Far away from the big, shiny cars with great suspension, loaded with girls and dollar bills stuffed into every crevice, there is another world. Many American rappers are getting rid of all the showing off and are rediscovering angry blues. They’re performing the risky art of tightrope walking, exposing themselves as lost, stoned and enraged, their flows infused with obscure and beautiful metaphors, supported by fragile loops from stolen melodies.
In the same way as when you read a good novel you get into the skin of the character imagined by the writer, listening to this kind of hip-hop is to experience the same emotions as the singer and to live what they’re living. It’s a dark journey into the heart of pain and anguish. The anger of Billy Woods’ energetic flow pierces the heart (“Spider Hole”) and Earl Sweatshirt’s mournful vocals overwhelm the listener (“Pre”).
In the face of suffering there is always a choice. One can denounce the continued and active segregation present in American voting laws (“It’s the Law”), or make oneself as light and inconsistent as a cloud and get high (“Life Goes On”, “Written at Night”). Some artists rack their brains and face the dizzying mystery of being by reading Heidegger (“Napping Under the Echo Tree”). Others offer themselves to God who will forgive us all our trespasses better than we ever could (“Walk by Faith”). Lil Ugly Name, on the other hand, sinks into total nihilism, and imagines death as the definitive confinement in the cold and the void.
As for the music, the producers can squeeze anger from a Sun Ra sample (“No Days Off”) and from dub-laden landscapes (“Maroons”). They can express deep melancholy through shaking, doctored soundtracks (“Night Lights”), the distant memory of a guitar (“Life is a Wheel”, “kol’ game”, “Rust”), and even a marimba playing a childlike melody (“Lunar”).
This new hip-hop scene seeks to express pain without trying to exorcise it or sensationalise it. How can one not be moved when Jay-Z and Jay Electronica evoke the loss of a loved one with a fragility that marks all those who’ve suffered (“A.P.I.D.T.A”)? The hip-hop of today reflects a poetry of breaking down.