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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Black Beatles: What it means to define a genre

JOSEPH HAN | The Observer
JOSEPH HAN | The Observer

In Rae Sremmurd’s recently released sophomore effort, “Sremmlife 2,” one track, “Black Beatles,” features a thought-provoking pastiche: Forty-six years since the release of their final album, The Beatles still manage to infiltrate pop culture. “I'm a f----- black Beatle, cream seats in the Regal / Rockin John Lennon lenses” Sremm’s Swae Lee boasts on the track — testament to The Beatles special legacy within the music world.

Author Chuck Klosterman is interested in special legacies. In his latest book, “But What if We Were Wrong,” Klosterman aims to reimagine our society through the perspective of a far-off future. Throughout the work he argues that the way we understand our contemporary society will change radically in the distant future. In this way, Klosterman develops provoking insight on today’s society, the society of the past and the way we interpret recorded history.

Of interest is Klosterman’s ability to trace past historical trends and apply them to a modern context. Specifically, Klosterman takes aims at the way music genres progress through time, claiming, “As the timeline [of music] moves forward, tangential artists in any genre fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated until the genre and individual become interchangeable.”

Applying this logic to the genre of rock music, Klosterman argues one group has “immediate and sensible” potential for undergoing this process — The Beatles. In defending this rationale, Klosterman states, “The Beatles defined the conception of what a ‘rock group’ was supposed to be … The Beatles were the first major band to write their own songs, thus making songwriting a prerequisite for credibility; they also released tracks that unintentionally spawned entire sub-genres of rock.”

The idea that The Beatles may end up representing an entire genre someday isn’t exactly revolutionary. In fact, many music figures have alluded to The Beatles with this sort of cultural legacy in mind; Rae Sremmurd is far from the only one. Most references to the Fab Four materialize as comparisons: bold claims from artists stating their similar potential for embodying an entire genre. But is any contemporary artist justified in making this comparison? More importantly, what genre — if any — is at a point historically where such an artist could emerge?

Possibly, the most attractive answer is hip-hop, more specifically, rap: a genre currently in the midst of a stylistic and thematic explosion, a neo-golden era. Today’s rap music is advanced by a diverse group of top-notch artists constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptability. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine an artist today who will embody the entirety of rap as time goes on.

It seems the most obvious, or as Klosterman would say, “immediate and sensible,” choices from our current pool of rappers are Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Both artists are self-proclaimed “Black Beatles” and each have pivotally altered today’s rap-scape.

In pouring over West and Lamar’s respective “Black Beatles” claims, two very disparate, albeit viable, depictions of rap emerge.

“What’s a black Beatle anyway? A f----- roach?/ I guess that’s why they got me sitting in f----- coach” (“Gorgeous," Kanye West).

In classic “no prisoner” fashion, Kanye West conjures The Beatles to self-acclaim, while also acknowledging institutional racism. In this vein, if Kanye West one day embodies rap, the genre will be thought of as a provocative, in all senses of the word, vehicle for exploring societal taboo. Kanye West’s transcendent ability to progress the musicality of rap has inspired an entirely new generation of rappers and garnered almost unparalleled critical praise – all while maintaining almostconstantcontroversy.

Rap, in the Kanye West definition, is equal parts celebration and unrest. While songs like “Gold Digger,” “Stronger,” “Heartless” and “Famous” play out like euphoric pop songs, other tracks like “Jesus Walks,” “Hell of a Life” and “Blood on the Leaves” concurrently present incredibly jarring messages through equally compelling means. Under West, rap lives a dynamic yet confrontational existence.

“Judgment to the monarchy, blessings to Paul McCartney / You called me a black Beatle, I'm either that or a Marley” ("Control," Kendrick Lamar's feature).

Kendrick Lamar embraces the Beatles comparison. Don’t misinterpret the claim though, just like West, Lamar has tremendous confidence in his craft. Not only does he put himself on the same level of influence as Paul McCartney, but also of Bob Marley – and to be fair, he’s not far off.

Born in wisdom, bred in contemplation and delivered with precision, every line of Kendrick Lamar’s social poetry breathes deeper meaning. Compton, California’s Kendrick Lamar has spent the past 10 years ambitiously reassigning the role of social awareness within the greater scope of rap. Lamar’s undoubtedly iconic “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is a brilliantly intimate exploration of the urban struggle via a multitude of perspectives. The equally important follow up, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” evolved to universality, rejecting the notion of a pop album via jazz-inspired hooks and heavily nuanced verses.

Rap then, in the Kendrick definition, is provocative in a progressive sense. Simply stated, in switching from the West universe to the Lamar, pop is traded for jazz and confrontation for levitation.

Let's acknowledge that although it’s fair to say both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar will inevitably be remembered for a while, in the very long run history rarely plays out as expected. Klosterman is the first person to admit this, “Our world is not reasonable. And the way this question [who will embody the genre] will be asked tomorrow is (probably) not the same way we’d ask it today.” It seems whether Black Beatles or Dung Beetles, we all must obey the progress of time and her stories.