Try something for me. Spend thirty seconds thinking up as many subgenres of rock and roll as you can. Go ahead. I can wait.
Done? Good. How many did you get? I’m betting no fewer than ten. You’ll have to trust I’m being honest about this, but I’m going to automatic write as many as I can until I’m out: classic rock, rockabilly, punk, country, folk, alternative, ska, soft, hair, psychedelic, indie, pop rock, arena rock, art, riot grrrl, rap rock, metal, nu metal, death metal, black metal, dirge metal, heavy metal, and whatever the hell you want to call Tame Impala. Granted, a lot of these monikers announce distinctions not cost-effective: Van Halen and Guns’n’Roses both stretch their scuzzy appendages into three or four categories each to little or no platonist outrage. Besides, there’s reason enough for Axl Rose to keep you up at night; quibbling over where he belongs (other than far, far away) isn’t one of them.
Still, the infinite divisibility of rock and roll says almost all we need to know about what the four-piece means to Western culture: the variability of preference implicates class divides (let’s say soft rock vs.punk), racial sensitivities (George Jones branded country vs. et al), social acuities (anything vs metal) and education (“you need a masters degree to listen to the Modern Lovers” vs. say, Aerosmith). If you really want to squeeze the fun out of it, you could fashion an xy axis akin to this to prove the point. But why? Conclusions like mine are maybe a half-step beyond what’s intuitive.
Let me ask you guys a second question, then. Suppose that hip hop has supplanted rock and roll (because it has) as the dominant form of Western music at some point in the first thirty years of its traceable existence. Go ahead and list some of its subgenres. You have thirty seconds.
What’d you get? I’m betting less than five, even if you’re a real or self-fashioned critic of this stuff. What is there? Rap rock counts, probably. Gangsta, definitely. Go ahead and divide that into its East-West conferences. Southern rap, sure. Alt rap, that watery phrase coined by some idiot, signifying nothing. Art rap? Nah, black folks don’t read The Lord of the Rings, thankfully. Acid rap? Not yet really a category. Emo rich man rap? Yes, but only if we put Drake there by himself - like a time out with a pointed hat. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Brooklyn rap? Close, but codifying these distinctions by region or city creates a problem of content. For instance, the Atlanta scene produced OutKast, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx and TLC. And what the fuck kind of coalition is that?
Now, I would never suggest that conservative white lobbyists manipulating the recording industry, media coverage and Congress have deliberately painted terms such as ‘hip-hop’ and ‘rap’ in broad strokes to prevent black artists of any moral constitution from escaping the gravity of the fearful black planet - the one of guns, incarceration, drugs and single parenthood. Never. Because no one actually believes that Kanye West, the son of an English professor and formerly of a firm member of America’s educated middle class, is actually some kind of thug, right? …right?
Nor am I willing to accept that rap is simply too young a genre to warrant more nuanced descriptions. Like I said, hip hop is at least thirty years old.
So what gives? I have no idea. My knowledge base isn’t comprehensive enough for a guess. So unless other critics or artists come up with terms we can retrofit on movements past, I’d prefer to head forward with modest aims. In my view, the first (and right now best, maybe only) way to divide rap music in 2014 is to borrow from rockcrit’s hi-fi/lo-fi war from the 90s. Updating a little, let’s rename them high-fi and flo-fi, eh?
With this, we avoid meaningless and inconsistent categories (Atlanta rap), as well as categories of just one or two acts (superhero rap, Oedipal homophile sleeping pill rage rap). We’re catching everyone. Lil Wayne, for instance, trafficks in both: his immaculately mixed studio records represent pretty much the commercial and cultural high-fi creme of the 00s; meanwhile, his usually-better mix tape fuck arounds are the standard of contemporary flo-fi.
Money’s probably the mediating factor in this arrangement - it pays for who exactly mixes beats and samples, and how exactly that production comes off. This isn’t to suggest that the most elaborately (read: expensively) conceived records - let’s say Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Watch the Throne and especially good kid, m.a.a.d. city - are necessarily better than lo budget hack jobs. Acid Rap is better than all of them. So is nostalgia, ULTRA - which is technically R&B, but I’m the only one around here making useful divisions so fuck you.
