Rap music, more than any other genre, relates to the hand in life we in modern society are dealt. The music is rife with a rich potential to communicate ideas, as it is based on detailed focused experiences of the individual. However, much of rap is now in a rut. It has been voided of much of its creative potential, and become progressively more candy coated, overproduced, dumbed down, formulaic, and banal. It is now a worldwide marketing tool for western consumerist ideals, and an instrument of their perpetuation. Trend-followers overwhelmingly dominate the genre, and the motives of artistic integrity of rap have been replaced by the seduction of incentives provided by supply and demand economics. Rap is left blighted, reduced to an industrial machine of conformity. Success in the rap “game” is measured by the amount of money accrued, not-so-subtly goading us to aspire to the acquisition of that wealth ourselves. Mainstream rap has become lyrically dominated by the message that money is the point of everything; the most broadly accepted definition of success being portrayed as consequently the most objective. Kanye West comes to mind as indicative of the plight of today’s commercial rap scene. He and the majority of his contemporaries wear their badge of collaboratively vapid homogeneity with pride.
Then there is underground rap, but even the underground rap scene is for the most part is in a similar state of creative atrophy. There is more lyrical range in underground rap than in the mainstream, but many rappers nevertheless limit their potential for creative output significantly by playing the “game”; putting themselves in pre-existing stylistic categories defined between invisible yet implicit margins, within distinct subgenres that appeal by conscious design to certain demographics. However devoid of avarice the intentions of such rappers might have initially been, underground rap nonetheless belies its name, as a good portion of its constituent artists represent just another mode of attempted commercial appropriation of lifestyle and art. Think Urban Outfitters.
That said, there is hope for the genre to evolve, to tap into its potential as a unrestrained art form, but the problem with any form of art within the scope of contemporary media is that everything these days gets shoved down our throats so forcibly from such a young age that we can hardly imagine a world in which things are different. We tend to just accept things without any consideration towards the long-term implications because that is what we have been conditioned to do.
Precedent defines our values and tells us what to like and want, and our power to adapt is limited by so many factors that we make of life only what we think we should make, which might be a positive thing except that the should is defined relative to the culture that we’re born into, not by some objective moral compass that many naively believe that they possess.
Rap is in a very similar situation, much due to the society it was birthed from. If fans are complacent enough to accept an eternal cycle of beats that are “dope” and comfortably catchy hooks with lyrics that validate the meaninglessness of their existence, then Rick Ross, 2-Chainz, and Kanye West (to name but a few) are going to keep making money by that formula, and new rappers are going to imitate their style towards precisely the same goal because there’s no perceived need to progress due to the diminishment of adaptive efficacy.
But hope for rap to fulfill its potential as an art form has not yet been lost. Amidst that glittering zeitgeist there’s at least one rock of integrity left, and that rock is called Aesop.
No artist today is as underappreciated as Aesop Rock. For those of you who have not heard of Aesop, he is a rapper born under the name Ian Mathias Bavit, who emerged in the New York underground scene in the mid 90s, with a background in visual art and spoken word poetry. His style and the content of his lyrics are so far removed from the insular world of modern day rap and hip-hop that listening to his music for the first time is absolutely mindblowing. His drive and the depth of his lyrics rekindle one’s hope for the future of rap music. The majority of rappers tend towards simplifying any image down to its pixels so that it can be absorbed by the indolent attention of as many people as possible within their target demographic. Aesop, on the other hand, is one of the only rappers the majority of whose lyrics are so dense and cryptic that many listeners dismiss him almost immediately, which is their loss. With the exception of only a couple specific tracks, such as No REgrets, he spins his complex lyrical webs exclusively by way of analogies and metaphors, yet in studying his lyrics one finds them more akin to Dostoevsky’s writing with the sheer force of existential meaning that he crams into his work than to any of his genre contemporaries.
I will not quote Aesop, because he has no track or sound byte that is the most meaningful. The level at which specific tracks have value varies from person to person. I will however, pose a suggestion: buy (or download, but Aesop Rock is one artist who it would be worthwhile to support) the album called Float. It is one of his relatively early ones, not to imply his skill or lyricism has degraded over time, but it is the album that is most cohesive as a unit. Blockhead produced it; a beat maker infamous for his off-kilter time signatures, and in the production of Float he lives up to his fame by assisting Aesop Rock with the creation of one of the most powerful albums in music history. Give it a listen. You’ll either understand, or you can join the majority party and dismiss it as bullshit, but if you really want to make your miraculous existence on this planet worthwhile I urge you to push yourself and hang on every word of that album as if it’s literature.
Author Jasper Chisolm is an average everyday normal guy. He has a cat and his parents are very nice people.