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20.1.06 Dramatis personae  

Not sure when this was delivered, but I just stumbled on it: the invaluable Kelefa Sanneh shepherding us through the evolution of The Rapper's self-identity. The ten-minute presentation, streamed from KEXP, is called "I'm Not a Rapper: Pride, Professionalism, and Hip-Hop." Sanneh opens with a Beanie Siegel anecdote before dealing with hip-hop's first wave, a proudly reflexive lot given to rapping about rapping. They unabashedly styled themselves as rappers, vocal about their own vocal talent.

But the second-wave rappers, he notes, attached themselves to a variety of non-rapper archetypes: KRS-One (the Teacher), Slick Rick (the Storyteller), Too $hort (the Pimp), &c. Call this a crisis of self-identity, the start of rapping's exile from itself. Embodied in Tupac--a textbook case of "the character eclipsing the rapper"--was the young genre's growing distance from the Rapper persona.

Sanneh goes on to trace the triumph of the production-over-content esthetic, beginning with Dr. Dre, Master P (perhaps the first major artist to boast how bad a rapper he was; he writes checks, not rhymes), Sean Combs et al. The last decade belongs to the knob-twiddlers behind the scenes, marking a sea change that hasn't yet abated, as Timbaland & the Neptunes prove the existence of a superproducer caste. Profit is the driving force here: looking for the perfect beat, the key to a hit single, amounts to looking after the bottom line.

Rapping--that is, the particular style of delivery--started around this moment to lose ground to singing and half-singing, as the likes of 50 Cent and Nelly introduced melody to their flows. While they may have enriched hip-hop, all these developments slowly eroded the role of The Rapper amid the genre's dramatis personae.


amen, perfectly executed.

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