Hip-hop Roundtable Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5 | Round 6

Hip-hop Roundtable
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Round 4: Alyssa Rosenberg

Gautham & Hua,

I've spent the past two days listening almost non-stop to Keri Hilson's “Knock You Down,” a summer jam that features both Kanye West and Ne-Yo, and is a perfect example of a question you've both raised for me. What happens to hip-hop when it becomes an established mainstream genre? And what happens to pop as a whole?

The song and video do something clever by setting up Kanye and Ne-Yo as musical, and romantic, rivals for Hilson's attention. Kanye's verses feint, and jab and hit mostly his own sore spots: it's a more genuinely wounded performance than “Heartless” or “Love Lockdown,” and as such it's flawed, but still effective. Ne-Yo turns a similar vulnerability into an expression of confidence. It's a neat reversal, with the rapper in naked pain and the crooner disguising the depth of his affection. I don't know if the song has staying power, but the meeting of styles feels exciting and fresh to me, and a real step beyond the single guest verses grafted onto songs like “Umbrella.”

And I agree there is something weird and problematic about looking at a genre of artists and saying “You! Express authentic populist anger about your situation and clarify things for me!” I don't really know how well those songs age, anyway.

On the other hand, it can effectively capture a particular moment. I think the songs that do that most effectively are often first-person and specific in a way that's relatable, sometimes even veiling the artist's politics. I do like the “Put On” video, though I think there's a disconnect between the bulk of the lyrics and the powerful images. But the song I've found myself returning to frequently is Cam'ron's “I Hate My Job,” which begins with a universally understandable complaint: “I hate my boss / Dude think he know it all / And I know it all / But I follow protocol” before eventually segueing into an efficient treatise on the perils of job-hunting with a felony conviction in a recession. Even if they've got clean records, I bet there are a ton of recent graduates seething after interviews that ended with some variation on “No we're not hiring / But thanks for the visit please.”

I think you're right, Hua, that political rap isn't going to resonate if it just lobs bombs. We're beyond the days when crusades against rap itself could seem effective, and Eminem could just push back against church lady scolds by making fun of their age (“I know you got a job Ms. Cheney / But your husband's heart problems complicate it,” from “Without Me” being the funniest of those rebuttals). Because they've got a seat at the table, artists who want to make political songs are going to have to identify issues and solutions to them. Rap needs to do simply more than identify things—and people—to react against.

Next page: Gautham Nagesh
"Musicians across the globe are producing hip-hop using indigenous rhythms combined with modern beats. The resulting hybrid seems perfect for the post-Obama world."
Relapse, the album that he's releasing this week, Eminem's a pill-popping psychopath."
Page 2: Gautham Nagesh
"The days of hip-hop as a 'dispatch from the ghetto' are over."
Page 3: Hua Hsu
"It's a weird thing to acknowledge, the extent to which the rise of the hip-hop mogul facilitated the rise of Obama."

Page 1: Alyssa Rosenberg