This week I’ve been thinking a lot about hip-hop, which is maybe a weird thing to write. I often think about hip-hop because I am both an immense fan of rap music and also deeply fascinated by its effect as a social and political movement, but this week in particular it seems like that’s all I’ve been thinking about and listening to.
That could be viewed as somewhat odd since I’ve been in Eastern Washington and Northern Oregon all week–both of which are easily among the most un-hip-hop regions imaginable–but hey, who am I to question the muse?
The reasons I have been thinking so much about hip-hop this week are as follows:
- I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Young Thug’s Slime Season 3, which is easily one of the best albums of 2016 thus far. I took a break for a minute there to revel in Janet Jackson’s Control (which, by the way, might have the greatest three album-opening tracks of all time, but I digress) but mostly it’s been me and Thugger this week. Coincidentally, he announced this week that he will be temporarily(?) known as “No, My Name Is Jefferey,” which is a decision that should seem bizarre but is actually entirely on-brand.
- Hastings–which I don’t think exists in Seattle, but maybe I’m wrong–is closing all of its locations. As a result, I picked up a discount copy of Shea Serrano’s treasure of a book, The Rap Yearbook, which breaks down the most important rap song of each year from 1979 to 2014. I’ll talk more about it later, but HOTDOG it’s a treat.
- On the heels of Stranger Things, Netflix released the first half of The Get Down, the Baz Luhrmann-helmed romance set against the backdrop of the late-70s Bronx and a mythologized version of the beginnings of hip-hop. Again, we’ll talk more about this later, but it’s significantly less of a treat than The Rap Yearbook, though it still sometimes attains treat status.
The rest of this piece will be devoted to elaborating on each of these points. If any of them bore you, just skip to the next one. Or just stop reading, I won’t know.
Some thoughts re: Young Thug. If you don’t know who Young Thug is, that is very okay. Young Thug is a famous rapper, but he’s mostly famous if you read a lot of music blogs or spend a great deal of time on the internet. I fall into both those categories, but I realize many people do not. Young Thug is a young Atlanta rapper who rose to prominence in 2013 after the release of a series of well-regarded mixtapes, particularly 1017 Thug which garnered a great deal of critical attention. His latest mixtape, Slime Season 3 is a slithering, ectoplasmic, top-to-bottom collection of bangers. It’s exuberant and puzzling and moody and fun as shit.
Young Thug is a distinctive figure in rap, and like any distinctive figure in anything, he’s highly polarizing. One of the things that makes him polarizing is the way he says words. In rap, saying words is very, very important, and a sizable chunk of the listening public does not care for how Young Thug goes about it. Unlike most other rappers of note, Young Thug does not seem to care at all about being understood, which is not to say that he’s impossible to understand, merely that it often doesn’t seem like much of a priority. He mumbles and slurs, and when he gets excited he bends his verses into noodling whoops and yelps like a really turnt coyote. Here’s an example: on the hook of “With Them,” Thugger raps, “She suck on that dick on the plane and I just called her airhead (woo!)/ I just went hunting, I found me a rabit, I picked out the carrots,” but what it sounds like he’s saying is, “She suhonadih onah plane an I juh caller out here WOO HEE/ I jus one hunen, I found me a rabbit, I piddout da Karen.” But somehow the whole thing works because of the sheer magnitude of Young Thug’s charisma.
More importantly for this publication, maybe, is that Young Thug is also divisive because he seems very ambivalent about the way that his gender and sexuality are viewed by the public at large. He refers to men as “lover” and “bae” and has been open about his affinity for wearing women’s clothing. I often wear vintage women’s blouses, but I am also not a famous, influential black man working in a genre that has a complicated history with issues of sexuality and gender. Just his existence within mainstream hip-hop is important. I love you Young Thug!
Ok so I lied. I don’t actually have much more to say about The Rap Yearbook. It’s just really great.
The Get Down is kind of weird and sometimes great but mostly weird. The show centers on Ezekiel, a young poet from the South Bronx who, when not pining over aspiring disco-diva Mylene, is rapidly drawn into the burgeoning hip-hop culture beginning to take shape at underground parties. After forming a partnership with the hustler and aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic, Zeke begins a career as an MC that (we find out pretty immediately) ends with sold-out performances in Madison Square Garden.
We’ll start with the bad: the show is a bit of a mess. The pacing is wonky–some scenes seem like needless exposition and at other times the action moves so quickly that I’m not entirely sure what’s happening or why I’m supposed to care. Overall, there’s a real lack of consistency in tone and pacing across all of the first six episodes. The list of collaborators involved in the project is impressively wide-ranging–Baz Luhrmann, Grandmaster Flash, Nas, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and music journalist Nelson George, among others–but consequently The Get Down never feels like it has any idea what it’s doing. If the framing device, in which an adult Zeke (played by Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs) narrates through lip-synched verses performed by Nas, sounds suuuuuper awkward, that’s because it totally is.
But The Get Down has moments of real clarity. For all the narrative inconsistency, the first six episodes have some moments of brilliance. The sound design, which weaves a tapestry of music, dialogue and ambient noises is masterfully done, and the addition of archival footage gives an idea of the stark realities faced by communities of color in the South Bronx. It also pays homage to the oft-ignored influence of queer black and latinx youth on disco and in turn, hip-hop. At the very least, it’ll tide you over until the next season of Stranger Things.