By definition, a “Golden Age” of anything must embody specific approaches, techniques, and methods, the likes of which have never been seen before. Just like there will never be another era of classic rock defined by the groundbreaking work of artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, there will never be another Golden Age of hip-hop.
Hip-hop’s Next Era is Upon Us: What Lies Ahead?
Moving Past The “Golden Age”
The late 1980’s and 1990’s were defined by socio-economic turmoil, racial barriers that had yet to be broken, and, in response, hip-hop was the most meaningful form of expressing concern for those issues. MCs were allowed freedom to vocalize their consternation in a way that was disturbing for those who had the power; quite frankly, they didn’t know how to react.
That was the purpose of hip-hop music twenty years ago—to express raw emotion and frustration from a unique perspective. Today’s great hip-hop artists aren’t carrying the creative torch of 90’s-era rappers because they want to “Fight the Power,” as Public Enemy would have it. That said, over the past three to four years, a handful of fashion-forward rhyme-sayers have been bold enough to breathe new life into a genre of music that was falling flat on its face throughout most of the 2000’s.
Providing A Forgotten Sense Of Self-Awareness
The great names in Golden Age-era hip-hop such as Big L, the Wu-Tang Clan, N.W.A., and Nas (among many others) provided its counter-culture audience with much more than stylistic innovation; there was an acute notion of self-identity and awareness behind all of the complex wordplay and groundbreaking musical techniques. MSNBC contributor Tony Green wrote, “…rappers had a unique sound that was dictated by their region and their communities.” It’s been just over a decade since the dissolution of that approach—sincerity was put at the wayside to make room for greed, glory, and the appearance of glamour (Nelly’s 2003 music video for “Tip Drill” speaks for itself).
Thankfully, the new post-hip-hop generation is here to save us all. Take, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m. A. A. d. city, a critical turning point for hip-hop. It pushed the boundaries of mainstream hip-hop expectations, displaying elements of introspection, maturity, and fresh artistic creativity. The LP is also somewhat autobiographical, involving his own community of Compton. In an interview with Complex Music, Lamar said “My partner named Matt, from the neighborhood west side of Compton, told me that my album is restoring a lot of relationships in the neighborhood. Ones that have been broken for a while.”
Resurrecting Hip-Hop As An Art Form
After years of a booty-shakin’-inspired hip-hop scene marked by bottle-poppin’ songs (each one more derivative than the last), a select number of progressive hip-hop artists have begun to veer away from the expected to include the most basic and integral part of any art form: honesty.
Shock value can only go so far; notably, rapper Earl Sweatshirt has realized this. His 2013 album, Doris, retains the same complex wordplay of an expert MC, but thematically, it exhibits a level of maturity and honestly that, of late, has been largely absent in the majority of mainstream hip-hop. Instead of rhyming about getting high and blowing off obligations, ES opens up emotionally to his audience, discussing issues of paternal abandonment and the effect on his adolescent years.
Similarly, Mac Miller has left his goofy, happy-go-lucky party rapper attitude in the past. His latest full-length album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, is thematically much heavier than anything else he’s come out with. According to Miller, the album is “introspective and very personal.” No more frat rap here.
His new-school peer, Schoolboy Q, is taking the same, real-life approach as well. On his upcoming album, Oxymoron, he stated “it’s about the real L.A., raw and uncut, it’s not the watered down L.A.” Later, in an interview with Life+Times, he said, “This album is about me taking care of my daughter and Crip history from 1969 to present.” Putting honesty back into the art is of utmost importance for musical progression. The artists mentioned above are playing an integral role in that process.
Hip-Hop: Playing With Boundaries, Moving Into A New Age
If you ask any music critic or historian to list the best hip-hop albums of all time, nine times out of ten, he or she will say Nas’ 1994 album, Illmatic (rightfully so, perhaps, given that he cut the entire LP in one take at the age of seventeen). That was the Golden Age of hip-hop—an era defined by its unparalleled eclecticism and innovation. The departure from 1980’s singsong rap was so drastic that it set the standard for the genre.
Today’s new-school pioneers like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, and Mac Miller are not reinventing the hip-hop wheel like their Golden Age forefathers; they are challenging the genre’s norms and boundaries while also pushing themselves to reinvigorate hip-hop as a personal art form. Although this is not another “golden age” per se, fans should be optimistic about the future of hip-hop. Asinine lyrics and immature album themes are slowly being abandoned and replaced by an approach of sophistication and personal honesty. A new era of hip-hop is in the making.
Article by Josh Cranin