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...

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Critical Essay 2: "Confessional Autobiography: Ushering in old theories in new guises"

Confessional Autobiography: Ushering in old theories in new guises

Usher is a perfect subject for hip-hop critical literature: primarily because his music is filled with real sentiment, if sometimes iced with unseemly sentimentality; secondarily because he is artistically, perhaps literarily, aware. Artistically, the lyrics and structure of the album especially show a high degree of deliberate crafting. Literarily, in embarking upon a work so deeply personal and self-exploratory, Patton had done his background reading on how to confess, and the album is filled with references, some conscious, most subconscious and unconscious, to earlier big hitters in the confessional autobiography-tradition.

In titling his work simply Confessions, Patton is continuing in the illustrious vein of such big hitters as Augustine and Rousseau. Like both, he is grappling with the Kantian dialectic between desire and duty; for these passionate men, personal morality lies between burning, uncontrollable desires and opposing, demanding senses of duty. Where Usher moves away from this tradition of self-examination is in his exclusive emphasis on morality in sexual relationships, whereas the earlier thinkers, although realising that morality is recognised only in relation to others, still concentrated far more on the self.

Yet whilst Patton’s journey is built around talking “about the issues men deal with (in relationships)”[1], his approach to this is strictly autobiographically confessional, not general, abstract or allegorical. What takes him closest to the confessional tradition is his examination of the process and the resultant product. Rousseau especially was aware whilst writing his remarkable Confessions of two major issues surrounding such retrospective autobiographical works.

Firstly, in looking back on events, distortion and anachronisation are inerascible. It is impossible for any human being to remember events a) without distortion and b) without bias, both developed by subsequent events. ‘Confession’ implies telling the truth, but may in fact lead to telling lies, especially as the Subconscious is involved in dictating what is remembered as the truth and how. This is something not tackled by Usher. His motives during confessing are left lyrically untouched. Although using real life events as his segue into Confessions, the lyrics either attempt to completely recreate them ("Confessions Part I"), avoiding the need for layers of post-facto textual distortion, or simply give the events as facts, dealing then with the current resultant feelings (such as in "Truth Hurts"); past infidelities are made clear, but not extensively described. Usher’s primary focus is not on the process of remembering or the nature of truth, and because of this, his Confessions are much lighter and more immediately emotionally powerful than Rousseau’s. The listening audience is not forced to ask themselves every five minutes about the artist’s memory of events or his relation of them. This is not to say that we do not think about whether Usher’s Subconscious is distorting events, but it is not such an issue as to become the primary point of discussion; in Rousseau’s Confessions II, his self-justifying distortion practically becomes the subject matter, fuelled by his awareness of it.

However, the second important Rousseauian issue is tackled head on: namely, motives for confessing. Patton is, by not overtly drawing attention to his own memory and narrativisation, sidestepping the issue of truth in autobiography, but he is dealing with his motivations for this soul-searching. This bears several parallels to Augustine and the French thinker. Confessing for Usher, a committed Christian, is a near-religious act, and so the question is not whether he is telling the truth or not – we are supposed to take for granted that he is to the best of his ability - but why he feels compelled to tell this truth, and what he hopes to gain from doing so.

Usher is conscious of several of the (often conflicting) motives confesseurs are subject to. He recognises the actual selfishness that a supposedly altruistic confession may reveal: telling your girlfriend that you cheated on her may make you look like a man and make you feel less guilty, but it hurts her like hell. He is also aware of the moral highground a confession can bestow: if you have been cheating on your girlfriend, just own up to some other shit and she’ll never suspect a thing. He is consistently and insistently concerned, however, with healthiest side of confession: the added self-knowledge and wisdom that owning up to past misdemeanours offers. Yet all three of these strands of motivation are well explored by Usher, and it is a credit to him that, even after repeated listens, the album still does not definitively propagate any one motivation. The primarily religious confesseur like Augustine plumps for the third, morally defensible motivation for his work to the exclusion of all others, whilst the overly-complex self-deluding Rousseau does the same. Both refuse to a large extent to admit the weakness of an action that requires, on the face of things, so much strength.

