Since the death of Tupac Shakur 11 years ago this month, there has been a noticeable void in the world of hip-hop. That fateful day in September represents not only the all too human death of perhaps the most important voice to emerge out the African-American community in the last thirty years, but also the symbolic death of the Thug Intellectual, a figure whose avatars included Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Iceberg Slim. The Thug Intellectual is a variation of the bad-nigger, the homegrown anti-hero of African-American folklore. The bad nigger has always haunted African-American consciousness.
During slavery he was known as John the Conqueror, a trickster figure who got over on both blacks and whites. He was the subject of violent ballads during the Jim Crow era that would make some of today s gangsta rap songs look tame. He found fame later in the blues songs of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Lightnin Hopkins. One catches glimpses of him in the novels of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison through characters such as Bigger Thomas and Rhinehart, respectively. You see, the bad nigger is the pimp, the numbers runner, the bootlegger, the gun-toting, loud-talking, womanizing brute who preys on his own people but refuses to back down in the face of white authority. For honest, law-abiding black Americans trying to get ahead he is anathema, evil incarnate, but a nonetheless intriguing figure.
Up until the 1970s, the bad nigger was a relatively underground figure, a persona whose exposure to mainstream society risked compromising black progress by confirming every negative stereotype about black pathology, and therefore needed to remain hidden. But movies like The Mack and Sweet Sweetback s Bad-Ass Song initiated the bad nigger into the American scene and, eventually, with the advent of gansta rap, he became a mainstay of popular American culture.
The Thug Intellectual borrows from the bad nigger his slick tongue, his brashness, his blind contempt for authority, his penchant for violence, and his braggadocio only to combine these qualities with political rhetoric, social awareness, and a dash of book-knowledge. He becomes a Black Panther, a Black Muslim, or a (Gangsta) Rapper. At his best, the Thug Intellectual can represent a rich, nuanced, and beautiful portrait of the African-American experience. He can blend high and low, white and black, the ghetto and academia. He can reflect and critique society. At his worst, the Thug Intellectual merely reflects. He becomes wholly an expression and affirmation of mainstream values. He remains self-aware, but complacent with his ability to get over on the system. He becomes Mike Tyson.
Tupac Shakur was the premier Thug Intellectual of his time and, no doubt, one of the finest in the history of black America. Every rapper after him who pretends to blend hood life with the high life in pop music stands in his impressive shadow. Few rappers have created such a vivid, urgent, and emotional narrative of experience in their work. Since his death, almost no one has even tried. The exceptions are, of course, Nas and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Jay-Z. But for the most part, mainstream rappers have contented themselves with Shakur s imagery rather than his spirit. By this I mean that they have adopted Shakur s I don t give a fuck attitude without any of his revolutionary politics. In their mouths Tupac s style has become as empty and noncomittal as a Che Guevara t-shirt.
Enter Kanye West. Yes, that s right, Kanye West. True, he doesn t have Shakur s street credibility. He also doesn t have Shakur s presence, his intoxicating passion and charisma. But he brings to hip-hop an uneasy intelligence, a singular artistic vision, a willingness to take risks, and, most importantly, a vulnerability that bring Shakur to mind. And let s not forget West s at times controversial public image. Say what you will about West, one cannot deny that he speaks his mind and this was one of Shakur s most memorable virtues.
As I listened to West s new album, Graduation, I was seized by a feeling similar to the one I experience when I listen to Shakur s Me Against the World. West s album doesn t have the substance or immediacy of that album, but it comes wonderfully close, by which I mean to say that Graduation comes close to being the work of a mature artist.
