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Name: Adam Bernard
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Hip-Hop Doppelgangers
Friday, June 09, 2006

Something that used to always bug me back in the day was when people would say all rap music sounds alike. When I was growing up this couldn’t have been further from the truth and my friends and I had lists of artists we could reel off at a second’s notice whenever someone came to us with this half-assed assessment of our favorite musical genre. A Tribe Called Quest sounded nothing like Boot Camp Clik, which sounded nothing like Dr. Dre, who sounded nothing like The Fresh Prince, who sounded nothing like Busta Rhymes. The list went on and on. The idea that all rap music sounded alike was simply an untrue statement, unfortunately it may have been prophecy.

I receive a lot of CD’s in the mail for work thanks to being on a myriad of press lists. Over the past two days I’ve received somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 full length albums and do you know what, they sound remarkably alike. I hate to say it but creativity is quickly dying and mediocrity is the new gold standard in rap music. After listening to more albums than the vast majority of folks I’m finding it easier and easier to break down how an album is going to sound simply based on the label they’re on. Let’s start with the mainstream artists.

Every mainstream artist has one song on their album that they’ve created to be the lead single. This is the song they feel is the most commercially viable and can get them the most potential crossover airplay. It’s no longer just about the Hip-Hop heads of the world, it’s about that top 40 airplay. Each mainstream album also features the two follow up singles, the second single being an up-tempo song similar to the lead single and the third being a slower song that shows a cliché “other side” of the artist. After that the rest of the album is a crapshoot because the assumption is people have already bought it because of the singles.

The content of mainstream albums doesn’t range very much. No matter if the artist is a pop success or someone who considers themselves certified gangsta, they’ll have the following songs on their album. There’s the booty shaking club hits, the songs about life on the street, at least one “heartfelt” slower song, some odes to women, and some odes to substances deemed worthy of abusing (alcohol, weed, etc.). The production for these tracks varies just as little as the topic matter. Every mainstream artist busts their butt to grab the same exact producers everybody else has. Not only is continuity ruined by this because there are so many varying sounds, but those varying sounds are the same ones that are on everyone else’s albums. Anyone remember Outkast’s ATLiens? One of the reasons the album was so dope was because Organized Noize did all the production. There was continuity there.

Last, but not least, the mainstream rap album seems to require an artist work with someone from every part of the country so as to try to boost nationwide sales. No longer content with building within their own community, the mainstream artist feels the need to do a cliché east coast, west coast, down south, and Midwest track on every single album. I’m not sure who this is fooling, but I highly doubt people are purchasing an entire album based on an artist working with one person from their city.

This brings us to the underground rap albums, which have become just as bad in terms of creativity and uniqueness over the years. The underground rap artist is not concerned with mainstream radio airplay, but they are concerned with talking about not being concerned with radio airplay. The topic matter of the typical underground album includes this, along with numerous songs about how the artist has more skills then anyone else on earth, how it sucks that no one knows their name, how the industry is fake, and how if things were all about real Hip-Hop they’d be selling tons of records.

Underground albums also include the token battle song. It seems every underground MC has a long list of battles they’ve won, whether it was something big like Scribble Jam or something as small as “that battle outside of the Subway on my block,” every artist likes to tout having a rep as being a dope battle MC and if they’ve ever won anything in their career you’ll hear about it ad nauseam on their record.

Production on underground albums has also become very cliché and typical over the years. For the most part you’re going to get something that makes an attempt to sound like A Tribe Call Quest but falls unbelievably short. Even underground artists who attempt to go mainstream have this issue. Little Brother anyone? (Yeah, I said it, the album was garbage)

Occasionally an album will come along that will surprise us and end up universally hailed as something great. Just recently the Cee-Lo Green / Danger Mouse project, Gnarls Barkley, was released to massive critical praise. The album is fantastic but when one listens to it, or any other album that’s been lauded on that level, they’ll realize it probably wasn’t that difficult to create. Everyone should be creating albums like Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, they should just be doing it in their own way. Rather than attempting to recreate what’s already been done, artists need to search inside themselves and find what’s unique about them as individuals and as artists. If the answer is nothing then they shouldn’t be artists. If it’s not in you to be creative, to do something different, then don’t clutter up the stores, the airwaves, and my desk with some typical drivel that sounds just like ten other CD’s that also arrived today.

Until creativity is brought back to the forefront the old stereotype about rap music, which was never true when it was originally said, will creep closer and closer to being the truth, because right now the vast majority of rap music really does sound alike.

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posted by Adam Bernard @ 9:34 AM  
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