A few months ago, I was excited for the releases of some highly-anticipated rap albums: work by Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Eminem, Ghostface Killah, and Raekwon. “Hip-hop is back!” I thought. Instead, we have mostly disappointing results, as the best of those aforementioned albums (Kid Cudi and Ghostface Killah) seem inspired by other genres (indie rock and R&B, respectively) than they do from rap. The new release from Raekwon is good, but overlong, and its bright moments are impeded by weight. Hip-hop’s reigning all-star, Kanye West, hasn’t released a rap album in a couple of years. Plus, following the PR firestorm he faced for dissing Taylor Swift at the VMAs, he’s taking a hiatus for the rest of 2009. 50 Cent will deliver a new album in late November, but expectations have been low on him ever since he presumably decided that it made more sense to focus on product endorsements, rather than rhymes.
There hasn’t been a bonafide, “critics-and-consumers… unite!” rap album since Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III last year. Wayne’s album ended up the best-seller of 2008. This year, though, is unlikely to find that sort of hip-hop consensus. When a sorry excuse for an Eminem clone (mixed with frat boy) like Asher Roth is a hot newcomer, and the Black Eyed Peas are too busy selling bubblegum dance music on The Today Show, you have an indication of what a desperate state we have in hip-hop today. The less-commercial artists still thrive out of the spotlight, as usual, with Mos Def releasing his best album in years, The Clipse finally getting a third LP in stores, and The Roots hugging America every night as Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night house band. Newer acts like The Knux and Wale offer a sliver of goodness to hold onto, with promising futures ahead. But, what we need right now is a hip-hop album with equal parts ingenuity and Top 40 popularity, to help remedy the national situation.
In The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones contemplates many of these thoughts, especially the utter disappointment that is Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. All the while, Frere-Jones ruminates on a fledgling rapper named Freddie Gibbs:
After years of bloated expansion and leveraging of fantasies, “gangsta rap” has largely become a meaningless term. Unvarnished reporting delivered with a panache that balanced the pain—this was gangsta rap’s first achievement, not unlike the cry of mid-seventies reggae artists like Culture and Bob Marley. Somewhere along the way, the struggle to escape became a love of accumulation, and underdogs ended up sounding as smug as the authorities they once battled.
“I think rap is about to go back to the early nineties,” [Freddie] Gibbs told me. “You could do whatever you wanted, and radio had to play it.” Gibbs does not currently have a record deal, and he isn’t looking for one.