The New York Times Magazine popped open its most recent Fall issue on the topic of identity. There was Wesley Morris’s brilliant analysis of the role meandering identities are playing in regards to race in America. That slice of genius served as the inspiration for this piece as Hip Hop is also struggling with its own new, fluid identity. There was Nicki Minaj gracing the cover lithely cradling a red, leather couch suspended in the air in one of her many guises. The first Hip Hop star since Tupac. Was that Onika she was channelling? The name is often mistaken for Japanese. It’s not. It’s West African, and a quick Google search will reveal several meanings. One says it’s “Who is greater than God?” The second says it means “warrior.” We can’t even agree on that.
In that piece, Nicki’s precise usage of the different lenses through which we see her are profiled. Is she the sultry temptress, the Harajuku Barbie (of her early days), or the hard-nosed lyricist with punchlines like ice picks? Who’s to say she isn’t all three? And her high-wire act of both policing the perceptions of folks like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, and tightly controlling how Hip Hop sees her places her in an interesting position. She is at the forefront of the tumult of shifting personas that Hip Hop must now deal with. I mean, Nicki Minaj is now the best New York emcee in the game. And, she may just be, already, the best female emcee of all-time. She is the top of a mountain that was once an exclusively all-male club. But she is not the only one, or the only narrative for that matter on the front lines. Several stories cropped up this week that show Hip Hop has an identity crisis on its hands, and how it deals with it will lock down what the rest of this decade will look like, and what type of fans it will carry into the 20s.
Will the “real” Hip Hop please stand up? Last week, I spoke to Talib Kweli about the dilemma of “conscious” Hip Hop. It’s an identity that some in Hip Hop seek to shed. An identity that used to be a badge of honor, but is now very easily shamed. It feels dismissive to label something as “conscious.” It means that it is boring and bourgeois. Similarly, Hopsin nipped at the throat of the same premise with his video for “No Words.” In it, he’s seen doing all the cliche´things that have come to represent “trap.” The auto-tune and reverb as well as the tattoos, naked women and guns. It worked. Everyone got the jist at the same time. The message was that we’re losing our collective Hip Hop identities to the lure of materialism, to stupidity, to capitalism. The same capitalism that cut music programs all over the country, ensuring there wouldn’t be any more John Coltrane’s. The same capitalism that led to parties in the Bronx and DJ Kool Herc realizing everyone was just waiting for the break beat.
So there is that identity, too. The “trap” one. The one Hopsin proved can be very easily copied. Jabbari Weekes at Noisey joked that “Trap-Hopsin is the rapper we need in the world.” Though, to do it, Hop would have to become his newly created alter-ego, Hash Brown. The rules of alchemy still exist, then. You must give up yourself if you want to attain a more profitable identity. But Hopsin’s stance isn’t a new one, it’s just that it slaps with slightly more punch than, say, looking at the world Common was talking about on “I Used To Love H.E.R.” in ’94. In that song, Common runs through Hip Hop’s many cultural shifts and laments the loss of her. If only she’d stop switching it up for the money and the fame. If only he could have predicted that Hip Hop would not only undergo cultural changes over the years but a categorical one. Now, everything is Hip Hop, and everyone is everything. But does that mean that, now, everyone is also nothing? Has Hip Hop lost itself as it has expanded to include those who may not have been granted access in the past?
There are so many warring personas in Hip Hop right now. There’s the deeply emotional rap of Angel Haze, the quirky absurdism of RiFF RAff, the familiar duality of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake. Then there’s the aspirational bars of Meek Mill, the stream-of-consciousness rap of A$AP Rocky, and the herky-jerky beats and rhymes of Tyler, The Creator. The list can go on and on. And what all of these emcees, and the industry as a whole, have in common is that they aren’t revelling in single narratives about tough guys or drug dealers or G-Funked playboys or off-the-hook creatives or straight spitters anymore. All exist in this gray space, encroaching on what some see as the foundations of Hip Hop itself. Why else do we deride some Hip Hop as fodder? Why else can Travi$ Scott say he “doesn’t consider himself Hip Hop.” Yet, only have a platform because of the genre he’s come to reject. Could Travi$ Scott even have existed prior to a roving idea of what a rapper was? Of what genre was?
And the water is coming in from all sides. Ural Garrett just wrote a great piece about white rappers like Slim Jesus and Stitches encroaching on the more extreme, violent aspects of Hip Hop, stepping into a territory chock full of contradiction, history and real anger based on real pain. Noah Callahan-Bever wrote a piece last month speaking specifically to how sales of Kanye West’s Graduation destroyed 50 Cent’s Curtis and thus gangsta rap in the process. Drake’s surgical take-down of Meek Mill means the self-proclaimed “singin’ nigga” is at least in your 2015 top 5. If he’s not, he should be just on account of sheer domination. Spencer Stein at The Rukkus has the multi-racial, multi-national Hip Hop outsider turned insider charting a whopping 31 songs this year. Not to mention, Rick Ross of all people is imploring 50 Cent to keep it a hunnid about his financial situation.
So which identity will Hip Hop pick? The truth is it doesn’t have to pick one at all. In fact, it may be imperative to its survival that it looks down at that scantron and chooses “(e) All of the above.”
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.