Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Down With the Chumps

America seethes with so much racial anxiety/animosity that getting depressed about a musical genre seems a dubious expenditure of emotion--especially since what was once known as rap and now calls itself hip hop hasn't exactly vanished from the charts or the national consciousness. On both fronts, the big news remains the vague, ominous emanation pundits refer to as "gangsta rap." In the Billboard 200 for December 2, top-25 albums by Tha Dogg Pound, Cypress Hill, and Genius/GZA might be so categorized with malice by Robert Dole, for argument's sake by me. Going down the list I could add more than half a dozen acts from Cleveland, Memphis, Atlanta, NoCal, SoCal, and NYC. They easily outnumber the nongangstas (several of whom would scare the shit out of the average senator anyway): original O.G. KRS-One, falling off after a piddling six-week run; tough-talking Erick Sermon, 35 to 71 in his second week; the venerable L.L. Cool J, set to rocket in on a big sex ballad and then plummet to his just reward; the Pharcyde, sole current representers of a once promising, now marginalized hip hop counterculture; and my man Coolio.

Granting that the variety and invention of this crop of albums surpasses all punditry, what's worst for a professional listener who's loved the genre for 15 years is how uncompelling they are. Not one would knock out a curious outsider the way cultural signposts like Public Enemy or De La Soul or personal touchstones like the Goats or Roxanne Shanté once could, and concomitantly they render me a curious outsider as well. In receptive moments I murmur at this or that feat of beat, fall for cuts, catch moods. But with one or two exceptions I don't expect ever to play any of them for fun as long as I live. This is fine with most hip hoppers, who feel so beleaguered by every kind of "critic" that they've incorporated bootstrap economics, identity politics, the cliquish localism of dozens of neighborhood music scenes, and the formal hair-splitting endemic to all arcane arts into a fervent if malleable ethos of purity. Although this ethos imperils hip hop's cash flow and cultural health, I don't feel judgmental about it, because whatever its ultimate wisdom it's clearly a defensive reaction against racism rising and a class war that comes down hardest on African American unity and survival. I just wish the explanation did more for the music.

As I must note even in this enlightened journal, it's not accurate to charge that most of the records lumped into gangsta advocate violence, although whether they glorify it remains a closer question. The typical hardcore MC depicts street life with cartoonish exaggeration, narrative relish, and a cold eye, only to warn that it leads to no good. The pessimism isn't merely pro forma--these days, criminal-minded rappers, all of whom used to come on like hedonistic egomaniacs, are just as often thin-skinned, self-contained, death-obsessed. Unfortunately, the social potential of this development is limited--as genocidal as the mortality statistics of young black males are, the vast majority do pass 30, with more important things to think about than facing suckers down. And if metal and its progeny have taught us anything, it's that the aesthetic fascination of Romantic morbidity wears out fast.

Nor can we depend on music to save the day. At their most vibrant, West Coast funk variations do have the virtue of making Quik sound like a slowhand and Snoop's doggs seem human, but that doesn't mean you have to like them. And Wu-Tang obscurantism, which has proven the East Coast's most effective response to this commercial power source, is almost as willful about beats as it is about the true-crime thrillas it camouflages so postmodernistically, leaving those reluctant to fully delve Staten Island's mysteries more impressed than moved. On the Genius/GZA album, I love the shit out of "Shadowboxin'"'s treated vocal hook without having any idea what the song is about or much interest in being told. Given the scrambled track listings, I consider it an intellectual accomplishment to have figured out the title.

It would be absurd to ask Coolio to lead hip hop out of this wilderness. Not only is he less original and ambitious than lapsed visionaries Chuck D and Posdnuos, he's considerably less brilliant than the Long Beach or Staten Island posses. In fact, subbrilliance is one thing the 32-year-old with the goofy street-dread braids is selling. It's a cliche for MCs to portray themselves as ex-dealers who haven't so much reformed as landed a better job. But the young Artis Ivey actually did time--for passing a money order he says he didn't steal, only that's OK because he was boosting plenty else at the time. Coolio didn't sell drugs, he bought them--he freely admits he was a crackhead for a while. In gangsta-inflected hip hop, work in the crack trade is seen as regrettable but honorable. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and after all, somebody's gonna get those chumps their merchandise, so it might as well be a player, a black father, whatever. Coolio is down with the chumps.

From its title on down, 1994's It Takes a Thief made a point of Coolio's criminal authenticity. Stix were smoked, suckers were dissed, hoes fucked, gats waved, cops shot. But several such moments seemed like sops to his boys, and at its best and best-selling the album also made a point of the hopes and vulnerabilities he was no longer young enough to feel embarrassed about. Gangsta's Paradise (Tommy Boy) takes off from there. The irresistible, Stevie-Wonder/Dangerous Minds-propelled title hit is explicitly fictional--"I'm 23 now but will I live to see 24?"--and explicitly cautionary. Except for two dumb guest-G boastfests and an unfortunate skit called "Recoup This"--in which a double platinum rapper murders not only his (black, as it happens) label owner, which isn't funny, but the owner's secretary, which is sadistic--this isn't the music of Everygangsta. It belongs to the two ordinary "ghetto" dwellers (they use the term, although they prefer "this motherfucker"), a scuffling hustler and a striving student, whose dialogue kicks things off. Having made his fortune reinterpreting Lakeside's "Fantastic Voyage," the veteran thief steals more pop-funk hooks than anybody since decaplatinum Hammer--from Stevie, Sly, Smokey, Kool, the Isleys, Billy Paul. And his themes are equally universal.

There's a softly nostalgic song about pitching woo and a sneakily scary song (with a sensationally scary video) about AIDS. There are credibly wacky songs about partying and getting fucked up, credibly sweet songs about parenting and black womanhood. With a major assist from Mr. Paul, there's even a guilty song about, of all things, adultery. And then there are all the songs about life in this motherfucker. Every one is violent, and not one comes close to glorifying violence. These citizens will tell anybody naive enough to think they're cool how they wish they could escape the trap of the street. They fight the law and the law wins. They fight each other and nobody wins. Their basic advice is to punk out when you're called out. They're totally unheroic. And in this, one concludes upon information and belief, they're far more typical of their homies than the vauntedly real-side tough guys who populate the self-generated cartoons, monster movies, fantasies, and ambitions of hip hop fans in and out of the inner city and its suburban simulacra.

Coolio isn't a great rapper, although his articulation from within what's almost a slight speech defect does sum up his everyday smarts. Nor is he a great thinker--community leaders and plainer folks have been making these points for years, and the hard-working adults who head most ghetto households know how true they are. Purists will label him a sellout, and among too many listeners I wish knew better they'll prevail. But they can't destroy his realness, or the deep satisfaction he offers fans with an aversion to bullshit. Next time somebody starts palavering about the gangsta scourge, mention this convicted felon you know. Hum a few bars and you might even shut the fool up for a while.

Village Voice, Dec. 12, 1995

Revised in Grown Up All Wrong