Friday, October 28, 2005

Critical Essay 5 – Critical Commentary, Kanye West, "Diamonds are Forever", Late Registration

The signature track from his sophomore release Late Registration, "Diamonds are Forever" is typical Kanye West. That is to say a fascinating mix of stereotypical hip-hop braggadocio and daringly innovative vulnerability. Even on his first album, when one could reasonably expect Kanye to be flushed with success and cash, buying up everything without a second thought, the rapper bravely highlighted the lack of self-esteem and overdose of vanity that drives the fashion of hip-hop culture. In "All Falls Down", for example, West offers up a fascinating and lucid description of the situation, so clear that it needs no exegesis:

Man I promise, I'm so self conscious,
That's why you always see me with at least one of my watches.
Rollies and Porsches done drove me crazy;
I can't even pronounce nothing, pass that Versace!
Then I spent 400 bucks on this
Just to be like ‘nigga you ain't up on this’!
And I can't even go to the grocery store
Without some Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team.
It seems we living the American Dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem.
The prettiest people do the ugliest things,
For the road to riches and diamond rings.
We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us;
We trying to buy back our 40 acres.
And for that paper, look how low we a'stoop;
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.

West is conflicted about his subscription to the black ‘bling’ aesthetic, succumbing to peer pressure but painfully aware that he is doing so. Here, he accomplishes the usual hip-hop boasting about his possessions and cash, dropping fashionable brand names and casually slipping in a tidy figure as if it were nothing: he is proving that he has the ability to go out and "spend 400 bucks on this, Just to" beat the next man; but not in the time-honoured, unironic hip-hop ‘flossing’ style. Instead, he undermines his own flashiness by highlighting its motivation: he has not only the ability, but crucially, the need to spend 400 dollars to feel better than someone else. He extends his own inferiority complex to the wider hip-hop, even black aesthetic, suggesting that black people’s collective feelings of low self-worth, inherited from their forefathers and heightened by their poverty, is the driving force behind the need for high-impact personal possessions and the crime that so often accompanies their purchase. The last four lines contain all of this in a neat and memorable formula, using an ingenious play on words to underline the dichotomy between impressive personal effects and low self-esteem: "Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe". "Coupe", as in a Bentley (Benz) Coupé, can also be heard as "coop", the pen on which black slaves were kept on the plantations. The black man driving his flashy coupé has bought it to try and escape his ‘coop’, his lack of self-worth; but in buying it for this reason, has only sealed himself tighter inside it.

Not only does this early passage point out Kanye’s consciousness of the ‘compensation theory’ behind conspicuous hip-hop consumption, but also his knowledge of the criminal effects of it. Not only is the race for money and possessions damaging the black community mentally, but also physically: "The prettiest people do the ugliest things… And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop". This is clear reference to the pimps and players who push both the hip-hop aesthetic and the community-destroying crime that earns the money to support it. Later in the song, he underlines the dirty provenance of the money that keeps dealers looking fly:

Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain't even gon’ act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I'd do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz

The sentence has a memorable and clear rhetorical balance. "Jordans", the expensive Michael Jordan endorsed basketball shoes, are alliteratively linked by their /d/ sound to the ‘drug dealer’, whilst the repetition of the monosyllable ‘crack’ links this product to its unfortunate consumer. The contrast is made clear by the identical syntax, subject-object-verb, whilst the parataxis of these two phrases, linked by nothing more than a comma, forces a stark comparison between them. This ruthlessly clear appraisal of the situation leads logically into the next line, which, whilst true, begins immediately to sound like woolly ‘socially responsible rap’, or even ranting, five-percenter, anti-"white devils" sentiment. Yet Kanye brings it back here, underlining the fascinating irony of his music: "But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou". Kanye, as this song has shown, is himself conflicted; worried about his need for money and possessions and the effects of this mentality, but unable to resist it nonetheless.

The fascination with West’s music comes from its intentional paradoxes and confusions. Since Kanye is himself in two minds about hip-hop consumption and its morality, he gives the two sides voice in his music. He can’t make up his mind, and neither should the listener be allowed to. Like the best writers, West ironically undermines his own points of view, points out to the listener his own internal conflicts and hypocrisy. Instead of pretending to be decided on the matter, or trying to decide us, West presents us with the paradox and its evidence, and lets us understand the complex issues behind his theme. Here, for example, after pointing out how consumerism takes from the black community to put yet more money into the hands of the white, he points out his own need for bling to the profit of the white man: "I went to Jacob with 25 thou… I’d do it again." He is no "holier than thou" preacher, just another black guy who wants to ride round the city "pushing a Benz"; the difference is that he has realised the damage that comes with it. Kanye is like a smoker who has seen video footage of someone dying from lung-cancer, but still cannot find it in him to give up.

And indeed smoking is used in West’s "Diamonds are Forever" as a symbol for this lack of self-control. At the end of the first verse, he proclaims: "I drink, I smoke, I’m s’posed to stop, I can’t because… Diamonds are forever…". The Shirley Bassey sample acts as an ironic vector through which to view diamonds as a symbol: for the purposes of West’s second album, diamonds come to be a shorthand for the whole internal conflict outlined in the earlier "All Falls Down". Diamonds are the most venerated form of ‘flossing’, the real status-marker in a milieu filled with wannabes who can just about afford the Crystal champagne, Air Force One trainers and Versace outfits that form the basics of hip-hop fashion. Referenced throughout hip-hop as ‘ice’, jewels are the Number One, their shine giving rise to the somehow-onomatopoeic term ‘bling’ that encompasses the whole aesthetic; as such, diamonds make a suitable shorthand for the all the problems and conflicts that go with it.

Essentially, we are dealing with addiction here. West sees himself as a hopeless addict, unable to control urges which he knows to be damaging, hence his link between purchasing diamonds and smoking cigarettes. There’s even a track on the album called "Addiction" to underline his oh-so-human problem:

Why everything that's 'sposed to be bad, make me feel so good?
Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would
Man I tried to stop man, I tried the best I could, but (You make me smile)
What's your addiction? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed?
I've been afflicted, by not one, not two, but all three.

Once again proof that West is indeed no "holier than thou" preacher, "Addiction" shares the concerns expressed in "Diamonds are Forever". The use of the ear-catching Bassey sample here underlines the seductive nature of addictions, and foregrounds ‘diamonds’ as a catch-all symbol for them. Addictions are addictive precisely because they are pleasurable, however aware of their problematics we may become; they are ‘forever’.

By having not one, but two, versions of the track on his album, West is clearly underlining this issue. The two tracks function not only to foreground the theme of damaging-but-irresistible addictions, but also offer two different takes on it. And just as within the songs themselves Kanye offers up both sides of the story, leaving his listeners as confused but aware as him, the two songs also put each other into relief, functioning as a pair to alert listeners to contrasts and paradoxes.

The first version one hears on Late Registration is the remix with Jay-Z1, followed by the original Kanye solo2. Both speak of the addiction-awareness dichotomy, deconstructing the continuing need for diamonds (and, by the aforementioned symbolic extension, alcohol, cigarettes, women) despite knowledge of their horrific consequences. Yet whilst the original version relies on Kanye alone to undermine himself, the remix, by introducing another point of view, doubles up the contrast, further taking apart the hip-hop aesthetic.

So how does West use diamonds to show up the paradox outlined above? In the original, solo track, West’s focus is on his own success. From this basis, he lets off the normal boasting and preening, explaining his rise to the top and re-iterating his genius. He then, in trademark West style, undermines his own braggadocio in just a few lines, ironising his own conceit. As a simple hip-hop brag, the track contains some priceless gems of self-praise: after all, boasting in hip-hop is only respected if it backed up with, and accomplished in, good style.

He write his own rhymes? Sort of, I think 'em;
That mean I forgot better shit than you ever thought of.
I remember I couldn't afford a Ford Escort
Or even a four-track recorder,
So its only right that I let the top drop on a drop-top Porsche,

Responding to questions about his ability to write rhymes, West hilariously affirms his skills, pointing out that even his ad libs are so good that what he decides not to spit still beats other rappers. Then, in the ingenious three-line combo, he takes us from his poor past to his rich present, boasting simplistically about his car but in an undeniably complex way. The lines flow thanks to heavily assonant, technically accomplished rhyming structure, with a set of sounds based around /er/ and /or/: "I remember I couldn’t afford a Ford Escort Or even a four track recorder, So it’s only right that I let the top drop on a drop-top Porsche". The similarity of this set of sounds binds together the lines, and creates a tight link between the Ford Escort, symbol of Kanye’s former poverty, and the Porsche, hallmark of his current, self-created wealth.

Other examples of West’s accomplished boasting abound, for example, at the end of the track:

People askin' me is I gon' give my chain back;
That'll be the same day I give the game back.
You know the next question y’all yo, where Dame at?
He's tracked the Indian dance to bring our rain back.

Once again showing off his skill with poetic devices, Kanye boasts in a tightly structured quadruple-double rhyme: that is to say that the last two syllables of a whole quartet rhyme with each other, based on the assonance of /a/ and /eı/. An impressive technical feat, this comes accompanied by a clever play on words, with ‘rain’ working both as a metaphor for good fortune (the idea is that of an primitive ‘rain-dance’, in societies where deities are worshipped in order to bring weather suitable for growing crops, and thus good fortune and success) and as a homonym for ‘reign’, with the obvious implication of Kanye as King. All this with a self-assured swagger in the second line, where Kanye casually drops the idea that he actually controls hip-hop; to ‘give the game back’, he has to have in his hands in the first place.

