Five blue Canadian dollars to whoever can scout the reference in that title.
It’s been a fast minute since I’ve had any desire to read or write anything vaguely rap-blog-related, but that changed when someone sent me the link to this, this, and this on the XXL website today. I’ve been out of this loop on purpose, but right now feels like a good time to throw down some cents.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m a relativist, and believe that a tailored cocktail of perspectives underlies every last one of our tastes and interpretations. Me (female, ESL, downtown-raised, whatever) and you (male, fifth-generation something, suburban-raised, whatever) are bound to have some different opinions on things. So, FOR EXAMPLE, when a man jumps in with his thoughts on females and hip hop (representations within; contributions to; impact on; etc), I already know that his perspective’s going to smell funny to me in at least a few different ways.
Rules are made up by the folks who hold the reins. The most powerful, dominant voices in every community set down laws that protect their interests — it’s always been this way. This is how punishable crimes, monetary values, and socio-cultural definitions get their measure. There’s no science to it. I’m bigger and I can fuck you up — take my word as law or else. The end.
And so, I find the overall three-part conversation on XXL pretty interesting. Not because of what is said, but because of the borders it’s bound by.
To me the “female principle” is, or at least historically has been, basically anarchic. It values order without constraint, rule by custom not by force. It has been the male who enforces order, who constructs power structures, who makes, enforces, and breaks laws.
– Ursula K. Le Guin
In high school English class, we read Ursula Le Guin’s “A Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (here are the first two pages, plus the fifth — copyrights, yanno) as part of an introduction to feminist theory. We only spent one or two days on it, but it stuck with me for the rest of that semester, and far far beyond. It wasn’t just about the flip side to some male-female dichotomy of differing opinions — that’s really kind of a lazy way of positioning it. What it really did was blow my mind wide open to the vast potential for how to craft and consume a piece of work, apart from the possibilities that had already been carved, drilled and established.
In that essay, Le Guin challenges the idea of a story as hero + conflict + climax + resolution. She rejected that a story could only be shaped like an arrow, with one unmalleable and inevitable direction and target. Why not, she wondered, shift away from the hunter mentality and into a gatherer state of mind? Why couldn’t a story be shaped more like a bag instead — holding many pieces and possibilities, drawing them out as needed or desired.
I wonder what she’d have to say about the ultra-conservative watchdoggies of rap. She’d probably laugh at the criteria for what makes a good rap song, or at the painstaking back-and-forth on whether or not Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation “counts” as a hip hop album because she sings too much. Spittin hard over a beat is the arrow, but she roamed too far over some guitar strings and lost the hunter-hero’s attention, I guess.
As it stands, there’s not much room for different shapes in hip hop or rap “criticism”. A “best of” list is a lot like an arrow — it starts in one spot, ends in another, and flows in one distinct line, to a sharpened point. Rap looks like this. A rap album looks like that. This culture/gender discussion, as with nearly every related discussion I’ve either be a part of or eavesdropped on, is being played out according to a set of rules that were put in place before my time, but could I possibly be the only one that’s bored by these rules? That’s bored of arguing in circles under an umbrella of definitions that was designed to only allow for one sort of argument anyway?
Industry success, impact, dopeness. Arrow, arrow, arrow. We’ve shaped them all the same, and for no good reason.
Am I crazy? Are there similar (better, smarter, eloquent) arguments out there that I don’t know about? I need to think on this further… A part two is to come soon, possibly maybe.