In hindsight, I bet the critics of the bling era of hip-hop who wanted to see Sean “Puffy” Combs burned at the stake would have hugged him if they knew what was to come. Even though Puffy’s more extravagant records had a stranglehold on the mainstream, urban radio still had variety, with a healthy mix of classic jams and current music of a totally different ilk. And while some criticized Bad Boy Records’ penchant for sampling and interpolation that nearly mimicked the original songs, this was merely an interpretation of the sampling that hip-hop was founded upon, which mainstream hip-hop today is noticeably devoid of.
Hip-hop moves fast and in “hip-hop years”, my 32 years of age can be considered old, specifically given my rather negative opinion on much of today’s mainstream rap. While there’s much about today’s hip-hop I enjoy, the hip-hop most visible to mainstream America and the world is foreign to me. Blaming criticism of modern hip-hop on age is simply a cop-out. Anyone with an ear for hip-hop and any understanding of what came before can tell that what’s being put out currently, while not always downright bad, is simply not being made with the same staying power as it once was. Whether the lightning-fast pace of modern technology and music acquisition is to blame or a desperately eager-to-please music business is to blame is a matter of chicken and egg. Personally, I think the generation gap also plays a major factor. While growing up I wasn’t necessarily digging up Sugar Hill Gang records, I was lucky enough to have a young-ish dad who was into hip-hop and always had some Ice Cube or Tribe playing in the home (among other genres). Many of my peers were fond of “borrowing” their older siblings’ cassette tapes, which they were too young to purchase on their own. Today, kids have their own iTunes accounts, their own iPods or Spotify accounts, and have no need to subject themselves to whatever classics their parents or older siblings are dusting off to play in the home. Since there’s no standard being set for timeless music, there’s no hunger for it.Despite near-unlimited access to any music from any generation, the youth have no interest in anything but the now for the most part and “current” seems to be representing a smaller and smaller expanse of time.
If anything, we should be able to rely on the elder statesmen of hip-hop fandom to provide some modicum of good taste based on simply knowing better. No one old enough to remember what Mecca And The Soul Brothersounded like should be calling the Rich Gang album “genius” and especially not “classic” (though sadly, I’ve seen this). While we won’t know what’s classic until it’s had years to settle into our hearts and minds, anyone who remembers what “T.R.O.Y.” sounded like at first listen knows what it should feel like to recognize a potential classic early on. Unfortunately, in their need to fit in, many of our elder statesman have instead chosen to co-sign new acts like Migos or Rae Sremmurd as opposed to pointing out how these acts pale in comparison to acts whose debuts were leaps and bounds above the material being offered now. We’re taking what we’re being given now and praising it as if we don’t know what better sounds like. Critics are praising music that sounds like it belongs on a Kidz Bop compilation as if they don’t know what timeless material really sounds like. Granted, all music doesn’t need to be timeless, but at the same time, it’s okay to label some things as a disposable good time and leave it at that. It’s unfortunate to see critical minds selling out just to appear “with it” and appeal to younger audiences.
We have to stop being afraid to “sound old” when it comes to critiquing hip-hop because, frankly, that’s the only voice that’s going to keep the culture alive. Why do we keep bringing up the 90s? Because hip-hop has yet to reach another peak. I just can’t sit idly by while a generation accustomed to free music is allowed to fully dictate the direction the culture is going in, not evolving but becoming less and less recognizable. If you’re like me and remember waiting for the local record store to open on Tuesday morning so you could buy whatever rap album was new, sight unseen, with cold, hard cash, you should feel entitled to have some opinions on hip-hop’s present and future. You earned your stripes ripping the plastic off of all those cassettes and CDs. You earned your voice by having real-time “best MC” arguments with people face to face as opposed to anonymously in the comments sections of your favorite rap blogs. I’m no curmudgeon. I’m a big Action Bronson fan, for example. He puts on a great live show and brings some unique references to his rhyming and has a great ear for beats. Every year on my site, I list a number of albums that I was impressed by, most of them by rappers. All current. I’m far from living in the 90’s. I’m not against the youth having fun, but I can remember being a youth, having fun, and the music still having some substance and authenticity to it…music that holds the same weight to this day. I can remember taking an album home and not hearing just a collection of wanna-be singles, but a complete vision letting you into the mind of an artist. Ignoring the fact that things have changed is just silly. The 90s were great for hip-hop and let’s just face the fact that no decade after it will compare until we take a serious look at quality control.