Soulja Boy and Hurricane Chris? The definition of hip hop? Really?
“Record industry rule number 1081/have a gimmick and a hook or you won’t make dollar number one?” – The Author
2009 has been both a victorious and frightening year so far for hip hop. The underground has thrived, as artists like Kid Cudi, Wale, Asher Roth and Drake have braved the path of less renown to now begin their careers as signed artists, attempting to infuse the game once again on a mainstream level with witticism and lyrical power, and a potent mix of style and substance that hip hop hasn’t seen from upstart emcees in literally over a decade. But, as these artists start their treks, the more mentally stimulating case has been for established rappers, individuals like Eminem, Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes who have all released albums in the first two quarters of 2009 to massive success, showing that the industry has space as well for legendary acts, performers whose fanbases are truly mainstreamed, individuals who boast fans that are still part of what was deemed a cold album purchasing populace, but instead were just people who obviously want to support performers who are commodities, who existed in a time when rap made it’s most pop dominant moves to date, and when rappers began to be known across the spectrum as marketable media figures and not performers in a rising underground craft. However, in this wonderful seeming recovery of this urban/suburban musical powerhouse, there exists an offshoot that has provided great difficulty for industry purists, the 800 pound gorilla in the musical corner that refuses to go away. The rap fad. In prior eras, songs like Joe-Ski Love’s “Pee Wee Herman” were as disposable as the “dance songs” of the 1960s. At least those artists in the eyes of many understood their place and were gone as they came, and did not attempt to create careers off of encapsulating popular culture in three minute nuggets. However, at this very point, there’s an entire cadre of young performers who have, on the strength of hooks, ringtone sales, and absurd doses of marketing, have begun an assault upon the concept of what rap music is, was, and can be in the future.
Take twin cases in point Louisiana born Hurricane Chris and Alabama’s hip hop powerhouse and pop culture machine Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. Chris, not exactly a lyrical heavyweight, but blessed with great producers and the ability to produce really catchy hooks, with merely two hits, 2007’s “Ay Bay Bay” and the current chart smasher “Halle Berry (She’s Fine)” has a double platinum seller, and a top ten single, and is well on the way to likely enough money to retire and live comfortably by the age of 30 if he so chose. If he releases literally one single a year every two years that is a smash, even without an album that sells, he’s a top seller, and by monetary definitions a top rapper, which completely inverts hip hop’s pre-existing standard on it’s head.
And then there’s Soulja Boy. A bell wether rapper and rallying cry for “real” rappers everywhere, he’s truly the boy (he can’t legally drink and only last year could vote) wonder that has destroyed the entire idea of hip hop as a musical form. He dances, sings, creates songs where the hook is literally a million times more important than the 16 bars preceding it, creates entire albums of songs tailor made to be 15 second ringtones, and is a fine example of what happens when you embrace the new technologies and streams that the industry gives you instead of copying existing norms to attain success. From “Crank Dat” to “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” to “Turn My Swag On,” all utterly disposable but tragically unforgettable and glee filled anthems, the true question to ask from his success is if this is the end of rap as we knew it, or merely another hip hop expansion?
2009’s hip hop is different from 1979’s by a long shot. The genre has advanced spectacularly, and the definitions and the spirit of the genre are completely different. Just as rock and roll expanded and filled so many crevices of the human experience, so has hip hop. This year has seen our established Rolling Stones and KISS type veterans with widespread industry respect like the Jadas, Eminems and Bustas release albums that sell for name value and recognition, and while not advancing or groundbreaking, do remind us of the good times and have snippets of the legendary talent we have come to know. Furthermore, the new young performers attempt to create their niche and gain respect, looking like youthful R.E.M. or the Talking Heads, fresh, inventive and expanding and refreshing the game. And finally, well, for Soulja Boy and Hurricane Chris, well, that’s a brand new story entirely that no pre-existing genre or person has ever told.
It can be argued that rap is the genre that has gained the most financially from the depleted and reassessed economy. While rock has been viciously ravaged, country slowly makes gains by expanding into new arenas, various dance styles remain vibrant on the underground and pop stays as viable as it’s latest Disney created doe eyed ingenue, rap is the winner. However, in order to really gain from a single and ringtone driven market takes a rapper to willfully forego the market that in the case of older rappers or aficionados, was what they expected the industry to be. Poring over R & B records and jazz albums looking for the stereotypical perfect beat, long nights in the lab, or pouring one’s heart and soul into 16 bars over and over and over and over again until the body is a distressed case of bones and plasma, just to create ONE album. Now, there seems to be as much, or more effort put into the marketing and packaging of a rapper than to his lyrical acumen. An industry that once drummed these “lightweights” out on their ear now cannot, as they’re the moneymakers, and by virtue, have a place and voice. Kids that seem to have a carefree attitude and a less than typical take on hip hop music have forced a time to sit and either revel in the wide open and ridiculous nature of things, or, harken for a day when things were much simpler, and miss out on the big money. Success is what you make of it, and, now, more than ever, there’s plenty ways to make it. Hip hop has made it. For those that longed for the days of full acceptance, “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”
ed. note: The author, Marcus Dowling’s other work can be found at his site, TGRIOnline.com, True Genius Requires Insanity. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter(dot)com/marcuskdowling.