Bucking Rap’s Trends
While some artists like to jump on trends, two recent hip-hop releases show a pair of artists who get their kicks out of the opposite—resisting popular waves, and defining themselves against the prevailing orthodoxy. “I don’t believe people are like, really, really rapping,” the veteran rapper Pusha T told NPR. He sees his new album My Name Is My Name as a corrective to the “easy listening” mode of current hip-hop, which he believes has “nothing abrasive about it.” Back in January, the up-and-comer Danny Brown also took aim at the establishment, telling the site Pitchfork that his music “can’t sound like no fucking Kanye orchestra shit. That ain’t me.” Despite different histories and collaborators, Pusha and Brown display some similar ideas about what rap is missing right now.
Pusha raps with grim focus on My Name Is My Name, mostly in one mode: throwing solid punches of closely locked word patterns, shoulders hunched, guard up, grinding forward. He’s always done best rhyming on top of bare-bones funk or even scanter beats like those on Clipse’s 2006 release, Hell Hath No Fury. These templates were sometimes so spare it seemed as if Pusha’s focus had choked out all the other instruments.
Many of hip-hop’s biggest names helped Pusha make his album–Kanye West produced more than half of it; mega-hit-makers Swiss Beatz, the Dream, and long-time friend Pharrell also contributed—but that didn’t prevent him from being abrasive, and bracing. Most of the beats are streamlined pulses which pick up details as they go: jutting bass intrusions, sharp barrages of drums and horns that might be stolen from a military parade, operatic sampled vocals that raise the stakes and the gloom. “King Push,” the album’s first song, keeps threatening to drop away beneath your feet, working itself into a dark frenzy as Pusha takes aim at various interlopers who are “name-dropping ‘bout ‘caine copping/ but never been a foot soldier.” The single “Numbers On The Boards” is little more than the same numbing bass notes and a strange set of clinking noises. It includes a short snippet of an early Jay-Z song, “A Million And One Questions,” and Pusha’s track makes that classic tune sound pedestrian.
If Pusha T is the insider resisting the establishment from within, Danny Brown is the younger outsider banging furiously on the door. In his new album Old, Brown narrates two kinds of stories: the first is full of mean landlords, violence, and junkies; the second contains wild nights of drugs and sex. Pusha T made a career rapping about the mechanics of cooking cocaine, but Brown is concerned less with the drug dealer as artist than the drug dealer as another part of a desperate ecosystem full of people who, in “Side A (Old),” “won’t live for anything but might die for nothing.”
Brown’s crew of collaborators could hardly be more different than Pusha T’s. It’s mostly young people in rap—A$ap Rocky, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q—and electronic-leaning indie music, like Purity Ring, Rustie, and Charlie XCX. But while Brown’s lyrical focus differs, his group of young’uns often achieves a sound scape similar to the one on My Name Is My Name. The siren effects in “Dope Fiend Rental” are as invigorating and belligerent as the horns that swoop through Pusha’s album. “Torture” traffics in a comparable level of gothic, operatic darkness. “Side B [Dope Song]” opens with a coda of strings and brass that transforms into a thin, whirring beat bursting and pouncing and coiling again, confident in it’s own strand of abrasion.
When Brown kicks things into high gear, rapping quickly in a high nasal voice, he careens around jittering, thumping beds of electronics, chanting and slamming his way through hooks in his hurry to bite into the next beat. He is more uninhibited than Pusha, who sometimes appears unable to ignore the expectations placed on him by his position as an established veteran. But both artists are restless, looking to sharpen and deepen the reach–and heft–of rap.
Brown, the outsider, wants in, while Pusha T feels cooped up–what’s the point of holding a powerful position in a boring club? When artists make music in the belief that something is wrong with the present, listeners should be excited about the future.