This morning, I spent ten minutes watching Kanye West let rip at ‘Corporations’ in an anti-commercial, anti-Justin Timberlake rant at a recent show in London. Regardless of the aptness of the venue for the outburst (one similar rant, titled ‘Pinocchio Story‘ and delivered live in Singapore was released as part of ‘808s and Heartbreak’) it takes someone like Kanye to shift the focus of hip-hop. As a massive production, press, marketing, visual and commercial enterprise, only those who wield significant power in the genre and whose antics might garner international attention can afford to throw a spanner in the works and grind the machine to a halt. The irony behind Kanye’s railing against the corporate fatcats whose daughters he’s apparently made to meet before every show is difficult to avoid. This is, after all, the guy who released Air Yeezys with Nike and plays into the fashion-industrial complex more than many others of his ilk. But while his motivations might be questionable and his delivery even more so, there’s no doubting that when he takes the stage to decry something/one, Kanye West means it.
Watching Kanye’s rant and hearing an obviously uncomfortable audience cheer awkwardly as he told the Grammys to ‘suck my dick’ had me thinking about a simpler time for hip-hop, when it wasn’t burdened with being one of the mainstays of the Top 40 or having inevitable profound effects on all the genres that surround it. Hip-hop, as a thoughtful piece by Jon Caramanica in the New York Times this week suggested, is not in a comfortable place at the moment. Having been born in the margins and thrived with this peripheral status, hip-hop must now confront the notion that everything it does is front-and-centre, driving popular culture for better or worse. Kanye West shouldn’t be surprised by this. With ‘Niggas In Paris‘ and now with ‘Mercy’ and ‘Clique‘, Kanye has helped produce some of the most recent tunes which have helped hip-hop nudge its way into the mainstream. Biggie, were he alive today, might have had a slightly different opinion on the contemporary hip-hop landscape he surveyed. As a bastion of ‘mafioso rap’, his posthumously-released ‘Life After Death’ took in the general themes of the day: clothes, drugs, gun violence. It would have been hard for B.I.G. to imagine that the commercial success of this album would be matched, and sustained, by artists post-2000 such that the genre came in from the fringes to define much of what popular music is today.
I like this song off ‘Life After Death’ (which also features more recognisable cuts like ‘Mo Money Mo Problems‘ and ‘Hypnotize‘) because it hints at a certain vulnerability which is not often a facet of the mafioso persona Biggie adopts across his discography. There is defiance and anger, posturing and machismo peppered across this album and ‘Ready To Die’ but rarely that mix of self-aggrandisement and an awareness of his fast path to it that characterises this song. On ‘Sky Is The Limit’, we get Biggie being the thug he usually is but we also get Biggie slightly self-conscious, tempering his aggression and confidence for a moment to take in hopes and dreams. It is this perspective which hip-hop, riding the gravy train of late with no end to the tracks in sight, now seems to lack. Or when that introspection does come, it so often seems forced or pre-prepared. The contribution of RnB group 112 goes a long way towards establishing the reflective mood in this piece as Notorious’ characteristically sharp delivery is blunted by the soulful harmonies on the chorus. But more than that, the charm of this song comes from context, being released at a time when the expectations for hip-hop – commercial, critical and otherwise – were less intense than they are now. A throwback to 1997 and the realization that hip-hop need not be hemmed in by typical commercial imperatives might calm Kanye. The sky’s the limit.
Notorious B.I.G. – Sky’s The Limit