If You Look At My Life

How to Understand Autobiographical Rap

Around 2001, hip-hop became more familiar with the force of its voice. Although artists had always experimented with the confessional style, some careers are earmarked with that revealing trait more than others. For instance, Eminem, Kanye West, Prodigy and Joe Budden each exemplify using a stylistic shift to capture loyal followers. Earlier still, Nas made Illmatic a diary of Queensbridge living. On the other hand, artists with highly anticipated debuts who compiled an array of disjunctive songs with flavor-of-the-month producers regretted the choice sincerely. Jadakiss made this mistake with Kiss The Game Goodbye, which seemed to betray his gritty personal affect established with the Lox. Again, as the new millennium came around most recognizable figures in hip-hop fell on one side or the other of these sincerely crafted personal diaries. Independent and small label rappers like Aesop Rock, Sage Francis and Atmosphere went far left of center. Their self-styled memoirs placed them squarely with the conscious and/or underground crowd.

But it was telling of the mainstream that Kanye West essentially did the same kind of record, with a few dance hits parsed throughout. “All Falls Down” and “Through the Wire” of College Dropout signified his conversion to that mode by addressing issues of the self in order of priority: dropped out of school, chased record career, became a vindicated star. Artists like Louis Logic, MF Doom, and Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox also tackled the autobiographical bent, but chose humor as a potent tool to convey the multitudinous nature of self. Those records received their due but were considered “alt-rap” at best. Simultaneously, a crop of rock bands reclaimed the Grunge movement, augmenting it with charged guitars and screaming jeremiads. Linkin Park represented this iconography with their teenage angst in full fledge during their pinnacle, “caught in the undertow” et. al. Instead of rap music embracing diary entries as a new format, as rock musicians did and still do, there was a decided move back to machismo, beefing and generally shoving off any admissions of emotion. Beanie Sigel did more than expected of him on The B. Coming and Public Enemy No. 1, invoking the thoughtful gangster role like Ice Cube did. Other than his efforts, most rappers shied away from romanticizing their ills and their triumphs. Even Eminem, whose signature work could act as an audio-biography, veered to bathroom humor and eventual disappointment with his celebrity status.

The ones who used their life stories as a blueprint for vast exaggeration (50 Cent, The Game) enjoyed more success, of course. Both men turned their nearly identical tales of being shot and surviving into the mythology that fueled Interscope/Aftermath dominance. That wave notwithstanding, 2008 has brought the emo-rap genre full circle. In fact, it’s not a genre at all; it’s the accepted point of entry for most newcomers. Guilty Simpson’s Ode to the Ghetto makes the case for showing poverty and personal deprivation as character building conditions. The Detroit native has songs about robbing innocent citizens, regretting past decisions and being an unknown. Like his Northeast peers AZ and Styles P, he is more apt to discuss his social deficit and personal experiences than he is to get into a bragging match. Styles P (The Ghost) is absolutely a beneficiary of the Diary Album movement and, although his albums have never cracked public recognition, songs like “I’m Black” and others make classic themes of introversion pronounced and rejuvenated. AZ has adopted this format for his entire career of independent releases, and it serves him well. By garnering the respect of his peers, AZ has gained more creative latitude for his personal revelations to exist. In the groups realm, Little Brother has testified a fair share of their travels on record, which gave them tread among their locally cultivated fans and (importantly) gave them an endearing feeling. Somehow songs about fractured relationships, soured record deals and second-hand clothes resonate more when you’ve conceded that your catalog will concern much of the mundane Everyman material long absent from rap music.

The stage is set for a year in which the inventive work will come in the form of autobiographical dives into the rap netherworld. Jay Electronica, the New Orleans soldier with Just Blaze and Erykah Badu’s endorsement, will be reconstructing expectations by giving his spiritual, philosophical notes life. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is first an explanation of the religious, musical and historical influences that make Jay Electronica’s mysticism part and parcel of his oeuvre. Second it is an answer to the new media age where bloggers can quickly absorb a complex, self-referential rapper’s work and then place it in context within days. Blu, L.A. cat with college-kid flows about young adulthood, has the same appeal. Although he doesn’t adopt mysticism as his cloak, he is just as earnest and virtually invisible outside of his “Below the Heavens” mixtape, recorded with Exile.

Starpower of the Dugout released a mash-up mixtape over the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds which shapes his mentality through speakers. From his lost loves to his carnal let downs, Starpower divulges his diary over mixed, blended California instrumentals. Of all the mixes mentioned heretofore, Starpower’s probably has the most range, infusing irreverence and contemplation naturally. Never one to rebuff overly personal description, it seems Starpower readied this work for the internet by making it an Attention Deficit-friendly 25 minutes of unleashed id and superego. Instead of the radio rundown (Batman vs. Superman) these autobiographical songs are making the web a desired place for in-depth listening sessions.

The Petting Zoo

“The Petting Zoo” can be downloaded here.

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