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I Be that Pretty Motherfucker aka What It Look Like aka the Aesthetics of the world according to B. Dot (WIP)

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First thing’s first: I don’t have this completely worked out. But here goes…

Last week, there was a flare up between B. Dot and Jordan Sargent over Sargent’s review of Chief Keef’s Finally Rich for SPIN.com. In his review, Sargent called the album “one of the best rap albums of the year and one of the best major-label debuts in recent memory” and B. Dot called him on this assertion (rightly, I think, but that’s another matter), publicly and on Twitter, implying that Sargent’s critical foundation was shaky at best, largely due to the fact that B. Dot sees Sargent as a commentator existing far outside the hip hop sphere/universe or whatever. Sargent responded first with a GIF taken from Keef’s “I Don’t Like” video and then, well, I don’t really know what happened after that because while I know this play, flame, troll Internet shit is somehow part and parcel with online spats/discourse, I don’t really have a lot of respect for it so I tend to lose interest quickly. (I say, cut the cute crap, say what you mean and stand by it, but what do I know.)

Anyway, the back and forth got me thinking about something that’s been on my mind a lot over the past few years, and Rembert’s post today on race and racism (which references the B. Dot v. Sargent thing as an example of the continued blurring of so-called, and long assumed, racial boundaries) coupled with the impending official release of A$AP Rocky’s debut LONG.LIVE.A$AP, made me think today might as well be the day to try to sort it out.

 Basically, while there’s probably a hint of race undercurrents seeping into B. Dot’s commentary on Sargent’s critique, I’d be surprised if that was actually the issue, as Rembert implies. Rather, and I think B. Dot’s pretty specific about this, the frustration comes from hipster media (in this case, but I think the same frustration could extend to many voices in mainstream media as well, if the source had originated there) weighing in on, and then elevating, a work of art created by a clearly troubled and troubling member of a culture both long marginalized and long on the defensive, particularly re its darkest corners and offshoots. And this is not a conversation – at least not what you’re reading here – about race, but about hip hop as those who have lived and battled for it for years know and love it. (B. Dot beat me to this point this afternoon on his own behalf in response to Rembert’s post, so… yeah.) Condemnation from the outside world has always come quick, and often as blanket statements that seize on one or two examples, ignoring the nuance and value of the many discussions being had both by and within the culture. B.Dot’s reaction to Sargent’s super positive Keef review is just a good reminder there can be danger in over celebration as well. If Keef is to be celebrated, the thinking is, that celebration needs to come from within, and the general sense seems to be that hip hop doesn’t quite know what to make of Keef just yet.

If hip hop isn’t to be subjected to the same artistic critiques and critical standards as set by the same critics as any other genre doesn’t that in some ways diminish it as art?

So where does Sargent’s license come from beyond the simple fact that SPIN cut him a check to wax poetic about Finally Rich? I’d argue that what we’ve seen in the past decade plus, but particularly in the past five years, is an ever-evolving push to define and describe hip hop in and on purely aesthetic terms. I don’t know Sargent, but I’m guessing that he – like Noz, who didn’t specifically come to Sargent’s defense (at least not that I saw), but who was also advocating for seeing a lot of what Sargent found in the Keef project, namely a playful, unique (arguably innovative) approach to making rap records – would likely argue that he was simply looking at the body of work for what it was as presented and doing his job: critiquing it. After all, the logic goes, if hip hop isn’t to be subjected to the same artistic critiques and critical standards as set by the same critics as any other genre, doesn’t that in some ways diminish it as art?

Keef’s approach is unorthodox. Where B. Dot (and many others, across the spectrum) would likely argue that’s because Keef is actually bad at what he does, namely rap, Sargent (and many others, also across the spectrum) instead chooses to see a minimalist leader of the avant garde unafraid to try new things and buck tradition. Critics are critics and differing opinions should be expected as it comes with the territory. But B. Dot’s I’m right, you’re wrong position comes from something else, I think, more like, “Criticism is fine, but let’s not get carried away. There are still standards to uphold, after all.” (A stance that gives Jon Caramanica’s take on the Keef project, which manages to praise and downplay at the same time, a much stronger foundation to stand on and therefore avoid the controversy that’s ensnared Sargent.)

