The Swarm

January 16, 2013

A Rational Conversation: Jayson Rodriguez Ponders the Future of Hip-Hop, Circa 2013...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

It’s a new year, which means there’s plenty of new rap stuff to think about and fight about. Plus there’s still some old stuff that we should try to resolve, or at least make less bad. To help figure out what lens to should use when trying to understand hip-hop in 2013, Ducker talked to Jayson Rodriguez, a former Vibe assistant music editor and senior writer at MTV News who recently left his job as executive editor at XXL. Rodriguez currently co-hosts an online radio show with Shaheem Reid on called The BQE and continues to write for multiple publications.

Eric Ducker: I’m fully aware this is a huge question, but what should we be thinking about in regards to hip-hop in the coming year?

Jayson Rodriguez: I’m excited for what seems to be, for young artists, a return to prominence in album creation. That includes Kendrick Lamar’s recent debut, Meek Mill’s debut, A$AP Rocky’s forthcoming debut, and what we’ll get from Joey Bada$$ and J.Cole, among other guys. As the business diversifies and radio sort of exists as the last kingmaker, it feels like the idea of artistic merit is rising. Without a traditional single, there’s this infrastructure and support in place where a modicum of artist freedom can be rewarded, and as fans, consumers and documenters of the culture we’re rewarded with great projects. That’s opposed to a hot mixtape and a so-so album, that old standby formula.

ED: You think artists and labels will see an artistic and financial merit to a cohesive album?

JR: I think labels will exhibit enough patience if they feel they have the right artist, and said artist and team have a vision. As far as artists, it’s interesting to see who is making these albums in hip-hop that have been embraced lately: there’s Nas, Kanye Wes, and Jay-Z as elder statesmen, and then you have the young guys. Things are so unpredictable these days: there are artists with massive radio hits who can’t sell albums out of the discount bin, and then there are vets who know who they are – where what’s left to prove is only to themselves and their legacy. And, for the young guys, there’s, finally, been a distinct separation from the rulers of the 1990s: this wave of MCs doesn’t have the standard blueprint of album, clothing line, rims, bad movie, and so on, as a (mis) guide to presumed greatness. So, instead, they’re venturing into this new world and developing on their own, which affords them some opportunities to make money doing shows; by the time they get an album deal, they’re thinking artistically and not financially. So says the guy from the outside looking in, and is trying to get a sense of what’s going on.

ED: Are there any cities whose rap scenes you are particularly interested in seeing how they develop in 2013?

JR: It’s very clich├ęd for me to say this, particularly as an East Coast-based writer living in New York, but New York. Guys like Jay, Nas, and Biggie cast such enormous shadows that acts from the Big Apple are just getting out from underneath them. We can debate whether it’s Fabolous’ own fault in not achieving that type of success, for instance, but he has all the tools to be a much bigger star. But with the new class – A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Azealia Banks, Bodega Bamz, and Flatbush Zombies, plus Danny Brown and Angel Haze by proxy – there hasn’t been this much original talent in New York in years. I’m curious to see if they galvanize or not.

ED: That’s the thing, right? The artists you listed are talented, and being in close proximity to the majority of the “industry” it can seem like they are poised for much bigger things. Then it becomes a question if the rest of the country – and the world – can connect with them.

JR: Yeah, totally. I wonder sometimes, too, if by being so close to these buildings that house the labels, if that makes New York artists work less intensely than the guy/girl that has to build a buzz in their town or city and hope that it travels to a label person. Should a label be your goal, you know? And New York has a history of killer groups not playing nice. G-Unit, Dipset, all these Brooklyn rappers – there should have been more collabos. That embrace and willingness to cross the aisle to work with the other side seems to have made Atlanta the dominant force in hip-hop, where there’s fewer top-tier talents but a lot of acceptable and willing talent.

ED: Do you think that openness on A$AP Rocky’s part, in terms of his range of collaborations and using the sounds of other regions, is calculated on his and the label’s part, or is that what he’s really into? And is that what will potentially help him succeed on the level he’s about to enter?

JR:I don’t think it’s calculated. I think writers, the loudest folks on Twitter, and so on have this idea that everything is so dictated by the label. I just spent quite some time with Rocky recently for a Billboard piece coming out next Friday, and it was clear that’s just him. I told him how much I liked “1 Train” and he asked me why, in a very curious capacity. And, aside from being over 30 and loving classic New York hip-hop, which that record hews to, I just like how inclusive he was on that; that struck a tone with me. And he was taken aback – like, he’d never really thought about it. He sincerely just wanted a posse cut and to rock with some people he liked. Now, he also ranges further with Skrillex and Florence Welch, but that’s partly generational. What was our MTV experience of waiting to see that rap video come on is now much more controlled and contained as an iTunes playlist. Having said that, for Rocky’s ambitions, it’s absolutely going to help him – although his album is far more traditional than what we all probably thought he was gonna put out.

