There are plenty of reasons hip hop is sucking a whole lot less in 2012, from the obvious (Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Nas’ Life Is Good, Jay-Z getting to act like he owns more than .00001% of the Nets) to the less obvious (Action Bronson’s beard*, A$AP Rocky pinching Rihanna’s ass at the VMAs, that part in the “Beez in the Trap” video where 2 Chainz dances awkwardly behind Nicki). But one of my favorite developments for rap music this year is probably even less obvious than that: one producer and one rapper working together for a whole album. I know we’d all rather be talking about grabbing Rihanna’s ass, but this is a rap-music site, and if rap nerdery can’t live here than where will it go? So bear with me.
Over the past few months, rapper-producer duos have been popping up and making noise on the indie and mixtape circuits. XXL Freshman alum Macklemore and his go-to beatmaker Ryan Lewis teamed up for The Heist, which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard in October, wowing doubters and making it sorta cool to be Irish for the first time since Colin Farrell’s sex tape**. Last month, 9th Wonder released albums with both Murs and Buckshot, and they were the opposite of sucky. Smoke DZA, who’s somehow improving in his old age (I kid because I like), hooked up with La Musica de Harry Fraud for the banging Rugby Thompson in June. Action Bronson linked with Party Supplies for the excellent Blue Chips with Party Supplies and then the Alchemist for Rare Chandeliers, which sounds so awesomely 1995 that I thought I heard my beeper*** go off. Action’s a serial monogamist, apparently: Last year he released Dr. Lecter with Tommy Mas and Well Done with Statik Selektah, and next year he’s got albums with Harry Fraud and Tommy Mas (again) on deck.
That these rapper-producer collabo albums have been of such high quality shouldn’t be a surprise. Putting together a cohesive, coherent LP with a bunch of different producers with different styles has always been a challenge. It’s one reason that the beatmaker grab bags of Cruel Summer and, yes, even Watch the Throne aren’t as good as Kanye’s solo albums, which he crafts himself (along with a small island—literally, all of Oahu—of co-producers, musicians, orchestral arrangers, Trinidadian steel-drum bands, a sweatshop of Malaysian kids, etc.). I mean, having Lex Luger and polar opposite Pete Rock produce on the same record? Not easy.
It’s a welcome change after 18 years of the hodgepodge, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production approach to rap albums. What happened 18 years ago? Oh, just the best rap album ever. That’s right, Illmatic. Pre-Nas, rapper-producer monogamy was the norm. You had duos like Gang Starr and Eric B & Rakim (even though Eric mighta just been ganking credits from Paul C and Large Pro). Erick Sermon produced EMPD’s classics. Prince Paul and De La stuck it out through three classics, as did Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad.
Illmatic changed all that. You had Primo. Pete Rock. Large Professor. Oh yeah, LES. All on the same project. And it was an instant classic back before that word got so overused that it became meaningless. Post-Illmatic, everyone wanted a Primo beat for their album, even if it didn’t fit in musically. Any rapper thinks they can just throw together any random group of producers and make it work (see Jay-Z’s Vols. 1, 2 and 3 albums for the herky-jerky, all-over-the-map effect this has). But bad news: you ain’t Illmatic-era Nas. Even Nas ain’t Illmatic-era Nas.
This new rapper-producer loyalty isn’t just good in terms of good albums—its good for producer’s pockets. With nobody buying albums anymore, touring is rap’s bread and butter, and producers don’t normally get a piece that. And they often barely get credit—mixtapes and even some official digital albums often don’t have liner notes. Listeners barely notice or remember regardless—with free or cheap beatmaking programs like Garageband and FruityLoops abounding, there are probably even more no-name producers flooding the market than no-name rappers nowadays. Beatmakers have been getting screwed in this new rap economy, but at least with these new rapper-producer albums they’re getting some great shine, and a bigger cut of the record sales than they would if they produced one joint on a 16-song album that didn’t sell much anyway. Keeping good producers happy and a little better paid will help keep them in the studio, rather than finding time to make beats in between bartending and selling dime bags.
Whatever the causes, whatever the effects, rappers’ newfound loyalty to one producer is another ray of friggin’ sunshine in a relatively cloudless year for hip-hop. It’s got me feeling pretty optimistic for 2013. Maybe everyone will finally stop saying “swag.” Maybe everyone will stop continuing to bite Lex Luger. Maybe both rap-nerdery and pop-star ass-pinching will keep fighting the good fight. One can dream. —Alex Gale (@apexdujeous)
*I’m especially partial to Bron-Bron’s facial hair ’cause I’m a ginger as well. Action is finally breaking down doors for me and my fellow Daywalkers in hip-hop.
**I’m Irish too, relax. We have a long tradition of dissing ourselves.
***For people under the age of 50, beepers were these ancient mobile devices that doctors, and drug dealers, and people who thought doctors and drug dealers were cool would wear. You’d call their beeper and dial in a number for them to call you back at. If you were at a payphone, you’d have to make sure it had a number, and then if it didn’t you had to dial like *358 or something and an automated voice would tell you. The payphone would inevitably smell like piss. This was somehow thought of as cool. Fuck, I’m old.