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Can’t hold a torch

Last weekend in the New York Times, Kalefa Sanneh began his review of the Allhiphop Week grand finale concert with this observation:

It’s a new—and rather tiresome—ritual at hip-hop concerts in New York: one rapper after another huffs and puffs about how New York hip-hop isn’t what it used to be. They complain about Southern rappers, backstabbing rivals, fickle record executives and fickler fans.

The whole Hip-Hop Is Dead party line has quickly become one of the biggest clichés in rap. But, like many clichés, it persists because there’s an element of truth to it. By any barometer—be it sales, creativity, music critics, Stan chatter on the Internet, or rapper’s statements in interviews—the art form is in a slump. Just cause one region is thriving does not mean the genre as a whole is. Sorry.

With few exceptions, hip-hop artists and fans alike seem pretty miserable right now. It’s getting tough to deny, even for the most dedicated e-thugs.

Which makes Bomani Jones’ article last weekend in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel all the more timely. Jones offers a cool-headed, thoughtful analysis of the state of hip-hop. He accepts hip-hop is in decline, but rejects the prevalent argument that the South is responsible. (“If only the griots weren’t remembering things so selectively. We should be mad because, what, Mike Jones didn’t write Bust a Move?”)

Instead, Jones points to Corporate America. The record companies have tapped into America’s fascination with sex and violence and have pushed rap that conforms to that formula—to the tune of billions and to the detriment of the music.

This, too, is cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s so easy to get caught up in regional wars (New York vs. The South), generational wars (older heads vs. 80s babies), ideological wars (backpackers vs. so-called gangstas and/or bubblegum artists), and beef wars. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the reasons for hip-hop’s slump are vast and varied: from the labels, to radio, to the media, to the fans themselves, to broader cultural trends that we may not fully comprehend for years to come.

Interestingly, Jones concludes that hip-hop’s demise might have a silver lining. As he puts it: “And if hip-hop is dead, that may not be so bad. Death is the first step toward resurrection.”

And so, I put it to you Loyal Readers: Is hip-hop in the final stages of burn-out? Or is it about to rise from the ashes?

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