I for one am thankful for hip-hop even though I would not call myself a huge fan. I'm thankful that it somehow managed to make some imaginative yet commercially viable music, that it talks frankly about violence and sex and is a voice of the disenfranchised and serves, like every disenfranchised voice, as a model for cool for a bunch of hopelessly uncool white kids. Plenty of folks see it as the harbinger of cultural collapse; I say it's made everything better - it's even made its opponents work that much harder.
Hip-hop's thorns have dulled over time, however, and the mainstream of it has had to resort to mimicking the business behind it just to stay afloat, with talk of presidencies and retiring and comebacks all with the span of a year. Diminishing returns like everything, and hip-hop, once an open vista of possibility - beats could be made of anything - has descended into recidivism on the participants and lowered expectations on its audience, and the paths ahead are few and far between.
Sole and the Skyrider Band
Sole and the Skyrider Band
One possible strategy is that of the underground, where a group of big thinkers strive to push the only current music that matters back onto the tracks; Sole is one of those dudes. He co-formed the Anticon label where he and a number of cohorts with forced nicknames have found some middle ground between hip-hop and indie rock. I'm on the fence about this stuff - maybe the nicknames throw me off. Hip-hop nicknames are all about superhero identities, blowing oneself up past the boundaries of who society says you are, and while I'm not so naïve to think there aren't disenfranchised white folks, it ain't the same.
The skillz-oriented patois of underground hip-hop poses its own problems. I've seen a number of shows of Sole's cohorts, and I'm left feeling they have a remarkably dexterous flow, but nothing is coming through - and in that they are missing the point. Hip-hop has soul flow when it works, and the Anticon rappers can run the drills like track champions, but after a while its like listening to rap practice. Sole tempers this by not sounding like he's competing, but that he has a lot that needs to erupt from him on his collaboration with electronica artist Skyrider. On the opening salvo "A Sad Day for Investors", he bellows like Abbie Hoffman through a megaphone over a ratty riff and din of overblown drums, and it works. Sole blends his trapeze artist rhymes and a dense slick beat array with rockish elements throughout the disc, like all the radio stations tuned in at once
The great moment comes in on the acoustically anchored "A Hundred Years and Running" as he jabbers over a somber atmosphere of screeching strings like a Prague speed freak running from street fiddlers. Hundred light years and running, how you feel when your meteor is crashing? Emerges from the barrage of words, as does ...or is it an echo, is it an echo? It is an echo, an aftershock of a tremor felt by a kid who was shaken by angry black men rhyming for their lives. This track alone is worth the price of admission. "Sounds of Head on Concrete" and "Magnum" repeat some of the same structure with less nakedness, more swagger, but I get lost in the swirl of sadness in the miasmic production and Sole's relentless desperate pant. Sole has a lot to say, and segments that escape from the black hole hit like little hammers, but I had the same problem with hardcore as a teenager - without a lyric sheet, it was just a blur of words.
So if the buskers can't save us, how about the hustlers? Lupe Fiasco enjoys great recognition as the top protégé of master hustler Kanye West, and on The Cool, he gains back some of the ground Kan lost with the Christian Dior epiphanies of Graduation. "Go Go Gadget Flow" bears some comparison to the underground hip-hop here as he attempts to exceed the words-per-second barrier with dizzying agility. I can't catch my breath as he jumps from a raisin in the sun to rage against the machine but then I'm pretty slow.
"The Coolest" puts his boasts into a stuttering lyrical swang like that of his teacher, and "Superstar" is pop genius at work - a slow uplifting groove with Matthew Santos serving as his Chris Martin crooner, "Paris, Tokyo" is the kind of player groove that made OutKast's Aquemini sound so good a decade ago, and A Tribe Called Quest nearly another decade before it. All this sounds great, and his hip-hop revisionism comes too a head on his collaboration G-funk powerhouse "Hi-definition" featuring Snoop and Pooh Bear. This song is great, checking all the obvious boxes, but somehow in the way it's all arranged, it presents an incremental step forward. It sounds new, and that's what I want.
"Gold Watch" is another real lurch forward, with its fractured beat, and slurry of braggadocio. It taps into the neo soul of D'Angelo and Erikah Badu without falling into those artists particular traps. He mines the same radio friendly territory on "Hip-hop saved My Life" and "Intruder Alert" without the success of "Gold Watch" and in fact much of the album blurs into background music with the exception of "Streets on Fire" a brave indictment of the brazen, arrogant ignorance on all parties about AIDS. It is startling in this age that a track like this is necessary, but it is.
What Lupe Fiasco offers is a commercial model for being socially relevant, whereas Sole operates on a poetry plan usurping the commercial models for structure and running off with it. I don't know that either of them are changing the course of the Titanic enough to steer it from the icebergs, but unlike just about every other form of popular entertainment, they are at least tugging at the wheel. And that's something.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com