Hip-hop needs some major fixing. Even if a few classic albums and songs managed to find audiences this past year, it's hard to gloss over the fact that a lot of rap music sucks these days.
Apparently fans agree. Big Boi made a respected album that, even adjusted for industry deflation, didn't exactly sell like the records he makes with OutKast. Drake made the jump from minor TV star to major hip-hop celebrity with a smash album that divided critics and fans. And hyperactive newcomer Nicki Minaj spent the year stealing the spotlight on tons of other people's records before dropping her own pop-leaning debut.
Still, there's Kanye West, who upheld his reputation as an obnoxious, loudmouthed egomaniac whenever he got the chance. But then he released a universally acclaimed album with first-week sales that validate every inch of his out-of-control ego.
But there were more Waka Flocka Flames than Kanye Wests this year. We can do better. Really, we can. Here are four ways to fix hip-hop in 2011.
808s Are the Problem,
The voice-altering Auto-Tune has been an easy target for years — and it became an even bigger one in 2010 with Lil Wayne's emo-metal album Rebirth. But one thing hip-hop has been missing for quite some time is a fresh new drum sound.
The '80s-era TR-808 drum machine's stiff programmed beats were reintroduced to the mainstream a decade or so ago. Back then, they had other things to bump against on the radio, like Timbaland's tabla-fueled start-stop attack and the Neptunes' chopped-to-bits house-band funk. From DJ Toomp to Lex Luger, seemingly every producer who made a name for himself in 2010 fell back on the 808 rather than banging around the studio to find a distinctive sound.
Stop Ranking Flow and
Voice Over Wit
Believe it or not, one of the biggest things holding back hop-hop these days is the rappers. Rick Ross' voice got deeper this year, and its booming thrall generated a pair of excellent jams ("B.M.F. [Blowin' Money Fast]" and "MC Hammer"). And New Orleans' masterful Curren$y rode clever and playful stoner rhymes to some major buzz.
But Waka Flocka Flame? Pill? Big K.R.I.T.? There's not a lot to distinguish these dudes. Except for Pill's mildly outrageous Dadaist tour de force "Trap Goin' Ham," these rhymers all share a relatively joyless command of language.
Calm Down, Internet
Nicki Minaj at least has plenty of style and smarts to spare, even if she hasn't quite tapped into her deep well of talent. She ruled Kanye's "Monster," stealing the cut from all the guys around her. But her debut album, Pink Friday, mixes rapping, singing, and a Robin Williams-like penchant for switching her voice mid-routine.
Blame the internet for expecting too much too soon. It's already killed the careers of Wale, Papoose, and Saigon before any of them even had a chance to move beyond their mixtape glories to polished songs and huge album sales.
Nicki Minaj's album sold a ton, and she's popular with fans, critics, and other rappers. She got the break so many other overhyped blogosphere sensations did not. Still, it seems a bit unfair to cut loose so much talent because their official debuts don't stack up to their cred-building mixes. Remember, it took Lil Wayne nearly a decade to be crowned the world's best rapper. Thankfully, some rhymers — like current It Rappers Das Racist — are well aware of online fanboys' bitchiness and continue to release smart mixtapes at their own leisurely pace.
Kanye and Drake are right: Most people aren't famous and even fewer are as famous as they are. So, yeah, we can't identify with the emptiness their success brings them. The distance between their isolation and our perception of it can make for some poignant self-reflection.
But no artist other than Frank Sinatra has ever pulled off more than one great album about how lonely it is at the top. We've listened to the sad tales about marrying porn stars and how hard it is to find anyone to trust because they have too much money to throw around. They need to find a new topic before a Pink Floyd-sized wall builds up between them and their fans.
They've been warned.
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