Look beyond the gimmicky and offensive to find rap music that actually has a soul

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJuly 17, 2013 

Music MTV Video Music Awards

FILE - This April 14, 2013 file photo provided by MTV shows rapper Macklemore of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, performing at the MTV Movie Awards in Sony Pictures Studio Lot in Culver City, Calif. MTV announced Wednesday, July 17, 2013, that Justin Timberlake and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have six MTV Video Music Award nominations each. Bruno Mars has four nominations. (AP Photo/ MTV, Jordan Strauss, File)

JORDAN STRAUSS — AP

As the English novelist Graham Greene wrote in 1983, "The world is not black and white. More like black and gray."

Mr. Greene died eight years later and never lived to see this age of absolutism, a time when we dare not appear wishy-washy on anything ranging from politics to other seemingly mundane things like cilantro, clowns and our interest, or lack thereof, in a made-for-television movie about a tornado made of sharks.

That, by the way, is the first and last time any reference to "Sharknado" will be made in this or any future column so I hope you enjoyed it.

We live in a hyperbolic time, in which everything, be it a sandwich, a television show, album, movie or book is the most off-the-charts greatest thing to happen to humanity since the moon landing or Gutenberg's movable type printing press.

Conversely, there are things -- genres of music, certain artists, book series, etc. -- that are so terrible as to not even warrant serious discussion. They are wholesale terrible and lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

There is no gray. There is only black and white.

And that certainly seems to be the case with rap music, a genre that, while relatively new to the popular music landscape, has already left an indelible mark on American and global pop culture despite being generally panned by some as profane bordering on obscene and lacking artistic merit.

And there are times when those criticisms seem, and maybe are, warranted and just.

Some part of this genre -- I hesitate to call it the majority -- openly celebrates misogyny, drugs, violence and homophobia and, as much as I enjoy making a good contrarian argument, I simply can't defend that music as art.

It's tough to defend popular rapper Lil Wayne when, in a song called "Karate Chop," he grossly references Emmett Till, a Mississippi teenager who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman, in a lyric about a sexual act.

It's tough to defend the rotund Rick Ross when he rapped in a song called "U.O.E.N.O." about date rape, a decision that cost him a multimillion dollar endorsement deal with shoemaker Reebok.

And that's not including the gimmicky stuff that seems to exists only to create new dance crazes like Soulja Boy's "Crank That" or Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How to Dougie." Such songs, while undeniably fun, are no different from Los del Rio's infamous hit "Macarena."

But to tag all rap music as either socially destructive, morally reprehensible or just plain gimmicky isn't entirely fair, especially when there are hip-hop artists doing their part to make music that captures feelings of disenfranchisement felt by a large portion of this country's population and tackle broader social issues.

Take, for example, Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," many of rapper Jay-Z's earlier works or The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy," which I saw lampooned at a local charity event.

And take, for example, upstart Seattle rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "The Heist," which is neck-and-neck with Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience" as the best-selling album of 2013 so far.

That is pretty surprising considering said album features a pro same-sex marriage anthem, "Same Love," "Wing$," a song about sneaker culture and, more generally, American consumer culture, and "Starting Over," a poignant and inspiring song about Macklemore's own struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.

Sure, some of the songs are a little on-the-nose, but given that the same people buying "The Heist" may have also listened to that Emmett Till lyric in "Karate Chop" without batting an eyelash, you can hardly blame Macklemore for leaving little to chance lyrically and, perhaps, laying it on a little thick.

If nothing else, the success of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is proof that you can make a commercially successful rap record that actually speaks to, and challenges, its listeners and some of the more disturbing norms of the genre as a whole.

Hopefully, there is more to follow, not only from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, but from the genre's other heavyweights as well. It would be nice to see Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and others fight to save the soul of their art form.

This week, in honor of socially conscious hip-hop, a playlist of eight songs that have helped move the genre forward despite a deluge of songs from artist intent on exploiting its misogynistic and violent tropes for their own personal gain.

  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message" -- Hard to figure out how we went from a song like this to "Make it Rain."

  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, "A Wake (feat. Evan Roman)" -- Plenty of songs on this record to choose from, but this song seems the most indicative of the progressive tone of this album. Lyrics about gentrification, Trayvon Martin, Planned Parenthood and other topics one isn't used to hearing in a rap songs.

  • Common, "The Corner feat. Kanye West" -- One of the early pioneers of socially conscious hip-hop and a master lyricist.

  • Black Star, "Defintion" -- Mos Def and Talib Kweli, two of the finest and smart lyricists in rap music, team up on this iconic track. One of my favorite songs ever.

  • Nas and Damian Marley, "My Generation (feat. Lil Wayne and Joss Stone)" -- A little "We are the World" for my taste but a great song with a great message, nonetheless.

  • The Notorious B.I.G., "Juicy" -- One of the best songs in the history of American music. Period.

  • The Roots, "Dear God 2.0" -- The Philadelphia-based hip-hop outfit that is now the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" has been making thought-provoking music for years.

  • Kanye West, "Jesus Walks" -- It's easy to forget, given his antics, that Kanye has consistently pushed the envelope on social issues and is always a rapper worth paying attention to.

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