True Rhymes

The new Busta Rhymes album arrived in stores with the fanfare traditionally reserved for a royal wedding. Titled ELE (it stands for Extinction Level Event, and it's nicked from the comet-meets-Earth film Deep Impact) Busta's third album finds the flamboyant "Strong Island" rapper delivering a series of goony, cartoonish raps, all guttural growls, odd angles, and hieroglyphic syntax. But the music is only part of the story. In the weeks before the album's release, Rhymes was everywhere. Entertainment Weekly featured a story about him. Access Hollywood turned a camera on him. And MTV embarrassed itself with flagrant Busta brown-nosing.

The entire Busta publicity push had a celebratory air. In fact it seemed to be about something bigger than Busta. And it was. It was about rap's resurgence. Two years after gang warfare and creative desiccation almost put rap in the grave, the genre has enjoyed a remarkable year, perhaps its best ever. In the past six weeks alone, rap fans have been snapping up releases by the Wu-Tang Clan's rapper Method Man and their production mastermind RZA, West Coast gangsta rap superstar Ice Cube, and East Coast gangsta rap superstar Redman.

Some will remember 1998 as the year hip-hop stood up and demanded recognition as a popular art form. All year long, hip-hop celebrated its maturity, primarily through a series of joyfully nostalgic covers (most notably, Def Squad ripping into Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," but also MC Lyte's take on Audio Two's "Top Billin'" and Nadanuf's cover of Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks"). There was even Straight Outta Compton: The Tenth Anniversary Tribute Album, which turned a diverse posse of rappers loose on NWA's seminal gangsta masterwork. (Silkk the Shocker got to take a stab at "Express Yourself," and he had a hit; the song proved as unstoppable in 1998 as it was in 1988.)

But the celebration also had a flood-the-market urgency: It seemed that at least one major rap record was released each week, complete with the requisite "Special Guest Star" stickers affixed and the telltale misspellings (k's shoving aside c's, z's filling in for s's). Look back at the last twelve months, and you'll see critically acclaimed albums from dozens of rappers: newcomers like Canibus and Big Punisher, rising talents like Outkast and Jay-Z, veterans like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, alternative rappers like John Forte and Black Eyed Peas, producers-turned-artists like Master P and Timbaland, and hip-hop martyrs like Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. (The latter continues to release records diligently more than two years after his death.) In 1997 after the Death Row/Bad Boy feud ended with the murders of Tupac and Biggie, rap was a funeral, full of sad words, slushy tribute songs, and promises to make the music matter again. No one said who it was supposed to matter to, but in 1998 that was answered definitively: It's supposed to matter to consumers.

Ever since Eric B. and Rakim rapped about getting paid in full, hip-hop artists have been out to break the bank. These days the cash registers are cha-chinging in agreement. Check Billboard's album chart any given week, and you'll see a Top 10 dominated by rap records. Even though rap records are like movies (most do strong business out of the gate, then fade fast) hip-hop releases have been hopping all over their rock and pop cousins. The strongest sellers of the year, which included the comeback by the Beastie Boys (Hello Nasty) and the solo debut by Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) consistently outperformed records by Pearl Jam, Hole, and Hootie and the Blowfish.

Why is hip-hop outflanking pop? In part it's a function of its stars. While pop flounders in its search for compelling celebrities (pop stars are gray ciphers; Marilyn Manson is the exception to the rule), hip-hop turns out a steady supply of colorful, larger-than-life characters, from Rhymes to Ol' Dirty Bastard to Missy Elliott. Hip-hop has overtaken pop because it has retained the power to offend. Parental Advisory stickers warning against the lyrics' raw language are now nothing more than a strategy, a way of making a record taboo and desirable. (Fearful liberals who wonder whether selective labeling is race-based -- when Beck says "asshole," you don't see a sticker on his record -- should remember who's moving more units.)

Finally hip-hop beats pop because the demographics skew correctly. Record-buying teens rely on music to separate them from their parents, so you can imagine the chagrin of the fifteen-year-old suburban white teen who finds that Marilyn Manson and Metallica produce not outrage in his 40-year-old dad, but feelings of nostalgia. ("Son, let me tell you about when I was young, and we had these crazy guys named Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop.")

Hip-hop lets those same teens slip on their baggy pants and their street attitude and imagine that they're traveling far away from their safe neighborhood nests. In today's market, hip-hop sells the dream of otherness more effectively than pop, and that's powerful magic.

So far I've been writing about hip-hop in terms of product, sales, and demographics. That's intentional. Since the big record companies figured out that hip-hop was more than streetcorner entertainment (Exhibit A: Run-DMC's "Walk This Way," which seized the pop charts by the neck in 1986), the rap world has been big business.

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