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


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Midwest Reigns Supreme: A Eulogy For The South

Ladies and Gentleman, the most popular rapper in the world!

As intricately chronicled by virtually every blog and major media source that covers hip hop music in even a tangential or superficial way, rap music has been dominated by the musical and cultural leanings of our country's southern most region for going on a decade now. As obvious to everybody who doesn't have their ass delicately wrapped around their supple forehead, this hasn't exactly been beneficial to hip hop music in general. While hip hop was never exactly known for it's sweeping intelligence, the South's dominance has basically reduced popular radio and television to a playlist that consists of songs about cars, women, asses, shoes and if we are lucky, drugs and guns. (I'm kidding, I'm kidding...Sort of...) It's been a long cold winter since the South's ignominious rise to regional rap supremacy but there is a thaw coming. I'm declaring that the South's reign on the rap world is coming to an end and shockingly, it's not New York that is ending it's rule. The Midwest reigns supreme, ladies and gentleman, and I couldn't be happier.

The Midwest is, without a shadow of a doubt, the region that is making the best music today in modern hip hop. There is a wide range of diverse influences that are mixing and combining to create music that is both smart and fun to listen to and what's shocking to me....it's growing in popularity. From the space synth funk of Chicago to the post-Dilla soul of Detroit, hip hop from the Midwest is fastly becoming the next epicenter of rap music that is both commercially and critically dominant and artists like Lupe Fiasco, Atmosphere, Black Milk, Rhymefest, Elzhi, the Kidz in the Hall, Royce Da 5'9, Stricklin' from eMC, the resurrected Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the figurative corpse of Lonnie Lynn and the literal corpse of James Yancey are helping cement the Midwest's claim to rap supremacy.

We all know, Kanye West. He's responsible for three of the best and most popular hip hop albums to have been released this decade. He's an incredibly insufferable "douchebagimus maximus" but his rise to hip hop supremacy has been one of the truly inspiring musical success stories of the past decade simply because his rise has been predicated not on marketing or specious claims to an unearned throne but simply because he's proven to be one of the best pop music minds of the last twenty years. Graduation was avant-garde and still maintained strong pop sensibilities which helps explain his big success on both a critical and commercial level. It famously crushed hip hop's former crown prince in a sales battle royale and went on to being the highest selling rap album of the year. A remarkable achievement for a record that wasn't completely retarded. Regardless, how you feel about Kanye West, his music speaks for itself (even if he still really can't rap) and he's helping usher a new era into hip hop. What I found most interesting about Kanye is the uncompromising attitude that he takes towards his music. Part of the reason that he comes across as a such an insufferable prick because he simply gives a damn and is willing to defend his art to an obscene degree. I personally find his constant schilling and subsequent bitching about awards to be distasteful but it's also inspiring to hear a major record artist give a damn about being critically respected. This drives him and it shows across in his work. He wants our respect and as a critic, I appreciate artists who aren't content by pushing out material that they believe in. There is no compromise to Kanye. It's A-plus or F-minus. There is no in between. This is awesome for an artist who is arguably the biggest pop star in the world and his leadership has begun to inspire others from his region to follow suit.

Like it or not, the Chicago scene and sound is dominating hip hop right now with Kanye in the lead but being closely followed by Lupe "Let's All Pretend Dumb It Down Wasn't The Fuckin' Truth" Fiasco, Common "No, Seriously! I Was The Dude Who Made Resurrection!" Sense, and hipster rap royal supreme, the Kidz In The Hall. Lupe Fiasco has been bubbling on the precipice of stardom for the past few years due to his allegiance to Kanye West and has now finally achieved the commercial success that eluded him. Lupe's dark, dense and smart (no matter what you cranium-in-rectum haters say) The Cool was the best rap record of last year and it now features a song that can be classified as certified mega-hit with "Superstar." What's suprising about Lupe's success is that it was built on the strength of a song that people simply liked and requested instead of being beaten into the proverbial submission. What's also suprising is that few people gathered the song was actually about being denied permission into heaven, a subject that can be classified as positively Martian compared to the steady diet of bitches, drugs, and thugs that dominate pop rap radio. Although, Common is doing his best to ruin the last shreds of his reputation lately, it's hard to deny that he's become one of the few true stars in rap music these days with Be and Finding Forever both certifiable Gold records, his schilling for sweaters, and acting these days. The Kidz In The Hall have also contributed to diversifying Chicago's spacey sound by creating rap music with an old school aesthetic and being one of the fore-runner in the hipster rap movement.

