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Rap as News or Art?

Rap began — Chuck D nailed it — as news from the streets. Rap riffed ghetto life, syncopated in hard rhymes and dense metaphor the raw reality of the ghetto. In Ronald Reagan’s America, blacks in the ghettos from Harlem to Bed Stuy to South Central formed what George Bataille called the heterogeneous element of society — or the unassimable byproduct of a culture, born of that culture, upon which the culture rests. In plain English, rap was the art of the dispossessed, and as the art of the dispossessed, it tells us the truth of the trickle-down economic era from the mouths of those who were held far beneath the place where the trickle dried up.

Rap began as a linguistic pissing contest — and it has been always more than news. It is also poetry, entertainment and resistance. As news, it is largely unwelcome. As poetry, it is mad rich and ripping angry. As entertainment, the joke is always right-on the money, and as resistance, it is unbeatable because, instead of setting the ghetto on fire, it creates from the ashes — the shit and the garbage — the nothing, going nowhere despair of the reviled and the forgotten.

Much has been made of rap then and rap now. Rap, the argument goes, has been mainstreamed, even atomized. In this process, it has lost its political edge and anger. At the same time, critics ask rappers to grow up, to mature, to stop singing about bitches and hoes. Unsurprisingly, these tendencies contradict each other — and instead of choosing between the two lines of thinking, we note that the paradoxical attitude is a way of still not knowing quite what to do with rap.

Consider two themes that still dominate rap — swagger (and all that comes with it) and brutality. Rap still deals in race and racism, and, I believe, its critical reception is still racist. Mainstream reviews tend to focus on the content (the lyrics) and to turn on the implied assumption that art is not the place for unapologetic black rage.

From the outset, critics railed against rap’s filthy fury. In 1990, 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be became the first album to be deemed legally obscene. Critics took issue with what they called “self-assertion” and “anger” and suggested that this music that “boiled up” from the streets should be sent back to from where it came, left to speak to itself. Defenders of rap quickly spat back — anger and self-assertion are not bad things. And the moral outrage directed at rap would be better fired at the institutions and attitudes that create the conditions of the ghetto in the first place. And there was praise, even pure admiration, for some of rap’s most talented musicians. A critic from Rolling Stone described Biggie Smalls’s gifts thus: “he paints a sonic picture so vibrant that you’re transported right to the scene.”

Both sides were right. Early rap (most of Biggie’s tunes, even) bragged about banging bitches and hoes — and if rape was not glorified, the question of consent seemed irrelevant next to the pleasure celebrated. But the vivid beat hypnotized.

Two things matter here. First, rap is not more misogynistic than a lot of rock and roll. Before you protest, go back and listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” — remember she is 15, the issue of consent is neither here nor there, and the pleasure is lauded and flaunted — all to a beat that we move with, that we dig. Second, as Jay Z observed, rap has been a young man’s game and the challenge now is to mature it, to fit the music and the lyrics to life after 40. I believe rappers have done that — but they still sound angry and we don’t know how to square the anger with the maturity. Maturity later in another post, for now we turn to rap as art.

Rap is art and art qua does not reduce to the reality it represents. The assertion that “rap music is rape music” should be denied thus: rap is music; it is sounds and words; it is not and cannot be rape. Even if rappers freestyle about rape, they are not raping. Once we lose this distinction, we extinguish art, lock up fantasy and kill the imagination. The irony cannot be overstated — we have guys from the streets who could have turned to real rape, drugs, dealing (and yes, some dealt and do plenty of drugs) — guys that could have gone criminal, becoming real gangstas and instead they used their vicious and fertile imaginations to crawl out from under the desert dry thug life.

The criticism of an affectation becomes a stand-in for thinking through the complicated reality presented in the music and how that reality relates to the music. Do critics really want to dictate musical content? Are there places art should not go? And when rappers fantasize about their sexual prowess and insatiable women, remember early rap is the fantasy of the powerless, and even when the musicians blew up, they carry the legacy of the ghetto in their bones and in their rhymes. Is the criticism “grow up” a real response or a gross oversimplification?

And consider real maturation: note something about the rap world that has not been noted. In less than one generation rap went from being a murderous game to a genre of music. This is an incredible shift — in response to the turf wars that killed Biggie and Tupac, Sean Combs responded by saying into a microphone for the world to hear, there is enough room for everyone. The killing stopped — to refuse to return like with like is the hallmark of (much more than) maturity. It’s a model for change (I hesitate to use the word revolution) — a model for the creation of something truly new.

This article was originally published in DeliberatelyConsidered.com.

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Lisa Aslanian

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