People – especially dopey, two-months-behind-the-times columnists like the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones – love making sweeping pronouncements about the nature of hip-hop. Music is a manifestation of the human creative spirit; it is born of a whole slew of political and economic circumstances. Duh. In that way it possesses import both psychological and societal. But music is also a business. And sometimes music is about business. And sometimes that business is pushing weight. Is this even interesting?
Backtrack to the seventies. More than a few long-haired rockers subscribed to the notion that drugs were transcendent, that wild-‘n’-tawdry weeklong peyote binges in Topanga Canyon could inspire word-art that could inspire twenty-minute noise collages, which became soundtracks for semi-flaccid love. Drugs were a part of the process, and that explained why the final products were often so impenetrable, bloated, and irrelevant. When does wide-eyed experimental lyricism become just – well – stoner-speak?
This, of course, is not coke rap. You don’t have to do any coke to produce this stuff. In fact, it’s probably advisable that you don’t. Check out this bit from Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too”:
Listen haters, I doin’ deals like the majors
Ice Cream sneakers, I signed my first skater
So you can pay three and buy yourself some Bapestas
Bulletproof on the T-shirts because they hate us
Dude like Snoop say “Step yo’ game up”
Double the Cabo, Mediterrain’ up
D class-action cuts, tuck your chain up
Liberachi fingers, just hit Lorraine up
Note the feminine rhyme and sublime ear in the last four lines, especially the neologism “Medditerrain’ up.” I don’t know what it means, but I see a palazzo, Chianti, and several gorgeous women. These guys are setting up symbols then tearing them down. Our understanding of coke rap begins here.
Clipse’s Terrence and Gene Thornton, known by the sobriquets Pusha-T and Malice, have more or less spearheaded the movement. Or, more aptly put, they have capitalized mightily upon a whole suite of drug-trade, “street-wise,” and consumerist tropes swirling around in the 21st-century aether. Coke rap focuses not on innovation but rather on tight-as-a-harp-string jabs within a given set of parameters. Maybe that’ why it’s so baffling to critics like Frere-Jones, who insists upon situating Clipse’s work within a milieu of unrelated and unironic idiot-pop. He offers this:
“When Keith Richards fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji last April and injured his head, the incident was greeted by jokes about whether there was much left inside his skull to harm. TV shows like VH1’s “Behind the Music” thrive on stories of musicians on drug binges, snorting lines off recording-studio consoles.”
By Frere-Jones’s way of thinking, Clipse – and their likeminded comrades Ghostface, Young Jeezy, and Lil’ Wayne – have taken up the decadent mantle of their snow-rawk forbears. But they’re on the supply-side, and this industry has its consequences. Note how Malice characterizes the Great Beyond in “The Funeral”:
Malice was true to the game for 9 innings –
We love sinnin – but now I answer for that
Apologize to my fame I got y’all dressing in black
A long line family and friends signin’ in
My niece singin’, solo organs and violin
Wife in her black veil hands flooded with diamonds
Remaining calm under each arm, my children
Daddy’s in a better place entering golden doors
With ivory, all-white pillars and marble floors
Brand new physical frame with no flaws
On my throne that’s guarded by angels with 4-4’s
As the first line indicates, Clipse is embedded in a tradition, but hardly one of unfocused partydom. Hip-hop is a game; that is, hip-hop forces the artist to tailor rhyme, social relevance, and the hook to realities of an overarching business model. This stuff has got to sell. Malice admits that his group “loves sinnin'” and is prepared for the consequences. But what kind of Heaven do we find? Something out of Scarface. Taking Montana’s stylized fall-from-grace to newly divine heights, post-death Malice is just as he was, only bulkier, better protected, hanging out in sweeter digs.
So coke rap’s not about drugs. Then why has the motif taken root? I have a few guesses.
