Abe Beame is like being locked down around new faces and none of them fam
By now, we all know this year marks the 20th Anniversary of Illmatic. We know this because the album received its own documentary reflecting on what many consider to be the greatest rap album ever made. Nas has gone on a world tour performing the album front to back. There have been countless think pieces trying to locate Illmatic in the cultural landscape. These pieces are marked by a sense of wonder, not just for the album, but that golden moment. You get the impression that each writer is desperately trying to convey how incredible it was to be on the ground as these landmark albums were actually released, following one after the other every Tuesday in impossible succession. That there was a moment we all listened to these classic songs for the first time, as they arrived in compact disc form. That it was something that happened once, and will never happen again.
I remember the time well. It was a constant battle. I was ten years old in 1994, and like many fathers and sons, I did not see eye to eye with mine on music. I grew up just beyond Hot 97’s broadcast range in upstate New York, and my parents wouldn’t allow me to buy music with parental advisory warnings on their jewel cases. I found ways around this, of course, but it’s difficult to explain to younger readers, or those that grew up in metropolitan centers, how difficult it could be to even gain access to rap music if you lived in certain parts of the country before the internet and the music became an integral part of our lives. As a result, any foray into the city guaranteed bumping heads with my Dad over the position of the FM dial.
I wouldn’t say my Dad has “Bad” taste in music. He was forty-two in 1994, an age that seems less impossible now that it’s closer to my current age than how old I was back then. He has a fairly canonical white, middle class, middle brow taste in music indicative of when and where he grew up: Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Creedence, The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I wouldn’t say he exactly stopped listening to new music. Bruce Springsteen still releases an album every few years and he goes to see his favorites perform whenever their tours hit New York. But at some point his taste calcified, and froze at a fixed moment in time he’s very comfortable revisiting on his car stereo in between Howard segments.
This year I reached two fairly notable milestones in my life: I turned 30, and my wife gave birth to our son. The year is winding down so we here at the Passion are in the process of pulling out our spreadsheets and making vitriolic arguments behind the scenes for the greatest music of the year, unfairly ignored or misunderstood by the critical herd. Only I find, for the first time in the four years I’ve been writing about music for this site, and the seven odd years I’ve been writing about it anywhere, that I don’t have a list of fifty meticulously ranked songs and albums I spent quality time with and feel passionately about. I’ll be lucky if I can cobble together ten I really give a shit about in any genre, and what I’m wondering is: Is this a commentary on 2014, or the person trying to write about it?
The easy way out is to survey the year’s offerings and conclude it just wasn’t particularly exciting. These have occurred, even in my 20s when I’d spend hours combing the internet for an elusive leak. There are years we can look back on now and conclude it was a false start of sorts for styles of rap and rappers we thought were at the beginning of their careers, when in fact, that brief moment of promise was all they’d ever get. The talent was in transition, the young artists weren’t ready and the old artists had gotten old, as they’re wont to do. This comes equipped with a certain anxiety. It has to be bigger than an off year, it’s a diagnosis. Reactive critics begin to compose their eulogies: Here lies a genre that was choked by mainstream dollars and finally found itself bereft of ideas. We tend to see Hip Hop as a parabola, always beyond its apex and always trending downwards. But it never seems to find its zero and the parabola begins to quiver and peak if you watch it long enough.
But something feels different about this year. Not in terms of its quality, but in how little I have to say about the dearth of it. So it would be reasonable to wonder, is this it? Am I standing on the precipice of cultural irrelevancy? Do I begin preparing myself for a battle in ten years over what I listen to with my son in the car on road trips? Is the first batch of Wu-Tang solo albums destined to become my cherished Beatles albums? Will I bore my son with the glory days of Drake’s Soundcloud in the same way my Dad tortured me with Graceland? When does five pounds overweight turn into fifteen? When do my references stop landing? What night will I be getting ready for a Project Pat show, only to realize I don’t own any clothing that will mask my age and profession, only to realize when I get to the show it ultimately doesn’t matter because everyone else at the show is my age and class because Project Pat is suddenly somehow a nostalgia act? When will my tastes calcify and my need to seek out new and challenging music die? Do you get old overnight or does it happen gradually, from moment to moment until the day you realize your life is a tube of toothpaste and there is more toothpaste on the sink than in the tube? I look at my son and I look in the mirror and ask myself, where is the scale’s dial resting?
As 2014 winds down, there’s one album that I still get excited talking about, that I’ve campaigned for in countless bars over the course of countless Summer nights, that now, even in early December, still tops my list. I first heard about Lil Herb thanks to a Common co-sign on his not terrible album, Nobody’s Smilin. There was a lyricism to the kid I don’t typically associate with drill rappers. He brings it without sacrificing the raw menace and energy that makes the sub-genre valuable. With that in mind, I tracked down his breakout mixtape from April,Welcome to Fazoland.
