I haven’t been to a funeral for almost two years. It’s not that no one I know has died since then, it’s just that I am uncomfortable with the idea of living in the past. Those people who died are gone. We have our memories, we should cherish them, but the whole idea of forcing ourselves to gather and make each other sad for a couple of hours on behalf of someone who is gone has never sat well with me.
I understand why people need the feeling of catharsis, the time to process. But when that moment is over, it always seemed a better use of time to look forward to the future. I especially found it hard to relate when my parents would insist I get dressed up and sit at the memorial service of their old friends, people I did not remember, and who had no material effect on my life.
It pains me to see the hip-hop establishment doing the same thing to its youth (as much as it pains me that there even is a hip-hop establishment, which seemed like the worst thing that could happen to the culture when I was growing up). Kids are forced to relive the stodgy old memories of icons and legends that they never knew, who hold no meaning to them. If they speak out, they are sharply rebuked in an attempt to bring them back in line with the established thinking. It’s an embarrassment to me to see hip-hop become the exact thing it rallied against throughout its formative years.
It seems every time a new rapper comes onto the scene, they are forced to account for their whereabouts within a historical timeline they weren’t part of. Recently, this cyclical phenomenon caught up another pair of up-and-coming artists, Lil Xan and 03 Greedo, when a pair of interviews resulted in both being lambasted for their comments about the late, great Tupac Shakur.
When it comes to rap music and hip-hop culture as a whole, I fear we’ve become too much like the characters in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s a story everyone knows, in some form or another.
Written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, the short story covers a pair of weavers who trick an entire kingdom into praising their ruler’s fancy new duds, only to find out he’s been parading about in the buff. The only reason nobody says anything is because the scammers spread a rumor that the cloth is only visible to people of intelligence and refinement, so when the citizens can’t see the clothes, they falsely assume it’s because they’re too stupid or uncultured, rather than the logical conclusion that the emperor is naked. The only person willing to speak out against the insanity is a small child, who calls out the trickery, immediately putting everyone in the kingdom to shame for taking part in the sham.
It’s a popular story, but not everyone knows that Andersen changed the ending of the tale at the last minute to expose the hypocrisy of the Danish bourgeoisie and what he viewed as their ludicrous tendency toward groupthink. Groupthink is defined as a practice of thinking within a group that values conformity over creativity and logic, leading to irrational decision-making. Ironically, it’s the honesty of a child, who isn’t quite inured to the ways of the world, who calls out the silliness in the story, because he’s either unable to glean the implied consequences of speaking out or simply doesn’t care because he’s a child.
Hip-hop is becoming like the citizens in the story, so accustomed to one way of thinking that any deviation seems blasphemous, but when youngsters like Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Vince Staples, and 03 Greedo (who isn’t so young, but still retains that childlike honesty) poke at the genre’s sacred cows, they not only freely express themselves without fear of consequence, they give us license to step back and see our heroes for who they were.
When Lil Xan calls Tupac’s music “boring,” he’s not disrespecting your memories, he’s stating his own personal opinion. His opinion can’t hurt ‘Pac’s feelings. It shouldn’t hurt yours. It can’t change what ‘Pac means to you as an individual any more than it can take away the accolades, the sales plaques, or the dramatic cultural shifts Tupac’s presence caused in the mainstream’s perception of hip-hop as a culture and rap as a genre.
However, what it should do is give you license to step back and acknowledge your hero’s flaws. Yes, he was a titan of rap — but at the same time, he wasn’t perfect. His discography was as flawed as he was as a person, which is to say “a whole bunch.” Over time, nostalgia and a desire to preserve the perception of Tupac as prophet-poet has chipped away at the rough edges, sanitizing his image, the same way it has for the canon of hip-hop overall. Ultimately, Lil Xan is right, but in a roundabout way. Tupac’s music may be boring to him, but maybe it’s only because he’s only been presented the polished, pristine, “boring” version of Tupac represents to many people, instead of who he actually was.
Those rough edges are as much an important part of the culture as they are part of ‘Pac as a person and as a poet. We can’t judge the person nor the music without viewing them as a whole, which means acknowledging that when Lil Xan and 03 Greedo state their honest opinions of hip-hop, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid or ignorant or uncultured. It means they see everything we all see, without the invisible layer of clothes woven of pure nostalgia. They refuse to buy into the ruse, which allows them the clarity to speak their minds and make music that’s honest and unencumbered by the expectation of living up to a false idol.
None of that can change what our most beloved hip-hop pioneers did for the culture. However, it does allow us to place them in context, to stop seeing them as flawless symbols of rap perfection and more clearly fit them into the wider, more diverse, wildly colorful, sometimes bumpy, but always beautiful tapestry of hip-hop canon. We can develop a deeper, more layered appreciation for this thing of ours. We can see how “Brenda’s Got A Baby” advanced the culture, while Tupac’s roughshod image may have held it back just as it was beginning to flourish.
And yes, we can begin to allow the new artists to speak for themselves, to make their own thing, without constantly grilling them about their opinions on our favorite rappers. They should be allowed to form opinions of their own, take influences from the spaces they enjoy, and acknowledge rap history as just that — history. It’s something that happened, not something that is happening now or going to happen in the future. These new rappers need to be allowed the freedom to tell their own stories, not retell someone else’s. They’re telling us that the emperors of rap have always been naked, and the only ones holding back the genre are those of us who are still too afraid to admit it.