So you've written the greatest song the world has never heard. You spent a good two-and-half hours on those brain-melting metaphors, and another three laying them on wax. Every bar requires repeated listening to fully digest. Your ad-libs are on point like Chris Paul.
The beat knocks harder than steel-toed brogans. It's sick enough to make Nas jealous. This one's a sure shot, you tell yourself. But after playing this game-changing song for some pudgy label honcho, you're not so sure anymore. He rubs his eyes and takes a sip of coffee to shake off the slumber. He tells you your song is of middling quality.
"This is OK," he says. "But where's the, uh, shock 'em.?"
"You know, you gotta shock 'em these days. You gotta smack 'em on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Like Odd Future, Lil B, and these guys. You gotta have that shock factor, you know."
Rappers, welcome to your future.
It's one where record labels will demand more gimmicks, more weirdness, more shock 'em. If this grim forecast isn't it what awaits you, may these be the tastiest words we'll ever eat.
It used to be that you needed a story to survive in the music business. Take Rhymefest, for instance. He kicked Eminem's ass at the '97 Rap Olympics, helped write Kanye's "Jesus Walks," and won a Grammy before he dropped his first album.
Yet all Interscope Records wanted to know was if Rhymefest had some kind of story to back up his talent. A fuckin' story. No story, no career.
Today, shock is the new story. Lil B the Based God seems to remind us with every move he makes. He calls himself a pretty bitch, threatens to "fuck Kanye West in the ass" if Kanye fails to acknowledge his Royal Basedness, and titles his new album I'm Gay.
"I'm gonna do the most controversial thing in hip-hop," Lil B said onstage at Coachella. "Ya'll heard it first. And I'mma just show you that words don't mean shit. I'mma make an album called I'm Gay, right."
That's right, Lil B sat down, probably smoked a few J's, and thought to himself, "What's the most controversial thing you could possibly do in hip-hop?"
The emergence of rappers like Lil B and Odd Future's Tyler, The Creator is a gift and a curse to hip-hop. On one hand, they're showing hip-hop the doorway to the future through independence, creativity, and flat-out weirdness. Lawd knows hip-hop hasn't been this interesting in a minute.
On the other hand, their gimmicks make it tougher for MCs who were taught to rely on sheer talent to thrive.
But this isn't about those super-lyrical types and their brain-melting metaphors. The problem is that many of these new-generation MCs are better promoters than they are rappers, an imbalance detrimental to hip-hop's overall health.
Leaning on the crutches of elaborate gimmicks and fake feuds has long-term consequences. It becomes more about the process, less about the product. The product is what ensures longevity.
Now, some Lil B stans are going to claim that the attention is just a way to lure fans into appreciating the creative side of the music. The notion of drumming up publicity for 11 gimmicky tracks just to showcase one good song is one of the familiar traps of the album-making business. If you believe that stuff, you probably believed that stripper who told you that she strips to save for college.
There's no question that Lil B worked hard to get where he is today. Like Soulja Boy before him, he seized the Internet by the balls and launched himself to the spotlight almost single-handedly. He's also been known to confuse himself with a supernatural being from time to time. So maybe he hadn't thought this whole I'm Gay thing through. Maybe he did it on a whim. Who knows?
Tyler, who's arguably the most exciting new name in rap, has said he doesn't intend to be a one-note instrument. He wants to evolve from album to album. That's good news, because it would be a tragedy to see him waste his talent by putting himself in a box.
Shock-rap has been done to death. It numbs our senses at this point. And the more desensitized we grow, the harder they try. You turn up your filters, they turn up the gimmicks.
We have simply lost the ability to be shocked. As Cee-Lo aptly declared on "You Don't Shock Me Anymore," off the shockingly underappreciated Stray Bullets mixtape: "Nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, is shocking anymore."
Scientists tell us that human beings attain greatness through repetition. When people told Michael Jordan he couldn't shoot, he hit the practice gym every night until he could. The Beatles got booed many times before they became music gods. According to author Malcolm Gladwell, they actually perfected their live art as a house band in a German strip club.
That period of apprenticeship, claims Gladwell, helped them master what it took to be the greatest rock band of all time. Greatness through repetition.
The reverse is also true: whatever skill gets ignored gathers dust over time. If hip-hop artists cultivate the habit of gimmicks and ignore the qualities that made it an enduring force, what awaits us is an odd future filled great self-promoters.
Nas will be on a beach somewhere wearing a straw hat, going "I told you so."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.