However, the Midwest can be hardly described as just Chicago as the scene that it's possibly it's superior is coming from the shores of Lake Michigan as Detroit makes it bid to become the next breakout city in hip hop. After Eminem's unheralded ascent, Detroit unfortunately known for it's Eminem weed carriers and it's unfortunate gimmicky shock horror sound but since the Dripping, Flayed Bones of Marshall Mathers has become a self-parody, Detroit has risen behind the influence of J-Dilla and has carved a niche as ground-zero for quality underground hip hop. Elzhi's brilliant new album, Europass, is a remarkable album that marks Elzhi's ascension to one of the elite lyricists in the game. Europass is one of the best albums of the year and his verse on "Motown 25" where he now infamously outduels fellow Detroit native and underground legend, Royce Da 5'9", is gonna go down as one of the most memorable verses of the past couple of years. Elzhi is a measured and effortless lyricist who is a testament to the continued importance (of writing your shit down) of lyricism in modern rap music. He employs a rapid-fire, endless flow that simply moves smoothly over the beat and raps around the production as if he was a young Common or Nasty Nas. Europass also notes the ascension to the pantheon of modern great prudcers for fellow Detroit native, Black Milk. Black Milk, who has began making the rounds the last couple of years as the number one J-Dilla biter, has been doing his best to make us all forget the memory of James Dewitt Yancey and he's giving 9th Wonder and El-P a run for the best underground producer around. Last year's excellent debut record from Black Milk, Popular Demand, gives credence to the man is the real deal. His work on Elzhi's record is definitely the highlight of the record as he laces the best songs on the record like "That's That One", "Motown 25", "Fire" and "Heart Of The City." He's also a surprisingly talented rapper is his own right as Popular Demand can attest. Other artists like the continued brilliance of Royce Da 5'9" and Slum Village help solidify Detroit's reign as the capital of underground hip hop.

What I'm most excited about the possibility of the Midwest replacing the South as the heart of modern hip hop is the diversity that it provides. Kanye, Lupe, Elzhi et al. offer a true alternative to the disease of Hot 97-infested rap. It's avant-garde but at the same time accessible. It's been a long time since the radio played anything that sounded remotely like the Native Tongues or J-Dilla but the Midwest is providing a hub for different sounding hip hop. As for the South, well...at least, you got Andre 300 rapping, again. That's something...




R.I.P. The South (1999 - 2008)

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Man I like your blog, but what the fuck? I've been living in the South all my life. Till this day I'm not used to the shit that gets played on the radio down here(Atlanta specifically). But do you even listen to music or do you just skim through it? Why can't you look for music that's on the come up? Andre 3000 is the only dude you listen to down here? What about Killer Mike, T rock, Devin The Dude, Scarface? Come on man. You say the Midwest took over. And you only listed 2 states. Michigan & Illinois. WOOOOOWWWW...

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah Jay Electronica...Holla

DocZeus said...

Anonymous-

You haven't quite gauged my jaded world view yet, have you? Yeah, there are still some great acts in the South like any particular region but the South's reign I feel is ending. Sorry, you had an almost decade long run.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha. It's fucked up but you're kinda right(I say this reluctantly). We had almost a decade to show our stuff. And we just got laughed at the whole time. I'm just kinda frustrated, really, because I know we can do better and have better. I say we got at least until next summer. But I don't mind the Midwest. Sheeeet! There are some rhymers from that side of the country. One.

tray said...

I'll be honest, I stopped reading after you started on the rant about how great Lupe is. Not only was Dumb It Down not the fucking truth, not only did it not make any sense, or even interesting nonsense if you know what I mean, it's probably the most obnoxious song I ever heard. Here's this guy who absolutely, utterly sucks, some fucking nasal rapping Sunday school teacher from hell, and he has the audacity to say that he's just too smart for us to understand his meaningless conscious rap drivel. He's the James Joyce of this rap shit. Well no, he's not. Seriously, if anyone is at fault for the death of hip-hop, it's Lupe and rappers of his ilk. Rap has always had its Flo-Ridas and Mike Joneses. 2 Live Crew, Ying Yang Twins - same difference. All that really changed is the South replaced the West (which, like almost everything in rap today, can be ultimately traced back to that great pioneer, Master P). The problem today, really crudely put, is that the rappers who do attempt to be lyrical all suck. Either they're crack-obsessed reincarnations of Big L, real hip-hop drones, wannabe political rappers with absolutely no grasp of politics, weirdos in their own little robot-populated, takashi murakami-designed worlds, or some combination of the aforementioned. And they all rap over the worst beats. I probably listen to all the same 90s stuff as you, but the decline of pretty much everything out of the South is so great that the only stuff I look forward to with any real anticipation anymore are Ghostface, Jeezy and Z-Ro records. And after Big Doe Rehab I'm not so sure about the Ghostface.

