Don’t let the title give you the wrong impression; I’m afraid this article won’t be weighing into the debate over whether or not hip-hop was better in the early ‘90s. This common argument has nauseatingly beenrepeated on numerous comment sections across the internet. The discussion is clouded with nostalgia for a time of apparent quality and depth of lyrics, when all that has really changed is that people don’t rap about pagers anymore. No, I am much more interested in who in fact is suffering from “realness” and who is faking the condition to get workers compo.
Creating a character on stage is common to many musical genres, not just hip-hop. But an inherent part of rapping has commonly been bravado and self-aggrandisement. Some rappers just let their rhymes prove their abilities while some write reams of rhymes, not only about how talented they are, but also how mean, violent, and ‘real’ they are. This personal element of hip-hop, the self-advertisement, produces an interesting meeting of fiction and reality, producing what is often called ‘studio Gangsters’. However the rapper rarely—if ever—comments on this reality out of character, allowing themselves to be perceived as their chosen caricature. A recent release from Rick Ross, mastermind, is typical of the rapper style, featuring songs mainly focused on being a gangster in the not-worn-out-at-all style of Tony Montana. While this assessment might seem a little succinct, it is not meant to be a jibe at its quality. And just like every 16 year old’s favourite Al Pacino movie, the entire album is a work of fiction. Rick Ross took his name from a well-known American drug dealer known as “Freeway Rick Ross”, and had to fight a court case over the right to use the name. With this pseudonym, the rapper has created a persona of a dangerous and glamorous gangster and has consistently released content to reinforce the idea. While this makes many of his songs seemingly hollow, the fact is that all his albums are works of fiction that present not a real reflection of his life, but rather tell entertaining stories. Rick Ross is an entertainer and his lack of realism is not a weakness to his work.
This is in juxtaposition to another recent release coming from Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata. The album is arguably the best release this year with Madlib producing a fantastic album. However it is the lyrical content of Freddie Gibbs’ raps which deal with many elements of his life from his time growing up and living in Gary, Indiana, an industrial town in a worse state than Detroit which was considered the murder capital of the US during the ‘90s. Freddie is widely regarded as one of the last real gangsters in modern hip-hop with a criminal record and a background of hustling on the bleak streets of Gary. His music deals not with a fictional story but more often the harsh realities of his life and of those around him. The crime and violence is presented neither positively or negatively, but only realistically. As such, Freddie continues a long line of documentation through music of the under classes of America. Undoubtedly, there is some exaggeration and invention, but never to the scale of outright fiction. Freddie only employs creative licence when attempting to compress multiple occurrences and people into a manageable song.
So what is the issue of having two rappers, both purporting to be presenting reality, with one doing so through a persona while the other doing so truthfully? This happens in other genres, where fans listen to larger-than-life characters for their storytelling and entertainment value, not for their representation of reality. However in those genres you don’t have fiction presented with reality at the same time. It was pretty obvious during the 1960s that much of the blues that the English were “repurposing” was not meant to be their stories; no one tried to pass themselves as being Mississippi Delta locals. When it comes to hip-hop there is no distinction between who is rapping fiction and and who is rapping fact. You will have those who have adopted a character and those who are presenting themselves accurately both rapping on the same track, creating a bizarre dichotomy of fiction and reality. Rick Ross appears on tracks with Pusha T—a rapper who probably raps a little too much about his career dealing cocaine—and Gucci Mane, a violent convicted felon who is thought to fit into this criminal gangster reality when he really doesn’t.
In modern music, reputation and artistic integrity counts for a lot, regardless of the genre at hand. A character adopted for artistic purposes is often used as a device to investigate the ‘other’, or what can’t be properly talked about from an existing point of view. Other times it is to shock and entertain. In both circumstances it is at least clear that it is part of an act. If an artist adopts a style and story that is completely alien to them, usually the fans and other musicians in that genre will shun them as being fake. Both situations occur in hip-hop. For instance, Tyler, the Creator’s alter ego Wolf Hayley is used to explore incredibly dark and troubling themes (a storytelling device seemingly unknown in New Zealand), while rappers such as Soulja Boy are derided for jumping on whatever the current popular trend is. But then certain rappers will be given a pass, with critics willing to ignore their unapologetic metamorphosis into a person they are not and have never been. With the fake and real mixed, it creates a credibility issue for modern hip-hop and for those using the art to recount legitimate struggles. For instance, a lot of Mafioso Rap is made by people who have never experienced crime, poverty and violence, who only glamourise these things for their own financial gain. In turn, such performers trivialise the experiences and music of those for whom such horrible things are a reality.
So does anybody make real shit anymore? Well, yes; some do. You’ve just got to do a decent background search first.