If the whole album is called Confessions, it is in a few of the most memorable lines, however, that all of the above can be collated and examined. Confessions Part 1 and Confessions Part 2, the names conceivably taken from the identical titles of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s works, offer some rich veins of confessional-motivational difficulty.

In the opening skit, Usher introduces the work as a confession. “This is us, these are my confessions…” He immediately links the act of confessing to a relationship; for this artist, confession is not so much a Freudian examination of one’s own psychology, rather a traditional admission of wrongdoing toward another party. Rousseau and Augustine, whilst not shying away from the admitting, will concentrate on the self-examining. Usher is taking the word ‘confession’ back to it best-known religious context[2], confessing not his own psyche, but his misdemeanours.

‘Confession’ of this type is a very Catholic tradition, and it is a doctrinal and theological minefield; I readily acknowledge that many Catholics, and people of a less cynical bent concerning human motivations than me, will disagree with much of the following analysis. Usually carried out to a priest, who acts in this respect as a kind of conduit to God, Catholics believe that, as sinners, humans must confess their sins to receive divine clemency. This stems from their strong belief in original sin: humans are born as sinners and will die as sinners, and must admit thus. Confession is the act of consciously assuming one’s status as a sinner, accepting the associated guilt, and begging for the forgiveness that is at the heart of the Christian message. Basically, man is a weak sinner, and is predestined to be so: he must therefore accept his inability not to do wrong, and confess when he does.

This idea that humans are hard-wired to sin was in fact a major tenet of Augustine’s philosophy that he articulated in his own Confessions: “Give me chastity and continence, just not now”. He sees God as a force who offers with the right hand the ability to be virtuous, but foists with the left the inability not to be vicious. Usher does the same. The Augustinian argument, when extended through to Usher’s sexual relationship subject-matter, says that not only can men not resist the temptation to adultery, but are in fact constructed to give in to it by their creator. The first song on the album is a bombastic statement of this weakness, as in “Yeah!” the artist shows his inability to resist the temptations of female flesh:

Because I don't know if I take that chance just where it's gonna lead,But what I do know is the way she dance makes shorty alright with me.The way she get low,I'm like yeah, just work that out for me.She asked for one more dance and I'm like yeah,
How the hell am I supposed to leave? [i]

The scene is a nightclub. The song itself is the acknowledged ‘club hit’ from the album, made partly to ensure sales to those who dance on the kind of night out that Usher is describing: “art imitates life in Confessions”[3]. The lyrics describe a woman dancing in this club in a sexually provocative manner (“get low”, “work that out”), and Usher describes his inability to resist it: with such a fine specimen of womanhood on show, how indeed is he supposed to deny himself? Semantically, the title “Yeah” functions here as an acceptance, an affirmation, and even a celebration of man’s inability to resist sexual temptation. Even at this early stage of the album, the “Intro” has made the listener aware of the omnipresent “us” with which the work will deal, and so “supposed to leave” here indicates that Usher’s desire for the club-woman is trammelled by his duty to another: the problems of sin and confession start here at the coalface of the Kantian dialectic.

That Usher, in good Catholic style, gives in to this vicious temptation is made clear. In the song itself, Ludacris’ irresistibly cheeky, unashamed verse indicates precisely “where it’s gonna lead”: “So gimme the women and it’ll be off with their clothes/ Bend over to the front, and touch your toes”. The sexual connotations here do not need clarification. The album’s structure also contributes to showing the ineluctability of sin. The following song immediately focuses on the consequences of the night before, Usher’s partner having left him precisely because of the kind of shenanigans so luridly described by Luda’: “Mmmm, you gonna want me back”. Throughout the album, this use of the Augustinian ‘original sin’ argument will be a cornerstone for the songster: his Confessions will be based on the idea that their corresponding sins are unavoidable. In the manner described by Kant, Usher suffers because his strong sexual desires for women in general (made most clear in “Yeah!”, “Bad Girl” and the deliciously dirty “That’s what it’s made for”) conflict with his deep affection and reverence for one woman in particular (“Burn”, “Superstar” and “Do it to me”). Much of the real feeling I find in the album comes from this dichotomy; on their own, songs like “Superstar” are in danger of being unforgivably schmaltzy: juxtaposed with tracks like “Caught up”, they take on deeper significance. This is where the structuring of Confessions, placing these pieces consecutively to aid the comparison, is so artistic.

