The video playing was titled "We Takin' Over", performed by a half dozen currently popular rap artists. The basic premise is a group of rappers parading around Miami, whether it be cruising on a speedboat or driving 50 miles per hour in reverse to evade the FBI.
Five rappers deliver verses which all touch on the same themes yet have little to do with each other. T.I. runs off a quick list of the states he'™s supposedly about to take over, while Rick Ross grunts grammatically baffling couplets like "Bounce is what I does / I get money everyday, everyday I does."
Akon, famous for singing hooks (choruses) in his recognizable nasal tenor, does just that here. The lyrics vaguely allude to drug dealing, but even the vaguest of these allusions is silenced by MTV, leaving a few seconds of music in place of seemingly benign words like "supply" and "work".
But this song isn't about dealing drugs, nor is it about taking over. Only near the end do I realize that this is a song about nothing at all.
Hip-hop has long been the target of criticism from many angles. The "parental advisory" sticker was adopted to help parents shield their kids from explicit violent and sexual lyrics. Some rappers have been attacked for their misogynistic lyrics that disrespect women. But none of this has hindered raps' popularity.
Dr. Dre's classic album "The Chronic", which takes its name from a particularly potent form of marijuana, was an immense success. It took the romanticized gangsta lifestyle and marketed it to the mainstream. Since then, this urban criminal fantasy has been censored and watered down into a palatable mix of rap, pop, and R&B that even soccer moms can enjoy.
MTV heavily censors rap videos, not just for expletives but also for any references to drug use, sex, or violence. Don't worry, those bags of money Rick Ross is holding aren't from selling drugs, they're from "hustlin".
Chamillionaire wasn't really riding dirty; it was just a misunderstanding. That's not weed smoke that Snoop Dogg's blowing out his nose, it's just good old tobacco. Wait a minute, who's he making it rain on? MTV and radio censors have become experts in their balancing act: keeping rap clean enough to please parents but dirty enough to satisfy teens.
Obscenity aside, mainstream rap's artistic quality is sliding down a slippery slope. 95.5 The Beat, Atlanta's most popular rap station, has about as much street cred as Vanilla Ice. Rappers try to do R&B (T-Pain, a self-proclaimed "rappa ternt sanga"), R&B singers try to rap (R. Kelly), and often the two genres are difficult to tell apart. Many artists make up gimmicky dances (the motorcycle) or versatile catchphrases (Ballin'!) to gain instant popularity.
In general, mainstream hip-hop has become nothing more than a popular brand name, a commodity to be bought and sold. Companies pay big bucks to have rappers promote their latest gadgets in videos. When Ludacris takes a break from rapping to pull out his Boost Mobile and text message a girl saying "SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER!!" you know something is wrong.
So after having said all this, why did I a "suburban white male" spend my Sunday afternoon watching MTV Jams? It'™s simple - rap music is entertaining. The beats are fast and danceable. The women are attractive, albeit unrealistic. The videos are outrageous big-budget spectacles (Seriously, that dude was driving 50 miles per hour in reverse in a car chase. Who doesn't want to watch that?). The lyrics are sometimes obscene, but who's really paying attention? If I want enrichment, I can turn on the History Channel. MTV Jams, and mainstream rap in general, is low on substance but big on thrills. So are most Hollywood movies. So was hair metal. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Sure, much rap music glamorizes things that are not so glamorous and shows little respect for English grammar. But its negative effects cannot be blamed on those who produce it. Artists are free to say anything they want; the consumers are the ones who decide what is popular. They aren't forcing hip-hop on the people; the people are begging for it. Record companies aren't selling rap music to chip away at American morals; they're selling it because it makes money. If American really has a problem with hip-hop, we must ask ourselves why we buy millions of rap records every year.
It's also important to remember that much of rap music really does have artistic value. Hometown heroes Outkast have sold millions of records without sticking to the radio-friendly formula. Their original rhyming styles and wildly inventive beats have won over mainstream fans. Some artists, most famously Public Enemy, use the microphone as a vehicle for social commentary and political protesting.
These are well known mainstream examples, but there is also a thriving underground hip-hop scene rising out of dim basement studios across the nation. It's not all about the "benjamins". There is plenty of good rap music out there, but you won't see it on MTV Jams. Dig a little deeper, and you will discover a rich genre that is still keepin' it real.