by Scott F. Parker
My parents didn’t pay any attention to what music I was listening to in middle school. But if they had, and if they’d objected, I would have rolled my eyes. I was twelve years old for god’s sake. There was nothing wrong with The Chronic. No reason not to sing along to Doggystyle. I was, naturally, “down with OPP.”
But if they’d asked me why I listened to this music, what could I have said? There was no reason. It was just what one did. There was school, there was basketball, there was rap music. It was called life.
I can’t say in retrospect that I had a particular love for Hip Hop. At that age, if everyone I knew listened to country music, I’m pretty sure I would have been singing along to Vince Gill and Alan Jackson instead of Bone Thugs and Onyx.
When I did first have that feeling that an album had been made precisely so that one day I would listen to it, I was fourteen, alone in my bedroom, and the album was Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman. My friends were none the wiser. Even when “Where Do the Children Play?” was the song I was singing in the privacy of my mind, it never crossed my lips. When two or more people gathered, Hip Hop would already be playing. We didn’t choose the soundtrack to our lives. We simply lived our lives as the music played.
But what begin as life’s accidents — where and when we’re born, what music happens to be playing — very often become linchpins of the self.
I am who I am because at sixteen, driving back and forth across Portland on one random lark after another, I fell in love. His name was Tupac, and he somehow knew everything important there was to know about me, everything I was on the cusp of knowing about myself, and he was willing to share his secrets.
Never mind the Tupac had been killed a few months before I got my driver’s license. He lived eternal in my consciousness. When I summoned his spirit through my speakers and turned the volume up as loud as I could tolerate, it felt like his voice, in all its range, had been implanted directly into my brain.
I wasn’t alone in thinking myself uniquely suited to take on the world with Tupac by my side. This was what would soon be called the hip-hop era. But not everyone at my school knew it at the time. It was still possible in the late nineties to meet a certain kind of white kid who, upon seeing other white kids listening to rap, would mock the music by saying “Yo, yo, yo” in a stupid voice was their faces all twisted up.
Thankfully, that shtick was retired about five minutes later. Pretty soon, Hip Hop went from being mainstream to being the mainstream. And by then I was in college and Eminem was happening all over the place and I looked just like one of those guys at the MTV Music Awards and do I even need to tell you that life was good?
(Okay, a lot of my friends in college were “troubled” by Eminem’s “content” and “disappointed” that I listened to his music. Of course, this just made listening to him that much sweeter.)
Memorizing The Marshall Matthers LP was one thing. I knew all the lyrics to three CDs full of unreleased tracks that I burned off Napster. Stan? You bet I was.
But why Eminem? For one thing, it felt to me like he was fulfilling Tupac’s legacy. I’d thought something similar, briefly, about DMX, but Eminem was sustaining it. The same utter commitment to the words he was saying — not to the meaning of the words necessarily, but to the words themselves. Rap mattered to him in a way that to most people nothing does. When The Eminem Show released, it confirmed what Zadie Smith, in her Vibe profile, called his ’Pac-like artistic integrity.
I loved how much Eminem loved rap. And if liking him for that wasn’t cool, that was okay. I cared about Eminem more than I cared about being cool. (But when I found out that Zadie Smith liked Eminem, too, it didn’t hurt. If Zadie Smith wasn’t cool, no one was.)
I was bound to outgrow Eminem eventually. Encore merely accelerated the process. But by then I was on to the rapper I would come to think of as the best artist of his era in any medium.
If I get excited when the conversation turns to Kanye West, it means I’ve been getting excited for a long time now. College Dropout represents the first and, so far, only time in my life I wasn’t late to the party. I showed up to that party early, with pretzels and a case of beer. I hung flyers everywhere. I practically blew a kazoo.
Whether it was the video to “Through the Wire” or that I was on the brink of failing out of college myself or that I, too, had once worked at the GAP, I listened to Kanye like the future was entirely up for grabs and I was finally certain that I was going to do something with it —something bold, something ambitious, something original.
Yes, for the third time, I was identifying with a rapper with a chip on his shoulder. Yes, that scratches a certain psychic itch. But Kanye gave me something that Tupac and Eminem didn’t. He inspired me to see myself not just as an existential hero who could invent himself as anything he imagined but as an existential hero who would be daring (or crazy) enough to become himself. If Hip Hop could be made to accommodate someone as unorthodox as Kanye, who couldn’t find — or better, make — his place somewhere in this world? Yes! I could, I would, live, be, and create as me.
It was the same lesson (I didn’t listen only to rap) I was learning from Dylan. An artist is someone who makes things with the materials available to him. Beyond that, not too much matters. Certainly, doing what other people expect you to do doesn’t matter. And wasn’t I an artist? Couldn’t I be? Say what you will about Kanye, I will say this: his influence changed the course of my life for the better.
But in the decade after College Dropout, nothing else resonated as deeply with me, not even Kanye’s string of subsequent masterpieces. Season by season, I was trending away from music and toward literature. By 2014 or so, when I read Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool, I was ready to accept his challenge to stop confusing the songs in my ears for myself.
And a few years after that, I had a son and could no longer listen to rap without hearing it through his ears and wanting to turn the volume way, way down. Rap was the music of my youth, but my youth, it seemed, was a long time ago.
But then — what was this? — 4:44 was in my car’s CD player, and why did I ever think rap was done with me?
When Jay-Z described Kingdom Come — the underrated Kingdom Come — as an album for adults, I could see it. But with 4:44 I didn’t have to squint.
The emotional openness the playfulness with form the way Jay’s subjectivity brings all the sounds and ideas into coherence the vulnerability the confidence of course as ever with him the sheer talent but downplayed here he’s not showing off he’s being himself he’s telling the truth he’s communicating he’s giving us something he’s an adult more a human no not quite he’s reaching for humanity you can feel him striving and that striving is beautiful it’s so beautiful he wants to get there and he’s going to take us with him.
He took me with him. Whatever I was going to do next as a writer, as a father, as a husband, 4:44 would be its soundtrack.
But will it surprise you to know that I’m four years older than I was four years ago and that as I have more and more time in my life for podcasts I have less and less for rap? You might catch me dancing to Macklemore or Will Smith with my sons — there are two of them now — but if you see me with my headphones on, more likely than not it’s The Unspeakable or Decoding the Gurus I’m listening to.
The last time I got into a new rapper was ten years ago when a friend turned me on to Kendrick. I keep thinking one of these years I’ll immerse myself in J. Cole, who I’m convinced I could love. But I’ve been meaning to get to him for six years. And if it hasn’t happened yet, will it? The graffiti’s on the wall.
Still, it would take only one more rapper for me to put together a top-five list. I’ve considered candidates before. Nas, E-40, André, Kweli, Common, Lauryn, Dessa, Guante, Slug, and Kool A.D. all, at various times, have been in the running. But instead of plugging one of these artists in, I prefer for now to leave the spot open. Maybe for Cole, if I ever do get around to him. Or maybe for someone else. Someone I haven’t heard yet. Someone who will rap for the person I could still become.