First things first, I’m the realest. Considering Plato et al could not conjure up a definitive statement on reality for over two millennia, Iggy Azalea exhibited massive cojones in issuing such an absolute maxim, even if you find no merit in an artistic identity that resembles Chris Lilley playing Toyah Wilcox playing Nicki Minaj.
Naturally, this doesn’t reference real in its literal sense. Most musicians are as real as the world they inhabit, apart from Gorillaz, and maybe Burial, and possibly Paul McCartney from ’66 onwards. Instead it equals authenticity and in the world of hip hop, realness is as integral a part of a rappers voice as an aggressive smoking habit was to Tom Waits’. ‘Realness’ , though, is hard to attribute, harder still to define; there is no concrete criteria, although race appears to play an underlying role in the eyes of some: Childish Gambino equates not being ‘real’ with ‘talking white’, whilst white rappers often seem to overcompensate. It’s a sweeping statement, no doubt, but compare Eminem’s sordid anecdotes to Jay Z’s ease with listing off his material possessions. No one wants to be a Vanilla Ice. Regardless, rappers wear their genuineness on their (tattoo) sleeves, and any perceived masquerading or selling out results in more unbridled beef than a cow-on-cow gangbang.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 single, ‘i’, a title which looks great on an EP and less so buried amongst magazine text. The preceding album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was so well received as an account of Compton life that it was incorporated into a school’s English syllabus and critics fell over themselves to offer superlatives almost as imaginative as anything on the album. This interpretation of the record hinged on the consensus that Lamar was ‘real’, that he was an authority on his topic. Paradoxically, the popularity of the album uprooted the rapper from his role as Compton everyman and deposited him sharply down into the VIP area. Does this invalidate any future work concerning urban California? A veritable menagerie of online commentators, critics and trolls certainly think so. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy posited that, and then lived by (at least for a short time), the maxim that all great artists produce only three great albums. Is this particularly applicable to rappers, whom often write about topics they are increasingly distanced from? The refrain ‘I love myself’ is indicative of an increased focus on self and, lyrically, might this inward turn serve as an example to other urban artists whom wish to remain relevant? After all, in today’s solipsistic society what can be more ‘real’ than the self?
Of course, this is all a bit trifling when you regard yourself as a deity, which leads into the loophole of the ‘realness’ conundrum: be Kanye. Replacing his teeth with diamonds, marrying into the Kardashians, at this point, it would not be a complete surprise for West to out himself as a performance artist. Frankly, who cares about preconceived notions of reality when you’re redefining what it means to be a rapper, an entrepreneur or public figure?
But for everyone else, it would appear that Lamar’s move signified a sea change. To again reference Jay Z, just look at how his long term fans were cooling on the titan as the scene changed and he kept on rapping about how many rolexes he had. With 4:44, he kicked on from the pedestrian Magna Carta Holy Grail, and rapped about his psyche and position in society. Rap moved out of the ghetto and into the penthouse a long time ago, but it’s now dropping by the psychiatrist’s pretty regularly too.