So I’m sitting in a lecture hall, listening to my professor talk about the Tao Te Ching. But instead of thinking about Yin and Yang and their relative duality, I’m thinking about the music video for Crookers’ remix of Kid Cudi’s “Day N Nite.” And it all seems clear—I now understand this new movement in hip-hop.
XXL Magazine ran an article in late 2008 (November?) about hip-hop’s incoming Class of 2009 Freshmen: the newest acts projected to blow up this year. They included Cudi, along with Charles Hamilton, The Cool Kids, Asher Roth, The Knux, Wale, and sundry others. That same issue included a feature about the end of gangsta rap. The movement that started in the late 1980s has continued up until now, with Ludacris and 50
Cent and T.I. topping the charts, rapping about guns and girls and violence. Except, their record sales are declining. People are not as interested in the harder raps as they were in the late 1990s. Although the mag did not make a specific correlation, it must follow that these new acts are replacing those thugs from the ghetto.
What’s the difference between these artists? All these new players in the game, the up-and-comers, are at a similar state in their careers. They have a mixtape or an EP available online, and one single that is big with those in-the-know listeners and getting lots of downloads on iTunes. Everyone is waiting for their full-lengths to drop, which makes it seem that 2009 will be a pretty sweet year for hip-hop. We’re all waiting, and these excellent singles are shameless teases. Wale released “Chillin” a couple weeks ago, and it has been on my Last.fm nonstop since; but his LP is going to come out soon, and it will be great. The Cool Kids have released two excellent EPs and one track off the upcoming record, “Pennies,” which is also excellent; they’re even giving select bloggers access to the album, and calling the feedback “positive” is an understatement. If this album is half as good as these early projections say, then it’ll be the biggest thing since The Low End Theory. Kid Cudi put “Day N Nite” on his free mixtape, and that track is being called a single and will hopefully be on the full-length. Which brings me back to that song’s music video.
The original video is unremarkable. The song is good, and the video is kind of cool in its visual effects, but it’s not very relevant. What is culturally relevant is the video for the remix. The music of the remix itself is also unremarkable: a couple different beats and DJ-induced vocal staggers, but it’s essentially the same track. The video, however, says something about the current state of hip-hop. Cudi is working the night shift at the Day-N-Nite convenience store, and his manager tells him to keep it orderly and essentially not screw anything up. Late in the evening, as he’s drifting in and out of sleep, his mind wanders and he imagine girls stripping and dancing to the song. At one point, while he watches some girls shopping by the soda aisle, he is delightfully surprised to learn that he can get them down to their skivvies with just a click of his clicky pen. But wait! you must be thinking. Who cares if there are hot biddies in a hip-hop video, that is in no way original or interesting? And that’s true. But the part that’s different—the departure from videos of gangsta rappers smoking cigars and watching girls grind on each other, alternating with shots of the rapper being lauded and worshipped—is that this isn’t really happening. Within the story of the video, these girls are just Kid Cudi’s imagination. The video is really about the mundane activity of running a night shift. And that is what makes this new movement in hip-hop so fun and exciting. These new raps, what some unenlightened commentators are calling “hipster rap,” are about regular things.
No longer are the kids content with idolizing gunrunning and crack slinging. The reason Eminem’s new track “Crack A Bottle” (which features gangsta veterans Dr. Dre and 50 Cent) is being reviewed as boring and derivative is because we’ve heard it all before. It’s getting old and listeners are gradually stopping to care, so the new thing to do, logically, is to rap about the opposite. Kid Cudi’s video is totally relatable to anyone who’s tried to stay awake while performing a boring task. Kidz In The Hall rap about the simple feeling of coolness that accompanies “driving down the block,” bumping hip-hop from your speakers. The Cool Kids use cereal to make a simile on “A Little Bit Cooler”!
Of course, some of these rappers have existed already. Atmosphere has been spitting about the human condition and relationships for over 15 years now. MURS has been dropping science for a while, too. But these acts have remained in the underground, and they would not have appeared on iTunes’ Top Songs list; now, Asher Roth’s “I Love College,” an anthem about a standard college experience, has been on there for weeks. The climate is finally right, so hopefully formerly obscure rappers can rise to alongside the relative newcomers.
The future of hip-hop will be these new players, content to rap about literally flossing their teeth (The Cool Kids’ “Pennies”) instead of standing on the block, flossing some new chains while dealing dope. I can’t wait. I suppose, however, that the success of the MCs rapping about the quotidian can only come after the rise and fall of the thugged-out rhymes; one is dependent on the other while being its opposite. Perhaps I understand Yin and Yang better than I once thought.
Boston, April 2009