That said, flo-fi’s got a problem - sort of a tempting risk - that lo-fi rock sorta got around just as a matter of course: pretense. Yes, Archers of Loaf and Pavement and the legion of imitators that followed all sounded (almost always self-consciously) like shit; but it was shit floating in a stew of pretty melody and undeniable riffs (sorry). Eric Bachmann and Stephen Malkmus were allowed to - actually, supposed to - act bored: their singing is little short of a civil disobedience against decades of vapid corporate rock (oh, hey, another subgenre) and AOR (one more!). Really - if neither had generational songwriting chops, both bands would’ve come off sounding like… uh… Ween. And who wants more of that?
I’m not convinced rap is permitted to work in the same way. Not when DJ and MC are almost assuredly two different people. This is the problem I have with the two guys who were formerly 2/3rds of Das Racist: Kool AD and Heems. Hundreds of tracks between them that fizz, crackle and shift into impossible combinations of culture and energy: and these two thank their squadron of a production team (diplo, El-P, Dash Speaks, Francis and the Lights, Jay Casio, DJA, Mike Finito, Harry Fraud, LE1F to name a few among dozens) with what I can only justify as postmodern lethargy.
I recognize that these two Wesleyen liberal arts majors are smart enough to take on hip hop’s monolith of unwholesome cliches (and in truth they do): materialism, the objectification of wymen, political disengagement, racial intransigence, etc. But acting all high and lazy about your project can only be endearing for so long: long enough maybe to eat some Taco Bell.
But, instead, the malaise is Das Racist’s singular trope: their sparkling major label debut, a document with some of the finest and most intricate beats I’ve ever heard, they titled Relax. It’s what they do and what they want you to do. “Ignore the beats, man. Chill. Let’s walk to get some pizza, yo. On the way there, I’ll pretend to be all dumb and confused like I wasn’t an investment banker before I started, uh, rapping. Oh, did I show you my Coming to America promo t shirt I got at Goodwill? I like it because it’s huge and has a hole in it, and when I wear it you can’t tell I’m talented. Haha, dude. Just, like, relax.”
Admittedly, I am predisposed to hate these guys. When I fell in line with the 80% of Dartmouth students who rushed Greek, I felt pure and vindicated in picking the hipster frat - a middle class looking place full of English and Philosophy majors with clove cigs and, like, irony… man. Doesn’t take too many terms to realize just how many (which is to say: many) were trust fund Tommys who only had to cut their hair and start snorting blow in private before they walked up to Wall St. Mix in some I’m-dumb-but-not-really-cuz-I’m-pretending-and-rich-hehe, and you’ve got a house full of 75 Himanshus.
And that’s the worst part: Kool AD displays in his new mix tape, NOT O.K., some dazzling flow - top tier emcee skills. Yet, his overriding aesthetic obfuscates all of it. Dude just doesn’t want to rap.
Example: Toro Y Moi cooks up an astonishing fusion of creepy and driven with “Fettucini;” AD responds in kind with some lines that’ll turn your stomach. Except… you get the feeling he doesn’t want to be there. It’s like he’s not hungry or something. Instead of the exhilarating track it’s designed to be, it remains tasteless.
In case you think I’m reaching, let the man tell you this stuff himself. A few quotes lifted from Not O.K.:
“Fuck one liners, I do no liners.”
“I was gonna write a hook, but i don’t feel like it.”
“People like “Kool how you blessed with the best flow?”
I be like “‘blessed with the best flow’?”
They be like “pssfch, you know what I mean”
I be like “I guess so” I guess I’m just lucky, I guess yo”
The only real winner on Not O.K. is “Pass the Milk,” a Why? homage better than any Why? song I’ve heard. It’s loaded with references (“noticeably negro”) and clever self-reference (“condense a rap song into a question, then mutter it” - like Why?, get it?). But, note he’s at his best when he’s imitating someone else - a lesser artist, sure, but one who cares.
I had a great closing paragraph in mind, but fuck it. I’ll write it tomorrow.