True Rhymes

But hip-hop 1998 makes hip-hop 1988 look like a lemonade stand. More than ever, rap music is dominated by homegrown businessmen -- specifically producers-turned-moguls like Puffy Combs (Bad Boy records), Jermaine Dupri (So So Def), the RZA (the Wu-Tang Clan), and Master P (No Limit). All of these men are self-made millionaires who have grown from grassroots entrepreneurs; most have used music as a jumping-off point for other ventures, including clothing labels, music videos, and straight-to-video feature films.

They have built their musical empires by developing trademark production styles. For instance any seasoned rap fan knows that the Wu-Tang name means the RZA's shredded beats, slurred vocal samples, and sinister strings underpinning lyrical stylings by Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, or Cappadonna. The No Limit imprimatur promises Beats by the Pound production and hardcore gangsta tales, courtesy of Tru, Mia X, or Silkk the Shocker. In the current hip-hop climate the most popular production styles are brands, as immediately recognizable as Kraft and Ford.

What's the final result of this shift? Well, just take a look around hip-hop 1998: It's a world where producers take precedence over artists, albums are a higher priority than singles, and sounds become more important than songs.

Compare today's scene with that of five years ago, when hip-hop was dominated by smash-hit crossover singles like House of Pain's "Jump," Kriss Kross's "Jump Around," Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain," and Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P." This year, only a few songs, such as Will Smith's "The Two of Us" and Pras's "Ghetto Superstar," fell into the rap-pop arena. The rest of the hip-hop releases were as much about promulgating trademark sounds as they were about promoting any one rapper.

This corporate mentality has secondary effects as well, such as the Convulsive Guest-star Phenomenon. Still trying to escape the shadow of the divisive East Coast/West Coast years, rap artists today appear on each other's records more often than SNL alumni appear in each others' movies. Busta Rhymes appears on Redman's new record. Redman is on Method Man's new record. Method Man is on RZA's record. This reciprocity builds community, but it also builds profits: A devoted Busta Rhymes completist might have to purchase a half-dozen records to follow the flow of his idol.

All of this economic viability, of course, is cause for celebration, especially because the stronger corporate structure is aided and abetted by the fact that hip-hop is relatively cheap to produce. Not only are most rappers solo artists who don't need to pay band salaries, but they're capable of breathtaking prolificity. Master P reportedly produced No Limit records on a one-per-month schedule, and was known to crank out an LP in a week when necessary.

But prosperity breeds complacency, and hip-hop artists need to be careful. The truth is that today's records, created in a climate of unprecedented visibility and consumer readiness, aren't living up to their billing creatively. Take ELE, the Busta Rhymes megablast that opened this article. On paper (where he's portrayed as a true wild child) or on video (where he makes the most of stutter-step choreography and flagrant fisheye gags), ELE looks like another breakthrough, an instant classic. On the record, though, Busta is just another MC, mainly because his personality has its limits (so did Dr. Demento's) and his lyrics are thin, alternating between millennial anxiety and empty boasting.

Other highly touted records have also been disappointments: Method Man's record didn't reach the heights of his solo debut, Tical; the RZA's solo debut Bobby Digital was unregenerately gray, without a hit in sight; and Ice Cube's first record in three years, War and Peace, found the gangsta legend struggling with enervated beats and rehashed lyrics.

The strongest records of the year weren't always the best promoted or best selling: Public Enemy's consistently challenging He Got Game proved that wisdom has a place in hip-hop, and Digital Underground's joyful Who Got the Gravy? served as a welcome reminder that wit is nearly always the equal of fury.

This isn't to suggest that there weren't bright spots in the hip-hop skies. Def Squad's funky, fluid El Nino was superb, as was Big Punisher's agile Capital Punishment and Canibus's poison-pen debut. But it's worth noting that the best rap record of the year, The Coup's brilliantly funky Steal This Album, came from Dogday Records, a tiny Bay Area indie label that carries rock artists on its roster alongside rappers and depends on word-of-mouth promotion.

In the end hip-hop is alive and well and living the American dream. But the rappers of the late Nineties have a long way to go before they can match the achievements of rap's glory period: the three-year stretch in the late Eighties that saw the release of classic albums from artists like Eric B. and Rakim (Follow the Leader), NWA (Straight Outta Compton), The Beastie Boys (Paul's Boutique), De La Soul (Three Feet High and Rising), Digital Underground (Sex Packets), A Tribe Called Quest (People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm), and L.L. Cool J (Mama Said Knock You Out). For pure verbal invention, for ecstatic sampling and sequencing, for the rhythm and the rhyme, today's albums can't touch those high-water marks.

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