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.
Considering how tech-savvy you must be to have found this column, I presume you’ve heard of Lil B, otherwise known as The Based God. At the very least, you may have seen the memetic “Thank you Based God” or its more common abbreviation, “#TYBG”.
Image: Know Your Meme
This cult figure is a rapper, with an online presence that stretches across almost every social media platform imaginable. The first thing that would strike any person viewing Lil B ’s Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr for the first time is the flood of what appears to be genuine devotion and love from his fans. He started on Myspace, where he had to create multiple pages to upload all of his content. From those now-ancient days he and his disciples have spread across the internet.
The disciples of The Based God inundate his pages with photos of devotion and messages expressing their deep appreciation for the positivity he continuously espouses. Drake has even adopted the “Based” creed, posting using Lil B’s signature slang. Even veteran rappers Lil Wayne and P Diddy are both fans. His strong following rides off his interaction with fans, which sees him following almost everyone who follows him on Twitter, as well as reposting fan art and letters with messages of thanks and appreciation.
His musical output also never leaves his fans wanting. So far in 2014 he has already released a mixtape of 30 songs, less than two months after releasing the much-anticipated mixtape “05 Fuck em” at Christmas, which contained 100 songs. This is typical of Lil B, who over the period of 2010 to 2013 released 44 mixtapes and 5 albums, containing hundreds of songs, all covering similar themes of loving and caring for his fan base. In a genre where rappers can be ridiculed for simply singing the most basic of love songs, Lil B bravely pronounces his love for his fans and even proceeds to cry in one of his music videos. Regardless of what you think of the song, this is quite a brave move for a rapper. His attitudes of love and care even extend to the cesspit that is the YouTube comment section, where the typical conversation with a naysayer goes:
Youtube commenter #1: “This song sucks”
Youtube commenter #2: “Lil B loves you”
If all it takes to improve the resounding justification for internet censorship that is YouTube comments is Lil B making music, I can forgive his shortcomings.
Photography by Taffy Dale (Flickr)
And there are some shortcomings when it comes to Lil B. It can be easy to get caught in the aura and mythos that surrounds The Based God and not realise some of the holes in his image. Firstly there is the quality of the music. The drive for quantity, while admirable, does lead to a distinct lack of quality. While his music may not necessarily be bad, it’s hard to argue that Lil B is actually up to the standard that he purports to be. He released a “Control Response’ track months after Kendrick Lamar’s controversial diss verse in Big Sean’s track ‘Control’, even though Lamar didn’t mention Lil B at all. Similarly, in the same year that Eminem released ‘Rap God’, Lil B released ‘God of Rap’. Both are questionable moves and attempts to roll with the heaviest hitters in Hip-Hop, which only served to illustrate how much he lacks. Some of his songs deliberately use simple lyrics and silly or corny concepts but even his best serious work is not up to scratch.
Lil B also publically participates in some questionable fan interaction with many young women. These fans, often barely eighteen years old, write messages like “Thank You Based God” on parts of their body and submit the pictures to Lil B’s Facebook page. The sexual undertones of many of the poses and the lack of clothing makes these pictures rather unsettling at the very least, especially for a page that is responsible for a lot of his fan interaction. Then there are all the pictures of famous people doing things unrelated to Lil B and still having “#TYBG” plastered across the image. This practise is sometimes funny but often inane.
Even Lil B’s seeming all consuming positivity is applied selectively. Like all rappers, he has feuds. Most recently the Lil B/Kevin Durant feud resurfaced with the release of Lil B’s song ‘Fuck KD’, all of which stems from the one time the NBA basket baller called Lil B, “wack”. Lil B’s Twitter also doesn’t purely spout positivity, with some bizarre shout outs to the very far right, and the threat to “Fuck Kanye West in the ass”.
Regardless of the quality of his music Lil B represents something very important in the history of hip-hop and the internet. His expert use of social media and utilisation of his fan base has created a phenomenon that is truly of this time. Whether you like the music, think it’s a joke or just find the social media aspect interesting, checking out Lil B is something anyone wanting to stay up to date with internet should do. The sheer weight of numbers behind him and volume of traffic created means that whether or not the main hip-hop scene ignores him, he still has a significant presence and influence on hip-hop’s listenership. So, go forth and check out Lil B, you may become Based or you may not, just don’t diss him on Twitter.
