Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why I Like Gangsta Rap (Shout-out to Lil Wayne), Pt. 1

It's true that the gangsta/avant-garde dichotomy in rap reflects competing, sometimes mutually-exclusive visions for what the art should be. Pleasant cross-pollination occurs once in a while, but generally, these are two separate, stable genetic templates (my brother and I used to look at Mike Ladd's Infesticons album as some kind of personal manifesto-- the Infesticons' Gun Hill Road was a concept album that pitted the backpacking proletariat against the glambots of bourgeois rap).

It's rare, but some people can appreciate both the underground and mainstream versions of hip-hop. I personally was not always one of those people. I used to hate on club/gangsta rap with the best of the disaffected navelgazer-shoegazer-Marxist-Existentialist literary hip-hop consumers. But then I got burned-out trying to keep up with all the URB-darlings sometime around early 2004; besides, I was starting to attain more material success in life.

I like gangsta emcees because they are HARD (I remember a guy I talked to at the Seminar once back in the day-- "Drum & Bass is the music that people who like Heavy Metal and Rap also like." And by rap, I think he was talking about gangster music). The dark, aggressive, negative power of gangsta can never be matched by any gloomy emo-rap, and is seldom matched even by the most-post sci-fi psychedelic rap of Def Jux or Kool Keith or Jedi Mind Tricks. All that dark, cold energy is exhilerating. To make an analogy that destroys my gangsta credibility, if the prime requisite of underground hip-hop is Intelligence, the prime requisite for gangsta rap is Charisma... A good commercial rapper has to be able to convincingly describe how he'd shoot you in the back without a second's thought. What's more, if you bother to buy the mixtapes, you will learn that a lot of our inner city warlords have serious freestyle abilities.

Appreciating pop music is something of a lost art among today's youth. And here is the secret, which took me years to figure out: use your imagination! People like Britney Spears and Phil Spector are just-as or more fucked-up than your favorite overdose-prone artistically-legit rockstar. Enjoy the insanity!

Personally, I like to take gangsta rap literally. I think that's another secret to appreciating it. Underground rap is too literal sometimes. Like when they talk about slave ships orbiting Orion-7, they are really talking about a science-fiction plane of existence where alien life-form smugglers ply the space lanes. This story about a future world then serves as an allegory for some present-day conundrum. Now that is cool, 'cause I like that crazy shit. But sometimes, even creative street prophets fall into a formula and the "text" begins to look like a cheap space-opera serial on the shelf at the airport.

Then, I turn to some gangsta rap. See, they say really crazy shit because everyone knows that when they say something, it is a metaphor, not an actual literal description of a future place. This can be beneficial to the imaginative listener.

For example, I listen to the shit like it is describing some awesome post-apocalyptic urban sprawl that looks like a cross between Burning Man and Blade Runner. When Lil Kim says something about a ho' clothes flying off so fast it's like telekineses, I imagine that she is some mutant who actually is using telekinesis. When a guy talks about being so rich that he is covered in ice, I imagine a water-deprived Mad Max wasteland and this guy is the local gun-happy tyrant who controls the oasis, and is SO FUCKIN RICH AND DECADENT that he can actually afford to sit back with a blunt in a bathtub filled with cold water and ice cubes...

To be Continued.

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