Deciphering hip hop’s identity crisis

by Dillon Riley / Beacon Staff • February 26, 2015

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Canadian rap phenom Drake released a new album last week by surprise, and it was undoubtedly an event unto itself. As with any Drake release, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a polarizing, if often thrilling, hundred-something minutes. On cue, a vocal minority—or majority, it’s too close to call—inevitably got in a tizzy over its perceived lack of “realness,” bending over backwards to demonstrate the “softness” of Drake and of the tracks he puts out.

People often perceive Drake’s approach to that rap medium as illegitimate. I assume it’s his particularly introspective lyrical content and lush production style that inspires such ire in the self-anointed rap nerd community—those courageous defenders of the “real” hip-hop. To them, being defined as “real” means abiding by a particular set of lyrical tropes and beat archetypes, a description that rappers are increasingly willing to challenge. 

Thankfully, that standard isn’t always applied in mainstream hip-hop criticism, which allows room for artists like Drake to accrue success critically and financially. However, as artists like Drake look to expand the parameters of hip-hop, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the “real” hip-hop debate—which is, in effect, total nonsense. It seems pretty obvious to me that in 2015, we should have moved far past the need for a simplified real vs. fake rap binary. 

To illustrate this point, let’s look at another genre, rock 'n' roll. I, and many others like me, have spent years cultivating a very specific and nuanced taste in music that’s generally created with the same four instruments: drums, bass, guitar, vocals. For instance, I could name untold amounts of rock genres and subgenres that likely have far more in common than not. To the inexperienced, it would likely be quite hard to quantify the minute differences between dream-pop and noise-pop, but to me, bands like Cocteau Twins and Black Tambourine exist in separate sonic worlds. 

Think of record stores and how they organize guitar music by subdivisions: metal, punk, rock, reggae. But rap is generally relegated to one confined section, and sadly, housed entirely under one classification, despite boasting styles and strands just as diverse as the ones allotted to guitar bands.

 For such a potent and important style of music, rap’s classification remains criminally stagnant. Sure, there are rap blogger buzzwords like “backpack” and “political,” but none of these have entered the mainstream conversation or the music journalism lexicon. Unfortunately, for many, rap is rap, from the harsh noise collages of acts like Death Grips and Clipping to the strip club-inclined miscues from rappers like Tyga. I can, at least to some small degree, feel the pain of rap aficionados who are tired of seeing their heroes talked about in the same conversations as more pop-oriented acts like Childish Gambino.

But why is this the norm? Why has rap yet to gain its own set of robust classifications? While one could attribute this to rap’s relative infancy compared to other genres, I think the reason is far more contentious. It doesn’t take much research to deduce that rap is still not a fully respected medium. While the racial motivations behind this disrespect could fill another column, it seems important to me to point out how the business end of the music industry remains almost exclusively under the direction of old white guys. Seemingly, they cannot, and will not, look past the racial context they see within hip-hop culture, in spite of its obvious and often visceral artistic merit.

Tragically, these same reluctant industry leaders are the ones largely in charge of the promotion, distribution, and classification of music. Without proper industry clout, hip-hop will never receive the same level of detailed categorization allotted to other forms of music. This, in turn, limits the space—and potential respect—for artists who are unable or unwilling to participate within the constricting idea of “real” hip-hop. For now, the hip-hop world remains housed under one umbrella, much to its own detriment.