The Rise of the Self-Serious Rappers


Ta Nehisi-Coates’ short profile of MF Doom, published in The New Yorker in 2009, finds the rapper describing his writing process:

“When I’m doing a Doom record, I’m arranging it, I’m finding the voices. . . . All I have to do is listen to it and think, Oh shit, that will be funny. I write down whatever would be funny, and get as many ‘whatever would’ funnies in a row and find a way to make them all fit. There’s a certain science to it. In a relatively small period of time, you want it to be, That’s funny, that’s funny, that’s funny, that’s funny. I liken it to comedy standup.”

Almost exactly five years since that profile was published, Doom’s stylistics have seeped into every creak and crevasse of modern-day independent rap, his wild internal rhyme schemes and topical schizophrenia visible in the rhymes of everyone from the Left Coast’s Earl Sweatshirt to NYC’s own Joey Bada$$. But one thing that sometimes seems as if it’s been lost in translation, at least judging by some of this year’s best independent rap projects is that sense of rap as a comedic art form.

See also: The Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time: The Complete List

Many of the year’s most interesting releases, from veterans and youngbloods alike, feature a shared seriousness, a tonal austerity. On albums and mixtapes from rappers like Freddie Gibbs, Isaiah Rashad, and Mick Jenkins, a kind of post-conscious solemnity reigns, unmitigated by any levity. This can make for foreboding and somewhat inaccessible music (I’ve heard critics and fans refer to each rapper above as “boring”) but it also suggests the rise of an interesting coalition of artists who share a common interest in documenting a reality that many of their fellows avoid.

Freddie Gibbs has long been thought of as a kind of platonic gangster rapper, a throwback to a different era of rhymers, but its startling just how much he has in common with his young counterparts on this year’s album, Piñata. The album, a full-length collaboration with the producer Madlib, owes much in its conception and execution to the producer’s previous full-length effort with Doom, but it couldn’t be more different in tone. While Gibbs can be extraordinarily funny, that’s not what he’s going for here: for the most part, the album is as grim as it gets. On the standout, “Shitsville,” the second verse details the usual fine-grained thuggish details, recounting a tales of armed robbery and copious drug consumption. Freddie’s not in the mood to joke about the subjects; here’s he’s tracing the madness to its root:

“This white devil society dare a nigga to do drugs/ and dare yo ass to deal ’em, distribute and conceal ’em/ My niggas don’t got no boats or no ports, how you think we get ’em?”

This is Gibbs at his most political and it’s lines like these that give us a window into the disenfranchised mindset of a poor young man abandoned by his father at an early age, a background he describes in heartbreaking specifics on “Broken,” about as personal as you’re going to see the usually heartless, nearly nihilistic Gibbs get.

Freddie’s darkly confessional tone and politics on Piñata are in line with those of Isaiah Rashad, whose music came into sharper focus for me after the events in Ferguson put a point on some of his sharpest songs. The second verse of “Ronnie Drake,” for instance, starts with the line: “hope they don’t kill you cause you black today,” and continues in the same vein, Rashad rapping, “we still dodging from polices…sometimes I wonder why we killas, why they killing us.” Rashad’s music is a mix of a contemplation and emotion, intelligent, angry and compelling, if not gripping upon a first listen.

The austerity of Rashad’s Cilvia Demo extends to its beats, which in the tradition of the TDE collective are unvaried and somewhat staid. They’re meant to sit calmly in the background, to bolster Rashad’s words, much like the production on much of Kendrick Lamar’s work. Lamar is a touchstone for the latter two rappers here in particular; his straight-edged, introspective music serves as a welcome model for rappers who want to be seen as taking their art seriously. It’s clear that the Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins owes Lamar an enormous debt; as Pitchfork put it, the rapper’s August mixtape, The Water(s), sometimes “feels like an album-length tribute to Kendrick’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).”

Jenkins is an exciting new talent, a skilled technical rapper with a dynamite voice and a gravitas you don’t expect from a young twenty-something. His music is meditative and no-nonsense, frequently elegiac in tone, as on “Shipwrecked,” where he mourns his fallen Chicago brethren: “Never bangin’, but I knew them G’s, it’s been tragic…the goal was never the beef, it’s cabbage/ We kill for it, when we die we can’t have it.” Jenkins mixtape is somewhat marred by the motif of water, which appears in every song but never feels as if it’s bearing much conceptual weight. In an interview, Jenkins defined the element as being akin to a kind of “spiritual truth.”

That’s the kind of self-seriousness that I fear will scare listeners away, an earnestness that will scan to many as being uncool. But it’s also an intensity of approach that grants Jenkins’ music a political weight; projects like his, like Gibbs’ and like Rashad’s are the closest artistic reflection I can see of what seems like a rising awareness, at least in the mainstream consciousness, of the continued pervasiveness of systemic racism and classism, of the enormous amount of disenfranchised people we have in the United States today. It’s a reality that a serious consideration of these fierce personal-as-political testaments can’t help but drive home and music that confronts these issues head on is worth applauding, and, happily, seems like it may be on the rise again.

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