If you’re reading this and have ever thought that Freddie Mercury is a more talented artist than Kanye West because “he can actually play instruments” I want you to close out now. You’re probably the same simp motherfucker who thought that Jay Z’s “Death of AutoTune” was hilarious and buried AutoTune rappers (it didn’t). I know you. You still make fun of Drake even while his latest effort has buried everyone from Queen Bey to Rihanna to the aforementioned Mr. West. Go rewatch Atlanta and root for Paper Boi because he “keeps it real.” Keep moaning about A$AP Rocky’s preference for Margiela. Kvetch about Young Thug yelping through songs. Put on a Roots record and disappear into the couch. You prioritize lyricism over everything else. Which would be fine if not for the murky waters of black exceptionalism it could lead you into. This one’s not for you because you’re already lost.
I’m talking to dudes like Ab-Soul, Pete Rock and Anderson .Paak. For his part Soul griped on Twitter that: “All these new ‘lil’ n***** is weak as the time it took to create earth… We don’t pass on PRIMO beats in this sport kids! Hip-hop = Intelligent Movement.” That was a reference to Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert passing up a beat from all-time producer DJ Premier while freestyling on Hot 97.
Which, of course he would. Vert’s all about melodic, electronically smeared singing and that would sound out and out terrible over a boom-bap Primo beat. He’d get roasted the second he finished up for not approaching the song the right way. (Sidenote: Primo was a classy elder statesmen and said he had no beef with Uzi Vert’s choice) And like, who the hell cares? I know freestyle videos are still cool to watch, but you know they don’t matter right? Mos Def isn’t an all-time great hip hop artist because he’s also an incredible freestyler, he’s good because he’s a great writer.
Something Pete Rock, he of “The World is Yours” and “T.R.O.Y.” and “The Joy” and “Juicy,” apparently prioritizes over everything else. “Make better music and write better lyrics,” he said on Instagram, probably right after pushing his walker with tennis balls. I get the Kendrick Lamar “Control” approach of wanting to elevate the entire artform by pushing everyone else in the game, but who is to say that rappers such as Uzi Vert or Lil Yachty or Thug aren’t working their asses off? I’ve heard all three dudes on more tracks this year than I have either Ab-Soul or Pete Rock. Also, where are your bars at Pete Rock? You Biggie or Nas or C.L. Smooth now? I love the idea of you criticizing other people’s lyrics when you’ve spent your life behind a production board.
And then there’s Anderson .Paak who sort of kickstarted this current round of “keeping it real” and “respecting the game” when he took Lil Yachty to task for not knowing his history. “Don’t be cocky in the fact that you don’t know anything about hip hop history. Real artists are students of the game first,” .Paak essentially subtweeted after the Atlanta upstart said he probably “couldn’t name five songs” by 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.
On a certain level I totally understand what .Paak is saying there. His “complaint” is far more rational than the two prior. No matter what medium you’re working in, it helps to know what’s already been done before you because so much of art is a form of synthesis. However, there is a tipping point. Comics talk about it, about how they worry that too much time spent listening to another comic will reflect in their own work. It’s why I keep from reading reviews for a new album before I write my own. I don’t want any undue influence. And maybe that’s not Yachty’s reasoning. Maybe he just wants to be as blissfully ignorant as his music. That’s fine. We need room in the tent for the staunchly committed and the carefree. Music can be both entertainment and art.
Soul and Mr. Rock and .Paak are forgetting that when they try to define realness. They want realness to be a certain type of lyricism buoyed by a certain beat from a certain producer in a certain tone or cadence. That’s not realness. That’s caving to some unwritten codex of hip hop. “Real,” to quote Ab-Soul’s Black Hippy crewmate “King” Kendrick, is doing what you want to do and saying what you want to say.