Moving On Up
If Jay-Z's art is no longer influential, his influence on the art is more pervasive than ever. His bold signings at Def Jam--from teen idol Rihanna to lyrical hero Ghostface Killah to sophisticated soulster Ne-Yo--might prove that the hip-hop market encompasses a wider demographic than anyone else in the industry imagines. And as Jay-Z has moved from the corner to the boardroom, a significant group of new generation artists--including his Def Jam signings Rick Ross and Young Jeezy--continue to mine the territory he opened with Reasonable Doubt, a genre many now refer to as "crack rap." The second-biggest hip-hop release this year was by Atlanta's T.I., a former drug dealer turned movie idol who has reworked Jay-Z's late-'90s mix of crack and bling into platinum status. One of the most acclaimed releases this winter was by a Virginia-based pair of ex-dealers called the Clipse, whose 2002 hit "Grindin'" ushered in crack rap's return.
Unlike the business metaphors ("Rap Game/Crack Game" was one of Jay-Z's most popular songs) and Scarface-like heights and depths of the crack rap of the '90s bubble economy, most narratives now start with kitchen-scale claustrophobia. Lyrics fuss over the details of "the work"-- the drop, the baking, the setup, the sale, the re-up--because everything after that is idleness and fear and justification. Backed by sci-fi textures, the Clipse offer dystopian futurism like writer Richard Morgan, while Young Jeezy's lushly orchestrated tracks infuse its tiny world with romantic grandeur. It's the sound of lowered expectations straining to be shockingly new, or simply noble.
Crack rap's resurgence is not a case of, to use a rap cliché, "street journalism." In many cities, heroin tops have supplanted crack rocks as the scourge of choice. And although there has been an alarming rise in urban gun homicides across the country, some evidence suggests that the numbers do not signal a repeat of the '80s drug wars. Hip-hop journalist Kris Ex has written that crack rap is now primarily a matter of "style and design." This music, which is being pushed by global corporate conglomerates, sells a myth of street life that makes crack production a metaphor for the new economy.
Amid war, post-Katrina unrest and, especially, expanding joblessness, the small-time hustlers of crack rap provide a strange kind of comfort. In a "free-agent nation" where fortysomethings routinely find themselves pink-slip obsolescent and twentysomethings are encouraged to prepare themselves for an insecure occupational future by becoming their own brands, perhaps crack rappers--whose desire for the good life is matched by the insecure certainty of the kitchen-and-corner struggle--have become the new countercultural heroes. Of course, this counterculture too comes with its illusions. Kris Ex reminds us of "the thirteen-year-old spotter caught up in a turf war, the five-year-old girl that takes a stray bullet.... Every real crack rock that is sold, is sold to a real person." The tragedies of crack rap are the stories never told, the fallen bodies never counted.
When Basquiat died, his friend Keith Haring painted a memorial featuring a pyramid-shaped heap of tumbled crowns, a graveyard of kings. For now, Jay-Z has avoided this fate. But if he can't be trusted when he says that "30 is the new 20," it may be because we know his neck will still be well protected when he turns 40 in a few years.