Beat a retreat?
While Kanye West looks within and Mos Def styles himself as a quasi-jihadist, a head wonders, what happened to the rage, urgency, and political direction in hip-hop?

By Oliver Wang

FOR ALL THE social rancor of recent times – especially during the election year just past – hip-hop artists have been conspicuously quiet. The funeral dirge for rap music's social irrelevance has played for more than a decade now, but it was far easier to understand hip-hop's political indifference during the complacency of the Clinton era. In a 2003 interview with the Believer, Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson argued that as devastating as the 1980s crack wars were for black communities, they also spurred rappers to confront those dire times in inspired and creative ways. Said Thompson, "Reagan and Bush gave us the best years of hip-hop."

In comparison, the '90s led rappers into irrational exuberance, and the anthem changed from Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" to Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'." Believe it or not, this isn't an impassioned, nostalgic cry for hip-hop to take it back to '88. Kente cloth and Africa medallions had their time and place, just like acid-wash jeans and high-top fades – I'm not complaining that hip-hop's political styles were retired, but what happened to the rage? Rap music's social silence has never screamed more loudly than now, in the midst of the most divisive presidency in decades, the prospect of war without end, and a fundamentalist movement trying to take society back to '88 – 1888.

I've been pondering why outrage escaped from hip-hop, and I always flash back to the Los Angeles uprising of 1991. Rappers like Ice Cube and Ice-T had prophesied the coming conflagration for years before, but once L.A. actually blew up into flames and everyone's passions were spent, reviving that fury seemed moot. It's not a coincidence that Ice Cube's career began its downward slide after '91 or that Dr. Dre and Snoop scored with The Chronic (Death Row, 1992) by trading in righteous anger for gangsta cool. Back east, Afrocentric idealism paled next to the gritty realism of crack war diaries from the likes of Mobb Deep and Biggie. It's hard to tell whether socially engaged hip-hop abandoned the market or vice versa, but by 1997, Puff Daddy's No Way Out (Bad Boy) became an ironically apt description for the direction in which hip-hop seemed permanently headed.

This isn't to say the entire rap community has collectively shrugged its shoulders. Two of the biggest political anthems made last year came from unlikely sources: Jadakiss and Eminem. Jada's "Why?" became one of the summer's biggest hits, asking a series of pointed questions such as "Why'd they let the Terminator win the election?" and "Why'd the president knock down the towers?," which MTV censored out. Meanwhile, Eminem's "Mosh" was a surprising call to organize youth off the streets and into voting booths.

No one expected Jadakiss and Em to stand in as hip-hop's political firebrands, especially since the two who previously filled those roles – Talib Kweli and Mos Def – are still around. However, Mos and Talib had little to say of any real consequence on their respective albums from '04, The New Danger (Geffen) and The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus). Neither artist should be obligated to be a community spokesperson, but after positioning themselves as hip-hop's moral center in the late 1990s with their Black Star collaboration, it's surprising their new albums are so apolitical, especially in such a tense year. Mos's album image of himself, dressed up quasi-jihadist, makes a strong statement about the racial politics of the war on terror, but unfortunately, none of the songs on either his or Talib's LP could match that poignancy.

The waning of Black Star is indicative of how hip-hop's so-called consciousness is in a state of crisis, and ironically, that's partially come about from rap's current self-consciousness. The resounding success of Kanye West's College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) is instructive here – when West brags he's the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack," he's transforming the terms of conscious rap. Songs like "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks" reflect a redirection of mental energy inward as West interrogates himself and probes his own weaknesses. On "Breathe In, Breathe Out," he essentially admits, "Yes, I rock ice, but I feel bad about it," and his honesty is meant as absolution.

This is hardly new. Jay-Z and Eminem built entire careers on calculated apologies – West just improves on them, seamlessly marrying the Protestant work ethic and the hustler's credo. If West's doing well, that's proof that Jesus walks – with him. Armed with divine approval, West masterfully proselytizes by blending subtle class politics, personal improvement rhetoric, and undeniably compelling music. A song like "Spaceship," which finds West fantasizing about escaping the doldrums of dead-end retail work, speaks to the frustrations of many youths facing a lifetime of being nickel-and-dimed to death.

The new rap introspection has its charms, but it often means shunting aside the outside world. West's politics are mostly personal, offering a vision for individual uplift – Horatio Alger as a hustler – but he has far less to say about the world around him than his predecessors did. One notable exception by a commercial artist is Nas's new, sprawling Street's Disciple (Sony), which sternly takes political and public icons to task. Nas busts out a blacklist of African American sellouts on a pair of songs: "American Way" and "These Are Our Heroes." Condi Rice and Kobe Bryant rank high on his list of "coon Uncle Tom fools." The rapper's self-righteousness can be hard to swallow – he hasn't always been NAACP Image Award material either – but it's invigorating to hear such a prominent artist invite controversy and take a stand on something besides his own frailties.

Not surprisingly, if a new model is being drafted, the underground is supplying part of the blueprint. Artists like Immortal Technique and Dead Prez offered some of the loudest protest anthems in 2004, and in 2005 the Perceptionists – a new collabo between part-time Bay Arean Mr. Lif and Boston's Akrobatik and Faqts One – promise to keep ringing the alarm.

There's no elliptical metaphors or hidden transcripts to decipher: the Perceptionists aim directly at the source. On "Memorial Day," they ask, "Where are the weapons of mass destruction? / We been looking for months and we ain't found nothin' / Please Mr. President / Tell us something / We knew from the beginning that your ass was bluffing." Their topicality is scalpel-sharp, indicting Donald Rumsfeld's incompetent war-making and standing up for working-class soldiers, and all set over a beat barrage of chaotic strings and drum explosions. Though their upcoming March album, Black Dialogue, has its moments of levity – they team with Oakland's Humpty Hump for the hilarious "Career Finders" – their project is clearly driven by an incisive, political urgency, and it's one of the few recordings that feed into and out of our current tensions. The Perceptionists confront hip-hop's line in the sand – with smug complacency on one side and political peril on the other – and they choose to charge across. Do we dare follow?