Though it may be premature to call the recent Laneway Festival sideshow from Run the Jewels, Danny Brown, and Earl Sweatshirt the ‘best show of the year’, the bar has been set incredibly high for every other hip-hop artist visiting Australian shores this year.
The show opened with duo Run the Jewels, and their entrance onto the stage set the theme for the rest of the night. First Killer Mike arrived on stage brandishing a bottle of champagne, which, after taking a swig, he gladly shared with the crowd. The other half of the duo, El-P, arrived on stage with a bottle of Grey Goose and the pair was ready to wind the crowd up—getting everyone hyped for what was to follow.
Once the crowd was completely geared up, Run the Jewels tore into their setlist which came almost exclusively from their debut album Run the Jewels. The duo was masterfully able to translate the aggression, speed and technical abilities of the album into their live performance. Both rappers never missed a beat, save for a small interlude from Killer Mike claiming that Melbourne had the best marijuana in Australia, which–as expected–got a huge round of applause from the largely under-21 crowd. With the banter somewhat unpredictable, Killer Mike toyed with the crowd, shouting out, “what’s up Sydney”? Meanwhile El-P delivered motivational speeches while he policed the moshpit. By the time their set was done, Run the Jewels had left the crowd buzzing. Their show had been tight and was a perfect introduction to the hard-party anthems of the next act, Danny Brown.
Before his appearance, Danny Brown’s DJ played a small mix of Trap and Drill favourites–Hard in Da Paint by Waka Flocka Flame and Love Sosa by Chief Keef. The intense reaction from the crowd showed that the anticipation was palpable. By the time Danny Brown came out sporting dark shades and an AC/DC t-shirt, the crowd was in rapture. As the intense bass lines from Break It (Go) flowed through the crowd, so started another 50 minutes of ridiculousness from both Danny and his audience. Danny Brown’s repertoire of completely insane party anthems made the set fly with only a slight break for 25 Bucks, a more sombre (though only ever in the catalogue of Danny Brown would it be considered ‘calm’) song from his new album.
Following Danny Brown’s set, the crowd thinned out somewhat and didn’t really refill–a surprise, considering the popularity of Earl and Odd Future in Australia. Appearing with two other members of Odd Future, Domo Genesis and Taco, Earl Sweatshirt left the monotone mumbling he was famous for far behind and instead brought an infectious energy to the stage as he and his mates played around on stage. The ‘informal’ act didn’t suffer from the clowning around of Earl, Domo and Taco. Even El-P from Run the Jewels joined them at one point to writhe around on stage in an attempt to distract whoever was rapping. Despite his energy, the mood was much more calm during Earl’s performance, no doubt due to his type of music. Because of the strength of his deliveries and quality as a rapper, however, Earl still made his show hold up to the raw force of Run the Jewels and Danny Brown. For all hip-hop acts to follow, it is going to be incredibly difficult for anyone to match the ability, energy and showmanship of Run the Jewels, Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt.
Perhaps the only letdown of the night was that Danny Brown seemed particularly sedate. The lanky Detroit native has recently tweeted that at the behest of his cat he has given up drinking ‘lean’ (a concoction made up of cough syrup and typically mixed with soft drink). It is hard to say, however, whether or not this affected his performance. Although he gave a professional performance, he didn’t share the unchained enthusiasm as the other acts on the night. Given that his repertoire also includes darker, less boisterous songs that communicate the difficulties of growing up poor in Detroit and the struggles associated with living a straight-edged life when one is surrounded by crime, he could have chosen tracks more appropriate for how he was feeling on that night. However, this side of Danny Brown is unlikely to be seen in a live performance for the same reason he does not mix his more serious themes with his party tracks–he knows what makes him money. Side A of his recent album release Old was dedicated to the realities of his youth and his experiences as a young man, while Side B was dedicated to party tracks. He has indicated previously that in order to portray his serious messages, he also has to be able to sell records, hence the split personality of his new album. Undoubtedly the same logic applies to his live shows; to get people through the gates Danny Brown must play his popular party tracks. While this provides an awesome show it also deprives his fans of seeing him perform his songs that showcase his best examples of emotional lyricism and technical ability. But hey, his show was still crazy good so I shouldn’t complain.
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