Posted Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, at 10:24 AM
Two weeks ago in The New Yorker , Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a profile of the rapper MF Doom that doubles as a eulogy for hip-hop's so-called "Golden Era" — Coates celebrates Doom as an eccentric holdover from a time when hip-hop actually brooked eccentricity. Around 1998, he argues, the genre took a nose dive into rank commercialism, and ever since, "the ethos consecrated by Sean (Diddy) Combs — that what sells is what's classic — has essentially carried the day." Put another way: Biggie died, sampling waned, lyrics got dumber, charisma trumped talent, the clock struck Y2K, the pumpkin turned into an Escalade.
Coates, whose writing I've often admired since he was at the Village Voice, identifies his view as "fundamentalist" — but he has no interest in disavowing or complicating it. His piece begins as a personal narrative about falling in and out of love with hip-hop and ends up as a damning dismissal of the genre as it has existed for a decade. Among the other failings of hip-hop in the aughts, Coates declares, is that "all the moments of tenderness ... idleness ... and black comedy ... have been drained away."
Even for a self-proclaimed fundamentalist, this is a particularly (and preposterously) hard-line stance. There are many hip-hop fans, after all, who abhor the insistently inane chants of Soulja Boy or the cartoonish brutality of 50 Cent but still find room in their value system for Timbaland, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Swizz Beatz, OutKast, T.I., and other canonized talents (some of them canonized geniuses) who have debuted or done their greatest work since 1998. Perhaps Coates enjoys and appreciates some of these artists, too, but they just didn't fit tidily enough into the storyline he built around Doom.
As it happens, Coates' '90s-rap requiem arrives during a bumper season for "Golden Era" diehards. Jay-Z (the subject of a more charitable look at hip-hop's corporate era, written by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker in 2001) has penned " Death of Auto-Tune ," a purist's manifesto of sorts, and he has company in the hip-hop airspace from two other venerated '90s souls: Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, have each released new albums. (Ghostface, incidentally, has collaborated several times with Doom.) The buzziest young MC around is Drake, who splits the difference between a smug, preening pop act and a fierce, wordplay-obsessed mixtape rapper. (Soulja Boy seems more and more each day like a distant punchline.)
The Raekwon and Ghostface albums approach hip-hop from very different directions. The former, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II , is a sequel to Raekwon's fantastic 1995 solo debut, and like the music of MF Doom it offers a portal to an unsullied time — the production is heavy on dusty soul and blaring funk, the rhymes are dense and tangled, and the settings are rarely loftier than a street corner.
Ghostface's album is Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry , which he has described as an R & B album. He doesn't sing, although guests like John Legend and Raheem DeVaughan do — for him, R & B is a state of mind. These songs invariably end up in the bedroom, but they also concern broader matters of the heart: Ghostface describes his crushes' charms in lively detail, anticipates an unborn child happily, and weaves several tales about being cheated on and being hurt by it. (He's done this since his first solo album, expressing a vulnerability most would-be gangstas don't.) The album is uneven, but like any Ghostface release, it's full of pleasant surprises.
On "Guest House" he discovers that his lady is cheating on him with the cable-installation guy, played by Fabolous. Ghostface's epiphany is priceless: "You put my cable in, right? The FiOS nigga! And you fucking my wife?!" We can read an allegorical dimension into the song: Hip-hop isn't Ghostface's house any more, and a younger generation of radio smoothies has snuck in and made it their own. But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate what they've done with the place.