Welcome to the RapReviews.com Art & Entertainment Debate. This website offers up thoughts and opinions on rap (and rap-related) releases on a weekly basis. Each writer’s approach is individual, reflecting the diversity of minds this music is able to attract and influence. Usually our criticism and praise address specific releases and remain solitary, next week’s update already being concerned with new albums. This is why RapReviews contributors Alex Sheremet and Matt Jost have decided to enter a more fundamental debate about key aspects of rap and hip-hop that will also highlight their individual approach to the artform and its criticism. The debate will extend over several rounds. The first one is entitled Art or just street-smart?, where you will find both writers attempting to answer the question In what ways is rap “Art,” and in what ways is it something else, requiring a different critical approach?
Round 1: Art or just street-smart?
In what ways is rap “Art,” and in what ways is it something else, requiring a different critical approach?
by Alex Sheremet
I think rap is fundamentally Art. Before I get any further, a definition – Art is communication on a higher plane. It’s not only about ‘information,’ like in a textbook. In fact, it’s not even ‘philosophy,’ ‘truth,’ or ‘politics,’ although it can incidentally be those things, to precision. Art can – and in most cases should – be philosophical, etc., but my point is that how, and perhaps why, Art says things differentiates it from other forms of communication. In Art, things like metaphor, poesy, wit, juxtaposition, and so on, are at the center of information; the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ overlap. In textbooks, political pamphlets, grocery lists, etc., the ‘what’ is the most important thing, the ‘how,’ perhaps, only for clarity – exceptions exist, but are excepted for a reason. So, when someone makes the conscious choice to be an artist, there is, I’d hope, a reason why he’s an artist, and not a pamphleteer. Moreover, he must be an artist first, or else he’s confused, like many rappers cum propagandists, e.g. Dead Prez, and needs to re-think his work, and his ambitions.
Art needs substance. It needs deep, well-thought out content to feed its technical creativity (metaphor, etc.), and vice versa. This is why content – meaning, the thing discussed – is important. Technical creativity – say, a rapper with a good flow – is good but superficial without much else to fall back on. Anyone can develop a strong flow with mechanical (not visionary!) perseverance, but only a curious and impertinent mind can become a Ras Kass. Anyone can spit out slogans, but only a few can combine political depth with artistry. This is why there are a dozen Dead Prez for every The Coup – talent is infrequent. And, anyone can write a competent paragraph, with some learning, but, really, who has what it takes to become a great novelist? A great artist compresses ordinary ‘information’ into new meanings, shocking connections, and, usually, a sophisticated world-view, or at least a view of something, full of puns, wit, humor, and – perhaps the most important thing – a singular direction, or many directions ‘controlled’ by one, a purpose that crystallizes in subtle ways. A great artist is unorthodox, not to shock, but to create something new.
To get to some specifics, I’ll take Big L. It’s almost shocking to hear Big L make it into people’s Top 10’s, or even 5’s, for two reasons. First, Big L is a punchline lyricist – his songs are made to sound good, be witty, etc., but that’s it. Thus, Big L has no depth, only technical competence and some charisma. Second, his performance does not really vary from song to song – sure, he sounds ANGRIER in, say, “Da Graveyard,” but that’s a superficial change, meaning, even as a performer, he is quite limited. Really, taking Big L as a whole, does he have any deep thoughts? Even on “Fed up Wit the Bullshit,” mostly on police brutality, he does little but state the obvious: cops harass, kill, and get away with it. Alright. And? – did I not know this? A great rapper, poet, journalist, etc., would have done more – say, get into a cop’s psychology, make creative connections to other, subtler things, get sarcastic, develop an interesting point of view, or whatever. A lot more, basically, than just stating the obvious. In this way, rap could fulfill one of its social/activist functions, but with more depth and real artistry. Sure, rappers do need pure battle tracks, a thing unique to rap, like other things can be unique to other art forms, but if they are the only form a rapper knows, he’s quite limited. Big L is one of those limited rappers, and to an extent, so is Canibus. I do not want to make infinite ‘exceptions’ for rap, as if it’s so different from other art forms. It’s not – more discriminating quibbles aside – any more different than anysubgenre from another. And if rap wants to be respected as serious Art, it needs to be serious Art, not merely ‘claimed’ as such, as if a principle of democratic privilege.
Art has rules, or rather guidelines. I don’t want to formulate them, as most ‘definite’ rules can in fact be cleverly twisted, undermined, etc., by the capable artist, and it’s more useful to learn/experience them via induction from examples, not deduction from the abstract… but, a brief discussion can suffice. Art likes concision, usually. If an artist can say something more concisely, do it. It’s especially important in poetry, where every word counts heavily. In rap, I can return to Big L – his song on police brutality, for example, goes off on an idiotic tangent where Big L shoots a taxi driver. Not only does it NOT add anything, it’s ridiculous on its own terms. Or, any verse that goes on too long, or a song with too many verses. Or, not even vocals, but let’s take Pink Floy’d opening track from “Wish You Were Here.” It’s long, but uses its length extraordinarily well. But, because Pink Floyd often did not have any self-control, nor know when to stop, they decided to bloat it with a superfluous second part. It’s applicable in most places, really. Art likes innovation, usually. A new way of looking at things, a new technical feat – in rap, a new kind of flow, for example – or whatever, is always good, provided it’s done well. Art likes form, a tight structure in idea or technique – usually. If an artist handles a tight structure well, and even makes it substantive via good content, it means he’s not only technically competent, but also deep. In rap, this can manifest itself through rhyme – if rap were in blank verse, it would be hard to concentrate on the song, so rhyme was introduced not only as a creative obstacle to stretch people’s abilities, but also to keep things memorable and flowing. Art also likes layers of meaning – usually. A complex, thicker, multi-layered piece is significantly harder to do artistically. Art likes purpose – always, and if not, the lack of purpose needs a reason, and thus becomes de facto purpose. A certain word, line, musical choice… they all need to be justified, not via argument on the artist’s website, or a letter to the editor, but justified explicitly, in the art itself. The Juggaknots’ musical choice for “Clear Blue Skies” is justified, for example, by the racism in the song. And, if there’s some kind of incongruity, it, too, needs to be clearly purposeful, such as using sarcastically comical production for dark subject matter. The list goes on, and there are an infinite number of combinations possible. The trick is learning when, and how, to use them. Rap is Art, after all.
