Compared to ‘88, 2018 is trash. Thoughts on rap’s biggest month in 30 years.
Kamasi Washington is a top five emcee. Everything else is a lie.
Rolling Stone — inarguably the greatest arbiter of musical excellence — refers to 1988 as hip-hop’s greatest year. Quartz — inarguably a website that chronicles modern global advancements in professional and popular culture — noted on April 11, 2018 that, three decades later, “Hip-hop has officially displaced rock. It has spawned the anthems of the millennial generation and spurred a whole new wave of television and film. It’s wormed into the mainstream so deeply at this point that it may even be nearing a nostalgia revival cycle.” There’s nothing quite as nostalgic that’s been released as Kamasi Washington’s latest jazz epic Heaven and Earth. Thus he — and not Kanye, Jay, Drake, or Beyonce — is solely responsible for this months emergence of the future heights to which hip-hop culture will ascend.
In 1988 overall, a diverse set of 15 iconic rap artists released roughly 200 songs worth of music that, very quickly into their careers, cemented their instantaneously legendary status. The year’s top albums discussed everything from politics to parents, luxurious swagger, and bar-for-bar lyrical slaughter. Artists including Public Enemy and N.W.A., The Fresh Prince and Slick Rick, plus KRS-One, Eric B. and Rakim, and more all shined.
In just one month of 2018, Kanye West and Drake released 61 songs in 30 days, with Jay-Z and Beyonce releasing nine more. However, in the midst of all of this, something bizarre transpired. The best rap record wholly swaddled in the swaggerrific, yet melodramatic boom bap-meets-rhythm and blues aesthetic favored by this moment was released quite some time ago. It’s not quite from 1988, but June 2018’s best rap record is actually 2010’s “The Joy.” The Curtis Mayfield-sampling gem that feels like a golden era throwback is tucked away on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s attempt at making — intriguingly enough considering The Carters’ recent EVERYTHING IS LOVE — the most ostentatious rap album in history.
2018’s failure as compared to previous years is proof that rap-at-present is woefully stagnant. For a truly precise visual, imagine your Hennessy drunk uncle doing karaoke at the forthcoming Independence Day barbecue. He’s swaying in front of a still cooling charcoal grill, trying to remember the words to Lauryn Hill’s cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” His memory failing him, he screams “ONE TIME!” loudly into the microphone, inexplicably followed by “SEXUAL CHOCOLATE.” Then, he vomits into the rose bushes nearby and passes out, pale and tired, into a garden chair.
While all of this was happening, a rarefied air was thankfully breathed into the genre that simultaneously returned us to ‘88’s standard of excellence, but also advanced rap music’s expectation as hip-hop’s cultural lead. Kamasi Washington is a virtuoso jazz saxophonist whose second album, Heaven and Earth, was released into the exhausting musical maelstrom that was June 2018. Washington’s album exceeded the sound and fury that ultimately signified nothing of consequence by four artists who have sold 40 million albums in the past eight years. Instead Heaven and Earth succeeded at making socio-politically significant and truly sonorous sounds that salvaged an underwhelming and unexpected moment of adjustment to growth for hip-hop culture.
To an unaware eye and ear, a nearly three-hour cool jazz and space-funk album representing what’s next for hip-hop seems bizarre. However, Kamasi Washington’s latest album is the representation of hip-hop culture grasping tight control of what exists just above the pinnacle of it’s ubiquitous presence as the world’s most popular form of cultural currency. Kanye West attempting to convince himself of his own metaphysical freedom blended with Drake’s understated honesty and The Carters' milquetoast wedded bliss were all studies in languorous tedium. Heaven and Earth is hip-hop’s saving grace, a three-hour “Hallelujah Chorus.” On Heaven and Earth, Washington, as a bandleader of a 50-piece orchestral unit, made sonic alchemy that fostered the future of where five-decade old rap music can best head in the future. Kamasi’s unique ability as a bandleader to turn a horn into a voice capable of achieving the truest freedom possible saved this four-week cycle.
To take it back to ’88, the Earth half of Heaven and Earth’s opener “Fists of Fury” is, as all great “golden era” hip-hop is, inspired by Hong Kong-filmed 1970s kung fu. The jazz-funk cover of the title track to the soundtrack of Bruce Lee’s 1972 film “Fist of Fury” plays like a smoother version of the Brubeck and early era Miles Davis pastiche that Berklee College of Music educated Chinese composer Joseph Koo crafted back then. Continuing to the Earth half, many sections play like Washington’s 2017 compositional breakout performance on the tightly wound and thematically-driven Harmony of Difference EP.
Washington’s experiences as a horn-playing bandleader cutting through the din of chit-chatting and selfie-snapping festival crowds has forced him to learn how to play clearer, louder, and more pointed notes from his instrument. Heaven’s tracks like “Street Fighter Mas,” “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” and album-in-full closer “Show Us The Way” benefit from this, bearing something of Stan Getz-meets-Rakim with the spirits and influences of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and DJ Premier present. This is a social justice recording with timeless soul that aims to be a great album for all reasons and seasons. Heaven and Earth is, in the midst of established artists searching for a sonic foothold in 2018, an appreciated dose of classic music updated for the modern age.
In 2018, we’re now witnessing the weariness of rap artists bearing the weight of being, as Quartz noted, “wormed into the mainstream so deeply,” while at the same time racially being social pariahs whose civil rights are being ripped from their humanity, and/or growing into comfort with unexpected ubiquity.
In an attempt to rediscover his creative raison d’etre, Kanye West blended medicinal hallucinogenic herbs from the Amazon jungle, the lonely Wyoming plains, and a yearning desire for elevated consciousness to audaciously make albums for Pusha T, Nas, Kid Cudi, Teyana Taylor and himself. It was quite possibly a case of Kanye West finally being overwhelmed by his creative verve. As well, Jay-Z and Beyonce merely laid out their “Apeshit” plan for collaborative wealth expansion. Drake, well he’s at his creative peak in terms of volume, but obviously lacks the ability to make statements showcasing intellectual depth. Had he not been publicly shamed by Pusha T into admitting he had fathered a child, Scorpion would be a predatory arachnid of a streaming album winner, sure. However, it would lack all ability to sting the ears and hearts of listeners.
Thirty years after its most pop culturally-defining and then commercially successful year, we find rap music as hip-hop’s cultural lead experiencing significant stasis. All of the emperors’ “new” clothes aren’t new at all. Instead, these old artists are wearing old outfits that are threadbare and from last season. Without Kamasi Washington to save the day, we’d be inundated by naked rappers in old haute couture yelling at each other about freedom and wealth. Kamasi Washington is a top five emcee. Everything else is a lie. Rap’s evolution is thankfully happening right on time.