Yet this comes interspersed with trademark self-consciousness. The opening lines may well boast of West’s "Yves Saint Laurent glasses", with the full length of the designer name being hammered in by careful timing with the beat, but by making an allusion to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", offers a hint of disturbing reality to the "magic" of success. At the end of the verse, after the glasses, cars and strippers of success have been trotted out, a desperate tone creeps in to introduce the idea of addiction: "I smoke, I drink, I'm supposed to stop, I can't, because…" The sudden speed of the line (at least eleven syllables compared to nine on the previous) matches the idea of uncontrollable addiction, encompassed by the diamonds which follow. The second verse contains such self-flagellatory moments as well, when, for example, West points out his own insecurity regarding money: "The international asshole, Who complain about what he is owed". The self-congratulation comes always accompanied by self-questioning.

Of course, the version of the track we have already heard earlier in the album has already enlarged our concepts of diamonds as a symbol. Using the same beat and a longer Bassey sample, the track develops the ideas of insecurity and its negative consequences, but also introduces a new dynamic. Just as in "All Falls Down", where West points out not only the mental problems that come from obsessive fixation with possessions, but its criminal consequences too, "Diamonds are Forever (remix)" highlights the catastrophic physical results of conspicuous consumption. Diamonds are shown to be a suitable symbol for black people’s obsession with flashy goods not only because they are psychologically damaging, but because their purchase is inextricably linked to crime and causes harm to the black community. And despite this, just like the consumer goods that people "buy to cover up what’s inside" ("All Falls Down"), diamonds are addictive.

The remix of the song shows this in two ways. Firstly, Kanye confesses his own unbeatable addiction to diamonds whilst explaining their horrific consequences, showing his own internal conflict in the ways outlined above. Secondly, by having Jay-Z drop a stereotypical hip-hop boasting, diamond-worshipping verse without a trace of self-irony or concern, West flags up the damaging nature of the addiction. Jay-Z’s unthinking love for diamonds acts in relief against Kanye’s self-consciousness: although West is unable to resist diamonds even when he knows of their bloody traces, Jay-Z is used to show how most of the ‘bling’ obsessed black community don’t even give it a second thought.

This is one of the first ever hip-hop tracks to really focus on the damage the diamond trade does in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to link it into fashion-consumption in the U.S.. Kanye’s opening verse leaves us in no doubt as to this physical damage caused by the diamond addiction, alluding to the gory film "Good Morning Vietnam" to immediately call up images of the savage warfare provoked by the trade. Throughout the rest of his verse, West develops this visual aspect, repeating the motif of missing limbs ("People loose arms… Picture of a shorty armless") to ram home the horror. He stays on the visual level to contrast these blood-soaked images with the idealised fashion image of diamonds: "On a polo rugby it look so right, How can something so wrong make me feel so right?". This is, of course, a return to the general addiction question, a rephrasing of "Addiction"’s refrain "Why everything that s’posed to bad make me feel so good?".

Though it's thousands of miles away,
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today.
Over here it's a drug trade, we die from drugs;
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs.

To make horribly clear the negative effect of consumer habits on the black community, West uses the same technique as in the earlier "All Falls Down", balancing his sentence and repeating its elements to make it seem rhetorically logical. The contrastive ‘here’ and ‘there’ juxtapose the two black communities, whilst the simplistic but insistent repetitions of "drugs" and "die" leave the listener in no doubt as to the link between them.

The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses,
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless

Here, West describes the moment of realisation; the first time he made the link between diamonds and dying children. Having fallen for the time-honoured ‘beautiful-means-good’ illusion, pictorial evidence has forced him to see that the bad can also give rise to the beautiful. And just like anybody with an environmental conscience looking at a cheap flight on the internet, Kanye is now unable to ignore the knowledge that the product on offer comes at a great cost.

And here's the conflict:
It's in a black person’s soul to rock that gold,
Spend your while life tryin' to get that ice;
On a Polo rugby it look so nice,
How can something so wrong make me feel so right?

Yet as we are dealing with internal ‘conflicts’ with addiction, West points out that knowledge of the negative side of an addictive product does not inhibit its consumption. Artfully hinting at the complex web of inferiority complexes and fashion aesthetics that compel black people towards the bling look, West is playing a complex linguistic game to unsettle his listener and show his own confusion. The idea that the love of diamonds is deeply ingrained in the black man’s "soul" is a controversial and unsubstantiatable piece of essentialism, and has clear logical parallels with other such damaging arguments à la ‘The black man is always…’; yet West cannot bring himself to explicitly ironise and thus dispense with this claim, because he too feels a compelling need for "ice", whether it forms part of his "soul" or not. By using the words "that gold" and "that ice", West is using typical black speech patterns (which tend towards a higher incidence of the demonstrative adjective ‘that’), which, even amongst his ghetto vernacular ("Jesus piece", "shorty") sound conspicuously clichéed. He is using the heteroglossiac ‘that…’ formula to at once identify himself with these black preconceptions and obsessions around ‘that ice’, but also to point out that these same have not gone unnoticed by him. It is an almost-hidden, and delicately poised act of intentionally confusing irony.

Does West really think black people are genetically or spiritually driven to diamonds any more than white people? Probably not; but he understands how people can end up thinking so. After all, he explains everywhere in his work how low self-esteem makes black people need consumer goods ("Single black female addicted to retail", "All Falls Down"), so surely this must serve to ironise and nuance this apparently essentialist, near-racist claim.

Right 'fore I beat myself up like Ike,
You can still throw your Roc-a-Fella diamond tonight
Because… (Diamonds are Forever)

The shroud of irony continues here, once again showing West’s conflicted, hopelessly addicted, but self-aware stance. Deciding to ease up on himself and give his conscience some time off, West lets his listeners off the hook too, encouraging them to wave their diamonds in the air before leading directly into the Bassey chorus. He leaves her silky vocals to do the work, as they dress up diamonds in a siren-like seductiveness. Here, once again, they play the perfect symbol; Bassey’s voice sounds sexy yet dangerous, beautiful yet bad, just like diamonds and the addictions they represent. In his verse, West has given us explicit leave to interpret diamonds in this wider symbolic sense:

When I spit the diamonds in this song
I ain’t talkin' 'bout the ones that be glowin',
I'm talkin' 'bout Roc-a-Fella, my home,

Here, it is made clear that it’s not just the jewels "that be glowin’" that are part of the problem, but consumer goods in general: "my home".

After this verse of extreme self-consciousness and internal torture about his diamond habit, West hands over to Jay-Z, whose brash and boastful verse contains not a trace of such sentiment. Whether Jay-Z is conscious of his role in setting off Kanye’s attitude, in making clear his protégé’s point, no-one can say. He makes absolutely no acknowledgement of the theme of ‘blood diamonds’, and opts rather to boast about his own, and this seems almost tasteless. Either Jay-Z is an unknowing pawn in Kanye’s artistic game, being used to show the boorishness and immorality of unthinking consumerism, or he is consciously acting up to the role of boorish and immoral consumer to put Kanye’s point in relief. Either the way, the effect is the same. Jay-Z’s verse is technically brilliant, but contains little more than idle vaunting of his own capabilities and achievements.

The chain remains, the game is intact,
The name is mine, I'll take blame for that,
The pressure's on but guess who ain't gon' crack?
Haha, pardon me, I had to laugh at that,

These are very accomplished, but relatively vacuous lines. They are catchy, due mainly to their use of sound. Just like his protégé Kanye, Jay has a penchant for extended networks of assonance, here relying on /a/ in the final syllables of the line, whilst constructing an internal rhyme scheme based around /eı/ (chain, remain, game, name, blame), and this is dropped in exquisite timing with a complex beat and interesting sonic movement. Yet the only mention of diamonds here is the ‘chain’, which ‘remains’. Despite Kanye asking in his solo version if he’s going "to give (his) chain back" after finding out about its dirty provenance, Jay doesn’t give it a second thought. If Kanye is the conflicted environmentalist reluctantly booking an irresistibly cheap air ticket, then Jay is playing the ‘nuke-the-whales’, me-first consumer buying up half the plane.

There are these two levels of irony used in the song to make the listener think about the ‘diamond problematic’, the damaging consequences of addictions, be they mental or physical. Kanye first ironises his own inability to resist dirty goods, and by juxtaposition, ironises Jay-Z’s inability to even conceive of the consequences. Of course, as West must realise, the end result is the same; the diamonds get bought. Addictive goods are addictive, and so knowing about their negative side-effects is no defence from their power. This is what makes the choice of diamonds as a symbol for this so appealing, and what makes "diamonds are forever" the lyrically perfect formula to encapsulate the whole issue. After all, as long as humans have made records, people have been greedy, addicted and hypocritical: it goes with the territory of being human. The question is not whether one is a hypocrite, but rather whether one is conscious of this hypocrisy or not. And Kanye clearly is, like many before him. Like human weakness, diamonds too are forever.

