Review Wrap Up: On Rap (and art, and judging it, and...)

I've decided not to complete an entire review of every song on Kanye West's new album. First, I've already set up a bad precedent. There are other albums I care more about, that I think demonstrate more artistic talent, or have more lasting appeal. The Fugees The Score is one of those albums.  So are I Say, I Say, I Say by Erasure, Release the Stars from Rufus Wainwright, Depeche Mode's Exciter, and 2Pac Shakur's All Eyez On Me (all of these come from the last two decades, demonstrating my own limitations in taste and perspective).

When people ask me about hip hop, they usually want to know, "What's it about? What's the rapper saying? What do the words mean?" And I can often point to some meaningful lines here and there.  For example...

I don't care what your musical taste is.  You will appreciate this:

Yo, there's a war in the mind, over territory
For the dominion
Who would dominate the opinion
Skisms and isms, keepin' us in forms of religion
Conformin' our vision
To the world church's decision
Trapped in a section
Submitted to committee election
Moral infection
Epedemic lies and deception
Of the highest possible order
Destortin' our tape recorders
From hearin' like underwater
Beyond the borders
Fond of sin and disorder
Bound by the strategy
Of systematic depravity
Heavy as gravity
Head first in the cavity
Without a bottom
A fate worse than Sodom
What's got him drunk off the spirits?
Truth comes, we can't hear it
When you've been, programmed to fear it
I had a vision
I was fallin' in indescision
Apallin', callin' religion
Some program on television
How can dominant wisdom
Be recognizing the system
Of Anti-Christs, the majority rules,
Intelligent fools
PhD's in illusion
Masters of mass confusion
Bachelors in past illusion
Now who you choosin'?
The head or the tail?
The bloodshed of the male?
More confidence in the tale?
Conferences in Yale
Discussin' documents of Baal
Causin' people to fail
Keepin' a third in jail
His word is nailed
Everything to the tree
Severing all of me from all that I used to be.
But it is rare for rap lyrics to remain so consistently poignant and targeted. Even Lauryn Hill herself admits in another song, "so I add a motherfucker so you ignorant n*ggas hear me!" So-called "socially conscious" rappers like Nas, Common and Talib Kweli decry social injustice, misogyny and abuse of women, violence, and materialism in one verse, but are prone to turn around in even the same track and commit identical sins. No rapper is more guilty of this than Kanye West in "Diamonds of Sierra Leone." He was widely lauded several years ago for bringing worldwide attention to the blood diamond trade, in the first verse of the song: "I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless, till I seen a picture of a shorty armless, and here's the conflict..." But the second verse undermines any positive affect: 
People askin'me is I'ma give my chain back?
That'll be the same day I give the game back.
Translation: "I'm keeping my Jesus-piece, armless children or not."  Nice, Kanye.  

 But my argument, cruel, heartless and insensitive as it may sound, is not that these questions are unimportant, but that they are not central to what hip hop is musically -- genetically. What's often misunderstood in the craft of rap, as much as in the enjoyment of rap, is that the words themselves function as lyrical instruments. Rappers use rhyme, alliteration, dissonance, repetition and tempo to build sounds, not just to tell stories. Too often, listeners try to find meaning in the words, and miss the music ("forest for the trees..."). It's like trying to identify the color palette in a painting without noticing the actual painting. 

 The other consistent feature of rap music, from its beginning, is its own self-celebration: rappers celebrate rap. They celebrate their own craft and artistry. They point to the thing they are doing. They differentiate themselves from others. They self-aggrandize, posture, and brag... but "celebration" is the most generous way of describing it. It's an aggressive medium, to be sure sure, but it's one that demands to be noticed. It has a cultural chip on its shoulder - expression of the oppressed. 

