Back in the late 1970s rap was a verb, not a noun, and hip-hop was a line from a children's rhyme. Then a group of scrappy kids in the South Bronx began to set up impromptu block parties, powering turntables and microphones with stolen electricity from nearby street lamps. DJs created rudimentary collages from the rhythmic breaks of old funk and soul records, and toastmasters urged on crowds with improvised exhortations to dance. Thus a whole new culture was born.
It is hard to imagine that any of these men and women could ever have dreamed that their neighbourhood soundtrack would grow up to become a cornerstone of contemporary American life, far less a worldwide multibillion dollar industry. However, this commercial success aside, rap music has for the last few decades largely been viewed as a youth movement with little interest in the imprimatur of serious art. That is, until now.
In many ways, the last 12 months have seen mainstream hip-hop make a series of transitions into respectable adulthood. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the world of publishing. Late in 2010 Jay-Z's Decoded and Yale University Press's The Anthology of Rap collected the genre's seemingly offhand pearls of wisdom for posterity, enshrining them between lavishly bound covers. While at odds with the music's roots, Jay-Z's move was almost to be expected: it was after all, a savvy bit of marketing, and what better way for an increasingly establishment figure to make a decisive bid for respectability than a searching personal memoir referencing his own prolific body of work? The idea of the Yale Anthology, though, suggests another prospect entirely; one of underground expression tamed and brought to heel by the institutions of high culture.
So, is rap now the preserve of academia; is it the throwaway street-life and party music of Young Jeezy and Black Eyed Peas; or is it, indeed, some combination of both?
As hip-hop rapidly approaches middle age, a number of recent indicators have pointed toward a certain maturation. Kanye West, mainstream rap's crown prince, released what is by popular consensus the best album of last year. Consumed by the price of fame and the trials of material success, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is even more paranoid and sour than West's earlier LPs; a complex portrait of one man coming to terms with life in the public eye. The last year has also been dominated by veteran artists who captured the imagination with grown-up variations on familiar themes: the loverman anthems and soul melodies of Cee-Lo Green's The Lady Killer, and the thumping Southern rap of the OutKast member Big Boi's long-awaited Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son of Chico Dusty.
In both form and content, all these albums represent high points in an increasingly ambitious genre, but can we really analyse the pithy aphorisms of hip-hop in the same way so many obsessive fans have pored over the lyrics of Bob Dylan?
According to Jay-Z, the answer is an emphatic "yes". "No chrome on the wheels/I'm a grown-up for real," he rapped on 2003's Dirt Off Your Shoulder, but it is one thing for an artist to eschew deluxe rims for his car, and quite another to publish a soulful chronicle of his youth that simultaneously deciphers the tangled metaphors of some of rap's biggest hits. Throughout Decoded, Jay-Z is careful to let us know that his posse now includes the likes of Bill Clinton and Bono, that these days he is more at home making public appearances with the academic and activist Cornel West than hanging on the street corner. However, the book's focus stays firmly on his formative years: "This isn't a song written from a soapbox," he says of 2003's 99 Problems, "it's written from the front seat of a Maxima speeding down the highway with a trunk full of trouble."
Decoded has it both ways, diving headfirst into a catalogue of songs written from that same front seat, while rhetorically residing in a booth at Graydon Carter's Waverly Inn. Co-written with the journalist Dream Hampton, it is an argument for the virtuosity and exuberance of the genre, striving "to make the case that hip-hop lyrics - not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC - are poetry if you look at them closely enough."
"The story of the larger culture is a story of a million MCs all over the world who are looking out their windows, or standing on street corners, or riding in their cars through their cities or suburbs," Jay-Z explains. "Inside of them the words are coming, too, the words they need to make sense of the world they see around them. The words are witty and blunt, abstract and linear, sober and f***ed up. And when we decode that torrent of words - by which I mean really listen to them - with our minds and our hearts open - we can understand their world better. And ours, too."
Hip-hop is not just a business, or even a sound, to this author. It is art stripped down to its most elemental form - a means of expression that convincingly conveys the visceral urgency of now in a torrent of perfectly timed couplets. Unfortunately, the message sometimes appears at cross-purposes with the medium. Jay-Z is a wizard of wordplay, but the likes of Big Pimpin', brilliant song though it may be, cannot entirely bear the burden of the social significance Decoded seeks to attach to his oeuvre.
