What the hell did you expect from ROLLING STONE?!"
- - Somebody
Rolling Stone recently published their list of the 200 Greatest Rap Albums of all-time, and the ambitious project landed with a thud on social media. Lists are ripe for scrutiny, so anyone creating one already knows that the public is going to pick it apart—that's half the fun of doing them, honestly. But then there are those lists that are so woefully misbegotten that the dissection isn't about fun; it's about pummeling the offending article until the parties involved are too ashamed to admit they created it with a straight face.
In case it wasn't clear: I hated that Rolling Stone list. And you should, too.
But the constant reactions to the reactions were all varying degrees of the above statement. The "why would you think Rolling Stone could do this right?" argument is understandable, but kind of hollow. While so many people focus on the platform and the publication; I have a tendency to look at the byline. When GQ controversially called Future "The Best Rapper Alive" in their April cover story; it sparked similar outcry on social media. The easiest criticism to hurl was "what the hell does GQ know about Hip-Hop?," but the piece was written by Elliott Wilson. Wilson, the former editor-in-chief of XXL and head of content for TIDAL, knows more than a thing or two about Hip-Hop. The fact that I disagree with a headline doesn't suddenly negate the man's resume—but so many observers never go past the brand on which the hated declaration was pasted.
That's why my first reaction to Rolling Stone's heinous list was to check to see who contributed. You see, I actually like lists. Or at least—I used to like them. When done well, thoughtfully, and with a clear sense of canonization, lists were once an entertaining-if-flawed way to elevate the canon of popular music. Well, let's be honest: Rolling Stone was always most specifically focused on rock's canon; and all other genres were framed as adjacent to that magazine's favorite pillars. As such, you've likely never seen a 100 Greatest R&B Albums of All Time list done on a large scale by those rock-centric publications; even though Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was named the greatest album ever by that same platform.
With that being said, lists became a way to elevate the body of work that shaped the rock generation. Rock & roll, blues, soul, metal, funk, jazz and country masterworks would be gathered in one place, with well-written blurbs explaining the significance of the project. I didn't really care about arguing No. 322 vs. No. 111; it was about the exploration for me.
As it nears the 50 year mark, Hip-Hop sits in an interesting (and frustrating) position in popular culture: it's now often-cited as the most commercially "dominant" genre in pop music, but it's tradition and history hasn't been centered by popular music's institutions. Rappers get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; but that still positions rock's institutions as the default for Hip-Hop's elevation. That is inherently a problem.
Rappers get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; but that still positions rock's institutions as the default for Hip-Hop's elevation. That is inherently a problem."
But no, it's not really about "needing" Rolling Stone or any other rock institution to validate or elevate Hip-Hop. What's most frustrating right now is that there isn't a venerated Hip-Hop institution that I'd feel comfortable saying "Now, they would get this right." The publications that would have traditionally been considered the Hip-Hop equivalent of Rolling Stone have been all but nullified in the age of social media. XXL and The Source both, at different points, sat at the forefront of Hip-Hop media. That's not exactly the case today. When one peruses the Twitter feeds of most Hip-Hop media brands, you're more likely to find celebrity gossip and mugshots—if there are lists, they're usually short service junk food; no more than a Top 10 or Top 25 to stoke controversy.
So many music writers in 2022 aren't old enough to remember the 80s and 90s firsthand; nor have they been nurtured by the established Hip-Hop media to know those periods. You can't complain about young writers not knowing about 1992 when established platforms have never required that they know about it. And therein lies a major problem: Hip-Hop media has never successfully made Hip-Hop's past "cool." Hip-Hop's past is always presented as a history lesson, something you need to know out of respect for what it laid the foundation for. As long as Hip-Hop's heritage is perceived as solely foundational, it won't ever be elevated in the way that rock, soul and jazz's canon have been.
Perusing a very high profile project documenting the history of Hip-Hop, I noticed that all of the writers participating seemed to struggle with anything rap-related from before the mid-1990s. How can we elevate eras that are so obscure to so many of the people charged with the task of elevating?
It's now become a cycle of the blind leading the blind; disseminators who are now almost completely detached from earlier eras of Hip-Hop; and an audience has come of age with that disconnect already firmly entrenched. Hip-Hop media churns out Top 5 lists or instigate "Hottest Rapper Alive" debates, but it's become rarer to see anything larger presented to the general public. Instead of deep curation, the attention span is given junk food; short lists meant to enrage for clicks, or quickie "Mt. Rushmore" debates that reduce rap greatness to four or five familiar faces. Group legacies become sidelined by a preoccupation with individual greatness; as emcees are compared like NBA stars Steph Curry or Lebron James; debates sounding more like statistical recitations than the thoughtful appraising of music and art.
As long as Hip-Hop's heritage is perceived as solely foundational, it won't ever be elevated in the way that rock, soul and jazz's canon have been."
The Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock once said that kids today don't care about Public Enemy, and that's Hip-Hop's greatest strength: that it reinvents itself. I have to disagree. I think Hip-Hop's greatest weakness is that it doesn't know itself very well; it's frustrating to watch artists reach past the storied history of rap music because they feel that other genres have more artistry, cultural weight and prestige. But this is how they were taught to see this music.
Have we encouraged this generation to dive into the discography of Public Enemy? Or have we taught them that Public Enemy is just a stepping stone for music they should dive into? Do we reduce greats to footnotes; suggesting that for legends like P.E., Salt-N-Pepa and even Eminem, that there's only one obligatory album that warrants mention historically? When the writers and the publications don't know anything about Scarface's discography, you can't blame the public for their ignorance. We've never made it cool to look back at Hip-Hop through more than a nostalgic lens; and elevating it's canon as essential music is imperative.
Hip-Hop is more than a genre of music, but we don't really respect it—even in that regard. When we praise an artist as 'more than a rapper,' what are we saying? When we call an older emcee 'before his time,' what does that truly mean? It echoes the 'less than' way that we see Hip-Hop as a genre of music."
Nothing wrong with ranking. The problem isn’t rankings. There’s a way to do it. You take it as seriously as Rolling Stone took the 500 Greatest Albums lists. Opinion doesn’t have to make anyone cringe; but shallow approaches absolutely should. There’s no quantifiable way to “prove” any list “right,” but there doesn’t need to be. I used to enjoy lists because they could be a roadmap thru classics. But we (music media) have not cultivated that spirit in hip-hop. We haven’t made it cool to explore an amazing canon. It all got microwaved into Top 10s or Top 20s.
And it was into that climate that the publication known for the most high profile music lists decided to waste an opportunity to do something that elevates rap classics. Instead, Rolling Stone took a shallow approach that further de-emphasizes that canon.
So how is Hip-Hop media going to react to the most famous music pub in the world delivering a mediocre rap albums list? Hmmm. You'll probably see a lot of stories about indignant artists' dismissals; superstars giving Rolling Stone the thumbs down for not including their masterworks on its list. But I don't know if any of them is going to take up the mantle and canonize Hip-Hop the way that it should be done. But it's cool—because I don't really want them to do that. I think I know exactly what brand is best qualified to celebrate and elevate decades of great Hip-Hop albums. Rock The Bells is primed to take the reins. It's cool, Rolling Stone. We respect what you've done. We respect what you do. But Hip-Hop needs a cultural mothership. Fifty years of Hip-Hop are right there—primed to shine; and we can't keep handing the conversation over to others. Hip-Hop has to elevate itself.
Nobody else is going to get this right until we do.