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2009: Ben Yaster

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Dusted senior writer Ben Yaster reflects on his 2009 carpool companion -- hip hop radio.

2009: Ben Yaster

No doubt, the last 12 months had their share of noteworthy underground and indie releases. But 2009, for me, was a year dominated by popular culture, all because of a small personal experiment. This year, for the first time in my professional life, I started commuting to work by car. But instead of doing the sensible thing and buying a hookup to connect an iPod to my car stereo, I submitted to the radio – more specifically, to rap radio, for as long as I could without scrolling the dial. It had been years since I listened to rap radio with any regularity. At first, I imagined revisiting it would be like seeing an old classmate – years may have passed, looks may have changed, but things would be more or less be the same. But what I found was not a slightly aged version of the sets I listened to in high school. Rap radio in 2009 was different, more streamlined and disciplined. A few notes from the road:

For media, this year was all about the end of what I’ll call big aggregators: oversized companies that historically dominated their markets because they, and only they, claimed purchase to lots of bits of unrelated information. Exhibit one: newspapers. Rap radio got sucked into that death spiral, too, except that stations adjusted more nimbly than their print counterparts. Mainstream rap radio seems to have figured out that it can’t compete with the Internet and MP3 players. If listeners want to hear a particular song, they’ll get it as quickly as their bandwidth permits. There’s no sense in waiting on the quaint radio transmissions of some faceless disk jockey.

So what did rap radio do? Resist breadth and create a narrow niche for itself by playing only the same half-a-dozen songs over and over and over. It is annoying, and prolonged listening to the same loops quickly becomes tortuous; within a month of my roundtrips, I was ready to chew on my steering wheel. But radio hip hop has the benefit of being a predictable product. Gone is the DJ’s whim or the tingling uncertainty that an unusual or forgotten song might be aired. What remains is an unchanging, indelible playlist – these days, heavily featuring the rapper Drake.

In 2009, Drake accomplished something that no one else quite did: he made the jump from the crannies of the mixtape circuit to the center stage of mainstream rotation. You simply couldn’t listen to rap radio without hearing his adenoidal voice. By my count, Drake’s commercial output was limited to three songs. Unwillingly, I learned nearly all of them by heart, a feat that registers the singsong of “Best I Ever Had” in the same category as “Bust a Move” or “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” singles committed to memory not because they are necessarily good but because, like baloney in a school cafeteria, I’ve been forced to consume them so many times. I can’t say that Drake is worth the hype. Although he’s a decent punchline writer, he’s also completely by the books and uninspiring. But that his work feels prepackaged – check this clip of him reading a “freestyle” from his Blackberry on Hot 97 – should come as no surprise. Rap radio in 2009 was about meeting preconceived expectations, not challenging them.

Some critics claimed that this year marked the splintering of what had been a singular hip hop genre, or that savvy popsters like Drake, Wale and Kid Cudi were killing their gangsta rap idols. There was some truth to the former claim, though I’m still unconvinced that the spectrum of 2009 – the southern crunk, android vocalizations, techno rap, Swizz Beat plodders, and so forth – was really that different than the variety before. But the idea that somehow rap’s new wave implies the end of ‘90s-era pulp is mistaken. Rappers like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy have maintained their footholds, and aging pioneers like Raekwon showed they’re still committed to the cause. And while there is something self-perpetuating about crack rap and its ilk – it takes only one platinum album to launch a thousand copycats – people will continue to rhyme about the underground economy so long as urban poverty continues. And if anything’s clear from this year’s recession, there’s no risk of that ending anytime soon.

Despite its analog origins, rap radio did show signs of adapting to the digital world we find at the end of the new millennium’s first decade. DJs read rappers’ tweets on air – Fabolous (still? seriously?) maintained relevance with his sometimes funny tweets – and played songs about technology’s mediation of social relationships. Most of those tracks, like Trey Songz’s “LOL Smilyface” and Lil’ Kim and T-Pain’s reworking of Zapp’s “Computer Love,” were terrible (though they updated this aging listener on how the rites of adolescence have changed in these wireless times). And then there was Auto-Tune, which, like swine flu stories and Sarah Palin, could not be avoided.

Auto-Tune’s no new development, of course. But forgive me for admitting that I’m still bewildered by how the format has thrived in spite of the common wisdom that it’s just a fad. How can it be that with each passing week Kanye West’s dissimulated voice becomes ever more permanently fixed in the pop landscape? Even R. Kelly, whose vocal chords have been as dependable as his legal team, got in on the act. This year saw the mounting of a reactionary challenge, albeit a halfhearted one. Jay-Z released “D.O.A.” – a song produced by No ID, the luddite who 15 years ago shepherded Common’s dusty magnum opus, “Resurrection” – in which he swore off Auto-Tune for its infidelity to hip hop’s code. You’ll note, however, that just a few songs later on his album, Jay-Z unapologetically featured that vilified programming. Which I guess goes to show he really is a hustler, not an aesthete.

His “Empire State of Mind” played as the Yankees won the World Series, and even brought a smile to this born Orioles fan as that anthem narrated Matsui and Damon’s mighty swings for glory and likely ouster from pinstripes. Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne both found themselves in criminal court, and, in the face of prison sentences, released songs, mixtapes, and records at their accustomed speed. But rap radio’s most interesting moments were not in hip hop, but in R&B.

The-Dream’s “Rockin’ That Thing” – the song’s ersatz, FCC-approved title – and Mario’s “Breakup” were two such standouts. Both were neck-deep in sentimentality, but also seemed too off-kilter for commercial set lists; though I’m not sure they’re actually good songs, they get points for their willingness to push boundaries. The-Dream still borrows heavily from Prince, but “Rockin’ That Thing” was his first effort to be more than a straight copy of his Purpleness – narcotic and lush, the single was somewhere between teen mawkishness and arty abstraction, an intriguingly ambiguous position. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s Mario put out a track that stood out for its complexity. “Breakup,” featuring Gucci Mane, made no sense: too fast in parts and too slow in others, it was perhaps the only song I heard during my drives that amounted to more than pro forma pop. Indeed, the clicking during the beginning of each verse conveyed an element of glitch – hardly what you’d expect in a normally smooth and syrupy genre.

Finally, here are some thoughts about 2009 from outside my 4-door. Dâm-Funk proved that g-funk and its vocodor forbears could make for stunning extended instrumental listening; the synthesizer work was so good that it made me reconsider his label-mate James Pants, a producer I had previously and probably erroneously written off. Sure, the two disks of Toeachizown may have been too extended – but Dâm is, as his name states, a student of funk. Was anyone really expecting moderation?

DOOM’s Born Like This. was, per custom, a bizarre, sophisticated, and, most of all fun addition to his litany. The Juan Maclean impressively revised the Human League, and their colleague Black Meteoric Star’s acid house proved thoughtful and transfixing. Ghana Special was, like its Nigeria predecessor, a comprehensive set of hip-shaking discoveries, and Justin Townes Earle put on a helluva good live show, even if his Midnight at the Movies didn’t quite capture his onstage intensity.

But my favorite record of 2009 would have to be Allen Touissaint’s The Bright Mississippi. I spent some time in New Orleans this year, and no album I’ve heard quite channels the bipolar stew of dereliction and growth, sadness and cheer, resignation and hope, that I found there. The Bright Mississippi is a most convincing case for why New Orleans must be rebuilt and its culture maintained – and why I need to start listening to my own music, and not the radio, on my daily commutes.

By Ben Yaster

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