The formative years of my musical taste is something of a blur. Somewhere in the past 15 years, I went from listening to Bush to Metallica (full disclosure) to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Mogwai to, now, Lil Wayne.
Like most pre-teens, I followed the trends. I loved Deep Blue Something when they released “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Live’s “Lightning Crashes” and Bush’s “Machinehead” were instant hits. These were the songs of my youth, and I devoured them in all their 89X/MTV/what-have-you glory.
I grew up during the peak of the alternative craze – a time when, seemingly, every hack that picked up a guitar released a good song, if not entire album. Think about it: Blues Traveler, Gin Blossoms, Fuel, Creed, Bush, Oasis, Counting Crows and Garbage. While groups like the Pixies were exploding in the college-radio/indie-rock scene, mainstream radio had its own set of stars and Billboard toppers.
But as these groups aged, so too did their formula and the widespread production of these incredible singles. “Hey Jealousy” gave way to “Last Resort.” The airwaves became flooded with cookie-cut pop-punkers like Papa Roach and Blink 182. The ingenuity and catchy hooks dissolved into a mass of 7-string guitars and rocking-out-with-one’s-cock-out.
It seemed for some time that mainstream music had been completely ruined. There was nothing worthwhile on the radio, MTV was a vapid wasteland and with each new, passing fad, it seemed like the popular realm was moving more towards banality, lacking all originality and those famously singable choruses. But like nature, the mainstream always finds a way.
In the past several years, despite what anyone tells you, popular music has found its savior in mainstream hip hop.
I know what you’re thinking: “Aesop Rock and Talib Kweli are the only legitimate rappers and anyone who glorifies the thug lifestyle is (insert derogatory adjective).” To you: I call bullshit. Not only is the indie-/conscious-rap genre typically played out and overly aggrandized, but also, there’s much more to the tracks constantly spinning at your local hip-hop radio station.
Let’s take, for example, 50 Cent. A top-to-bottom atrocious rapper, 50 released one of the better gangster rap albums of the last decade in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (not to be confused with his film of the same name). The breakthrough single “In Da Club” still gets played at clubs and parties, while it boasts the most memorable chorus sung by a dude with a drawling slur this side of Kanye West’s “Through the Wire.” Get Rich also produced singles “What Up Gangsta,” “21 Questions,” “Wanksta” and “P.I.M.P.” aside from all of the incredible album tracks like “Many Men” and “High All the Time.”
Many attribute the album’s success to Dr. Dre’s production, arguing that anyone could make a great album with that many great beats. And while that may be true, it doesn’t matter. 50 Cent released a great album by whatever means.
Similarly, the Virginian duo Clipse and the Houston goliath Slim Thug have both released classic albums with the help of wonder-producers the Neptunes. Though both artists have impeccable flow on their own, their recent albums Hell Hath No Fury and Already Platinum, respectively, were essentially guaranteed to be stellar with the help of these astounding beats.
But even though not all mainstream MCs are afforded the luxury of an entire disc of mixtape-worthy beats like 50, Clipse and Slim Thug, everyone seems to be dropping sugar-sweet hooks and explosive singles. Fat Joe – who has, arguably, the worst lyricism and flow in recent memory – released the incredibly catchy “Lean Back” even in the face of his own ineptitude, while artists like Rihanna can release an “Umbrella” without batting an eye. Say what you will about Unk, “Walk It Out” is one hell of a club banger.
Everyone complains that this mindset means the death of the record industry – the focus on singles rather than outstanding albums – but this is the way its always been. It’s difficult to pin down the best albums from the Motown/Stax period because of their insistence on high-flying singles. Hell, the mid-’90s were all about the singles. How else would anyone remember Creed?
Faced will all of this, it becomes clear that we’re currently experiencing the golden age of mainstream hip hop – as bothersome as that might be for some people. But those people have to learn that great music isn’t all about being “deep” and “arty.” The ’00s will be remembered as the shift from legitimate pop-rock to pop-hip hop. Just let it happen. Or just “Lean with it, rock with it.”
Gaerig’s favorite Friday-night activity is singing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org to sing with him.