The earliest insight I can recall that I had into Hip Hop as a culture was from the popular nineties sitcom Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Will Smith’s character the Fresh Prince was the first Hip Hop personality that I tried to mould myself after. He was everything that I wanted to be. Whether it was his attitude, flambouyant dress sense or his lingo, the Fresh Prince, to my young impressionable mind was the epitome of cool. I remember very clearly the day my mum bought me my first school blazer in primary school. I was so thrilled that I could finally get to dress like my idol i.e wear my school blazer inside out with the cap worn back to front. Man, I thought I was so fresh! Little did I know then that, that was the genesis of Hip Hop’s enduring influence on my dress sense.
The sitcom Fresh Prince embodied so many elements of Hip Hop culture that resonated deeply with the my middle class sensibilities. Side bar: Before I continue I must take this opportunity to state for the record that I am aware that at the time they were more respected and more significant influences in Hip Hop such as KRS-One, Erik B & Rakim, Akrika Bambaataa & The Zulu Nation, , Scarface, NWA, Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and The Beastie Boys. While I have grown to appreciate these pioneering acts in Hip Hop over the years it was my fascination with the Fresh Prince that opened the door for me to the broader world of Hip Hop. So much so that the theme song to the Fresh Prince is the first rap song I was able to karaoke along to. The simple raps where all my young mind could fully comprehend at the time. The lyricism and subject matter of the other above mentioned artists I only appreciated as my mental faculties developed and I began to lose the childlike innocence of youth. By the time the music and untimely deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur took centre stage in the main stream consciousness I was a budding Hip Hop aficionado.
As a teenager Nas’ ‘Hate Me Now’ is one of first Hip Hop songs I had a visceral reaction to. Never mind I did not have any hater’s at the time (I was 14). But as you do at that age I was convinced that the world was against me and that nobody really understood me. And in that sense Nas’s self assertion as well as the vitriol he was spitting at his detractors spoke to me. For an angsty teenager overdosing on testosterone that had grown up on a staple of Michael Jackson songs and colonial British inspired literature raps incongruous mix of lyricism, braggadocio, social commentary and pseudo revolutionary themes that often touched on black pride evoked a strong sense of belonging in me. This coupled with the storytelling; struggle and aspiration themes that are deeply embedded in the culture reverberated with a young black African man trying to find himself in a world, that didn’t think much of him.
No rap artist I had encountered up to that point embodied everything I loved about Hip Hop as much as Nas himself. Nas made me close my eyes and imagine an experience I had only previously been able to mine from books. When he rapped he painted vivid pictures in my mind, but more importantly he forced me to think critically and analytically about the world I lived in. We shared a common fascination with ancient Egyptian civilizations and African history and heritage. Subjects he weaved seamlessly and eloquently into his raps. When I listened to his raps I had to let them marinate over a few repeated listens before I completely felt the gravity of the messages that he was sharing. And even after the fact every new listen always brought with it new a-ha moments and the accompanying streams of consciousness. His lyrics were multi layered and his awe inspiring story telling abilities continued to stoke the flames of the aspiring wordsmith in me.
Listening to Hip Hop is and always has been a uniquely personal experience for me. Even though it has its critics who despise for its explicitness, excess, misogyny and glorification of violence it is still a genre I am intensely passionate and protective about. I am truly, madly, deeply and unashamedly in love with Hip Hop. Not only that but I fancy myself quite the Hip Hop nerd. I am always trying to learn as much as I can about the culture. Hip Hop appeals to the logophile in me. I am drawn to the wordplay that is the bedrock of many of my favourite Hip Hop songs. If you can weave magic from words while they sit on an awesome beat you have my ear and my heart. I also love Hip Hop because, it inspires me. What! Hip Hop inspiring? YES! Hip Hop in many ways feels like the big brother I always wanted but never had. Hip Hop as a culture was often my compass as I navigated my way through the uncertainty of my teenage year’s all right through to my early adulthood and the present day. I looked up to Hip Hop in the way I can only imagine I would have looked to a big brother if I had one.
Because of Hip Hop I love American summers. This despite the fact I have never set foot on American soil. Why? The answer is simple. It is the time of the year that most of my favourite rappers tend to release some serious heat in the form of albums. And thanks to the democratization and globalization of Hip Hop afforded by the ‘internets’ access to these releases is instantaneous. This is very welcome as it allows me to feel their heat during the southern hemisphere winter. Around this time of the year you are likely to catch me wildin’ out by my damn self as I get jiggy, marinate and just vibe out to my favourite rap albums.
This particular ‘American summer’ has already proved to be no exception. J. Cole an artist whose career I have followed closely has already released his much anticipated sophomore in album titled Born Sinner. Of the albums released so far this has been my personal favourite album, a huge compliment considering that his album is juxtaposed against a long time favourite of mine Kanye West who released a visionary, eclectic and largely experimental album that pushes the boundaries of Hip Hop,Yeezus. Yeezus’ main weakness for me is Kanye’s rapping. Going for minimalist and sparse production as he did, elements which make it such a polarizing album exposes the fact that his rapping isn’t quite up to par on this album. The lack of lyrical astuteness, depth, agility and strength in Yeezus is the reason it’s the sole Kanye album the word nerd in me finds hard to marinate on. Despite the ferocity with which he spews his lyrics, Kanye fails to make a compelling argument for himself throughout the record. This is Yeezus’ biggest surprise and let down for me. A man who has historically had so much to say, suddenly seems to have no clue how to communicate it in a manner that means his arguments have gravitas and compel me as the listener to think, question, draw conclusions and then move beyond those conclusions. That isnt to sayYeezus isn’t void of magical music moments, unfortunately the words never match up with the intensity and contradictory beauty of the sound.
Lyrically Born Sinner estues many of the same virtues that I fell in love with in Nas’ music and sonically you hear the influence on the the J.Dilla’s and No I.D’s in terms of the production style. J.Cole’s comparisons to Nas are more than justified. It is fitting then that on the album Born Sinner is a strong contender for my favourite rap song of the year so far in ‘Let Nas Down’ by J.Cole. an abridged memoir of Cole’s relationship with Hip Hop. By extension the subsequent remix by Nas himself in which he symbolically hands over the crown to J.Cole is my Hip Hop moment of the year. In the original song ‘Let Nas Down’ J. Cole narrates the story of how he was inspired by and looked up to Nas as well as his subsequent disappointment when Nas didn’t like his first hit single Work out. He justifies sacrificing his (he)art in that he wanted to draw attention so that a wider audience has an access to it, at the same time acknowledging Nas’ influence on his career as well as crediting Nas’ criticism for getting back on track artistically. The reason I love Born Sinner is because I feel like it was written with me in mind and at its best it sounds like something I feel I could have written. J. Cole like me is a young black man with a university degree and in many ways he is rapping the theme songs to this part of my life.
There are still a lot more hip Hop albums to come,and and at this point I am in love with Hip Hop as much as I have ever been. Today it feels good to be a Hip Hop fan.