Hip-Hop & the Contrast Principle

Mos Def. He can hold a note.

Hip-hop, as a culture and a musical genre, moves at lightning speed. Keeping up requires an awareness of our expectations and a willingness to revisit our assumptions.

Hip-hop, as a culture and as a musical genre, moves at lightning speed. Personalities, styles, and trends exit the scene almost as quickly as they appear, and the "next big thing" is always on the horizon. As speculative as it is, there's little hope of predicting what will be "hot" -- or what won't, for that matter.

Remember Das Efx's 1990 debut album Dead Serious? It's marked by, among other things, Das Efx's style of adding "iggity" and other nonsense suffixes to certain words ("I spiggity-spark a spiff and give a twist like Chubby Checker"), similar to Common's delivery on Can I Borrow a Dollar (1992), back when he was known as "Common Sense", or E-40 and Snoop Dogg's attraction to "izzle" and "heezy".

If you assumed (like I did) that Das Efx's "iggity"-laden rhymes would fall flat, you would've been wrong (like I was). If, after Das Efx got popular, you thought (like I did) the trend would last for many years to come, creating a subgenre of "bum-stiggity bomb diggity" rap artists, you would've been wrong again (so I'm zero for two).

Hip-hop's rapid movement is a gift and a curse (no Jay-Z). It promises new trends and new sounds, along with a Darwinian fight for the spotlight as artists work to get ahead of the curve, or at least to stay current. There's always something, or someone, new to look forward to. On the other hand, it's tough to keep up with all the new developments, and even tougher to take the time to evaluate what has already come and gone.

The evaluations of artists and album releases, by fans and critics alike, are greatly influenced by the genre's shifts and upheavals. Sometimes, it prompts us to hail a new album as a "classic", transforming a judgment that used to be made over the course of years into an instant assessment that takes place before the music has had a chance to cool. "Classic" is quickly becoming a misplaced and overused description. Other times, the shifting and unsettled sound-scape causes good solid enjoyable records to get lost in the shuffle.

It's this last category that fascinates me. I've observed three situations that typically cause an album or an artist to get "lost": (1) the album somehow subverts expectations; (2) the album's influence on the genre seems limited, and (3) perceptions of the album are affected by changed circumstances. All of these situations rest on the principle of contrast and, generally speaking, what's happening is that an album is getting pushed aside due to differences between what we think an album should be and how the album was actually executed. Let's consider some examples of each.

Great (and Not So Great) Expectations

Looking at things from an artist's perspective, it must be difficult to satisfy your audience. We (fans and critics) are kind of fickle, ya know? We place artists in the impossible position of "breaking new ground" while at the same time convincing us they are being true to whatever sound or style we loved from them in the first place. Everyone knows about the "second album slump", wherein an artist releases an album that becomes wildly popular and then struggles to maintain that popularity on the next release.

Many times, this happens to the album following a debut, hence the reason why it's a "second album" slump. Certainly, there are plenty of cases where the "second album" actually suffers from poor execution or just plain old bad songwriting, but a respectable number of these albums are quite good -- they simply veered off in an unexpected direction from their predecessors.

Need an example? In hip-hop, look no further than Mos Def's The New Danger (2004), the follow-up to his 1999 debut Black on Both Sides. In 1998, Mos Def and Talib Kweli dropped their Black Star album, a finely crafted gem that recalled the glory of the Native Tongue movement (think De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Jungle Brothers) in the '90s. Mos Def's Black on Both Sides continued in that vein, featuring cameos from Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, and Black Star partner Talib Kweli. Lyrically dense, Black on Both Sides highlighted Mos Def at what most consider the peak of his powers, delivering commanding performances over high quality beats.

It also gave us a showcase of Mos Def's singing chops, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. You have to accept Mos Def's singing for what it is. He's not Luther Vandross but, then again, he's not trying to be. He can hold a note and, more importantly, he can express emotion.

In contrast to the Black Star album and Black on Both Sides, The New Danger took a different path. Here, Mos Def formed a rock band called Black Jack Johnson and went for broke with unconventional (at least for hip-hop) guitar riffs and song structures. Some songs, such as "Freaky Black Greetings" didn't have many lyrics at all, just some guitar and a little groove. Others were more melodic but also much longer, such as the blues number "Blue Black Jack" and the nine minute and 18 second ode to Marvin Gaye, "Modern Marvel". The project exploded in a range of musical directions without any explicit lyrical theme to tie it all together, except for maybe Mos Def's joy in repeating the word "boogeyman" and his occasional mumbling.

Personally, I thought The New Danger was dope. More dope than even the Black Star collaboration or Black on Both Sides, which should probably bring my judgment into question. The New Danger is unlikely to go down in the history books as Mos Def's best offering. I guess I just like weird things.

Common's Electric Circus (2002) falls in the same category, with a similar back story. Electric Circus is a musically diverse album that jumped away from Common's more celebrated works in Resurrection (1994) and Like Water for Chocolate (2000). Based on his discography at that point, it was not the type of album we were expecting Common to make. Given some distance from its release, it's possible for an Electric Circus hater to end up appreciating its experimentation and its mostly enduring subject matter. With all of these albums, I'm not saying they are the best albums ever made, or even the best albums by their particular makers. We're just talking about how albums end up falling through the cracks or out of favor.

But back to Mos Def. What's weird and equally fascinating is what transpired in Mos Def's post-New Danger career. Aside from the continued progression of his acting career -- which, by the way, existed before his rapping accolades -- he released True Magic in 2006, an album that I've described as messy and somewhat lackluster. There are some decent cuts on it, but it doesn't grab my attention in its entirety. Some fans wondered if Mos Def's acting accomplishments were finally affecting his music. I know I did, although there's something about Mos Def that makes it easy for me to forgive his excesses.

That's where The Ecstatic (2009) comes in. Clocking in at about 45-minutes, The Ecstatic has been hailed as Mos Def's return to form, a brilliant recovery from True Magic and a worthy follow-up to Black on Both Sides. This is certainly true if you couldn't get into True Magic, and especially true if you were perplexed by both True Magic and The New Danger, because then the contrast principle works for Mos Def and The Ecstatic.

My feeling is that The Ecstatic really is quite brilliant, but it's a close relative of The New Danger, with its musical eclecticism, lyrical density, and freewheeling production. Black on Both Sides, it most certainly is not. If True Magic had never existed and The Ecstatic had followed The New Danger, I wonder if so many of us would still have the "return to form" feeling surrounding it. While I think the The New Danger has been pushed under the radar, so to speak, I don't believe it is universally dismissed. I do believe, though, that it suffers for being different from its predecessors as much as The Ecstatic benefits from its departure from True Magic.

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