Evan McGarvey: One fine candy shop


Published February 20, 2006

Newsflash: Rap didn't begin with KRS-One and Public Enemy.

It's a common, frequently ageist reaction against modern hip hop to ignorantly hearken back to an age when every street-corner MC was apparently a divinely inspired Achebe/Milton of the American black ghetto.

Of course, these people, like Bill Cosby, seem to have embraced a nostalgic blind spot.

Rap began at block parties. Rap started to make people move. Rap beats began when a DJ (Kool Herc) realized that people actually danced during the "breakdown" (the post-bridge moments in soul when the beat becomes simple, percussive drum kicks and snares). Of course, for some, this is exclusively a moment of genesis, of a half-formed spirit that would only gain a vividness and purpose when MCs (initially a complementary class alongside graffiti artists, B-boys and DJs) started caring less about the beat and more about the language. Like it or not, hip hop was first inspired by Jamaican dub-plate reggae before The Last Poets. It's just like writing any other song: First the music, then the words. And to all young MCs: They call it flow for a reason.

Now, it's foolish and reductive to - using the previous paragraphs as proof - come to the misleading assertion that Sugarhill Gang > Rakim. Or Furious Five > Big Daddy Kane.

But what it does do is lead nicely into a defense of the bane of backpackers, "enlightened" white kids and larval hip-hop critics everywhere: pop rap.

The genre usually gets a brusque critical appraisal. It's "disposable," tailored for 15-year-old white girls in Metro Detroit/New York City/Chicago who couldn't find Jamaica, Queens with Google maps and MapQuest (double true).

But here's the shocking thing: Some of the stuff that falls under the candy-rap umbrella is actually quite good. It just needs a separate set of criteria.

Nelly is a success because he knows he's populace dance rap. He gets the most obscenely kinetic arrangements, slathers his albums with featured artists du jour and has the self-knowledge to rap about what he know about: backyard parties, late model Cut Supremes, Hypno and, most recently, grills.

Nelly wears no false clothing. He's not Ja Rule, pouting and pontificating onstage as the next Tupac before slipping into Rick's-ready aural bon-bons with J.Lo. In some ways, you could argue that most charming, sustainable pop rappers (Nelly, Fabolous, Fat Joe), are more honest with themselves than the 50 Cents of the world.

Like any other subset of a musical genre, pop rap has a horde of chaff. Apply a new set of criteria to pop rap - effectiveness of melody (i.e. kinetic ass factor, or KAF), lyrical authenticity (no threats from Bow Wow amid "Fresh Azimiz") and most importantly, endurance (Fabolous's pop-anthem-laden albums puts him far above the fleeting, temporal breeze of D4L) - and the genre has as much depth as the always celebrated and slavishly praised "conscious" genre from which most of our peers never return. No genre has intrinsic superiority to any other; only specific artists versus each other.

Candy rap is not inferior to "conscious rap." Fabolous is more effective than Da Brat; Mos Def is more effective than AZ. Cross-genre comparisons are fun, and worthy bar debates, but essentially impossible. Mos Def is constructing a narrative. Nelly is actually more didactic: He's trying to get you to dance.

Debate may be more collegiate than dancing, but it's certainly younger.

And for those who need the permission of a canonical rap figure to enjoy anything, ask anyone who saw DJ Kool Herc's show at the Pig earlier this winter: Herc didn't play Cormega and Common. He played Fat Joe. Hip hop may just inverse the old Auden quote - when it comes to rap, the old are never wrong.

- Learn more about KAF by e-mailing McGarvey at evanbmcg@umich.edu.