Hip-Hop & the Contrast Principle

by Quentin B. Huff

16 November 2009

Mos Def. He can hold a note. 

Queen Latifah's Changing Persona

Image (partial) from Persona album cover

Image (partial) from Persona album cover

Queen Latifah’s Changing Persona

Every now and then, we should go back and give an old record another chance. We might discover something good that would otherwise be lost.

Queen Latifah’s Persona faces challenges of expectation that are similar to Mos Def’s The New Danger and Common’s Electric Circus. Latifah’s career has undergone various styles and transformations, in keeping with the times.  She has emerged from hip-hop’s “conscious” strand and become an accomplished actress, spokesperson, model, and jazz singer. Yeah, it’s that “jazz singer” part that I’ve been rallying against, because it’s been my contention that losing the voices of Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte from the rap scene were setbacks not only for female emcees but for hip-hop as a whole. They have skills, of course, but they also provided a sense of balance in presentation and subject matter. 

Latifah, luckily, didn’t make herself as musically scarce as Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte had done. Following her phenomenal success in the film Chicago, she recorded The Dana Owens Album (2004), using her given name in the title, and later in 2007, she released Trav’lin’ Light. Both records sought to showcase Queen Latifah’s singing voice, which is pleasant enough, I suppose, but doesn’t truly blow you away, especially when she’s doing jazz standards.

Many expected Persona, Queen Latifah’s 2009 release, to be her return to hip-hop, an opportunity for the Queen to regain her throne after years in a profitable self-imposed exile of movies, awards shows, and doing her jazz thing. Persona doesn’t exactly meet that expectation. True, Queen Latifah has always incorporated a mixture of styles and sounds into her albums, be it R&B, reggae, or pop. But Persona, again like The New Danger and Electric Circus, goes in many directions at once, without a unifying theme or motif. The cover art shows several images of Latifah, in different poses and different roles. She’s multifaceted and multitalented—and she wants us to know it. Ergo, the stylistic and musical diversity.

Persona has a lot to recommend it: positive messages (“The Light”), catchy and vibrant songwriting (“Cue the Rain”), and an inspired guest spot from Missy Elliot (“Fast Car”). Queen Latifah grabs the microphone and cranks out some rhymes, too, but overall the album sounds like something Pink would being doing if only Latifah hadn’t done it first. Persona is clever, sassy, and maybe a touch too plastic-sounding, thanks to production from Cool and Dre. 

But so what? It’s not your “typical” rap album, whatever that is, and it’s pretty bold of Latifah to try to push the boundaries. What’s more, it’s a solid listen if you can move beyond the initial, “Wait, who is this?” stage. Whenever I play anything from this album for people, they can’t believe it’s Queen Latifah. It subverts expectations. This wasn’t what people were expecting, and it creates a definite fork in the road for her future output. Will she continue down this path? Will she be interested in a more traditional-sounding hip-hop album? Will she go back to jazz? Will she even bother recording again? We’ll have to wait and see.

Spheres of Influence
An “influential” album stays on the radar longer than albums that seem more limited in reach. It makes sense that we keep certain albums at the forefront of our discussions, especially those that influence delivery (Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full), widen the scope of dialogue and subject matter (Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back), or break new ground in production values (Dr. Dre’s The Chronic). Some albums are standard bearers, leaders in the genre against which subsequent releases ought to be compared.

But what if an album is good, or even great, but its importance isn’t apparent at the time of release? What then? It could be that we just missed the boat on that particular album, but it could also be that the album is simply ahead of its time. After some time has elapsed and after there has been some distance from the album’s release, it’s easier to see such an album for what it is. Its influence might not be as widespread as the giants in the field, but something about the album resonates much later, probably in an era when the features that made it kind of odd are more common.

MC Lyte’s Act Like You Know strikes me as a good example. Not only is MC Lyte one of the best female emcees, I’d say she’s one of the best emcees hip-hop has ever known, period. Her discography is several albums deeper than most people realize, although I’m not convinced her album titles would be so easy to name. Let’s say it would be a challenging Jeopardy category (“I’ll have MC Lyte Album Titles” for a thousand, Alex”). Act Like You Know isn’t one of her more popular ones, although older hip-hop heads are likely to remember the single “Georgie Porgie”, a tale of woe about a friend who loses his life in an accident caused by drinking and driving. Sadly, if his poor judgment hadn’t done him in, poor Georgie in this song might have succumbed to the cancer, caused by smoking, that had metastasized to his lungs and his colon.