As expected, Graduation is a serious album peppered with moments of West s trademark silliness and exuberance. The opening track is a soft and solemn announcement called Good Morning, that references Jay-Z s The Ruler s Back. At times it seems that West is trying to channel the emotional complexity of the The Blueprint, an album that vacillated between rueful self-criticism and nostalgia on the one hand and royal arrogance on the other. After poking fun at his own foolhardy disposition on Good Morning, where he rhymes, Wake up Mr. West, Mr. West, Mr. Fresh/Mr. By-Hisself-He s-So-Impressed, he swings to the opposite end of the spectrum with the self-congratulatory Champion, which features an Afro-Caribbean accented chorus and makes percussive use of a vocal sample from Steely Dan. Here we find West more energetic, but also showing depth with a light, clever touch: You don t see just how wild the crowd is? / You don t see just how fly my style is? / I don t see why I need a stylist when I shop so much I could speak Italian / I don t know, I just want it better for my kids / And I ain t sayin we was from the projects / but every time I wanted to layaway or deposit / my Dad would say when you see clothes, close your eyelids. Here, like a Thug Intellectual, West combines swagger and arrogance with vulnerability and hope. In one breath he speaks to personal aspiration, the oft-told tale of black privation, and progress. A black man contemplating a better future for his kids is revolutionary in itself. Elsewhere he contemplates the burden of his success and the irony of the role he is forced to play in society at large: Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion / I wish here heart still was in rhymin / �cause who the kids gon listen to? / Huh? I guess me if it isn t you / Last week I paid a visit to the Institute / they got the drop out keepin kids in the school. But importantly, West doesn t shy away from being a role model. He recognizes that he walks a fine line in trying to be a socially responsible artist, a line which might be blurred by his frequent odes to sex and alcohol. But West is passionate and not gratuitous, balancing his occasional vulgarity with nuanced examinations of human relationships and heartfelt words of inspiration, much like Shakur and, more recently, Nas. The question of the artist s role in society is one that few rappers have the courage to confront. Jay-Z has more or less skirted around the issue, and other popular rappers, such as 50 Cent, act like the problem doesn t exist. But the moral confusion of hip-hop makes for a powerful theme when considered seriously and not didactically by a talented artist. In this regard West is bringing to mainstream hip-hop a self-awareness that has been missing since Shakur s death.
The overwhelming consensus among the more lyrically inclined fans seems to be that West can t rap, or that he s not a lyricist. I couldn t disagree more with this assessment. Although at times West seems too eager to show off his wit, he is nevertheless, a more than capable emcee, who, as the above bars illustrate, can be both clever and poignant without getting trapped in the rigidity of rhyme schemes. His brilliance as an emcee lies in his ability to build his vocals around the beat, to respond intuitively and sometimes cartoonishly to the various elements of the tracks he creates. It s the kind of thing that only a producer with real rap talent could ever do. It effectively gets not only the rhythm of the beat, but the pattern of the verses trapped in your head. Often, instead of emphasizing actual rhyming words, West will focus on a syllable or series of syllables that, when accented the right way with his Chicago twang (which is really a variation of black Southern dialect), can sound right alongside each other. The results are melodic juxtapositions that are neither cliche nor boring. West often commands your attention vocally because of this technique and the fact that he has such a distinctive, insistent presence on the microphone. This presence finds its finest expression on songs like I Wonder, an incantatory track with a cleverly varied rhyme structure that creates a captivating emotional ascension, Can t Tell Me Nothing, where he responds ingeniously to the rhythm of the beat and the punctuations of a female vocalist, and, the album s highlight, Big Brother, where he convincingly spins the tale of his rise to fame and the debt he owes to Jay-Z over a guitar driven and string-laden track. None of these tracks are breathtaking, but they represent well sustained, emotional performances.
Graduation is a focused album. It is personal, but I would hesitate to say that it is deeply so. West s attention to lyrical patterns and melodies can sometimes sabotage his earnest intentions, like on Everything I Am, a slow piano-laced track that even with its soulful crooning leaves us largely unmoved. West will surely move folks with songs like Good Life and Glory, however, both of which are buoyed by a solid combination of high pitched vocal samples, strings, bass, and drum kicks the essential elements of a soul beat.
Of course, not everything on West s new album works. Stronger, while an interesting experiment, one that only West could seriously even attempt, seems altogether too awkward. The same goes for, Drunk and Hot Girls, West s unfortunate collaboration with Mos Def. But I wouldn t go so far as to say these tracks don t belong on the album. They are clearly West s attempts to shake things up and my hat goes off to him for this.
Most importantly, Graduation has staying power. It will be remembered as one of the season s best albums. It is the type of album that, in years to come, due to its moody, atmospheric, genre and era-shifting production techniques and West s ear for melody and structure will be strongly, perhaps even profoundly, associative. It is a courageous album from an artist who, while still in need of growth and maturation, adds life to an important tradition and is quite possibly something of a visionary.