Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rap Reviewed

Scott Alexander writes:

Suppose that rappers start with pre-existing differences from everyone else. Poor, male, non-white minority, lots of experience living in violent places, maybe a certain philosophical outlook towards their condition. Then they get a rallying flag: rap music. They meet one another, like one another. The culture undergoes further development: the lionization of famous rappers, the development of a vocabulary of shared references. They get all of the benefits of being in a tribe like increased trust, social networking, and a sense of pride and identity.

Now suppose some rich white people get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for innocuous reasons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-existing differences, and they can’t be easily assimilated into the tribe. Maybe they develop different conventions, and start saying that instead of being about the struggles of living in severe poverty, rap should be about Founding Fathers. Maybe they start saying the original rappers are bad, and they should stop talking about violence and bitches because that ruins rap’s reputation. Since rich white people tend to be be good at gaining power and influence, maybe their opinions are overrepresented at the Annual Rap Awards, and all of a sudden you can’t win a rap award unless your rap is about the Founding Fathers and doesn’t mention violence (except Founding-Father-related duels).

When someone asked me, circa 1989, what kind of music I liked, my answer would have perhaps jumped around depending on the day, with this exception: I was confident that I hated rap music.

Last weekend, I watched the movie Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic. I loved it. The movie's story line was compelling; it was well acted, with great performances by O'Shea Jackson and Jason Mitchell; and its dramatic pacing was almost perfect, even in the director's cut version that I watched on Blu-ray. Even the film's overt #blm political message had, in my view, enough artistic subtlety for someone otherwise hostile to it to come away with his own interpretation of the events it depicts, perhaps in spite of the creator's intent.

But what surprised me was the extent to which I found myself nodding and bouncing my foot to the beat of songs whose lyrics, even now, would never pass my lips.

What happened?

Some possibilities:

  • I hated rap without having listened to it. That's mostly true: I certainly never voluntarily consumed any rap media, nor did I attend venues or events where it was likely to be played, at least at volumes I wouldn't have found off-putting in themselves. But it's not entirely true: I can remember hearing it in passing, and finding it's appeal mostly incomprehensible.

  • The movie's rap music is inauthentic. I have no way of knowing whether the soundtrack's numbers are identical to what was recorded and played in the '80s and '90s, or whether they have been subtlely redone to appeal to a broader audience. But if this were the case, wouldn't we have heard about it?

  • We all have been acculturated to Rap. (Or to "hip-hop"; someone will need to explain if there is a difference.) Steve has pointed out in several posts that Rap is now and has been the domininant pop style for a couple of decades. On the other hand, my personal listening habits, to the extent I listen to pop music, incline me towards the acoustic- and piano-centric covers of Kurt Hugo Schneider and Tiffany Alvord. And I listen to exclusively classical music on my daily commutes. So while it is certainly possible that I became accustomed to the rap style without realizing it, I still think this is unlikely.

  • My perspective has changed. Then: an abstemious Christian NeoCon who read National Review and jogged. Now: an alt-Right neo-tribalist who lifts weights and reads . . . well, you know . . . .

    This isn't about a moral or rational choice. There is a scene in the movie where a couple of guys with pistols come to the band's hotel room looking for a cheating girlfriend; Easy E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre respond with AR-15s and a shotgun. So, first of all, not my tribe. Second, extraordinarily illegal and dangerous. But . . . yeah, I kind of get it. And I get it even knowing what the movie at its most enlightened seems to also know: that the kind of life of which N.W.A. purported to give an account, and thereby glorified, was unlikely to lead to positive outcomes for the people actually living it or forced to live next to it. As I discussed with my daughters: The N.W.A. life offered money, sex, and violence. When you're young and male, it's tough to understand how that can be bad." It's weird, but in middle age, I seem to understand that better than I once did.

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