A little-known rapper means to slay what he sees as a giant beast — gangsta rap. The California-based Future Austin independently released an album called “KillGangstaRap.com” (the name of the Web site where it’s being sold, incidentally), which his Web site says contains “passionate, thought-provoking music” that’s free of profanity, sexuality and wanton materialism.
No stranger to the genre, Mr. Austin says on his Web site that he experienced an epiphany of sorts when his daughter promised not to repeat the “bad words” found on his LP “Fed Time.” “My little girl wanted to listen to my last album, and it was not something I wanted her to hear,” he recalls. “That was a major revelation in my life, and I immediately decided to turn my music around.”
Mr. Austin’s is a noble conversion — and an unnecessary one.
The beast of gangsta rap doesn’t need killing. It is all but dead, the victim of raw self-consumption and cultural cannibalization. It’s a made-for-TV cartoon riding shakily on three wheels and custom 20-inch rims.
The 2002 killing of Jam Master Jay notwithstanding, the rap-world slayings that Mr. Austin decries (of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., most famously) are a thing of the past, period details of the 1990s. And even by then, gangsta rap had already become more of a stylistic pose than what rappers such as Ice-T had claimed it was in the 1980s — an expression of young black disenfranchisement.
In this era of bling, that pretense can no longer be seriously entertained. We are long past the time when rap could be defended in terms either of cultural authenticity or artistic realism.
Gangsta rap has become, in short, an anachronism.
Inner-city life has changed radically since the advent of gangsta rap, for starters. As economist Steven D. Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner observe in their book, “Freakonomics,” the crack epidemic of the ‘80s — which lent a certain credence to the coarse narratives of gangsta rap — is history. “From the distance of several years, it is almost hard to recall the crushing grip of that crime wave,” they write.
Gangsta rap, in this context, is about as grittily realistic a reflection of life in the inner city as Gene Autry Westerns were about life on the frontier.
That’s not to say there are no longer drug problems on city streets. Nor is it to say that the plagues of urban youth (lousy schools, violence, absentee parents) have been solved. It is to say that gangsta rap, such as it exists, no longer speaks to those problems in any meaningful way.
Through the miracle of popular culture, gangsta rap has been diffused — and defused — to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from the innocuous rap music one hears at weddings and junior-high dances.
Take 50 Cent, the bulletproof former crack dealer whose feud with the Game saw a member of the latter’s entourage shot in the leg outside a Manhattan radio station. The two publicly called a truce, but musically 50 had already said goodbye to his gangsta roots. With danceable cuts such as “Candy Shop,” his latest album, “The Massacre,” is aimed at clubland, not gangland.
A new book by former Source magazine editor Bakari Kitwana, “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America,” counters that the mainstreaming of rap signals not that rap is becoming blandly stylized but, rather, that young white listeners are just as alienated as their black counterparts.
The book is actually a wanly disguised version of familiar left-liberal grievances; it cites “declining job options, deteriorating quality of education, rising incarceration for nonviolent crimes and the evaporation of living-wage employment” as reasons why the musical tastes of young whites are often similar to those of young blacks.
Against all evidence, Mr. Kitwana says the music industry is eternally seeking to “ghettoize” rap music and its audience, so as to squelch the new “voice of a generation.”
The opposite is true: Rappers themselves escape the ghetto and in so doing leave behind whatever authenticity the ghetto could give them.
Eminem is now a movie star, and he recently hinted that he may retire from the business, citing an exhaustion of possible achievements. Hollywood has also claimed Snoop Dogg and, more recently, Ludacris (“Crash”) and Nelly (“The Longest Yard”). Jay-Z is now a highly paid record executive.
You can’t call them poseurs; they barely bother with posing anymore.
They’re success stories.
Demanding that they stay “true to their roots” is to demand they carry an albatross. Gangsta rap fools no one, speaks for no one and insults everyone, artist and listener alike.
It is minstrelsy in its “Jazz Singer” death throes.