The intertextuality of rap and hip hop
Why rap is like social science research and why I have all but given up on rock and roll.
I will preface with the fact that I am likely only semi-qualified to write this post. While I do a lot of social science research and I listen to a lot of rap and hip hop, full disclosure: I am white. (That’s not to say that white people can’t be a part of the hip hop community nor that they can’t rap but…so far, we have not done either well.) So, that’s the context.
Nonetheless, I am writing this post because I am the one-woman quest to make people think critically about pop — and therefore, conventionally low brow — culture, I have thoughts, and I assume people want to hear them. I can’t cover everything; I’m sure I will leave something or someone out that you think is important. If you’re particularly distressed about it, write a reply. I encourage conversations, not monologues.
As part of the requirements of my graduate program, I have been in a Research Methods of International Relations course this semester. In this class, we learn about social science research and how to conduct it, and we work on our own potential research project, culminating in a giant ass research design that we should later use to apply for funding. Social science research is an organic process that involves discussion between members of a community with similar interests. When you create knowledge, you share it in order to keep the dialogue going. Also, the more you know…the more you don’t know. If you take away anything from research, take that.
The hip hop and rap community today is a lot like a community of scholars who either argue about the validity of certain theories or praise each other endlessly in a circle jerk of stuffy academia. Except that, you know, hip hop and rap is a lot more fun to listen to than academics.
Artists build on each other’s work like scholars. 2Pac once sang “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” in his song ‘Keep Ya Head Up’. Ludacris said it again in ‘Sugar’. And now Kendrick Lamar has a song called ‘The Blacker The Berry’. Kendrick himself is famous for his song ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’. Rae Sremmurd, in their 2015 song ‘This Could Be Us’, have the lyric: “Killin’ someone’s vibe should be a fuckin’ crime.” (And the hook of that song “this could be us but you playin’” is now a widely known internet meme, the highest form of recognition.) When a concept is lauded by the community, it is returned to time and time again in subsequent works.
Artists self-reference just like authors cite themselves. In ‘So Much Money’, Juicy J raps “I told ‘em bandz a make her dance” and in ‘Bounce It’, guest rapper Wale says “Hands is on her you know what, ’cause bandz a make her you know what.” Both are references to his single ‘Bandz A Make Her Dance’. (Furthermore, many songs that have been released recently, and not just by Juicy J, mention “bandz” in some way. See previous paragraph.)
Artists sample from inside and outside of the genre, akin to different authors framing the same question with alternate theories or disciplines. In International Relations, which is my biggest point of reference as it is what I go to grad school for, puzzles of the international system can often be looked at through many-a lens; realism, liberalism, and constructivism are just some of the major IR theories, but questions can also be answered with theories from sociology, political science, or communications. Rapper Kid Cudi is practically the poster child for this idea. On his first album (a concept album, which is already rare for the genre; google ‘concept album’ and a slew of rock albums from the 1960s and 70s appear), he collaborates with electronic band Ratatat and indie band MGMT, and samples pop singer Lady Gaga. On his second album, he samples singer St. Vincent and Danish orchestral pop band Choir of Young Believers. On his third album, he samples folk singer Father John Misty, and works with pop rock band HAIM and singer-songwriter Michael Bolton. Cudi loves to bring in music outside his genre, but he isn’t an anomaly. Kanye West has sampled Manfred Mann, Bon Iver, Aphex Twin, Gil Scott-Heron, and Nina Simone, among others.
Artists often collaborate with the same people, like authors who work with other academics to write articles or books. Kanye and Jay-Z are a prime example of this with their release of Watch The Throne. Waka Flocka Flame frequently collaborates with Gucci Mane, who collaborates with 2 Chainz, who collaborates with Drake, who collaborates with Nicki Minaj, who collaborates with Beyoncé, who collaborates with Jay-Z, who collaborates with Kanye…and now we’re back where we started. This is a community of artists who both respect and inspire each other, not altogether different from a social science research community. You can try to push back on this with the fact that rappers have been feuding with each other since the days of Pac and Biggie, but if you think that doesn’t happen between scholars, you clearly have never read a peer-reviewed journal. (An actual subtitle of one article was ‘A Reply To My Critics’ and if that isn’t the academic equivalent of “the haters” then I don’t know what is.)
And, probably my favorite thing, artists and authors can be strong, loud, opinionated women. Of course I won’t deny that women, in both music and academia, have to work twice as hard to earn half the recognition, but this is not something that is only seen in these fields. What is different about the women though, is that they are often very assertive and, quite frankly, very badass. If you know me at all, you know that Nicki Minaj is really fucking important to me. But she isn’t the only female in the rap game. Her way was paved by Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Trina, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Khia, and so many more. Nicki made Azealia Banks, Angel Haze*, and Junglepussy possible, and I am confident that her legacy has yet to even be known. Women in social science also build on each other’s work specifically and often collaborate, and nothing gives me more joy than female authors disputing the “conventional wisdom” established by men—furthermore, the very idea of a ‘female rapper’ goes against the conventional wisdom of rap and hip hop.
