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October 31, 2014
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Let’s hope hip-hop music steps up in 2014

Highbrow hip-hop live, by Jay-Z (left) and Kanye West.
By Joycelyn A. Wilson
The Root (*)

Will this year bring an as-yet-undiscovered breakthrough artist or album?

Around the family dinner table over Christmas, the conversation turned to the recently announced Outkast performance at Coachella 2014 — the event that pretty much all hip-hop heads are looking forward to — and the overall state of hip-hop going into 2014, which has decidedly more mixed reviews.

Was 2013 a good year for the music we love, or does it need a new blueprint? Will 2014 bring an as-yet-undiscovered breakthrough artist or album, or will hip-hop continue to be a marginalized art form consumed by many and controlled by a few?

Expect the same group of regulars to put out more of the same material: Rick Ross will still rap about cars, clothes and h**. Weezy will figure out new metaphors for oral sex. Future will kill us with Auto-Tuned hood raps and Drake will keep “srapping” (singing-rapping). He did say on All Me that he’s “the light-skinned Keith Sweat” and he “gon’ make it last forever.” I believe him.

Here’s what we might see from some of hip-hop’s other notables:

Kendrick Lamar emerged as the most radical MC of 2013 with hooks like, “If Pirus and Crips all got along/They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song.” My hope is that the California-raised rapper will remain reflective and introspective without falling victim to corporate pressures to sell his brand by any means necessary.

And speaking of ways and means, let’s talk about Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z. Fans are disappointed that he seems to teeter on that blurred line between rap and action. But I’m not. Yes, his lyrical themes still take on poverty and its adverse consequences on the community — but that’s about it, beyond handing out college scholarships and potable water to African communities, “Jigga man” hasn’t meaningfully poured his resources into (re)building African-American institutions. I’m reluctant to expect him to sponsor a school in 2014 or underwrite a curriculum that integrates hip-hop-based pedagogies to teach kids entrepreneurial skills.

We’d save ourselves a lot of disappointment if we just accepted Jay Z for who he is — a marquee rapper and genius marketer — and stop pressuring him to be an entertainer-activist like Harry Belafonte. He’s about getting paid first, and he and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter are now part of “highbrow hip-hop.” Don’t expect him to pull out of his deal with Barneys New York because of allegations of racial profiling. Anything’s possible, but don’t hold your breath. Enjoy his music for entertainment purposes only. That’s what I do.

Kanye West? As one of his biggest fans, I recently took in the Atlanta instalment of his Yeezus Tour. For most of a two-hour concert, he wore a series of bejewelled masks. It was awkward, creepy and kinda scary.

In 2014 I expect West to keep pushing the envelope until he (unfortunately) falls off the tip of that big mountain he had as a stage. I need West — in all his Fanonian avant-gardism — to become comfortable in his black maleness and stop begging folks for validation who want nothing to do with him or his craft. What is that about? Hopefully a new baby, wife and year will bring on a new perspective for Kanye.

As far as I’m concerned, the verdict is still out on Seattle duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They won a Video Music Award for best hip-hop video and are nominated for seven Grammys, including best rap album and best new artist. They challenge homophobia and rap about empowerment. I like that a lot.

But I wonder how much of their ability to rap candidly is a function of white privilege. Let’s wait to see what happens here.

Last, we can’t talk about the music without including the state of the hip-hop generation. Bakari Kitwana describes us as a post-civil rights cohort consisting primarily of people of colour born between 1965 and 1984, raised in America’s urban centres and struggling against America’s social ills.

In 1988 Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and MC Lyte’s Lyte As a Rock all spoke to America’s youth about the negative consequences of Reaganomics.

Times have changed.

The hip-hop generation is now between ages 29 and 49, give or take a few years. They helped get President Barack Obama elected, and many of them are society’s key influencers, doctors, educators and intellectuals. Yet the promise of a generation is unfulfilled: mass incarceration is at an all-time high. Racial tension is arguably more polarizing than before the civil rights movement.

Socioeconomic gaps are widening, and our public schools — the space from which hip-hop emerged — are under siege. Unlike the material of 1988, the culture struggles to address these issues with any level of action or consistency.

Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a director of the Four-Four Beat Project. She is a Hiphop Archive alumnus fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Centre for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.

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