Hip-hop is currently in a state of flux. In the last year, the genre as a whole seems to have taken a step back to survey the landscape, to see what's changed in the time since it's origins almost 40 years ago. In short, a lot. For years, the most popular hip-hop has dealt with the celebration of excess; money, women, cars, power, these were the subjects most popular in the music that made its way onto the pop charts. If you wanted to find hip-hop that pushed the boundaries, you had to search, you had to find learn about underground movements that you weren’t necessarily ready for. Now however, the underground is making its way to the surface, meaning that some of the most acclaimed and talked about albums of the last year were also the ones that were pushing the genres boundaries. While this might seem worrying to hip-hop purists, this change in popularity not only allows hip-hop’s most talented purveyors to refine publicly refine the genre, but allows popular hip-hop to conquer new subject matter and reclaim topics that have been long since forgotten.
Much of hip-hop’s recent revitalization started when the label Definitive Jux (better known as Def Jux) was put on hiatus in 2010. Def Jux had served as one of few bastions of underground, alternative hip-hop, home to artists like Camu Tao, Aesop Rock, Murs and Cannibal Ox, all of whom developed on a unique sonic stye developed by label founder Jamie Meline, better known as El-P. After disbanding Def Jux, EL-P freed himself to spend more time on his own creative projects, and as a result produced two of the most impressive records of 2012, his own “Cancer 4 Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P Music.” Meanwhile, other label members scattered, and after being forced to find themselves new creative homes, opened themselves up to new creative directions.
EL-P’s “Cancer 4 Cure,” drowned in sound, produced in a way that echoes the claustrophobic, paranoid lyrics they provide background for. He drops pop culture references faster than any other MC around today, and spurts disdain for every other person in the world with zero afterthought. These themes have persisted throughout EL-P’s body of work, but here they mix with sentiments of death and isolation, ones that have recently been echoed by several other artists who once called Def Jux home.
Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” re-treads ground left untouched for years – politically driven, socially conscious hip-hop. EL-P, taking the helm of producer, mixes his own style with Killer Mike’s more traditional southern stylings. Mike, a long under-appreciated MC with roots in the Atlanta scene that produced artists like OutKast and The Goodie Mob, spits lyrics infused with as much political weight as early albums by Public Enemy and NWA. He lets everyone know early on that he “don’t make rap music, this is R.A.P.,” an acronym he devised for Rebellious African People. By the end of the record Mike has called out the war on drugs, compared Ronald Reagan to the devil, and explained how much of American music was pioneered and matured by african americans. It’s hip-hop’s sendup, a prediction that, one day, this music will be viewed with the same level of awe as any other.
Aesop Rock, one of the many artists displaced at the close of Def Jux, has long been praised for his lyrical deftness. He has always been able to somehow be clear and abstract simultaniously, and throws out so many complex words so fast, listeners often lose track of what’s going on at any given moment.On “Skelethon” his endeavor from 2012, Aesop spends much of his time angry or depressed. Much of the album is very isolationist, without any guest appearances from other rappers, and themes of death and loneliness which permeate the entire work. His frustration with the current scene of hip-hop, his identification with young adults who are just finding their own identity in music, and by the end, a serious critique of his own shortcomings make this a truly unique album, one where the artist faces his shortcomings head on instead of constantly hiding from them.
In any other genre, none of these albums would be particularly noteworthy – even hip-hop has seen hints of these emotionally honest, self conscious stylings in its past. The difference here is who’s making it. Each of these artists have grown up in a world where hip-hop has always existed. They remember when The Wu-Tang Clan first released “Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers.” They all bought Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” when it was first released. They came of age as hip-hop did, and now can successfully re-define the genre without seeming preachy or disingenuous. They’ve taken hip-hop, a genre they’ve loved for years, and turned it into a genre that is as much about self expression as any other. If this trend continues, we wont be listening to hip-hop about cars and money in 5 years time – we’ll be listening to hip-hop that is just as un-guarded and emotionally honest as music of any other genre.
Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons