I Got A Story To Tell, Part 1

“You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us…
…the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
ask yourself, where am I goin? How am I doin?”

Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man”

I used to hate rap. Well, I used to think that I hated the vast majority of it. Lately though, I’ve been listening to so much hip-hop, with so much joy, I’ve been wondering how I got here. Why do I now like hip-hop so much more than I ever have before?

It seems that often, during particular periods of my life, the music I’ve loved the most has mirrored some attribute I’m seeking at that point in time. Music I’ve loved has satisfied a need, desire, or emotion I’ve felt particularly strongly during particular eras.

I should clarify. As a kid, I wanted to be older, and simultaneously, I found myself enjoying the alternative rock that my older brother, his friends, and the older kids on my bus seemed to love. In middle school, I wanted to be less of a nerd (a fruitless quest), and a desire “to be cool” led to an affection for punk rock, the music listened to by schoolmates I deemed “coolest.” In high school, I remember having an angsty desire for a more “meaningful” life–one more engaged with the world at large and more mature. Musically, I think this is the thread that connects the music I liked most back then, which was mostly classic rock, Phish, and jazz.

Certainly, there is more to it than this armchair psychology. I could go on at length about what I think the musical bona fides of all this music is/was to me. For some of it, maybe it was as simple as “this sounds cool” or “I dig this.” But criticism isn’t my point here. My point is that there’s more to it than just what, sonically, I appreciate about the music.

Growing up, regardless of whatever auditory pleasures I found in it, the music I loved filled a void: apart from merely sounding great, it sounded cool to me specifically because it made me feel older, cooler, or more mature than other music did. And as I’ve gotten older (though not necessarily cooler or more mature), I think my growing love of rap is filling a void as well.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve often complained to friends that too much of my time has been spent in rumination, planning, and indecision, often resulting in inaction or procrastination. As a result,  I’ve sought to hone a sense of forthrightness and productivity. And while the hip-hop I’ve embraced offers a plethora of great qualities–unique, creative, and catchy beats; clever, powerful, and funny rhymes; honest, heartfelt, and compelling voices–most of my favorite rappers exude those traits, through their voices, work ethic, and that boom-boom-BAP that drives their drums and turntables.

Kanye and The Roots (especially ?uestlove) are workaholics.  Ghostface, Mos Def, and Biggie may be very different rappers, but none of them sound like ditherers. Even the rappers often perceived as “emotional” or “laid back” exude a self-assuredness that seems almost unbreakable. Just listen to this classic cut from A Tribe Called Quest:

The aloofness is completely owned. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip sound like the kind of guys who stay above the fray not because they’re timid, but because they know better.

To be sure, there is a lot of “assertive” rock that I love, too. But the confidence in the rap I’ve come to love often feels more genuine and more alive. And nothing is better when I need to get things done, or to put a bit of a strut in my step. (It should be noted that, without a doubt, throughout even among the best of the genre, this confidence often manifests itself in cockiness. And to be sure, there is a lot of rap filled with inane braggadocio. But for somebody who battles indecision, that confidence–and even, cockiness–can be inspiring, particularly when it comes from lyricists who are clever, powerful, funny, and smart.)

At least since the death of grunge, rap has been the most dominant form of popular music; it doesn’t need a defense from me, and there are many reasons to love it. This aspect is but one of them, but I think it’s one that’s been most instrumental to my recent embrace. Whatever the reason, my love of hip-hop is here to stay.

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