Diamond dealer in New York
[Intro: Shirley Bassey sample]
Diamonds are forever
They are all I need to please me
They can't stimulate or tease me
They won't leave in the night
I’ve no fear that they might… desert me
[Hook: Kanye West] + (sample)
(Diamonds are forever, forever, forever)
Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe
(Diamonds are forever, forever, forever)
The Roc is still alive every time I rhyme
Forever ever? Forever ever? Ever ever? Ever ever? Ever ever? Ever ever? Ever ever?
[Verse 1: Kanye West]
Good morning, this ain't Vietnam, still
People lose hands, legs, arms, fo' real.
Little was known on Sierra Leone
And how it connect to the diamonds we own.
When I spit the diamonds in this song
I ain’t talkin' 'bout the ones that be glowin',
I'm talkin' 'bout Roc-a-Fella, my home,
My chain, this ain't conflict diamonds,
Is they Jacob? Don't lie to me, man.
See, a part of me sayin', "Keep shinin'"
How, when I know what a blood diamond 's?
Though it's thousands of miles away,
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today.
Over here it's a drug trade, we die from drugs;
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs.
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses,
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here's the conflict:
It's in a black person’s soul to rock that gold,
Spend your while life tryin' to get that ice;
On a Polo rugby it look so nice,
How can something so wrong make me feel so right?
Right 'fore I beat myself up like Ike,
You can still throw your Roc-a-Fella diamond tonight
[Verse 2: Kanye West]
People askin' me is I gon' give my chain back,
That'll be the same day I give the game back,
You know the next question dog, "Yo where Dame at?"
This track the Indian dance that bring our reign back
What's up with you and Jay, man? Are y'all okay man?
Yup, I got it from here 'Ye, damn.
The chain remains, the game is intact,
The name is mine, I'll take blame for that,
The pressure's on but guess who ain't gon' crack?
Haha, pardon me, I had to laugh at that,
How could you falter when you're the Rock of Gibraltar?
I had to get off the boat so I could walk on water.
This ain't no tall order, this is nothin' to me,
Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week.
I do this in my sleep
I sold kilos of coke, I'm guessin' I can sell CDs.
I'm not a businessman,
I'm a business, man,
Let me handle my business, damn.
Kanyeez you got me, Freeway then Foxy,
YG's, Tiar', 'merie, Peedi watch me,
Bleek could be one hit away his whole career;
As long as I'm alive he's a millionaire.
And even if I die he's in my will somewhere,
So he could just kick back and chill somewhere,
Oh yeah, he don't even hafta write rhymes,
The Dynasty like my money, last three lifetimes.
Shirley Bassey's in a way sayin' exactly
What I been sayin' practically my whole career:
A diamond is forever, I been minin' this forever,
Now the Louis Vuitton Don's timin' couldn't be better.
People lined up to see the Titanic sinkin',
Instead we rose up from the ash like a phoenix,
If you waitin' for the end, the Dynasty sign,
And what seem like forever is a mighty long time.
[Outro: Jay-Z] + (sample)
Uh, Young, bitches

"Diamonds are forever,
They won't leave in the night,
I’ve no fear that they might"
"Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"
Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe
"Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"
The Roc is still alive everytime I rhyme
Forever eva, forever eva, eva eva, eva eva, eva eva, eva eva, eva eva
[Verse 1]
Close your eyes and imagine, feel the magic
Vegas on acid, seen through Yves St. Laurent glasses,
And I realise that I've arrived
'Cause it take more than a magazine to kill my vibe. Does
He write his own rhymes? Sort of, I think 'em;
That mean I forgat better shit than you ever thought of.
Damn, is he really that caught up
I ask, if you talk about classics do my name get brought up?
I remember I couldn't afford a Ford Escort
Or even a four-track recorder,
So its only right that I let the top drop on a drop top Porche,
It's spoilin' yourself that’s important.
If you stripper named Porcha and you get tips from many men,
Then your fat friend, her nickname is mini-van,
Excuse me, that's just the Henny, man,
I smoke, I drink, I'm supposed to stop, I can't, because…
[Verse 2]
I was sick about awards, couldn't nobody cure me.
Only player that got robbed and kept all his jewlery.
Alicia Keys tried talk some sense in him,
Thrity minutes later saw his note convincin' him.
What mo' could you ask fo'?
The international asshole
Who complained about what he is owed,
And throw a tantrum like he is three years old,
You gotta love it though
Somebody still speak from his soul,
And wouldn't change by the change or the game or the fame
When he came in the game he made his own lane.
Now all I need is ya'll to pronounce my name
Is Kanye but some of my plaques still say Kayne
Got family in the D-King, folks from Mo Town,
Back in Chi, them folks ain't from Mo Town,
Life movin' too fast, I need to slow down,
Girl ain't give me no ass, she need to go down.
My father Ben said I need Jesus, so he took me to church
And let the water let the water run over my sleezer.
The preacher said we need leaders,
Right then my body got steel, like a paraplegic,
You know who you call, you got a message to leave it;
The Roc stand tall, and you would never believe it.
Take your diamonds and throw 'em up like you bulimic,
Ya, the beat cold but the flow is anemic.
After debris settles and the dust gets swept off
Big K kick it where young Hov left off,
Right when magazines wrote Kanye West off
I drop my new shit, it sound like the best of.
A&Rs lookin like, ‘shit, we messed up’,
Grammy night, damn right, we got dressed up
Bottle after bottle 'till we got messed up,
In the studio, we really though, ya he next up.
People askin' me is I gon' give my chain back;
That'll be the same day I give the game back.
You know the next question y’all yo, where Dame at?
He's tracked the Indian dance to bring our rain back.
What's up with you and Jay, man? Are ya'll okay, man?
They pray for the death of our dynasty like Amen,
R-r-r-r-right here stand a man
With the power to make a diamond with his bare hands.
"Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"
"Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hip-hop epistemology: how can I trust my CD?

I do not know everything about hip-hop, and being cut off from the U.S. underground scene by a three-thousand mile stretch of water and an inability to find a really decent music down-load site, I don’t know all that much about anything until it comes out in pretty CD-format in HMV. The purists might claim, correctly perhaps, that this is hip-hop hopelessly adulterated by A&Rs and their money-making concerns, an art adjusted to and abased by commercialisation; but I genuinely believe that a high level of the original artistic inspiration makes it through. There are two grounds for optimism in the specific case of hip-hop.

Firstly, there is the strength of the culture of individuality and control that defines hip-hop. Rhyming has always been about using art to gain control in a society which denies it; that’s why rappers are almost always from poor backgrounds in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where their art-form fills in for what normal scholastic advancement and career opportunities do for the middle classes. Hip-hop by its very nature is anti-adulteration, and whilst it must inevitably suffer censorship of some form during its commercial production, it cannot be controlled by cynical music industry hacks in the way something more bland and banal à la Britney Spears is, nay must, be handled.

Secondly, the self-consciousness of hip-hop albums marks them out as products that have made it through the commercialisation process remarkably intact. That is to say that most hip-hop albums contain some reference to their own creation, referencing themselves and those involved with them within their own structure. The tradition dates back to the very first commercial hip-hop, when the Sugarhill Gang kick off their breakthrough "Rapper’s Delight" by commenting on their own performance: "Now what you hear is not a test; I’m rapping to the beat". This proceeds through album after album where rappers drop the name of the album in its tracks, and gives birth to that hip-hop favourite, the skit-about-the-album. A perfect example is The Marshall Mathers LP, which charts its own creation both in its songs and through its hilarious skits like Paul, and the intro into "The Way I Am". Another, even more pertinent example when talking about commercialisation, is Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day, where various music industry personalities are kept waiting for the album you are hearing, leaving answering machine messages to demand it’s appearance. That paladin of corporate America, Donald Trump, drops a skit, Method’s cheeky way of poking fun at the business demands on his artistic creation. Xzibit’s Man vs. Machine contains the best ironic wink to the commercial side of hip-hop production, with his manager claiming that "Sony are down (his) throat for this record…".

That’s why I trust hip-hop albums more than any other; after all, even if they are horribly adulterated by commercial concerns, at least the artists are aware of it, and trying to wake you up to that fact as well.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Critical Essay 4: Critical Commentary, Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Critical Essay 4: Critical Commentary, Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

It is often difficult to pinpoint the emergence of a tradition. Literary theorists argue endlessly over which was the first modern novel; when did the tradition of writing at length about someone take hold? Indeed classical scholars, whilst venerating Homer’s Oddesy as the first narrative poem of Greek writing, freely admit that it only the first recorded example of this form; countless other similar poems probably inspired this one surviving example, but have themselves disappeared. Many were probably never recorded, remaining oral stories passed down the generations. With Slick Rick’s "Children’s Story", we have a similar dilemma. It is the first real recorded example of a completely narrative rap, what hip-hop helpfully terms “storytelling”. Many others may have perished unrecorded, but Slick Rick may be credited with delivering the first true “story-rap”, and setting in motion a hip-hop tradition that has attracted all of its most capable emcees. “Children’s Story”[i], whether Slick’s original idea or not, is such a consummately expressed and artistically sound narrative as to have grounded in its minimal running time almost every convention of the form.

The conventions of a recorded story-rap that "Children’s Story" sets up are not particularly different from the simple story-telling mechanics taught to children in schools. Firstly, the story must be announced as such; “Once upon a time…” is both ubiquitous and relevant here. Next, a setting and context must be established; here, Rick describes the relationship of the narrated time to the present and sketches the general context. This done, the story must then be split into a beginning, middle, and end; the production of the song achieves this here. Additional conventions that surround the specifically hip-hop story are concentrated on the recording of the rap. The emcee must indicate before the narrative begins that he will deliver a story rap; this is important, as it allows the rapper to remove himself momentarily from the content, since most hip-hop songs are highly self-referential. It is also important to ‘frame’ the narrative, so this announcement will precede the story, and will frequently be notionally ad-libbed or in other ways played down. It will also be complemented by similar content at the end of the track, such as a voice tailing off.

In a genre as highly self-referential as hip-hop, where entire raps can be based on the emcees’ own rapping skill and styles alone, these markers help the listener to appreciate that what he hears is a story. This framework also allows the rapper to offer an implied point or moral to the story, which he has divorced from his own status. In the video to "Children’s Story", for example, Slick Rick repeats during the opening frame to his narrative “This needs to be heard”, indicating the importance he attaches to the moral aspect of his tale.

