Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Straight Outta Irvine

Let me take you back, to the turn of the century, the time of Eminem’s second multi-platinum selling CD…

Eminem had already become a cultural phenomenon by the year 2000. He had previously released one major album, and was in the midst of the release of The Marshall Mathers LP, which remains his best selling album to this day. Known largely as the most (only?) successful white rapper in American history, Em was also defined by his brash, intense, calculated, and often humorous style of rapping. He was almost immediately a commercial success, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at or listening to him; his approach to fame and accomplishment was much more Kurt Cobain than Miley Cyrus.

This attitude was no more evident than on one of Marshall Mathers' hit singles, “The Real Slim Shady.” On the track, Em clearly displayed his displeasure and indifference toward mainstream success and admiration, defiantly rapping:

You think I give a damn about a Grammy? / Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me. / ‘But Slim, what if you win, wouldn’t it be weird?’ / Why? So you guys can just lie, to get me here?”

Fast-forward to 2011. That same artist – the same angry, insensitive, self-concerned, rapper — is not only showing up to the Grammys, but winning Grammys, being nominated for Album of the Year, performing at the show with a pop star, and thanking his fans and colleagues for recognizing him with such a prestigious honor. Oh, and this is coming from a guy who now cameos on Entourage and does endorsement commercials for Brisk Iced Tea and Chrysler during the Super Bowl.

Quite a turn around, eh?

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t an indictment on Eminem. This is just one of many examples of how the major rap artists of today’s society are becoming more and more commercialized, abandoning the hardcore, street-cred posturing that once defined the genre of hip-hop. A collection of (self-)proclaimed gangsters and thugs have now become nothing more than spokesmen and caricatures…and it’s only made them all the more rich and famous.

Slim Shady was once the most controversial artist out there, unapologetic for his language, actions, and the bridges he burned on his path to stardom. He embraced the fact that he was “the worst thing since Elvis Presley / to do black music so selfishly / and use it to get myself wealthy.” He was releasing albums that kept the FCC awake at night and brought accusations of inciting violence amongst suburban youth. He was cutting songs that were pointed at as homophobic, sexist, and perverted. He was a menace to society.

But things eventually changed. He went half a decade without releasing a new studio album. He suffered through drug problems and a sub-par record (Relapse). He drifted away from the public eye, before finally coming back a different person. His new music had lost an edge. Ironically, his raps were actually angrier and more intense, but the humor was gone. The rebellious nature was gone. The lack of sympathy and concern for his fans, haters, and critics alike was gone. And even though his most recent album (Recovery) was just as successful and impressive (if not more so) than some of his earlier releases, it was more of a pop-rap album, something that could be played on the radio and achieve more mainstream appreciation. This led to Em grabbing ten Grammy nominations for 2010 (the most of the year) and winning two. And when he accepted those awards, when he was onstage performing, and when he was addressing the audience and millions watching on TV, it certainly appeared as if he cared. It sure looked like he gave a damn about a Grammy.

Eminem falls into place among a long line of rappers that have either relinquished their badass bravado or avoided it all together. He was discovered by Dr. Dre, arguably the most badass rapper to ever lay down a beat. Breaking onto the scene in the late ‘80s as the leader of NWA (an acronym which I don’t feel entirely comfortable explaining further), Dre and the rest of the lineup were the pinnacle of West Coast gansta rap. Their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, set the tone for their explicit, no-holds-barred persona. One of the release’s smash singles, “F--k tha Police”, told you everything you needed to know about the group, without even hearing a note of their music. Dr. Dre eventually went on to a very successful solo career, releasing The Chronic, founding Aftermath Entertainment, and discovering big names such as Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and of course, Eminem.

But despite going through the ‘90s as one of the top five people you wouldn’t want to find in a dark alley, Dre has recently taken on new ventures. He’s done commercials for Dr. Pepper and HP computers. He’s pimped out his Beats By Dr. Dre headphones to MTV’s The Real World and any other media entity that will have him. The man who was once roaming the streets of South Central Los Angeles and telling cops to go have sex with themselves is now promoting a major soft drink and appealing to the audience of reality television.

Ice Cube, a fellow founder of NWA, actually put Dre’s story to shame. Cube was cut from the same Compton, cop hating, f-bomb dropping cloth as Dre, releasing songs titled “No Vaseline” (I think you can figure it out) and “Why We Thugs.” From there, he went on to star in family films, produce a sitcom on TBS, and direct a sports documentary for ESPN. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find him eating sushi with Hollywood hobnobs than busting up punk bitches on the mean streets of South Central.

The list goes on and on. 50 Cent was a crack dealer that got shot nine times; he’s now getting his tattoos removed for a better shot at more conventional movie roles and has been romantically linked to talk-show host Chelsea Handler. Jay-Z, who is probably the coolest (and luckiest) man on the planet, went from dealing cocaine in Brooklyn to developing a clothing line and cologne, doing commercials for Budweiser, part-owning the New Jersey Nets, and chilling with President Obama.

Yeah, Lil Wayne was just incarcerated on a gun charge, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has an assistant cut up his steak for him and spends his free time talking sports with Skip Bayless and Woody Paige on ESPN. Wayne’s protégé, Drake, is a half-white Jewish Canadian that got his start playing the role of a silver-spooned paraplegic on a Nickelodeon teen drama series. Now he’s considered the best young rapper on the planet.

Ludacris has been busy making romantic comedies with Ashton Kutcher and dropping rhymes for Justin Beiber. Kanye West has never even tried to color himself as a hardcore rapper, concerning himself more with Versace sunglasses, Levi jeans, and $180,000 Tiret watches. Even Ice-T, a pioneer of street-cred, gangster rap, has spent the last decade of his life portraying a NYPD Detective on Law & Order. It’s like Bizzaro World.

Over roughly the past ten years, the hip-hop scene has morphed from a collection of gun-toting drug dealers to commercialized, savvy businessmen. Rap artists have gone from Avon Barksdale to Stringer Bell. And yet, everyone seems to be better off. The genre of music has never been more popular, the stars never brighter. Sure, record sales are only a shell of what they used to be, but rap albums are consistently among the current best selling albums, evidenced by Eminem’s Recovery topping sales charts in 2010. The music itself hasn’t suffered either. Recovery, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint III, Drake’s Thank Me Later, and Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are some of the best works by their respective artists, and some of the better overall productions of the past few years.

I know, I know. There is certainly some hypocrisy in the fact that Jay-Z is slinging $80 fragrance bottles instead of 8-balls of coke, or that Ice Cube has a cable show that comes on after reruns of Seinfeld, but it’s tough to get too nitpicky about that stuff. The music is still good (if not better) and the artists are making plenty of money for their efforts. Is the transformation really such a terrible thing? I enjoyed Recovery as much as the Grammy voters did, so if Em wants to bag some extra cash selling Chryslers on the side, then by all means. If Dr. Dre keeps discovering the next great rapper, then I can live with him pedaling soda pop (even if it tastes dreadful). It may feel wrong on the surface, but why is that exactly?

The game is different, although not necessarily in a bad way. As long as the product is good, the talent can do whatever they want. They have the right to freely choose their persona. Nevertheless, these hip-hop kings must pick a path and stick to it; wavering back and forth between hoodlum and mogul is no longer a viable, believable, or respectable option. You’re either downing a fifth of vodka or swigging Brisk Iced Tea, but you can’t be both.

Would the real Slim Shady please stand up?

Thanks for reading

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