Questlove of The Roots –or as he’s known around this office “The Boss”–shared a soul-searching (maybe even soul-searing) editorial about the state of hip-hop today. Maybe ‘editorial’ is not the right term–this is an essay in the classic sense, a thinkpiece that surveys the current pop culture landscape and weighs hip-hop’s contribution by the measuring glass of some pretty large-scale philosophical ideas (No spoilers, but it comes up pretty short. The state of hip-hop is not so strong). Questo begins with a three-way epigraph from Albert Einstein, John Bradford and Ice Cube:
There are three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (Actually, he said “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in “Gangsta Gangsta” back in 1988: “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”
I have to admit, as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time defending hip-hop culture and parsing the significance of various rap couplets, this intro and headline caught me wrongfooted. Aren’t The Roots living proof that hip-hop is capable of addressing more than b**ches and money? Isn’t asking Cube to step into the intellectual arena with Einstein and John Bradford underselling hip-hop a touch, setting it up to take a dive? Hell, even the ultra-elitist rap of Watch The Throne is full of survivor’s-guilt couplets like:
This shit weird, we ain’t e’en sposed to be here…I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up, too /
If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting f**ked up, too.
Which conveys a sentiment pretty close to “There but for the grace of God go I…”, you know, minus the religion and the 16th century English. So…who the fvck is you, John Bradford?
There is a difference of course. John Bradford’s insight was never presented as an alibi for the Caligula-esque levels of material excess that admittedly occupy the rest of the couplets on Watch The Throne (and every Jay Z and/or Kanye West album). Maybe John Bradford did go guerillas in Paris in between bids for “stirring up a mob” but if he did, history does not record it (as a quick scan of his wikipedia entry reveals).
More importantly what I failed to recognize until I read further is that Questo’s intro deliberately sets up this tension. He maybe wants us on the wrong foot before he goes to work on his real project here. Which, for the record, is not so much to shit on hip-hop. I can vouch firsthand that The Roots don’t just cover rap hits on Fallon–they take Kanye, Jay and N.W.A. seriously as art and sit around the studio dissecting the strengths of each with the fervor of any rap fan, albeit very erudite rap fans. No, the project in question is to point out that rap as it exists in 2014 is simply not able to take the weight that it is increasingly being asked to carry–the sum total of Black America’s lived experience. Hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies; all of it must boil down into something that can be contained in a 30-second Yo Gotti verse or mainstream culture simply has no place to put it.
I’ll just add that from my one listening session, wrestling with these issues is pretty essential to understanding what The Roots’ new LP …and then you shoot your cousin is all about. And that could be summed up as ‘rap without the delusions of winning’. This Vulture essay is just the first in a series of six, so stay tuned for more soul-searing. Much more.Questo, I’ma let you finish now (read the rest of his intro below and then click true to Vulture for the full essay):
Those three ideas may seem distant from one another, but if you set them up and draw lines between them, that’s triangulation. Bradford’s idea, of course, is about providence, about luck and gratitude: You only have your life because you don’t have someone else’s. At the simplest level, I think about that often. I could be where others are, and by extension, they could be where I am. You don’t want to be insensible to that. You don’t want to be an ingrate. (By the by, Bradford’s quote has come to be used to celebrate good fortune — when people say it, they’re comforting themselves with the fact that things could be worse — but in fact, his own good fortune lasted only a few years before he was burned at the stake.)
Einstein was talking about physics, of course, but to me, he’s talking about something closer to home — the way that other people affect you, the way that your life is entangled in theirs whether or not there’s a clear line of connection. Just because something is happening to a street kid in Seattle or a small-time outlaw in Pittsburgh doesn’t mean that it’s not also happening, in some sense, to you. Human civilization is founded on a social contract, but all too often that gets reduced to a kind of charity: Help those who are less fortunate, think of those who are different. But there’s a subtler form of contract, which is the connection between us all.
And then there’s Ice Cube, who seems to be talking about life’s basic appetites — what’s under the lid of the id — but is in fact proposing a world where that social contract is destroyed, where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?
Those three ideas, Bradford’s and Einstein’s and Cube’s, define the three sides of a triangle, and I’m standing in it with pieces of each man: Bradford’s rueful contemplation, Einstein’s hair, Ice Cube’s desires. Can the three roads meet without being trivial? This essay, and the ones that follow it, will attempt to find out. I’m going to do things a little differently, with some madness in my method. I may not refer back to these three thinkers and these three thoughts, but they’re always there, hovering, as I think through what a generation of hip-hop has wrought. And I’m not going to handle the argument in a straight line. But don’t wonder too much when it wanders. I’ll get back on track.
I want to start with a statement: Hip-hop has taken over black music…