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.