Thursday, 6 December 2012

Rolling Stone stays failing.

A$AP Rocky, a leading scourge of get-off-my-lawn rap

Regular readers, if there were ever any, may by now have worked out the main reasons I still post at all on here. The first of these is when I'm struck by a wave of guilt over the fact that I don't actually write enough and am letting my innate laziness get the better of me. The other is when I get tired of wondering whether a better, more eloquent writer than myself is going to state something that's plainly fucking obvious (or obvious to me, at least), leaving me with no choice but to say it myself or go slightly mad with frustration.

Rolling Stone has just published its list of the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs Of All Time. Before moving on to the meat-and-potatoes of the whole thing, let me quickly point out that it's one of those shitty, cynically-formatted click-bait features that are becoming more and more common nowadays (hi, Complex!) and which feel like part of a massive conspiracy to waste everyone's time. But since people are no longer prepared to do anything so d├ęclasse as...oh, I dunno, support the creators of physical media for which they pay once and can then read at their leisure at no further cost, then the subtext here would seem to be; eat those data charges and STFU like Sean Price.

And so, to the main event. The judging panel for this glorious exercise consisted of a broad selection of the great and good from the rap game, an assortment of hacks and a few randoms like Tom Morello and Vernon Reid, all of whom were asked to pick their favourites. Right now, elsewhere on teh internets, there is probably some over-earnest rap blogger twisting himself (it's always a "he") into a blind rage over the exclusion of deadprez, Immortal Technique or Lupe Fiasco, whilst wondering how it's possible that Talib Kweli would attach himself to a "greatest ever" list that makes room for Jay-Z (twice), Kanye and Missy. As it happens, I have few issues with the actual content itself. Taken as an arbitrary list of 50 great rap songs, rather than the definitive 50 Greatest Of All Time, there's not an awful lot on there that I'd argue against. On the other hand, the guiding principles behind it (or what I imagine them to be) are absolute fucking cocksnot – cosy, easily digestible rap nostalgia, lazy list-based journalism, and rock-crit values attempting to impose themselves on rap. Again.

To be honest, I've given up all hope of the rock press and its associated critical community ever managing to deal with rap on its own terms. You may as well try juggling smoke. Here’s what I mean. Take a random sample of English-language music publications from the last 10/15 years, possibly longer, and I'd bet large on at least half of them regularly defaulting to Public Enemy as the artistic yardstick whenever they cover hip-hop; "[rapper x] channels the spirit of Public Enemy", "[rapper y] will have the listener yearning for some of Public Enemy's righteous anger", et-fucking-cee. It won't matter a tuppenny fuck who they're writing about, and it's still happening. Now, try to imagine almost every review of a rock record you ever read trying to tell you it wasn't as good as Exile On Main Street. For clarity’s sake, Public Enemy are responsible for some of the greatest, most exciting music I've ever heard, but it's like this - they haven't made a truly great album in over twenty years. Public Enemy fell the fuck off ages ago. People might not like hearing it, and I don't particularly like saying it. But it's true.

Why should it matter, though? Who cares about the collective opinion of a bunch of people who'd probably insist that rap's been struggling against a long slide into irrelevance ever since PE failed to top Fear Of A Black Planet, as they make yet another drearily obvious attempt to establish A Canon, to re-order and re-shape rap into what they think it ought to be instead of accepting it for what it is? After all, they can comfortably tell you where rap was at twenty or even thirty years ago, but I wonder whether they'd have too much of a clue about where it's at now. I mean, doesn't anyone else think it funny that all these people seem to agree that the definitive high-water mark of the genre happens to be the exact point where the rock press finally declared that, yes, it might actually be possible for rap music to be more than just a craze, perhaps even something that could exist on the same plane of artistic worth as rock? And that that point was in 1982?

Which brings us to the rappers. Now, I'm not even remotely inclined to give them the same hard time I'd give the hacks. These are people who grew up on rap music, who lived and breathed it and, for the most part, continue to live and breathe it. Anybody who follows Dante Ross or ?uesto on Twitter can tell you that those two guys alone are on some super-heavyweight rap nerd shit - matter of fact, the latter's preamble might be the most worthwhile and entertaining thing about this whole shitshow. But I look at that list and factor in the age of all the rap dudes involved, and balance that with the strong likelihood that certain of the songs have vast nostalgic appeal that perhaps outweighs the usual consensus notions of “greatness”, and I still think, “Really..?” A bunch of rappers – this bunch of rappers - think Juicy is better than Hypnotize? Or that Paid In Full is better than I Know You Got Soul, and Strictly Business better than It's My Thing? They think – and this is really fucking suspect - the Jay tune that UGK got on is better than any other UGK record? Or any other Jay record, for that matter?

Although I doubt whether The Symphony or the remix of Flava In Ya Ear would be there at all without their input, I find it extremely hard to believe that the pros wouldn't have broader taste than this. Nah, this is something that has been skewed by a bunch of casual listeners who default to the same obvious choices every time and cannot fucking bear to deviate from the same rigid critical metric they've been pushing for the last three decades; the people who commission and occasionally write all those ridiculous “[X] Albums For People Who Don't Know Anything About Hip-Hop” pieces about a form of music that's existed on record for over 30 years. Just think about that for a minute. Imagine someone writing a piece called “[X] Albums For People Who Don't Know Anything About Rock” - in 1986. Seriously, if you still need to be led by the hand through hip-hop in 2012, then perhaps it isn't for you. Likewise, when your value judgements suggest that you stopped seriously listening to rap about twenty years ago, then you really need to fall back from any debate regarding what's what, and leave the arguing to the people who still give an actual fuck about it. You're welcome.