There's been a lot of chatter lately in rap-critic circles about whether or not hip-hop's moment of relevance has passed. The records aren't moving bazillions of units like they used to, the sound itself has been swallowed whole by Euro-dance synths, and even the most successful rappers are relying on distinctly pop forms to stay in the limelight. There are theories being swapped like palm-spit at a circle jerk: The genre is in a recessionary state, contracting at a rate that outpaces the larger music industry's own backslide.
The hypothesis is that contemporary hip-hop stands at the same crossroads that jazz found itself at toward the end of the '60s — tip-toeing along the canyon of commercial irrelevance and creatively stagnant, a genre for collectors and professors but not the rank-and-file. Then again, rap critics are a group whose hyperbole is trumped only by the braggadocio of the genre they cover. While there might be less interest in the genre from, say, the 12-year-old girls who drove the last decade's over-excited sales figures, there is plenty of proof that hip-hop's new scale will be great for artists and fans.
Take Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali for instance — he's Caucasian, albino, and legally blind. Oh, and he's Muslim too. He has a forceful, authoritative flow, complex and compassionate storytelling skills and a taste for organic, horn-fueled beats. He's also prone to talking about how much he loves his wife and kids, and he doesn't drink — he's definitely not part of the pimpin'-hos-and-poppin'-bottles monoculture that the industry has purported hip-hop to be since the gangsta takeover in the late '90s. Despite his obvious outsider status, Ali's latest Rhymesayers release Us has found the rapper reaching a wider audience than ever before, reaching a new level of critical and commercial success, just as his peers who have made attempts at normative, mainstream rap success launch bricks into the dustbin of history.
It's been 30 years since hip-hop entered into the mainstream arena, and like many of us, the genre spent its 20s overindulging on Hennessey, running up the credit cards and reveling in its own perceived invincibility. And like many of us who have suddenly realized that we're closer to middle age than middle school, the genre is reorganizing, re-evaluating and re-prioritizing — the audience that's left after the hit parade moves on will demand more of the artists involved than simply screaming the same trite phrases over and over again. (Dear Lord, may we never hear another "Whaaaaat?!?" on a track ever again.) That an artist like Ali can thrive with a positive attitude and a focus on craftsmanship is proof that the knuckle-dragging negativity that defined rap in the early 21st century is on its way out the door.
The art form and its audience have matured — it was inevitable — and the odds that people will choose rap as the path of least resistance to fame and fortune are dwindling. People who want to be popular will make pop music, and people who want to be rappers will make rap music. The two forms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but going forward it's hard to see them being as synonymous as they have been for the last decade and a half. And if that means there will be more artists like Brother Ali devoted to the actual art of rap — rather than, say, the art of landing a soft-drink endorsement deal — it's a good bet the genre is going to be in good shape for years to come.