Burnt Bridges: where’s the next Andre 3000?

By Luca Tiratelli

Whilst all real hip hop heads have spent the last 10 years mourning the death of hard core “real” hip hop, a loss at the other end of the spectrum has gone unreported. Yes, I’m here to grieve at the tomb of the R’n’B cross over artist. Much has been written of the deterioration of the grimy side of the game since the decline of the Wu-Tang Clan, the deaths of Biggie and Tupac and the incarceration of members of Mobb Deep, but no one seems to notice that it has been some years since the last “Hey-Ya!”. Drake aside, no one is attempting to bridg the gap between Beyoncé and Rick Ross. It seems that Hip-Hop has shrunk from both ends, leading to less varied, and thus less interesting music coming out of the US.

At an individual level, pin-pointing decline is fairly easy. Ja Rule made the mistake of beefing with 50 Cent. Missy Elliot got old. Nelly made “Just a Dream” (ain’t no coming back from that), and each Fugee went insane in their own unique way. However, when you look at artists whose career spanned the period in question, it becomes quite confusing. Following “Get Rich or Die Tryin”, a classic gangsta album where the lead rapper sung his own choruses, it seemed that the cross over scene was set to grow and grow. And yet, when you look at the career of artists like Kanye West (starting from 2004), you are left wondering what happened. “The College Dropout” (2004) would definitely fit into what iTunes calls Hip-Hop/R’n’B, with its use of gospel choirs, children’s choirs and, well, Jamie Foxx. But anyone who listened to “Yeezus”, less than a decade later, would struggle to recognize the man who made “Slow Jamz” from the synth-pop soundscape of tracks like “Black Skinhead”.

So what drove this change? Well, some of the answers may be found from looking at the crossover game’s last major artist… Drake. Let it be known that this writer could not be less of a fan of the Canadian, yet when you look at the viciousness of the belittling and emasculating criticism he receives from the heads out there, you may understand artists reluctance to rap over a silky smooth R’n’B beat. Its no longer really possible to do what southern crews like OutKast and The Goodie Mob did in the 90s. These artists could make gangsta classics like “Return of the G” and still incorporate characters like CeeLo Green and Andre 3000 into their makeup. It was acceptable to push the boundaries. It was acceptable to refuse to be boxed into one style of hip-hop or the other. It was possible to be have a rugged image and not have to remind people of it every single verse you recorded.

Perhaps this could be seen coming even earlier. Look at artists like Pharell Williams and Nelly, who were the leaders in that part of the scene last time it was relevant. Neither was really embraced by the rest of hip-hop to the same extent that crossover artists from previous eras were. There is no one who would deny that LL Cool J or Will Smith were leaders of, and influential across the entire game were they were in their pomp. However, whilst Nelly sold a lot of records, he was allowed no influence on the wider scene. No one wanted to collaborate with him. And whilst Pharell has been immensely influential as a producer, when ever he has wanted to really push the boundaries, he has had to step completely outside the scene, as can be scene from the N*E*R*D project, or his recent collaboration with Robin Thicke.

On the other side, the R’n’B scene has, for whatever reason, insulated itself from those who would like to blend the two finest forms of modern African-American music. Gone are the days Aaliyah or Ashanti were equally at home making tracks like “Try Again” as they were singing choruses on serious hip-hop tracks. It’s a crazy thought than on the underrated and unreleased 50 Cent album “Power of the Dollar” (intended to be released in 2000) there was a collaboration with Comedy G, Bun B, and a few tracks later one with Destiny’s Child. At that time 50 Cent was the hottest young Gangsta Rap talent, and he was working Beyoncé. That’s like if she were to make a track today with Waka Flaka Flame. For some reason, working with a real rapper is now a risk that these singers are not willing to take. Whilst Jay-Z may be able to work with Justin Timberlake or Rhianna, everyone else has to be content with autotune.

Drake is not the answer. But bless him, at least he’s trying. Maybe Frank Ocean will help build bridges. But for the moment, join me in laying flowers at the final resting place of artists like Camron, Missy Elliot, Ja Rule, Nelly, Kelis, Andre 3000 and many more who’s careers have fizzled out in the last 10 years and left a gaping whole at the soft-core end of Hip Hop. As a result both Hip Hop and R’n’B have become far more boring places, as the creativity of the fusion of ideas has disappeared. R’n’B would now rather blend itself with David Guetta, and Hip-Hop would now prefers to mess around with trap and dubstep. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that it has cost Hip Hop one of its more interesting sub sections is something to be lamented.

5 Responses to “Burnt Bridges: where’s the next Andre 3000?”
  1. Chris E says:

    really interesting piece! the rise of david guetta/flo rida/wil.i.am really can’t be overestimated as a factor in the demise of the kind of pop-rap you discuss here (incidentally, there’s definitely a spectrum that should be acknowledged when it comes to artistic merit here: outkast >>>>>>>>>> ja rule and ashanti – not that i dont love always on time… just in a different way to ms jackson). ultimately ‘i gotta feeling’ is still the dominant paradigm for chart music. if ne-yo wants to sell records he doesn’t need to ring up timbaland or pharrell & chad, and hook up with a rapper, he just needs to sing on a guetta beat that samples dj sammy.

