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 Matt Jost
When I first made rap music’s acquaintance I was 14, accustomed to 1980s top 40 pop, and my definition of quality pop music didn’t extend beyond Prince, The Cure, and Depeche Mode. I would soon discover punk, hardcore and new wave, but for now it was rap and I literally didn’t know what hit me. Words in a foreign language were coming at me at unusual speeds and staggering rhythms, projected across music that consisted mainly of drums. It was loud, it was proud, and unlike anything I had ever heard before. The least thing I was concerned with was if it was good rap, it sufficed that it was radically different from what I was used to. And pretty darn cool, too.
As the years went by and I found myself sticking to it, I learned to differentiate. I divised it into rap that I subjectively liked more than other, as well as rap that I objectively rated higher than other. Intriguingly, I didn’t need much advice from outside to tell me what to like and what not. Rap itself taught me its standards. It conveniently came with guidelines for its own success.
That seems implausible in a genre where everyone claims to be if not the best at least better than the next man, but somehow, fueled by countless claims of superiorty, in my mind (and without a doubt in the minds of most other faithful rap fans at the time) a clear idea formed about what makes good rap. So that when the inevitable rip-offs came around, we were prepared to see through them. It dawned on me then that rap is an artform of its own in the sense that it abides by its own rules, that the defiance of existing rules of the outside world (from traditional music theories to societal expectations) is second nature to rap.
Yet at the same time I became frustrated with the fact that the mainstream music press in particular and society in general chose to ignore, condemn or ridicule the styles and topics rap brought forth. I wanted to read about rap in my newspaper’s arts section, and not just about how it brings to light the United States’ deep-seated racial problems, but what it contributes to pop culture, music and, ultimately, the arts.
Therefore the question if rap is art presented itself to me only reluctantly. I knew that to identify it as art was essential for its recognition on a greater scale, but I also suspected that its aspects as a specific artform were what made it special, and that any conforming to the establishment’s definitions of art was liable to take away from its immediacy and sincerity. The prospect of translating Shakespeare to rap may work for a Hollywood film (Danny DeVito in ‘Renaissance Man’) and disillusioned English teachers everywhere, but it’s not what rap needs to be accepted as art. Rap has to touch people and inspire them. It needs mass appeal to generate the number of dedicated fans and sincere critics that ascend it to the status of a genre of art that is recognized and taken seriously beyond the cash flow it generates.
It has been extremely helpful for rap’s cause that it is so open. If art is communication on a higher level, rap per se is already halfway there to meet that condition because it is so forthcoming. Because it addresses its audience. Because it is willing to let you be the judge. Ideally, I view rap as an ongoing democratic debate where each segment of society has a chance of being heard and we the people have the final say. Rap is born out of the natural urge to interact with and hopefully convince others. A young KRS-One once gave one of the genre’s most vital statements: “It takes concentration / for fresh communication.” Simple as that may sound, it is exceptionally true, particulary in a form of expression that is almost purely verbal. For the very reason that the communication aspect of rap is so fundamental I want rappers to bearticulate before they think about being artful.
That is not to say that these are opposites, in fact good art is always expressive, but making yourself understood is a quintessential challenge for all higher life forms. Rap itself, with its proximity to spoken language, prioritizes comprehensibility, while the fact that in everyday situations nobody raps in rhymes is what makes it an artform, a language of its own that may have to be learned but at the same time is very easy to learn.
That still doesn’t answer the question if rap is Art with a capital A or simply outsider art that doesn’t have to hold up to established standards. Rap is many things – essentially American, subconsciously African, part verbal wrestling, part political discourse, tall tales, true tales, chatty, cryptic… RAP is Rhythm And Poetry, if Rakim has any say in it. Which brings us back to rap’s predilection to make up its own rules. There exists a set of technicalities that help distinguish good from average from bad rap: the ability to interact with the musical accompaniment, the vocal tone and range, the originality of style, syntax, and slang, the substance and significance of the content, the clarity and charisma of the recital, the degree of eloquence, the faculty to put phrases together that rhyme, the believability of the portrayed character (bolstered by acting skills and/or natural credibility), the capacity to convey emotions with mere spoken words when you are constrained by the straitjacket of rhythm and rhyme, the competence to write your own lyrics…
Not all these conditions have to be met simultaneously. Even if he failed at crucial ones, Eazy-E was still an exceptional rap artist. An exceptional artist? No. Neither is KRS-One. These are masters of their craft (the craft of rap), both in different, individual fields. Like EPMD. MOP. UGK. A lot of things determine whether rap is good, average, or bad, and I strongly suspect that many of them couldn’t be grasped by standard art definitions. What in poetry will come across as dalliance can be an impressive display of rhyming skills. Is bragging and boasting an art? Rap will certainly make an art out of it, if someone excels at it. To come up with rhyming sentences that comment what you and the spectators experience on the spot is called freestyling, and I have yet to learn about an equally challenging event existing in other fields of art. Can you embarrass an opponent verbally and take what you dish out in front of a live audience? Can you hold the listener’s attention with an ego-tripping litany in a time of diminishing attention spans? Can you motivate kids who can barely recall what the teacher said a minute ago to recite your lyrics? Can you create a credible character? Can you coin catchphrases? Can you express a lifestyle, even embody a way of life? Can you get to the point plus get the point across? Can you talk shit and talk sense? And finally, can you capture the imagination of people who do not care the least bit about all of the above? Then rap is your form of expression.