For one thing, cocaine acts on the body and mind in certain easily-replicated and identified ways. The drug embodies the sort of cold, calculated euphoria accountants, academics, and ravers can really get behind – divvied up by line, it dispenses with hippie-era notions of ‘community’ and makes a drug purchase just like a CD purchase. Queue up, pay up, get your fix. Clipse has succeeded in underscoring that link. We can’t even know how many keys they’ve sold, but we know exactly what they’ve bought – yachts, Bathing Ape hoodies, gold houses. We take note of the conspicuous consumption and interpolate a criminal-mythical backstory. Much of coke rap’s allure is predicated on the listener’s willingness to make this leap.
And let’s face it: llallo gives the lyricist a lot of latitude. As Frere-Jones points out (somewhat heavy-handedly), Clipse have developed their own argot. And why not? Feast:
So much glamour, that I can’t stand the
Bright from the ice, chain Xenon lamp yo
Depression in yo’ mind like a free-frame camera
The white-tape tight like ya seen on pampers
What’s under the couch? Probably freeze up Santa
Whatever it cost baby we got answers
Line outside full of Jo-Jo dancers
“We Got It for Cheap” that’s the Re-Up anthem
Cocaine-as-trope is shellacked over the work’s fundamental thematic elements. These cuts aren’t just for dealers – in fact, they’re probably not for dealers at all. They’re not even intended especially for illicit-drug consumers. Rather, it’s a question as old as the middle-school playground: do you get it? That is to say, are you willing to hear ‘cocaine’ and substitute any number of realities concerning the urban male condition? The real issue is not a prolonged desensitization to the sound of ‘coke’ in your headphones, but a one-time, upfront acknowledgment that coke equals respect equals life.
Thus the true nature of the cocaine-rap phenomenon reveals itself. In the self-termed ‘independent music’ press, Clipse and Ghostface have received significant, occasionally bombastic acclaim – especially for acts signed to major-label subsidiaries. The tight-jeans set loves this whole scene, and the interplay between urban hipsterdom and the rappers themselves cannot be ignored. Just this winter Pusha and Malice headlined a show at a Bowery-owned New York venue. Pitchfork, the online music blogozine that has broken pop-rock darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and the Arcade Fire, awaited the group’s most recent Hell Hath No Fury with bated breath.
Nowhere is this symbiosis more pronounced than in the recent Girl Talk mash-up of Clipse’s “Wamp Wamp (What It Do)” with the Grizzly Bear track “Knife.” The latter outfit is an exercise of the current indie rock soft-loud-soft formula; a plodding baseline and wall-of-sound moan build a trampoline for Pusha’s nasal attack. “Me hesitate none pop ya,” he declares with relish, and Grizzly Bear are right along with him. Add to this the overwhelming crossover appeal of Girl Talk (whose melding of Top-40’s glimmering generalities to college radio’s earnest tunefulness deserves its own examination), and you begin to see just how well coke rap and skinny boys can get along.
The question inevitably becomes sociological. Coke rap is content with its leitmotifs, its players, its turns-of-phrase. Those who spotted the trend early enough have made it big, and plenty more hangers-on will eventually suck the marrow out. We might take this moment to tout the unity of modern music, its ability to cross racial and socioeconomic lines in order to further some notion of artistic togetherness. But that kind of celebration is meaningless and, in the end, false. A lack of rigorous formal introspection – that same malaise permitting two hundred Shins clones in a two year span – afflicts Ghostface and his crew. At a Clipse show in Brooklyn, everyone displays the same commodity fetishes; everyone might even sport the same despicable chin-beard or other such nonsense. But at the end of the night, after the lights have gone down, the vast majority of the room heads back to Williamsburg or LES, while the entire movement’s generative presence lies farther east, beyond the gentrified frontiers.
It’s the kind of duality even well-intentioned musicheads are loath to acknowledge. Guys like Pusha and Malice don’t deserve the blame. But the members of Clipse aren’t making illegal deals anymore, if they ever did. Younger kids take that business, and they can’t afford the jazzy ironic trappings. Coke rap requires, more than anything else, a comfortable distance from the horrors of the real-world drug trade. It is a distance easily forgotten or ignored.