In 2009, Thriller‘s mix of paranoia and precocious, childlike dread felt like an oracle, unearthed for tough times, and not just to Americans. I was in Ghana when MJ passed—I recall sidewalks in Accra filled with spectators eyeing his funeral on scrambled 15-inch TVs. It is for a reason that I have to give 2009 to a 1982 production: Michael Jackson’s death was the musical event of the universe this year, but, in some way, it was just the trigger for his back catalog’s resurgence. I wonder how many copies of Thriller sold this year—maybe more than Lady Gaga.
But if Michael Jackson was a mature artist at the onset of his solo career—like Peter Pan, with whom he famously identified—he was determined to never grow up. At the cusp of the 1980s, despite his years of showbiz success, Jackson seemed as naïve as he was famous. He seemed to consciously adopt the aura of an alien—an asexual and untouchable creature not unlike E.T. It says something about our collective mental health, the world’s mental health, that we could embrace such a synthetically sweet being, that we could find ourselves loving this alien. The Michael Jackson of Thriller and “We Are the World” was a fantasy being divorced from messy carnality, suspended in a chilly, self-constructed image cocoon. In the decade of the AIDS plague, Jacko provided the safest sex of all: a vague, prepubescent tingle of mysterious longing. He was the Jonas Brothers without the promise rings, or maybe, more to the point, a kind of Edward Scissorhands figure—an unembraceable, artificial man possessed of the will.
Little Rock, AR
The short version: Highly personal art that emerges from a damaged psyche isn’t inherently of value. Sometimes it’s just shrill and overwrought, and, as much as I’ve always loved a few Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 songs, the great Thriller moment was hardly a watershed event in my own life (the alleged “death of monoculture” and such). With that as the backdrop, “This Is It” is everything I never would have guessed it would (or even could) be: modest, old-fashioned, humane, an almost willful non-event. I’ve no interest in seeing the film; for me, this closes a long and often tiresome story honorably.
Toronto, ON, Canada
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if anybody ever records another iconic album again. But then, it’s also kind of bizarre that anybody was ever able to do that to begin with: to broadcast some core emotion to millions of people. Weird. If someone else is able to pull it off, that’s a total bonus.
2009 will go down as the year in which hip-hop couldn’t get any deeper than coke rap.
More dubious signs: Kanye West went from critiquing the diamond trade to critiquing Taylor Swift, while Common went from endorsing Obama to endorsing skullfucking strippers on a Lady Gaga remix.
While new kids like Asher Roth were Tweeting themselves in the foot (and vets like Raekwon were incessantly promoting new projects by repeatedly all-caps imploring “GO COP THE ALBUM, SON!!!”), Doom carried on being a brilliantly strange, reclusive man with the dress sense of your granddad who enjoys reading books in the park, referencing old print zine Life Sucks Die, and cultivating his very impressive beer-belly. If only old man Jay-Z could age so gracefully.
All rap dance crazes have ostensibly been for girls, but not until L.A.’s jerkin’ movement did a rap dance craze ever feel so creatively powered by women. The male duo New Boyz were the scene’s true breakout stars, but it was groups like the Bangz and the teenage five-piece Pink Dollaz—who are like kids who’ve been raised in a cult where children are only allowed to listen to Lil Kim—that made the most invigorating singles. Even the scene’s best song, Cold Flamez’s “Miss Me Kiss Me Lick Me,” finds the male trio cooing, “Girl, you nasty,” and ending the song in a resigned state: “Thanks for the sex. It was great, I admit it.”
Besides Kanye being right—Beyoncé did have the best video—he more quietly outshined Taylor Swift with his verse on Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” which one-upped Swift’s “You Belong With Me” and its high school love histrionics. In Kanye’s version, high school binaries are broken down—the class clown gets the prom queen—and then it turns sour anyway. Another awkward, awesome bummer from Mr. West.
Forest Hill, MD
2009 was the year of Gucci’s World—we were just living in it. While Lil Wayne squandered the political capital and fan goodwill he earned from Tha Carter III‘s commercial juggernaut on the “rock” follies of Rebirth, Gucci Mane took his flood-the-(online)-streets-with-product playbook and ran with it. Will Pill have next, though? Having an incredibly lyrical and catchy trap-hop anthem that can vie for Song of the Year always helps, but locking down your own market before trying to smash the Internet would probably be a smart idea, too! Maybe Gucci should let Pill look at that playbook for a second to get his artist-development strategy straight before he Charles Hamilton’s himself . . .
Scarborough, ON, Canada
Drake is almost single-handedly saving mainstream hip-hop. Where’s all the Kanye-sized love from Whitey?
“My Job”: Recession rap didn’t quite blow up as a trendy subgenre the way I’d hoped it would after Young Jeezy brought it to the mainstream last year, but Cam, at least, stayed in tune with the economic times here.
New York, NY
The Blueprint 3 isn’t my favorite Jay-Z album—and it probably isn’t yours, either. But who else in music today could drop a one-two-three combo like “D.O.A.”, “Run This Town,” and “Empire State of Mind” on their sixth-best record?>
Jay-Z tells you it isn’t cool to carry a strap. The Clipse wanna watch Madagascar with their kids. And Internet rap is no longer indulgent day-glo whatever, whatever, but wizened, worker-bee rap from every region. In short, hip-hop finally answers a lot of its critics—it grows up, it actually matures, and not in a “Ludacris goes on Oprah” way—and everyone’s favorite rap album of 2009 is a facsimile of a 1995 coke-rap blueprint. OK.
Forest Hill, MD
I don’t think even Nas knew what he meant when he claimed that hip-hop was dead— excepting potentially his intentions to kill it himself via continuously shit records—but when Sasha Frere-Jones made the same claim this year, he made explicit his own meaning. In an October New Yorker article, he said the genre “has relinquished the controls and splintered into a variety of forms,” pointing out as proof Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, wherein the rapper’s Sinatra jones finally turned him into a crooning Vegas glad-hander, and a pair of much-circulated mixtapes by the newcomer Freddie Gibbs, whose linguistic intensity is somewhere closer to that of Henry Rollins’s.
And while Frere-Jones is certainly correct that the genre is becoming less and less of a singular force, proclamations of its death are, like Nas’s entire oeuvre after 1996, severe, ill-advised, and ultimately incorrect. As with rock 30 years ago, hip-hop’s splintering is a necessary progression, because these things don’t just die. So, yes, the year’s best hip-hop records resurrected years-old styles, like MF Doom’s mid-aughts surrealist myopia and Raekwon’s circa-’95 Mafioso vignettes. And, yes, many of the year’s best singles found hip-hop cross-stitched into electronic pop music to the point that even Soulja Boy, in a decade-defining turn, elected to sing. But while Frere-Jones is sizing coffins, I find the genre in full, generous grandparent mode. Mixtapes by Lil Wayne, the Cool Kids, G-Side, and Drake all pinpointed a surfeit of vivacity across a variety of regions, exhibiting a scale of resemblances to their shared elder.
What was once separated between a mainstream and an underground has now become too variegated for such a binary. A dude like Asher Roth is now toasted by straight-rap royalty rather than savaged as its antithesis. The burly, surefire flow of Freddie Gibbs finds fame outside of the mainstream format. Gucci Mane releases an hourlong mixtape every 45 minutes. These are the actions of a tree digging its many roots into the ground to feed the crown, directly opposing Frere-Jones’s proclamations that its time as the dominant American pop form has concluded. No, when a movement is dead, it is not by old age or irrelevance, but because something else has supplanted it entirely. And if we critics are heeding our only call, we will know such a thing when it arrives.