I grew up on a diet of NWA, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest…as different as bands like these were in the tone of their social commentary, they were unified in their subject matter. The streets of the US. A land of drugs, of prostitutes, police brutality, black-on-black violence, guns. Spike Lee joints. Hot urban landscapes of hopeful but challenging working class Americana through the 80s. Today, twenty years later, I listen to a huge range of music but my heart somewhat still lies with hip hop and music that has a strong influence from African American urbana.
With that in mind I recently got into Frank Ocean, one of the biggest recording artists on the planet. After a successful production career his debut solo album, Channel Orange, has sold millions of copies worldwide since its release in 2012. I also picked up a copy of Kendrick Lamar’s massive record, Good Kid MAAD City. Another huge seller. It’s interesting to see these ‘new’ artists’ take on the subjects of their predecessors. It’s like some kind of time capsule snap shot, as music should be. The changes paint a picture of the social shift, for better and for worse, across the country where this kind of music was born and bred. Instead of the hard-knocks-street-wise lifestyle Chuck D waxed lyrical about, Ocean speaks of LA’s “super rich kids with nothing but loose ends” whose “maids come around too much, parents ain’t around enough” and have copious bowls of weed and bottles of wine but no food in their homes.
A theme they might have in common with Tribe and PE is the incredibly real and derogatory depiction of alcoholism and drug use. Ocean’s fantastic ‘Crack Rock’ paints a picture of the drug addict whose family have stopped inviting him to gatherings and “wont let you [him] hold the infant” and who used to “hit it raw” with a blonde who was also a user. He portrays, with clarity and conviction, the miserable, lonely life of “sucking the glass dick” and loosing everything of value. Lamar’s ditty ‘Drank (Swimming Pools)’ does something similar with its treatment of alcoholism. Rhyming and singing as an imaginary ‘friend’ putting pressure on him to “get a swimming pool full of liquor and dive in it” he gets across the struggle of being surrounded by this legal toxicant. Talking about people who live their “life in bottles” to “kill their sorrows” he is both damning of alcohol but also hugely identifiable as he rhymes in the voice of the monkey on his back urging him to take another shot.
Ocean also has the remarkable honour of being the most prominent gay man in US RnB. So when he deals with prostitution and women’s struggles with men in tracks like ‘Pyramids’, his perspective is not skewed by being one of those men but punctuated with a personalised understanding of oppression and inequality. These are just urban songs about urban life and I am not suggesting that they have reinvented the wheel, but they have moved us forward and kept this kind of music – now so popular – very interesting., relevant and important. Just my two cents.