I’m here for Art Rap

It’s real hard to believe that there’s still a contingency of player haters (Republicans) that paint rap as unartistic, gauche, lowbrow, whatever coded racist dog whistle language they choose to condescend it with. Sure, rap has an apparent misogyny problem. So does all popular music, pretty much since the beginning of modern pop music. I’ll concede that rappers are often more explicit; more vulgar. But I find it incredibly hard to believe that rappers at large hate women more than artists representing, um, paler constituencies.

There’s nothing plain about rap. In fact, I think “art rap”, much like Frank Ocean style art pop and freaky Radiohead, post everything rock music is taking a significant hold on the stylistic movements of popular rap music.

This week, my art director and I went to Hollywood to see Vince Staples at The Fonda. It was my first proper show since moving out here, and I was dumb excited that it was for the Long Beach native, the quiet leader of modern gangsta and art rap. I think Vince might be the best (certainly most musical) lyricist in rap today. I feel like he’s a more accessible Earl Sweatshirt, packing that poetic lyrical style over moody, percussive, jazz-driven slappers. That’s not to say Earl isn’t accessible, but I think it’s fair to say that Vince has a tighter grasp on melodic nuances and the synth and 808 driven sonics of modern rap. Vince represents a merger of the best parts of artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Nav without the shortcomings they have lyrically (no disrespect, but there is no argument that there’s a fair comparison between Vince/Earl verses and Uzi/Nav ones. Nav sounds like a Soundcloud rapper Twitter bot and Uzi swears he’s a rockstar anyway).

Kilo Kish, a frequent Vince and other oddball rapper collaborator, opened the show and delivered one of the more incredible performance art hip-hop sets I’ve ever seen. I’d be capping hard if I said I gave Kilo’s solo work much attention prior to the show, but since I’ve been making a point to. She hits the same nerves as FKA Twigs and NAO, presenting a contemporary, high art edge to traditional R&B styles and themes. Seeing Kilo and then Vince immediately after gave me a new understanding of their already apparent chemistry and artistic unity. It was mad inspiring seeing two young black creatives with immense vision and presence. Neither artist paused for the usual banter that’s expected at a rap show. Their purpose was clear the moment they hit the stage.

I was guilty of being too unfamiliar with Kilo’s music  (the cardinal sin of one of my previous posts, I know. I ain’t shit, don’t remind me), but judging from her fans in the audience her set was a thoughtful mix of old and new hits and deep cuts. Vince played every song the crowd wanted to hear, paying equal attention to the Shyne Coldchain, Summertime ’06 era staples (ha) and the more artistic, experimental Prima Donna tracks. They tore through their sets effortlessly, the kind of ambitious nonchalance that reflects deeply devoted hours of focus and practice.

Both Kilo and Vince came through with visuals that perfectly highlighted the next-levelness of their artistic sonics. The stages were notably sparse. Kilo was accompanied by a single instrumentalist and two dancers. Her live producer was sequestered to the stage right corner, and her dancers, while attention commanding, did not distract from the music or visuals.

I keep alluding to the visuals as if their dopeness is axiomatic (it damn well should be). Kilo was accompanied by an arthouse short film style series of projections and home video esque vignettes.Vince was joined by images of expensive saltwater tank looking fish, sharks, the color blue, skeletons, undersea volcanoes and hella other dope deep sea shit (everything fit the The Life Aquatic theme of the tour, especially the behind the scenes videos of the Wes Anderson joint that donned the screens before the show started). Vince also broke rap concert conventions with his set. The thirty-nigga-deep entourage that fans of small venue hip-hop shows have become accustomed to was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t have his DJ on stage with him. Every aspect of their presentations were designed to position the artist as the show. Even Vince’s rapping and Kilo’s vocals float on the tracks so as to display the musical intricacies of the instrumentals.

The show felt better suited for display at LACMA than the intimate theatre we were privileged to experience it in. For the rap skeptic/music elitist, there’s nothing inherently intellectual about either artist’s music. It’s easily dismissible as rap nothingness by those ignorant enough to confine rap to the biased box they package it in. But Vince and Kilo bring the nuance and perspective of prize winning journalists to their reporting of Black American life. Their shows were reaffirmations of the potency of their takes on established rap music foundations. They are bursting with the creative energy emanating from every hood in America. They are two great young ambassadors of an art style that has been invalidated by a whitewashed system of art history and criticism. Their snapshots of blackness are akin to Gordon Parks. The days of the rap artiste as an invisible man are numbered. Art rap is quickly becoming the new law of the land, and its skeptics can either get down or lay down.

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