ED: Going back a little, are there any other cities you are interested in?

JR: I would also be inclined to say Chicago, but that wouldn’t be for the music. I just find that to be a unique story: how the music is the soundtrack to what’s going on there, the debates we have about the artists coming from that scene, and the merits of what they do.

ED: Do you think all those artists signed last year are going to get albums out in 2013?

JR: I don’t think so. I’m hoping it’s not the latest line in a movement that gets trumpeted but fizzled out, like Houston, hyphy, and so on. Keef obviously got a head start, but Lil Reese and Lil Durk will have a hard time wading through his backlash. The difference could be No ID, but, as other new artists emerge, there’ll be some filtering where some of these guys will be dropped, unfortunately. And the ones with whatever is judged to be staying power will, stay.

ED: I know this conversation was my idea, but is it kind of ridiculous to prognosticate for a genre that has, thankfully, been so unpredictable? Not even the other Chicago teenagers who loved Chief Keef probably would have predicted last January that he was going to be one of the biggest stories in hip-hop in 2012. Do the turns of hip-hop culture still have the capacity to surprise you? And the rest of us?

JR: I was thinking about that a lot after you reached out to me. This time of the year is always interesting, because end of the year and the beginning of the year is list mania, where you’ll inevitably see “the artist to watch out for in 2013” posts. On one hand, they’re very predictable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that Joey Bada$$ and Casey Veggies will most likely be XXL Freshmen. (I don’t know who’s on the list, as I left XXL before those conversations began.). But on the flipside, if an editor or content director were to really empower someone to do a story like that and dig deep and list people under the radar, how many people would actually care? Because they don’t know who those artists are yet. Still, regardless of which way you go on a story like that, inevitably there’s the Drake or A$AP Rocky or Chief Keef who no one was making predictions about, and then they come along and blew everyone out of the water. That is still amazing to me. And, yes, I still am surprised in that respect. And as a guy who is somewhat of a vet, or developing into one, I find it invigorating that someone that we’re not talking about is going to be who everyone will be talking about this time next year.

ED: This is a little insider-y, but how would you like to see the way hip-hop is covered change?

JR: I’d like for some outlets to not try to be so big tent and instead try to specialize more in what they cover. In the past, if I had five bucks, I had to choose which magazine I was going to buy, and there were distinct differences in the publications. But with the rise of dotcom, XXL may cover Frank Ocean, which, in the past, would have been strictly the domain of Vibe, for instance. For me, I have my two or three favorite sites or blogs, and then I just check out my RSS feed, which is just a smattering of the same content with the same headlines. There are so many stories in hip-hop that are neglected or are made negligible for the sake of trying to be first in a race, but what is the reward at the finish line?

ED: Do you think outlets are spreading themselves too thin and are not pegging themselves as the experts in anything?

JR: I do think outlets are spreading themselves too thin. Ideally, you’d say, “I wanna hire a kid that can either write, shoot and produce, or someone that knows Southern rap and indie rap.” But that’s become increasingly more difficult. It’s the era of specialization. Why would I go to site X for a cursory read of an artist when site Y will have something more in-depth? And for site X, I get the strategy behind trying to serve everyone, but a look the comments section will tell you that may not be what your audience is looking for either.

ED: Where do you come down on the “cultural tourism” question?

JR: I said this on Twitter last week, but in hip-hop, we’ve outsourced album reviews and critiques to mainstream and “hipster” outlets. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this idea of “cultural tourism,” and I think Dave Bry was valiant and even-handed in his piece in The New Republic. It bothers me that the “us” or “we” that is urban or hip-hop media haven’t done anything to address our weakened voice. Some of the mags don’t run reviews anymore and/or have this dreary game plan where they pay for print contributions but expect online writing to be done voluntarily by freelancers. You don’t get some of the better or more respected or experienced or brighter (just pick one) voices to critique material that way. More editors should learn about budgets and budgeting. Or, to you, the young kid that wants to get on, instead of trying to do what these popular blogs are already doing, you should try to fill an underserved area and go for yours. Long answer short – tourists are welcomed; indigenous people, Manhattan is worth more than you think.

ED: What do you mean by “fill underserved areas”? Do you mean, writing thoughtful reviews for “urban media” outlets? And I’m assuming that when you refer to “the young kid,” you mean someone who has “grown up in the culture of hip-hop,” as B. Dot put it in The New York Times podcast.

JR: By filing an underserved area, my thought was: if I’m 21 and have finished college and want to cover hip-hop, if I’m thinking about starting a blog, while it may be easy in terms of execution, there’s already a Nah Right, 2DopeBoyz, Rap Radar, and so on. But there isn’t a credible space online for thoughtful reviews or critiques that come from an urban standpoint, for example, from a young kid who has grown up in the culture of hip-hop, which may or may not mean he’s black or Latino, but his purview is that of hip-hop primarily.

