Usually we associate rap with "bragging and boasting"; now "it's full of this strange kind of self-loathing self-doubt," where the artist asks, "what does it mean to be famous..."
Frere-Jones was speaking about new releases from Drake and Eminen. But the same mood is one of the things that makes the hit collaboration between B.o.B. and Halyley Williams (of Paramore) interesting. The self-doubt here lends a bittersweet, haunting quality to this cut. Check it out:
The key stanza in this rap for me is the one that begins:
Somebody take me back to the days
Before this was a job, before I got paid
Before it ever mattered what I had in my bank
Yeah back when I was tryin' to get into the subway
And back when I was rappin' for the hell of it
But now a days we rappin' to stay relevant
"Relevant" here could mean more concerned with a "message." But I take it to mean competitive in the marketplace (as this collaboration with a mega-watt pop star keeps B.o.B.). In either case, the act of rapping is no longer an "art about nothing" ("for the hell of it"), i.e., rap-for-rap's-sake -- as it's lost a bit of its joy and freedom -- on the practical road to making buck.
Poets Vs. Rappers
This trend in hip-hop self-critique reminded me of a much earlier one, offered by rap's first cousins: slam poets. People who know about the history of that movement will tell you that a common theme for slam poems has been the idea idea that hip-hop was once great, but that now it has sold out.
Where such a complaint becomes really interesting is when it's put out there by someone adept at both hip-hop and literary poetry. Such poems use the conventions of hip-hop verse to speak against the genre's cliches. A fascinating example of this is The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop (2006), by poet and slam innovator Saul Williams .
The book reinvents the tale of the discovery of such texts as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, only as urban legend. Williams mythologizes about finding a lost scripture beneath the subway tunnels of NYC, apparently written by an ancient poet (in an almost indecipherable graffiti-like script). His book is a "translation" of this mysteriously coded text into several poetic sequences.
The visionary speaking through the Scrolls was apparently omniscient; he was there at the birth of the form and has predicted its demise, as in these lines:
Hip-hop is lying on the side of the road
half-dead to itself. Blood scrawled over its
mangled flesh like jazz. Stuffed into an over-
sized record bag.
Tuba lips swollen beyond recognition. Diamond
studded teeth strewn like rice at karma's wedding.
The ring bearer bore bad news. Minister of
Information wrote the wrong proclamation. Now
everyone's singing the wrong song. (p. 37)
The problem with the genre is specified in a manifesto-like piece later in the book:
Statements such as, "keep it real," especially
when punctuating or articulating modes of
ultra-violence inflicted psychologically or
physically or depicting an unchanging rule
of events, will henceforth be seen as retroactive
and not representative of the individually
determined IS. (p. 101)
Commercial (gangsta) rap is criticized here not only for its sensationalist violence, but its "realism." This trait makes for "an unchanging rule" (i.e., a sort of hopeless determinism). In this sense, its message -- only describing the social rather than changing it -- isn't ambitious enough. The way forward is to be found in the visionary rather than the so-called "real":
MTHRFCKRs better realize, now is the time
to self-actualize. We have found evidence that
Hip-hop's standard 85 RPM when increased
by a number at least half the rate of the standard
or decreased by 3/4's of its speed may be a
determining factor in heightening consciousness.
Studies show that when a given norm is changed
in the face of the unchanging the remaining
contradictions will parallel the truth. (p. 102)
Two Ways to Criticize Commercial Art
You could say B.o.B.'s complaint about the rap business criticizes from within: if you're worried too much about hits, you lose the pleasure of spontaneity by serving the practical. Williams uses the non-commercial standpoint of the visionary poet to critique the genre from the outside, with not only an aesthetic, but ethical protest. He suggests commerce has weakened the message.
From both there's a complaint about the loss of autonomy -- about artists not being able to say what they want or should. It's an objection that goes back to the beginning of modernism.
And often the sign that a genre is going to take a whole new turn.