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Posted by Robert
Rap News Network
2/8/2004 9:10:10 AM

Tags and topics realted to this article include 50 Cent, Outkast, Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott.

One glance at the nominees for tonight's Grammy awards makes it clear that rap has become a transcendent cultural force.

What's less clear - but no less true - is that rap's cultural ascendence happens to coincide with the music's creative bankruptcy.

Rappers dominate the nominations for record of the year and album of the year and show up in plenty of other categories. But because of the vagaries of Grammy deadlines, most of the songs and albums nominated came out in 2002. Among the biggest names, only 50 Cent and OutKast released albums in 2003 that are up for awards tonight in ceremonies at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

It's not as if there was a late burst of hip-hop creativity after the Sept. 30 deadline for Grammy submissions, either. The truth is that rap, once the incendiary music of the streets, is increasingly a homogenized cliché where originality is all too rare.

Don't misunderstand - the bright spots in hip-hop are luminescent, and OutKast, the Roots and Missy Elliott continue to make records that redefine the boundaries of genre and ingenuity. Trouble is, such bright spots are increasingly few.

Take last year's rap sensation, 50 Cent. His debut album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," is a 19-track celebration of the gangsta life. He parties on "In Da Club," puts down rivals on "Wanksta" and brags about how tough he is throughout.

The last one shouldn't be a matter of dispute - the man survived nine gunshot wounds. His tenacity has made him a legend, but not for musical reasons.

"Dude can take a bullet. Doesn't mean dude can rap," David Segal wrote in the Washington Post late last year.

Even if he could rap, what does 50 Cent have to say about the gangsta life that Tupac or Notorious B.I.G. or N.W.A. hasn't said already? Not much, and that's the point. N.W.A. and other early rappers created a template for 50 Cent and his contemporaries to follow, and their blueprints are only tangentially related to the creative process.

"What people have to understand is that this was never, ever about music," says Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer for the Roots. The group's 2002 CD "Phrenology" is up for a Grammy tonight in the rap album category. "Even when the music was good, it was always about a business. At the end of the day, it was about a pop song, and it was about how can we sell it. Stevie Wonder was a very innovative cat musically, but `I Wish' is a pop song. `Isn't She Lovely' is a pop song. `Superstition' is a pop song.

"At that point, you didn't have to really compromise or water down your art forms to get to the masses," Thompson continues. "Nowadays, you have to beat them over the head with a bat."

The more closely a song or album adheres to what earlier artists have proved is a successful template, the easier it is for record companies to sell - whether the music is rap, pop or country. That means there's no financial incentive for artists to take creative risks.

"Everything is about a formula. It's about you mastering the formula. Your goal is to decide how far away from the [mark] are you going to stray and still keep the formula," Thompson says.

The formula dominates in rap, where rhymes seem to originate in a gangsta-pimp fantasyland, and the beats all come from the Neptunes, Timbaland or Dr. Dre. There was a time, of course, when pop songs all sounded like Phil Spector productions, and soul music was measured against the Holland-Dozier-Holland model at Motown Records, so maybe rap's recent fallow streak is merely part of a cycle.

Breaking it will require a seismic shift, just as it took garage rock to break alt-metal's hold over the ever-shorter attention spans of record executives. Fortunately, there are already signs that creativity in hip-hop isn't completely dormant, and they're mostly coming from unexpected corners: London, for example, where Dizzee Rascal recorded a fascinating debut released in the

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