I think, even in my younger more hardcore hip-hop days, I was a contrarian in my circles. I always had a visceral dislike for the earnestness of back-packers, for people who insisted on reciting the four elements of "hip-hop culture," and for nostalgia in general. I'm not immune to any of those feeling, but I can remember sucking my teeth at people who identified themselves as "hip-hop journalists." Looking back on it now, I was--and in some respects continue to be--a kind of snob. In fact, all movements have their puritans and dutiful adherents. I was too young to know this, and thus thought it said something about hip-hop itself.
But I think I've come full circle now--as most of you know I'm in the midst of working on a book about the Civil War. Like all things, this could well or it could go to pieces. I don't think I have much choice in such matters. What's shocked me is how, as I've worked, the literary aesthetic, and even the musical aesthetic, of hip-hop has stuck with me and how I can't stop thinking about it. I understood that that would be true of my first book--a work deeply influenced and infuses with language and history of hip-hop. I did not expect it when thinking about the Civil War.
As I have said, I am utterly enchanted with the language of mid 19th century Americans--black and white, enslaved and freeborn. But this is what rings in my voice every night
Politicking, plus vicking, sticking these Dominicans,
Eating good, had to shoot my way up out of Bennigan's.
That's life, to top it all off, beef with wife,
Pulling bleach out trying to through it in my eye-sight.
That is, of course, Raekwon from the beautiful, beautiful Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Like all of my other personal classics, the further I get away from that album, the more incredible it sounds to me. There was some notion a few weeks ago that T.R.O.Y. is the greatest hip-hop song ever made. I generally agreed. I think Cuban Linx, or Illmatic, is the greatest hip-hop album ever made. Take that with a grain of salt, please. "Greatest" always reflects a personal bias--it isn't The Truth. It isn't God's Word--no matter what the Five Percenters say.
But leaving that for a moment, I'm actually surprised that so much of my feeling for that album has stuck as I have aged. I can remember, even now, walking into my brother's apartment--not far from Howard--and hearing him play "Verbal Intercourse," and when I heard...
Smoke a gold leaf, I hold heat, nonchalantly,
I'm raunchy, the things I do is real, and never haunts me.
... I thought, the way I feel right now, with this woman whispering in the back, and those strings, and that utter lack of drums, the way this makes me feel is incredible, and I want to do something that makes me feel as close to this as possible. Nothing else fucking matters.
This is one of the reasons why, as I've gotten older, I've been unable to engage in debates about "the effects of hip-hop culture" or "the artistic worth of hip-hop music." I cared a lot about those debates as a younger person. But they aren't really debates I have the luxury of entertaining. One of my commenters put it well, I've just come to feel that hip-hop does not need to prove itself, or justify itself to anyone--least of all social critics. This includes me.
This is an extension of my thoughts on being black. You'll notice that I rarely--especially recently--post about IQ and race, "acting white," or whatever the "Problems Black People Have" thought of the day might be. To paraphrase my friend Jelani Cobb, my radical proposition is that black people are human and thus, in the main, doing alright. Nothing else matters.
I decline all offers to petition motherfuckers for my humanity. I am too selfish and too uppity. I have no deep-seated need to justify and interpret the intelligence, cultural practices or predilections of black people to white people or other black people. In a similar vein, I should not expect to do the work of justifying Nas to you, anymore than I should expect you to do the work of justifying Coltrane to me. My ignorance is my burden.
As far as these debates go, I am a disciple of the God of History, and believe that we shall come to separate quackery from science in the Lord's own beneficent time. For now, I am satisfied to let the achievements
of those who trumpet the intellectual inferiority of black people speak. Their record does not require my embellishment. Likewise, the long road is littered with the ruined fulminations of critics who think they know what is, and isn't, art.
Let the boisterous talk continue. Sooner or later we'll all see who the prophet is.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power