Saturday, June 04, 2005

Lyrical Complexity in Hip-Hop: Part Two

If we examine the way most modern attempt to be , we find that they are usually working under one of two : or . Both of these theories fail to give a good approach to rap lyrics, as I will show, and therefore are inadequate. By discussing them, however, we can see how the multi-level theory provides a better base for creating artistic .

The Marxist variety of rapper is a direct descendent from the Marxist literary movement. This movement was based on the idea that all of history is the story of the proletariat against the aristocracy, or the oppressed against the oppressors. The Marxists spoke out against works of art which were complex on the grounds that they were elitist. If a novel, or a poem, is written in high language, with complex metaphors, and it is over the head of the common man, then it is elitist and supports the oppression of the lower classes. Rather, they argued, a work of art should be didactic—it should teach something. Specifically the Marxists argued that art should speak about the class struggle and with a language that can be understood by the masses. In some respects the Marxists illuminated a very real and important crisis that was occurring in the Arts starting in the early turn of the century and continuing to today: the move towards ultra-complex works which were genuinely difficult or even impossible to truly understand. How can you speak about the universal suffering of humanity in a format that only 5% of humanity can understand? The problem with this literary theory was that it didn’t provide a sufficient base to speak about the issues of life. All that the Marxist writer could do was write a version of the struggle of the classes. All individuality was gone as was the important of particular elements of life: love, air, clouds, experience, passion, imagination, all these were rejected as forces of the upper classes—that is unless the writer could somehow connect these elements to some larger story of the struggle, which in any event trivialities the particulars. There are many examples of this in Hip-Hop. If one was to attempt to list a top ten of “artistic” rappers, many of them would either speak exclusively on political topics or at least much of the time. Again, this is due to the Marxist influence and that idea that art should help enact revolution of some kind. As I have already pointed out, the problem with this theory, and the rappers that follow it, is that it does not provide any room for speaking about the smaller things in life. Clearly there is more to life than politics and the struggle, so any artistic approach that confines themes to these elements simply cannot be adequate.

The other artistic movement that has had a large impact on Hip-Hop is Postmodernism. Here, the problem of Marxism seems to be fixed: the individual, experience, the particulars are all open for exploration in this theory. In addition, there is no stress placed upon “teaching” the audience anything. However, where the Marxists were strong—in their rejection of “elitist” texts—the Postmodernists were weak. In a theory which emphasizes the unknowability of life, the chaos, the absurdity, and the alienation that occurs as a result of these things, complexity is necessary. One cannot speak of the absurdity of life in language that is clear and precise. Thus we get artists and writers whose work seems to make little or no sense, an art form that is far above the grasp of the common man. And although this theory provides the space to explore the individual elements of life, it has no way of giving value to those things. A human being is simply another thing in the innumerable mass of chaos called life. As a result, most Postmodernist works of art that actual choose to focus on a finite or particular elements of reality (like a person) result to showing the meaninglessness of that element. We can see this in Hip-Hop in the artists whose work seems “experimental” yet has little or no meaning behind it. Abstract lyrics are often used, but not to express something complex, instead they actually speak of the inability of humans to communicate in a vastly complex world. Thus there arises an unscalable wall between the artist and his/her audience. These works are very difficult for the reader to digest and in the realm of Hip-Hop—where it is hard or at least annoying to rewind the song in order to understand a word, let alone an abstract/chaotic song—this theory of art is extremely out of place (although many of these artists are successful. And that is not because people understand their themes or their messages but rather because society has been taught that abstract=deep and random=art.)

To avoid both of these theories, the Hip-Hop artist should instead create works which work on several levels so that the complexity of life can be expounded upon without alienating the listener. For the Christian artist this has particular meaning, as there exists a very real basis for both complexity in life and the value of the individual elements of life. Because God created everything, and the universe is almost infinitely complex, then creating art which mimics that complexity gives glory to God and provides empathy to humanity which is constantly confronted with the vastness of life. This life is not in anyway minimized by its existence in a vast universe however, because God created everything, everything has real value. Not just those who follow Christ, but all men and women, plants and animals, everything has significance and meaning. Thus, if there is a political situation where people are being oppressed (when is there not?) the Christian artist can freely speak on that topic, advocating the rights of all people while not basing those rights simply on an agreed upon definition of existence or consciousness. So a song with the subject of the struggle of the working class would not be restricted to didactic language and would in fact have a great deal of complexity as it founded the struggle upon the divine rights of all people. And the Christian artist can speak on the chaos and alienation that occurs in modern life without falling in to a despair or hopelessness which leads to abstract—and thus non communicative—art, and without leaving the individual as meaningless.

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