At the very least, story-raps must have a statement of purpose. For example, OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, undertaken shortly after Big Boi’s duo with Slick Rick himself, draws much inspiration from The Adventures of Slick Rick, especially in the concentration of the album on ‘the story-rap’. Tracks 8, 9 and 10 are all narrative songs, the latter two being explicitly titled “Tha Art of Storytelling”. As with all questions of form and genre, there is never a one hundred percent agreement between any stated generic rules and actual examples of the genre; here, OutKast step away from the formulaic ‘story-rap’ in some respects, but respect it in others. The prologue and epilogue ‘frame’ to the story all but disappear, and at first listen, the stories slip seamlessly into the CD without these markers. Yet the chorus of track 9 steps outside of the narrative: “We jus’ shootin’ game in the form of story raps now”. Others influenced directly by Rick are less shy about hoisting their colours to his techniques: in "G Bedtime Stories"[1], Snoop Dogg adapts the ‘request’ format for his narrative, affectionately parodying Slick Rick’s “Uncle Ricky…” recording. Rick’s groundbreaking story-telling techniques ensure that anyone wanting to do a ‘story-rap’ needs to mark it out in some way.

Not only is the flag-poling of the narrative-aspect of the tale needed, but the beginning, middle and end structure is important in focusing the action. As this is shortened epic poetry and not a novel, structure and economy are the signs of a consummate story rapper. At first glance, the lyrics of "Children’s Story" contain no obvious breaks. Rick does not split his narrative at all and the story flows seamlessly by, yet does have a discernible structure. In typical song format rappers have an easy method of structuring, basing the raps around refrains. Here, Slick Rick’s music adumbrates the tripartite structure: three times during the text, a production trick underlines a certain phrase, marking the beginning of a ‘section’[2]. Subsequent story-raps frequently mark themselves out from other rap-forms in abandoning the refrain for more subtle structuring techniques.

Aside from its formal aspect, the setting of the tale is important for the moral agenda of any story rap. Here, Slick Rick clearly wants to alert us to the pernicious dangers of criminality in the black community, and describe how easily it takes hold. To describe the institution of criminal habits, he must first show a pre-lapsarian view where they are absent: “When laws were stern and justice stood/ And people were behavin’ like they ought to – good”. The end of the song confirms the setting as important, because it confirms Rick’s perspective on criminality: it is not innate, but acquired: “Just another case about the wrong path”. Also, the boy is persuaded, “mislead”, by a friend into the criminal life. The function of the setting is to show the degradation into criminality and to warn against it; Rick then accordingly explicitly states the serious purpose of his rap (“This ain’t funny…”). Other story-raps with moral purpose will often adopt this strong emphasis on original setting, such as Xzibit’s recent "Cold World"[3]. Here, he is aiming to show through vignette narratives the fall of young people for a variety of reasons: thus, each verse begins with a clear ‘scene setting’, and ends in tragedy. X is clear, like Slick, to lend moral seriousness, here using a heartfelt “That’s cold…”.

It is true to say that if form acts as a genre marker for the story-rap, with rappers consciously referencing the conventions discussed, then content is the other linking thread. Specifically, we find that most story-raps have a ‘moral’. They are not parabolic, as they are much too detailed (frequently giving names and places, and developing character to too realistic a degree, but the content is almost always the story of a young, misguided protagonist who has to confront a difficult situation. Almost always, they story ends in tragedy; this is where it differs greatly from story-telling in others genres. The story-rap is most frequently an act of ghetto-reportage, and object lesson in the problems of black America; this goes some way to explaining the importance of formal referencing in the genre: the rapper appeals to the convention of the story rap to prepare his listeners for a moral tale.

The rapper, despite having abdicated himself from the story, finds a way to play off this preparation for a moral lesson by making his feelings on the protagonist quite clear. Slick Rick does it here by using a mildly ‘biased’ narrative perspective throughout the song in an almost indefinable way. For example, he begins the song with the seemingly innocent “Once upon a time not long ago / When people wore pyjamas and lived life slow”; yet these lines show quite a heavy level of opinionated intrusion. Rick is using the widely accepted image of pyjama-wearing as outdated and unfashionable to comically, but sincerely, link old-fashioned values to better morals. By creating a milieu of pyjama-wearing, and therefore unfashionable people, Rick is conjuring up images of a more peaceable society. This therefore gives him a method of putting the crimes of his protagonist into relief, of showing degradation of moral values; and by nostalgising this past (“Once upon a time…” has a wistful ring), he is siding his moral perspective with the ‘old-fashioned’ values. Thus from very early on is Slick the Narrator’s view of his main character made very clear, so that even as he gets more and more involved in simply relating the incident, we view it with the narrator’s point of view in mind. When Rick then reaches the end of the story, referring the protagonist for the third time as “lil’ boy”, we have his morally superior stance recalled to us by association: “Before long the lil’ boy got surrounded / He dropped the gun, so went the glory / And this is the way I have to end this story”. The perfunctory nature of the words “so went the glory” once again betrays a subtle narrative bias: “glory” is ironic, and by extension ironises the growing conviction in the 1980’s black criminal community that gun-crime was glamorous and easy. The use of the modal verb in “I have to end this story” also shows us Rick’s disapproval of the actions in the story, implying economically his wish to be able to terminate the narrative on a more positive note, and thereby his opinion on the seeming glitz of gun-crime. By these simple framing techiniques, Rick has avoided glorifying gun-crime, and turned what could be interpreted as a gangsta-glory narrative into a moral object lesson.

Rick’s great achievement has been to make this the purpose of the story rap. Whilst rap’s great first-person narratives and stream of consciousness stories have remained morally ambiguous celebrations of individualism and often lawlessness, actual ‘story-raps’ have remained a method of exposing social evils. When rappers can step out of their raps, they can step out of the complex web of street values that require them to project largely criminal personas. “I” in hip-hop most often means rejection of moral standards, whilst “he” almost always implies acceptance of them.

[1] Snoop Dogg, No Limit Top Dogg, 1999
[2] The three production emphases (a slight up in volume and an additional mid-range sound) are marked on the text with “^”.
[3] Xzibit, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2004
“Uncle Ricky… will you read us a bedtime story… please…?”
“Alright, you kids get to bed, I’ll get the story book. Y’all tucked in?”
“Yeah.”“Here we go…”
^Once upon a time not long ago,
When people wore pyjamas and lived life slow,
When laws were stern and justice stood,
And people were behavin' like they ought to - good,
There lived a lil' boy who was misled,
By another lil' boy and this is what he said:
"Me an’ you Ty, we gonna make some cash,
Robbin' old folks and makin' tha dash",
They did the job, money came with ease,
But one couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease,
He robbed another and another and a sister and a brother,
Tried to rob a man who was a D.T. undercover,
The cop grabbed his arm, he started acting erratic,
He said: "Keep still, boy, no need for static",
Punched him in his belly and he gave him a slap,
But little did he know the lil' boy was strapped,
The kid pulled out a gun, he said "Why d’ya hit me ?",
The barrel was set straight for the cop's kidney,
The cop got scared, the kid, he starts to figure,
"I'll do years if I pull this trigger",
^So he cold dashed and ran around the block,
The cop radios it to another lady cop,
He ran by a tree, there he saw this sister,
A shot for the head, he shot back but he missed her,
Looked around good and from expectations,
So he decided he'd head for the subway stations,
But she was coming and he made a left,
He was runnin' top speed till he was out’o breath,
Knocked an old man down and swore he killed him,
Then he made his move to an abandoned building,
Ran up the stairs up to the top floor,
Opened up the door there, guess who he saw?
^Dave the dope fiend shootin' dope,
Who don't know the meaning of water nor soap,
He said "I need bullets, hurry up, run!"
The dope fiend brought back a spanking shotgun,
He went outside but there was cops all over,
Then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova,
Raced up the block doing 83,
Crashed into a tree near university,
Escaped alive though the car was battered,
Rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered,
Ran out of bullets and still had static,
Grabbed a pregnant lady and pulled out the automatic,
Pointed at her head and he said the gun was full o' lead,
He told the cops: "Back off, or honey here's dead",
Deep in his heart he knew he was wrong,
So he let the lady go and he starts to run on,
Sirens sounded, he seemed astounded,
Before long the lil' boy got surrounded,
He dropped the gun, so went the glory,
And this is the way I must end this story,
He was only seventeen, in a madman's dream,
The cops shot the kid, I still hear him scream,
This ain't funny so don't you dare laugh,
Just another case 'bout the wrong path,
Straight 'n narrow or your soul gets cast.
Good Night.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Critical Essay 3: Eminem, "The Marshall Mathers LP"

Critical Essay 3: Eminem, “The Marshall Mathers LP”

Comparative examination of Stan[i] and Who Knew[ii]

Released as a single from “The Marshall Mathers LP” in 2000, Stan can be pinpointed as the beginning of Eminem’s acceptance by the Establishment. Despite the fact that, in many ways, the album from which it is drawn represents the don’t-give-a-fuck pinnacle of Mathers’ controversial musical expression, Stan was a song that managed not only the usual crossover success from hip-hop to pop, but also from hip-hop to intelligentsia. To those who claimed that Eminem had more to offer than two rudely positioned fingers, it was a godsend, providing evidence that could be politely trotted out a dinner parties. The fact is, in Stan, Em’ is saying exactly what he always says; but if the subject matter is, as we shall see, just as unpalatable, the form of the song made the pill easier to swallow.

