Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Affect/Politic: Mos Def and Dead Prez

A recent conversation with a friend highlighted our different aesthetic tastes for two so-called "conscious" rappers. My friend favors Mos Def. I have nooooo problems with Mos Def, but lately, I have favored Dead Prez.

Here is a summary of my understanding of my friend's concerns about Dead Prez: They are enunciating so much anger that their artistry is suspect. It doesn't really take as much talent or genius to articulate rage as it does to articulate a coherent political message.

I think I know what this friend means about the difference in the political analysis provided by a Mos Def as opposed to Dead Prez. I guess I hadn't really evaluated my reasons for enjoying Dead Prez, and my friend's comments invite me to do that.

I assume that a political analysis of aesthetics has to take account of both the intellectual content (what they say) and the affective structure of articulation (how they say it).

Given that as a framework for our discussion, there is definitely something to be said for an aesthetic that encourages inquiry in the way that Mos Def's music does. Off the top, I think of "New World Water" and "Mathematics" from Black on Both Sides as an example of this. I suppose that what I appreciate most about Dead Prez is their articulation of the affect of the "death-bound subject."

Not that Mos is not doing this; he is. But Mos performs most of his lyrics with that deadpan lyrical style and has something in the beats/cuts/instrumentation (you can tell that I don't have the conceptual vocab to describe clearly my assessment of Mos' hip-hop music theory) that jibes with a structural analysis in the *content* articulated but not in the articulation itself.

With Dead Prez, "it's real hip-hop, and it don't stop til we get the po-po off the block" in "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop" comes to mind as an example of how the southern style they use articulates the affect at the level of enunciation. This is not to take anything away from Mos. Since I only have one solo album of his (plus Black Star), I don't know his work well enough to do that. I do suspect that his pairing with Bustah Rhymes on "Do It Now" and Talib Kweli elsewhere suggests that he is aware of his aesthetic limitations. (Bustah and Talib *do* articulate the affect I'm talking about at the level of enunciation and work contrapuntally with Mos' "laid-back" more contemplative style.) I'm going to keep thinking about this.

I know, you probably think I'm saying "Mos is too intellectual"-- which I consider to be the most unfair of the aesthetic critiques of so-called "conscious" rap. I don't think that I'm saying that. I think it has something to do with Mos' voice and this mysterious concept from acoustics called "formants"-- the wavelengths that certain singers are able to access and that have some connection to human affect that no one can really explain. It may not be something Mos can do anything about. And I love his work anyway.

Or maybe it's just that I'm from the South. Seriously. Maybe, being from the South, the affect of enunciation is more attuned to the way I'm accustomed to what I consider "authentic." This will have to be explored later, and I may have to revise all of this once I get the new Mos Def and more of Dead Prez.

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