So given the Patton makes clear that sin for him to a part of life, what does this say about his motivations for confessing? “Confessions (Interlude)” makes clear one of them:

Every time I was in L.A. I was with my ex-girlfriend,
Every time you called I told you,"Baby I'm workin’" (No!)
I was out doin’ my dirt (Oh!)
Wasn't thinkin' 'bout you gettin' hurt.
I was hand in hand in the Beverly Center, like man,
Not givin' a damn who sees me.
So gone (I know)
So wrong (Just listen)
Ac’in' like I didn’t have you sittin' at home,
Thinkin' about me,
Bein' the good girl that you are,
But you prob’ly believe you got a good man,
A man that would never do the things I'm about to tell you I've done
Brace yourself: it ain't good
But it would be even worse if you heard this from somebody else (Oh no…)
I know you hate me,
I know I hurt you,
But there's more -

In the opening lines of this half-sung/half-spoken, breathless and atmospheric confession, Usher does not spare his girlfriend the gory details. Each line stabs like a knife at the heart of trust that connected them, the harsh “No!” and “Oh!” underlining the pain he is causing. He speeds through the lines, aware that they are horrific, but feels the need to confess these actions: “Just listen”. In comparing his own reprehensible behaviour (“out doin’ my dirt”) to her praiseworthy conduct (“sittin’ at home… bein’ the good girl”), Usher is highlighting his own guilt, and his need to confess. Although his desperation to confess is made clear by his frantic hurrying of the lines, his motives remain unclear. Essentially, if all of this is so bad, why is he telling his girlfriend about it? Whatever it is that he has done wrong, one motive for his telling her is clear: a combination of virtuous honesty and unfortunate necessity: “It would be even worse if you heard this from somebody else”. Primary motivation: the hitherto secret ‘dirt’ is about to get spread, and both for personal honour, and because all hope of concealment is lost anyway, Usher resolves to tell all.

This speech is preceded on the album by the recreation of a call in which Usher learns that he has got his girl-on-the-side pregnant, although the listener is unaware of this exact detail until the following track, “Confessions Part 2”:

These are my confessions
Just when I thought I said all I can say,
My chick-on-the-side said she got one on the way
These are my confessions
Man, I'm throwed and I don’t know what to do,
I guess I gotta give you part two of my confessions
If I'm gonna tell it then I gotta tell it all,
Damn near cried when I got that phone call,
I'm so dumb and I don't know what to do
But to give you part two of my confessions

The passage is a masterpiece because it offers conflicting and contradictory hints at a range of the different motivations behind the admission, simultaneously peeling back and covering up glimpses of a psychology of confession. “Man, I’m throwed and I don’t know what to do, I guess I gotta…” shows the complexity of the emotions involved; as we have been made aware, Usher knows the act of confession will be unpleasant for him and her, but he feels he has no choice. Once again, the language of obligation comes up (“gotta”), and he feels a duty towards his girlfriend to be truthful with her. Similarly, not being a man of half-measures, the songster opts for the in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound school of confession. Once again this draws on the Catholic idea that we are all sinners in the eyes of God, and God’s eyes are pretty much everywhere. Honesty, if it is not to be a pale mockery of itself, must be complete. Secondary motivation: due to his belief in God and Christian doctrine, his sense of self-worth and of moral obligation to the girl, and his respect and love for her, Usher feels he must spill the beans, however painfully hot they may be.

Yet we may be inclined to seek other motives here, indeed the text asks that we do so. His tacit, subtextual argument for confessing is that, although it will cause her pain to hear it, he will feel better for saying it; it is undeniably selfish. “I don’t know what to do but to give you…my confessions”, he confesses. In other words, his own inertia and foolishness are contributing factors to the pain he is putting the girl through with his blow-by-blow account, and he hopes that, in clearing the air, however nastily, he will be in better frame of mind. There is also the more pragmatic, but no less selfish idea, that they’re relationship might be saved. In the breakdown at the end of the song, Usher cheekily pre-empts: “I hope you can accept the fact that I’m man enough to tell you this, and hopefully you’ll give me another chance”.

