No matter where you go and talk about Hip Hop there’ll be a different opinion.
‘Hip Hop has become too commercial.’
‘Hip Hop is too violent.’
‘Hip Hop has lost its way.’
Then again, not all statements are so negative.
‘Hip Hop is feeding tens of thousands in this country now.’
‘Hip Hop’s dominance is overwhelming.’
‘Rap music addresses all aspects of life.’
All of these statements are true. Yes, Hip Hop is hurting under the influence of a NEED vs. a WANT. Artists WANT to rap, but they NEED to eat. So the beats got repetitious, witty hooks are obsolete and 9-song albums are non-existent. The NEED is winning most of these battles, but who cares? Clubs are Leaning Back, Baaalin’ and of course, When it Rains it Pours. Jay stopped selling Christal at 40/40 but then again it was time for a change. When Dash complained that Jay’s albums took millions to promote and then the future King of NY would take 40% of the top he just couldn’t imagine what came next. Spending 20 million dollars promoting Kingdom Come? Well, look on the bright side, now it’s in #3 spot, right behind Hip Hop is Dead and Inspiration.
Ice Cube did something interesting too. After forming Lench Mob Records (his new label) he put out Laugh Now, Cry Later on his own and it was a wrap. It may have not hit the sales numbers of his previous works, but he got to keep 100% of the profit. Well, almost 100%. EMI did handle the distribution and The Firm did A&R for it. That was it! None of your usual royalties BS. Then Rakim did his Ra Records and hired a non-music, but very business entrepreneurial and successful manager. A comeback of a lifetime was definitely in order for both those guys.
There is another side of Hip Hop thou. Those are the more artistic, yet not necessarily more creative, artists with a different approach to life and to music itself. A lot of them started out with Hip Hop and then moved on. Some remained at the same stage of development, some even saw their skills diminish. Take Mos Def. From the creatively unorthodox and unique Black on Both Sidesto The New Danger to True Magic. The New Danger was focused on Boogie Man a bit too much. Then True Magic came and the verdict became official. Hollywood rules that house. Some may speculate that he is trying to punish his label, but who is he really punishing who with 2 questionable albums out of 3?
Right next to him is his childhood friend, Talib Kweli. Declared by many as the underground King of New York, Mr. Greene keeps the underground flow going. Purposely avoiding the spotlight of 106 and Park and MTV rotations, he keeps his wardrobe worthy of a movie star. Prada, Gucci, full length leather… yet, this man does not fly in any weather. Hollywood dreams? All may be.
As an artist his skills are certainly at a very high level. Assertive with his lyrics, Talib is extremely experimental with the beats. Once again, that is done in a very non-commercial sort of way. During his last concert at Nokia alone, he offered Eurythmics’Sweet DreamsBusta’s New York Shit that he usually does with Jean (just not this time); Beatles’ Lonely People; Go-Go’s We Got the Beat; Sly & the Family Stone’s Dance to the Music; a b-boying beat and many more experimental tunes. Kanye achieved a high level of commercial acclaim with Miri Ben Ari’s violin infusion on his College Dropout and by blending rather melodic beats with Hip Hop music. Yet, it failed to work for Talib. Of course his DJ, DJ Chaps, is not Preemo, but Chaps is a well-respected guy in the game. Couple that with production from Kanye, Just Blaze, The Neptunes and Kweli’s childhood friend Hi-Tek and you should have a winner. Of course, blending non-Hip Hop sounds could be tricky. At times you miss (like Nelly’s and Tim McGraw’s Over and Over) and at times it creates a classic like Walk This Way. Yet, as Talib’s fan base mostly comprised of kids, who listen to ‘soft Hip Hop’ and rock music, this may be an unconventional commercial approach. remix while flowing over it;
So, is Talib Kweli messing up or is he just a misunderstood artist? There is the constant artist vs. business question. Why start your own label if business is not on your mind? Blacksmith Records surely could be just the help he needed. Yet, his Liberation album has been finished for a while and the release date keeps on getting pushed back over and over. Couple that with lack of publicity and advertisement for it and the matter becomes even more confusing. Perhaps the answer is simple. Artists tend to be creative, spontaneous, moody, unpredictable and chaotic. Yet they have business folks looking over their shoulder to make sure that creativity results in a check. Look at Rakim and his management. Look at Cube and his choices. Look at 50 cent and Jay Z and their ability to combine putting out albums and running successful multi-million dollar businesses.
Blacksmith Records did sign a talented artist along the way. Unknown to many, Jean Grae is perhaps one of the best female MCs around now. Her parents are jazz musicians, she studied performing arts in high school and music business at NYU and she slipped into Hip Hop as if it was her only calling in life. Her lyrics are based on life and address many issues other female MCs dare not touch. Being a woman, being a lover, having emotions and overthinking life are all a routine part of her core lyrics curriculum. At the same time she does not do it like a female artist. Jean makes no distinction between being a male or female on the mic. That is only in her words. Listening to her flow it is hard to believe that it comes out of a small female.
While on stage, Jean is full of smiles and laughter one minute and anger mixed with harsh lyrics pour out immediately after. Her favorite gesture on stage is her middle finger up, given to noone in particular. Is she actually angry here or is this an act? Bringing forth a slew of oxymorons with her performance and lyrics Jean loves to confuse an average listener. One moment she is laughing, having fun and the next she is angrily shaking her fist in the air. She is so sure that she is the best thing ever that it makes all wonder if that’s really the case. Is this not Hollywood? Creating a party scene at her own shows she has fun along with the fans. Definitely not a commercial MC, Jean brings forth a 90’s feel to her music by seemingly pouring her heart out and building complex stories in her songs.
Performing for over 10 years now (her first album dropped in ’96) she equals or even exceeds her boss in years of experience. Yet, her future seems to remain uncertain. Jean’s approach to life is just too similar to her label’s CEO. She is an artist, not an entrepreneur. Perhaps that is why she is so comfortable with Blacksmith. Still, with noone to take care of business, the non-commercial approach is hurting her even more than Kweli, being at the bottom of that food chain.
‘I just show up where they tell me’, she said at a show a few months back.
Is this why MF Doom had exhausted all of his options before he signed with Blacksmith?
When WNT asked Talib at the VH1 Honors press room if he misses his Black Star days, the response was rather snappy:
“Those days are not over, they are not gone. Black Star is in effect, we do stuff with Mos all the time. We don’t have a new album out but it doesn’t mean that we don’t still work together. So there is nothing to miss, it’s very much alive.”
For some reason his presence on Mos’ True Magic is not apparent thou. Hi-Tek and Mos DefHi-Teknology. are his childhood friends. Despite creative differences with the Cincinnati producer, Talib did get a piece on
What’s next for Talib Kweli as an artist? Will he remain a highly-respected underground act? Most likely that is his home realm. Will he become more commercial? Doubtfully this fate will become his as an MC. His fans are primarily middle-school white kids and they will continue pledging their allegiance to the softer side of Hip Hop through this man. Will he outgrow his impulsive and capricious nature? Most probably not, as that seems to have deep roots in his talents.
Still, for all those wondering: Is there a gentler, more artistic, almost flamboyant side to Hip Hop? Yes, there is. And now it even has its own label.