I've been arguing, with limited success, to my nephew that hip hop music is artistically stagnant. He reminds me that I don't really know, which is true, since I don't listen to much hip hop and tend to avoid it rather than seek it out.
Also true, however, is that I'm part of the hip hop generation. In 1986, I bugged my Mom to buy me the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill LP. With the neighborhood kids, we used to listen to Eazy E and 2 Live Crew tapes long before the PMRC popularized the "Explicit Lyrics" sticker. We roller skated to Bust a Move. For a couple of months, we thought MC Hammer was actually cool. (I was in Junior High.)
After a while I lost interest, though. Rap took this gangsta turn that I didn't like and couldn't identify with, and I moved on. Fast forward 20 years and not much has changed. Kendrick Lamar comes out with an album about life in Compton and the kindest thing the aficionados have to say is that it's as good as Nas's Illmatic, which came out in 1994!
The obvious contrast to draw would be with rock music, which is basically irrelevant these days, but was the world champion of popular music for nearly 50 years. Part of the reason, I think, is that each new generation remade it in their own image. Musicians were not only inspiring other musicians, but were also reacting to them. Elvis inspired the Beatles. The Beatles' studio wizardry inspired Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
Consider: Jailhouse Rock and Black Sabbath's debut LP are separated by 12 very short, revolutionary years.
In the 70s, tired of 10 minute solos, the youth rebelled and created punk rock, inadvertently sowing the seeds for New Wave and later, Grunge, which in and of itself was also a rebellion against hair metal.
Indeed, the history of rock music can be marked by trends, rejections, rebellions, by cross-breeding and mutations. It evolved. It survived. It had a Darwinian genetic diversity that allowed it to thrive in multiple environments over multiple generations.
Hip-hop, on the other hand, is an artistic monoculture. It's been mining the same territory it always has: the street. It's obsessed with cultivating an inauthentic "realness," which since it's so fake, manifests itself in affectations: the lingo, the walk, the sagging pants. Since conformity is key, there will be no rebellions or deconstructions in hip hop.
For rap fans, the premiere match-up of the 56th Grammy Awards was between Macklemore, of infinitely played-out "Thrift Shop" fame, versus Kendrick Lamar, whose major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, cemented a landmark narrative within the genre, frequently compared to Nas's '94 classic, Illmatic. Radio Disney bop-fun versus nihilistic, sex-fueled correspondence from the wrong boulevard in Compton, California—guess which LP the Grammys voters preferred?A better question is which LP would hip-hop fans prefer? More nihilstic, sex-fueled stuff from Compton --the same territory mined by Eazy E in 1987-- or the white guy who did songs about thrift shops and gay marriage?
It seems like the "Mackelmore wins a Grammy" controversy exposes for all the world to see that hip hop fans want more of the same and cannot reject fast enough the non-conformist white guy. That's not to say that race is much of a factor here. If Mackelmore rapped about the acceptable subject matter and adopted the necessary affectations, it wouldn't be a factor at all.
Woe to the hip-hop fan, stuck in the same mode, twenty years spent still looking for the next Illmatic.