Usher’s great achievement in this song is to leave us in no doubt that he feels he must confess, and that he doing a fundamentally right action in doing so, but also to let us know that he is aware of the selfishness inherent in the enterprise. So despite the self-righteous tone of lines like “Now this gon’ be the hardest thing I think I ever had to do…” and “I hope you can accept… that I’m man enough to tell you this…”, Usher demonstrates an understated realisation that it may not actually be very ‘man’ of him to confess:

She opened up the door and didn’t wanna come near me,
I’m saying ‘why’ baby baby, please, baby…

The attentive listener may think that I am wrong. Surely the above line demonstrates that Usher is unaware of the pain his confession is causing, and is simply being self-justificatory in the extreme, concentrating on the difficulty he is going through in confessing. In the song “Confessions Part 2”, the listener may well have a point, but once again, the artistic construction of the album renders much of the contrast and contradiction that makes it such an interesting listen. “Truth Hurts” is a natural follow on from this track in the sense that it deals with the consequences of confession, acknowledging the selfish side of recounting to someone your crimes against them as a means to assuaging conscience. Once again, Usher waits for the breakdown to make this clear:

Truth is, I got the secret I’ve keeping from you baby
I’ve been blaming you when I’m the one that’s doing wrong,
I’m’a go on: my guilty conscience is the reason I wrote this song.

Here we have Usher confessing about the nature and motivation of his confession. This is totally contradictory to “Confessions Part 2”, where the confession is religious: man the sinner admits his status as such and begs forgiveness, showing his virtue precisely by admitting to his vice. In “Truth Hurts”, Usher writes about confession as a more cynically selfish strategy: despite his accusing his lover of infidelity and demanding a confession from her, he ends the song on a breakdown where he confesses, and admits that his ‘guilty conscience’ is at play, not his sense of honour, manliness, or religious-moral conviction.

This is the most interesting feature of Confessions, this Rousseauian self-justification mixed with self-contradiction. Usher seems to be essentially an Augustinian, accepting, and revelling in, his pre-programmed propensity to sin – here, adultery -; he thus takes an Augustinian attitude to confession, a religious idea that admitting equals absolution. As much as this simplistic and sometimes hurtful cycle of sin/confession/sin/confession/sin is offered as a model for life, Usher is careful not to exclude the less poetic side of things: the doctrine of original sin and its resulting arguments as outlined above are nicely thought out, but do not make the consequences of his actions and subsequent graphic confessions any less hurtful. That this one album can support a whole range of moral motivations for the act of confession is impressive, and it does so primarily by its juxtaposition of songs.

The separation of the sides of the arguments into opposing songs (“Confessions Part 2” vs. “Truth Hurts” or “Yeah!” vs. “Superstar”) allows Usher to manifest the contradictions inherent in human nature to the full: one minute, he is totally self-assured and self-righteous, the next, completely overcome by self-doubt and self-loathing. And as much as this album is about relationships, “about us” as the “Intro” reminds us, it is about the self, because as Usher shows us, we find out about ourselves only in relation to others, we define our morals only in interaction with others, between our own desires and imposed duties. In terms of Kantian dialectics, Patton shows instinctive understanding far outstripping most people I have ever met.

[2] There are three religious definitions of the word in English:
1. A formal declaration of sins
2. A religious group sharing beliefs
3. A declaration of beliefs and doctrines
Usher is primarily concerned with the first definition.
[i] All lyrics from own transcriptions, consulting for comparison and ideas.

