Tom Jennings interprets Nas’ provocation that ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ in terms of the limited liberal horizons of civil rights.
Twelve years after Illmatic – his definitive new-school rap debut – the eighth Nas release declares the party over. Hip Hop Is Dead (Island Def Jam) finds the genre’s pre-eminent wordsmith continuing in the combative mood following a celebrity beef with Jay-Z (New York’s other street lyricist superstar) which energised Stillmatic (2001) through to the superb autobiographical Street’s Disciple (2004).* However, his consistent output of ghettocentric quality is persistently misperceived by subcultural elitists deaf to the effective musical marriage of hip-hop tradition and cutting-edge populism and blind to the vision’s integrity in mobilising observation and personal resonance to chronicle and critique the anguish and aspirations of the contemporary US inner-city Black poor. Now mature enough to question the evolutionary status of this profoundly influential cultural movement, Nas challenges its adherents to similarly transcend self-importance in response.
The album opens with no-nonsense potted summaries of rap’s ‘hoodrats clawing their way to fame and fortune, couched in the favoured gangsta condensation of capitalism-as-crime: “From crack-pushers to ’lac pushers, and ambushers / And morticians to fortresses / Case-dismissers, laced in riches, caked ridiculous / From nickel-and-dimin’ to trickin’ them diamonds” (‘Money Over Bullsh*t’). The bravado segues into admitting its protagonists’ culpability for the artistic price paid: “Hip-hop been dead, we the reason it died / Wasn’t Sylvia’s fault or ‘cause MCs’ skills are lost / It’s ‘cause we can’t see ourselves as boss / Deep rooted through slavery, self hatred” (‘Carry On Tradition’); and “Heinous crimes help records sales more than creative lines / And I don’t want to keep bringing up the greater times / But I’m a dreamer, nostalgic with the state of mind” (‘Can’t Forget About You’). The title track nails it: “Everybody sound the same / Commercialized the game / Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business / They forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed”.
The pivotal ‘Black Republican’ then juggles Jay-Z: “I feel like a black republican, money keep comin’ in” and Nas: “I feel like a black militant, takin’ over the government”, followed by “Can’t turn my back on the ‘hood, too much love for them / Can’t clean my act up for good, too much thug in ‘em / Probably end up back in the ‘hood; I’m, like, ‘fuck it then’.” Implicitly recognising that individual advancement neither resolves class contradictions nor fulfils hip-hop’s emancipatory potential leaves the set oscillating between honouring the Black traditions which nourish struggle and reasserting underclass self-confidence in developing agendas expressed in their terms. With intricate wordplay literate in urban provenance, Black Arts and contemporary reference, Nas echoes Rakim’s cool philosophical cadence and 2-Pac’s passionate arrogance grounded in Panther politics. Beyond their mystical paranoia, though, he senses that the project is constitutionally incapable of breaking on through – despite the muscular, sensuous beats and brooding intelligence here representing living disproof of the title. Still, Hip Hop Stalemate would hardly inspire as an alternative.
Alongside tiresomely predictable ‘I-told-you-so’ music press taste parades, insider critiques of Nas’ obituary similarly misfire in citing the rude health of southern states ‘Crunk’ – whose synthetic sonic minimalism re-energises grass-roots dance credentials yet rarely showcases lyrical craft or consciousness (ditto rave-friendly UK Grime). However, the Dirty South boasts Atlanta’s Ludacris – the genre’s greatest ever humorist – and Outkast’s sophisticated reverse-colonisation of pop, among many vital signs of hip-hop life. Major label rap poets elsewhere regroup independently under corporate radar – witness Talib Kweli’s triumphal return to fundamentals Right About Now (Koch, 2005) – while Dead Prez hope to preserve the audience gained for their outspoken radicalism (Sony’s sabotage notwithstanding) with more modest, regular and collectively-oriented niche production, promotion and distribution on the trail blazed by Paris, Public Enemy and The Coup. Whether underground or mediated, this is one hell of a hyperactive corpse.
In a Village Voice piece reproduced on the Anarchist People of Color website (www.illegalvoices.org/knowledge**), Greg Tate contextualises the conundrum in assessing the political implications of hip-hop’s commercialisation over three decades. Its viral spread – first infiltrating American youth, then, crucially, via industrial dissemination abroad – decisively shifted the conditions of possibility for a global lower-class discourse on poverty and powerlessness, which can no longer simply be silenced by repression and fragmentation. On the downside, merged media’s cultural pincers commodify Black style for middle-class fashionistas while hypnotising local core communities with hyperreal fantasies of superhuman prowess to conceal the intensifying subhuman treatment meted out by the state – tactics requiring the active collusion of rap aristocrats in exchange for egos bloated with pieces of silver.
Nevertheless, such uneasy, conflicted recuperations are always inherently prone to rupture – however many times they tell us there’s no alternative. In this case the fault lines trace the troubled history of US race reform since the Second World War, with the classic liberal compromise of civil rights the palliative for a working-class generation of revolutionary Black militants framed and massacred by the government’s COINTELPRO. Before residual resistance was mopped-up in narcotic flood and economic drought, the meritocratic rhetoric of dual spiritual/worldly uplift doubtless seemed viable, but street dreams of respectability surely unravelled with Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, 9/11, New Orleans, and Iraq – voting Democrat being as inconsequential as Million Man Marches and millionaire MCs. As Tate specifies: “If enough folks from the ‘hood get rich, does that suffice for all the rest who will die tryin?” No, but a popular movement to dismantle structural dispossession and enslavement – which Nas’ poetry and hip-hop’s unifying language could significantly contribute to – has yet to re-emerge. Until then, politically speaking, it’s not dead … only sleeping.
* see my ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’, Variant magazine, issue 22 (2005). Further extensive discussions of the grass-roots relevance of urban music can be found in Variant 17, 20 and 25 (also at www.variant.org.uk).
** Note that this website has been hijacked and is no longer operative. Some of the original archive can be found at www.illvox.org.
music review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 5, March 2007
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