*It has come to my attention that Angel Haze actually identifies as agender, but I think my point of ‘people who are not men in both academia and hip hop is atypical but they still crushin’ dudes at their own game’ still stands.
Which brings me to my second point. Hip hop and rap being akin to social science research — a community of scholars, if you will, building on their own and each other’s previous work — is precisely what makes the genres so interesting. With every release, there is the continuation of a dialogue; you can, of course, enter the discussion at any time you want, but to truly understand the contribution of one song, you need the framework that the community has built. And to understand that, you must review the previous literature, just like when reading an academic journal article. It’s easy to dismiss the self-referencing as narcissist, the copping of other’s lines as laziness or unoriginality, the frequent collaborations as nepotism, but that’s oversimplification at best and a gross misjudgment of entire genres at worst.
It’s time we heralded hip hop and rap as the complex and artful genres they rightfully are. Creativity and emotion are not reserved exclusively for the “better” “elevated” genre that is rock and roll. Quite frankly, rock music has hit a stasis. There was once a time in its history that rock had a similar community and dialogue. (I refuse to be one of those people on the internet that troll around youtube videos of modern music and comment things like “remember the REAL music of the 60s” even though they were born 30 years later because it must be lonely up there on their high horse, but those are essentially the years I am referring to.) But I don’t see it anymore.
Rock songs are, for the most part, formulaic, lackluster, and center around one of the most boring things on the planet: white dude angst.
The innovation is simply no longer there. And, since rock was once one of the most pervasive genres in music, there is the question of “who will carry on the tradition of lyrical and musical creativity?” And I believe that rap and hip hop have answered that call. Disagree with me; prove me wrong. I’d love to know that there’s still some hope for rock, because it is the genre I grew up on and instinctively want to love. But I feel largely ambivalent about it.
My dad still has a Rolling Stone subscription and whenever I’m home, I flip through the latest issue and am usually resigned to the same sentiment: ‘wow, these old white men are so out of touch.’ (Unless, of course, it’s another Lil Wayne cover. Their boner for Weezy is something to which I relate.) Most of the time, it’s someone whose height of popularity was in the 1960s or 70s, and if that wasn’t enough to tell you RS believes the golden age of music is over, the photo is even from the same years. I mean, I love Bob Dylan (the angstiest white dude of them all), but how many covers can this guy score when he’s not even doing anything except releasing kooky ass Christmas albums? You can make the claim that RS is a ‘rock magazine’ (as my dad loves to do) but the fact is, it is officially a magazine about popular culture — something it has utterly failed to update itself on. And this is just one example of the many instances where mainstream media does not recognize outlier, even if better, contributions to pop culture.
In fact, ‘mainstream media’ is a largely meaningless term in today’s internet age. We live in an instant gratification kind of world: world news via Twitter, local news via Facebook, friend updates via Snapchat, celebrity updates via Instagram. Perhaps RS clings to music of years past because that’s when they were relevant too. With Spotify, Rdio, Tidal, Youtube, ad infinitum, people can discover new music without the help of magazines. People mourn the death of the mixtape, but what is a playlist if not the digital age’s equivalent? Being a music elitist, being overcome with a nostalgia for music’s past, and being resigned to a feeling that the years of “good music” (itself another meaningless term because objectivity has never had a place in the reception of creative outputs) are over, is entirely unhelpful.
You don’t have to like Kanye West, or rap and hip hop at all, for that matter. But to dismiss entire genres as unworthy contributions to modern pop culture — and furthermore, pop culture as unimportant — only makes you look out of touch.
Pop culture is the ‘lowest common denominator’ (if you will) and reveals a lot more about all of society than people think. Of course I would say this, I have been labeled a “pop culture princess” and most of my posts center around how I consider low brow media the pinnacle of intellectuality. But you don’t have to agree that Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ captures the modern zeitgeist or HBO’s Game of Thrones is a feminist mixed bag to see that there is room in the intellectual sphere to talk about stereotypically ‘non-intellectual’ things like television, film, and music, especially the contributions by people who are not heterosexual, white males. (Like, let’s all stop pretending that the zenith of pop culture is On The Road, The Beatles, and Woody Allen films…because, nah.)
This post’s impetus was largely the declaration of Waka Flocka Flame’s campaign for president. I have literally not shut up about it because I think it is awesome. Most people dismiss both me and him, but then end up admitting that they don’t know much about him beyond ‘Hard In Da Paint’. They are surprised to find out that he is very smart, quite articulate, and that ‘Waka Flocka’ is mostly a product — and one that sells. I know, conflation is a bad habit to break, but usually the “dumbest” products are crafted by the smartest people, precisely because they’re the ones who know that is what sells. (And that is ignoring the twisted assumption that Flocka’s brand of rap is “dumb” which I feel like I have just undermined.) He’s promising to legalize weed and raise the minimum wage to $15/hour; I’m voting for him in 2016. Perhaps a futile gesture, but not a meaningless one. His promises, just like his music and that of other rap and hip hop artists, are more about this generation than any other candidate so far.