Hip-hop is slowly dying and we are watching it unfold right before our eyes.
I noticed the genre's death when I saw the music video for Nicki Minaj and Fivio Foreign's new song, We Go Up. I watched Nicki sit in luxury cars, lounge around Louis Vuitton bags and change from outfit to outfit.
Nicki looked like a cartoon character that had been sucked into the real world. Everyone around her was in regular clothes, with normal hair, living ordinary lives. The juxtaposition between Nicki and South Jamaica, Queens was jarring and made me think of the fallacy that comes with hip-hop.
Since its creation, hip-hop has always been an outlet for Black exploration. Rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan would take snippets from kung fu movies and put them in their songs, and go by names that sound like superheroes. Method Man, RZA, GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, Ghost Face Killa, U-God, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck and Raekwon (we love a regular name, too). They showed us what it was like to be Black men from Staten Island. They were honest, raw and played with the imaginary. Their work had substance.
I wonder where that substance is now.
Other than Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, there are no mainstream rappers with the same effect. The genre that I have grown to love for all its meaning and emotion, has been reduced to cars, luxury clothes and colourful wigs. Even though these things are nice and sometimes needed, they replaced hip-hop's core — introspective Black thought. The lack of reflective Black thinking is killing modern hip-hop and thus is the leading cause of the genre being filled with repetitive, empty capitalist rhetoric.
Hip-hop's death started with the fallacy of the ‘gangster’. N.W.A, the infamous 80's rap group with hip-hop greats like Easy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre pioneered gangsta rap. N.W.A rapped about gang life, drugs, sex and the fighting authority — police authority. Again, all of this was needed to an extent because N.W.A would be the catalyst of what rap would become. They were the mouthpiece for the hood — hood ambassadors if you will.
The only problem was, none of them were part of gang life. Easy E was a drug dealer but Ice Cube, the group's most notable writer, studied architectural drafting at the Phoenix Institute of Technology. Architectural drafting is as ‘gangster’ as a painting session with Bob Ross. If you’re not a part of the street life, then how could you be a speaker for the streets?
Hip-hop has always been pushed to the masses as being a real and non-fictional portrayal of Black life — if it’s make believe then it can't be introspective. Instead, gangster rap becomes entertainment, but entertainment for who? Dr. Dre once said, “America is obsessed with murder. I think murder sells a lot more than sex. They say sex sells. I think murder sells … You don't hardly hear anybody hollering about Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood and all the violence in their work… to me, the records and the videos we make are just pure entertainment.”
The genre was originally for streets of Black America and has expanded to the white suburbs. Hip-hop has been pushed to the mainstream. Now, the sharing of culture is fine but the portrayal of Blackness is concerning due especially since our Black industry leaders are selling murder as mere entertainment. Now, instead of gangster rap being a form of Black activism, it has been reduced to a product of consumerism.
The next thing to kill hip-hop was the ‘baller fantasy’. We saw this on the East Coast with Bad Boy Records. Bad Boy played up the baller persona through the music video. Each music video had models swaying their hips, mansions dripping with extravagance and movie-like cutscenes. Bad Boys prominent rappers Notorious B.I.G, Diddy, Mase and Lil’ Kim were constantly showered in luxury. There are pros and cons to the big baller aesthetic.
The pro is that it gives Black people the chance to imagine beyond their circumstance. Black viewers who have been marginalized can teleport themselves to the mansion that Diddy is dancing in for three minutes. This gives Black people hope that maybe one day, they too can have this amazing life. The con is it's not real and not even the rappers can sustain the extravagant lifestyles they portray. They as well have been sucked into the empty capitalist rhetoric. Other than sex and getting money, there's not much intellectual substance in baller rap.
Rap had a resuscitation in the early 2000’s with the emergence of Neo Soul and Kanye West. Kanye pushed the mundane out of hip-hop and gave us classics like Crack Music and Heard Em Say. Kanye changed the face of hip-hop. Here, we move from the gangster and the baller to the insightful college dropout that told the world that George Bush hates Black people. The pink polo rapper ushered in a new wave of hip-hop: abstract rap — which exists outside the genre's stereotypical mold. From Kanye, we’d get rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi and Drake. Unfortunately, Kanye also fell deep into capitalism and started to drift to baller rap. But, his predecessors would continue his legacy with individual songs and complete projects.
In All Falls Down, Kanye West famously said, “We shine because they hate us, floss 'cause they degrade us / We tryna buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we'll stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coupe." Kanye articulates the Black American struggle with capitalism and therefore raps’ relationship with capitalism. From the gangster to baller to the abstract artist, hip-hop is trying to capture the American dream.
The problem is, the American dream wasn't made for Black people but instead, at our expense; Black people can never find freedom through capitalism. Instead, we will either become the new oppressor or lose our way.
Stephanie Okoli is a third-year creative writing student, author and CEO of Daalu Media, a virtual safe space where Black Canadians can laugh and learn.
Black Voices at UBC is an open-form column publishing work by Black writers in UBC’s student community. If you’re interested in getting involved, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.