That Ghetto University

I've been thinking a lot about Kanye's "All Of The Lights." Generally, I haven't been a fan of Rihanna's voice, but I really enjoy how she sounds on that particular song. It obviously helps that there are other voices, but there still's something shimmering and metallic about her singing that really fits with the track. 


I think that's often what has distinguished Kanye from his competition. Kanye has a really incredible sense of how sounds and colors in one context can take on a different meaning in another. That, of course, is the real sonic gift of hip-hop--it's abiding belief in the democracy of sound. In hip-hop, a crying baby, the clipped whisper of a woman, and a strumming harp all occupy the same plane. 

That approach extends to language, which in the hip-hop is really just more music:

I'm just a lyricist, a chemist of the hemp,
The beat pimp, the ill Philly resident,
That's far from hesitant, corrupt like a president,
Never benevolent, but poetically prevalent.

The aesthetic here holds that the doggerel "pimp" is no better than the ironically professorial and superfluous, "poetically prevalent." The verse is almost satirical. It mocks high language by employing it beautifully alongside slang. I'm fairly sure that there are some art-buffs here who can point to antecedents to this kind of high-low, collage theory of art. I can't, mostly because I haven't experienced enough.

Nevertheless, this democracy of sound, and thus of human life, is the greatest lesson I took from hip-hop. It's really what I was trying to achieve in The Beautiful Struggle. It's a large part of what I want out of this blog. (It's why commenters are so important.) And it's a great deal of what I want out of the present book I'm working on. In that sense, I've always thought that hip-hop's aesthetic should never be limited to its founding elements. And in that way, I've come to think of myself as a boy who's changed very little--I am still, and hope to always be, a failed rapper. I will always consider myself a hip-hop artist, and there are many ways to MC.

But yeah, this is an impressive piece of hip-hop art.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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