Charlatans of Pop


Aristotle is the first important thinker to defend hardcore rap music. Along with Plato, he established an aesthetic criticism that held as its central point of discussion art as imitation (mimesis). To the Classicists, all works of visual art, poetry, and music seek to imitate reality, both sensible and imaginable. According to Plato, to imitate beauty is to adulterate beauty, and thus can only misguide or corrupt all who witness the imitation. Considering how little he cared for the Beatles, he would’ve hated the Wu-Tang Clan. Aristotle, on the other hand, considered mimesis to be cathartic. If at the Theater of Dionysus any clan of thespians ever declared they “ain’t nothin to fuck with,” he might have applauded their braggadocio. Moreover, he might consider hardcore rap to be the most dramatic kind of modern music, so it follows to examine his treatise on Poetics through the tragedians and comedians of rap.

Aristotle, ever systematic, would insist on defining what is meant by hardcore rap music. Hip hop as a term has little use for this inquiry because it is as much about visual art, dance, and politics as it is about music. Writing about cultural anthropology is like masturbating a horse: it’s something I just don’t do. Rap music is spoken or chanted lyrics accompanied by music, which explains another reason why hip hop is avoided: with regards to music, that term at its most authentic refers only to rapping and/or turntablism. Instrumental music is not a part of this discussion, nor will musical accompaniment by anything other than a DJ be excluded.

The word hardcore has many implications, the two most important being 1) explicit: Lennon and McCartney want you to “Please Please [them],” but Eminem invites you to “Suck [his] Dick”; and 2) resistant: All-4-One will try and be “A Better Man [each, respectively],” but The Game and 50 Cent will be “Gangsta[s] Till [they] Die.”

To find a hardcore analogue in Aristotle’s era, we need look no further than the story of Oedipus, the “Illest Motherfucker [no longer] Alive.” His was an explicit tale, and there is no hardcore rap song to match it for gory details. Sophocles’s adaptation is a miracle of restraint, but there can be no mistaking what happens to the characters. The song “Please Please Me” could be about anything nice someone can do for someone else, but “Suck My Dick” refers indubitably to the act of fellatio; the latter is hardcore, and the former, if you will, hard-coy. Oedipus was hardcore also in the way that he was resistant. The entreaties of neither Tiresias, Jocasta, nor the Shepherd could stray him from the scent of his own downfall. Preceding the anagnorisis, he could have quoted Biggie Smalls: “Fuck the world, fuck my Moms and my girl [hmm] / My life is played out like a Jheri curl / I’m ready to die!” Got hamartia?

Now that we have a feel for the game, let’s get literary. Both Greek tragedy and hardcore rap music are rife with violent, depraved action (praxis), but action by itself is gratuitous, or worse, boring. The most beautiful representation (mimesis) of a bunch of titillating action (praxis) is a good story (muthos). A good story has a point and makes people give a shit by being substantial, beautiful, well-organized, and shown—not told. Aristotle said it worse: “Tragedy […] is an imitation of an action that is of stature and complete, with magnitude, that, by means of sweetened speech, but with each of its kinds separate in its proper parts, is of people acting and not through report, and accomplishes through pity and fear the cleansing of experiences of this sort” (tr. Benardete, Davis). Nas said it best, though: “Representing is Illmatic.”

And his “N.Y. State of Mind” is tragic in the highest sense. Harbingered by a paranoid B-flat played in a high, merengue ostinato, and then set against the nightmarish soundscape of Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain,” our hero’s “life is parallel to Hell”: “In the PJ’s, my blend tape plays / bullets are strays, young bitches is grazed / each block is like a maze full of black rats trapped.” His action is of stature: “Pick the Mac up, told brothers, ‘Back up,’ the Mac spit / Lead was hittin’ niggas—one ran, I made him backflip.” His story inspires fear: “Gave another squeeze, heard it click, yo, my shit is stuck / Try to cock it, it wouldn’t shoot, now I’m in danger / Finally pulled it back and saw three bullets caught up in the chamber”; and pity: “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps / That’s where I learned to do my hustle, had to scuffle with freaks.”

Does it glorify crime and violence? No more than the story of Oedipus. Like his, our hero’s prospects are hopelessly bleak, and the trajectory of his actions can only lead to downfall, either in death or “catch[ing] a back to back.” Nas never claims to be a good man, but he does imply regret: “So now I’m jetting to the building lobby / And it was filled with children probably, couldn’t see as high as I be.” Tragic heroes are heroic because of their flaws. They use their extraordinary courage to survive and/or defeat their enemies, but they also repent for their inevitable sins. As listeners, we admire our hero—indeed, we fantasize about being him—but our admiration merely cleanses the fear and pity of our comparably slighter experiences. The catharsis is the point of every good story in hardcore rap music.