Act Like You Know is a strong album, and totally underrated. In fact, as crazy as the comparison sounds, it reminds me a little of Kanye West’s Graduation in parts, especially in terms of the “futuristic” pop production, the sensitivity of the subject matter (Kanye’s “Big Brother” is as heartfelt as MC Lyte’s “Georgie Porgie”), the strength of Kanye’s persona in tunes like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), and even its silliness (Kanye’s “Drunken Hot Girls” plays like MC Lyte’s “Absolutely Positively…Practical Jokes”). Of course the big difference between the two is obviously MC Lyte’s considerable skill as a lyricist and an emcee. I also think Graduation is kind of overrated, actually, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Act Like You Know comes from the heyday of the cassette tape, when albums were broken up to accommodate the sides of the tape instead of the drop of the record player’s needle. In cassette form, Act Like You Know was divided into side A’s radio friendly songs and side B’s raunchier songs. Side A was filled with MC Lyte’s ruminations of love, friendships, and insightful vignettes filled with life lessons. Side B was the rougher side, filled with MC Lyte’s battle raps and more hardcore themes. It’s packed with fresh ideas, multilayered music, and serious messages, and it deserves better than its current status as a rarely discussed album from the early ‘90s. See if you can find this one so you can give it listen.

Winds of Change
Finally, there are times when artists and albums are victims of changed circumstances. We might enjoy an album when we first hear it, only to discover, years later, that it sounds “dated” by “current” standards. In the examples discussed above, albums faced negative assessments upon release, or shortly thereafter, when the contrast principle worked against them. In this circumstance, the “contrast” is between time periods. An album using techniques that were once “hot” is going to strike us differently than it did at the outset.

This type of hindsight operates on our view of hip-hop artists as well. A fascinating example of this is MC Hammer. With his trademark parachute pants, hyperkinetic choreography, and hits like the Prince-sampling “Pray” and Rick James’s “Super Freak”-sampling “U Can’t Touch This”, MC Hammer was one of the biggest stars of the early ‘90s. He was arguably bigger than hip-hop, rising from a local sensation to a pioneer of the hip-hop stage show. There was a Hammer action figure, a Hammer cartoon show, and a Hammer lunchbox.

Backlash against his popularity grew, and he was frequently blasted by his contemporaries in the rap community, mainly on the charge that he was “selling out”, being “too pop”, and trying to “crossover”. You know, all the stuff that people do now that nobody complains about because it’s so commonplace—endorsing products, performing on goofy talent shows, using pop samples, and the like.

MC Hammer’s decline was swift and very public.There are stories of his spending habits, including his desire to put many, perhaps too many, of his friends on his payroll. There’s the spectacle of his bankruptcy.There was also his “hardcore” phase where he sought to counteract his mainstream pop exposure, seeking to refashion his image to suit the changing tides. That transformation left a lot of us puzzled and confused. 

So I’m not suggesting that MC Hammer was blameless when it comes to our evaluation of his career. I am suggesting, however, that Hammer was an absolutely huge star in the ‘90s, and we sometimes choose to either overlook his accomplishments and contributions to hip-hop or to downgrade his success based on his subsequent failures. 

Listening to Hammer’s multiplatinum Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990), the music does sound like it is tethered to its time period. The trends have changed, and even as Hammer was enjoying his popularity, hip-hop was making room for a rougher, more hardcore aesthetic. By the time Dr. Dre dropped The Chronic in 1992, a schism in production and imagery had occurred, if not an outright paradigm shift.

But if we are being honest about it, MC Hammer opened doors that were previously closed to hip-hoppers. He blazed a trail that paved the way for other rappers to be acceptably “commercial”, even as he was maligned for his success in his day. Nowadays, I rarely see a list of great rappers or influential hip-hop artists that includes Hammer. Most of the time, he’s just listed as a great dancer.

In the end, it’s not likely that we can avoid missing out on a few great albums anymore than we can avoid prematurely declaring that an album is an artist’s crowning achievement. At least, we could help by at least being aware of how our expectations and interpretations factor into our assessments. And, every now and then, we should go back and give an old record another chance. We might discover something good that would otherwise be lost.

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