Critical Essay 2: "Confessional Autobiography: Ushering in old theories in new guises" INTRO

To tackle Usher’s recent album Confessions as a hip-hop album may seem to some wrong. To such people, I make no apologia here. I have stated that trying to define ‘hip-hop’ is like trying to define, in literary terms ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’, or in musical terms, ‘rock n’ roll’ or ‘jazz’: simply put, attempts to define what is genre with positive criteria end only in describing only the genre is not. The borders of a territory as expansive as hip-hop are necessarily ill-defined, unmapped and un-policeable. Usher’s work certainly bears the hallmark style, sound and slang of hip-hop, even if it is mostly sung, and that’s enough for me.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Critical Essay 1: -How many mics do you rip...- Artistic Self-Awareness in the Fugees' "The Score"

Long recognised as one of hip-hop’s classic works, The Fugees’ 1995 album The Score has yet to leave the decks of the genre’s most discriminating DJs, nor the drives of its most ardent fans. Everyone recognises it as a defining moment within the genre, and that it renders much that had gone before and most of what would follow facile in comparison is undisputed: musically and lyrically it is a work of such complexity and intellect, that little can compare. If everyone recognises the power of its words, no one has actually defined what it is about the content of The Score that is so undoubtedly mind-blowing.

Apart from its obvious status as a work of hip-hop, a generic context which it clearly masters, what certainly interests me, and is latent if not recognised in most of its tracks, is its wider artistic importance. The Score, as indicated in its very title, is a CD about status: ‘What’s the score?’ is a colloquial way of asking about the current situation, and is especially apt considering the frequently used analogy of hip-hop as a ‘game’. It is about its own status within its genre, about hip-hop’s status as a genre, and about the status of art as a whole.

Within hip-hop, The Score occupies an unrivalled place at the top of the game. Critics and fans alike rightly point to the sharp wit of the three MCs who compose the line-up in placing themselves lyrically above their rivals. The long-held hip-hop tradition of ‘battling’ and ‘dissing’ is echoed resonantly in the opening tracks of the album, which thus interposes itself immediately at the top of its generic context. The crew reflect this mastery of their genre by embellishing hackneyed hip-hop phrases to great effect, creating something new and advanced out of the detritus of repeated clichés around them. Commercial hip-hop can be seen to be formulaic in the way that contemporary pop, or even classical theatre often is, and in adding depth and giving back meaning to its overused refrains, the Fugees immediately dominate it with their originality. The opening tracks, ‘How many mics’, ‘Ready or Not’, and ‘Zealots’ are all expressly concerned with the status of the Fugees’ rappers – Wyclef, Pras and Lauryn. Their subject matter is popular hip-hop and other MCs: their derogation of both is mercilessly skilled. In 'Ready or Not', the crew rap over a brooding, menacing beat about their intention to dominate their genre through Machiavellian brainpower. The title/chorus is the warning, imitating the warning given in the children’s game hide ’n’ seek, and the Fugees exploit the common ‘game’ analogy to great effect.

“I play my enemies like a game of chess,
Where I rest, no stress if you don’t smoke cess.”
(“Ready or Not”)

Lauryn takes the devalued use of ‘playing’ to mean ‘outwit’, exceptionally popular in hip-hop, and adds a simile that indicates her own intellectual prowess. She means to demonstrate her superiority, and so takes the formula other MCs would use to demonstrate theirs, and in extending it, proves her own and destroys their attempts. Her disdain for clichéd rappers is made clear in the next line, where she negates cannabis consumption as an indicator of prowess. Having dealt swiftly and skilfully with other MCs, she moves on to ignore them, using the rest of the verse to show off her own undoubted lyrical dexterity and eclectic range of sources.

“Less, I must confess my destiny’s manifest,
In some gortex and sweats I make tracks like I’m homeless,
Rap orgies with Porgy and Bess,
Capture your bounty like Eliot Ness.”

Lauryn binds together her verse with a series of /ε/ sounds delivered in time to the beat of the bass line, offering a strong poetic sound and making these amongst the most celebrated lines in hip-hop. Her formal tying together of the verse with this keynote sound reflects her substantial fusion of a wide collection of cultural references, from the musical[1] and literary[2] to the historic and cinematic[3], into her own trademark cultural product. Indeed, she finishes the verse by knotting all of these threads in one simple but dense unit:

“So why you imitating Al Capone? I be Nina Simone
And defecating on your microphone.”

