Let’s Hope Hip-Hop Steps Up in 2014

Hip-hop was just all right in 2013. Will the music we love be stronger in the new year?

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Jay Z and Beyoncé arrive at the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Around the family dinner table over Christmas, the conversation turned to the recently announced Outkast performance at Coachella 2014—the event that pretty much all hip-hop heads are looking forward to—and the overall state of hip-hop going into 2014, which has decidedly more mixed reviews.

Was 2013 a good year for the music we love, or does it need a new blueprint? Will 2014 bring an as-yet-undiscovered breakthrough artist or album, or will hip-hop continue to be a marginalized art form consumed by many and controlled by a few?

Expect the same group of regulars to put out more of the same material: Rick Ross will still rap about cars, clothes and hos. Weezy will figure out new metaphors for oral sex. Future will kill us with Auto-Tuned hood raps and Drake will keep “srapping” (singing-rapping). He did say on “All Me” that he’s “the light-skinned Keith Sweat” and he “gon’ make it last forever.” I believe him.

Here’s what we might see from some of hip-hop’s other notables:

Kendrick Lamar emerged as the most radical MC of 2013 with hooks like, “If Pirus and Crips all got along/They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song.” My hope is that the Compton, Calif.-raised rapper will remain reflective and introspective without falling victim to corporate pressures to sell his brand by any means necessary.

And speaking of ways and means, let’s talk about Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z. Fans are disappointed that he seems to teeter on that blurred line between rap and action. But I’m not. Yes, his lyrical themes still take on poverty and its adverse consequences on the community—but that’s about it, beyond handing out college scholarships and potable water to African communities, “Jigga man” hasn’t meaningfully poured his resources into (re)building African-American institutions. I’m reluctant to expect him to sponsor a school in 2014 or underwrite a curriculum that integrates hip-hop-based pedagogies to teach kids entrepreneurial skills.

We’d save ourselves a lot of disappointment if we just accepted Jay Z for who he is—a marquee rapper and genius marketer—and stop pressuring him to be an entertainer-activist like Harry Belafonte. He’s about getting paid first, and he and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter are now part of “highbrow hip-hop.” Don’t expect him to pull out of his deal with Barneys New York because of allegations of racial profiling. Anything’s possible, but don’t hold your breath. Enjoy his music for entertainment purposes only. That’s what I do.

Kanye West? As one of his biggest fans, I recently took in the Atlanta installment of his Yeezus Tour. For most of a two-hour concert, ’Ye wore a series of bejeweled masks. It was awkward, creepy and kinda scary.

In 2014 I expect West to keep pushing the envelope until he (unfortunately) falls off the tip of that big-ass mountain he had as a stage. I need West—in all his Fanonian avant-gardism—to become comfortable in his black maleness and stop begging folks for validation who want nothing to do with him or his craft. What is that about? Hopefully a new baby, wife and year will bring on a new perspective for Kanye.

As far as I’m concerned, the verdict is still out on Seattle duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They won a Video Music Award for best hip-hop video and are nominated for seven Grammys, including best rap album and best new artist. They challenge homophobia and rap about empowerment. I like that a lot. But I wonder how much of their ability to rap candidly is a function of white privilege. Let’s wait to see what happens here.

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