Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dumb geniuses

Whenever someone like Cam'ron, Clipse, Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane gets hyped as the new rapper(s) du jour, the same argument seems to keep popping up. They can't be great lyricists because they always rap about the same ignorant shit. They don't provide any significant insight into the topics they're dealing with. Etc., etc. 

Now, this isn't really about my opinion on any of these guys. Personally I don't like the Gucci Mane I've heard and I'm not a huge fan of Cam or the Clipse. But the arguments generally made against these types of rappers don't seem to have much to do with their lyrical abilities or lack thereof.

Take Biggie's "Unbelievable" for example. Not his most meaningful song, but you could still point it out as an example of his lyrical talent. What's the difference between that and "Let the Beat Build," other than the latter being somewhat more scatterbrained in its approach? Both songs work not only because of the flow, but because of the lyrical imagery, wordplay and punchlines involved. The fact that there's no real cohesive narrative isn't really relevant.

Of course, when the aforementioned rappers get praised as brilliant, I understand why people tend to have a problem with it. There's the sense that some critics are reading too much into their lyrics, and putting rappers arguably promoting destructive stereotypes on some kind of pedestal. Both potentially valid points. But there's typically a lot more going on in a Lil Wayne song than one by Rick Ross, even if on the surface they might not be all that different. I'd rather read people try and maybe fail to articulate exactly what's appealing about such songs, instead of indiscriminately labeling them all as shallow party music not deserving of any critical analysis beyond that.

Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that some of these rappers have been hyped because they've done legitimately interesting things with lyrics and flow. How smart or stupid they are in real life is another discussion, and for the most part I don't think people are trying to elevate their music to poetry. It's just that it's entirely possible to be a great lyricist without rhyming about anything particularly important.


Anonymous said...

thanks for this. What people kinda fail to realize if that Camron or Gucci or Clipse or Wayne started talking about fukt up the world is or the government or "social issues", they wouldn't like it, because they'd be much out of their comfort zone and they've talked coke and hoes so much, that it would probably be seen as forced and/or pretentious.

Trey Stone said...

it's not even a conscious rap thing i'm getting at, i think everyone'd agree there's classic gangsta rap, using the term broadly. just that i don't think mining that general territory for punchlines and strung-together boasts is necessarily a knock on someone's lyrical skills, provided they're creative with it.

it's definitely possible to branch out effectively, Wayne has some good focused, serious songs for instance, but yeah at the same time i wouldn't want a whole album of "Tie My Hands," when obviously something like "A Milli" is more up his alley

tray said...

I mean, this is a little stupid. First of all, Biggie does rap about a lot of important things. He raps about love and life and violence and depression and hardship and a lot of other stuff. Even if he's not touching on explicitly political stuff or whatever, his work deals with the sorts of big themes that all great literature deals with. He's also a stellar storyteller and a great technical rapper, had a warm lovable baritone, etc. By contrast, a Gucci Mane, and to a lesser extent Wayne or Cam, as much as I love the latter (NH), are largely cataloguing their possessions and talking about the quantities of coke they sell. There's nothing approaching a 'Me And My Bitch,' a 'Ready To Die,' an 'Everyday Struggle,' a 'Things Done Changed,' a 'Juicy' in any of their discographies. And their work suffers for that greatly. Without some more human interest or variety, Wayne and Gucci will always just be deft technicians. It's not that they keep rapping about the same ignorant shit, that the shit's too ignorant; it's that (a) the subject matter never changes, and (b) they don't bring a very interesting perspective to that ignorant shit, besides a certain surface cleverness. As for the specific comparison of 'Unbelievable' and 'Let the Beat Build,' the reason 'Unbelievable' still gets tons of radio play today and 'Let the Beat Build' will be forgotten by everybody but Tom Breihan ten years from now is that the former's an incredibly polished piece of work, one in which every word is perfectly placed. Wayne's song is a typically overindulgent, over-long, occasionally brilliant, more often sloppy ("I am Legend, I am Will Smith") grabbag. It's one of the closer things to 'Unbelievable' you'll get nowadays, but that's only to say how little great pure emceeing today's rap has to offer.

Trey Stone said...

yeah, i was trying to make this post shorter than my usual and probably could've been a little more clear as to what i was getting at. "important" maybe was poor word choice, because i'm not knocking Biggie for not touching on political material or whatever. obviously there's plenty of insight in his raps, and "Unbelievable" isn't representative of his whole catalogue. i was just using it as an example of a brag track that isn't about any one thing in particular but is still lyrically dope.

i take your point about the "human interest" distinction, but again i don't know that that is related to these guys' lyrical abilities. as for "Let the Beat Build" being sloppy, i mean, being all over the place is a big part of Wayne's appeal. i don't think he'd work as well as some super-focused GZA type. plus i just think his level of technique on that song is ridiculous...but anyway.

and leave poor Breihan alone why don't you