I stopped listening to hip hop back in 2003. If you asked me then, I’d probably say that it stopped being any good around then. Reality probably aligns more closely with a teenage counter-culture attitude that started to manifest not long after I hit my Junior year of high school. I’m not complaining too much; I mean, I shifted into a pure alternative rock mindset and I exposed myself to solid music from the 90s and 00s, but here I had gone and cut myself off from an entire genre of music that I deemed too mainstream.
My stubbornness persisted all through university. When asked, the only genre of music that I didn’t listen to was rap. I claimed it was artistically void, unnecessarily aggressive, and embarrassingly sexist and misogynistic. I don’t think more obnoxious words could be uttered out of a mouth that listened to, and enjoyed, the song “Under My Thumb”.
Hypocrisy aside, it took me until I started listening to NPR, of all things, to get back into hip hop. The All Songs Considered podcast mostly caters to the musical tastes of its hosts, which fall almost exclusively into the indie territory, but, in the interest of being non-exclusionary, they had a hip hop episode wherein they asked other music journalists to come in and fill in the gaps they’d been neglecting.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d been an idiot for a good eight years. Rap and hip hop is still just as aggressive, sexist, homophobic, and vulgar as it’s always been, but so were a lot of the other rock bands I was listening to. More importantly, this stuff was fantastic.
My listening habits tend to not cater much to lyrics. It’s what enables me to love foreign music and what gets me in major trouble when I realize that a song whose sound I absolutely love is about something needlessly graphic or vulgar. I think this also made it easier for me to forsake hip hop. When your entire genre relies more on what you say than what you play it can be easy for me to lose interest. It takes a more listens than usual for a rap track without great backing to make any impact on my brain. Imagine my surprise when two albums made a huge splash in the same month by paying way more attention to the way their music is presented than most.
Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, made a huge splash in the music world by releasing his finest work to date, All Day, for free on his website. For a week after the album’s release his website was so hammered with download requests that it took me several attempts just to bring up the site the day I downloaded it.
Girl Talk isn’t technically hip hop at all, but his mash-up style dance music is dominated by rap layered over music ranging from other rap songs to classic rock, pop, oldies, and modern alt rock. The beauty of the album comes from the way that Gillis stacks these songs over each other. His timings are excellent and he juxtaposes the most unlikely of songs creating a synergy that no one could have conceived of before. In a way, I felt like the attention he paid to the production of his tracks makes for a track that’s just busy enough to be interesting.
It was just what I needed to push me over the edge and back into exploring hip hop with the same vigor that I chase rock music and I resolved to pick up the next big hip hop release, which just happened to be Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
To say that anything Kanye does is surrounded by controversy would be the understatement of the year. Naturally, just about everyone loves or hates MBDTF because it is everything that Kanye has always been: loud, braggy, brilliant, complex, and humble all at the same time. Each and every track is filled to the brim with interesting musical progression, from the guitar riffs on “Gorgeous” and “Power” to the almost mournful piano in “Blame Game” and the blaring brass in “All of the Lights” Kanye brings so much more to his songs than interesting flow and solid rhymes.
Both are just so awesome. Hip hop, I’m glad to be back. I hope I never make myself leave again.