Moreso than if there is art in rap or not I am interested in the art of rap itself. Where does it come from? Where is it going? Who are its champions, its trendsetters, its veterans, its outsiders? What does it tell me? What does it tell others? How does it react to challenges? Some rappers happen to feel limited by their artform. They stress that their movement and their message are bigger than hip-hop (Dead Prez on the political side), or deeper than rap (Rick Ross on the personal side). Rap and hip-hop are big and deep enough for me, precisely because I am aware that they point to issues beyond the mere music. To exclusively scan a rap album for artistic achievements is an academic exercise that fails to capture the impact it can potentially have. It is tantamount to demanding only ‘useful and truthful information’ from rap, to reduce it to a ‘Black CNN.’ Or expecting gangsta rappers to be actual gangsters. It’s a one-dimensional approach.
Information such as where a rapper is from, what he’s been up to so far, who he references, who he reminds me of, how he talks and thinks, etc. is vital to me as a reviewer to help me make sense of it all, to get to the essence of a record. Which is not solely its apparent content or its form, but that which emerges after repeated listens and thorough analysis. And even then I can only offer my interpretation of the record, an individual approxmation of what’s being expressed by the artist. But I have to make the effort to interpret, and the more information I can obtain from the album, the more critically sound my review.
Maybe it comes down to the difference between art critic and art historian. Art history researches the evolution of art and factors in impact and influence, whereas art criticism tries to extract artistic value from a given object without giving as much consideration to its background and history. I just happen to think its background and history are what make rap so special. Rap is, to paraphrase the previous slogans,bigger and deeper than art in the sense that it is more than an art. Obviously as a whole the arts are also bigger and deeper than rap, so that rappers should feel honored if someone with an understanding for art (and not just the art of rap) deems them worthy of art criticism. Without such goodwill, hip-hop even as just an artform might still linger in obscurity.
But critics who would like to analyze rap from a more universal perspective should make themselves familiar with the genre’s inherent rules, so that they are able to put what they hear into the context of rap. They should, for instance, be aware of how street rap translates ‘gift of gab’ to ‘game’ and realize it’s an artform and form of communication in itself. Anybody setting out to critique rap should have a basic understanding of where rappers are coming from, literally and figuratively. Again, rap is very willing to explain itself. It is usually frank and upfront about its intentions, it only asks you to get involved with it. As a rap fan and rap critic I am therefore interchangeable. I criticize rap as a fan. It is my belief that a frequent rap critic must have suffered with rap, celebrated with rap. To do justice to rap, you must experience its lows and highs personally.
This emotional investment concurs with the fact that even though rap is very competitive and has developed its own standards, very often it’s simply about getting that feeling. That hip-hop feeling. Has nothing to do with an abstract idea of artistry but everything with the sound of that particular drum, the clever rhyme, the humorous note, how the sample was tweaked, how outlandish that reference was, the magic when everything falls into place, the vitality of it all. The very reason this artform still thrives. Am I supposed to ignore that feeling – or the vacancy when it’s missing?
In the very end, even if I rate one song higher from an artistic point of view, it doesn’t mean that it’s the better rap song. The better rap song is usually the one with the tighter flow, the nicer beat, the stronger attitude, the one that gets more response. There is also what one might call looking for art in the wrong place. Not nearly all rap aspires to excel artistically, so why not try to meet it halfway and show some interest in the original intent? Finally, keeping in mind hip-hop’s initial struggle to be accepted as ‘music,’ it is also important to remind ourselves that this is indeed music. As a work of art, Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” album is more valued than anything most acclaimed rap lyricists ever recorded. Hip-Hop is a performing art of the highest order that requires different talents. Before suffering a career-ending injury, The D.O.C. referred to himself as “America’s most complete artist,” and while such a statement can be attributed to the genre’s chronical delusions of grandeur, as performers rappers are predisposed to be a little bit more complete artists than others.
I will be the first to admit that rap rarely lives up to its full potential. The art of rap itself can be limiting, and maybe more art and less artform would remedy the situation at least partially. But that is up to the individual rap artist. To flat out declare rap to be art and then only expect great things from it is naive, especially when these great things remain so rare that apparently most rap at best is average art. Which really isn’t all that surprising. Any listener with a minimal amount of artistic judgement will figure that out himself rather soon. But he will likely continue to show interest in rap music because he’s not looking for art for art’s sake but enjoys the many points of interest the genre offers. Luckily, people still prioritize that hip-hop feeling over unfulfilled art appreciation.
Nevertheless rap artists and audience are welcome to develop an artistic sense in order to elevate rap even further. It has been long part of our collective growth process to make out extraordinary efforts, or else we wouldn’t champion albums like “Illmatic,” where the artform clearly becomes art. Ever the visionary, KRS-One stated way back in 1986: “We have elevated far beyond the Rapper’s Delight / So party people, close your eyes and use the mind for the sight” (“Advance”). Since then we have learned to rest our feet, close our eyes and imagine things (evoked by the rapper’s lyrics and the music that transports them), which is still the main condition for art to become the meaningful medium it can be.
British illustrator Jan Bowman wrote in an essay a few years ago: ‘Art is how humanity shares experiences. Directly through our own experience, we can only see life from one perspective. But we live life much more fully and richly through sharing the experiences of others, via images, dance, literature or music. In a sense, art is the soul of human society, the human imagination at play. Humans have always made art and all good art has this in common – it shows us someone else’s vision of reality and helps us feel and experience life through someone else’s mind.’
By that definition rap to me is art, and it is so mainly because as an artform it is oral history, folklore, drama, comedy, and musical all in one. Because it is so unique and comprehensive. If it wasn’t, I would have moved on a long time ago.