But this is where rap finds itself on a slippery slope of late, I think, and a slope that’s become especially treacherous ever since the hip hop community stopped taking Rick Ross to task for his background as a correctional officer in his life before rap and instead embraced him for painting pictures bigger than rap had ever seen. With Ross, suddenly, aesthetics trumped everything, even reality, and even within the hip hop community. Nothing mattered but the sound and the presentation, and Ross in all his glory, knew how to package both. It was great music. Period. And that was all that mattered.

Drake’s rise pushed the aesthetic argument even further. By presenting himself as the perfect curator of look, feel, and presentation for the Internet age, Drake arrived as an artist whose aesthetics were so on point down to every word he put down on page, you had to fuck with him (even if, and in spite of the fact that, he was a former child actor). The mixtape art was excellent. The way the project arrived was so “organic.” And once we got past whether or not he’d sign a deal, the biggest controversy in that first year was whether the (Kanye West-directed) video for “Best I Ever Had” had the right “look” or was it offensive to women? In the end, it was a small blip on the radar, and Take Care is such a perfectly constructed gilded rose petal of a modern rap album that Drake can conduct an interview with Complex and talk about experience showers and lines of scented candles, and we can all get a kick out of it, and quickly let it go, like no shit, that’s Drake. (And Ross and Drake certainly didn’t pioneer this approach. Hip hop has long been aesthetic obsessed, and Jay-Z’s Blueprint was a mission statement if ever there was one about just how much could be gained by sticking close to the art rather than chasing radio airplay. Kanye’s whole career is built upon grandstanding on this very creative cornerstone.)

Like any viable music, hip hop has always been heavy on craft, and the construction of a record or a rhyme can trump meaning or message because the core fans and the practitioners can all appreciate the value in good form. But because of the conditions of its creation (it’s a form literally born out of a lack of resources; declines in urban education spending -> kids underemployed at school trained in little more than simple mechanics -> hot-wiring city grids to throw awesome parties in the park), and the constant marginalization of everything around it, including the people who make it, the communities they’re from and the people who champion and consume it, it’s an art that is almost impossible to consider outside of the context that created it. Chuck D famously called hip hop the “Black CNN” and in many ways that characterization still holds today. It’s admittedly a bit of a logical stretch (bear with me), but looking solely at the aesthetics of a rap album without considering everything around it – who made it, how, why, where and with whom – is almost like critiquing the aesthetics of a broadcast news piece on Sandy Hook. Sure, there’s always room for media criticism, but in the affected community, nobody really gives a fuck whether or not the network used the appropriate B roll footage and/or what you thought about that. Shut up and get out of the way. (Then again, there’s the counter argument - art is art is art - as presented above.)

Still, the community itself is changing. Blame the Internet or the free time afforded by the post-industrial age or the Pitchfork effect or all of the above and more, but on the whole, the hip hop community is becoming more obsessed with aesthetics than ever before. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city was presented as a fully realized work of art from the get go, demanding even in it’s “a short film” subhead that it be looked at and considered as such. And it was incredibly successful on all fronts, giving critics something to geek out over and parse, fans something to bump, and peers something to consider as they walk into their own projects. (To me, one of the really great things about good kid is just how exciting it is to think about the 14 year old kid/future MC who fell in love with that album this year, and the music he/she will make in five to 10 years.)

Chuck D famously called hip hop the “Black CNN” and in many ways, that characterization still holds today.

All of which somehow brings me to A$AP Rocky who has unapologetically etched his name onto the rap wall in a gritty futuristic scrawl and demanded almost nothing more than that - what you see in him. As a result, what you take away from all things A$AP is all brazen aesthetic. This is a guy built on how he looks, how he presents and how he and his team moves, and he’s obsessed with it. He’s young, fly, he’s Pretty Flacko, he’s the guy who’s pulled and borrowed from the best of all worlds and created a debut album that plays like beautiful rap decay, a nihilistic exercise in the far limits of all aesthetic everything at the expense of, and perhaps in place of (and in search of?), anything else. It bangs, he bangs - the night is very dark, and the darkness is bleak, raw and tragically beautiful. The end. And while the critical conversation is yet to come (despite the early leak, the big critical pieces have yet to arrive), so far the hipsters and the rap kids all seem to agree: like Drake and Kendrick before him, all signs point to A$AP Rocky being the next big thing. Long live A$AP indeed.

