The Thing Hip-Hop Does Better Than Almost Any Other Music

I remember when, as a long-haired ninth grade guitar nerd, someone told me that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous line in “Sweet Home Alabama” – I hope Neil Young will remember; a Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow – was a dig at Neil Young for his criticism of white Southern racism.  To a literary sort of kid with a growing obsession with music who found that sort of reparte thrilling, the open landscape at which soul, funk, rap, pop, and hip-hop converge would prove utterly bewildering.

Rock, country, and their popular incarnations build and layer into each other.  A geological process wherein one thing spills and ossifies into a new layer of crust, taking on the contour of the layer below and altering it slightly.  Or, in rare and seismically disruptive events, a Jimi Hendrix or Fab Four blows the top off an island and, over decades, leaves a legacy in fields of crystallized fire.

Other times it’s a less natural process wherein music, patterns, lyrics, themes, or entire songs are lifted and reproduced in the soundproofed confines of a laboratory.  

The epochally incremental and the deliberate facsimile of most popular music exist in a sort of perfect equilibrium on that open landscape at which soul, funk, rap, pop, and hip-hop converge in a long string of singers, musicians, MCs, and composers.

Hidden underneath the outer film of clumsier samples and a tangled morass of 'features' exists a music that talks to itself, to its past, to its future, to its listeners, and to the world in which it exists.  Verses are littered with historical references so common that they become language, constant reaching into the vocabulary of past music, and dialogue with contemporaries ranging from the trivial to the subtle and freighted.  Great rappers and performers are judged as much for the inventiveness with which they evoke the words of their forebears as for the fury of their own. Composers judged no more for the novelty of their own arrangements than for the vibrancy they reveal in the tradition.

Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” with its dizzying and outward facing symbolism and its total-art conception is an extreme example, but it represents the latest installment in a line of musicians that put a premium on depth.  Donald Glover struck historically evocative poses and politically charged imagery. Kendrick Lamar’s “For Free” churns with the polyrhythm of John Coltrane even as it bleeds together with a track that draws on decades-old pop culture and American history drawn from his peers and heroes.  One of the latter tracks on the same album echoes a common saying but also the first line of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head up” from two decades earlier, to say nothing of his conversation with the same at the album’s conclusion.

In my high school biology class, we learned that the human mind reveals its sophistication, more than any other way, in its ability to contemplate itself.  Hip-hop and its periphery, more than maybe any other music, reflect that sophistication. Hip-hop is different than most other music in that it is perpetually engaged in a critical dialogue with itself.  The relevance of the music in our time lies not in its tradition of social consciousness, but in its expectation of self-consciousness.

The closest comparison might be jazz music, with its ardor for tradition and requirement that newcomers master a canon.  Along with that awareness of itself, however, comes a fierce resistance to contemporary influence and an intense insularity, so powerful that many of the most open of its masters resist the label in the first place.  Jazz churns out innovators but its tradition is often so narrow that the innovators find themselves far afield of its limits. Hip-hop, on the other hand, openly embraces its porous border with not only the music from which it sprang, but the pop music that raids it for influence.

When that assumption of depth breaks those borders and overlaps with the pure musicality of Janelle Monae or performer’s sensibility and overwhelming technique of Beyonce or the poetry of Common or Tupac, the result is art of a wholly different caliber.

I listened to nothing but jazz and classical music in college.  I had a bit of a fascination with Tupac in high school, brought on in no small part by a history teacher that played “Keep Ya Head Up” on the first day of school for each of her new classes.  My sister put some other groups in front of me and I listened to anything I found compelling but I was into classic guitar players all through my teenage years: Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, the three Kings and Buddy Guy, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Neil Young.

Ten years and a world of music later, classic rock doesn’t seem so clever.  The iconic songwriters of the 1960s looked to Appalachian folk music and delta blues and stained-glass bluegrass and 52nd St horn players.  They marauded the past and every corner of the present, but never seemed quite ready to turn inward; to turn a critical eye on each other and themselves.  Cream was never ready to criticize its own excesses and the Rolling Stones perhaps oblivious or ambivalent toward the past into which they wedged themselves.  In that music “don’t need him around anyhow” feels exciting, but in the wider world it crumbles quickly under the weight of Illmatic and “Be” …

“I wanna be as free as the spirits of those who left, I’m talkin’ Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef.  Through death grew conception, new breath and resurrection.”

It’s art of a different caliber.