I spend a lot of time listening to hip hop, and I also spend a lot of time studying neo-Hegelian philosophy. If you peruse my Twitter, you’ll see that the majority of my tweets are about the dialectics of the Based God, which is what happens when you gradually mold your subconscious into a trendy melange of Slavoj Žižek one-liners and Young Thug noises. On my about.me page, I describe myself as a “SoundCloud philosopher,” which, depending on your politics, makes me either the worst kind of pretentious asshole imaginable or a “cool” guy. I prefer the latter approach, but I’m also someone who prides himself on being the only person at this University who has ever made it necessary for someone to actually say the words “Shut the fuck up about commodity fetishism, we’re trying to play 2K.”

So, more often than not, I find myself desperately clinging to an absurd middle ground between cultures and vocabularies that, at first glance, seem diametrically opposed to one another. When hearing Chief Keef’s song “3Hunna,” for example, my first inclination after muttering “bang bang” to myself is to read the track as a radical nihilist anthem exploring the impossible subject position of a person trapped on the horizonless fringe of global capital, as a cry for help from a young man who realizes that even if he manages to upgrade from “three hunna” to “six hunna” he’ll never find his way out of O block, a realization so pessimistic that he ends the song with the self-negating gesture of shouting “Fuck my birthday, bitch, I need more cake.” On the other hand, I realize that a sentence combining the phrases “horizonless fringe of global capital” and “Fuck my birthday bitch” looks a lot like a dadaist word salad, which gives you a sense of what it’s like to be inside my head on any given Thursday.

But as ridiculous as it might seem — and I hope you can excuse my obscene narcissism here — I think the inner workings of my mind say something important about hip hop’s cultural status today. Like rock music in the 1950s and ’60s, hip hop has become the music of modern youth, which is to say that it provides the cultural vocabulary through which we narrate our experience of the world. It serves as the soundtrack for our parties, our relationships, our ever-changing personalities and our developing political consciousness, and it does so in a way that’s considerably more accommodating of racial diversity and technological innovation than rock music ever was. Importantly, however, through its celebration of African American culture and the Black experience, hip hop also creates an intriguing challenge for the western philosophical tradition: how to develop a vocabulary capable of articulating the struggle of a community whose historical marginalization has been conducted on a linguistic and philosophical level as much as on a physical one.

Put another way, self-styled young intellectuals (read:assholes) like me who grew up reading Sartre and Nietzsche with Outkast and Kanye West playing in the background are reaching the point of entry into institutional academia, convinced of the moral necessity of addressing the social ills hip hop illustrates with its often grim realism and working to find a vocabulary with enough intellectual rigour to go toe-to-toe with Kant and Hegel and enough social awareness to hear the pain behind the Migos flow.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are already a number of academics studying and writing about hip hop in English and Cultural Studies departments across the country. A few notable scholars on the subject include Adam Bradley at the University of Colorado, Elaine Richardson at Ohio State and Gwendolyn Pough at Syracuse University, all of whom have spent years laying the groundwork for and developing critical studies of hip hop culture, drawing on the work of previous cultural theorists and philosophers as diverse as Amiri Baraka, Pierre Bourdieu, bell hooks and Mikhail Bakhtin. They and the myriad other musicians, critics and researchers turning their minds and talents towards the rigorous examination of hip hop’s place in modern society are doing essential work, both for hip hop itself and the academic disciplines benefiting from a radical reexamination of their theoretical models and massive expansion of their source material.

An interesting development in recent years, however, is seeing hip hop’s experience in academia make its way back into the music. An intellectual approach to hip hop, in a way, predates the music itself Gil Scott-Heron, often considered the godfather of rap, held a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and approached his music and poetry with a political sensibility informed by the work of Langston Hughes and Malcolm X, among others. The first hip hop artists immediately grasped onto that brand of erudite social awareness Public Enemy frontman Chuck D describes Scott-Heron as “the manifestation of the modern world”  and reached a peak of stylistic diversity in the mid-to-late ’90s in the work of a range of MCs and collectives from Queen Latifah, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Common to 2Pac, Digable Planets and The Roots.

The tradition continued into the new millennium, carried on by many of the same musicians who were making political rap in the ’90s. But in the mid-2000s hip hop artists began to question the culture assembled around their music in profound ways, and encounters with academia often helped to inspire that self-critique. Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout is perhaps the best documentation of this phenomenon, and while just about everyone acknowledges that it was one of the biggest watershed moments in the history of hip hop, most people find it so hard to look past Kanye’s egotism that they can’t see lines like “Sittin’ in the hood like community colleges / This dope money here is Lil’ Trey’s scholarship” off of “We Don’t Care” or “The concept of school seems so securr / Sophomore, three yurrs, she ain’t picked a carurr / She like, fuck it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair” from “All Falls Down” for what they are: a stunning portrait of the Black collegiate experience at the end of the 20th century.

You can trace the influence of The College Dropout an illustration of what happens when promises about status-conferring education run up against the inescapable demands of the same socioeconomic hardship college is meant to address straight through to the work of some of the most famous and explicitly political rappers doing it today, including Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. Equally important, however, Kanye made it possible for a hip hop artist to talk about academia and the collegiate experience, mostly to criticize the university system and question its status as a pipeline to African American liberation (you can hear echoes of this critique every time a Black person who “acts right,” like UVA student Martese Johnson, finds themselves subjected to racial profiling and warrantless police violence). But beyond critique, this new subject area gave birth to any number of student-rappers (of various races) who began using hip hop to talk about what it’s like to be a college student  think Asher Roth (West Chester University), Das Racist (Wesleyan University) and every dude with a SoundCloud who lives on your floor in East Quad (myself included). I guarantee you that every single one of them spent years of their life debating whether to start wearing shutter shades as part of their daily ensemble.

And as soon as college kids started rapping about skipping class to smoke weed, the rap game only needed a short theoretical jump to get dudes like me, whose idea of a fun time involves reading Walter Benjamin essays, spitting about the finer points of continental philosophy. Which brings us to the current final form of college rap: Milo.

Born Rory Ferreira in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Milo is without question the most hyper-intellectual rapper to ever do it. In interviews, he weighs the pros and cons of a deontological moral stance and throws around Schopenhauer quotes in the same way Waka Flocka throws around “Brick Squad!”s. He made an album entirely out of America samples, titles songs with things like “Gaudeamus igitur (For Kang Min-Gyu),” had one of his lyrics published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and has the distinction of being the only rapper to have ever released a track that includes an explanation of the Kantian notion of the Sublime (with reference to Kim Kardashian’s ass, no less).

But beyond appealing to the pedantic philosophile living inside my head, however, I find Milo incredibly fascinating because he seems to have found a way to bridge the gap between Kant and Kanye, between the technical jargon used in American academic circles and the cultural vocabulary available to the rest of hip hop’s MC roster. He’s occupying the sort of middle ground Kanye inhabited in 2004 — the kind of fertile territory that can produce major cultural shifts, provided that an artist with the right blend of vision and stubbornness makes their way onto the field. Depending on how things go, Milo and like-minded artists (and there are a few, including Hellfyre Club labelmates Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver and Kool A.D. of Das Racist) could produce a new type of musical avant-garde: art rap with the kind of enlightened pessimism and semi-ironic pop culture reference that makes critics and people who like to think of themselves as “cultured” get googly eyes and start shelling out cash.

DePollo is terribly sorry for reminding everyone about Asher Roth. To demand a personal letter of apology, email adepollo@umich.edu.

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