Reviews

Various Artists: Hip Hop Life [DVD]

Chris Catania

Where other hip hop capture more of the artists and the beat on the street, Hip Hop Life just skims the surface.


Various Artists

Hip Hop Life

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2007-04-03
Amazon
iTunes

It’s easy to sit comfortably in a darkened movie theatre or stand anonymously in a sea of fans and watch two emcees go at each other via hip hop’s vicious wordplay known as the battle rap and think that anybody could do it. But there’s more to it than just being able to spit insults at someone, make those insults poetic, and then meld it with a DJ’s beat. It takes real talent and like most art forms, the best rappers make it look so easy.

Hip hop historians trace the birth of the freestyle battle rap to its roots somewhere around New York or on the East Coast circa the late '70s. Until early in the 21st century, battle rap remained in the underground solely as a proving ground for up and coming emcees trying to land a record deal with a major label. Then the mainstream blockbuster and Grammy-winning 8 Mile came along and ever since Eminem’s semi-autobiographical character B-Rabbit deftly won over the crowd at the fictionalized Shelter, in 2003, mainstream American culture and young hip hop fans have found new inspiration in an otherwise underground art form. Toss in the introduction of BET’s 106 & Park and Nick Cannon’s Wild N’ Out and you now have another marketable aspect of hip hop.

With Hip Hop Life it’s all about the battle rap. More specifically, its Detroit’s best rappers going head-to-head with Houston’s top rhyme slingers. Even without the countless lyrical references by the rappers themselves, it’s almost impossible not to compare the Hip Hop Life’s battle raps to what was depicted so perfectly by 8 Mile’s director Curtis Hanson and expertly portrayed by Eminem. But as I watched the next young crop of stars of the featured Detroit and Houston rap scene and current Dirty South rap giants Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, I fought to find the reason why what I was watching lacked the same galvanizing and inspiring power of the bio-fictionalized 8 Mile.

Was it the fact that there was a "Rocky Balboa meets hip hop" story infused within the intense life or death battle raps depicted? While watching Hip Hop Life all I felt was a depressing and disappointing void brought on by the hollow battles of bling and egocentric name calling and flat phallic punch lines.

So I thought some more about what makes an emcee better than another. Are there important elements that an emcee must have or use during a battle rap? Yes. When an emcee successfully uses metaphors, set ups, and the aforementioned punchlines in a way that both connects with the crowd and, most importantly, humorously dismantles his or her opponent, then inspiration and entertainment occur. Some emcees are born with a natural talent for a flowing cadence but most, like Eminem, spend years honing their craft while traveling up through the ranks. An entire career can be based on how well an emcee can deliver these components and how creative he or she can be with them while all eyes are on him during that moment. A freestyle battle rapper can choke or triumph within 45-90 seconds.

Alas, there’s an immense lack of creativity from most of the performers Hip Hop Life -- young upstarts and current kings alike. Hip hop comedian and G-Unit member T.K. Kirkland host the show and when things get personal between some of the younger rappers, he does manage to cool off the heated moment and drop some hilarious one liners, inducing giggles from the crowd, Jaddakis, MC Lyte and Freeway among them. Also interesting is when T. K. Kirkland has the battle rappers improvise while he pulls various merchandise -- DVDs, shoes, bottled water, CDs -- from a large blue bin and the young rapper is forced to meld his freestyle with whatever item Kirkland pulls from the bin while London-native DJ Sassy spins the background beats.

Showcased in between these battle raps are performances by Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, and Fat Joe. Unfortunately the performances are shackled by poor sound production and lack a passion and are bereft of an engaging cadence or original flow. The chorus of Rick Ross’ Hustlin might be as catchy as bumpin’ club rap anthems come, but after the fifth time you hear the chorus “Everyday I’m hustling / everyday I’m hustling” you start to wonder if Rick Ross is ever going to tell us a bit more about what it is like to hustle or even better, if he is able to go beyond the gangsta cliché and get into Ice Berg Slim territory.

Same goes for Young Jeezy’s performance. The mean tough guy swagger works for awhile, but again, after awhile, you want more from him. How about a little bit of descriptive anguish? What does it feel like to see a friend die or struggle to live in the ghetto? There’s a millions story’s to tell and gangsta rap needs more emcees who are willing to challenge the current, mostly negative perceptions of gangsta rap.

Genuineness and resonance is what’s missing from the performances and most of this DVD. Continuing with my comparison, what made 8 Mile so memorable are the myriad moments in which you see Eminem’s B-Rabbit character get pushed down, slapped around, until he make his triumphant rise to overcome the lyrical and physical bullying that eventually sets up his furious punch line where he admits his white trash roots and metaphorically destroys the members of the Free World and their fraud of a leader, Pappa Doc.

This DVD leans hard on the art of the battle rap in its extras, including a rap battle competition in which university students from each university grab the mic and go at each other, holding back neither racial, gender, or fashion putdowns in an otherwise lacking display of a hip hop based improvisational poetic lashing. The student emcees are for the most part amateurs in crafting workable metaphors. There are a few funny moments, but the battles are full of the clichéd sexual and phallic put downs one would expect. Was this supposed to be an 8 Mile recreation of the Shelter that turned out to be an amplified and recycled collegiate collection of “your mama” jokes that got barely a chuckle from the crowd? You can’t fault the effort of any of the emcees and I have to be honest there were a few moments where I did enjoy seeing a few of the contestants crumble under pressure, which also happens to be an important element, the guilty pleasure, of watching battle raps.

Of course, not every emcee has an amazing back story, but more interviews of the top emcees would add more drama to the actual feature. The hip hop battle rap history lesson "City vs City" mini-docudrama could have been a great opportunity to dive into the lives behind the up and coming rappers, but Hip Hop Life missed the chance. Again, what made 8 Mile such a galvanizing source of inspiration for the resurgence of the rap battle was the previous knowledge of the Eminem’s character. We knew the back story and if you didn’t know who Eminem was the movie summed it up so the final scenes had you cheering for him. If you don’t have that previous knowledge and the rapper doesn’t bring that into his battle rap, then there is little chance for audience connection.

Buried in the extras are interviews with New York rapper Fat Joe as he talks about his roots, why he raps and what he overcame, and with MC Lyte about her remembrance of the battle rap origins and present cultural influence. These two interviews should be the building blocks for Hip Hop Life next time around. And where other hip hop DVDs like Smack capture more of the artists and the beat on the street, Hip Hop Life just skims the surface.

The first track on the bonus mixtape, DJ Boss’s remix with TroublesSum & U.S.C. (Urban Click) “R U Ghetto”, is a brilliantly fresh and fun tongue-in-cheek parody of life in the ghetto. I’ll remember that song and others on the mixtape for much longer than I will Rick Ross’s club anthem and I plan to use “R U Ghetto’s” creative borrowing of the Farashaka melody for the chorus of “R U Ghetto / R U Ghetto / yes we are / yes we are...” to clear my pallate. I might even pop in 8 Mile, while I’m at it.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.