Trey Stone said...

i was gonna say something similar to my long lost Internet brother tray here, albeit in a less tray-rage fashion. but he basically summed it up toward the end (except about Kanye, 'course.) the way you put it makes it sound like "Dumb It Down" is some kind of revelation, when i assume most rap fans are pretty aware about what it addresses. and really, it's not even an issue of whether i agree with dude or not. it's an issue of whether he raps in an interesting way over interesting beats. he doesn't.

bottom line is Southern rap, while it does have it's share of sub-Lil' Jon budget synth crap, generally sounds better than most rap right now and that's why it's been on top. Kanye's about the only alternative rapper i can think of currently who has a real emotionally resonant delivery and is rapping over great beats, and that's why he's been so successful. Lupe and especially this Elzhi dude rap with bland styles over stale-ass boom bap-isms. people can nerd out over "intricate lyricism" all they want but their music gets ignored because it's boring, not because it's not ign'ant enough.

we can find some common ground on 'Ye though, even though i don't think you give him near enough credit as a rapper (the tone and emotion he injects into his delivery goes a long way for me, and i think his direct flow on Graduation makes the songs hit in a way they might not if he tried to get really technical)

DocZeus said...

I still am shocked on the strict amount of people who simply don't get how tongue-in-cheek Dumb It Down actually is...

That's why it's the truth...

Anonymous said...

OK, I’m pretty much soulless when it comes to the general idea of patriotism - so I’m very rarely interested in whether a region is more talented than the other - but on more generalized platform, I wont deny tht certain regions have their own unique aesthetic - i think the south brought a lotta fun and flair back into a very dry hip hop scene. As while I see where you’re coming from when you’re talking abt the "south’s dominance" not being "beneficial to hip hop" and whatnot, lets not accuse this region of diminsihing / destroying hip hop – not just because its had it share of great rappers, but also like killer mike basically posited in a recent interview, its not the presence of wackness that’s hurting the game, its the absence of dopeness(im paraphrasing of course). And lets not pretend like the south committed some shady undertaking to get where its at – it stayed on its grind, and years after having been slept on, it blew up on a mainstream level. P.S im interested in whts happens when the Midwest builds more steam (which I totally have no qualms with, Im just hoping for better hip hop in general), gets discovered by some overzealous marketing board and eventually oversaturates the airwaves and the fashion scene. You think that hilarious ‘ Oh it’s the first of the month, Bone Thug lookin’ boy,’ line from ‘Lookin boy’ track, will become a real, scary phenomenon? Hmmm – jay kay

douglas martin said...

i'm not here to discuss the passing of the south's run on top of hip-hop, but i will say that the D is enjoying a renaissance right now. i believe royce is one of the very best talents in rap right now, elzhi made the best rap record of the year so far, and black milk is making a strong run for producer of the year.

the D is back, for real.

Anonymous said...