Structured thematically, every chapter is devoted to a single theme - the streets, say, or family. Each comprises a brief autobiographical fragment, paired with annotated lyrics, providing spaces in which Jay-Z can both detail his past struggles and break down his craft. Accordingly, the personal journey and the music are presented as inextricably entwined. "We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets… and in a way, that was a gift: we got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves." As one of those kids responsible for siring hip-hop as we know it today, Decoded is, in a way, Jay-Z's acknowledgement of paternity. Like most fathers, he wishes to claim the kind of gravitas not possessed by sons, so here he makes the transformation from hustler to historian.
For all his occasional lapses into over-explanation, readers will appreciate Jay-Z's willingness to indulge in literary auto-critique, exposing the hidden meanings of even his densest lyrics. For instance, passages like "Cause he was on the block where no squares get off/See in my inner circle all we do is ball/Till we all got triangles on the wall," may make little sense on first reading, but all becomes clear in the notes. The geometric metaphors cloak the message that Jay-Z and his crew, marking time in the darkest corners of the ghetto - "where no squares get off" - will keep on rapping - "balling" - until each has a platinum plaque - "a triangle" - on the wall, rewarding the sale of one million albums.
As an exercise intended "to balance art, craft, authenticity, and accessibility," Decoded provides ample proof of its writer's lyrical gifts, even as its very existence indicates a lack of faith in the perspicacity of his audience.
As seen in the above lines, hip-hop has long trafficked in the wilds between literal and metaphorical notions of the outlaw, and Jay-Z, while never disavowing the seamier elements of his past, now seeks to tip the ledger toward the latter. "Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honour in rap,” he notes, citing “the Fox News dummies” who insist on literalising the figurative, confusing storytellers with their stories.
The likes of Clipse, whose remorselessly claustrophobic vignettes of life at the frontline of the drug economy, have made for some of the most indelible urban music of the past decade – as well as many of his own thug-life songs – might belie this position. But over the course of his career Jay-Z has transcended the petty mundanity of quotidian street-hustle to become a truly credible elder statesman and figurehead of his genre. In this sense, adulthood suits him well.
Compiling a book of hip-hop lyrics is, as Decoded asserts, a tricky business. “MCs – think about Run from Run-DMC – turn words into percussion,” Jay-Z explains, quoting a sequence of lines from one of the group’s best-loved songs. “The words themselves don’t mean much, but… the point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning.” If this is true – and hardly any hip-hop fan would argue otherwise – how can deconstructing rap songs on the printed page compare to the buzz of hearing them being performed?
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, follows in the footsteps of such earlier efforts as The Vibe History of Hip Hop and Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. Both were modestly successful efforts at crafting a hip-hop canon; attempts to take a roomful of Jackson Pollocks and squeeze the squiggles of paint back into their individual tubes. Similarly, the Anthology traces rap’s genealogy with quasi-religious formality: Biggie begat Jay-Z, who begat Kanye, and so forth.
With many of the quoted lyrics, the temptation to rhyme along – or at least to bob one’s head to their silent melody – is near-unavoidable. But the task of the Anthology is complicated by its being a book, not an audio box-set. As Bradley and DuBois note, MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This may be a landmark hip-hop single in terms of commercial success, but it is not much in the way of poetry. As a result, neither Hammer nor Vanilla Ice are anywhere to be found, and a chart-conquering hit like the Notorious B.I.G.’s Mo Money Mo Problems is eschewed in favour of the intricate structure of Ten Crack Commandments. As would be expected, old-school titans like Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and De La Soul come in for extended study, but so do more recent masters, including Ghostface Killah and the current master of free-associative surrealism, Lil Wayne.
Appearing in print, hip-hop hits have the look of poetry – albeit a frequently profane version. As such, the Anthology privileges pure rap over pop-crossover, metre over melody. Still, the result is not so much a distortion of urban-music history as a knowing distillation of it; a cogent argument for the lyrical inventiveness of the form, even as it subtly edits out its more accessible sides.
Despite its many positive points, the Anthology is hardly perfect, though. As the writer Paul Devlin recently detailed in a series of articles for Slate, many of its transcriptions are inaccurate. Bradley and DuBois are not to be excused for their sloppiness, but the outrage of purists also speaks to a hesitance regarding the institutional seal of approval gradually being granted to hip-hop. If Yale says rap music is art, are its fans still cultural rebels, or merely representatives of the new mainstream?
