A few weeks ago in a New York bar, I had a long, fascinating conversation with the outstanding "counter-publics" theorist Michael Warner about whether there was such a thing as a "hip hop counter-public". (We had just finished a long day's workshop on whether there were such things as "religious counter-publics", so it's not as pathetic a bar conversation as it sounds. I think.) It's something I've been chatting with people about ever since that piece I did for the Guardian about hip hop in the Middle East - turns out there are quite a few more people interested in Middle Eastern (Arab, Israeli, Iranian) hip hop and its possible public diplomacy functions than I thought (Om.K., hope you got my notes?).
Warner surprised me a bit by suggesting that there could be a politically and culturally significant hip hop public sphere, but now there mostly isn't. The argument, as best I remember, was that the commercialization of hip-hop and its commodification destroyed its capacity to play such a role. It had lost its face to face core, the arena of unpredictability and "stranger sociability" which has argued forms the essence of a public sphere. Even the most politically-engaged rappers had still been enveloped by commercialized culture of albums and singles and concerts rather than genuinely engaged spaces of discourse. In other words, he essentially agreed with Nas that "Hip Hop is Dead": " Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/ Reminiscin' when it wasn't all business/ If it got where it started/ So we all gather here for the dearly departed."
Interesting, thought I. Then for Christmas I bought myself the new KRS-One album (with Marley Marl), entitled Hip Hop Lives! KRS offers a strong and direct rebuttal of the Warner/Nas thesis: "So write this down on your black books and journals, Hip Hop culture is eternal." He's deeply critical of commercialized, mass-market rap music, of course. As he has for decades, KRS celebrates the creative, intellectual potential of the music and insists on trying to reclaim it from the gangsta rappers and the rest. Whether this kind of intellectual, politically engaged hip hop matters today - compared to the mass market hip hop which floods global markets - is another question, though. Jay-Z goes to Dubai, 50 Cent goes to Beirut... does KRS get out of Brooklyn?
Anyway, all of this as a way of preface. All the cool bloggers are offering up their "Best of 2007" lists. But this has been quite the year for me, what with the move down to DC, new job with new courses, and all that. I've hardly seen any movies this year, not even on Netflix, and lord knows I don't have time to read fiction. I don't think there'd be much interest in a list of "Best Playgrounds Close To My House." But since I still listen to music in the gym, and I spend a lot more time commuting than I used to, I can at least do my favorite albums of the year.
Best Albums of 2007:
1. Lupe Fiasco, The Cool. My vote for album of the year. Smart lyrics, shifting styles - as good as, if not better, than last year's Food and Liquor.
2. Talib Kweli, Eardrop. Might be number one, except for a few embarrassing tracks. This is the good Kweli - which is, indeed, good.
3. Jay-Z, American Gangster. Yeah, he went back to tired old territory - frankly, Kingdom Come's celebration of being rich had more authenticity - but the album is pretty scorching.
4. Public Enemy, How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Which Sold Their Soul. Still going strong - there's at least four tracks which are dead-drop classics, even if the rest of the album doesn't hold up so well. It's a concerted attack on gangsta rap and a call for political relevance - what you'd expect, but still powerful stuff.
5. KRS-One and Marley, Hip Hop Lives. Not every track works, but KRS
is as solid a pro as there's ever been and as above it's both smart and interesting. Plus, there's this great line dissing "These Kentucky Fried Chicken DJ's promotin breast and thighs."
Most Bizarrely Overrated of 2007:
1. Kanye West: Graduation. His whining, simpering excuse for a diss song - directed against Jay-Z, who apparently once didn't leave him free tickets for a show - sums up everything which is wrong with Kanye. He should really stick to the beats.
2. MIA, Kali. I honestly can not listen to this album - every sound I hear makes my teeth hurt. I know others do not feel that way, so I anticipate some abuse.
3. 50 Cent: Curtis. It's hard to be overrated when everyone says it sucks. But my lord - suck it really did. It's kind of sad - Curtis Jackson seems to have really lost his way; he's run out of things to say, and his style just doesn't work well with fancy production. I do not anticipate revisionist history treating it kindly.
That's it. December was a slow blogging month because I was so darned busy, but things should be back to normal soon. Plus I've got a few pieces coming out this week (part of the reason that blogging was so slow) to get the year off to a nice start.
Happy new year everyone!