I came up with what I thought was an interesting idea for an article; I, a heavy-metal fanatic who knows nothing about hip-hop, would review Jay-Z and Kanye's "Watch The Throne". I figured it would be a nice angle. However, upon listen (after listen, after listen), I realized that I have no idea how to listen to WTT, or any hip-hop for that matter. That bothered me a little bit.
First off, a little mini-review of the album. It's boring. And I think it's boring on purpose. When two acts (and egos) as big as Jay-Z and Kanye, I kind of expected some huge extravaganza, but instead, the album just kind of drones on. Again, on purpose.
It's basically a bunch of songs reminding you who's on top, why being on top sucks, why being on top makes them more important than you, etc. I take it that I'm supposed to literally "watch the throne", and just observe a couple of millionaires while they explain to me what it's like to be them.
This all puzzles me. Hip-hop puzzles me. WTT is a prime example of the disconnect us rockers have with hip-hop and rap; it actually promotes being wealthy, rich and famous. Hair metal attempted this in the 1980s, but was brought down to irrelevancy by grunge bands who proclaimed disgust at those who glorified a lifestyle they could never relate to. I guess it's possible there will be some kind of "poor man's rap" revolution, but I doubt it. And really, the bragging isn't the problem here. It's how they brag.
The whole basis of the community is that of celebrity-watching. A good portion of the lyrics of WTT, and the majority of rap and hip-hop, are extremely personal. I don't mean that in the way No Doubt's "Don't Speak" or Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" is personal. Rock songs about specific periods or events are presented generally enough so that everybody can relate to them. Rappers constantly name-drop people and places, and the consequences and reactions to them, in a way that's not relatable to anybody except them. If Gwen Stefani was a rapper (which, apparently, she thinks she is now), she would have written the chorus as "Tony Kanal, don't speak". That would've replaced the "I understand what she's going through, because I've dealt with the same thing" experience with "I understand what she's going through because I read the details in Rolling Stone".
For example, the website www.rapgenius.com not only provides lyrics for rap music, but also makes them clickable to explain the meaning. Of every line. A rap song can contain fifty different points within a three-minute period, whereas rock music is normally a broad outlining of one singular point. And more importantly, as stated above, a lot of those points are artist-specific, which means you have to have a working knowledge of the artist, his personal life and career to even understand anything that he is singing about. I mean, that seems like a lot of fucking work.
That's because hip-hop and rap are lifestyle-based. To say you're a Kanye fan is to say something about how you view Kanye's life and personality. You can enjoy Creed and not be Christian, all it means to any other rock fan is that you enjoy shitty music. But hip-hop is so centered around the artist, that you can't possibly be a fan of someone without following and being aware of that person's representation within the community, and therefore agreeing with it.
This is where my inherit uncoolness comes into play. It's not that I don't like hip-hop music in and of itself, but more like I am just too late to the party. I know nothing about Jay-Z, Kanye or any other hip-hop/rap artist, and to pick and choose what songs I like based merely off sonic agreeability would be naive. It's a commitment to be a fan of this genre. I'd be as prepared as someone who just decides to start following the English Premier League. I mean, which teams are the top dogs, which are the underachievers, who do the inside soccer fans root for, what would be considered bandwagoning, etc., etc. Too many questions. Nobody cares why I would start listening to WASP, all it'd say about me is that I like hard rock music (and that guys who wear makeup and codpieces that shoot fire don't bother me). Hip-hop fans care.
It makes sense, considering the celebrity-driven culture we live in. It also explains why rock is so dead. Hip-hop remains relevant because of the debates it organically creates. You choose sides in rap. Rock music is way more compartmentalized. Rock's biggest community, heavy metal, can't even be defined by popular culture anymore. It's specialized into black metal, death metal, hair metal, rap metal or whatever. There are no arguments over the validity of bands because the fans pretty much stay within whatever sub-genre they like. It's what drove rock music down in terms of mass popularity. There needs to be some kind of cultural relevance. You can't have that when everyone is separated.
The devil is in the details. You need to know them to appreciate hip-hop. I don't. This makes me very uncool. However, I think there's something to be said about music that leaves you guessing, imagining and dreaming. Hip-hop does none of these things. It's the reality television of music (granted, much more viable and important). I know what The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" is about, but I don't need to know to enjoy it. The listening experience is about me and what I can project into it, which connects it to more intellectual music like jazz or classical. Rap and hip-hop stand alone in its descriptiveness and self-centered attitude.
So I can say, thanks to Watch The Throne, that while I get it, I have no want to understand it. I will go my own way.