When art conveys something offensive, I think we should be brave enough and honest enough to name that and speak up. But it's important to recognize what is actually being said:

When Kanye West raps about his sexual exploits with easy women, we need to be specific about what needs critique. He would be wrong to use his power, fame and platform to manipulate and exploit his female fans. He is certainly wrong for speaking about them so disrespectfully. He is also wrong for allowing his celebrity-based sexual experiences to impact his respect for, and treatment of women in general. Is he a bad person for sleeping with lots of fans?  As a Christian I say he's practicing destructive, unhealthy behavior, but that's not behavior I find worth decrying an artist for.  Should we protest him rapping about the fact that he has lots of sex? Not necessarily. While it's not classy, I'm not sure that's inherently oppressive.

We need to be clear about what we're protesting. 

 When Andres Serrano took a photo of a crucifix in a jar of his urine ("Piss Christ") he obviously stirred the pot and earned all sorts of international Christian hatred. But what exactly was he doing? Serrano himself was coy about his intentions, but a nun came forward in the midst of the controversy in the 1990s to argue that it was not blasphemy, but a poignant commentary on what we (contemporary society and religion) have done to Christ.  So what's left to protest there, unless one thinks society has been respectful and pious toward the image and character of Christ?

I'm not naive, but I believe that art tells us something.  Sometimes it tells us a specific story.  Sometimes it is very intangible -- more a story about us, and our own responses than about the piece itself (plenty of artists will tell you that their art "isn't about anything" and that's legitimate, but impact is unavoidable).  It's probably not healthy to dwell on negative, caustic, hostile expressions of art.  I don't spend as much time listening to the angry music I once listened to, but it still plays an important role in shaping my worldview.  As disappointing as Kanye West's misogyny is, he provides a great reminder -- cautionary for us all -- of how far we have to go before we live in an equalized society.

2Pac Shakur once said, "They didn’t even want to stop the Vietnam War until people saw the pictures of how horrible it really was. So I said to myself, that’s what I’m gonna do with my lyrics: I’m going to paint a picture of the horrible aspects of life, and maybe then they will try to stop it."

Pop art today is showing us a lot of reality that needs to be stopped.  Somehow, in a beautiful, dark, twisted, ironic way, the most powerful art is telling us those hard stories in ways that are perversely beautiful and disturbingly compelling.


David Golden said...

Thanks for the effort. You have actually inspired me to learn more about rap. The Lauryn Hill is riveting, and although I've heard her name before I can't say I've ever listened to any of her songs. It makes me wonder what else is out there. Also, I listened to some of the Kanye on youtube, and I really can enjoy the multi-layered production, the sonic tapestry that he creates on each song. And I enjoy artists who draw together elements from diverse sources, although in this case I need someone to point out exactly what those diverse sources are (Bon Iver was another interesting find, and I assume an unusual choice for a rap artist). One thing you said that got me thinking was that you have become numb to the sexual references (not your exact words). I think a certain numbness is prerequisite for some artistic expression. Whether it's an admirable quality for life is another question. When you're 10 years old and sneak in to see your first R-Rated movie, that free use of obscenity or first nude scene become what the movie is about. As you see more movies and "numb yourself" to that expression, then you can appreciate other more worthy points about the movie. But at some point everyone draws a line beyond which they don't want to be numbed. Two people who have drawn the line in different places will have trouble having a dialogue about the art in question.

Peter J Walker said...

David, really thoughtful stuff. I think you're right to consider the healthiness and value of numbing oneself to sexual expression, obscenity, or anything else. And as you acknowledge, there is some necessity to appreciate almost any level of expression without being "shocked," but how much is too much?

I think somewhere, in one of the last few posts, I said that I don't listen to as much of the angry gangster rap on a regular basis as I used to because I realized I it wasn't healthy. In Christianese, we use the word "edifying." It's still important, meaningful, artistically important and culturally prophetic music. I just can't take listening to it day-in and day-out. The same thing goes for sexually explicit material. I'm not easily offended, but I guess it's like eating raw sugar all day instead of real food, and not brushing one's teeth. Not healthy.

Still, thank God for a little sugar...

Glad you're exploring the genre a little more David. Cheers!

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