In the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano talks to his psychiatrist about the strong, silent type: men who never discussed their feelings, men who simply got the job done, men who showed grace under pressure. When I think of the strong, silent type in hip-hop, I automatically think of the ‘90s: a time when Timberlands reigned supreme and ghostwriting was a cardinal sin.
Last week, Vince Staples kicked the hornets’ nest of Internet comments by saying that the ‘90s were overrated. Except that he didn’t. In a classic case of click-baitism by TIME Magazine, Vince Staples simply gave his reasons for not believing that the ‘90s were the golden era for hip-hop:
“The ‘90s get a lot of credit. Don’t really know why. Biggie and Tupac, those are the staples of the ‘90s. I think that’s why they get the ‘golden era’ credit. There’s not a 50 Cent in the ‘90s. They didn’t even have a Kanye…You’ll find someone who hates Jay Z, loves Lil’ Boosie. You can love Lupe Fiasco, hate Gucci Mane and find somebody else with the same IQ who feels opposite because it’s more relative to their lifestyle.”
If you actually watch the whole video, you’ll realize that Vince Staples was just stating his opinion and explaining how that opinion was tied to his personal experience (something that he expanded upon further in his interview with Sway).
I’m a couple of years older than Vince Staples. I remember The Backstreet Boys being bigger than The Beatles and I remember the struggles of dial-up Internet. My first taste of hip-hop was in 1997, courtesy of MTV. It was the beginning of The Shiny Suit Era and Will Smith was my favorite rapper. As a result, no matter what anyone says, I will always have a soft spot for that time in music history, cannons, cowgirls and all.
Unlike Yoh, I love Illmatic. However, I’m also aware of the toxic elitism that plagues our culture. It rears its ugly head whenever the ‘90s are mentioned or when there’s a debate about what constitutes ‘real’ hip-hop. One could argue that this elitism stems from the fact that, currently, the people in charge of our most important publications came of age in the ‘90s. Following this logic, in about ten years time, we could see the narrative slowly change from the ‘90s being the golden age of hip-hop to the early 2000s being the golden age – the same way that nobody really talks about the greatness of the late ‘80s anymore.
Here’s the thing, though, the ‘90s were legitimately a great time for hip-hop (the greatest in my opinion). As someone who enjoyed history class in school, few things give me more joy than going back in time and finding out how certain people/events influenced the trends of today. It’s the reason why I’m such a sample fanatic. Whenever a rapper gives props to his forefathers, I instantly look them up on YouTube and search for the shared DNA.
The ‘90s gave us an embarrassment of riches when it came to music, you don’t have to look further than 1993 and 1994 as proof of that. And it wasn’t just limited to hip-hop. In the R&B department, you had the likes of Aaliyah, Janet Jackson and TLC running the game and creating sounds that are still being heard today. Without being too nostalgic, almost everything that came from the ‘90s was golden. Almost.
But at the same time, I wasn’t a teenager in the ‘90s. I have my limited memories of that era and, if we’re keeping it 100, my first true introduction to hip-hop was The College Dropout. That was the first time I understood the concept of a classic album and that was the first time I experienced the true power of music.
If we continue to let our nostalgia for the ‘90s run our lives, we’ll forget that we are really living in blessed times. The ‘90s didn’t have the iPod, the ‘90s didn’t have Kendrick and the ‘90s didn’t have the Internet as it is now. If you want to deal with the pains of scratched CDs and Ask Jeeves, be my guest.
Say what you will about this generation of hip-hop but whatever they ‘lack’ in lyricism, they make up for in creativity. Whether it’s the psychedelic trap of A$AP Rocky or the theatrical jazz of The Social Experiment, we are finally beginning to see some genuine diversity return to hip-hop.
Also, the reintroduction of melody in hip-hop is one of the best things to happen in recent history. It’s the reason why Isaiah Rashad’s fatal thoughts of suicide cuts so deep and why J. Cole’s inability to smile makes me want to fly with him to St. Tropez. If this blurred line between singing and rapping was as accepted in the ‘90s as it is now then one of my favorite albums of all time (Labcabincalifornia by The Pharcyde) would have been better received – the only flaw that album had was that it was so ahead of its time.
Tony Soprano wasn’t as cool as Michael Corleone and he wasn’t as crazy as Tony Montana but he brought something new to TV that hadn’t been seen in a while: depth. Through his various dreams and psychiatry sessions, we got to explore the complexities of a character that would go on to become the benchmark for other famous anti-heroes like Don Draper and Walter White. The success of The Sopranos led to a new generation of TV shows that were morally ambiguous, heavily serialized and cleverly told. It led to what we now take for granted as the golden age of TV.
The same thing can happen for hip-hop but only if we let guys like Vince Staples speak.
Photo Credit: Instagram