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By John L. Jackson Jr


Wednesday, January 28, 2009.


Kanye West has just released his latest CD, 808s and Heartbreak, an instrumentally pared-down and techno’d-up attempt to voice disillusionment about his recent breakup with his fiancée (several months ago) and the unexpected death of his mother during elective plastic surgery last year.

West if probably best known (especially to folks who aren’t big hip-hop fans) as the celebrity who blasted the former US President George W. Bush during a national telethon because of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said. The comment caused quite a stir, and even compelled him to lampoon himself on a subsequent episode of Saturday Night Live.

Kanye’s newest offering is an introspective (some might say, solipsistic) attempt to articulate his sense of dissatisfaction with the spiritual/emotional vacuity of commercial success and all its material trappings. 


It is also a hip-hop emcee’s attempt to sing and not just rap. That might not seem like such a big deal to people who don’t follow hip-hop music. But it is an incredibly bold move given the internal logics of hip-hop.

Lauryn Hill and and Queen Latifah are examples of hip-hop emcees who move easily between rhyming and singing. But they are exceptions to the rule. They are also women. And hip-hop polices female emcees much differently than their male counterparts.

For hip-hop’s male emcees, singing is a definite no-no. They only ever approach that domain gingerly and self-consciously. Hip-hop singers generally don’t try to rhyme. And hip-hop’s rappers don’t sing -- not sincerely. If anything, they approach that dividing line with a kind of self-parodic anti-virtuosity, a satirical tone immortalized by the likes of 1980s hip-hop pioneer Biz Markie:

There are dozens of male emcees who have deployed this anti-singing trope in their work. Ol’ Dirty Bastard is probably the closest to Biz Markie’s canonized status in that genre, but everyone from 50 Cent to Flava Flav have used it in some of their music. For hip-hop emcees, singing is usually relegated to catchy hooks during a song's chorus -- and sung by other artists. Anything else seems to confound implicit assumptions about how hip-hop masculinity performs itself in public.

There are a few male emcees who have tried to traverse that performative division of labor within hip-hop musical production without tongue-in-cheek inflections -- and without their hip-hop authenticity/reputation taking a public beating, figures such Mos Def, Michael Franti, and K-OS most immediately come to mind.

Kayne West’s latest studio effort attempts to vocalize his hurt and angst. And it does so through singing as much as rhyming. For hip-hop, that is a pretty radical intervention for an emcee to make. Of course, West has always been out there on an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic island all by himself somewhere -- for better or worse. We’ll see how his fans respond to this latest aesthetic mix of bold-faced egotism and would-be genius.


Dr John L. Jackson Jr., is an academic, writer and social commentator.  He is an associate professor of communication and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. His latest book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, was published by Basic Civitas. He writes regularly for various publications including The Chronicle of Higher Education, and  blogs as Anthroman at http://anthromania.blogspot.com


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