ED: I’m taking us into some sticky stuff, but don’t you think most writers who are accused of cultural tourism have their own justification of how they did, in fact, grow up in the culture of hip-hop – though other people may disagree when looking at them in terms of their race, where they are from, their socioeconomic background, who they are writing for, what else they have written about and so on?

JR: I agree that, in the tourism accusation, there’s a dismissive current of one’s socioeconomic background that’s intended to demean someone as not qualified to rate this music; that, to some, is much more than music. But I also enjoy hearing a writer’s take on music just for the surface level of it being music, and not specifying all the cultural implications of what this music means, because it comes from this artist, who represents this region, and so on. I do also think some “tourists,” if we label them that for the sake of this discussion, also tend to go too far when contextualizing simple shit as avant-garde when, in fact, it’s just some simple shit.

There seems to me to be some resentment as well – this feeling of, “How are you gonna tell me about my music?” And it’s heightened lately because there’s just no balance. Where do the non-tourists go to write critically about a project where there’s a sizable audience to make an indent on a conversation about any given album? An executive I spoke with earlier today raved about the reviews Rolling Stone and Pitchfork gave a particular rap album, but made no mention of what the rap media thought of it. And maybe that’s because rap reviews have been whittled down to “5 mics” or an “XXL” or “XL” rating, instead of worrying about the prose. The solution doesn’t lie in blocking “tourists” – again I use the quotes for the sake of the conversation, but rather in raising the volume on what this side has to say. So it’s not: Pitchfork calls it “masterful,” the Times says it’s “a remarkable achievement of audio acrobatics,” and The Source gives it four “mics.”

Hip-hop coverage in hip-hop outlets has also been in this stasis where it’s all about the minutiae. What happened last night? Who was on stage? Who is on the album? Trees, trees, trees, while the forest is ignored. The counter is to say either, “But that’s what the people want,” or “Let’s try building an audience around forest gazers.” I had a former intern of mine tell me I sound cranky lately on Twitter; I hope I don’t come across that way. There’s never been more talent, risk taking, and diversity in hip-hop than recently, from the creation standpoint. The way it’s documented should reflect that beyond posts and short video clips.

ED: What artists, disregarding hype or industry anticipation, would you like to hear significant output from in the next twelve months?

JR: I view music a lot from the storyline standpoint, what it means and how it affects the genre, not solely in a vacuum as a critic sometimes. And I say that for better or worse. With the pace of new music and yearly projects, the third album is the new sophomore curse hurdle, so I’m curious to see what Drake does, how his album will sound, sonically and thematically, where he goes. What’s his narrative? Eminem had this comeback of sorts, where instead of the jokey single, he’s kind of this rap power ballad fella. I’m curious how that goes now that he’s back and there are no long layoffs, since he’s a regular working rapper again. I’m becoming a bigger Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown fan by the day – there’s just a couple of acts that not only know who they are but have taught their listeners to know who they are. And despite Q not having, say, the talent of Kendrick, there’s a more fully-formed identity there; it feels like he also understands that, too, which may make him give his music a coherence. I want to see what Pusha T is going to do. I think he has tendency to hew too careful to the idea of who he is, and so every song is this OH SHIT, PUSHA CAN SPIT! JUST LISTEN TO THAT. HE WENT IN! We already know that. I’m ready to digest what the Kanye partnership will create.

ED: Can you give me one totally unexpected prediction?

JR: Do I have the balls to publicly say Kanye’s gonna drop a dud?

ED: Is that what you think?

JR: I’m concerned. The G.O.O.D. Music album was all over the place, from the music to the rollout. And this Kardashian thing, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the best inspiration – although I hesitate to teeter on personal criticism when it comes to artists and their decisions. Having a baby is amazing, right? So, who am I to criticize?

ED: Have you been onboard with everything else Kanye’s done, music-wise, in the past?

JR: I have. If you’re willing to accept 808s And Heartbreaks as a great piece of work, then you’ll know his first five-album run is nothing short of remarkable. Then there are those who think it’s a sore thumb standout in an otherwise impressive catalog. Outside of Eminem, though, there’s not really another guy in hip-hop whose personal narrative shapes his material and discography in the way that Kanye’s does. How can he be great while dating Kim?

ED: If I told you in the beginning of 2010 that the new Kanye album would be recorded in Hawaii, the lead single would have a King Crimson sample, and one of the songs would feature Fergie and Elton John, would you have been excited?

JR: Kanye’s landed in rarefied air, though, where we trust him, musically, and we wonder what statement he’s going to make. Post the Taylor Swift/VMA incident, everyone wanted to know if he would address it, and he did, which is what makes him so great. He has this rock-star approach to his music, even though he has a diva-ish approach to stardom.

ED: I’m excited for him to bring Yeti rap to the forefront. But I was born in the Himalayas, so I grew up in that culture.

JR: And I’m equally excited to be the tourist to write about it.

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