In ‘pure’ music, there is composition, the complexity of the instrumentation, the innovation in harmonies, etc., which is all more or less quantifiable. If you don’t believe me, simply tap your finger on a table and compare the artistic quality of your production to Mozart’s operas. More subtle qualitative distinctions exist within the operas, as well as within other genres. In rap, it’s obviously the same. Rap is not Mozart, but novel-writing is not poetry or film-making. Still, as Art, they all share a common purpose: to communicate things – in Mozart, emotions; in novels, ideas, etc. – in a way that separates it from mere ‘information.’ Information is functional, even if creative; more creative expression, however, can potentially be Art. Art is not innately ‘functional.’ Sure, a great artist can paint to keep himself SANE, an unhappy housewife can attend a poetry workshop to ‘release frustrations,’ but these are incidental byproducts of Art, even if they happen to be the primary, subjective motivation of the artist. In rap, money can be the motive. That’s fine, as long as you’re producing great stuff for remuneration.
Is rap, by its nature and social function, ‘too different’ to be considered Art? Are there any other ways of looking at it? Before I get to some specifics… I believe rap’s main purpose is, and has been for a while, artistic. And, although there ARE other ways of dealing with Art, the same applies to any other art form: poetry as an expression of the human impulse to creativity, epics as nationalism, film as biologically stimulating, etc. I don’t doubt the usefulness of these approaches, but they’re not artistic critiques, but sociology, and thus not quantifiable re: ratings – or else, what are you judging? The ‘humanity’ of a message, via numbers? It’s absurd to me. And, although I don’t doubt the usefulness of the above, I don’t agree with treating rap as some innately special case, since all art forms can make these claims about themselves with equal validity.
As to the specifics – rap, in many cases, still IS the expression of a counterculture, an underclass, etc. Thus, sociologically, things like gangster rap are interesting beyond the artistic appeal. And, these things ought to be discussed – again, I don’t doubt it. Rap has a curious position as a once-marginalized ‘black art’ to one of the most popular genres in the world, although blacks are rarely in positions of power. I think there’s an element of voyeurism here. This discussion has its place… in sociology. But, we’re critics, aren’t we? I think Eldridge Cleaver was an immature, infantile, irresponsible, and violent person, Big Pun a wife-beating (with a pistol, no less!) piece of shit, and 2Pac a rapist, and all have questionable artistic content, lives, etc., but I don’t wince – I don’t know them, don’t want to know them, rate them on their artistic output, and move on. If I feel like it, I may write a more analytical piece, dealing with other things, but by definition that’s not a music review. It’s not wrong – in fact, it’s good, as it complicates things and offers a different kind of nuance – to combine the two approaches, but only as long as one does not infect the other, and as long as sociology is not confused with art. Dead Prez, victims of their own (slightly) confused rebellion, seem like ‘nice guys’ when they’re not being overtly racist. And? Notorious B.I.G., a shallow human being – a judgment, by the way, justified by the documented facts of his life, as well as some of his approach to music – has no ‘social relevance,’ but still has great talent, and great songs.
If rap wants to be ‘an expression of its age,’ fine – it necessarily has to be. All art is, to an extent, reflective of its time period. But, great art transcends this banal title – it can both be ‘reflective of society,’ but also something far more essential: it can touch on the human condition, psychology, and themes of life that are really eternal, perhaps changing in name and/or expression over time, but not in spirit. And, since it’s not an either/or situation, why settle for the minimum? Do both, if you want to do serious Art. Most rappers don’t have the knowledge, motivation, ability, etc., to do that, but that’s the fault of the artist, not the genre. So, if Big L would have done precisely that – get into the psychology of cops, etc. – he would have still been talking about American police circa 1990s, but could have also discussed an overseer in imperial Rome, a tsarist pig in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and so on, because he would have touched something essentially human, transcending the limitations of his age. This is why, for example, great love poems from writers as remote as Catullus sound so fresh even two thousand years later. And this why Big L, on the other hand, cannot be anything more than trite on important topics – he simply lacks the ability for much else, something I’d be sure to point out if rating an album.
A closing: Geoffrey Chaucer is often NOT a great poet. Perhaps one of the only reasons he’s read is because he’s the best and largest example of Middle English writing, and is thus influential. True, he contributed greatly to vernacular speech, had a good sense of psychology, and helped establish English as a literary language, but those are linguistic and social, not poetic/artistic, accomplishments – his quality wanes over time, and much of his work is dull, if not simply unreadable. Do rappers – who will never, by necessity, have Chaucer’s influence, and thus wane much faster – want to share this fate? This LIMIT? Moreover, do they want to impose these limits on themselves? (Chaucer had no choice.) As ‘social’ expressions? No, I suspect rappers don’t want to be objectified – they want to be artists, individuals… And, when I review, I treat them like that. No condescension, etc. – I expect them to be able to do what other artists can, albeit in ways specific to rap. It’s a sign of respect, even if those without talent might be annoyed that I hold them to a standard they ought to respect, too.