"Now I take a trip around the world twice - from knowledge born back to knowledge precise" - Rakim
In the mid 90s hip hop was lyrically dense. Verses were layered, internal rhyme schemes ruled, and "that buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto." Rappers like Nasty Nas made the grimy world of intercity living an appealing landscape of multisyllabic double entendres. The listening experience was a complex journey for the verbally visual mind. On songs like Camp Lo's "Luchini" the active listener was rewarded with deeper meanings the casual passerby missed. I'm still catching new things. 90s hip hop was a mentally stimulating experience that, contrary to public opinion, made you smarter as you listened.
Today it's more hit or miss. Underground artists like Fashawn, J. Cole, and Jay Electronica proudly wave the lyricist's flag. Aboveground rappers (who I'll leave unnamed) make emotionally compelling music but lack that complex 90s punch. I equate it to a delicious four course gourmet meal with low nutritional value. You love it while you're eating it. It taste great. But when you finish you find yourself hungry for more.
A lot of people will say this decline is due to commercialism. Once hip hop became a billion dollar industry it was only natural it would lose it's intricate lyrical nuance. I disagree. I think music fans are intelligent enough to appreciate complex lyricism. Look at Eminem's album "Recovery". It's as technically complex as anything that dropped in the 90s and is, so far, this year's best selling album. Look at a song like Big Pun's "Not a Player". His wordplay and flow are incredible and the song was a career defining hit. I think at some point rappers stopped caring. They got lazy. Good enough replaced above and beyond. It became a race to the bottom of lyrical standards.
At the same time the production quality of hip hop has improved. You have breathtaking, high budget beats from artists like Justice League, Kanye West, and Dr Dre. Don't get me wrong, I love 90s production, but today it's on a whole other level. Songs like Rick Ross' "Maybach Music III" sound amazing and set the perfect mood. Kanye's and Jon Brion's work on "Late Registration" was awe-inspiring. Live orchestration is no longer a novelty, it's becoming the norm.
With this in mind, I'd like to paint an alternate reality of hip hop. Imagine a musical world where artists with the lyrical sophistication of Rakim flow over Justice League beats. I think ghostwriters are the key to creating this kind of music. There's a generation of amazing writers who grew up listening to 90s hip hop. They're an untapped resource for rappers today. Their talent could be utilized in a crowd-sourced way to create the best lyrics for the most popular rappers (who may not have the time, talent or desire to improve their lyrics themselves).
Some may raise concerns of artist integrity. If a rapper's using someone else's lyrics then doesn't that make them less genuine? My answer is no, it makes them more resourceful. Rappers can still be the driving creative force behind a song or album. They can set the artistic vision and define specific parameters for writers to fill in. The easiest way to think about this is to compare it to film making. Martin Scorsese doesn't write the scripts for his movies but no one would deny that they're his artistic creations. He sets forth a larger idea and directs people under him who specialize in areas where they have more competence. If more rappers use ghostwriters as tools to reach more complex and interesting levels of expression then it's a win for hip hop fans the world over.
There's something very special about Jay Electronica. He's that rare one of a kind musician that only comes along once in a decade. What I love about Jay's music is how unique it is. He mixes complex lyricism with pantheistic spirituality and puts it over breathtaking beats. There's also a little social commentary and some classic hip hop bravado. It's the kind of talent that instantly grabs your attention and makes you ask "who the hell is this guy and why haven't I heard about him before." Well you might have heard his latest classic "Exhibit C" (currently getting modest radio play in New York, props to DJ Enuff for that), or maybe you heard his production last year on Nas' song "Queens Get the Money". Check out "The Pledge" where he raps over Jon Brian's score from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's outstanding...