The Truth About Hip-Hop’s Withering Genius

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One of the fallacies of the Western relationship to music is our obsession with isolation: we identify our ‘geniuses’ and build them pedestals. Additionally, we isolate their moments of genius, and dismiss the rest of their work.

Louis Armstrong
is an easy example. The first ambassador of jazz is always celebrated for his innovations in the 1920s and ‘30s, which were

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profound. But the truth of the matter is that Pops was playing his horn better in the 1950s than he was as a young man. Those contributions go almost entirely ignored. The culture had moved on.

This tendency reaches its apex in hip-hop, and it’s regrettable. That a culture built on innovation and competition should be quick to dismiss those who fall off makes sense. But what it means in practical terms is that we limit our own enjoyment; we box ourselves in. In the process, the people who’ve earned the right to have voices in the culture lose the opportunity to speak.

Just as importantly, we deny ourselves the experience of watching our artists grow into themselves, which can be fascinating—as fans of Nas or Miles Davis or

Philip Roth or James Baldwin or Pablo Picasso will tell you. Granted, hip-hop has always been a young man’s game. However, where does that leave the young men (and women) who got in it at twelve, and have more to say—and enhanced skills at saying it—at 29, or 35, or 50?

It’s no coincidence that our most-beloved MCs are the ones who were killed before they had the chance to fall off; they present us with uncompromised self-portraits. Even the consensus-greats who are still with us are confined to their moments of influence, and then ignored. Like Armstrong in the ‘50s, they may be at the top of their games today, but the average fan—and even the hardcore acolyte, the type who likes to complain about how much better everything was in ’88, or ’93—wouldn’t know it.

Rakim was rhyming better in the late ‘90s than he was when he changed the game in 1986. X-Clan’s Brother J (a perpetually underappreciated master, in my book) sounds as good right now as he did on his first album, in 1990. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions —like the transformation of KMD’s Zev Love X into MF Doom—there are no second acts in hip-hop. We shake our heads sadly at the first sign of weakness, and then we never check for our favorite artists again.

Don’t we owe it to Big Daddy Kane to know what music he’s created in the past two years? If we’re going to keep putting KRS-One (and Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee) at or near the top of our Greatest MCs lists, shouldn’t we check out his new album, or at least go to his show? If we think Public Enemy made the most important political music of the 20th century, shouldn’t we still be checking for what Chuck D has to say?

And if we are going to cry ourselves to sleep at night because we miss the unfettered creativity of Showbiz & AG, Black Sheep, Das EFX, Hieroglyphics and Brand Nubian, I believe we owe it to ourselves to at least occasionally check in with each to see what their new music sounds like?

Click here to watch Brand Nubian’s most recent single, Young Son:

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