The mention of Al Capone refers back to the Eliot Ness-simile, and allows her to prove once again her own lyrical superiority. Lauryn claims as an MC to be Eliot Ness, and then characterises her rapping rivals as Al Capone: it was Ness who finally brought down Capone’s ring in prohibition era Chicago. In the context of Gangsta Rap, a sub-genre dominating hip-hop back in 1995, Lauryn is making oblique but clear reference to Gangsta Rap’s MCs, likening them to an original 1920’s gangster. Her irony is cutting, and is sharpened further by her accusation that they are but “imitating” him: Gangsta Rap was dominated by claims to genuine ‘OG’ status – Original Gangster – although many of its stars were in fact from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Their professions to be ‘real’ were in fact false. As gangbuster Ness, Lauryn is verbally demolishing their formulaic falsity, and then, as at the beginning of the verse, further insulting them by ignoring them and talking about herself. She becomes Nina Simone, a heroine of black culture. Simone’s militant but eloquent defence of black rights is evoked by Lauryn against what can be seen as the destructive, stereotypical and stereotyping effects of Gangsta Rap on the perception of black culture. Simone also sang one of Gershwin’s Porgy songs to great acclaim, and this links her in with the earlier references of the verse. By integrating herself into examples of literary, intellectual African-American culture, Lauryn leaves her competition standing. The icing on this intricate cake is Nina Simone’s repute as a vocal artist: Lauryn originally broke through with her own splendid singing voice, and indeed employs it to great effect on The Score in addition to her rapping. Then Lauryn again employs hip-hop cliché and then furthers it, a convenient metaphor for her furthering of her own genre: it the standard cry of many MCs to be ‘shitting on the mic’, and so Lauryn twists this, avoiding profanity in a final swipe at Gangsta Raps often overly profane style. She is demonstrating her clear range of talent and intellect in an amazingly concise form. When, in the chorus of the song, she harmoniously claims: “You can’t run away, from these styles I got”, the superiority of these styles has been made clear.

A similar close textual analysis of ‘Zealots’ reveals all three MCs on top form in recycling rap clichés to elevate themselves above the competition: the song must clearly rank with all the best hip-hop tracks based around the tradition of ‘representing’. Further incidental lines dealing with their competitors or their own brilliance punctuate the Fugees’ album, but to ignore the other levels of The Score, and to reduce it to a work solely concerned with battling its intra-generic competitors, would be to reduce it to the level of these competitors. Contextual listeners requiring un-self-aware, belligerent Gangsta Rap have the self-absorbed Tupac or Biggie Smalls, whilst the Fugees effortlessly dominate this genre, and branch out into others.

This explains the sheer breadth of cultural references in The Score. I’ve already examined one set in detail, but besides this acknowledgement of previous Black artists, and wider American society, the MCs flaunt an impressive range of reference. Biblical language infuses tracks like ‘Family Business’ and ‘Zealots’, whilst Wyclef employs the echoes of the Faust-myth and detailed astronomical analogies (‘Zealots’). Indeed, on ‘Zealots’, Pras develops the Faust-reference with his own evocation of the related “The Phantom of the Opera”, pointing to a wider artistic consciousness in creating the work. This awareness of the process of art is as rare in hip-hop as it is in literature, but it is common in The Score.

The ability of the crew to master their genre, but then to examine and question it, before moving on to investigate music and artistic creation as a whole, is striking. The introduction, ‘Red Intro’, highlights the statuses of the work: its status as an album, its status as a hip-hop album, indeed, its status as art.

“Colombia Ruffhouse Records presents,
A Refugee Camp production,
Fugees, The Score.

And now… for our feature presentation…”

It functions like the flyleaves of, or prefaces to, a novel; it reminds the reader of the fictional nature of what he is about to experience, even under the guise of realistic text. Most hip-hop albums rely on their covers, sleeves and inserts to do this, but here, the Fugees insist on the idea of the CD as art. Track 13 furthers the point, containing an ‘Outroduction’ as well (‘Manifest/Outro’):

“The Score was written by the Fugees.”