Mathers writes always about his relationship to society, or at least with it born heavily in mind. Even as an unknown on the preceding “Slim Shady LP”, the skit Bitch shows his preoccupation with how his wilfully polemical views are received. He has been hailed as a messenger, a labelling that he pre-empted on his first hit My Name Is: “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.” In Eminem’s view, the world has gone crazy: both his immediate circle and the wider society he views and then begins to impact are helplessly misguided. It is a world in which hypocrisy and political correctness have clouded and falsified public discourse to the point where the President can escape impeachment for receiving oral sex in his office, whilst Eminem himself suffers attempts at censorship simply for making jokes about it (“You want me to fix up lyrics while our President gets his dick sucked?” Who Knew, MM). It is a world in which the messenger gets shot whilst the criminal sneaks away unpunished. Mathers’ distaste for hypocrisy also helps to explain the adult nature of his work: “So if I said I never did drugs / That would mean I lie AND get fucked more than the President does.” (Role Model, SS) Whilst many would agree with Mathers’ view of American society, especially liberal-minded, politically conscious people, most are put off by the directness and polemicisation of his method of expressing it. Eminem’s most frequent swipes are at lazy parents who blame their children’s failures on society and the media whilst neglecting to examine their own neglect of their offspring. On Role Model on 1999’s “The Slim Shady LP”, Eminem ironically discusses his unsuitedness to being one. He begins the song:

OK, I'm going to attempt to drown myself,
You can try this at home
You can be just like me!

If children listen to this unsupervised, they may fail to see the irony. Mathers’ point is obvious, especially when considered in the context of both his oeuvre and his own reality as a caring and careful parent:

I get a clean shave, bathe, go to a rave
Die from an overdose and dig myself up out of my grave
My middle finger won't go down, how do I wave?
And this is how I'm supposed to teach kids how to behave?

Now follow me and do exactly what you see
Don't you wanna grow up to be just like me!
I slap women and eat shrooms then O.D.
Now don't you wanna grow up to be just like me!

He is facetiously taking on the role of a demagogic pied-piper, apparently leading the youth astray. During the song, however, he takes apart the glamour of celebrity existence, making it clear that his life is not to be imitated. The irony was lost on many however, meaning that by the time he came to record “The Marshall Mathers LP”, illiterate, irate Mid-Western parents’ groups were thundering against him because of these very lyrics. He took the opportunity to explain the irony and to call to people’s attention their own responsibility for their children as opposed to his. Both Stan and Who Knew answer the charges that Eminem is responsible for others’ children’s behaviour, but the difference between them is the difference between Mathers’ successfully communicating this truth and having his logically unbeatable arguments fall on willingly deafened ears. Stan, with its melodic pop-hook, shifts the argument onto a realistic story heartbreakingly told; a parable, explaining just how Eminem the artist can be misinterpreted whilst Marshall the parent looks on in disgust. Who Knew, with an unmistakeably hip-hop funk, takes this message and de-narrativises it; it directly addresses the lazy parents and sinking society that shift their failings onto so-called ‘obscene art’. So whilst Stan illustrates the point in a palatable way, Who Knew berates the target. What these two songs illustrate is how Mathers views his interaction with society, and also how he interacts with it. The ironic or direct modes he employs on songs such as Role Model and Who Knew are where he encounters difficulty, with people misinterpreting the irony or being terrified by the directness; the narrativising, illustrative method of Stan allows him explain himself, and to help shift the focus. If Mathers’ aim is to show how others are responsible for their actions and not his music, then by introducing other voices into his music, his form can successfully mirror his content. The two songs are intended for comparison. Eminem makes clear his intention to use this section of the album to discuss and explain the effect of his music and his role as an artist. The two songs are juxtaposed around Paul, a skit that focuses attention on the status of the album as music: a call from his exasperated manager. This is a motif that recurs in all Eminem albums, and serves to remind the listener that what they are listening to his an artistic product which has been endlessly worked, changed and discussed by those involved; it is an artifice and not the truth, however blurred the distinction may be. In fact, by including such supposedly real-life references to the creation of the album, which are themselves probably created, Mathers makes such a paradoxical statement about fact and fiction as to force his listener to take everything he hears with a pinch of salt. Both Stan and Who Knew are songs about the dangers of misinterpreting fiction as fact: this kind of uncritical listening leads to the horrors that people then blame on Eminem, who, like every artist of any genre, looses control of his art and its interpretation the second it is released. In Who Knew, Eminem laments this loss of control from his point of view: in Stan, he offers a view from the other side. I never knew I… knew I would get this bigI never knew I… knew I'd affect this kidI never knew I'd… get him to slit his wristI never knew I'd… get him to hit this bitch This, the chorus to Who Knew, functions as a simple statement about the role of the artist. Its message is direct and clear, and it is this kind of text that has Eminem’s opponents up in arms. His unsparing and uncomfortable frankness (“slit his wrist”) and gleeful potty-mouth (“bitch”) do nothing to dispel the myth that he is wilfully rude without reason. He goes on to make things worse for himself:

Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts
Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up.
Get it aware, wake up, get a sense of humour
Quit tryin’ to censor music, this is for your kids’ amusement(The kids!)
But don't blame me when lil' Eric jumps off of the terrace
You should’a been watchin’ him - apparently you ain't parents.

Directly addressing those who would criticise him and use him as a scapegoat for the ills of nation, Eminem’s message flounders. Hip-hop heads and anyone Enlightened enough to examine it long enough will see the point, but most educated liberals, not to mention the sloppy parents he addresses, will be put off by the opening lines. Despite following the exhortation “rape sluts” with “get a sense of humour”, making clear the tongue-in-cheek nature of his suggestion, the addressees of this message will already be reaching for their megaphones in righteous indignation. In then questioning the parenting skills of those he addresses, Eminem is on top form, but his addressees are no longer listening. “For your kids’ amusement” implies the kind of neglectful parenting that uses the media, especially television, as a substitute for quality time, whilst “you should’a been watchin’ him” acts as a transferral of blame for children’s actions to their parents. Mathers is saying that parental supervision and involvement are the way to surmount societies problems, not banning the deliverer of this message. What Eminem records in the booth may be misinterpreted and acted upon by children whose parents are too neglectful to educate them enough, just as a child watching a violent film may try to repeat that violence unless it is made clear to him that to do so is wrong, and that the film is a depiction of real-life, but not a didactic manual on how to live it. By giving the example of guardians happy to let their children watch Schwarzenegger films and be chauffeured by foul-mouthed psychopaths who use Eminem as a scapegoat for their children’s problems, Mathers brings out the hypocrisy of condemning him.

How many retards'll listen to me
And run up in the school shootin when they're pissed at a
Teach-er, her, him, is it you, is it them?
"Wasn't me, Slim Shady said to do it again!"
Damn! How much damage can you do with a pen?

In the third verse, Eminem once again directly addresses those who would blame him. In a mocking tone he gives the accusation levelled at him: “Wasn’t me…”, whilst making it very clear that his work is fiction, and that what he says cannot be taken without a pinch of salt, and that he certainly is no “Role Model”. His method of doing this is utterly ingenious but too subtle for his critics: “When they’re pissed at a / Teach-er, her, him, is it you, is it them?” Form mirrors content to illustrate the point. Content: his work is an artistic creation, and thus does not claim to be either the truth or a reliable moral guide. Form: he reminds the listener of the artistic nature of what he is experiencing. Thus, the normal iambic pentameter of everyday speech is suspended, the sentence being conspicuously distorted to fit the flow of the music. By delaying the stress of the sentence to the first syllable of second line (“Teach”), Eminem renders the phrase in time with the music, but almost incomprehensible: he sacrifices clarity to demonstrate the artifice of the work. By then echoing the rhyming of “er, her”, he draws attention to this artistic device too. When he then asks the question “is it you, is it them?”, illustrating his point about the difficulty of attributing blame for others’ actions, Eminem has purposefully demonstrated the artistic nature of the text. The stress of the syllable “Teach” provides a subliminal key-word in which to frame the discussion: Eminem is not a ‘teacher’, and parents should be ‘teaching’ their children to interpret his work, and society and the media at large, correctly. “Damn! How much damage can you do with a pen?” subconsciously recalls the old adage “The pen is mightier than the sword”: Eminem is not denying the power of words, but certainly is not denying the primacy of the individual’s moral choice, and the importance of sensible, critical interaction with art.

In Stan, Eminem de-theorises this same idea, and makes clear in story-telling form this importance. Rather than lambasting the neglectful parents who would blame his work for the immoral actions of their offspring, Eminem sets out to show just how he ‘never knew he’d get him to hit this bitch’, and how faulty interaction with art by someone not educated enough to understand its status is actually the issue. So the same point is made, but in more acceptable a format. With Stan, Eminem recreates the kind of desperate fan he describes in Who Knew. Stan is one of the ‘retards who’ll listen’ to Eminem and take the lyrics at their word: “See everything you say is real”. Stan addresses the letters to “Slim”, Mathers’ stage persona, who is nothing but an artistic construct used by the rapper to show precisely the kind of fact/fiction dichotomy of which Stan is so tragically unaware. Already, at the beginning of the song, Mathers is pointing out where an intelligent fan would not make the kind of mistakes that Stan does; how somebody would be reminded of the fictional nature of an Eminem album. Why is Stan so mistaken, though? But could Mathers not hypothetically be responsible for leading Stan on? What Mathers goes on to show, through his expression of Stan’s conjectural psychology, is a precise portrait of misunderstandings of his own work. Mathers goes back to his previous songs and shows how and where they can be misinterpreted, and also the kind of psychology that would misinterpret them and why. Stan is a lower-class white male, under-educated and deprived in childhood. Eminem economically depicts this by having Stan relate his own upbringing to Mathers’ (and he makes sure elsewhere that we never run short of the relevant biographical information!): “I never knew my father neither… She don’t know what it was like for people like us growin’ up…” He consummately confirms this portrait in Stan’s own spoken and written style: he speaks a mixture of ‘white-trash’ drawl and hip-hop slang that betrays his origins immediately. The above-quoted sentences contain the kind of grammatical errors to expected of this speech (double negatives, misapplication of the third-person form of the verb) and serve to confirm Stan’s status. Despite a lack of education, a person can be highly intelligent. Stan’s lack of intelligence, however, is carefully demonstrated in his epistolary style, which sounds childish and unsophisticated (almost all his sentences begin with “I”, especially in the first letter), and through his thought process. Stan jumps too easily to conclusions, as the second verse shows. “If you didn’t wanna talk to me outside your concert / You didn’t have to…” and “Remember when we met in Denver you said if I write you, you would write back” show incidences where Mathers’ busy show-business lifestyle has made him unable to interact with his fans. “I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy” may sound like an empty excuse, but most intelligent people are aware of the several facts concerning mail to celebrities: they receive lots of it, have little time to read it, and even less to respond to it; in addition, there are concerns of privacy and etiquette that do not require them to write back. Stan is unaware of these facts, and takes Eminem’s lack of personal attention as an affront in a childish manner[1].

