Can Rap Be Saved? Part 2: My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Industry

It’s hard being Kanye West.  Sure, West is one of the most successful recording artists of the last decade.  He’s had countless successful singles, his music has been hailed as genius by critics from all corners of the musical world, and his career as a superstar has blossomed from a humble producer to one of the most easily recognized rappers of the 21st century.  But in September of 2009, Kanye West was none of these things.  He was, as President Barack Obama not-so-subtly put it, a “jackass.” West had just stolen the microphone from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, insisting that her video for “You Belong with Me” was nothing compared to “one of the best videos of all time,” “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by R&B star Beyoncé.  West was ridiculed, and it wasn’t the first time in his tumultuous career, either.  With everyone from news pundits to Doritos-stained internet curmudgeons chastising him for his arrogance, Kanye West did something that Kanye West does not do well: he stepped out of the limelight.

The numerous apologies, interviews, and analysis that followed seemed to take its toll on him.  Kanye, who started his rise to stardom making beats on Jay-Z’s 2001 album The Blueprint, took to an exciting new medium to interact with his increasingly ostracized fan base.  Twitter provided West a way to do something no other platform provided, and the rapper used the website with force, interacting directly with his fans, broadcasting his thoughts to the internet-at-large.  It also set off a period of introspection for him, as the line between his artistic persona and personal life had become utterly indistinguishable.  He started listening to Bon Iver, he started taking to heart the story of Gil-Scott Herron, and he started to promote independent rock bands on his website.  West, who began to say in interviews that he liked indie rock more than modern hip-hop, posted MP3s and videos to up-and-coming artists on his website.  And then, to everyone’s surprise, he started giving away his own music.  The steady stream of songs only piqued interest for what would become 2010’s My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy.

And fantasy it is.  Perhaps no other rapper could have pulled this type of shtick off.  With a grandiose flair and an ego-centric bent, the album isn’t so much a celebration of Kanye’s larger-than-life persona as a deconstruction of it.  West references his chastising following the Swift incident and responds with a cynical, yet pointed diatribe against himself. But beyond the self-deprecation and bitterness, the record is head-turning for its sheer vision.  Never has rap sounded like this before, with countless symphonic flourishes and detours meshing hand-in-hand with heavy post-production on Kanye’s own voice.  It’s rap music made to be performed by a chamber orchestra orbiting earth itself.

In spite of it’s remarkable accomplishments, My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy wasn’t so much the bread-and-butter of 2010’s remarkable year for rap music as it was the crowning jewel.  West might have cranked out the most memorable rap album of the year, but it was hardly the only shining star from the genre.  No single year in recent memory provided a more successful outpouring of music from the most recognized names in the business.

The impressive roster reads like a who’s-who of rap’s undeniable titans.  Earlier in 2010, divisive MC Eminem gave us Recovery.  It was a record that not only made the ageing rapper relevant to pop music after many considered his career to be over, it also showcased a true high for his lyrical sensibilities.  The intensity and anger on Recovery came through in a tour-de-force for Marshall Mathers, perhaps only slightly hampered by the replay value radio stations found in singles like “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie.”  West may have been the emperor of the genre, but Eminem emerged as the comeback kid.

And it continues: Big Boi, who was previously only mentioned in tangent as the “lesser” half of Atlanta rap duo Outkast, released an album bubbling at the seams with original beats.  Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty stood as a celebration of the genre’s highs on tracks like “Shutterbug.” The Roots, who became a household name thanks to their gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, brought their jam-session inspired brand of hip hop to a natural high on How I Got Over.  Similarly surprising was a new record from Nas, in collaboration with genetically-enhanced reggae artist Damian Marley.  The duo, whose Distant Relatives drew inspiration from African and Cuban music, offered up a complex and shape-shifting record that managed to find the middle ground in their individual styles.

Yet, in spite of the staggering amount of innovation from these artists, a peculiar trend begins to emerge upon a closer inspection: the vast differences between these records and the radio-hits of the year.  While some of the albums produced successful singles, they were far removed from the vast majority of rap music getting airplay in 2010.  Only Eminem managed to snag the coveted #1 spot on the Billboard music charts.  Conversely, the peak of the chart was dominated by new talent, most often from Atlantic Records (you may remember them from the last article).  Bruno Mars, B.o.B, and Usher all held the spot for extended periods during the calendar year thanks to aggressive radio campaigns.

It’s a clear contrast, one that speaks volumes about the damaging impact of this type of industry-based music production.  2010 sported the biggest names in rap music putting out some of their best records.  But these records were, in turn, notable for their respective departures from what has become the cut-and-dry standard for modern rap music.  The artistic merit in a song like West’s “Runaway” can be easily identified even by someone who dislikes the song, whereas a single like “OMG” by Usher perhaps nets enough money for a record company to justify any lack of artistic merit.

An interesting point, brought up in a comment on the previous article, was whether or not a record company should be required to hold onto acts that are less profitable in their business model.  It’s a compelling objection, but one that raises additional questions when looking at successful records from 2010 across different musical genres.  Amongst the best-selling rock records for the year was Muse’s The Resistance, a sprawling concept album produced by members of the band.  Radiohead’s The King of Limbs climbed to the number 1 spot for 2 weeks following it’s self-release in early 2011.  Similarly, Lady Antebellum achieved great success with Need You Now, another band-generated album.  Perhaps most damning is a statistic from Billboard: of the 16 number 1 singles in 2010, only 6 did not use autotune.  Vampire Weekend, ironically, offers the most damning criticism of the business-then-music attitude that has become dominant in the production of rap.  The Ivy-league quartet plays an utterly distinctive brand of ethnically-influenced indie rock, yet had one of the best-selling rock albums of the year.  Innovative acts have the ability to succeed in other genres of music, but anything short of compliance to company production standards has the potential to derail rap artists in contract-compliance hell.

It poses an interesting question about rap, a genre that has felt the strain of pop sensibility encroach into the recording studio.  If artists are limited in their creative options for success, a sell-out culture that has permeated rap production takes over the music as whole.  Perhaps this is good for business.  Perhaps this is not the fault of the record companies so much as listeners, who feed the radio monster with demands for “bad” music.  But for artists so closely-entwined with rap’s success in the 2000s to make a steady retreat away from more commercially viable music must stand as a troubling sign for those who appreciate the genre itself.