A voice then goes on to give movie-style credits for the production of the work, echoing the cinematic use of “feature presentation” in the introduction. My novelistic take on the album is confirmed:

“Narrated by my man Warren”.

Nestled in between two songs, this ‘Outro’ is easy to ignore or deny full consideration, but that it is a close to an album is clear. Indeed, what makes it extraordinary is that it is followed by more songs. However, these songs are remixes, and it is clear that the ‘Outro’ is dividing a discrete ‘album within an album’ from the rest of the CD. In this way, The Score is as much ‘an album about an album’ as many novels are described as ‘books about books’. The cover and insert, then the ‘intro’ and ‘outro’, function as frames for a self-conscious piece of art.

Indeed, this finds support within the album. Its commercially most popular track, ‘Killing me softly’, is actually a remix. As with literary intertextuality, the remix is an important way for hip-hop artists to come to terms with their status as artists. That the Fugees are consciously doing this, however, is stressed by a kind of preface to the track, taking their own remix and playing with the key words of its chorus. They change the words slightly or homonymically, suggesting the arbitrary nature of language in art. Furthermore, the changes they make move the song away from its function as a love-song to a song questioning their very act of artistic creation:

“Strumming dub-plates with our fingers,
Eliminate sounds with our song,
Killing a sound boy with this sound,
Killing a sound boy, with this sound
Taking sound boys’ lives, with this dub
Killing him softly, with this sound.”

This fragment is followed by the sound of a record being changed, a momentary artistic void, drawing attention to this questioning of art. It explicitly deals with the musical apparatus of the art of their genre, sound itself in the forms of vinyl records, the ‘dub’. This fragment demonstrates the extraordinary self-awareness of the Fugees, and their evident preoccupation with the wider artistic process.


(i) The Score, The Fugees (Audio CD, 13th February 1996, Colombia)
(ii) [4]

[1] George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935)
[2] DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, which provided the material for the abovementioned opera.
[3] The Untouchables, appearing in 1987, tells the story of the 20’s gangbuster, Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Kostner).
[4] provides lyrics, although these are suggested by fans and are not definitive. I have changed them where I think there is good case, although due to the democratic nature of the content of the site, they are usually plausible versions.

Critical Essay 1: -How many mics do you rip...- Artistic Self-Awareness in the Fugees' "The Score" - INTRO

This first critical essay on hip-hop will paint a broad canvas of just some of this issues critical literature can tackle: artistic self-awareness.

Artistic self-awareness is when a piece of art becomes aware of its artificiality. The creators of the art, rather than trying to tie it directly into our consciousness as a take on reality, feel the need to alert us to the fact that what we are experiencing is art, is artificial. This sometimes known as self-referentiality or meta-narration.

To offer and explanation for why this is happening is possible but hugely time-consuming. I will point out in this essay just how the Fugees' highlight the status of The Score as art; I would like anyone who makes it to the conclusion of the article to think about why they are doing it. Post/get in touch with me to compare ideas.

In defense of hip-hop criticical literature; in defense of criticism.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have been doing two things very consistently over the past few years. Other activities and ideas have come and gone, but hip-hop and criticism have been the only things to remain firm favourites.

By hip-hop, I mean the music genre. I will not attempt to define it exactly here; to do so would lead unnecessarily to the kind of wanky, over-intellectualised thesis that I and others deeply involved in artistic-generic theory might find interesting, the kind of thesis that, however, will put almost any potential reader off.

By criticism, I do not mean simply being critical (although I very frequently, and very acerbically, am), but thinking critically; the difference is that someone who is being critical is not necessarily thinking critically. It is very easy to dismiss anything and everything out of hand, but it is less easy to have good reason to do so. If I ever am critical, I try to make sure it is because I have first thought critically. Indeed, in a blog intended largely to make many of our supposed ‘critical thinkers’ less needlessly, dismissively critical of a certain type of music, it would be sadly ironic to sink into the same lazy thought myself.

