Hip-hop takes another fearless leap
The culture of rap is changing once more, with the bright young things of the hip-hop/r’n’b stable making sure the genre allows an influx of fresh air in the form of new voices, attitudes, narratives and musical style
THE LATEST changing of the guard has begun. Hip-hop has gone through a couple of different incarnations since it first burst into life back in the Bronx in the late 1970s. The genre today is a long way from those innocent parties DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell threw in the basement of their building. That’s where it all began: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York with the DJ spinning funk, soul and reggae
These days, hip-hop is a multi-billion-dollar global business with its fingers in many pies. Of course, it was always about the money: Kool Herc initially threw those parties back on Sedgwick Avenue to help his sister make the cash she needed to buy her back-to-school clothes.
Hip-hop always had business on its mind, though it could never have been predicted that some rappers would become more celebrated for their corporate acumen than their ability to stand at a microphone and spit about what was on their mind. Jay-Z’s line “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” has never been so apt when you look at how some rappers roll.
But for all the focus on the cash, there’s also the culture, and change is inevitable here. The fundamentals of what it takes to make a tune (beats and rhymes) remain the same as they have always been, but what people are doing with these components changes all the time. New voices emerge, new masterpieces are minted and new directions are taken.
Even here in Ireland, you can see these new steers. While many may unfortunately still associate Irish hip-hop with that hackneyed, trite and lazy RTÉ documentary Ireland’s Rappers from earlier in the year, the truth is something else entirely. Anyone who checked out the inaugural Make a Move hip-hop festival in Limerick last month would have come across a vibrant, colourful scene eager to show just where Irish hip-hop may be going and how it can be tapped to articulate the local as well as the global.
On the world stage, there is also a rake of new hip-hop and r’n’b acts coming to the fore. Naturally, many are throwbacks to how things have always been. There seems to have been a memo issued many years ago that all big-budget hip-hop videos are to be set at a swimming pool and feature beefy rappers and their entourages surrounded by bikini-clad women.
Musically, there are also plenty of precedents for what rising, exciting new-school rumblers such as Chief Keef, A$AP Rocky, Azealia Banks, Action Bronson and Kendrick Lamar are making.
Indeed, you could join the dots between the music Frank Ocean has produced on his excellent new album, Channel Orange, and the work of many past heroes. However, Ocean’s story also has some fascinating and illuminating twists which mark him out from the pack.
Ocean moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and began to work as a songwriter-for-hire with acts such as John Legend, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. A deal with Def Jam and a hook-up with the Odd Future hip-hop collective followed.
While waiting for Def Jam to work out what to do with him, Ocean released the Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape in early 2011. This proved to be a smart move, with much praise and acclaim forthcoming for its introspective, emotional tracks.
In the wake of the release, Ocean’s profile skyrocketed, leading to a starring role on No Church in the Wild on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne collaborative album.
Before he released his debut album proper, Channel Orange, last month, Ocean talked about his sexuality in an open letter on his Tumblr. On the back of people wondering why he was singing about “he” rather than “she” on some tracks on the album, Ocean wrote about how his first true love was another man.
In the macho, often homophobic world of hip-hop, talking about bisexuality in this way is a rarity. There may be a lot of rappers with similar experiences to Ocean’s, but it will be a cold day in hell before you hear them talking or rapping about it. Unless you’re dealing with acts such as Seattle duo Theesatisfaction or brash, brilliant New York newcomer Le1f, openly gay and lesbian figures are conspicuous by their absence in the r’n’b and hip-hop world.
While Ocean’s statement and subsequent musing on the topic in various interviews has increased interest in him, his real appeal comes within the confines of Channel Orange. The album is a refreshing adventure for hip-hop and r’n’b, using the music and the methods to tell some dark, compelling, illustrative tales.
If Ocean is the quiet one in the ring, Nicki Minaj is the flamboyant, strutting, loud, brash peacock who you just can’t ignore. However, it’s not just about Minaj’s extrovert visuals and looks. Both her Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded albums have the kind of hooks and tunes you need for mainstream pop audiences to take notice.
Minaj’s procession to the top began with a run of mixtapes such as Beam Me Up Scotty, where she perfected her tough-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside role. The growing word about the Trinidadian-born New Yorker meant she became a favourite guest vocalist for rappers and singers looking for some Minaj sauce on their tracks.
A flurry of guest spots meant she was unmissable in 2010, appearing alongside Ludacris, Usher, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, David Guetta, Rihanna and many more.
By the time she stole the show from Kanye West, Jay-Z and Rick Ross on Monster, Minaj was ready for her own close-up.
Both albums have been remarkably focused works, with Minaj setting up camp in the Venn diagram between pop, hip-hop, r’n’b and disco. She has met and exceeded expectations on both occasions. It’s also been telling how she’s outclassed older male rappers such as Eminem and Will.I.Am when they’ve guested on her tracks. Monster, it seems, was not a one-off.
While you can find precedents for her rapping style in the work of acts such as Foxy Brown or Lil Kim, Minaj has colonised the pop world a whole lot faster than any female rapper before her.
By being able to bring both pop and hip-hop audiences to her yard, Minaj has shown a reach we haven’t seen in a new artist from the hip-hop side in quite some time.
Right now, Frank Ocean, Nicki Minaj and a host of others (see panel below) are taking the culture in new and exciting directions. Give it some time, though, and you’ll soon have another set of young guns eyeing proceedings and measuring themselves for the crown. As the lines from Rapper’s Delight put it, it goes on and on until the break of dawn.
SIX NEW-SCHOOL HIP-HOP ACTS TO CHECK OUT
The bolshie rude girl in the pack, Azealia Banks is a sassy hardchaw rapper with a filthy mouth and a great line in club-friendly bangers. She’s also smart when it comes to collaborators, having already worked with Paul Epworth, Scissor Sisters, Lunice and Diplo.
Watch out for her soon-come debut album Broke With Expensive Taste and an Electric Picnic appearance on August 31st.
KEY TRACK 212
Natassia Zolot is Kreayshawn, an Oakland kid who specialises in colourful, swagged-out hip-hop cuts with plenty of bounce. Debut album Something About Kreay is released in September.
KEY TRACK Gucci Gucci
Recently signed by Universal Music, Angel Haze first gained attention on the back of her King and Altered Ego mix-tapes. Clock a listen to the 20-year-old’s latest release, Reservation, and you’ll know why Universal flashed the cash. A rapper with a great flow, an ear for infectious hooks and a lack of fear when it comes to addressing emotional, personal themes.
KEY TRACK New York
New Yorker Khalif Diouf’s Wut is one of the tracks of the summer – and not just for that badass video. There’s more where that comes from too, with the dancer, producer and rapper’s Dark York mixtape well worth digging into.
KEY TRACK Wut²
A Chicago teen rapper whose hypnotic, hazy, smoked-out I Don’t Like track, Back from the Dead mixtape and Kanye West remix alerted people outside the Windy City to his charms. Now he’s signed to Interscope, expect Keef and his crew to make a lot of noise in the months to come.
KEY TRACK I Don’t Like
This former chef swapped the kitchen pass for the studio but still includes nods to previous culinary exploits in his rhymes. The big man is the one to check if you want rugged tunes and roughneck attitude.
KEY TRACK Buddy Guy
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is out now. Nicki Minaj plays Dublin’s Olympia on August 21st (sold out) and Dublin’s O2 on November 5th