Article by Phillip Sumby
Maya Angelou once said, “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole…” This may be a defining sentiment for the past month of events in Hip Hop. Culturally, these events will both test and ultimately drive its maturation. It’s no secret that much about our culture is consistently mocked. Ultimately, being judged by the lewd content in the music we listen to, not to mention our unexplained receptiveness to it. I’m no lame, I enjoy head-banging-derriere-popping-ratchet music at times just like everyone else, but what’s been missing, specifically in what’s accessible in a mainstream environment, is a place for everything else. Of all that’s been shunned and labeled as taboo in hip hop, two seem to stick out to me the most, aging and homosexuality. Coincidentally, “those we don’t speak of” (shhhh…) are being acknowledged head-on and by two very well-known and talented artists. Frank Ocean comes out of the closet and Nas makes an album for adults. They’re both calling for hip hop to grow up.
With arguably one of the most pioneering decisions made in hip hop, Frank Ocean came out of the proverbial closet. He did so with a posted and beautifully written letter about unrequited love for another man. This resulted in mix reactions and unsurprisingly so. Obviously we’ve seen this before, right? Without looking too far and within the same Odd Future crew there’s Syd tha Kyd, very open and out. I’d argue that in itself is a kind of progressive development as well. For so long there’s been an ignored lesbian history in hip hop that…. I digress. I think it’s very clear that Frank’s situation is a very different situation. Structures around masculinity in our society are very much damaged, and that’s certainly very much augmented in an exaggerated and amplified sense in hip hop. So Frank posted the letter and it wasn’t long before the twitterverse revealed ignorance, expectantly so. But also, a multitude of folks revealed their acceptance of this notice. Growth, I suppose. Following was Ocean’s early released album, “Channel Orange,” a truly amazing piece of work in my humble opinion. Beyond the quality, Frank’s letter and album are a call to action. They’re a greater opportunity for growth. A chance for the destruction of a masculinity complex that’s been plaguing the perception of the black male in hip hop culture for as long as I can remember. With Frank’s liberation should come ours, essentially offering an opportunity for the conversation, a freedom yet taken advantage of.
A far second to Ocean’s pioneering act is Nas’s “Life is Good” album. Here, Nas is grown up. “Life is Good” is an album for adults, in which he’s not compromising his content. Quite honestly, this is the brightest I’ve seen Nas shine in a while and possibly being in his most vulnerable state. Nas takes no short cuts here, delivering personal bars of lyrics that can best be described as grown-man-shit. Up to this point, with exception to Jay-Z (who just always seems to be an exception to a rule), rap fans have shunned the aging rapper. Like clockwork, once a rapper gets old, whether they can still rap or not, your time’s typically up. Phonte said it best, “I’m done. The rap game’s no country for old men.” Nas’s album rejects that. His work states that there is a place in hip hop for intellect, maturity, and progression. For years it’s been acceptable to tone down the intelligence in music. In fact, I would suggest that it’s been mandatory. Hip hop’s fickle fan base continues to get put in the slow class, seated on the short bus, and treated as if we aren’t smart enough to grasp elevated concepts or handle depth. And let’s be clear, this is exclusively specific to hip hop. Other genres don’t behave in this manner. Aging rock groups and other genre groups and artists make albums, perform, and thrive for as long as they’d like. Ultimately, one album won’t slow down this speeding train, we’ll need Denzel for that. But Nas, every so gracefully but with great impact, dropped the album that respected its listeners, critics, and the genre of which it’s within.
I suppose both Frank Ocean and Nas are coming out, one with his sexuality and the other with adult perspective, respectively. It’s at this point when the test begins. How will we respond? Is this the end of homophobia in hip hop? I doubt it. Will rap consumers and media outlets continue to shun the aging emcee? Probably so. But, we continue to move closer to something, perhaps more well-rounded. To withhold due respect for what Nas and Frank have done, is to deny humanity and turn a deaf ear to one’s own mortality. So, mock it if you’d like, but if these events are unimportant, they are also a mirror and say much more about us than the artist of which they were conceived.