Hip-hop not dead but on life-support

OK, maybe it’s not dead, but the breathing tubes are definitely in place.

There Kanye West was, onstage at the Grammys, accepting the award for best rap album, donning blinding white shades and an illuminated jacket, playing the role of the world’s gaudiest defibrillator.

“A lot of people said hip-hop is dead — not just Nas,” West observed. “A lot of people said the art form wasn’t poppin’ like that any more.”

Thing is, Nas was pretty much right. Tried to listen to mainstream urban radio of late? Soulja Boy? Webbie? Young Jeezy? And you thought I was a hack. Seriously, those dudes will kill your brain faster than a steady diet of paint chips and Rob Schneider flicks.

Since I first got into hip-hop in the late ’80s with albums such as Ice-T’s “Power,” Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions…” and N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” I can’t recall a worse year for the genre than ’07.

Yeah, the continued success of West — a guy who bridges the gap between the brazen commercial aspirations of mainstream rappers and their more socially conscious underground counterparts — was a welcome development, especially his thumping of 50 Cent, a fusillade of by-the-numbers gangsta cliches with less personality than the dumbbells he hefts.

Still, hip-hop’s decline has become self-evident, and it’s so disheartening because it’s pretty much been the most vital form of mainstream music since the early ’90s. How many rock bands possessed the righteous anger of TuPac, the Byzantine ambitiousness of the Wu-Tang Clan or the wild-eyed genre bending of Outkast? Not too many.

So where did things go wrong? Well, it began with the elevation of beats over lyrics, the lamest trend since the rise of the sock puppet. The exploding popularity of crunk — and hyphy on the West Coast — wasn’t a bad thing in of itself, as the sounds once were fresh and concussive, and there were plenty of highlights (Killer Mike’s “Monster,” Three 6 Mafia’s “Most Known Unknown”).

But things have devolved into a mess of incessant call and response chants and little else, one strip club anthem after the next with all the sensuality of nude pictures of Ernest Borgnine.

Yeah, there have been some good, under-the-radar releases in the past year (El-P’s “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass”) but even former heavyweights have fallen off.

Jay-Z hasn’t dropped a crucial album in five years, and Nas, who famously declared the genre to be D.O.A. on his most recent disc, hasn’t done much to help it survive either with a slew of average LPs.

What’s the solution? For the old school to ease up on the bitterness and the new guard to realize that their audience extends beyond topless chicks in see-through high heels who go by the name of Stormy.

Until then, we’ll hold off on sounding hip-hop’s death knell, but better hope no one unplugs the iron lung any time soon.

Jason Bracelin’s “Sounding Off” column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 383-0476 or e-mail him at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com.

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