Finding a message in gangsta rap

February 04, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

ARISTOTLE taught there is no beauty that hath not some strangeness to it. Even so, he surely would have been baffled by the pop genre known as "gangsta" rap, which turns conventional notions of beauty -- not to mention music itself -- upside down.

Last year, for example, I came across a recording of gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg's debut album, "Doggy Style," which has sold more than 4 million copies over the last two years.

Here is approximately what I heard:

Sounds of a man and woman taking a bath together. Water sloshing, soft music in background. The woman murmurs something low and sensual about soap. The man replies languidly in a voice laced with obscenities.

Next, doorbell chimes. A group of young men enter (the house? The bathroom?). Someone complains he's tired of gangsta life. Others protest. Much laughing, cursing and liberal use of N-word as homeys consume alcoholic beverages.

A young man oafishly announces his full bladder. Loud splashing noise followed by guttural sigh.

No sound of toilet flushing.

Next, someone lights a joint. Sharp sucking sound of smoke being inhaled. Scrunching noise, as of lips puckering while breath is held. Impressionistic aural rendering of mental discombobulation after brain's unprotesting surrender to cannabis dementia.

Finally, voice miked in from recording studio console announces start of session. Explosion of synthesized hip-hop harmony cranked by lascivious ostinato bass, topped by contrapuntal vocal line of shouted obscenities and obsessive references to female body parts.

Oh, well. I suppose there are all sorts of ways I could dress this up, in the style of some academic defenders of the gangsta rap phenomenon. It is, they say, merely the historical continuation of the African-American oral tradition, adapted to reflect the harsh urban realities of the post-civil rights era. Blah, blah, blah.

Or we could go the French deconstructionist route: The opening sequence of "Doggy Style" is structurally equivalent to the crowd scene at the beginning of Act II, Scene 2 of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," in which the celebrants -- hard-drinking men, loose women, over-the-top house band -- joyously anticipate the nuptials of the doomed bride and bridegroom.

But that would really be a stretch, wouldn't it?

Of course it would.

So I think we are going to have to concede that "Doggy Style" is not Donizetti. Neither is it Fred Douglass, Booker T., the Rev. C. L. Franklin, M. L. K. or Malcolm. It is not eloquent oratory, it is not opera. It is, as its title implies, just some low-down, funky stuff.

Plato's warning

"Doggy Style" is what Plato had in mind when, somewhere in the dialogs of "The Republic," written in the fifth century B.C., he complained that oversexed lyre players in contemporary Athens were corrupting the morals of the city's youth.

Of course, young people of that era paid no mind at all to the philospher's ideas about music, just as young people today couldn't give a hoot what Bob Dole says about Snoop.

True, Athenian democracy collapsed of the weight of its own self-absorption soon after Plato's demise -- so there! -- but the Greeks, after all, never had a president who could play rock and roll on the saxophone, did they?

Next thought: It struck me that maybe Snoop and his ilk are to the Postmodern age in America what the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516) was to the Late Gothic era in Europe. The creator of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" gave vivid expression to the anxieties that troubled the human mind as the Dark Ages gave way to the Age of Discovery.

"He was obsessed by sin and depravity, by the snares laid by the devil for the unwary human soul on its perilous journey through this life," writes one of Bosch's commentators. "Bosch's powerful imagination created a haunted world where good and evil wage perpetual war filled with strange monsters and hideous plants bearing evil fruits; fantastic structures and strange mineral forms scattered through fiery landscapes."

Bosch's weird iconography, we are told, must be interpreted in the context of the orthodox religious beliefs of his time. So, I suppose, must Snoop's -- except that ours is a secular age in which the old religious certainties and orthodoxies are all but gone.

In their place, we have substituted a gospel of materialistic consumerism and the paternal blandishments of the welfare state. Is it any wonder the ever-frail moral constraints society imposes upon its members have imploded into the worship of licentiousness?

"Doggy Style" ought to remind us we are all responsible for the times we live in. Yes, the music is often vicious, raw, ugly and base. Like a Bosch triptych, it exudes an aura of forbidden desire and secret guilt over the unrestrained pursuit of carnal pleasure.

But there are also flashes of strange beauty, poignancy and richness of emotional response scattered through the grotesquerie, as precious and as vulnerable as one of Bosch's surreal eggs pierced by arrows.

It does no good to point fingers at Snoop. It is we who have lost the religious values of an earlier age that proclaimed us persons fashioned in the image of God and therefore possessed of innate dignity and value.

We shall not regain the old assurances easily, if at all. No wonder popes and princes bought Bosch's paintings. In their tortured, violent representations of human frailty they expressed the fierce hope of redemption in a profoundly pessimistic age. So, too, with our own exegesis of Snoop. For no new worlds beckon us either, except we turn the mirror of this music on ourselves and study the troubled image that returns our gaze.

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