10 in 2010: reasons to be cautiously optimistic about rap in the new year
Since Nas called the coroner on 2006’s “Hip Hop is Dead,” critics and consumers alike have launched alternately spirited and sputtering defenses of his thesis. Of course, the 30-year-old genre has myriad issues to grapple with: a lack of adequate filters, nonexistent artist development and a veritable Clear Channel and major label monopoly that snatches up gifted talents and forces them to the injured reserve until they’re willing to offer more pop concessions than a movie theater.
But very quietly, 2009 marked the genre’s best year in the last half-decade. The difference is that you have to dig harder for your diamonds amid all the din and distraction. Still, the quantity and quality of the music remains strong enough to warrant a cautious optimism going into 2010. Here are 10 of the best reasons why.
- The Price is Right
Early on in the Internet age, journalists and rappers made the similarly ill-advised decision to give away their product for free. With audience expectations already set, both industries have been forced to wrestle with age-old cliches involving cows, milk and how much it costs you to read this sentence. The result is that those talented enough to emerge from the miasma can be heard by vast amounts of people in very little time. In the last week alone, good-to-great mixtapes were released from nascent talents such as The Knux, The Cool Kids, Kendrick Lamar, Yelawolf and XO and long-time all-stars such as Chef Raekwon and Reflection Eternal. And that’s not even including the steady stream of MP3s dropped every day on Nah Right, The Smoking Section, 2 Dope Boyz, et al.
As Unkut.com pointed out in its look ahead, “The West is The Best,” outside the mainstream, Blu, Bishop Lamont, Co$$, TiRon, Pac Div, U-N-I, Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Glasses Malone, Nocando, Nipsey Hussle and the Jerkin' movement have the left coast buzzing more than at any point in a decade. Transplants The Knux (Louisiana), Freddie Gibbs (Gary, Ind.), Fashawn (Fresno) and Shawn Jackson (Providence) have further enriched the talent pool. And then there's the crop of top-flight Stones Throw artists, Murs, Busdriver, People Under the Stairs, The Game, DJ Quik and the Death Row diaspora.
The passing of J Dilla rightly brought a flood of tributes to his greatness, but not enough people have taken note that his frequent collaborator, Madlib, is in the midst of an epic run cementing him as one of the greatest producers of all time. In 2010, Otis Jackson Jr. is releasing one album a month under his Madlib Medicine Show moniker, in addition to albums from Yesterday’s New Quintet and his collaboration with Strong Arm Steady. He’s rapidly becoming the Frank Zappa of rap -- except more consistent.
- The Stars Align
Other than Eminem and Jay-Z, most of hip-hop’s biggest stars stayed on the sidelines in 2009, with Kanye West, Nas, Outkast, T.I., Lupe Fiasco and Lil Wayne all largely silent. All are expected to release albums in the calendar year.
- The Electronica Effect
In the two years since he released “Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge),” New Orleans’ Jay Electronica has created a level of anticipation for his debut unseen since 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying.” Collaborating with everyone from Mos Def, The Roots and Nas, Electronica has bucked fast-food rap trends to release a slow trickle of singles full of vivid self-mythologizing, dense five-percent knowledge and byzantine pop-culture riddled slang, In the polarized blog era, Electronica is so good that he’s probably the only rapper alive that almost everyone can agree on.
- The D
Imbued with a steel-wind cold weather wisdom, Detroit rappers (Guilty Simpson, Royce Da 5’9, Slum Village and Elzhi, Buff 1, Black Milk, Phat Kat, Finale and Danny Brown) have spent the last several years regularly releasing hard-headed and hard-knocking rap music sans compromise. Though the former automotive capital of the world might be saddled with massive unemployment rates, its rap scene continues to be as vital as ever.
- The New South
While Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka, Soulja Boy and OJ Da Juiceman owned sub-Mason Dixon radio for most of last year, an introspective and world-weary bunch of Atlanta and Alabama rappers including Bobby Ray (B.o.B), Playboy Tre, Yelawolf, G-Side, Sean Falyon and Pill have offered a necessary alternative, balancing the glitz with grit and offering a sober look at unpleasant realities.
- The Sort-Of Super Group
The entropy of the major label system has led to ad hoc rap groups ostensibly formed at rap nerd fantasy camp. Last year, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Tame One, Kurupt and DJ Quik and Slaughterhouse (Joe Budden, Royce Da 5’9, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz) emerged as new outfits, while this year Nas and Damian Marley are collaborating on a Distant Relatives project and Chef Raekwon, Method Man and Ghostface are all joining forces. Less money in the pot means that more rappers are willing to take creative risks and pursue passion projects.
- Weird Science
While some experiments were more successful than others, rappers such as Kid Cudi, Wale, Willie Isz, The Knux and the BlaKRoc effort combined hip-hop with rock and dance music with more satisfying results than ever before. Provided that we forget about Lil Wayne’s sausage-fingered attempts to play the guitar, the genre has come a long way since the days of Durst.
- The Slow Rebirth of Indie Culture
Though consolidation and a depressed record industry have partially destroyed hip-hop’s once-thriving independent culture, signs of regrowth are present. As outlined by Dart Adams of Bloggerhouse, labels such as A-Side, High Water, Interdependent Media, Mello Music Group and local imprint Tres Records have developed to give Stones Throw, Rhymesayers, Duck Down and Definitive Jux some company.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photos, clockwise from left: The Knux (Jamie Rector / For The Times), Lupe Fiasco (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times), OutKast's Andre 3000 (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times), Madlib (Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times) and Wale (Associated Press).