And doc seriously, I don’t mind ‘dumb it down’ as a listening experience, but its hardly some sneaky, subtle “tongue in cheek” dig. I personally enjoy it for all the absurd surrealism and tongue twisting histrionics (“Or foreplay-less sex is/Which makes me stainless/With no neck left to hang the chain with/Which makes me necklace-less/Like a necklace theft /And I ain't used my headrest yet,” = absurd but NICE) but as far message goes, its pretty much standard, all-too-familiar condescending rap attacking those that dumb it down. In terms of messages, I get super annoyed when the chorus goes - “You've been shedding too much light Lu (Dumb it down) You make'em wanna do right Lu (Dumb it down) These girls are trying to be queens Lu (Dumb it down)/ They're trying to graduate from school Lu (Dumb it down)” I mean I get it - he’s indicting and poking fun of the industry for dumbing it down – I don’t think thats tongue in cheek, its actually pretty much the opposite – outlandishly forthright. The annoying part is if he’s assuming tht he’s shedding too much light, or being the inspiration for girls graduating high school (I do not know how I feel abt a girl whose sole reason for graduation is the glowing inspirational light shed by ‘Food & Liquor’). Maybe I’m misinterpreting the chorus here, but that’s a bit of a megalomaniac, self righteous jackass move, not a tongue-in-cheek one. I don’t think its wrong for someone to spew bile at an industry thats trying to dilute your attempts at great art, but its another to sound so heavy handed (at the onset of your sophomore album no less). It reminds me of Common’s line off “The People” - “When I see them struggling, I think how I’m touching them” ( which always makes me go PERV ALERT!!!!! Common molests the poor and homeless). But hey that’s just me - jay kay

DocZeus said...

Jaykay-

I think "Dumb It Down" is slightly more sly than what you're giving it credit for. I say it's tongue-in-cheek because it works on three separate levels. Yeah, the obvious message is that it's mocking backward thinking about hip hop. That's insanely obvious. And it wouldn't be half as smart as it is if it were too only

The second level, it works on is that it's completely meant to antagonize people who would immediately throw a reactionary fit like my esteemed colleague Tray at somebody like Lupe making a song like this. The song is so on the surface nakedly bald and obvious that it's meant to rile up people who'd take a cursory glance at the "intelligent" lyrics, listen to the aggrandizing chorus, and then immediately rant about how Lupe ain't saying shit and he's nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. But that's not why the record is so smart, either...

It's smart because it's actually mocking itself. The over-the-top performance of Graham Burris and Gemstones on the chorus as the ignorant street fan and the out-of-touch racist white executive are simply flat out carcicatures and thier mocking the pretensions of the song. I think the key is definitely in the second chorus as you mentioned where Graham Burris mentions that Lupe is bringing too much light to people and his music is miraculously gonna give women self-esteem which is so over-the-top and arrogant that it has to be parody. I could understand the statement if the song was performed by somebody like Common or Talib Kweli who seem to have no humor or self-awareness in their music but this is a guy who made a song from the perspective of a fucking cheeseburger. Clearly, Lupe has some form of a sense of humor. I mean, most of the time, he comes across as ultra-serious but he's shown flashes of conscious self-awareness.

This combined with the utter absurdity of the lyrics offer a nice contrast to the whole proceedings. I mean Lupe raps about fucking unicorns and Pegasus on a song and then turns around in the next breath has a rapper mocks him for rapping about robots. He knows whats up.

And that's why Dumb It Down is so awesome...

DocZeus said...

"It reminds me of Common’s line off “The People” - “When I see them struggling, I think how I’m touching them” ( which always makes me go PERV ALERT!!!!! Common molests the poor and homeless). "

This, however, was hilarious. I can totally see Common wandering about the streets of Chicago in a Gap polo shirt and awkwardly hugging homeless people on his days off.

Anonymous said...

"I personally enjoy it for all the absurd surrealism and tongue twisting histrionics (“Or foreplay-less sex is/Which makes me stainless/With no neck left to hang the chain with/Which makes me necklace-less/Like a necklace theft /And I ain't used my headrest yet,” = absurd but NICE)"

Huh man.

This is the best part of that song-not the condescending bullshit, nor the defiant ending line that irks me (don't care about the levels, shit is just annoying). It's the actual absurd, stream-of-consciousness thing he does in connecting the whole verse together. He seems to be having fun when he does shit like that, ala J Live in "All In Together Now" and Common in "Funky 4 U." I love when rappers bug out like that. After hearing "The Pen and the Needle," "Failure," and "Lupe The Killer," I was actually excited to see him return to that form in "Dumb It Down."

Yeah, Lupe's a bit of an asshole who just pissed me off the more he opened his mouth towards the latter part of '07, but I would never say he can't rhyme.

Other than the south bashing, I agree with the general idea of this post. But don't forget about Rhymesayers in Minneapolis with Brother Ali, Atmosphere, etc.

JustChad

DocZeus said...

"Other than the south bashing, I agree with the general idea of this post. But don't forget about Rhymesayers in Minneapolis with Brother Ali, Atmosphere, etc."

