The two most delicate musical genres on earth are these:
2) Christian rock
So far as I can tell, these are the only two genres that seek to satisfy two separate and distinct, if not diametrically opposed, interests. Rap music is made primarily by (previously) poor, black people, primarily about poor, black people. Yet its greatest audience is middle class white people. Without them, rap is a commercial failure, and therefore something all the “hipster” kids would absolutely freaking love.
Christian rock faces a similar quandary. It has two goals, 1) to worship God, and 2) to rock your face off. Which goal gets priority depends on the band, but either way, the ultimate problem is that the music just doesn’t make any sense. The best Christian bands are the ones that write silly songs — the entire MxPx catalogue, for example — that aren’t overtly Christian, but aren’t about sex, either, so what’s the point? Essentially, the only decent Christian rock is really just what punk rock would have sounded like, lyrically, if it had existed in the 1950s.
Rap’s problem was much easier to reconcile when it became obvious that white kids were actually pretty curious about life in the ghettos. And its importance was that this was stuff people needed to hear, whether they wanted to or not.
It all started in 1988, when N.W.A. released “Straight Outta Compton,” which at the time was the most terrifying thing recorded and capitalized on since the Zapruder film.
It was a subtle album:
When I’m called off I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off
A young nigga on a warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dyin’ in LA
At that point, it became official. “Straight Outta Compton” could never be topped on the scale of public outrage, proving the great irony that all publicity is good publicity, especially if that publicity involves the F.B.I. and the Secret Service sending letters to your record company.
Nobody wanted to hear about the ghettos. It was too uncomfortable, especially to the government, which through the housing projects and the intentional distribution of crack cocaine*, was largely responsible for producing them.
The album got no radio play, N.W.A. made no major tours, and “Straight Outta Compton” went double platinum.
This was the catalyst for the golden age of rap, but the age didn’t really begin until 1992, when former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre unleashed “The Chronic,” which is still widely regarded as one of the five or so best rap albums ever. This age died in 2003, when Nelly won a Grammy for “Hot in Herre.”
But what came in between “The Chronic” and “Hot in Herre” had to be — and I’m biased here, because I love the genre — as good a 10-year period as any genre has experienced in music history. I would think, relatively speaking, it was as good as the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s were for rock & roll.
Here’s what we got:
- “The Chronic,” Dr. Dre (1992) — Introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg.
- Doggystyle, Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993) — “Gin and Juice” and “What’s My Name?” are two of the most recognizable songs of the 1990s.
- “Ready to Die,” Nororious B.I.G. (1993) — Top to bottom, the best rap album ever, in my estimation. Lyrically, only Eminem challenges it.
- “Illmatic,” Nas (1994) — Not my style, but any rap historian will laud it.
- “36 Chambers” The Wu-Tang Clan (1993) — Some get it, some don’t.
- “(The Chronic) 2001,” Dr. Dre (1999) — I guarantee you know at least three songs off this album.
- “Reasonable Doubt” Jay-Z (1996) — It’s Jay-Z.
- “All Eyez on Me” Tupac (1996) — Broad, mature, and awesome.
- “The Slim Shady LP,” Eminem (1999) — Often lyrically nonsensical, yet brilliant.
- “The Marshall Mathers LP,” Eminem (2000) — Only album to ever challenge “Straight Outta Compton” on the public outrage scale.
But as we went careening toward “Hot in Herre,” things started to get complicated. With the exception of the Eminem stuff above (he is probably best evaulated as his own sub-genre), all of the music centered around the same “rags to riches” theme. Some focused on the rags (Dre), some focused on the riches (Jay), but it’s the same story over and over again. Which is fine, except that the story has to be believable.
No genre depends as heavily on the credibility of its artists to write their songs as rap does. So when people start to find out that, for example, Tupac had studied at a performing arts school in Baltimore, he starts to feel an extra burden to remind people that the stuff he’s rapping about is his own.
And when we start to hear that, well, maybe Biggie’s songs about slinging crack weren’t, technically, about him, he then feels that same compulsion to prove his credibility.
Next thing we know, they’re both murdered in an almost identical, and very public way, and the genre’s popularity explodes as life imitates art.
It didn’t happen all at once — there are still banal rap albums about thuggery flooding the shelves — but the genre started a slow turn at that point, and eventually most of the content was about sex and money, spawning the totally hilarious Cash Money Millionaires and, in turn, the most annoying phrase of the last 10 years.
Above: The Cash Money Millionaires teach us about fiscal responsibility.
Rap has mostly devolved into self parody since then. Nobody takes the street life albums seriously anymore, which is a good thing for the rappers — Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne — who are creative enough to take the music in their own, original directions.
The music is always going to have its roots in what’s known as “the struggle,” but rappers don’t need to tell that story anymore. We’ve heard it. That’s what the 90s were about in rap — telling the world, in graphic detail, the story of life in the ghettos. It needed to be told. And it needed to be told in that unsanitary way.
In that regard, it was like the Vietnam War, which was the first war that the American people could watch, raw and uncut, unfold before their own eyes. Before then, war was all about fighting the good fight, shown in blatantly propagandistic news reels. People knew that men died, but they imagined it happening cleanly and righteously, not by bleeding to death with no legs. The coverage of Vietnam made it real, and horrifying.
And that’s what gangster rap for the inner city. It was the 90s, man, and it was awesome.