Friday, March 9, 2012

I'm On One: Young Money as Postmodern Prototypes


- Nicki Minaj, "Moment 4 Life"

Hip-hop has always been fairly amenable to the themes of post-modernity. Repetition, artificial modification, endless reference, and an affirmation of alternative cultural possibilities have been a part of its canon since it began.  Within this inherently timely genre, I would argue that the rappers of Young Money are the most forthrightly post-modern group of rappers performing today.

It is easy to assert that someone like the (formerly) Pitchfork-approved Das Racist or their similarly liberal arts-educated compatriots hold this dubious crown.  I think that reading Heems, Victor, and Dap as post-modern is to have a overly simple grasp of the concept at hand.  Their self-conscious, hyper-referential statements, while utterly fantastic in their own right, are too ironic and winking to be the kind of pluralist case study that embodies the condition that I'm trying to get at. As anyone who has read Heems' Tumblr can attest, there is a very real political and personal (dare I say ideological?) coherence to both his and Victor's musical approach.

It's put best when it's put simply: Das Racist can often just be too clever for their own good.  While shouting out Spivak seems like everyday conversation coming from Heems, a lot of Victor's material can at times sound forced, like he wants to make the most of his Wesleyan education.  His inter-song echoes are at times a little too deliberate, a little too name-droppy.  Similarly, after a few mixtapes Heems' constant references to food start to sound gimmicky and lazy rather than apathetic and charming. Das Racist is too held together, too aesthetically, culturally, and musically neurotic, to be the hodge-podge, transgressive group that they are sometimes thought to be.  Their message is post-modern, but their self-consciousness is not.

By contrast, Young Money is a collective of outrĂ© misfits.  They include a free-associating drug addict from New Orleans, a Canadian of mixed race who grew up on television and takes one of his major stylistic conventions from Twitter, a multiple-personality rapper who identifies with a mass produced, hypersexualized plastic toy, and a skinny Comptonite of Vietnamese and Jamaican descent who started on a pop-punk record label. This is already a pretty promising genealogy.

Cosmopolitanism aside, what is really exceptional about Young Money is that they're a case study for the ability of modern pop music to make statements unlike anything before it.  Certainly, they've been vetted by a number of faceless bureaucracies who made sure that they're marketed correctly, as any artist that makes it onto Billboard must be. But what's interesting is what perseveres through this filtering process.  

I'll use DJ Khaled's "I'm On One" featuring Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne as a grounding example:

The first thing to notice here is the production.  The beat on a typical Khaled track is often a straightahead, club-minded affair ("All I Do Is Win") or tries for a pseudo-menacing cell-phone thug swagger ("I'm So Hood"), but that's compromised here as he plays to his co-stars. This is in large part because Drake's favorite producer Noah "40" Shebib and frequent collaborator T-Minus both contribute here.  This is the only song on We The Best Forever that diverges noticeably from the Khaled formula (to be fair, the Boi-1da produced Future has a sort of similar sobriety to it).  The ghostly, brooding mood on display here is a direct pull from the feel of much of Drake's recent material. Many of 40's songs make you feel as though he heard the Top 40 when he was smashed at the club last night and he's spent all day trying to rewrite them with a hangover.  This atmosphere is a key part of why I find Drake's music so interesting; the conventional boom-bap excesses of his contemporaries are present, but with an accompanying nagging, alienated, and cynical feeling that this is a ride that has been ridden many times before and will be again.

This wary, distant musical perspective is mirrored in Drake's lyrics.  He is obsessed with his own fame, but he has a perpetual consciousness of its finitude.  Whenever he makes any claim to timelessness, it rings false.  He's at his best when he seems totally overwhelmed with his condition and puts himself at the mercy of the forces that pushed him there.  This quietist self-consciousness is what many find unappealing (or "soft") about Drake, but it's the very real awareness of the narrative of which he is a part that makes him a fascinating figure. Unlike Das Racist's carefully obfuscated earnesty and self-consciousness, Drake's faux-struggle with his fame has all the pomp and insistence of a mission statement.  Here he admits, "All I care about is money and the city that i'm from/ ima sip until I feel it ima smoke until it's done/ I don't really give a fuck and my excuse is that I'm young/and I'm only getting older".  None of this sounds particular triumphant; it's the sound of a person realizing his predicament, his inability to act in the face of his realization, and the inevitable end that is on its way.  When he says "get it while you're here boy/ cause all that hype don't seem the same next year boy" we have a feeling that even though this is directed to a faceless up-and-comer, Drake is intimately familiar with the emotions on hand.

Let's skip Rick Ross for now.  His relationship with Young Money is interesting in its own right and in some ways he is the perfect marketable, post-Tupac "gangsta" rapper, but he's not important to our thesis at the moment.

This is a fairly conventional (read: lazy) verse for Wayne.  The brags and posturing of his generation of artists are here, but, as ever, his free associations set him clearly back in his own territory.  "Put an end to your world like the mayans" is a particularly relevant line here (as was his "and honestly i'm down like the economy" line when it was written for Jay Sean's "Down" at the depth of the recession) because it captures Wayne's appeal perfectly.  His prolificacy and his willingness to collaborate with whoever's hot at the moment is a key part of his domination of the charts.  In a sense, Wayne is the perfect "social networking" rapper; each song allows him to post a new status that keeps him up to date (fellow "Lil" individual and follower Lil B stretches this format to its obvious conclusion).  The benefits of this connectedness to pop culture (though at times he's a bit late to the party; see the Inception-style video for Six Foot, Seven Foot made half a year too late) and chameleonlike ability to change with his climate should be familiar to anyone that has read Foucault's analysis of biopower in his lectures at the College de France. Adapting to the trends of the market allows you to tap its power and it's in (mostly) simple, populist mediums like rap and folk that this headline-reading approach  is best embodied. In both genres, there is more emphasis on what is said (or how it is said) than on the melodic content of any particular phrase. This comparison isn't particularly novel, but I think it's apt.

In the final calculus, Young Money keep my attention because they capture the moment.  This is also why I think they so embody post-modernism; their catholicity and marketability make them look like they were magiked up on a corporate hard drive somewhere like some kind of fucking Rei Toei rap crew. They will not hold up in twenty years.  It's only because of their ability to adapt and willingness to inject themselves with new cultural DNA that they've lasted this long. Sure, I can imagine Drake's rap-noir or Nicki's schizophrenic cast of characters retaining some merit or influence in that scene-to-come, but the songs simply will not have the late 200X bite that they do now. The Young Money collective is deathly aware of the fact that pop music, now more than ever, isn't so much about works as it is about processes. All they can do is try to hold on to the cutting edge.

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