At the risk of launching into yet another tired and curmudgeonly tirade on the failings of modern hip-hop, perhaps it’s time to launch into yet another tirade about black emcees.
Once a cultural crowning achievement expressing social and political change, hip-hop continues its top-40 bling-pop descent into a purgatory of meaninglessness. It’s been equally captivating and saddening to watch the rapid devolution of the art form’s mainstream image over the past 20 years—and no one has better personified that in the short span of the past week than Kanye West.
Let’s face it, you couldn’t help but snicker and “smh” at West—who’s spending his holiday season setting up boycotts of 1-percenter clothing lines—contrasted against the white rapper, Macklemore, who just gave what many saw as an almost surreal and patronizing mini-manifesto denouncing "Stand your ground'" at the American Music Awards.
And that, as much as anything, is the reason for hip-hop’s sorry state of affairs.
It's not so much the actual substance of West’s beefs that’s the problem. It’s the timing. And it’s not just him. It just seems, at least in terms of the mainstream news meter, that emcees or rappers of color keep getting embroiled in spectacularly irrelevant beefs about—in the grand scheme of things—nothing. Jay Z is caught up in a pretentious, nonsensical controversy over the rollout of his Barney’s luxury clothing line; Kendrick Lamar is boycotting GQ magazine over what he calls an “offensive” interview; and Dr. Dre is on the legal warpath over accusations of infidelity on a gossip website.
West puts a cherry on the top of it all with an infinite string of worthless but entertaining (or not) one-liners about Lenny Kravitz, “n——s in Paris” and claiming to be the next Tupac. Perhaps he’s in the midst of an innovative collection of lyrics and sound loops for his next release—we don’t know.
At one time black rappers or lyricists were champions of social change and urban empowerment. But now the sold-out lot of them are pitchmen and pitchwomen pushing the next Black Friday trend. And if they’re not selling the latest line of liquor or offering justification for shelling out another grip for the newest clothing line, they’re obsessing over cosmetic stuff from the cuffs in their pants to the tips in their manicures.
This isn’t an indictment of all of hip-hop—just that chalkboard scratching hip-hop most people know and listen to while stuck in traffic (please turn that ish down or off, fam), even though there are still genuine artists who happily toil away in the underground, trying to reprogram popular discourse.
While West’s idea of intelligent social commentary is a brag-filled diatribe about “keeping up with Kanye” in the pursuit of thousand-dollar Balenciaga sneakers, Macklemore and his sidekick, Ryan Lewis, used their acceptance speech at the recent American Music Awards to spit an impassioned diatribe against a law that a lot of folks think helped kill Florida teen Trayvon Martin. It’s why the chattering class went from stunned to ecstatic at the sight of the Seattle-based hit rapper making a political statement.
But what few bothered to point out was Macklemore’s cunning and patronizing deflect. As a political strategist, I can smell planned messaging when it's cooking. He knew he was in Florida, about to perform and accept an AMA in the most notorious of the 26 "Stand your ground" states. Smartly, he came out ahead in the end, with relatively intelligent remarks about the need to repeal one of the most controversial self-defense laws ever legislated.
All of which makes Macklemore look relevant—even if it’s a marketing ploy—and Kanye look trivial—even if he might really have something to say.
Of course, it's great to see artists using their talents to catapult themselves into the top tax bracket. Still, I can’t help but refer back to Harry Belafonte’s critique of the hip-hop notables who’ve seemingly “turned their back on social responsibility.” Macklemore, perhaps sensing this, stumbled across the best way yet to completely clown the modern black emcee. And while cats in wife-beaters are crying about how they were profiled during a shopping binge at the Gucci store, others write the obituary of a boom-bapping golden age when hits about important issues of the day lined the record-store shelves.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When he’s not mad, he can be reached via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.