The Music Club

Best music 2011: Drake, Danny Brown, Nicki Minaj, and other occasional misogynists.

The strategic usefulness of misogyny in hip-hop.

Kid Cudi.
Kid Cudi

Photograph by Mike Coppola/Getty Images.

Jody, Ann, Nitsuh, and Carl,

Before we leave the subject of misogyny among young male rap innovators, which I briefly introduced and then dumped on to Ann’s plate, I want to talk a bit about what you might call misogyny’s strategic usefulness in hip-hop, a usefulness that is cheap but time-tested, and which plays out several ways in the context we’re discussing. 1) Such misogyny quickly telegraphs doctrinaire hip-hop hardness, allowing the rapper to get “soft” in other emotional/sartorial departments: Call me gay and make fun of my skin-tight jeans all you want: I still fucked your bitch in the face. I’m roughly paraphrasing a couple of different Danny Brown lyrics here, but this general sentiment, with or without face-fucking, is common among acts like A$AP Rocky, Kid Cudi, and, yes, storm-cloud sex-god Drake. 2) The vast majority of hip-hop is, at bottom, about storytelling, and bad-guy antiheroes make more easily and more readily (if not, necessarily, more imaginatively) for interesting narrators than guys with enlightened, respectful attitudes. 3) As the listener, my better self can tut-tut the rapper’s retrograde attitude even as I secretly, vicariously thrill to its unfettered articulation.

Related to that third notion, I think there’s something else at work with new-generation rap misogyny as it relates, broadly speaking, to listeners like me at this moment in time: Misogyny helps lend the music a frisson of otherness, which has been standard in hip-hop since its earliest crossover days, and which is under some degree of threat in the we’re-all-connected Internet era. Bear with me as I think this through out loud and in a hurry, but when Danny Brown nostalgically references 1980s Michael J. Fox movies, or Drake raps about balling out at French Laundry, or Kid Cudi partners up with MGMT, they display a certain fluency with the (increasingly pervasive) cultural language of 21st century indie-yuppieese. Those listeners who recognize these references as part of their own vocabulary may enjoy a feeling of familiarity, but they lose the gratifying friction of voyeurism and difference that has long marked (defined?) much hip-hop fandom. When the rapper goes on to say something brutish about women, he signals that he speaks, after all, from an ultimately unassimilated value system—which maintains the rapper’s status as not merely hard or antihero, but as “exotic.”

There’s another kind of noxiousness afoot in Nicki Minaj’s new single “Stupid Hoe,” which came out during our first round of emails. Ann tweeted about the song with the hashtag #girlongirlmisogyny; the single is a flashback to the tedious, dispiriting beef that began between Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj when the latter’s star was first on the rise. Women have it tough enough in hip-hop without mean-girling each other. I wish Kim had looked upon Minaj, who owes her an inarguable debt, not with spite but rather, as Missy Elliott did, with pride and excitement. And I wish Nicki Minaj (who may be trying to communicate some hardness herself after her love-song-stuffed debut album) didn’t find it necessary to perpetuate the violence.

If I’ve just cleared my mess off Ann’s plate, let me replace it with another. When I listen to Adele’s 21, I do not deny her tremendous gifts—the lovely, charred edge of her voice, her muscular, bluesy phrasing—but I wonder why anyone, in 2011, wants to listen to this album rather than any number of the ’60s and ’ 70s soul and girl-group records Adele so clearly adores. It’s not like these are hard to come by. iTunes probably even charges less for them. One big, obvious answer is that we like new things especially well when they remind us of old things. Adele salutes a venerable tradition that signifies, to many, an era of prelapsarian pop grandeur. The reason she bores me is that, at her best, she doesn’t do much with the past, to my ears, besides inhabit it grandly. Now, when I used to edit album reviews, one of the pet-peeves around the office was when a writer would swipe at an artist for “breaking no new ground.” If a song is done well, it’s done well, the thinking went, regardless of whether or not it features, say, flavor-du-jour dubstep wobble bass. That said, there’s a limit to how excited I can get about her historical re-enactments.

My favorite Brit of the year is far more adventurous: James Blake, a fey electronic musician and vocalist whose self-titled album was a singer-songwriter record flanked, in his diverse catalogue, by hyper-fractured R&B on one end and minimalist techno inspired by the German nightclub Berghain on the other. (I wrote about the album for Slate.) Blake’s songcraft on the album—amorphous and wispy—has been criticized as under-baked, and I’m willing to concede this point, to a degree, as long as the marvelousness and ingenuity of his soundcraft is recognized. What’s more, his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” features a jarring eruption of flavor-du-jour dubstep wobble bass.

There are writers better versed than I am in the bustling contemporary dance-music scene of the United Kingdom, but suffice it to say that, while the London-born dance genre known as dubstep is still crashing our shores via Skrillex and, a few notches up the totem pole, Rihanna and Britney Spears, the UK itself has moved on. Two of the best electronic-music LPs I heard this year were Glass Swords, by Glaswegian producer Rustie—who trounces Paris’s Justice in the bombastic, swaggering, Daft Punk-adoring column, and whose hammering “City Star” would likely impress Dirty South beatmaker Lex Luger, who certainly influenced it from the 30 second mark forward—and the gorgeous, melancholy Severant, by Kuedo (né Jamie Teasdale), which at points suggests Vangelis’ Blade Runner score remixed for some moody Atlanta strip club.

The kind of club where you might find Drake, Frank Ocean, or The Weeknd, come to think of it.