If you buy the somewhat troubled narrative that moments of decline and strife produced the best Rap music in our American cities over the course of the last thirty years, it would seem now is Chicago’s time. Comparing Fazoland with Smilin is instructive for just how Herb might be the great shining hope for his city, how his music is touching what is happening right now in a way no one else’s does. Common has made an album about a subject. He teaches with lessons and morals and parables. It’s noble and conscious but it’s consciously noble. Keenan Ivory Wayans might as well stick his head into the booth between every song and scream “MESSAGE” into the mic. In Common’s hands, it’s a devastating topic devoid of devastation, the entire point of rendering it through art.
Nas is old enough to be 19-year-old Herb’s father, and in many ways, he is. Herb brings Nas’ kid on the block wisdom, eye for detail and dismay to the subject of Chicago’s violent, socio-economic nightmare. What Herb brings to the conversation is a lost generation’s nihilism. You get the impression if Herb’s persona, the narrator of Welcome to Fazoland were to come across the impressionable youth Nas rapped with on a park bench in “One Love”, he’d be far more likely to steal and sell his bubble jacket than impart wisdom on him. That he’d spend that buck on a bottle instead of a lottery ticket because he has no reason to invest in a future that will never come. And that darkness conveys Chicago in 2014, just as Nas gave us a Queensbridge tinged with cautiously hopeful ghetto mysticism in the early 90s.
Herb is firmly Chicago based but you could argue his style descends from Harlem: The tongue-twisting legacy of Big L and Cam’ron. Herb has a similar, single- minded focus when he latches onto rhyme schemes. But those Harlem MCs, and many that have followed in their tradition do so with a light step, a smirk. As they wrap and loop the lyrical pretzels they’re braiding, the animating force is a New York dickhead’s cleverness and wit. A glorified game of dozens. Herb raps like a Rottweiler unwilling to concede a chain-link fence is separating him from a raw side of beef. He possesses a muscular verbal dexterity that blurs the border of West Avenue and 116th Street but never lets you forget what side Herb lands on. But his lyricism isn’t a one-dimensional flourish of style. The ferocity masses and builds as he batters the listener with multi-syllabic haymakers and it contributes to the sense of relentless desperation of his subject matter. On the mixtape, there are more than a few beats that sounds like a children’s choir wailing a funeral dirge. At seventeen tracks, it’s a marathon run at a dead sprint. The result is something familiar, but unquestionably, something new.
This isn’t a diatribe arguing for Herb’s eminent ascension. He has a skill set that does not lend well to the current landscape of Hip Hop stardom. If he does evolve into something greater than a rich man’s Pusha T, it will be a greatly compromised version of the artist he was on Fazoland. I bring up Herb he made my favorite album of this year, because he’s an immediately original and captivating voice, and because he gives me hope. Hope for Hip Hop, hope for myself. That rap can still be new and surprising and dangerous in 2014, and to me.
My son is a week old today. I hope my son is healthy above all things. That he grows up wise and kind, that he was born wired to receive joy and that I will have the opportunity to get out of the way and give him the support he needs to grow into a happy person who loves his life. But like any vain, egotistical person, I hope that we can share books and movies, sports and politics, music. My dad drove down to the city tonight to see my son. As he slept in his infant crib by the couch, we drank scotch, watched Blazing Saddles and Bananasand laughed together.
There’s been a lot of family around my apartment so far but in the mornings, as I get ready for work, I try to play music for him. I introduce him to the ghosts of 94: Mobb Deep, Biggie Smalls, Boot Camp, Wu-Tang, The Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and to Rap in 2014: Kanye, Dej Loaf, OG Maco, Drake and Lil Herb.
When I survey the history of this music the one concrete theme I come away with is this: Hip Hop is always dying and always being reborn, but it’s always been and will always be about the same thing. Perhaps at some point I will in fact be left in the slipstream of this music, it may find a path too alien for me to follow down and someday I’ll be another old man removed from the culture, reminiscing on what it was and complaining about how it lost its way. Maybe that’s what lies ahead of me. Maybe my son will be able to embrace it. Either way, I’m sure Hip Hop will outlive me, and in the way we all want to live forever and leave pieces of ourselves and the things we cared about behind, I find that comforting.
A final note. My wife is Palestinian. It was important to her, and her family, that we give our son an Arabic name. There was only one I’d agree to. So we named him Nas. Long live the generations of poor, angry, neglected, brilliant and beautiful children who have been making this music since it was born forty years ago. And long live Hip Hop.