YEAR IN MUSIC The past year brought dozens of excellent albums, and hip-hop sounds topped the list. This wasn't inevitable. Please recall 2009, when critics cited precious little rap in their favorites, save for Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Part 2 and Mos Def's The Ecstatic. But in 2010, both rockists and heads reserved space for Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty, the Roots' How I Got Over, Drake's Thank Me Later, and Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma. And let's not forget minor but important recordings such as Curren$y's Pilot Talk and Yelawolf's Trunk Muzik 0-60.
This winning slate confirmed that major label-backed rap is undergoing a renaissance. Nearly every artist made an impact by keeping their eye on the mainstream, from security guard-turned-bad actor Rick Ross recruiting Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo Green for his Teflon Don, to Bun B allowing Canadian teen idol Drake to call himself an "honorary member of UGK" on the former's Trill O.G. Some complained that these rappers focused too much on claiming the hearts of soccer mama grizzlies and teens raised on Bratz dolls. But after years of boorish thugs peddling D-boy anthems and R&B gimmicks, this new pop sensibility sounded refreshing. (The sole exception may be Ludacris, who found success with Battle of the Sexes by offering a slick and familiar mix of strip club anthems and babymaker suites.)
B.o.B's The Adventures of Bobby Ray was the most extreme product of these pop mirages. The Atlanta rapper scored two No. 1 hits ("Nothin' but You" and "Airplanes"), but divided critics and fans by recruiting emo-rock burnout Rivers Cuomo and Hot Topic heroine Hayley Williams for his collection of gooey ballads. At its best, The Adventures of Bobby Ray had a charming innocence; at worst, it sounded like pandering. But at least it offered well-written tunes. In contrast, Nicki Minaj's grating Pink Friday mashed bad 1980s John Hughes-approved synth-pop and soaring Rihanna choruses into a barely coherent mess. It proved that despite Nicki's talent for ear-catching stunts, from her star turn as the bisexual chick who'll do you and your man on Usher's "Lil' Freak" to her cipher-destroying rhymes on Kanye West's "Monster" and Ludacris' "My Chick Bad," she was still a disappointingly underdeveloped songwriter.
Lost in the intense debate over the rap major domo was the demise of Definitive Jux. Once the mighty inheritor to the Fondle 'Em tradition of B-boy nonconformity, and the source of key early-2000s works by Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Mr. Lif, it sagged under the weight of subpar and underpromoted releases before label head El-P mercifully pulled the plug last February. The news lit up the Internet for a day or two and then was seemingly forgotten. When Noz from cocaineblunts.com asked Yelawolf if he was "heartbroken" over Definitive Jux's demise, the Alabama rapper answered: "I didn't even know it ended. Well ... I'm not heartbroken about it." How ironic that Yelawolf was once a lyrical-minded backpacker too, before switching to gritty tales of deep South meth dealers.
There were other disturbing signs that Definitive Jux's indie-rap scene was no longer ground zero for fledging MCs, from conscious rap advocates Little Brother breaking up, to Minneapolis freestyle ace Michael "Eyedea" Larsen dying at the tragically young age of 28. "Underground rap is dead," noted Sean Fennessey in a Pitchfork essay hyping Los Angeles collective Odd Future. "In its stead, a different brand of homespun rappers have taken hold. Consider Lil B and Soulja Boy, who have been prolifically working the Web ... to achieve their own kind of teenage heroism."
Underground rap is not dead. It thrives with Bay Area imprints such as Interdependent Media (Truthlive's Patience) and national players such as Duck Down Records (Skyzoo & Illmind's Live from the Tape Deck) and Alpha Pup Records (Nocando's Jimmy The Lock). Some of these labels subsist on scattershot independent distribution. Others recruit majors to achieve wider market penetration, including Stones Throw and EMI Label Services (Guilty Simpson's OJ Simpson and Aloe Blacc's retro-soul gem Good Things), and Decon and E1 Music (Black Milk's Album of the Year). And who can blame them? These days, labels need all the help they can get. However, the principal philosophy of economic and artistic independence as an end unto itself has been forgotten.
In Robin D.G. Kelley's 2002 book Freedom Dreams, a rapturous appreciation of 20th century black intellectualism, he writes, "Unfortunately, too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they 'succeeded' in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves. ... And yet it is precisely these alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations." Kelley could have referred to the many critics that marked Little Brother as hopelessly elitist for insisting that hip-hop should address more than the spoils of drug wars; dismissed the late Eyedea, Sage Francis, and others as silly white boys for addressing suburban middle-class concerns; and buried Definitive Jux as a repository of uncool, impossibly dense super-scientific lyricism.
By many measures, the indie-rap scene has been a failure. Unlike the network of homespun labels built by punks in the 1980s, the indie-rap scene didn't create a thriving community without considerable financing from youth-targeting corporations, lifestyle brands, and advertising firms. And perhaps its denizens wrongly castigated dirty South rappers as ignorant, claimed that mainstream superstars like Jay-Z and Diddy were sell-outs, and turned the underground movement into a kind of purity test — all past conflicts that continue to bedevil it today. Yet these dreamers courageously imagined hip-hop culture as not only a way to entertain people and make money, but as a transformative experience that can help instill positive growth and change lives. They built a culture that holds key lessons for future rap generations.
The blog-rap generation doesn't hold any illusions of being alternative, unless it's manufacturing limp blasphemy like Odd Future's use of Nazi imagery. (As Anti-Defamation League spokesman Abraham Foxman told The New York Times in a story on the Holocaust documentary Shoah, "To most kids growing up today, Hitler could be Genghis Khan.") They'll use any trope to be successful, from falsely claiming that they're coke barons to bragging about their limited-edition sneaker collection and how much weed they smoke. There's a gleeful egalitarianism in their digital miscellany. The beats bang but are same-y and indistinct, and the voices are barely distinguishable. As Wiz Khalifa simply said on his breakout single, "Black & Yellow": "You can do it big."
Some critics separated wheat from chaff with technical criteria such as internal rhyme schemes and double-time flow, as if MCs were ice skaters or guitar wankers. But the best artists simply illuminated their money hunger by any means necessary, effortlessly adding interesting twists to tired rap clichés. When Drake crooned on Thank Me Later, "I want this shit forever, man," he evoked a poor man's Nat King Cole. And when Curren$y ranted, "A gee is what I am, a jet is what I be" like a Southern Popeye on Pilot Talk II, he was insistent enough that you almost believed him.
And then there was Kanye West and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He created a spectacle out of an hour-long justification for his obnoxiousness, invited the genre's biggest stars to support his meanderings on chauvinism and virility (or "my black balls") and, most provocatively, continued a public call-and-response with Gil Scott-Heron. The conversation began with West's sampling of Scott-Heron's melancholy "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" for his 2005 album Graduation. Then Scott-Heron replied by using West's "Flashing Lights" melody for "On Coming from a Broken Home," the bittersweet coming-of age tale from Scott-Heron's valiant yet muddled comeback, I'm New Here.
West ended Fantasy by sampling a large section from Scott-Heron's 1970 spoken-word performance "Comment #1," and retitling it "Who Will Survive in America?" The poem originally captured the COINTELPRO era and the U.S. government's eradication of black radicals, but West seemed to use it for a different point. Perhaps he's saying that fame serves as a protective armor against systemic racism and how "at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it's random." Or maybe he's making a wry comment on celebrity culture as the only way to survive in America. Fantasy's cryptic epilogue perfectly summarized this year's rap dreamers, lost in the pop Matrix.