If hip hop’s not dead then, according to Timbaland, it is at least seriously ill. The producer recently said publicly that rap’s just not the same, and while there are some acts he deems still “acceptable,” he’s done with hip hop and most of his generation is too. In a time when Jay-Z seems more prone to give props to Grizzly Bear than anything hip-hop-related, how much credence should we give to Timbaland’s doubts?
Timbaland is the man behind some of last decade’s most beloved and critically-acclaimed rap singles. Since, however, he has made a mystifying digression into the dingiest alleys of pop music, now listing amongst his collaborators Hannah Montana, the guys who wrote the Grey’s Anatomy theme song and Canada’s own source of ceaseless embarrassment, Chad Kroeger. Not that the shift was entirely sudden; his work with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake surely met with one or two raised eyebrows when they were announced. Still, the products of those collaborations, by and large, stood their ground. He seemed to be one of a handful who could operate within the pop framework with one foot still firmly planted in his hip hop roots.
Indeed, if there is a signature Timbaland sound, it has been to his credit that it defies easy categorization in the previously segmented spheres of the hip hop universe. He was always equally as likely to dip into crunk beats, jungle undertones or world music samples. But those spheres are beginning to collide, most would agree, with the most recent work of M.I.A., Gnarls Barkley and Mos Def being stark examples. These crossover records predict a momentous future of hip hop production, of which Timbaland would have once seemed to be the best candidate to spearhead.
The arguments of hip hop music forgetting its urban roots and promoting overzealousness for a gangster lifestyle now seem moot points at the beginning of the new decade. In 2003, Timbaland produced Missy Elliott’s ”Back in the Day,” a song which looked back elegiacally on the hip hop of the late ‘80s as being “all about the music,” and earlier artists abounded who were issuing clarion calls for hip hop to take a more conscientious attitude towards its new found success. But it has since been shown that the worst aspects of any genre or art form will always find commercial success, as long as they sufficiently imitate their more talented peers and beef it up with a dose of what the public wants — in hip hop’s case: swagger.
Timbaland may complain his audience has changed and grown more diverse, and indeed this has been a problem that hip-hop has confronted since the late ’90s. But retreating into phoned-in tracks and over-generalizations on hip hop’s fundamental nature are hardly valid reactions to cultural ubiquity. There remains plenty for rap fans to be optimistic about.
The popularity of region-specific genres like the crunk and Southern rap phase of the mid 2000s has now died down, leaving us with a broader sound. While it is true that rap doesn’t monopolize the charts the way it did several years ago, or culturally set the pace like it did in the ‘90s, it is disingenuous to declare it “over” as soon as it stops being the avant-garde, as though hip hop’s fundamental qualities have somehow disappeared.
It would be naive to say that any genre isn’t influenced by its own commercial success. Sure, hip hop’s evolution is moving more slowly than in decades past, but this is a sign that it no longer needs to prove itself. Rather, it is a convincing force that emerging styles can measure itself against.
Timbaland is only accidentally expressing one of the inherent questions about a genre like rap, which strives to be both original and authentic. The built-in nostalgia for classic hip hop when the form was “pure” starts to interfere with the inventive energy that made it potent in the first place.
Let him move on then; Miley needs him.