You Failed Hip-Hop 

Jay-Z and Andre 3000 might abandon rap for good. Are their fans to blame?

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell 'Holla!'

-- Jay-Z, "Moment of Clarity"

Last week, the gates of pop culture inched open ever wider for hip-hop, once the mouthpiece for America's black underclass. Only five years after Jay-Z boycotted the Grammys -- complaining that they didn't respect hip-hop -- rap owned the February 8 awards show, with Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams, and Outkast gathering six nominations apiece, and Outkast winning the regal Album of the Year trophy for its eight-times-platinum double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Furthermore, the Village Voice's infinitely more reputable Annual Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll -- compiling the 2003 Top Ten albums and singles lists from more than seven hundred rock critics nationwide -- laureled Outkast with its two top prizes for Best Album and Best Single (for Andre 3000's ubiquitous, Wesley Clark-appropriated "Hey Ya!"). Voice guru Robert Christgau sealed the moment by conceding, "In 2003, hip-hop became America's official pop music."

But what does that really mean? Especially when Jay-Z and Andre 3000, two of rap's most artistically accomplished and commercially successful artists, have all but abandoned rap altogether?

Last year, Andre 3000 told Entertainment Weekly, "Right now, hip-hop is the most uninspired, deadest shit ever on the radio." He elaborated to his hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I don't want to beat a dead horse. With rap, period, you've pretty much heard all the stories. Just like blues turned into rock 'n' roll and jazz into bebop, for hip-hop it's that time to change."

The partitioning of Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below illustrates Andre's sense of what that change looks like. On Below, Andre's disc and by far the more celebrated half, rap is almost entirely absent, replaced by a slew of Prince, Bootsy, and Sly quotations, a dynamic mesh that freely mingles '80s soul and various shades of jazz-funk, occasionally brandishing a drum 'n' bass flourish or a scratched-in hook. It's at once a clear assertion of Andre's maturation as a producer, arranger, and instrumentalist and the fruition of his dissent with hip-hop and all that it implies.

Instead of accomplishing a real reconciliation of hip-hop tradition, personal creative interests, and the demands of the marketplace, The Love Below might be seen as a disjointed cycle that lands Andre back before he even began, in the pre-rap era of black music -- now he is an amalgam of Hendrix and Prince, among others. Andre may have permanently left behind the contemplative rhymes and intricate rapping that once made him hip-hop's most compelling and unique character. This, no doubt, is hip-hop's loss.

Hip-hop, more than any other style of music, has had to struggle within a matrix of competing obligations: communal, aesthetic, and corporate. It has to honor its roots and traditions, it has to succeed artistically, and most importantly, it has to sell. Even Public Enemy roared from the perch of media monoliths: "Fight the Power" came out on PolyGram, "Shut 'Em Down" on Sony.

No group is more obviously vice-gripped in this hopeless fix than rap's megastars. A KMEL billboard looming over Telegraph and West Grand in downtown Oakland stages some of these conflicts for the attentive passerby. It features the black music luminaries that occupy the vast majority of the station's airtime, splayed in their idiosyncratic poses like the cast of a new sitcom: 50 Cent muggin' out of the corner of his eye; a pristine, pimped-out Outkast; Beyoncé in a conscientiously sultry glance; E-40 in a mysterious gesture, holding his eyeglasses a foot from his face; Jay-Z with his neck set back confidently, frozen in a calculating squint; and of course 'Pac, the only one not staring straight ahead, his eyes cast distinctly heavenward.

Each superstar is perfectly contained. First, in the completeness of their posed caricatures. Second, in the handful of hits by each artist that KMEL plays in an endless loop, a programming act that narrows an artist's impact even as it familiarizes. And third by the company -- Clear Channel -- that owns and frequently programs KMEL from afar. Clear Channel also obviously owns the billboard, projecting with that megastar portrait an idealized version of "the streets" high above the actual, far grittier, Oakland streets below.

Even hip-hop's biggest success stories are ultimately stereotyped and suffocated by the system that glorifies and exploits them. That might explain why Andre 3000 has turned his back to it all, but Jay-Z's story is even more complicated.

From bricks to billboards, from grams to Grammys.
-- Jay-Z, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder"

It's possible that no rapper alive embodies hip-hop's historic contradictions as singularly as Jay-Z, who first emerged as a standout battle rhymer in the late '80s and early '90s, and who released his supposedly "final" LP, The Black Album, in late 2003. While not his most artistically accomplished album (see Reasonable Doubt or Blueprint), his latest does display a certain refinement of the Jay-Z formula: remarkably reflective diary-ready lyrics framed wholly by easy hooks and clubby beats. It's disconcerting when he fits painful lines about his dead father into a nakedly pop format, but this is Jay-Z's curious innovation: He gives a depth of feeling a sense of lightness, even shallowness.

The man contains multitudes, even phrasing his incongruities as a boast: I'm like Che Guevara with bling on: I'm complex.

And yet, though only 33 and arguably at the height of his expressive powers, Jay-Z has decided to abandon his art. He held a concert-as-funeral for himself at Madison Square Garden in November, which he closed with a rueful line from his last album: If you can't respect that, your whole perspective is wack/Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black. And right after announcing that The Black Album would be his swan song, Jay-Z wrote in Vibe, "I can honestly say I'm bored with hip-hop." In The New York Times, he stated simply, "Hip-hop's corny now."

Whether Jay-Z follows through, the way he is exiting evidences a serious failure with hip-hop's form somewhere along the way -- why else does his success lead to a mock funeral and weary retreat? But where precisely does the blame lie: with the artist, the audience, the industry, or, as Andre 3000's album suggests, hip-hop's form itself?

On "Moment of Clarity," The Black Album's most fiercely insightful track, Jay-Z admits complicity in this failure -- if only for a second -- and proposes an explanation. If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be/Lyrically, Talib Kweli, he raps, invoking Mos Def's partner in Black Star and a generic Afrocentric "consciousness" MC. Jay continues, Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, until a whispered overdub interjects, But I did five mill. The implication: You certainly can't do both.

I ain't been rhymin' like Common Sense, Jay-Z admits. Since I know what I'm up against/We as rappers must decide what's most important/And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them/So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win/win. He then closes the second verse with a resolution of sublime ambivalence: So next time you see the homie and his rims spin/Just know my mind is working just like them. He sets up the listener to believe he's identifying with "the poor," but in the short breath between the end of his last line and the beginning of the chorus, he adds The rims, that is. Jay-Z's mind is revolving like the rims on his Maybach Benz, in other words, and not at all like the plebeian who might be observing him.

By admitting his manipulation of rap and pop audiences, Jay-Z in a few couplets of sparkling lucidity explains his premature departure by questioning the quality of his own music and implicating the buying public in that degradation: If he'd followed his own artistic instincts, you probably wouldn't even be listening long enough to hear him complain -- he sacrificed himself by dumbing down his genius for popular satisfaction. The razor wit with which he expresses his unveiled self-interest also cuts through the illusion of rap's connection to an imaginary "streets": Given the choice between reaching out and merely cashing in, J-Hova fully admits he chose the latter.

So why, at the exact moment of rap's coronation as "America's official pop music," is there only a sharpened sense of loss? Two of rap's most talented and prosperous artisans have given up the music: Jay-Z in a yawning retirement, and Andre 3000 in a calculated disavowal in favor of earlier black music. Did they finally decide to stop dumbing down their art to make it "commercially viable"? Do they fear being trapped by the imagination of their audience, or contained in what they imagine their audiences expect of them? And does hip-hop ultimately have to be like this, wedged between the conflicting demands of art, politics, and commerce, with precious little creative space left over?


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