So as the community changes, so, too, does the conversation – inside, outside, about and around it, the culture and its art. And while this change is something that can, and in many ways probably should be embraced – the more people who engage with the music and recognize its power and prominence and take it seriously, the better we’ll all be able to understand each other (at least one hopes) – it’s also something that gives many of the people inside the community (B. Dot say, and many others) cause for concern. And understandably so.

A$AP’s is a debut album that plays like beautiful rap decay, a nihilistic exercise in the far limits of all aesthetic everything at the expense of, and perhaps in place of (and in search of?), anything else.

Until very recently, hip hop was discovered and incubated internally. The narratives of emerging stars were uncovered, shaped, defined and considered almost exclusively by the hip hop press for the hip hop community, mainly because they were the only outlets bothering to invest in actually paying attention. As a result, by the time an artist took off in the mainstream, the hip hop community had already sorted out where it stood on an artist, vetted what the artist meant, cosigned him or her and was already looking ahead at where the community would go from here. All that was left to do was to wait for the calls from the mainstream press to play talking head and make the next big thing in the hip hop world make sense to the world at large.

But recently, particularly in the past year (and with ever accelerating pace), that has started to change. With distribution democratized by the web and access to everything available to everyone all the time, the runway between arrival and takeoff for any new artist (across genre) has collapsed. This is not news. Yes, artists like Kendrick, J. Cole and Mac Miller (and even Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) can still remain relatively unknown beyond the hip hop community until the very moment that they arrive at the top of the charts, but with a generation of writers and editors raised on the music (whether close to the community or not) and well aware of its commercial and cultural viability not to mention a sea of websites with a bottomless pit of content to feed, all of us - everywhere - are all simultaneously chasing the same stories, threads and personalities. But it’s that claim everything mandate necessitated by the never ending hunt for traffic that brings with it the very real fear within the hip hop community that someone with the wrong lens but a bigger screen and more eyes will get the opportunity to define someone or something in a way that’s just fundamentally all wrong. (The Jay-Z is black black moment in Esquire, for instance.) It’s not all fair game. Certainly not yet, and it might never be. Because of the confluence of so many things - race, socioeconomics, shared cultural history, internal morals, codes, etc. - hip hop isn’t just art on the canvas. It’s more complicated that that. And that’s the way it is. 

Which brings me to this: One of the really fascinating, and frankly at times frightening, developments of the past few years to me has been the rise of the weight given to Pitchfork reviews not only by hip hop fans but, increasingly, by the artists themselves. On a certain level, you have to respect it and understand it – Pitchfork has built a powerful platform as the leading critical voice in music online mainly by at least attempting to take a critical mass of music releases seriously and worthy of critique, so there’s that. (And it’s done so, as Jayson Rodriguez pointed out today, at a time when the core hip hop mags – and many music books, for that matter – have marginalized or eliminated their own critical takes.) Plus, as an artist, what more can you ask for than to be taken seriously as exactly that – an artist? All of the individuals that make a community may make the community, but on their own they (we) all want to be taken on their own and recognized for their own individual greatness and achievements. The gold thread doesn’t/can’t always see the tapestry; sometimes it just wants to be seen as a gold thread and have that be something great on its own. But culture is culture and every thread always becomes part of the fabric and to B. Dot’s point, a real effective critique has to be able to weave it all together or it simply falls apart. And when the things that fall apart in your hands are delicate subjects, well that’s when it becomes problematic at best, and offensive at worst.

It’s 2013. Let’s not be offensive or ignorant. Let’s be informed. Let’s respect the culture (s/o Elliott and RESPECT.). Let’s be great. The community, the culture and the craft deserve it. We all do. –BMI–

  1. poseyboo reblogged this from killertape
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    This is something I go back to often. Very often. It’s a kind of beacon to what makes music writing so exciting “going...
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    I was going to address the whole B. Dot thing at some point, and I guess this seems like as good a time as any. This...
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