[10 January 2006]
This past August, I attended Marc Ecko’s Getting Up Festival in New York City. The performance art-cum-block party celebrated graffiti in hip-hop culture in the most contained yet accessible manner possible: setting up canvases shaped and stretched as mock subway cars across one city block in Chelsea’s gallery district, hiring famous graf writers/artists to paint them and inviting the public to watch. Of course, being a corporate event, there was the obligatory schilling (the event was named after Ecko’s new video game). However, from observing over a thousand artists, parents, children and passer-bys chat, create, point and watch, the majority that passed through that day were united by one interest: hip-hop.
While such care and planning made the event remarkable, lurid publicity admittedly gave the festival a welcome boost. After a highly-publicized mayoral intervention and last-minute rebuttal, Getting Up received its official event certification: celebrity attendance (gossip-hounds read no further, because this isn’t a he-was-wearing-wot???-piece). Notable among the notables was up-and-coming notable Juelz Santana. Not because Dipset sightings are uncommon—which is hardly the case when in proximity of Harlem World’s orbit—but rather because I was surprised to see Santana at such… a bourgeois event. After all, for a vast number of attendees, this was perhaps the most amount of Krylon they had smelled since their last trip to Home Depot. Yet, for 2005’s co-minister of trap, he appeared at home in this family affair. Arriving with a host of homies in tow, he quickly attracted new ones as young ones drew in closer to share words with one of the most in-demand voices on the mixtape circuit. Like a seasoned politician he worked the crowd, giving nods and daps to anyone interested. And, as quickly as he appeared, he soon vanished, perhaps to deliver another stump appearance across town. His brief presence demonstrated street celebrity in the flesh, a remarkable parallel to an event that succeeded by creating its own sense of spectacle.
Herein lays the source of Santana’s success. He is comfortable with wearing the rap robes for all to holla at, be it on the streets, on the TV, radio and internet, or through his hotline (1-888-DIPSET7). Certainly, hip-hop remains an art form created and critiqued on artistic merits—that’s what blahberians like myself are here for! However, quite the contrary to KRS’ credo, “It ain’t about a salary”, hip-hop has in many ways come to terms with its commercial side and artists have increasingly come to recognize that they are not just creating, but also selling their art. Hip-hop music is not just art for art’s sake, but a career wherein one can build a cult of personality. Jay-Z already embodies it (“I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man”); Juelz is just another one embracing it (“Go ahead/ Do what you do/ Make it work for you”). Santana then is not just a rapper in the traditional sense (and certainly not an extraordinary one, at that); he’s a rapper in tune with today’s terms of success in hip-hop.
So, to discuss Santana and his long-awaited full-length, the childishly exclamatory What the Game’s Been Missing!, on artistic terms alone seems myopic. Consider it then another notch in the belt, a logical conclusion of a year of promotion. After building hype through singles and videos, the kids gotta cop his shit, right? However, the album is a slip, not because of its plodding pace, but due to its anticlimactic follow-up. A number of the record’s highlights had already been released during Santana’s mixtape (over-)saturation (check hiphop-blogs.com’s posting for another commentary on this idea), leaving the final product with few surprises. If the “bonus” of purchasing the album as opposed to the Back Like Cooked Crack series is a boring retelling of the film Fresh (cleverly renamed, “Lil’ Boy Fresh”), then of course the album won’t come close to ghetto platinum.
However, even for the unDipinducted listener WTGBM! is chock full of first album mistakes. It is an indecisive affair, running through the highs of bangers (“Mic Check”), the lows of wasteful clichés (“Good Times”), the occasional creative twist (“Clockwork”) and more of that weird Dipset penchant for Vangelis sounds (“Freaky”). While Santana can boast, as he does in a recent interview with Ozone Magazine, about fattening his c.v. with the ‘hottest’ up-and-coming producers, the scattershot beat selection does the album few favors. All of which is disappointing because this is not Santana’s first album. If, according to the same Ozone interview, Santana truly recorded over 160 songs, then he undoubtedly needs to work on learning how to write an album.
That said, Santana has built his persona more on hustle, connections and charm than artistic skill. More a stylist than a lyricist, we can thank Santana for the phrase of the day, “A!” And he comes through aptly when flippin’ foolish, notably alongside king clever/kook (depending on how you see him) Cam’ron on cuts like “Shottas” and “Kill ‘Em.” Where else will you hear emcees get clever with lines like “Fuck a microwave/ That’ll turn his head into a Hot Pocket” and “Untuck the lama/ Now suck your mama?” Unfortunately, Santana still needs to steer clear of the topical route. He often becomes lost within the simplest thoughts: “Remember them good ol’, Yo! MTV Raps?/ Man, I hope they bring Yo! MTV (pause) back.” While Big Walt pointed out on Byron Crawford’s site Santana’s less artful and tactful moments in person, nothing so damning or ignorant is documented on WTGBM!... oh, wait, there’s that one line, “I don’t know about the internet/ I just know I’m into sex.” But that one is kinda funny. How about, “Those were the good ol’ days/ Every hustler had good cocaine.” Ah yes, and titling a song, “I Am Crack?” That’s right up there with printing instructions on how to cook crack in your liner notes. Good job. Seriously. At WTGBM!‘s best and worst, it is attention-grabbing—or, precisely the definition of a successful marketing tool.
Though sales of WTGBM! may push Santana’s name through the new year, it has at least proven successful in planting his name (and lexicon). Much like his distant gaze from behind a checker-colored chessboard on his album cover, he must now consider how to follow-up with a more serious move. In the meantime, though the album is a bit meh, he has made clear that the sound is not so important as the message: “Get used to the future, cause I am that. I don’t claim to be the king, I just do my thing. N*s know what it is.”