    around this – the central pillar of chart music if you like – big selling pop-rap still exists (‘the softcore end of hip hop’) but in a much more diffuse sense, with far greater stylistic variety than the days of the early 00s when you could group loads of things as r’n’b-rap crossover pop music (hot in herre, ‘in da club’, busta & mariah, even things like ‘like i love you’ by jt with pusha t on it) – pop-rap today is macklemore, drake, nicki minaj, wiz khalifa, quasi-novelty stuff like ‘woke up in a new bugatti’ and ‘versace’ by migos (traceable back to soulja boi i guess, when you can already see the early 00s rnb-rap style fading, with the rise of trappy stuff like young jeezy and ti in the mid 00s) – but all these things are pop outliers if you like, pop anomalies where rap is repackaged in various forms rather than one centrally dominant form, because despite remaining eminently marketable, its still not AS marketable as identikit flo rida/pitbull/guetta/will.i.am bollocks.

    hence the guetta sound is the definitive pop noise, where it was once that of the much more rap-indebted timbaland & magoo or neptunes (btw: i strongly contest your placement of pharrell and nelly together as leaders of the sound – pharrell is one of the defining geniuses, and architects of the period, nelly was a fun semi-joke rapper with a few hits under his belt). i don’t necessarily think its insularity on the part of either the rap ‘scene’ or the rnb ‘scene’ – its more that the money is for the most part in a different place. i mean, 50 cent and ludacris have both been on guetta tracks.

    hope ive been clear and not too rambly, i sense that ive used a lot of brackets :/

    • lucatira says:

      your “woke up in a new bugatti” point is a very interesting one, because the fact that todays rappers aren’t as soft as nelly doesn’t mean that they are authentic or “real”. It seems that it is possible to reach quite a mainstream market without having to make what you would describe as mainstream music, maybe because of youtube etc. i mean Waka Flacka “hard in the paint” is every bit as much a novelty pop song as the “Cha Cha slide”, just in a very different way. and your right soulja boy definitely had a big part in that

      • Chris E says:

        well, authenticity is a new criterion to introduce here, and a very difficult one to get a handle on! i see what you mean about ‘hard in the paint’, though i also have reservations about your characterization of its ‘realness.’ to me its a very ‘authentic’ track, but i do agree that its *chart* success is based partly on it being seen by the public as a novelty song to some extent (and there are lots of very touchy social/racial things to unpack about that). what do you consider inauthentic about waka flaka?

  2. Chris E says:

    hey luca, dunno if you will check this but this article is a really really interesting one on this issue: http://splicetoday.com/music/meet-the-new-charts-worse-than-the-old-charts

    it looks at the way in which the reshuffling of chart rules in america have affected the way in which ‘r&b’ songs (as well as songs from other genres, like rock, and country particularly) chart in both the Billboard Hot 100 (the central American chart), as well as in the supposedly more specific R&B charts. essentially Billboard have started calculating chart positions differently, with a lot less consideration given to radio airplay, and more to digital sales; having your song played all the time on r&b/rap radio (or indeed any genre radio) bumps your track up the genre chart to the point at which it has some media profile, without necessarily being able to compete in terms of brute sales – it’s – relatively speaking – a more grassroots process that to some extent protects the boundaries of the genre and allows it to organically sustain itself within the pop sphere. under the new system, Billboard adjudicates an artist’s genre, and consequently that artist’s songs’ genre – irrespective of whether those songs were actually successful or popular on genre radio. the article uses rihanna as an excellent example – please don’t stop the music is now classified as r&b, despite obviously having nothing to do with it. likewise: flo rida does not get r&b play and clearly isnt really an urban artist, but he’s being sustained as a rap artist by his pop qualities, and still being rewarded in the rap/r&b charts.

    there’s a fascinating development going on here, where we see the Billboard 100 getting whiter – poppier and eurodancier – while also seeing the R&B charts coming to resemble more and more the Billboard 100 itself – and obviously the more the charts looks like each other, the more superfluous the r&b chart is, and the more emulsified and bland and narrow the pop landscape becomes, as the specialist avenues are phased out. this is even BEFORE we take into account the aesthetic consequences of this structural refurbishment: ‘urban’ artists tailoring their music away from the no longer lucrative, or rewarded r&b chart market and towards the ever more monolithic, and ultimately ‘white’ pop paradigm.

    • lucatira says:

      really interesting article. really speaks to something that has been talked about for a while, that all music increasingly follows the same formula. if you look at 90s hip hop, vs 90s boy bands, vs 90s dance music etc. the differences are stark. today, pop music is a little more edgy than it used to be (ronan keating could never make a come back today, and look at how much of a failure Robbie Williams come back was), but all music that is supposed to be edgy is more middle of the road than ever before, meaning that everything has converged. and maybe the new charts just reflect that.

      In this country (im less sure about america), i think a large part of the reason for this is not the charts but the radio business. i really think that 1xtra has been a terrible thing for black music here, because it make it seem much more niche than it used to be. now radio 1 have an excuse to not play any hiphop/rnb, and so the biggest market is only being reached by boring white pop music. even in London, Choice FM has just been shut down, and been replaced by Capital Xtra, which further pushes black music out of the mainstream. No new DJs have been promoted to replace Westwood and Trevor Nelson, and no big radio station has embraced grime really at all (chipmunk aside). All in all it makes for a more boring music scene. I honestly think there is no way that even the biggest hiphop cross over bangers that did well 10 years ago, like In Da club for example, would even get in the top 10 today.

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