In a more specific sense, I mean formalised, written criticism. For those not familiar with the term (and, as important as this is to me, I realise that surprisingly few have ever had real contact with it), this formal criticism is essentially an investigation into what makes a piece of art ‘work’. It can be broken down by different art-forms: literary, artistic, musical. It can be looked at by its approach to the artwork in question; this, in turn, can be divided into certain ideas and theories of how art affects us: psycho-analytical, formalist, historicist. All of this sounds complex, and is indeed, but is not impenetrable.

Let us take a piece of formal written criticism: it is called “Human animalism: animalistic humanity – A psycho-analytical authorial approach to Lord of the Flies”. It sounds intellectual, and it is. It sounds somewhat jargonistic, and it is. Yet, if you know the jargon, the essay-title will already have your mind on the right train. The essay is dealing with a work of literature. It is using psycho-analysis, i.e. the unpacking of the subconscious, to discover motivations of its author and how they work in the text. This means that it is less focused on the traditional aspects of the book – its plot and the techniques used to write it – and more interested in what certain key words and actions reveal about the author. If it were called “A proto-language of Savagery – Golding’s linguistic mirror of deterioration in Lord of the Flies”, we would know that the essay will be concentrating on how the language that the author consciously gives his characters reflects something about them and makes the text work.

By 'make the text work', we are not talking about something only accessible to those who know the ins and outs of it, who have studied it and who know the critical vocabulary I have begun to outline. We are talking basics: everyone knows whether a text they are reading works; if they’re still reading it beyond the first few lines, then the text can be said to be working. If you’ve just read the preceding sentence, you now know that this text that I am writing is working. You could probably analyse critically how and why it is working: how is my language making you interested (language-centred critical approach); how the form I have given the text helps the reader understand my points (formalist); how the biographical facts of my existence have led me to write this text, this very word (biographical approach), perhaps leading on to an examination of my conscious and subconscious motives (psycho-analytical approach). If I drew a picture, you could do the same. If I recorded an album, you could apply those techniques.

And these are some of the techniques I will apply to hip-hop music. For those of you who don’t know, in Academia there exist thousands of journals where every month people are paid to apply these patterns of thought to texts and pictures from throughout history. They are things that are loaded into what we call the ‘cultural cannon’, things like Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and even Tolkien; these are things that are accepted as art, as worth thinking critically about.

These people are supposed to be, and in many cases our, advancing human understanding. By finding out ‘how a text works’, they are unlocking what keeps us fascinated by certain works of art; they are helping us to understand why we understand what we do about books and pictures – they are helping us to understand ourselves.

The problem is, as always, that if you haven’t read Shakespeare, an essay on why “Macbeth” acts as a useful description of the determinism argument is useless. ‘Determinism’ – more jargon, but an idea that confronts everyone every day: are things really fated to happen, is someone up there pulling the strings, etc. ‘Determinism’ and arguments about it can be found and revealingly unpacked in Shakespeare, and can lead to an enhanced understanding of the issue. But they can also be found in the recent work of Eminem, and if examined with similar pursuit and precision as that applied to the elder Bard, can enhance understanding of the ideas to. And more people who need to understand these arguments for and against ‘determinism’ will have listened to Eminem than will have read Shakespeare. The aim of formal criticism is, in helping people to understand art, to help them understand themselves. This is my aim too.

This site will probably not attract any readers. Anyone who understands already the critical methods I will apply will probably abhor hip-hop: anyone who listens already to the music I will examine will probably be actually unaware of criticism. But if just one literary critic listens to one rap track with similar care as he reads his James, and if just one hip-hop head listens to that same track and applies a newfound critical care to it, then I will have achieved my aim. There must be a crossover somewhere.

Hip-hop should explode out of the cultural cannon with an intellectual bang, not lie damp and unburned at its side, ignored by the gunners and underestimated by its producers.

Welcome to Hip-Hop Literature

Welcome to hip-hop literature!

This is a site that aims to apply critical theory to this insanely popular but woefully understudied genre of modern music.

Hip-hop heads, go find your dictionary.
Literary critics, go buy that shit.
My friends and those who know me, sit back and laugh.