Rap music and the so-called “hip-hop lifestyle” have become integral to American popular culture, as even a cursory look at movies, television, radio, or a simple stroll through a CD store, reveal.
Rappers appear across the cultural landscape: Will Smith, Ice Cube, and Queen Latifah are among Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. A cozy Lil’ Kim cooed for the Old Navy in Christmas TV commercials, Snoop Dogg pitches AOL, McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” campaign jingles to the rhythms of hip-hop, and heavyweight brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser, Nike, Reebok, Lincoln/Mercury and Cover Girl have all availed themselves of hip-hop personalities or incorporated the lifestyle into their marketing strategies. Top 40 radio is now dominated by rap and hip-hop. Terms like “bling bling”, “dis” and Snoop’s “izzle” lingo are now ubiquitous. Rap hits are pumped over the sound systems of virtually every professional sport team.
Since 1999, rap and hip-hop sales have been second only to rock in the U.S., in 2002 rising to 13.8 percent of all records sold, a total of more than 84 million recordings. 50 Cent’s thuggish, monochromatic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” was Billboard’s top album for 2003, and his “In Da Club,” Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” and pop-R&B singer Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” with prominent raps by Jay-Z, were three of the four top singles for the year.
Yet for many people, especially Middle Americans 35 and older, rap and hip-hop (the music underneath the rap, and the broader lifestyle) still seem as alien as Mars.
Spurred by innovators like Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Flash, the hip-hop subculture of “two turntables and a microphone,” graffiti art, break dancing, and urban fashion evolved in the beleaguered Bronx section of New York City in the '70s. In 1979 the Sugar Hill Gang, a trio of interlopers from New Jersey, dropped an infectious boasting rap on top of the rhythm from Chic’s “Good Times,” and the result, “Rapper’s Delight,” was a huge hit. The world was forced to sit up and took notice.
Less a fad then a movement
But most of the world assumed that -- though amusing on a novelty level -- rapping over a rhythm track “sampled” by a DJ from one or more records and/or accompanied by live musicians, wasn’t real music and would be a passing fad. Many people still hope rap will be a passing phase, but while much of America was rocking with the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, and dancing to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince over the last 25 years, their younger brothers and sisters -- and almost certainly their kids -- have been jamming to, in the prophetic words of the Sugar Hill Gang, the “hip hop, the hipit, the hipidipit, hip hip hopit, you don’t stop” of rap for the last quarter-century.
Though it took a while for the industry to catch on, once it realized there was gold in the grooves of Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Public Enemy and dozens of others, it jumped on the bandwagon with both feet and heralded official recognition of the genre as actual “music” with a Best Rap Performance Grammy award at the 31st annual awards for 1988. That year the industry also signaled a preference for friendly pop-rap, giving the award to D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” (The Fresh Prince, a.k.a. Will Smith, has won two more rap Grammys on his own.)
Over the years, rap Grammy categories have expanded with the inexorability of bureaucracy from the lone nod in '88 to a robust six this year, including best male, female, and duo/group performances; rap/sung collaboration; rap song; and rap album. But with the notable exception of the hip-hop-influenced “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1998, no rapper has ever won the Grammy for overall best album, or for Record (single or album track) of the Year.
That situation could well change at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, to be held February 8 and broadcast on CBS: two of the five album nominees are by rappers Missy Elliott and Outkast; and four of the five best-record nominees represent hip-hop: Outkast (“Hey Ya!”), Eminem (“Lose Yourself”), the Black Eyed Peas (“Where Is the Love”), and Beyonce/Jay-Z.
So, other than a cynical recognition of rap’s commercial appeal, what do this year’s rap-oriented best album Grammy nominees have to offer musically? I am happy to say, from the position of a 45 year-old white suburban male, quite a bit.
Elliott's new message
Missy Elliott’s “Under Construction” is something of a surprise nomination, though not an unpleasant one. Though coded in the language of the hood, Elliott’s message is one of self-improvement and positivity. Forced to rethink her “live for today” attitude by the tragic death of her friend Aaliyah in a plane crash, the title of “Misdemeanor’s” album reflects a new vision of herself as a “work in progress” - artistically, physically, and otherwise.
Elliott -- who co-writes and co-produces (with Timbaland) her own music -- expresses a forceful but playful vision of female sexuality on the album, especially on “Bring the Pain” (with Method Man) and the percolating smash single “Work It,” featuring samples from Paul Simon, Run-D.M.C. and Blondie, which demonstrate her impressive musical scope and vision. She sings sweetly against Jay-Z’s old school raps on the nostalgic “Back In the Day,” and tries to persuade Beyonce to join her in a girls' night out on “Nothing Out There For Me.”
