Wednesday, November 18, 2009


It's no secret. I'm a middle-class white male, born and raised in suburbia, and I love rap. Like a lot. Like I listened to the Notorious BIG and little else for a year straight. And as strange as this sometimes seems to me, I think there's actually a perfectly good explanation for it.
First of all, rap is 90% dependent on lyrics, and I love words.
Secondly, beyond the amazing word-play and rhyming that comes with good rap, it also serves as a window into experiences that are completely alien to me. Hustling on street corners and plotting robberies are pretty far from my life experience so far, (but one can only hope.)
Those are two major reasons for my interest in rap, but there is one more reason that I think explains the fascination perfectly. Two words: Space Jam.

It's Michael's Secret Stuff

This was one of the first albums I ever owned, and for a time I listened to it like it was the only music in the world. Particularly, I liked the last track: Bugs Bunny's "Buggin." The fact that I liked a favorite cartoon character's rap over actual music definitely says something about my childhood, but I'm not sure what exactly.

I have a theory about rap, and it's this theory that I want to share with you today. Granted, my knowledge of the genre isn't incredibly expansive, but this is what I think and this is my blog, dammit, so I'm going to write it down.
The theory is this: Rappers only have two good albums in them. They have the album they write as young, poor men who saw no end to their hardships in sight, and they have the album they write after the success of their first album, in which they can reflect on their past and share new stories of their wealth.
As I said, rap is interesting to me because it is primarily words, but in order for the album to work, the words have to be good. For this reasons, I think a rapper's first album (and by this I mean the first commercial album with professional backing) is always the best.
Why? Let me tell you. First of all, as I said, the rap that I like is largely autobiographical. The first album is the poor album, the angry album. Let's take a look at the Notorious BIG.
In Biggie's first album, Ready To Die, he was completely desolate. He was a part-time crack-dealer and a part-time rapper. The majority of these songs are about the hopelessness of his environment, the extremities he will go to in order to escape his misery, and the small things in life that help him push through. "Gimme the Loot" is a song completely about robbing people on the street. Do you know how poor you would have to be to think about robbery so much that you could write an entire fucking song about it? The final song on the album, "Suicidal Thoughts," ends with the sound of a self-inflicted gunshot after Biggie completely villainizes himself to a friend over the phone and reasons that he can't go on because, basically, he's just a horrible person. That's insane. It's also incredibly interesting.
Apparently, a lot of other people thought so too, because this album eventually went quadruple platinum and the Notorious BIG has gone on to be one of the biggest names ever of rap. Because of his success, Biggie was immediately launched out of the Bedford-Stuyversant ghetto into millions of dollars. It was from this financial disposition that he wrote his second album: Life After Death. In this album, we see a newly rich man who just discovered that his wealth isn't enough to push away his misery. The final song on this album also focuses on his own death. Actually, it prophesies it. "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," actually turned out to be sort of true for Biggie, and I think it's kind of true for all rappers. Just fifteen days before the album was released, he was killed in an unsolved drive-by murder and has since been more than a man, but more like a symbol for rap itself.
Now, let's take a look at Eminem.
Eminem's first album was amazing. Like Biggie, his lyrics primarily focus on a struggle with poverty, depression, and the small things that make his life easier. Primarily, these small things seem to be drugs and an explosively violent vocabulary, the latter of which would understandably ease tension and allow one to vent against the hardships of life. His second album, like Biggie's, was written after an incredibly quick rise to the top of American music charts, and once again we see that money is a relatively small problem when pitted against personal relationships and the pressure of remaining a success.
But then, what did Eminem do? He went ahead and stayed alive. Bad move.
Now, Eminem is on his fifth album, and personally I think that everything he's done after The Marshall Mather's LP is complete garbage. He can still rap, sure. He can still fill up a sixty-minute album with words, but they're not good words, so he's only doing half the job. I mean, how long can you go on rapping about killing people when everyone in the world knows for a fact that you live in a mansion and have more money than God? After the first two albums he completely ran out of material. In The Eminem Show he's rapping about Saddam Huessein and Osama Bin Laden. Also, he and Dr. Dre go on for five minutes in a song called "Say What You Say" when the entire song could basically be summed up in three words: Don't Talk Shit.
Personally, I would like to go back in time to fifteen days before the movie 8 Mile was released. Then I'd like to walk up behind Eminem, but a shotgun up to his brain stem, and pull the trigger. That way, when the movie came out along with the soundtrack and the two combined with The Eminem Show on the charts to give him the most commercial success of anyone in music history since The Beatles (which is to say, a number one movie at the box office, a number one album and a number three album all in the same week) he could have died a legend. Instead, he continues to stick around the radio, writing nonsense songs with absolutely no passion or emotion, and we are stuck listening to more half-hearted raps about his daughter.

Now, this brings us to an interesting question. Is art worth dying for? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, even Elvis, they were all made rock-solid legends forever because they died young and at the tops of their careers.
And I quote: "Dying was a good career move for Elvis. What was he gonna do, get more unpopular? Keep touring? Wouldn't that be sad? A real old Elvis touring with Steppenwolf and shit?" - Bill Hicks
Maybe it's cruel to say I want to kill Eminem, but I have the best intentions. You can't write good rap once you've made it big. There's a reason Bill Gates doesn't rap. Alright, probably a few reasons. But he has the money to make it happen, so let's say Bill Gates did decide to release an album. Would you listen to it? Hell no you wouldn't, because Bill Gates is rich and comfortable and his life isn't interesting the way Eminem's and Biggie Small's lives were. If Eminem continues to produce music, he is doomed to fade into mediocrity, and arguably he already has. That can never happen to Biggie.
I'm a pretty staunch atheist, but sometimes I find myself believing in higher power, and the deaths of great talents is one of the most convincing arguments for these thoughts. As soon as Led Zeppelin started to suck, BAM, John Bonham died. As soon as Bill Hicks started to get famous and sort of happy with his life, WHAM, pancreatic cancer. As tragic as their deaths are for their fans, for their loved ones and, most of all, for them, you have to consider the effects.
Death means never having to sell out.

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