess, their music remains ultimately shallow and aggravatingly amoral precisely because their dogmatic adherence to rapping only about selling coke. The rise of the modern coke rap genre post-2002 has led to a lot of music that I would classify as not only annoyingly vapid (Dipset comes to mind) but also stunningly amoral. For one, it seems to divorce the actual reality of drug dealing for most dealers (the small amounts of money, the danger, the violence, the death) with this gross cartoon of what selling drugs purports to be. Instead of insight or honest reflection, we get fantasy and escapism. It’s true that pop culture has a history of portraying crime as escapist fantasy but the best pieces of the crime genre offer a sense of morality or consequence to the action’s of the heroine. Michael Corleone loses his family and his soul. Avon Barksdale goes to jail. Tony Montana gets lit up like Amy Winehouse’s crack pipe. With coke rap, we get punchlines about how Cam’ron’s dope purity and the viability of selling drugs as way to money, cars and bitches.

The Clipse because their way better rappers than the rest of the people in their genre want it both ways. They want the respect of the “heads” who respect them for their craft and thus don’t want their names dragged in the mud with the Jeezy’s and the Juelz’ of the genre. The hacks who come with hot production and some half assed punchlines comparing cocaine with white girls. They write their verses with care and passion of people who clearly want to be considered as emcees's emcees even when they are claiming they are not rappers . They want people to consider them great. However, they rarely go past simply describing their (alleged) criminal pasts in witty ways and get into what it means to be a dope dealer. The best of the genre, the Ghostfaces, the Raekwons, the Scarfaces, create fully functioned worlds with real consequences that go beyond the tired “I’m Sorry I Sold Crack” tropes. When they do deal with the consequences of selling crack, it almost always deals with how selling crack affects them and after, an hour plus of crack talk, it almost always comes across as pandering.

Ultimately, you can get hear it in their voices. The Clipse are better rappers than the shallow music they ultimately create. We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3 has enough genuine thrilling moments buried within all of the tired drug talk to make you believe that somewhere to know that Clipse could be Hall of Famers but they gotta transcend the coke rap genre to do it. Some of their music is legitimately really great, a but if they want to run with the big dogs, they are going to simply have to diversify. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to start writing club anthems or god-awful love songs or songs about yoga but a little introspect or poetry wouldn’t kill them. After all, keys may open doors but adaptability keeps you in the room.

Download: The Clipse & The Re-Up Gang - We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3 (No DJ Drama Because Fuck Him...)