“As poetic practice,” Bradley and DuBois note, “rap verses are often confrontational, composed either in competition with an actual rhyme adversary, or in mock battle with an imagined one. A dominant theme, therefore, is the elevation of the self and the denigration of the opponent.” This has always been the case in hip-hop, from the days of the Sugarhill Gang to 50 Cent and Gucci Mane, but another facet of hip-hop’s personal growth is a turn away from the imagined foe to the ever-present enemy of the self.
Even at his most cartoonish, Eminem – an artist who grew downright socially conscious with the recent domestic-violence-themed hit Love the Way You Lie – has long practised this sort of public psychoanalysis, but on Fantasy, West also chose self-flagellation over the evisceration of putative rivals.
West is so often in the news for reasons having little to do with music – laying into President Bush, bum-rushing Taylor Swift, verbally attacking talk-show hosts – that reminders of his prodigious musical and songwriting gifts can come as a surprise – rather like Lindsay Lohan embarking on a season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He had already explored the themes of fame’s darker reaches on 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, a well-received album which favoured Auto-Tune-heavy, minor-key ballads over the soul samples and bright choruses of his first three albums. Fantasy conjoins the sombre attitude of its predecessor with the baroque production of his earlier breakout work.
In terms of pure sound, the album is grandiose to the point of near-parody. West deploys samples of the prog-rock group King Crimson and the spoken-word jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron, and a flock of guest performers including Nicki Minaj (who spits fire on Monster), Rick Ross, the indie-folk band Bon Iver, and, of course, Jay-Z. Fantasy is hardly triumphal, though. As an MC, West paints himself as a narcissist who hopes to become an altruist; a performer who knows that excess is his greatest asset, despite the fact that it warps his sense of self. “Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/every one of them that I know,” he sings on the chorus of Runaway, revealing himself to be one of those he castigates with the pay-off line, “Baby I got a plan/run away fast as you can.”
On Power, he reserves further brickbats for himself, even as he hails his own lyrical prowess: “I embody every characteristic of the egotistic… Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault.” “Every superhero need his own theme music,” he shouts on Power. But West’s Bruce Wayne fantasies are presented as a handicap: “Hard to be humble when you stuntin’ on a Jumbotron,” he notes on Devil in a Blue Dress. Fantasy is by far the most opulent of West’s albums, draped with gewgaws of rock ’n’ roll at its most bombastic. What saves it from fatal bloat is its creator’s undeniable gift for taking discrete nuggets of melody – King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man on Power, Rocky horns on All of the Lights, the stately violins and guitar squall on the outro to Runaway – and weaving them into dazzling tapestries. Such moments prove that instead of letting his arrogance get the best of him, West would do better to let the music do the talking.
After all, from its humble roots in New York’s outer boroughs, hip-hop’s rhythms and rhymes have established the style as a global phenomenon. In the last three decades, the genre’s influence has spread far and wide, transcending barriers of class and geography. In fact, Yale could easily publish another edition of the Anthology devoted solely to non-American MCs, from Britain’s Dizzee Rascal and The Streets to the hundreds of French, African and Middle Eastern performers who have adapted the form to reflect their own lives and cultures. As Jay-Z notes in Decoded, this music has proven stunningly adept at creating ways “to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world [can] feel and relate to”.
Given the emphasis both Decoded and The Anthology of Rap give it, one might consider the election of Barack Obama – he of the Jay-Z bangers on his iPod – as the ultimate proof of hip-hop culture’s evolution. The truth is more prosaic, though. Obama is undoubtedly the first hip-hop president, but hip-hop itself has not yet become truly presidential music.
As a case in point, the most representative hip-hop anthem of the last 12 months was not Power or Love the Way You Lie, but the Miami-based rapper Rick Ross’s BMF (Blowin’ Money Fast); a track filled with shout-outs to well-known criminals and lurid glamorisations of conspicuous consumption. Ross is a conflicting figure – an engaging performer wedded to tired gangster clichés – but BMF is everything that good hip-hop should be: authoritative, rebellious, witty, and endlessly replayable. It’s a terrific piece of music and a sign that the maturation of this genre is, and hopefully will always remain, an incomplete process. After all, without a little grit, a touch of surly attitude, and a dash of outlaw pride, there would never have been anything to anthologise.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and Slate.