What makes Seinfeld such an utterly ’90s show is its very nothing-ness. An era of economic boom and post-Cold War pax Americana made humor that was about something feel gauche. This was the decade that gave rise to the term “politically correct,” where actually being right about something was somehow mockable; even Jerry and his pals had their hopelessly outdated “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” episode. After 9/11, the self-defeating wars, self-defeating economics, and self-defeating social polices of the Bush years briefly made brainy earnestness cool again. How else can we explain the Decemberists?
Memories fade fast, capitalism is inherently amoral, and reviving the ’90s is the Internet’s lifeblood now. Way back in 2008, on R&B-steeped Mary J. Blige collaboration “Sumthin’s Gotta Give,” Big Boi presciently declared, “The great debaters debate about who’s the greatest MCs / Subject matter don’t matter because the verse is empty … So I guess it be about who can jive talk the best.” There’s a necessary conflict in rap between MCs who assert the power of their subject matter and MCs who shamelessly galvanize the masses — staunchly leftist Chicago hip-hop crew BBU acknowledge, “Too many conscious rappers can’t face facts / That drug dealers happen to make better rap” — but anyone who saw sitcom 2 Broke Girls reducing hip-hop to 2 Chainz’ “big booty ho” lyric in the Atlanta rapper’s recent guest appearance might fairly wonder if the center of gravity has shifted too far toward nothing. Lupe Fiasco has addressed this situation clumsily, but he’s noticing something real.
Enter Seinfeld, who revealed in January he’ll be collaborating with Mixtape About Nothing rapper Wale on the MC’s new album. Look, Seinfeld was a classic show, and the man himself is clearly a brilliant comedian. But when it comes to hip-hop, he’s hardly the master of his domain. And his comments about the genre, while appreciated for being positive and open-minded rather than dismissive and ignorant, are still pretty ridiculous. He previously said he was qualified to join Wale because comedy and rap are both about words, a questionable assertion in its own right — rap is so much more than words; that, as the New Yorker‘s Kelefa Sanneh rightly observed, was the failing of Jay-Z’s Decoded book — but now Seinfeld has gone the extra muffintop.
Comedy and rap are exactly the same, you guys! “There’s no difference between rapping and standup,” Seinfeld told Rolling Stone. “You’re trying to catch people’s attention with a catchy thought or something that’s deeper than it seems. And it just makes your mind jump. So it’s the same business, really. It’s like hacky-sack with words.”
“Hacky-sack with words,” eh? Justin Bieber must’ve been onto something last year with his proud Phish phandom. But this is the kind of logic that leads to rappers embracing so-called political incorrectness as an end in itself. The rap feud between Azealia Banks and Angel Haze might’ve been the new “Worst Beef Ever,” but Angel Haze clearly is rapping about something. That’s not always better than nothing. And sometimes “something” can get ridiculous: Macklemore’s commonsense social views don’t excuse his reprehensible rapping. But it’s more than verbal hacky-sack, and Jerry jive-talk might not be what rap — or pop culture more generally — needs right now.