Sunday, November 1, 2009

Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop

I turned 30 a few weeks ago. It’s not a big deal. Simultaneously, Q-Tip released his latest album, Kamaal/The Abstract. To me and a lot of my friends from childhood, Q-Tip’s work with A Tribe Called Quest was and is a crystallization of a number of the things that matter most: what music should sound like, what a chill but tough guy should be, what it should feel like to hang out with friends, how to relate to the past, how to create your own thing now. The famous first few lines from “Excursions” are now available on a t-shirt (which, actually, Q-Tip sometimes wears); the shirts are a good idea, because guys like me will get six.

So I'll buy anything the man produces, and I'm happy to do so without unrealistic hopes of being retransformed by new music but with simpler, more modest expectations of enjoyment, continuity, and perhaps – this may be the rub – “maturation”. Because Kamaal/The Abstract (Kamaal from here) is definitely mature. Mature like having babies in your early 30s, personal financial planning, and a job that's "okay, yeah work's okay" and tires you out so you crave those smooth, mellow jams. Kamaal is an adult contemporary album; Q-Tip has made an adult contemporary hip-hop album, and he's trying to take me there with him. The whole shocking thing has left me with pressing questions: if Q-Tip is now Dido and others like him follow that path, bumping easy about nothing over nu-soul, what does it mean for hip-hop? What does it mean for me?

I've known for awhile that it's in my power to betray myself by changing allegiances; I could yield to my growing unease with the anger and stupidity in so much hip-hop, and stop listening to it. I have a John Prine channel on my Pandora account. I know how this goes. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that, inexorably, I and the artists I love might simply become lame over the years because we have to. Because time. The only remarkable thing about this observation is that it took me so long to get here, given that it has happened to every single idiom of pop and its champions to which one can apply those terms. As I listened to Kamaal, every ongoing minute of meandering, free jazz (light jazz? I don’t even know. I don’t want to know!) outro was slowly nudging me into a new identity, a new persona to match what this musician has chosen to do with his music. I'm in my "study" wearing one of those stupid/awesome t-shirts - it's worn and old now, meaningless to my kids inside - because I've been meaning to organize those files for awhile, and it's a Sunday and I've a few hours and hey, let's put on that new Q-tip: it fits this picture.

I'm not sure the extent to which I can or should fight this. I'm not sure if I'm overreacting. I'm on guard for this now, though, and I'll be writing about it if I see more. It still doesn't feel like it, but it could be that turning 30 is a big deal after all.