All this makes the listener aware of just how Mathers is unable to control his interaction with his fans, and so Stan’s misinterpretation of his music is shown to be entirely, tragically, down to him. Stan’s proven incapability to distinguish between fact and fiction is at fault here: “Sometimes I even cut myself… See everything you say is real…” Eminem cleverly shows how moments from his “The Slim Shady LP” meant ironically can be misread by uncritical fans, shifting the weight of blame from his own artistic expression ("I just said it, I ain't know if you do it or not" Who Knew).

As we have seen in Who Knew, Mathers uses his form flags up the status of his CD as art at precisely the apt moment: when his content is a discussion of the status of his CD as art. So in Stan, where a fan has mistaken art for real life, Eminem is more careful than ever to remind his audience of this distinction. Because he is using the narrative method rather than direct address, and because he is delivering the narrative in conjectural but possibly real form, Mathers must pay extra attention this distinction. He frames the text with sampled music, a conspicuous piece of ‘art’, reinforcing thus the musicality of it. The strength of the epistolary format is its theoretically real existence, and so rather than, like the authors of much epistolary fiction, deliberately force the reader to question whether or not the text is real, Eminem pushes it to a possible but improbable height: in having Stan recording his final moments on cassette and then throw them out of the plunging vehicle, the listener is being offered a possible but almost unbelievable end. The sound of the tape being ejected is added to the track, as well as the splash of the vehicle, just to confirm to the audience that Eminem remains in control of an artistic illusion, and is not playing any real-life tape. This highlighting of the status of Stan as text could not be more apt, as it proves in itself that when dealing with Eminem we are dealing with art, not demagoguery. By encasing these ideas in this parable form, rather than lambasting a notional listener, Mathers is able to offer something far more understandable and less offensive to get across his point.

In an album where the listener is then taken through a horrifying set of songs, the importance of this affirmation of the fact-fiction distinction cannot be taken too seriously. On the track Kim, Mathers will be heard apparently loading his own wife into the trunk and then killing her à la Stan, and only an audience aware that this is just a song would not immediately call the police on hearing it. It is a strange irony that many who listened to and enjoyed Stan can still not bear Kim, finding it too horrifying realistic; Stan was the first Eminem track that could escape the over-simplifying trend in appraisal of his work, and it is notable that Eminem’s narrative products in all genres have continued to be the ones that enjoy commercial success and escape damaging and under-informed criticism: 8 Mile, Loose Yourself. It is as if Eminem himself is so distasteful, that telling a story and taking himself apparently out of the equation is his only way forward in society at large.

[1] The video to Stan allows Mathers to demonstrate visually why he ignores Stan on these two occasions: during the concert incident, we see Eminem, desperate to appear to the frozen fans, being bundled away by his own security men; during the Denver meeting, we see Stan’s social unawareness understandably scare Eminem off.
[i] Stan
Chorus: Dido
My tea's gone cold I'm wondering why I..
Got out of bed at all
The morning rain clouds up my window..
And I can't see at all
And even if I could it'll all be gray,
But your picture on my wall
It reminds me, that it's not so bad,
It's not so bad…

[Eminem as 'Stan']
Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain't callin’,
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom.
I sent two letters back in Autumn, you must not-a got 'em,
There probably was a problem at the post office or somethin’
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot 'em,
But anyways; fuck it, what's been up? Man how's your daughter?
My girlfriend's pregnant too, I'm ‘bout to be a father.
If I have a daughter, guess what I'ma call her?
I'ma name her Bonnie.
I read about your Uncle Ronnie too I'm sorry,
I had a friend kill himself over some bitch who didn't want him
I know you probably hear this everyday, but I'm your biggest fan
I even got the underground shit that you did with Skam
I got a room full of your posters and your pictures man
I like the shit you did with Rawkus too, that shit was fat
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
Just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
This is Stan.

{Chorus: Dido}

[Eminem as 'Stan']
Dear Slim, you still ain't called or wrote, I hope you have a chance
I ain't mad - I just think it's FUCKED UP you don't answer fans
If you didn't wanna talk to me outside your concert
You didn't have to, but you could’a signed an autograph for Matthew
That's my little brother, man, he's only six years old
We waited in the blistering cold for you,
For four hours and you just said, "No."
That's pretty shitty man - you're like his fuckin idol,
He wants to be just like you man, he likes you more than I do.
I ain't that mad though, I just don't like bein’ lied to,
Remember when we met in Denver - you said if I'd write you
You would write back - see I'm just like you in a way:
I never knew my father neither;
He used to always cheat on my mom and beat her.
I can relate to what you're saying in your songs
So when I have a shitty day, I drift away and put 'em on,
‘Cause I don't really got shit else so that shit helps when I'm depressed
I even got a tattoo of your name across the chest.
Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds,
It's like adrenaline; the pain is such a sudden rush for me,
See everything you say is real, and I respect you cause you tell it,
My girlfriend's jealous cause I talk about you 24/7.
But she don't know you like I know you Slim, no one does
She don't know what it was like for people like us growin’ up
You gotta call me man, I'll be the biggest fan you'll ever lose
Sincerely yours, Stan P.S. We should be together too

{Chorus: Dido}

[Eminem as 'Stan']
Dear Mister-I'm-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans,
This'll be the last package I ever send your ass
It's been six months and still no word - I don't deserve it?
I know you got my last two letters;
I wrote the addresses on 'em perfect.
So this is my cassette I'm sending you, I hope you hear it,
I'm in the car right now, I'm doing 90 on the freeway,
Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, you dare me to drive?
You know the song by Phil Collins, "In the Air of the Night"
About that guy who could’a saved that other guy from drowning
But didn't, then Phil saw it all, then at a a show he found him?
That's kinda how this is, you could’a rescued me from drowning
Now it's too late - I'm on a 1000 downers now, I'm drowsy,
And all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call,
I hope you know I ripped ALL of your pictures off the wall.
I love you Slim, we could’a been together, think about it;
You ruined it now, I hope you can't sleep and you dream about it
And when you dream I hope you can't sleep and you SCREAM about it
I hope your conscience EATS AT YOU and you can't BREATHE without me
See Slim; {*screaming*} Shut up bitch! I'm tryin’ to talk!
Hey Slim, that's my girlfriend screamin’ in the trunk
But I didn't slit her throat, I just tied her up, see I ain't like you
‘Cause if she suffocates she'll suffer more, and then she'll die too
Well, gotta go, I'm almost at the bridge now -
Oh shit, I forgot, how'm I supposed to send this shit out?
{*car tires squeal*} {*CRASH*}.. {*brief silence*} .. {*LOUD splash*}

{Chorus: Dido}

Dear Stan, I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy.
You said your girlfriend's pregnant now, how far along is she?
Look, I'm really flattered you would call your daughter that
And here's an autograph for your brother, I wrote it on the Starter cap.
I'm sorry I didn't see you at the show, I must’a missed you;
Don't think I did that shit intentionally just to diss you.
But what's this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that shit just clownin’ dogg,
C'mon - how fucked up is you?
You got some issues Stan, I think you need some counselling
To help your ass from bouncing off the walls when you get down some
And what's this shit about us meant to be together?
That type of shit'll make me not want us to meet each other.
I really think you and your girlfriend need each other,
Or maybe you just need to treat her better.
I hope you get to read this letter, I just hope it reaches you in time
Before you hurt yourself, I think that you'll be doin’ just fine
If you relax a little, I'm glad I inspire you but Stan
Why are you so mad? Try to understand, that I do want you as a fan,
I just don't want you to do some crazy shit,
I seen this one shit on the news a couple weeks ago that made me sick:
Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge
And had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid
And in the car they found a tape, but they didn't say who it was to
Come to think about, his name was… it was you

[ii]Who Knew

I never knew I…
I never knew I…Mic check one-two
I never knew I…Who woulda knew?
I never knew I…Who'da known?
I never knew I…Fuck would've thought
I never knew I…Motherfucker comes out
I never knew I…and sells a couple of million records
I never knew I…And these motherfuckers hit the ceiling
I never knew I…

I don't do black music, I don't do white music
I make fight music, for high school kids
I put lives at risk when I drive like this {*tires screech*}
I put wives at risk with a knife like this (AHHH!!).
Shit, you probably think I'm in your tape deck now,
I'm in the back seat of your truck, with duct tape stretched out
Ducked the fuck way down, waitin’ to straight jump out
Put it over your mouth, and grab you by the face, what now?
Oh - you want me to watch my mouth, how?
Take my fuckin’ eyeballs out, and turn ‘em around?
Look - I'll burn your fuckin’ house down, circle around
And hit the hydrant, so you can't put your burning furniture out(Oh my God! Oh my God!)
I'm sorry, there must be a mix-up
You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked?{*ewwww*}
Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts
Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up
Get it aware, wake up, get a sense of humour
Quit tryin’ to censor music, this is for your kid's amusement(The kids!)
But don't blame me when lil' Eric jumps off of the terrace
You should’a been watchin’ him - apparently you ain't parents

