American music is self-absorbed. The obsession on the experience, personality, skill, and individuality of the performer is rooted in the DNA of most vital early styles, most notably in solo blues performances, instrumental jazz solos, and the spotlight placed on the multitude of musicians who entered into the celebrity wing of popular music. This ubiquitous use of “I” and the first person lyric style can be traced back to “ I woke up this morning” themes in the blues, (epitomized by Son House in “Walkin’ Blues”) Where the “I” approach is used as the gateway often to larger themes of love, infidelity, and the multitude of social realities surrounding life in the rural south. It has reached new peaks in the last ten years, at least according to Dr. Nathan DeWall, who’s 2011 study determined: “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” As was hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently in the last few decades, along with what are labeled “anger-related words”, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” as well as the expression of positive emotions. “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.”
Hip-hop is no more or less self-obsessed than any other genre, but is the most striking. This may have something to do with a still relatively young genre that shifted so dramatically and quickly in terms of content and depth of purpose. Early artists created music that functioned for parties, large crowds, dancers, and often downplayed the participation of MC’s. It was also drawing on many influences from the contemporary dance and punk practices of the period, and self consciously trying to cast the widest net possible in the emergent national radio market. It also may be unmatched to the degree that un-broadcast-able self-aggrandizement of monetary, physical, and sexual attributes raised the ire of a mainstream public while simultaneously exploding into global music phenomena.
Grandmaster flash introduced the idea of biographical realism, graphically describing the brutal realities of the segregated south Bronx in 1982’s “The Message.” The success and influence of this piece rests in the ability for listeners to relate to Flash’s delivery, whether they were living in the Bronx or not. For subsequent artists, a biographical account, even if not entirely real, provided an intense reservoir of personal experience that would resonate with others with similar experiences, but also for a global audience that would be able to adapt the specify of the approach as an adaptable metaphor for their own background. This of course is a similar phenomenon to many other forms of music, especially rock and roll. Teen angst is universal, regardless of background, and a new musical language offers a similar catharsis to blocks of culturally underrepresented listeners. The forms may change through the decades, but the function for the listener, especially if they are going through predictable modes of psychological development, is similar.
The outer world gives way to the realities and necessarily complex communication of the inner as a musical style develops. This transition is seen in its nacent stages in “The Message”, but has taken center stage with pieces like Kendrick Lamar’s “What a Dollar Cost?” The track has been lauded, and combines a relatable metaphor of success, guilt, and imperfection with an invitation for the listener to engage in a kind of emotional and cultural voyeurism. The track describes Lamar’s experience with a fictional homeless person, taking the listener through various confessions of the rapper’s proposed arrogance toward a crack-addicted panhandler. The slow, dark Phrygian 12/8 groove is punctuated by moments of harmonized melody, and integrates past and present tenses as the narrative flips between panhandler and Lamar. Lamar describes the track as “…me talking to him was simply a thank you from God. And I felt God speaking through him to get at me.”
This inner world is where a listener will determine whether the track succeeds or not. Lamar’s descriptions in the track are those of a young man, confused by his own success and an apparent lack of cultural authenticity. Not as beguiling as the inner turmoil of other artists perhaps such as Charles Mingus, and even the “homeless person is god” metaphor comes off as a tired cliché, that is unless one has never heard it. To this extent Lamar’s rap is perhaps relatable to a young audience, but the track succeeds when the delivery consumes the message itself, filling in holes within the ego driven narrative with a musical substance that supplants the occasional lack of universality of the metaphor with a groove and orchestration that communicates meaning that the biography and the metaphor leave out. Here Love Dragon’s production is a vital component. The track creates a world inside the head of Lamar’s character, oscillating between looking out and looking in, dialogues and introspections. Even if one finds the content somewhat lacking, the delivery is certainly not. In this regard the sophistication of Lamar’s lines is such that the dizzying amount of energy emanating from his structure and delivery eclipse the simplicity of the narrative. The relatability of “I” story becomes real on a musical level first. Ironically, the obsession of the track in Lamar’s pious life lesson leaves the beggar as invisible and unrecognized as Lamar faults himself for making him.