Great Rapping Can Be Great Music

I probably got swept up in the hype for Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse. It’s really good, and I really hope people make great responses to it, but that will probably happen way less than I’d like. At least right now, there will in a decent world be a few excellent responses/inspired MCs, alongside a lot of blah. The verse itself? Excellent, and cool for a lot of reasons, though maybe not pantheon-level.

That said, it’s cool to see lots of people talking about the future of hip-hop in a non-depressing way and writing lots of interesting things. This, by Noisey’s Drew Millard, is one of those interesting things. Take a few minutes and read it. It’s really good. But I have some problems with the last couple of paragraphs, which I think aren’t fair to Kendrick and get a little muddled trying to make an argument he made way clearer in this tweet. Here’s where my issues start:

Thinking that a great verse is great because it showcases “good rapping” has never gotten anyone anywhere.

I get that technical skill at rapping isn’t the be-all end-all of making good hip-hop, but “J Cole logic” isn’t really the argument you’d take on the other side, defending Kendrick. There are so many things that go into making music (and hip-hop in particular) that it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that makes any of it great (it would be almost impossible to try) – beats, flow, lyrics, narrative, vocal timbre, etc. Yeah, whining that great rapping is the only way for something to be musically great as hip-hop is stupid, but so is claiming it’s unimportant. Put another way: I don’t think anyone would reasonably argue that great rapping is necessary to make great hip-hop, but in some cases it can be sufficient. Rapping is a skill, and we can remember its elevation in the same way we remember virtuosic guitar solos alongside Keith Richards (to use an example from the essay). Hip-hop is about a lot of things, and if you take one of those things to the next level (a sort of half-polemical, cohesive storytelling in the case of Good Kid MAAD City) through great rapping, then you’re making great music.

Millard’s response to this is that some sort of originality is supposed to be a necessary condition for greatness: “Great artists don’t follow in the footsteps of others; they take influence from everywhere, cutting up and reassembling until they’ve got something completely new.” I get it, but this is a pretty strong assessment of “greatness.” Is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy not a great album because its genius is taking all of the things Kanye had already done over the course of his career and combining them perfectly? (That’s great for Kanye, but it’s not something completely new.) And why can’t great hip-hop albums take the form/genre and add something new and unexpected, rather than being “completely” new? Most great albums have really strong innovations, but the “completely new” standard is prohibitive and, I think, misleading. 

Case in point: In the next paragraph, Millard argues that Kendrick’s music is only technically great, instead of original/great art as compared to, say, Drake, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q. I do think the cohesive narrative accomplishments of Good Kid MAAD City are enough to call it great as at the very least a particular sort of innovation within a broader, new sort of political statement (something Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at way better than I could). How is technical skill (and maybe a little something extra) not enough? To start in another genre (though one closely related to hip-hop), are great soul singers not great because they just bring their own energy and voice to what soul music is? There’s a lot more to say about whether or not Kendrick makes great art), but even leaving aside that question I’m a little confused by the picture of making great hip-hop music period. The thrust of the last couple of paragraphs of the essay is this:

Part of the beauty of hip-hop is you can literally do anything you want, and by virtue of you saying it’s hip-hop, it is and that’s the end of the conversation.

When did that happen? They call it “pushing the boundaries” for a reason – you start out with a genre that has a certain form and tropes (elements, maybe?) and then people do different things and some of them work (Kanye Autotuning the shit out of 808s) and some of them don’t (most attempts at rap/rock). If something is great hip-hop, it can be great hip-hop by doing all of the things hip-hop does (I’d argue My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does this) really well, with maybe one of a few other things that can make something great. In Kendrick’s case, that’s full-album narrative.

Then:

Drake could have his own “Control” moment easily

Could he? This is probably my biggest problem with the end of the essay. Yeah, Drake could totally make a decent verse where he claimed to be better than everyone else in the game. But try to imagine Drake getting this angry about the state of hip-hop. I can’t. Because he is the state of hip-hop. I gather this is what Millard means by “to win the rap game, one must first be subsumed by it,” but that just means Drake has won a game that Kendrick would claim isn’t being played worth shit. In that sense, “winning the rap game” is just as empty as pure technical rapping. It’s hard to agree with the assessment that rap is “antiseptic” and in need of changes (which maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) and think that Drake – one of the people who is, whatever you think of him, undoubtedly on top of the game – could be the one to enact them.

If “Control” could convince everyone to step up their games and make great music, then why wouldn’t Drake, or any other similarly prominent rapper concerned about the state of the genre, do the same thing? Maybe it doesn’t matter for Drake personally, in that he doesn’t need to make a “Control” to be the sort of artist he wants to be. That’s probably true if you want to be the “smart rapper,” concerned with a certain sort of career and personal success. And sure, Kendrick is definitely concerned with that kind of success. But I’m not sure he’s positioning himself as Jay Z. In “Control,” Kendrick is “tryna raise the bar high.” If we’re being charitable to his intentions, he’s positioning himself a different sort of kingpin, one who (hopefully) tries to reform the game from the inside out instead of just staying on top. You can argue that this sort of direct challenge, the chess game, isn’t the way to be the “smart rapper” with the right career personally. But then you lose a sense of immediacy and concern for the game. Maybe Kendrick doesn’t want to be the “smart rapper,” but he wants everyone else to be.

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