But what about the rap music that does not repent? This is the difference between tragedy and comedy. Aristotle said, while tragedy imitates superior men forced to do inferior things, “Comedy […] is an imitation of what is inferior to a greater degree, not however with respect to all vice, but the laughable is a proper part of the shameful and ugly” (tr. Benardete, Davis). Sadly, what Aristotle ostensibly recorded in detail about comedy has not survived, but there is enough said in his Poetics and enough dick jokes in Aristophanes to make some educated inferences on how to make fun of inferior people doing inferior things.

One of my favorite shameful and ugly albums is Baltimore rapper AMG’s Bitch Betta Have My Money (1992). “I don’t charge by the inch, I charge by the foot / Think I’m lying, bitch? Here, take a look / 100% U.S.D.A Grade A beef / Here’s my card, call me.” Is that beautiful? God, no. It’s disgusting. What is AMG trying to accomplish here? Let’s whip it out and see. First, the irony: our antihero is probably not an actual prostitute, because, if he were, he’d do well to not refer to his client as a bitch. We can assume the claim to measure his penis in feet is hyperbolic, and it is reasonable to doubt that it was ever actually evaluated by the U.S.D.A. Second, the musical accompaniment: a driving New Jack Swing at 105 beats per minute, swung 16th notes, and a synth patch that sounds like an electrified bass trombone. By God, I think he wants us to dance! Or at least nod our heads. Either way, AMG has no intention of making us pity, admire, or even fear his character. He plays the part of a buffoon to make us giggle, blush, or just lighten the fuck up and get down.

But it all sounds so misogynistic, doesn’t it? That’s part of the reason why this genre is appropriate for discussing Aristotle: anyone who read the first chapter of the Politics knows what the man had to say about women—and slaves (!!!). A valid argument could claim that hardcore rap music amounts to little more than catharsis for men and women who rue the development of political equality for the sexes. This is indeed a problem when that actual sentiment underlies the lyrical content itself, and undoubtedly there are countless examples of backwards, poorly conceived hardcore rap, but the best work of this genre is often misperceived by people whose interests lie in something other than music criticism. To confront the charges of misogyny, some would cite the song “Mai Sistah Izza Bitch” from the AMG album because it features a hardcore performance by the female rapper Bo$$, and her lyrics are as scathing as anything on the entire album. To do this would also miss the point. Her contribution, while it arguably succeeds in this context to level the playing field between men and women, could also be said to exploit the perceived novelty of a woman playing a boy’s game—as if an hour of misogyny is justified by four minutes of misandry. This is off track if hardcore rap will survive this sociological scrutiny.

The only way to appreciate AMG’s character is to start by recognizing what a terrible human being he is. And so is Bo$$’s character. We’re not supposed to glorify their inferior actions; we’re supposed to root for their happiness (eudaimonia) and laugh at their actions (praxis) in spite of their weaknesses because we enjoy the fun of their company. Someone who listens to Snoop Dogg to purge his own fantasies about “pimpin’ hoes and clockin’ a grip like [his] name was Dolemite” is not a fan of hardcore rap music. He is a fan of violence and exploitation. Snoop Dogg’s is a picaresque character, smooth—the man spits silk—yet droll, and such a character is potentially worthy of our admiration for the ironic heroes of Cervantes or Sterne. As for tragic characters, we must believe they are greater than we are. We admire them in spite of their weaknesses, and we pity their bad fortune. But whether the drama is tragedy or comedy, all good hardcore rap music is theater.

Because the mimetic emphasis of Classical criticism limits the pop music discussion to considerations of lyrical content, it seems that the work of Plato and Aristotle provides little to no foundation for thinking about music per se, and this suggests a futility overall in criticizing music. Recalling the words of Elvis Costello—”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”—we see how far we’ve come in challenging this futility. But if thinking critically about pure music is futile, then the lyrics of “N.Y. State of Mind” could communicate the same message with any accompaniment: a polka band, a sample of “Sir Duke,” an Indian throat singer, etc. Obviously this is not true; moreover, it’s not obvious how language has influenced the interpretive perception of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. Pythagoras discovered harmonic consonance through geometry, which suggests that sound in time has a capacity for mathematical truth beyond subjective reason. We turn next to the Neoclassicist thinkers of pop music criticism, particularly Longinus and Horace, to seek further this purported truth. Their point of view, while technically still in the realm of literary theory, abstract the limits of theatrical art. Hipsters rejoice: we’re gonna talk about feelings!

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.