Chorus: Eminem
Cause I never knew I… knew I would get this big
I never knew I… knew I'd effect this kid
I never knew I'd… get him to slit his wrist
I never knew I'd… get him to hit this bitch
I never knew I… knew I would get this big
I never knew I… knew I'd affect this kid
I never knew I'd… get him to slit his wrist
I never knew I'd… get him to hit this bitch

So who's bringin’ the guns in this country? (Hmm?)
I couldn't sneak a plastic pellet gun through customs over in London.
And last week, I seen a Schwarzenegger movie
Where he's shootin’ all sorts of these motherfuckers with a uzi.
I sees three little kids, up in the front row,
Screamin’ "Go," with their 17-year-old Uncle
I'm like, "Guidance - ain't they got the same moms and dads
Who got mad when I asked if they liked violence?"
And told me that my tape taught 'em to swear
What about the make-up you allow your 12-year-old daughter to wear?(Hmm?)
So tell me that your son doesn't know any cuss words
When his bus driver's screamin’ at him, fuckin’ muck-words("Go sit the fuck down, you little fuckin prick!")
And fuck was the first word I ever learned
Up in the third grade, flippin’ the gym teacher the bird (Look!)
So read up, about how I used to get beat up
Peed on, be on free lunch, and change school every 3 months
My life's like kinda what my wife's like (what?)
Fucked up after I beat her fuckin ass every night, Ike
So how much easier would life be
If 19 million motherfuckers grew to be ‘just like me’?


I never knew I.. knew I'd..
Have a new house or a new car
A couple years ago I was more poorer than you are
I don't got that bad of a mouth, do I?
Fuck, shit, ass, bitch, cunt, shooby-de-doo-wop (what?)
Skibbedy-be-bop, a-Christopher Reeves
Sonny Bono, skis horses and hittin some trees (HEY!)
How many retards'll listen to meAnd run up in the school shootin when they're pissed at a
Teach-er, her, him, is it you is it them?
"Wasn't me, Slim Shady said to do it again!"
Damn! How much damage can you do with a pen?
Man I'm just as fucked up as you would’a been
If you would’a been, in my shoes, who woulda thought
Slim Shady would be somethin’ that you would’a bought
That would’a made you get a gun and shoot at a cop
I just said it - I ain't know if you'd do it or not Chorus

How the fuck was I supposed to know?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Target Audience and Authorial Intention in Hip-hop

At the centre of hip-hop there lies a surprising and problematic paradox, one that, if not inherent in the genre itself, burrowed into it so deeply and so soon after its inception that it inheres in it now. All genres define themselves partly by exclusivity; what does not follow the rules of a genre is placed beside it and from this position defines the borders of it. Hip-hop's borders have a tendency rather to fall across these generic sites, annexing them for itself, yet rejecting them full participatory status. And so the hip-hop nation may 'include' Eminem and the Beastie Boys, yet their presence within it highlights the characteristics that define it so much of the time.

These characteristics are actually amongst the most exclusive of any genre. To be considered hip-hop, both by those inside it (the rappers, the industry and their fans) and outside of it (under-informed societal commentators, politicians, parents), the artist should ideally be a black male from a deprived urban area of the United States of America delivering 'raps' over a 'beat'. The reasons for this overriding generic rule and its perpetuity despite such notable exceptions is not the subject of this essay, but what it leads us onto is.

A lifestyle and artform originally developed, aestheticised, and appreciated by a geographically, racially and socially concentrated group of people, hip-hop was also aimed directly at this group. It was circular: b-boys and DJs represented the life of lower-class blacks in inner-city New York, representing it to lower-class blacks in inner-city New York. Despite the ensuing rapid and rapacious commercialisation of hip-hop, which has yet to reach its highest point, much rap music has maintained this characteristic. It is mostly by black artists for black people about black problems. Yet, as the continuing commercialisation itself proves, it is insanely popular outside this demographic. Whereas Rock preaches an almost social-workerish ideal of inclusion and communion in music, hip-hop refuses to do so. To say that many of hip-hop's better artists do not see the benifits of inclusivity in their art (both uncyncially and financially) would be outright false, but hip-hop music is exclusive. It hides itself in new-fangled musical techniques, socio-political polemic, and near unintelligable slang in a way that even the Rolling Stones never quite managed. It is adored by people despite, due to, and regardless of this. The paradox: whilst pushing away all but a small group of people whom it keeps as its unstated but clear 'supposed target audience', hip-hop manages to attract everyone else too.

So why does your average white guy tune into "the black CNN"? And why would an affluent, self-assured, equality-conscious young woman stand to listen to "somethin' for da bitches"? And why, pray, would an educated black man aware of the appropriation of his culture by a white-run industry listen to Eminem? The answers here are as clear as they are bespoke. Everyone has a different reason for listening to hip-hop, but it is usually quite rationaliseable. Thirty years after its beginnings, the same demographic of down-trodden urban America is listening to it because they grow up with it, their parents and friends listening to, getting involved with it; it is their music that they hear on the radio as they grow up, just as a child of upper-class parents may grow up with Mozart in the background. Outside of this, there are, for another example, the listeners in middle America and affluent Britain and Europe who are divorced from the context, and listen to it for reasons as multitidinous as they are: the music itself may be irresistably catchy, or it may be due to peer pressure; indeed, the music is becoming so frequent on the radio that it may well become their formative music too; some may listen to it as a statement of rebellion, or out of curiosity for its message. We could list thousands of reasons with thousands of combinations, but this is not actually the import of the article.

When the music is put into the public domain, its success depends on factors like those listed above. Hip-hop is successful at providing such a variety of such factors as to make it such an exceptional commerical prospect. What is important to us is not why people listen to hip-hop, but what relationship the huge numbers and wide variety of listeners bears to the artists of a genre so pretendedly aesthetically exclusive.

To look at the genre in a structuralist context is helpful in clarifying our thought on it. Structuralism as a critical method is a long and fascinating/deathly-boring discussion, but in order for this article to be profitably consice, we will examine one particular aspect of it: the ideal reader. Structuralism removes the text from both its writer and its reader: the author cannot choose his reader, and by extension, cannot 'target' his work at a chosen reader. The reader is there to examine the text in perfect knowledge of the implications of its language and come to conclusions based only on what he reads regardless of the author.

This theory has many, many faults: foremostly, divorcing the creator of an artitic work from it is impossible; yet this approach, as long as it is used simply as one tool of a full kit, can be profitable in examining the one thing it denies - authorial intention.

So let us say that a rap song is a text extant, there to be read, considered and interpreted by an 'ideal reader'. This ideal reader, according to structuralist principles, would require a perfect knowledge of the language and frames of reference of the text, as well as a full critical armoury: for example, he would be able to recognise, categorise, cross-reference and then interpret accordingly every allusion the hip-hop artist made. So to do this, the reader would need a literary education, yet an intricate knowledge of one of the fastest-changing and bafflingly inventive vernaculars ever to surface for wider consumption. He would then be able to understand the undercurrents and hidden meanings of a hip-hop song, and forge an interpretation of it.

The ridiculousness of structuralist theory, intent on extracting meaning without intention, intention without person, must strike anyone. Yet by removing the hip-hop artist as it would ask us to do, we consider his text like any other. The ideal reader required to read it would have a little more work on his hands than with a piece of 1920's novellistic fiction written in standard English, but, given time to swot up from his ghetto dictionary, could examine the text and extract both its overt and hidden meanings.

Now, if we remove the structuralist ideal reader and replace him with the listening public, we realise that most people who listen to hip-hop are woefully deficient in at least one of the above skills, often both. University educated literary theorists who listen to enough hip-hop to have sufficient knowledge of its slang (let alone visual and musical conventions) to produce an interpretation are thin on the ground.

Now let us completely re-disregard structuralism and replace the creator of the hip-hop work in the equation. He is producing music on his own terms, ignoring the concept of the 'ideal reader' and making no concessions to people unable and/or unwilling to understand him. Whereas a traditional novellist or journalist feels himself forced to make concessions to standard English for their texts to be interpreted, the average hip-hop artist makes few. Yet he does not target his linguistic or musical peers alone; he puts his music into the public domain. The fact that most hip-hop artists are more than happy to perform abroad shows their confidence in the face of their actual incomprehensibility: the message of the art may be transfered by the music, by snatches of understood words, but no artist can hope that a Polish teenager can put together a fully coherent interpretation of a verse stuffed with slang.

Obvious answers as to why hip-hop artists are happy to target their art in its form at a notionally understanding black audience up on their slang and the conventions of the genre, and yet to target it in its practice at anyone willing to listen are: fame and money. Others are, to briefly reapply a structuralist perspective, that: once in the public domain, a work of art looses not only control over its recipient, but the control and existence of its creator.

Yet to textually examine some of hip-hop's defining raps, we can see a more complicated set of issues concerning who the artist is targeting, a target that frequently changes with the vintage of the artist, as well as other factors. The 'implied reader' that structuralism denies is there in much hip-hop, but not as a one and only. The implied listener of much hip-hop is the young black male, but the artists are frequently conscious not only of the fact that others will be listening in, but that as artist, he is himself using the implied listener to address these other listeners.

A good place to start an exploration of this is "Rappers' Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. It is not the first hip-hop text, but it is the first hip-hop text to be fully recorded in standard, consummable form, and then to be consumed by the wider public. It is, for our purposes, a convenient "beginning" of hip-hop as a cultural product.

