In an A.V. Club interview late last month about a song he hated, the lead singer of the Georgia punk band Black Lips steered a conversation about his disdain for “Royals,” the omnipresent hit by teenage New Zealander Lorde, into more precarious territory. Drake came up, and then ... this:
“I like my rappers more ghetto and ratchet sounding. Personally, I like more melodramatic, ignorant rap where they’re talking about violence and anger and it’s just evil. I don’t like when it’s too conscious, I don’t like it when it’s too smart.”
Alexander qualified his statement by appealing to music’s value as entertainment, comparing the sort of rap he prefers to a gangster movie. “... you don’t want to see polite guys; you want to see them do horrible s***.”
I take no pleasure in shaming people for their taste in music but I do feel responsible to point out when a public figure pigeonholes artists or whole genres within expected limits, or worse, reinforces a stereotype by taking an absolutist position. Alexander did both in a single interview.
He probably doesn’t realize it but Alexander’s attitude provides hip-hop’s moralizers, the Bill O’Reillys of the world, with a convenient foil to “conscious” rappers, helping to set an argument that inevitably pits Macklemore against whoever the profane hit-of-the-moment belongs to. And while this sort of posturing normally isn’t worth spilling ink over, it polarizes audiences into two manufactured sides — the ostensibly “smart” vs. ostensibly “dumb” — when in reality the two are much closer than they appear.
Take for instances two new releases from Kevin Gates, a Louisiana mixtape savant a few steps away from the mainstream and YG, a true Compton gangster who’s recently leapt into the center of it. Both rappers command their respective street lingos with a combination of discipline and talent that’s unique to their surroundings. There’s nothing dumb or “unconscious” about observing what’s around you and channeling it into verse, even when the observed thing is, per Alexander’s preference, violent or evil. What they’ve created — and they’re hardly the first to do so — is a seamless synthesis of high art and low culture that renders absolutist positions like Alexander’s nonsensical.
YG’s “My Krazy Life” moved a respectable 61,000 copies in its first week of sales, good enough to top the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart, but his close relationship with hip-hop’s current “it” producer DJ Mustard yielded “My N***a,” a hit now as ubiquitous as anything else on the Billboard Hot 100 carrying Mustard’s signature. In it YG purrs his way through a verse rife with internal rhymes and zig-zaggy arches in timbre and pitch, while Mustard summons up a terrific west coast club beat with far more nuance and space in it than the bulk of the hip-hop you hear from the rest of the Billboard Hot 100. Like the rest of the record, it’s poetry out of smoking, drinking and fighting.
“My Krazy Life” is a true dispatch from the streets of Compton, sent by a kid in his early twenties. “By Any Means,” Kevin Gates’ latest tape, however, is coming from somebody a little older, with more complicated problems, a stronger grip of narrative and slightly different streets. It’s a world of narcotics manufacturers, prostitutes and snitches — not unlike the gangster movies that Alexander’s position appeals to — but to embrace it as “stupid” or “ratchet” is to ignore the heart beating underneath it, which motivates Gates’ narrator to seek revenge on a track like “Homicide,” where a rival kills his friend.
This is all to say that odds are pretty good that there’s a much larger brain and heart in the rap music you may think’s “ignorant,” which is a term I hate worse than listening to Macklemore rap about cars.
Matt Carney is the pop music columnist for LOOKatOKC. He operates a Twitter account.