The Golden Age of Advice Rap Starts Now
"When you've run out of peaks," Jon Caramanica wrote in yesterday's Times, by way of reviewing Monday's ridiculous Jay-Z extravaganza, "all that's left are ridiculous, sublime stunts, new ways to climb old mountains." This is counterintuitive but true: a guy like Jay-Z has been around so long, and accomplished so much, that merely selling out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row isn't enough anymore. Nor is bringing half of rap's current royalty across the country to help fill out the stage, or performing more or less flawlessly for 90 minutes. We expect these things from Jay-Z; he expects them from himself, too. So these days, paradoxical as it is, his shows are all about small moments, deviations from the script. And here was the one that struck us Monday night: Jay-Z and Drake performing "Light Up," from Drake's Thank Me Later. There's a moment on the song where Jay talks directly to his newest protégé, and onstage--you can see it in the above clip, about six minutes in--he walks over to Drake and does it in real life, too. "Drake, here's how they're gonna come at you--with silly rap feuds, trying to distract you," Jay says, the two standing inches apart. The brief interaction was electric, and confirmed something we've been feeling for a while now. Advice rap is a real thing, and we are living in the golden age of it.
What is advice rap? A tiny, meaningless subgenre we just made up. It's that moment when the braggadocio slips and the narrative in the song gets meta. When persona and personal, real life experience align, and become the same thing. (Eminem's Recovery, theoretically in this category as well, is more like a cousin--therapy rap, a literal recovery narrative that rock stars have been probing since rehab existed. It's close, but oddly impersonal, filled with predictable platitudes, and thus not nearly as interesting.) It's an older rapper talking to a younger rapper. It's Kanye West's line from "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (which, not so coincidentally, he performed on Monday at Yankee Stadium): "I'm on TV talking like it's just you and me."
Like many a rap trend, Jay-Z pioneered it. In addition to "Light Up"--a genuine, heartfelt coaching session from the world's biggest rap star directed at a guy he clearly thinks has a chance of filling his shoes--there's Jay's verse on the remix to Kanye West's "Power," a veritable pep talk set to music:
"Rumble, young man, rumble
Life is a trip so sometimes we gon' stumble
You gotta go through pain in order to become you
But once the world numbs you, you'll feel like it's only one you
Man, you got the power to do anything you want to
Until you ask yourself, "Is that what it's all come to?"
Looking at life through sunglasses in the sunroof
Do you have the power to get out from up under you?
Fuck all these labels, fuck what everybody wants from you
They trying to Axl Rose you
"Welcome to the Jungle"
To be continued, we're on that Norman Mailer shit
In search of the truth even if it goes through Taylor Swift
Tell her this!"
That's Jay-Z talking directly to Kanye West in full view of the entire music listening world. It's not for us at all, really--it's two guys having a conversation about fame, setbacks, betrayal, and the vagaries of the industry they're both in. They just happen to be doing it on HOT 97, or over the internet, or in Monday and Tuesday's case, onstage at Yankee Stadium in front of thousands of people.
2010's been a big year for the weird thrill of eavesdropping on famous people through rap. This, as much as anything, was the charm of Drake's Thank Me Later: the spectacle of a young guy walking through the doors of music stardom and reporting back to us about what it's like, and how it feels, in detail, emotional and otherwise. This is why Kanye West's dive into the deep end of social media has been so electrifying as well: never have we had such intimate access to a guy that we'd never be able to really know otherwise. Advice rap is these thrills, doubled: not just Drake or Kanye's life, but how the two might talk to each other when nobody else is around. Except we are around, and better for it.
While we're here, let's submit one more entry in this (hopefully) burgeoning category: "Runaway," the song West premiered at Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards. It's not quite full blown advice rap--'Ye never talks directly to Pusha T, the guest that features on the song, nor does P talk to him. But it's close. "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most," West says to himself, more or less. As usual, he's torn between self-recrimination and self-congratulation (not for nothing is the chorus "Let's have a toast for the douchebags," the most repellently attractive hook of 2010). But he's trying: "I know I did damage," he sings, "and I don't know how I'mma manage if one day you just up and leave." She probably will, but we won't--not while West is stripping himself this bare. Let's hope by the time Dark Twisted Fantasy comes out in November, he'll have found a suitably entertaining person to discuss it with.