Tuesday, October 07, 2008

10/7/08 - Rick Ross Was A Prison Guard - Cracks in the Hip Hop Persona

"JULY 21--Apparently desperate to distance himself from any affiliation with law enforcement, the rapper Rick Ross has recently denounced as fake photos purporting to show him in a former career as a Florida prison guard. But Department of Corrections (DoC) records show that Ross, whose raps detail the Miami gangster lifestyle and his supposed days trafficking cocaine, did, in fact, work as a correctional officer for 18 months."

When I first read this, my first instinct was to smirk and move on - surely, this was just of a piece with Vanilla Ice claiming some kind of blatantly plagiaristic ghetto background in an effort to give himself some legitimacy. Cred-seeking is no new story in music; every epitaph written for the Smashing Pumpkins mentioned the way that they released Gish on an "independent" label to bolster their indie bonafides in the grunge era even though there was already an agreement in place that Siamese Dream would roll out countrywide on one of the majors. Robert Zimmerman cast himself as Bob Dylan, enigmatic Woody Guthrie heir, so as not be written off as a Twin Cities pretender.

So Rick Ross is not alone, then. But I think that this particular expose/downfall/what have you points up a vexing dilemma confronting contemporary hip-hop and those that wish to be successful practitioners of the art in particular. Namely, it limits the form.

The distinction between Dylan/the Pumpkins/the White Stripes and all of the rest of the rock artists that have lied about personal histories and personas and what Rick Ross did is that the lies did not seem to affect the actual musical/lyrical content. The rock artists in question conjured biographical spice to take charge of the narrative that has grown up around music with the legitimization of the music press and its attendant musical hagiographies. In essence, by making up personal or business histories, these artists were adding spice to the biography to get the storytellers/mythmakers/audience to feel more invested in the music and the process. By mythologizing themselves or their process, they made the creation of their music more compelling.

What this didn't seem to affect, though, was the music. Jack and Meg White hold to the lie that they're siblings even after it's been defunct, but most of the White Stripes songs don't have anything to do with siblinghood or divorce. Or, if they do, they seem to be written from a psychologically penetrating place. It may add an extra frisson to the listener when Jack tackles the subject of infidelity if said listener has read up on the Stripes biographical liberties taken, but the songs themselves tend to approach emotions and subjects without incorporating biography into the equation. The music is mostly untouched by the myth.

Similarly, no matter who originally signed the Pumpkins, one gets the sense that Billy Corgan was going to write widescreen guitar epics, no matter that guitar solos, 70s pomp, glam rock, and titanic ambition were seen as out of fashion in the cred-obsessed 90s grunge scene. The business arrangement was cover for what Corgan was trying to do with the music - the band may have released Gish on an independent label, but in no way were the sonics altered - Corgan didn't strip out the guitar solos and produce it to sound like it was recorded in a trash can.

And in the case of Dylan, one gets the sense that he pretty much wrote about whatever the hell he wanted to, and appended the false biography so that people would cut him slack or find him more interesting, whichever he preferred at the time.

So, then, Rick Ross. I'd argue that one of the stark limitations of mainstream rap as it exists is an extremely narrow focus on the tropes of gangsta rap as laid out in the '90s by Dr. Dre, Snoop, Biggie, etc. It's long been lamented in spaces other than these that before the gangsta hegemony hip-hop seemed to be about to branch into many different directions (Rawkus records, De La Soul, Pharcyde, Deltron 3030 are some examples of alternate paths not taken), but with the incredible popularity of gangsta rap a hegemony of subject thunderously took its place at the top of the rap charts.

Billboard top singles in rap for the week:
T.I. - Whatever You Like
Lil' Wayne - Ms. Officer
T.I. - Live Your Life
Lil' Wayne - Got Money
The Game - My Life
M.I.A - Paper Planes
Jay-Z - Swagga Like Us
Ludacris - What Girls Like
Young Jeezy - Put On
Nelly - Body on Me

Subject matter - Money, drug dealing, cheap sex, crime. I would never dream to argue that these topics are going to lose their mainstream appeal: from film noir to summer action movies to beach-bound spy novels, these are the currencies of popular appeal. But in hip-hop the lyrical subject matter seems almost exaggeratedly narrowcast. Everybody's drinking Patron tequila in between bouts of selling kilos of cocaine to finance their various 'hos in different area codes, apparently, such that you could swap out today's T.I. from tomorrow's Lil Computerface, or whoever.

Also: the club. Apparently that is where it is all jumping off.

(An aside here to point out that there is a universe of rap/hip-hop outside the mainstream purview that occasionally crosses over to have a hit that has plenty of artists working in different subject matter - your Mos Def's, your Little Brothers, your Kool Keiths, etc. etc. etc. So I don't mean to paint all of rap with one brush, but it's the mainstream rappers that are going to get the cream of the production crop, the bulk of the marketing push from the label, and stand in for a genre in mainstream American culture).

Into the breach comes Rick Ross, such that he felt compelled to position himself as the king of Miami coke-rap. I mean, Miami coke-rap?? What. The. Hell. Because there are only a limited set of subjects that serve as gates to mainstream rap success, Rick Ross, EX-PRISON GUARD, felt compelled to present himself as the complete polar opposite of what he actually was. Every day he was hustling, all right.

Easy to mock, sure, but the larger point is a sad one. Instead of another drop in the bucket of raps about cocaine, a more artistically interesting way to use the form might be to, oh, I don't know, talk about working in a correctional facility. Rap can be an extremely expressive, poetic form, so how about some poetic thoughts on the conflicts/thoughts/feelings expressions of serving the prison/industrial complex in a nation that incarcerates its black men disproportionately. That's subject matter to sink the teeth in; not ridiculous rehashed Scarface fantasies that the next flavor-of-the-month is going to take a go at.

Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push" was a great song, sure, made exponentially greater by being about skateboarding. Come on, mainstream rappers - you're using a firehose of an artform to get a drink of water.

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