For the most part, we agree. Three of Jay-Z’s last four albums have been terrible. Lil Wayne, addled as he is by lean and anatomical discharge (or just pure not-caring), don’t rap so good no more. Eminem hasn’t released a worthwhile LP in over a decade. Nas is wildly inconsistent–but we await all his albums with equal anticipation. It’s a near guarantee that the sequel to Life is Good will be not-so-good but that won’t stop us from slavering. The entire rap Internet still clamors for the newest release from all four.
Of course, the concept of a legacy artist is nothing new. Springsteen and The Rolling Stones still command an absurd amount of attention from the Rolling Stone set. But rap, more than most genres, has always been a young man’s game. And even rock had decades of revivalist movements to stave off the omnipresence of the icons. It feels as if, for the most part, mainstream rap hasn’t moved the needle in about a decade. There are only two artists who have debuted in the 21st century (Kanye and Drake), whose new releases are greeted with such critical enthusiasm.
So why is that?
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For one thing, it’s a matter of perception. For all the critical agitating over albums like Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus, the albums on the Billboard 200 (at least at the time I’m writing this) represent a broader range, with albums from Wale, J. Cole, Macklemore and Mac Miller ranking as high or higher than albums from more well-established artists.
That means the fervor which greets our legacy stars points to the rigidity and conservative nature of the critical establishment itself. To put it more simply, the people writing about rap music are both older and more ornery than the people listening to it.
But the crossover rap-superstar might still be a thing of the past. The musical superstar, whatever genre you might be interested in, is a dying breed. As was documented by Simon Reynolds in his 2011 book Retromania, the Internet has done away with a single monoculture to absorb and react to.
What’s interesting about the rap Iinternet as I know it (and as those who read and talk about rap online are likely to know it) is that it has constructed its own monoculture to take the place of what used to exist. Rap listeners and champions of the genre used to style themselves as dissenters, rebels, radicals. But the rap Internet, as with any stagnant culture, has grown conservative, unable to place our undeserving legacy acts in the rearview mirror.
There are the flashes in the pan that we all pay attention to for a second. Last year it was French Montana, this year its Migos. But we drop these guys by the wayside as readily as we did Wale and J. Cole, relevant artists to the general population who are too often dismissed by those who write about music for a living.
It’s more difficult than ever for a new artist to become established and critical groupthink is part of the problem. It is distinctly unfashionable to champion a single musical act for a long period of time. “Stan” has long been a pejorative in rap, but in truth, rap criticism badly needs more stans–people who won’t unearth new artists only to abandon them, but those who will stick with talent that has already been spotted.
Rap fans shouldn’t have much of a problem unearthing new artists all by themselves. But crossover stars are often guided into the mainstream by critical communities–Jay-Z is still representative of new rap to most people because we write and talk about him all the time. And the truth is that rap deserves better, and fresher ambassadors than the fossils we continue to discuss every time they drop a new album.