In Defence of Dumb Rap

It’s not all about lyrics and llamas, GIL KAZIMIROV argues – modern rap is as much about the language of the soul.

2 chainz Abba bitches love me chance the rapper chief keef classical music death of hip hop drake hip hop hip hop is dead lil wayne llamas Music Nas obama old school hip hop Rap trauma

An unremarkable moment in the not too distant past saw teenage rapper Chief Keef, pencil in hand, looking for a word that rhymes with drama. After dismissing trauma and Obama, he settled on llama, an animal which quickly became an unsuspecting accomplice in the creation of one of the worst rap rhymes in recent history. That’s how I like to imagine the process, anyways.

Llama lovin'

Llama lovin’

The line I ain’t with the drama/ you can meet my llama, my research confirms, has two potential interpretations. The first is that Chief Keef does not like stirring up drama and that, if you are interested, he will be more than happy to introduce you to his four-legged friend. The second, less heartwarming, is that this is a unique opportunity for Keef’s enemies to get intimately acquainted with his gun, which is what llama is allegedly slang for.

Either way you look at it, Chief Keef’s lyrical choices provide plenty of fodder for those who criticise the new generation of rappers. The Chicago-based rapper himself isn’t the problem, critics charge; he is simply a convenient indicator of a larger phenomenon: the decline of rap music.

Criticising the new age of rap has become a cause célèbre among music mags and older rappers alike. Hip-Hop is Dead was the name of Nas’ memorable 2006 album, legendary rapper Scarface of Geto Boys fame screams that “hip-hop is now a drive-through” to anyone who cares to listen, XXL and HipHopFratHouse write about it – hell, even Time magazine featured a eulogy to the genre.

Nas' flower on the grave of hip-hop

Nas’ flower on the grave of hip-hop

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is simply too easy to poke fun at the likes of 2 Chainz (when I die bury me inside the Gucci store), Juelz Santana (I’m flier than an ostrich) and Young Joc (she can tell I’m a G/ I got Gmail) while lamenting the death of ‘real’ hip-hop.

Those who criticise rap music that is objectively lowbrow and lacking in lyrical content attack it on multiple fronts. They say the absence of a meaningful message – one of the hottest charting songs now is Bitches Love Me – is proof that the rappers are dumb, the simplicity of their flows reflecting a lack of ingenuity and musical talent. The rap of the Chief Keef type is often juxtaposed with the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop, an age where rappers were story-tellers, not entertainers; when the medium was used for social commentary, not fetishizing mispronounced French brands; where rappers documented their struggles, not their criminal records.

Bitches do indeed love this man - and his pal, Drake

Bitches do indeed love this man – and his pal, Drake

The new era of rap has caught the eye of mainstream America, too. The recent episodes of gun violence in Connecticut, Colorado and elsewhere, coupled with the rising murder rates in Chicago and Atlanta, whence much of this rap originates, sent pundits scrambling for explanations. In view of the misogyny and violence the genre often glorifies, it is hardly surprising that the new generation of hip-hop was tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty.

The trial, however, was not fair, and the verdict damning today’s hip-hop was premature. That the lyrics are often lacking in meaning is self-evident – but since when has music been our source for lessons on morality? Elvis serenaded his blue suede shoes not unlike rappers talk of their gold chains; in 1961, among the best charting tunes in the US was Roundaround Sue, a song about a girl who sleeps around (incidentally the song was remade into a popular hip-hop track in 2011); a generation later, Abba released the wildly-popular Dancing Queen, which glorified disco culture and the promiscuity that came with it.

Abba: the 80s answer to Weezy

Abba: the 80s’ answer to Weezy

These songs have been successful because they elicit an unparalleled emotional response in the listener. The atmosphere the songs create and their hypnotizing flows – not overarching themes or intellectual lyrics – are at the root of this response.

Today’s rap, then, is hardly different than music of days yonder. Its purpose is to entertain, that is, to put everyday worries and thoughts on hold and let the brain exhale from its decrepitude. With this in mind, I can happily bump to a song called ‘Hate Being Sober’ knowing that I am enjoying a particular flow and lyrical style, without dwelling much on what the words actually are (even though I do hate being sober).

Since delivering this kind of experience is the genre’s ultimate purpose, its lyrics should be viewed as a means to achieving this end, not the end in itself. That the likes of Chief Keef and Lil’ Wayne continue to be popular is a testament to their success as sources of entertainment, regardless of the quality of their lyrics. Besides, those looking for meaningful lyrics in the new generation of rap need not spend long looking for it. For every Trinidad Jame$ there is a Joey Bada$$, a Chance the Rapper for every Tyga and an Ab-Soul for every Gucci Mane.

Chance The Rapper

Chance The Rapper

I used to run a blog in which I made fun of rap lyrics that didn’t make much sense. I did that because it was the obvious thing for a pretentious white kid like me to do after listening to 2 Chainz spit his slew of non-sequiturs. It was simply too easy. But the words are only a distraction from the real reason we can unplug our consciousness, smile and nod our heads to his rhymes.

Classical music has no words and yet it speaks the language of the soul, lifting the listener high above the concerns of everyday life. Instead of judging a song by its message or the number of chains the rapper is sporting, there is only one question we must ask – does the music speak our language?