Hip-Hop Doesn't Need Saviors

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"What if I don't really do the numbers they predict?

Considering the fact that I'm the one that they just picked

To write a chapter in history, the shit has got me sick."

-- Drake, "9AM in Dallas"

 

I'm sick too. Sick of the paint-by-numbers pop-formula used to construct Drake's debut album, despite the success of his more adventurous mixtapes. Sick of major record labels' self-fulfilling prophecies about which artists and images are marketable. But more than any of this, I'm sick of the notion that hip-hop needs saviors like Drake.


Hip-hop is not on life support, the music industry is. It is easier than ever for artists to make and distribute music without major record labels, and for fans to find new favorites. Record companies should diversify their hip-hop products, not by creating a bunch of false categories, but by letting a thousand flowers bloom. The mule that is the music industry has taken false steps down this path, as self and media proclaimed sophisticated and conflicted rappers like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, and Drake gain traction. Sadly, Drake's Thank Me Later reveals reluctance to embrace true diversity, as the public was mistreated to an album that is more of the same from a rapper who is supposed to be different.

Beyond industry stubbornness, the conventional wisdom that saviors like Kanye and Drake are drastically different from rappers who ruined hip-hop must be disputed. The prevailing narrative is that those who killed hip-hop are not artists. They are angry gangsters who sold their souls and duped people into buying records by embodying a black super-villain stereotype. Hip-hop's supposed saviors, in contrast, boast sophisticated skills and artistic integrity. They thumb their noses at convention (racial, musical, and otherwise) and emphasize self-awareness without sacrificing self-confidence. This narrative is wrong, not only because it lets the industry off the hook, but because it builds false categories of black masculinity.

As stereotypes persist and diversity of black experiences is ignored, celebrity sports and hip-hop culture comes to represent black American life. Black men are flattened into two ridiculous types: Sophisticated, less threatening rappers are "good," and thug rappers are "bad." The shock of the Tiger Woods scandal is testament to the power of the good black guy vs. bad black guy drama. Woods's infidelity blew up because he strayed from the script. He was cast as a polite and refined good guy, and his gallivanting disturbed the public's sense of order. If, on the other hand, Allen Iverson cheated on his wife, the story would disappear in a week, because the public expects such things of bad black men like him.

Once good black guys and bad black guys are created, blame for "pathological" black culture can be boiled down to disposition and character. In the case of rap music, hip-hop died (became pathological) because the thugs ruined it, and conditions in the recording industry are downplayed. This can be mapped on to the greater landscape of racial politics: just as the industry context is deemphasized and bad black guys are blamed, the greater social context of racial inequality and injustice in America is deemphasized.

It's not all about recognizing that context matters; we have to destroy the good guy vs. bad guy model. For starters, the good guy category is a joke, as hip-hop saviors share far less in common than is assumed. Take Kanye, Lupe, Cudi, and Drake, for example. Kanye sticks out like a sore thumb, approaching genius/icon status with a catalogue of classic tracks that he has either produced, rapped on, or both. Lupe is not a producer, but is a master of both lyrics and flow with serious credentials as a rapper. Cudi stands on the cutting edge of hip-hop hipster style, and knows how to write a chorus, but has demonstrated few rap skills. Drake is a better lyricist than Cudi, but his writing falls short of Lupe and others, and we have no evidence that he can freestyle or change his delivery.

A second strike against the model is that differences between good guys and bad guys are severely overstated. I will grant that the supposed saviors are less fond of violence as narrative or metaphor. Still, content similarities between thugs and saviors abound. The self-awareness and vulnerability for which saviors are celebrated is everywhere in thug music. Drake, Cudi, and others are frequently praised for being conflicted and vulnerable. If the gunshots and drug tales drown out the alienation, depression, self-medication, and existential reckoning of hip-hop's bad guys, you need to listen more closely, or listen to more than the songs on the radio. On the flip side, the thug-induced moral panic about braggadocio, sexism, and consumer culture could be readily applied to Drake and Cudi, despite the fact that each grew up in the suburbs.

This doesn't mean that every rapper explores these themes equally, that stereotypes and sexism should be ignored, or that every disturbing song about drugs and violence has a hidden redemptive message. Hip-hop is an infinite universe of dignity and dishonor -- the idea that a chosen few of its inhabitants could save it is a music industry and media hallucination. Record companies will only recover if they abandon the categories and formulas that make us all sick.

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Michael P. Jeffries is an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of  Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.

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