Yeah, Minnesota does it thing, too. I was gonna mention them as well but when it comes down to it, I just don't like Slug. Although, I've been trying to listen to Atmosphere's new album for months now but I can't find a, um, "legal" copy anywhere on the internet and I'm gonna be damned if I pay for a copy of another one of their album after the "Godlovesugly" fiasco of '03.

Won't do it.

padraig said...

all respect doc but I too have a hard time taking you seriously when you expend so much gratuitous vitriol on the South. like, I get it, you're big upping where you come from, that's cool, but what does that have to do with hating on another region that harbors a ton of artists covering a bunch of different styles? if your critiques were coherent maybe, but since you paint it all w/the same brush it comes off like one of trey's (or tray's) insane Timbaland stannery rants or one of tray's (or trey's) (sorry, y'all doppelganger, homophone-name having internets commenting accquaintances) crazy joints about why lyricism is terrible and/or John McCain is dope, possibly in direct proportion to each other. but you know, whatever. gotta agree that Detroit is killing it (but Detroit is always killing it - see Motown, P-Funk, Juan Atkins & Derrick May, etc.).

@JustChad - to each their own but count me out of any Midwest renaissance that includes the Rhymesayers. ugh.

padraig said...

also, apropos of that comment above about Jay Electronica, everyone knows he's from NOLA, right? I mean, he lived in Detroit for awhile & worked w/Dilla & Mr. Porter and whoever (or so his mysterious bio goes) but he raps about NOLA constantly - he even made a (token) bounce song though I can't remember its' name. speaking of which, when is he dropping goddamn Act 2?

Trey Stone said...

ah c'mon now padreeg, i like to give myself a little more credit than the raging tray. any "stan" comments i've made are really just slight exaggerations about artists i like a lot and think sometimes get unfair flak, of which Timbo's one. i'm not above criticizing 'em when they really are phoning it in.

i stand by my (not really that) crazed rant here, though. the blog-rap set seems to have a real strict definition of what "real hip hop" is supposed to sound like and i personally think some of it aesthetically just sounds dated and boring. it's not me being contrarian for the sake of it, just what i think.

as far as "Dumb It Down," over-analysis aside, i just think it has a real tepid, thin beat. so there ya go.

DocZeus said...

"as far as "Dumb It Down," over-analysis aside, i just think it has a real tepid, thin beat. so there ya go."

Well, that's a complete other issue. And I would sort of agree with that although it's definitely grown on me.

Anonymous said...

"@JustChad - to each their own but count me out of any Midwest renaissance that includes the Rhymesayers. ugh."

Well, I do dig their stuff a little, but I was mainly trying to broaden the Midwest scene by mentioning them. The Midwest isn't just Detroit and Chicago. And Pad, I don't think in this New Midwest, or any region, you have to agree with all of the rappers coming out. Shit, I can definitely do without Guilty Simpson, and I'm starting to lean that way towards Elzhi.

JustChad

padraig said...

@JustChad - i wasn't being serious really. though it's true that I cannot stand anyone on Rhymesayers besides Brother Ali (and Atmosphere's admittedly very dope 1st album). but include everyone I say, though I don't care one way or the other about this supposed Midwest rap ascendency.

@trey stone - no, I'm a semi-Timbo stan myself, mostly for the influence he had on UK Garage (on that tip though what I really am is a Todd Edwards stan), the direct predecessor to grime. I just had the good sense to get off the bus about 3 yrs ago when it become apparent dude had lost his touch. and co-sign 100% "real hip hop" is a meaningless phrase.

Jason said...

You forgot One Be Lo, from my birthplace Pontiac, (aka Waterworld) and the r.i.p. Athletic Mic League of Ann Arbor. I always thought the D would produce better rappers than it has, but considering it's history it's obvious that producers would be where it's at. I don't know if the Midwest is really rising like you say it is though, and if it does it's reign and influence will be far less than the South's was and still is.

Trey Stone said...

i guess it's just a fundamental difference in opinion then. you could definitely argue he kinda fell off around '04-'05 but while i'm a big fan of his older stuff too, i think his newer stuff is nice. actually, i would say FutureSex/LoveSounds is the only truly great album i've heard with him as the primary producer. he's done a couple of Missy albums that're really good but they have a few duds.

Madman said...

The Chi is definitely running it.

I thought Finding Forever was the best from last year.

Why do u seem to hate on Kanye's rapping skills so much? Dude is nice.