If you’ve been reading the latest in the endless cycle of complaints about rap music’s pernicious influence — Google’s colossal waste of time, “Hip-Hop On Trial,” from last month; or Touré’s Washington Post editorial, “How America and Hip-Hop Failed Each Other,” from earlier this month — you would think it was still the late ’90s, when shiny, amoral street rap reigned supreme. No matter that the average music listener doesn’t associate ambitious superstars like Jay-Z and Kanye West, or walking cartoon characters like Snoop Dogg, or pop panderers like B.o.B. and Flo Rida, with any sort of seriously destructive or reprehensible behavior. The story continues to be that rap music today is a violent, negative scourge tearing apart a once-positive art form. The sad thing about mainstream rap music in 2012, though, is that it would be a breath of fresh air to hear some mean-mugging thugs. We need those guys, now, more than ever.
Here’s the “rap is bad now” party line: The music went from commentary on the devastating crack epidemic of the ’80s to an embrace of the prison culture brought on by mass incarceration (thanks to Reagan and mandatory minimum drug laws), and has pretty much stayed there since. What’s really happening is that since the late-2000s, there has been a dearth of street rap: Here is a list of performers who are ostensibly “hip-hop” from the No. 1-50 spots on Billboard‘s Hot 100 this week: Wiz Khalifa (on a song with Maroon 5), Flo-Rida, Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida again, Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Gym Class Heroes, Wiz again, Pitbull, Ca$h Out, Drake, Rick Ross (on an Usher song), and B.o.B.
This is not a moral victory for hip-hop. It is, to paraphrase Touré, a failing that reflects America’s failing. Mainstream rap music has been cleaned-up and smoothed over. And just as the ’80s and ’90s represented the crack era and its vicious fall-out, the lack of street rap in recent years reflects the current attitude toward the American war on drugs: Pushed to the side and ignored. There are clear shifts in taste and a few game-changers, like the proudly middle-class Kanye West, who helped birth this dearth, but street rap became unsustainable very quickly.
The arrests of Lil Wayne, T.I., and Gucci Mane, proved to labels that marketing realness was, literally, a poor investment. If these rappers were stuck in jail or on house arrest, it significantly lowered their profile. For awhile, presumably as one more way to falsely conflate hip-hop culture with prison culture, it was asserted that rap’s values were so twisted-up that it was considered a good look for a rapper to go to jail. But the careers of the rappers listed above were irreparably damaged by their prison time.
These arrests also help explain the appeal of Rick Ross and the reason he’s become the only street rapper allowed to eat. He’s a guy who talks the talk unabashedly, with no pretense to being “for real.” He won’t be caught buying an arsenal in a parking lot and he has no “streets” to cater to, so you can bend him whichever way you want. Once hip-hop began dominating the charts in the late ’90s, there seemed to be an implicit contract made between the music industry and rappers: We will make you lots of money and make even more money off of you, so you can go around relatively ungoverned, sliding credit cards between women’s butt cheeks in your videos, and also speaking truth to power — well-wrought or fraught with hustlin’ platitudes, you decide, as long as it’s catchy — on songs selling in the millions. But that’s no longer the case.
All of the big up-and-comers right now are safe, pleasant guys like Drake, J. Cole, and Tyga, or worn-out veterans like 2 Chainz and Wale, who have been kicking around for so long that they’re ready to do whatever a label instructs, as long as it means making some dough. The side effect of this soul-crushing major-label system is that many rappers who once would have tried to sign with a major and reach the radio have retreated to the Internet and the low-stakes world of tour money. In 2012, groups like G-Side, Main Attrakionz, or guys like Big K.R.I.T. and ScHoolBoy Q, have no interest in pursuing the radio route. If they land there, good, but they won’t make a pop-rap run because it’s not worth the compromise. Chicago shouter Chief Keef signing to Interscope was met with as much apprehension as excitement. Street rap running from the radio is great for hip-hop fans. It has formed a multitude-filled underground scene. But it has decreased the already small chance of anything interesting being smuggled onto radio playlists.
The real narrative in 2012 is that street rap has been eliminated from the mainstream. It’s only high-profile purveyor is a cartoonish buffoon who deals with none of the consequences or even gritty details — it’s all about wealth, and how he supposedly accrued it (via cocaine sales) is only implied. Coupled with rap personalities getting replaced by ciphers like Tyga (so that performers like Justin Bieber can more easily co-opt their style), and repeated attempts at hip-hop segregation (“white girl rapper” is a formula being perfected; Mac Miller doesn’t get play on “urban radio” and doesn’t need to), rap has never been so harmless. That’s what we should be complaining about.