Once upon a time in a universe far, far away, HipHopDX used to host blogs. Through Meka, Brillyance, Aliya Ewing and others, readers got unfiltered opinions on the most current topics in and beyond Hip Hop. After a few years, a couple redesigns and the collective vision of three different Editors-In-Chief, blogs are back. Sort of. Since our blog section went the way of two-way pagers and physical mixtapes, Twitter, Instagram and Ustream have further accelerated the pace of current events in Hip Hop. Rappers beef with each other 140 characters at a time, entire mixtapes (and their associated artwork) can be released via Instagram, and sometimes these events require a rapid reaction.
As such, we’re reserving this space for a weekly reaction to Hip Hop’s current events. Or whatever else we deem worthy. And the “we” in question is myself, Omar Burgess and Andre Grant. Collectively we serve as HipHopDX’s Features Staff. Aside from tackling stray topics, we may invite artists and other personalities in Hip Hop to join the conversation. Without further delay, here’s this week’s “Stray Shots.”
Has Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) Ever Rapped To His Potential?
Andre: Mighty mighty Mos may be the most underrated emcee from the so-called Golden Age of Hip Hop. You know, the time when quote-unquote Hip Hop heads could look back and recall with great precision how a song made them feel like Tommy jackets and Timberland boots would last forever. But, with Black on Both Sides turning the age of a pimply teenager Monday, we had to posit on the effectiveness of his career. And really, there’s nothing to posit. Let’s check the tale of the tape:
A serious film career: (Two of which, “A Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” and “The Italian Job” were quirky, weirdo philo-comedies). At least two classic albums: (Yeah, I’m sayin’ The Ecstatic was a classic, if only for its trite ability to make you feel irrelevant and unsophisticated). Did I mention “The Boogie Man Song” is one of the best buddha-head love tomes of all-time? Like, is this even still a serious question? Plus, he’s got a Grammy.
But after the several shining examples of supernatural rhymes he hit us with on Black on Both Sides, Black Star, The Ecstatic and the freestyles (my god, do you remember those?), he never quite put it together the way I’d like. I mean, there’s just this lingering feeling in my heart that he never presented me with the masterpiece my fandom demands. The way Ye´made MBDTF as an experiment in saying “See! This is what you guys want.” And everyone was all like, “Yeah, you’re right. This is perfect perfection. This is a perfectly perfect thing!” But here’s the heart of the matter, for me. He’s the rapper I wanted to choose to represent blackness and rapping. “Yeah,” I’d say, if someone tried to tell me Rap was misogynistic or nihilistic or materialistic, “Yeah, there’s some of that, but what about Mos?” And the conversation would hush itself to sleep right then as the minds of my adversaries spun themselves into a cocoon. Since i’m denied that, I will always kind-of of think his career is sort-of incomplete. Though, of course, that man owes me nothing.
Omar: Wrong question. I know what Mos Def’s potential is about as much as I can accurately tell you what I’ll have for breakfast seven years and 353 days from now. Who fucking knows? The real question is, “Has Mos Def met people’s absurd, rigid expectations for his career trajectory?” And I would say the answer is a resounding, “Hell no,” because said expectations are rigid and absurd.
Think about the song “Hip Hop” when Mos spit the following bars:
“My restlessness is my nemesis / It’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page / I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days…”
I can’t imagine something I loved doing, and were praised and compensated for being that difficult. Maybe I’m over analyzing the rhyme, but it sounds like each one of Mos Def’s sixteens was about as enjoyable as crafting a custom Ron Swanson chair.
Mos Def was painted into the conscious box by a large segment of the very same fanbase that praised him. Some of it was by virtue of him holding a mirror up to Hip Hop (and by extension society at large). Whether it’s fair or not, if you’re labeled as conscious, portions of your audience are going to turn that mirror right back in your direction. And when they do, it’s not just a regular mirror. It’s one of those 5X magnifying vanity mirrors that show every pore, blackhead and disfigurement. Remove the social commentary, and say you pit Mos against an emcee with equal technical precision, cadence and timing. The other emcee can attempt a crossover hit without people wondering about his ex-wife’s allegations, one of his biggest songs possibly being about Beyonce or all the other bullshit expectations a “conscious rapper” gets saddled with.