Now what you hear is not a test; I'm rappin' to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
See I am Wonder Mike and I like to say "hello"
To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow
But first I gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie

As a introductory narrative of hip-hop and its aims, this text is at once revealing and deceptive, although it clearly could not and did no fully anticipate the present position of the genre as a world-wide capitalised industry. Whilst offering an idea of cultural inclusion on the surface of the text, disregarding colour to the extent that it becomes surreal, Wonder Mike tacitly aknowledges that his greetings to all races are still aimed at these races through his own racially limited discourse. He does this by using black slang that others will find confusing: "rappin'", "bang bang the boogie". We must remember that in its 1979 cultural-context, even the word "rapping" was not instantly recognisable. The song simultaneously functions as a self-conscious introduction to their genre ("what you hear is not a test; I'm rappin' to the beat"), yet as a deliberately uncompromising, perhaps obscurantist furthering of it ("but first I gotta bang bang to the boogie"). It smacks of a baptism of fire, a throwing in at the deep end: the briefest of introductions, followed by an enforced participation. The extreme catchiness of the music, taken from a culturally more familiar context ("Good Times") makes it irresistable to not just to its usual audience of black locals in underground clubs, but to the wider pop-consuming public. It is at once a definition, a continuation, and a mutation of hip-hop as it was then known. It is continuing to target one audience, whilst implicitly targeting another.

The question of authorial intention is, for once, relatively easy to determine here. The Sugarhill Gang were fully aware that this song was to be taken as a first attempt at commercial diffusion, partly explaining the precautionary "now what you here is not a test". Yet, aware of this imminent spread beyond a core of people within their highly linguistically exclusive, class- and race-orientated discourse, they refuse to 'tone down' the slang in the rest of a song, a tradition which hip-hop has followed ever since.

And through the changing styles of those who followed the Sugarhill Gang, from the mid-eighties onwards varying more and more in geo-linguistic terms, adressing the audience has remained an indispensible skill for the hip-hop artist. A large proportion of rap albums begin with an Intro, which is frequently an opportunity for the artist to direct his work much like a preface. Most songs then include frequent direct address, from the general "Yes yes y'all" to the more specific references of more unusual artists, such as Eminem. Much of the direct address of the audience is drawn directly from live hip-hop culture, which includes standard, formulaic, but guaranteed-successful exhortations of the audience to 'wave your motherfucking hands in the air', or to divide the floor and encourage them to shout each other down. This is often inserted into a hip-hop album either as a live-recorded snippet or as part of the actual rap.

As both, this kind of referencing of the participatory origins of hip-hop serves several purposes. The listeners who have seen the act live, those 'closest' to the artist - the original 'target audience' - are reminded of the credible roots of the artists, whilst those outside of this original bracket are reminded of them too. Yet, despite not having been there from the beginning, despite perhaps never having seen the group live, the listener feels not excluded by this exclusivity, but drawn in. When a rap artist calls out for all his real niggas and bitches to get down to this shit, it does not stop a young white British male dancing all the harder.

As such, the 'target audience' of the hip-hop artist is anyone who wants to feel included; the authorial intention of targetting an often racially and geographically specific audience ("for all m niggas..." or "for all my peoples...") is not to attract only this target audience, but to attract anyone who might want to be in this target audience. This is where structuralism helps again: by removing the context of the hip-hop artist making such statements on record, they cease to become exclusive. All of a sudden, if the artist and original context are removed, they begin to look like simple rhetorically exhortative insertions to get the reader involved, part of the system of the text.

To add back in the artist, we see that what appear to cries aimed to exclude actually effectively include the widest but best audience; those who want to subsribe to the call. As such, hip-hop is actually offering a 'communion in music', but in a politically incorrect and very un-social-workerish way.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

What makes something worth critical appraisal?

...Or, in other words, why will I not be writing about Vanilla Ice?

As discussed in previous posts, the borders of hip-hop are cover wide and diverse territory. Some of this territory contributes more to the hip-hop nation than other parts of it. Regions such as Gangsta Rap may be in turmoil, but be quite productive from a critical point of view. Areas such as Eminem may be in constant upheaval, but contribute immeasurably to the whole. Yet some provinces of hip-hop remain fallow.

I am treading on thin ice here: the raison d'être of this site is to prove that hip-hop is worth critical investigation, so to say that some types of it are not may seem hipocritical. Yet just as literary critics would refuse to write about Mills&Boon romantic-pulp fiction, so will I refuse to write about certain sections of the music.

The criteria that must be used for deciding what to write about are different from those that make something successful. It is not that there is no overlap: frequently, what makes art worthy of examination also boosts its sales, but it is not so often true that what makes art a commercial success renders it worthy of critical investigation. One cannot write off Mills&Boon or indeed Vanilla Ice, En Vogue, or Cassidy in the world of hip-hop, because they are important; people listen to them. But they cannot stand up to the kind of analysis that I am intending to apply. Simply, the levels of meaning are too thin.

A perfect recent example is Cassidy's Hotel. The song has been played everywhere, is known by everyone, and is quite catchy and good to get down to. The lyrics are not bad, they're just not too deep. "If you wanna come to my hotel..." - OK, we get it, you want to do her. The album Split Personality, does not deepen the themes to any great extent. I listened to it once, but it didn't fascinate me with hidden meanings or provocative contradictions.

This is not to say that Cassidy is not worth writing about. If someone out there listens to it, and spots something that makes them want to get back and keep the CD locked in their player, then they should write about why, and send it to me! This is the whole point of criticism; this is why Aristotle first started writing about the drama of his day - because something in it fascinated him, and he wanted to find out what it was an explain why. Similarly, this is what drove the first film-studies professors to found their courses, because they realised that something in the films kept them coming back for more. This is why I am writing this blog.

So how then, can one make judgements at all. Isn't it all just a matter of taste? Well, yes. Certainly, anyone can find something interesting in anything. So why is Shakespeare still considered 'better' in some way both than other playwrights of his day, and than most modern culture. Partly, it is tradition - his position as our cultural touchstone is unassailably self-perpetuating. Moreover, however, it is that a large enough number of people agree that it is interesting and worth studying. This is why, subconsciously, we rate it well.

Similarly, as much as what I write about on this site will be a matter of personal taste, I hope that by pointing out what I have seen in and felt about this music, a large enough number of people will agree that there is something there worth discussing. In that sense, I am banking on finding 'something' quite inexact and indescribable - hitting on something that will interest enough people to make the music considered worthwhile.

As much as value judgements are responsible for people who should know better rejecting hip-hop as a valid art form, I am relying partly on these unfair and subjective value judgements to decide what to write about. I hope only that I apply more critical thinking before making such judgements than those critics who may reject the genre out-of-hand (see my introductory essay for more on 'thinking critically' vs 'being critical').

For a fascinating exposition of some of the issues surrounding 'the canon' and deciding what is 'worthy', indeed what is 'literature, see the first chapter of Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, where he explains the 'relative' and 'subjective' nature of what constitutes literature. A basic argument summary applicable to hip-hop literature would be as follows: the text itself contains no actual features that make it worthy Literature, and instead this judgement comes from the reader and his attendant set of personal-idealogical convictions; as such, 'Literature' does not exist, only an infinite number of personally selected sets of texts which the reader considers to be literature; yet, due to the communal aspects of much of the human experience, frequently, these personal sets are broadly similar across groups of people, especially those sharing certain biographical characteristics - in other words, a group of 20-25 year-old university students with a liberal arts education and a certain taste in music are more likely to share the conviction that hip-hop is literature than a group of 50-70 year-old professors of physics, although it is not impossible that some of this group may agree.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Suggested critical approaches to new albums

Several exciting new releases have come out recently. Obviously I haven't listened to them enough to be able to collect enough knowledge of and organise enough thoughts about them to write full critical pieces yet, but I thought it might be good to kick the mental ball rolling with a quick series of keywords for ways to approach these releases.

Eminem: Encore
Wider questions
Role, nature and status of art/artist - specifically, narrativisation of experience; societally, polemicisation and censorship
Role, nature and status as art/artist - especially fact/fiction/truth relationships; self-consciousness of art, with reference to the use of form/repetition/self-quotation
Hip-hop art
Eminem as 'theatre of the gross'
Marshall Mathers' construction of his rap-identity
Self-consciously playing of off hip-hop/american cultural clichés
The hip-hop-beef: Eminem as ironic protagonist?
Rap families - D12/G-Unit vs. Haile, Kim & Debbie

Snoop Dogg: Rythym and Gangsta, The Masterpiece
Wider questions
Form vs. Content - 'fly mac' persona vs. 'common criminal' reality?
'Plaire et instruire' or 'pevertir et corrompre'? - the morality of art
Consciousness in the artist - how much thought and self-consciousness can safely be ascribed
Hip-hop art
The Neptunes as motor - the power of the producer
S-n-double-o-p - creation of the world's most skintight rap-identity
Rap families - Snoop as newly converted family man
Rap roots - abandoning Long Beach?

Xzibit: Weapons of Mass Destruction
Wider questions
Role, nature and status of art - political polemicisation in art
Hipocrisy in art - moral relativism, who are the criminals?
Hip-hop art
Can hip-hop change the world? - Xzibit as politicised rapper
Jail as hip-hop factory - Xzibit's time on the inside as experiential crucible
Golden-State project - how big does the forerunner have to be before the clique gets success?
Knowledge in hip-hop - knowledge vs. street currency

Some of these may later appear as or in finished pieces. They can also simply act as thought-triggers or thought-conduits. Sit back and ponder...