Though her message is mostly one of female strength, financial and emotional independence, on “Play That Beat” she revels in dependence on a certain man, proving herself unpredictable and inconsistent -- just like a real person. A dark horse for the album award, the nomination is recognition of a fine album, Elliott’s status in the business, and a positive message.
Though Missy is unlikely to win, I consider the other rap-oriented nominee for Album of the Year to be the front-runner (over Elliott, Evanescence’s “Fallen,” Justin Timberlake’s “Justified,” and the White Stripes’ “Elephant”): Outkast’s double-CD extravaganza, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” On this, their fifth album, the two members of Outkast (winners of three previous rap Grammys) have taken the audacious gamble of recording two completely separate discs -- Antwan “Big Boi” Patton’s “Speakerboxx,” and Andre “Dre 3000” Benjamin’s “The Love Below” --and releasing them together in a single set.
What could have easily felt like disjointed, double self-indulgence, instead feels like two sides of a very large platinum coin -- different but of a piece, and a remarkably effective piece it is.
Outkast's double-sided platinum coinBig Boi’s “Speakerboxx” fits more comfortably within the hip-hop sphere, and continues Outkast’s southern-fried exploration of rap, smooth soul, gritty funk and electronica. “Ghetto Musick” opens the side with a sparkling amalgam of frenetic '80s electro funk, and slow, gentle interludes setting the tone for the inspired schizophrenia to come.
“Bowtie” swings rakishly on New Orleans syncopated horns and Clintonian (George, that is) group funk vocals, then gives way to a spare, emblematic electronic snare and deep bass-drum groove, such has been rattling the neighborhoods where the cars go BOOM, and BOOM again, for many a moon. You don’t so much hear as feel them. You know that intro is leading somewhere special, and special it most assuredly is, as Boi commences to speedy, tricky-tongued rapping down a narrow, echoing alleyway that suddenly opens to this broad, beautiful boulevard expanse of a chorus:
“I like the way you move (dah dum-dum)
I like the way you move (dah dum-dum)
I like the way you move (dah dum-dum)
I like the way
I like the way”
Like the smoothest Earth, Wind & Fire reverie dropped in the middle of a craggy concrete jungle, “The Way You Move” is an irresistible classic. And though nothing else connects with quite the immersing totality of “The Way You Move,” there is much satisfying, surprising, inventive goodness the rest of the way.
“War” lays it out straight that the squabbles and internecine warfare within the rap world look even more petty and foolishly insular than they did before, in light of a massive tragedy like 9/11. “Knowing” invokes the righteous ghost of Curtis Mayfield, and “Reset” floats on a jazzy, ambient P.M. Dawn-like groove.
Dre 3000's bag of tricks
But even the striking variety of “Speakerboxx” doesn’t prepare you for the stunning, cosmic tour de force through the musical universe that is Dre 3000’s bizarre, assured, intimately personal and just plain eccentric “The Love Below,” whose closest antecedents are the introspective epiphanies of Sly Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” and Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times.”
Opening with the orchestral crooning of the title track, Dre lets us know he is on a mission to find the most celestial of love -- or at least the mightiest of booty. The crooning gives way to the building noise-and-feedback intro of “Love Hater,” which in turn yields to the light, up-tempo, jazzy stylings of the body of the song, whose mocking but serious message is clear: give up the hate and bring on the love.
Over his own lovely guitar arpeggios, Dre then speaks to God -- literally -- in a prayer both touching and hilarious, requesting True Love. (I won’t reveal the Big Secret Dre discovers at the end of the song.) A wicked, retro funk beat and jamming guitar figure slam home the message that Cupid is the new king of the holiday icons, replacing Santa Claus, in “Happy Valentine’s Day.” “Spread” is overtly Prince-like in its off-kilter drum machine beat, vocal melody rising to an expansive falsetto apex, quirky arrangement, and cheerful eroticism: Dre may indeed have found the Right One.
We are treated to a morning-after dialogue, then the gentle Sly-like soul of “Prototype” and the pinched, spooky electro-soul of “She Lives In My Lap,” all of which sets the stage for the song of the year, the charging, sui generis rabble rousing of “Hey Ya!,” where the spirit overtakes the body, feeling overcomes reason, and all that is left to do is move to the flapping groove. Amazing. With the high point coming in the middle of the disc -- almost exactly like Boi’s -- Dre then treats the listener to a charming extended denouement full of more startling sounds, surprising instrumental prowess and wonder.
Surely this is the Album of the Year, perhaps of the decade thus far, and an almost certain Grammy winner. “Hey Ya!” will also take Record of the Year in an Outkast sweep of the most prestigious categories. Mark my words.
Eric Olsen is the editor of and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.