Add in the nature of the record business and what sounded like Mos Def’s visible frustration with the recording industry, and it sounds (I’m purely speculating here) like a really shitty job. Who would want to put up with all of that for maybe $100K each year? I assume Mos is somewhere doing him sans any expectations from fans or detractors about his potential. There were select moments when he performed a thankless job incredibly well. People’s projected expectations based on those select moments aren’t really his problem.
Are We Secretly Glad “Wu-Tang Forever’s” Remix Got Axed?
Omar: A Drake/Wu-Tang collaboration in 2013 would have been like mixing peanut butter and Hennessy. You can understand why people individually like each element, but you keep them in their respective lanes because the combination would be terrible. I don’t think the botched “Wu-Tang Forever” remix had anything to do with women. People are quick to forget Wu-Tang Clan made some great music co-opting R&B songs—whether it was the Rae and Ghost’s remix to Jodeci’s “Feenin’,” ODB on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” remix or Meth, U-God, and Ol’ Dirty on S.W.V.’s remix to “Anything.” And that’s before you factor in Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “All I Need.” Drake and 40 are clearly taking cues from the style of ‘90s R&B/Rap hybrid that Sean Combs helped popularize. And despite those pillow-biting looking album covers and occasionally simpish behavior that we (read: I) sometimes clown him for, Drake can shift into rugged mode when he wants to.
In a perfect world, everyone involved could’ve found a lyrical happy place for a Drake/Wu-Tang collaboration. But, his paying tribute aside, Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” was a botched concept from the jump. Much like 2011’s “Practice,” “Wu-Tang Forever” took a pretty rugged track and tried to remake it as a ballad. And Drizzy just doesn’t have the vocal range to do that. Plus the dirty secret of Wu-Tang’s (and to a greater extent Diddy’s) success merging Pop/R&B with Hip Hop was the combination of raw breakbeats over stacked melodies and familiar samples. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing bubblegum R&B with Hip Hop. It’s all in the execution. And Wu-Tang Clan and the combination of Drake and 40 take decidedly different routes to get to that destination. With the exception of Ghostface’s 2009 effort, Ghostdini Wizard Of Poetry In Emerald City can the Clan even enter that Pop/R&B chamber anymore? The road to an incredibly terrible collaboration is paved with good intentions. I think Drake and Wu fans are better off with the remix to “Wu-Tang Forever” stuck on a hard drive somewhere.
Andre: I mean, the answer is yes, a resounding yes. And he is not wrong for it. It’s like this, see. Drizzy makes love-songs. The Wu does not make love-songs. Well RZA does, but he’s special. That whole “I got a ‘Love Jones’ for your body and your skin tone” stuff was about relationships. The crew referring to women as different flavors of ice cream, while classic, was not about love. And Ghost pretty much only made songs about sex — some of the best, to be sure — but he did not talk about how vulnerable “love” can make you, how fragile. This is the kind of music that Drake makes, and he makes it very, very well.
In the Clan’s statement, U-God had this to say, “We was hard body at the time. We was listening to the track, and like later on, I was like, ‘What the hell was I rhyming about? I was like I was rhyming some hardcore shit, and he wanted to talk about some bitches.’ Pardon me. Women and stuff…” And Ghost didn’t even know what was going on! “I didn’t record. When I talked to him, I think he wanted me and Rae to go in, but for whatever reason, it never happened.”
So, the remix to “Wu-Tang Forever” maybe didn’t happen because Drizzy wanted something more “woman-y” and Wu-Tang wanted something a little more Wu-Tang-y and there’s nothing wrong with that. That unholy union wouldn’t have been good for anyone, but it would have sure been fun.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter@omarburgess.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant who’s contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Senior Features Writer for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter@drejones.