A month ago, Combat Jack welcomed Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder to his podcast. Kweli spent a bit of the interview responding to a couple of essays Complex recently published, about party music vs. super-lyrical hip-hop. Speaking more broadly, Kweli and 9th underscored the imprecision of a term like “conscious,” and they rebuked the general urge to split every rapper into a mess of subgenres.
“There are so many [more] similarities than there are differences in what we do,” Kweli said, noting that he and Jay Z are, first and foremost, two black men from Brooklyn. “It’s our human nature to play up the differences and look for negative ways to describe things,” he continues.
Pre-broadband regionalism aside, rap has always been a smaller and more integrated universe than many folks will appreciate. Big Daddy Kane wrote songs for Biz Markie. Pharoahe Monch wrote a beat poem for Puffy on Press Play in 2006. Lil B, Jean Grae, Phonte, and 9th Wonder all made a song together in 2011. What a time, etc.
While rappers often work across all these artificial divides, fans can get a bit sanctimonious and dogmatic about whichever style it is that they prefer. Rap fans who identify with “conscious” rap often align themselves against pop. Historically, these fans regard the popularity of jiggy rap, or R&B crossover, or snap music, etc., as evidence of a conspiracy against “thoughtful” hip-hop. The conspiracy includes critics, who apparently favor “hip-pop” and “fast food” rap, two terms commonly used to deride contemporary music that might (God forbid) inspire anyone to dance.
Rob Markman, the former senior hip-hop editor for MTV News who now manages artist relations for Genius, argued as much, but in measured terms. “I do feel there has been a deliberate effort by critics to cut down any hip-hop that isn’t turnt-up and requires critical thought,” Markman tweeted.
“They call Cole “boring,” cut down Kendrick, hate on Wale, attack Lupe,” he continued. “But kneel to Future, Migos.”
Since Markman is referring to critics, specifically, it’s first worth noting that his six examples don’t all hold up when you go back and read the reviews of these rappers’ latest albums. Among critics, the most highly acclaimed albums of the past twelve months include Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth, plus Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 and Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf—all “thoughtful” and conventionally “lyrical” albums.
It’s also worth nothing that Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth and Future’s DS2 both have the same Metacritic score: 80.
Markman suggests that critics have “cut down” Kendrick Lamar. This is a strange claim, considering that hip-hop publications, general music publications, and big pop culture publications collectively awarded Kendrick Lamar the best reviewed rap album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. To Pimp A Butterfly earned a higher Metacritic rating than Illmatic.
Acclaim aside, Cole and Kendrick’s latest albums are also two of the best-selling rap albums of the moment, with Cole’s album having gone platinum within four months of its release. These guys aren’t suffering from criticism. And, given their commercial success, it’s difficult to discern what, exactly, people who resent the massive popularity of turn-up music truly want from anyone.
One of J. Cole’s biggest singles of the past year, “Wet Dreamz,” is a song about a bonehead losing his virginity. I know critics frequently make fun of Cole for his awkward and rambling sincerity on some songs. It is what it is. But let’s keep it real: critics’ odd distaste for J. Cole isn’t a rejection of some mind-blowing intellectual challenge. “Wet Dreamz” is not a goddamn riddle. It does not require more or less critical thought than Future’s trap hymns, or Young Thug’s naturalist imagery, or Fetty Wap’s karaoke romanticism. As songwriting, “Wet Dreamz” is no more or less deep than “Trap Queen.”
Future, this immediate generation’s great, mournful, lowbrow boom-poet, is not the most verbose, or the most athletic, or the most apparently careful rapper you’ve ever heard, but he’s a nonetheless fascinating songwriter. When I listen to “Trap Niggas,” for instance, I hear a ton of information about Future’s mood and disposition, his inner life, his surroundings, and his circumstances. I hear a prayer for the dope boys of Atlanta. I hear a literary perspective. I hear lyrics.
I’m sure Talib Kweli hears it as well. “I’ve never wavered or faltered in my message,” Kweli tweeted during the Great BBQ Debate of 2015. “I speak out against so called hiphop [sic] ‘purity’ and embrace all great art.”
For critics, all hip-hop “requires critical thought.” And, in any case, there is little joy or productivity in lashing out at every other subgenre in misguided envy of all the fawning over Future. Indulging such resentment, Rob Markman’s critique pits “articulate,” middlebrow rappers (Cole, Wale) against relatively vulgar rappers from the traps of Atlanta (Future, Migos). It’s a petty rivalry, and the insistence on belittling street rappers does little to disprove the perception that conscious rap fans are insatiably insecure about their taste in music.
J. Cole will pack out Madison Square Garden regardless. “The truth is hip-hop is in a great place,” Rob Markman tweeted, and he’s right.