Hip-hop lives -- and it's time for mainstream cultural critics to accept its place as an enduring part of the American tradition. The release last week of an album named Trill O.G. by one of the nation's hottest hip-hop stars, Bun-B, shows the challenge and the opportunity this way of thinking presents.
Bun-B is a Houston gangster rapper. His raps and self-presentation seem to be from another universe when compared, say, to a poetry reading by W.S. Merwin or a musical performance by the Emerson String Quartet. Indeed, the remarkable cultural cacophony of Bun-B's album aims to "getting shit popping" and "crackalating."
But the website The Source just crowned Bun-B's new album a "hip-hop classic." It received 5 mics, "the holy grail of Hip-Hop ratings, granting it admission into an elite club of timeless musical compositions that span over 20 years... Bun B is the first artist to receive this honor in over 5 years." It's a wild, vulgar, and thrilling record.
What would it mean for highbrow critics to take an album like this seriously? We barely know, since it's almost never done. But as a young person who's spent a great deal of time with both American high and low culture, I believe that hip-hop addresses major intellectual themes and can even add to our understanding of them.
Let's go for broke, and look at the ideas of one of the 20th Century's greatest cultural critics, Lionel Trilling. Trilling's final book, the culmination of his career, contains a series of lectures entitled Sincerity and Authenticity. He aims to capture the modern "disintegrated consciousness" positioned in the shadow of arduous sincerity -- being true to oneself with others -- and its further transition into darker, id-inspired authenticity.
Bun-B's new album, coincidentally titled Trill O.G., offers a serendipitous reworking of Trilling's argument. The movement from Trilling to Trill -- "shit popping," "crackalating," and all -- represents a remarkable transition within the tradition that Lionel Trilling was writing about.
First, the basics. In case you didn't know, the word "trill" has a new primary meaning. Forget musical ornamentation from J.S. Bach to John Adams -- the Urban Dictionary rules. The new "trill" is a portmanteau of the words "true" and "real." In the phrase Trill OG, "O.G." stands for Old Gangster (or Old-school Gangster). The album title celebrates being a gangster connected to past tradition or "old school," while simultaneously being sincere and authentic. Indeed, Bun-B's "true" and "real" perfectly parallel Trilling's words "sincere" and "authentic," but in an utterly transformed cultural universe.
Bun-B establishes himself as a contemporary authority on sincerity and authenticity ("trill") on the early track "Put It Down," where he raps, "When it comes to being trill I'm a litmus test." Bun's authority doesn't come from being awarded the Charles Eliot Norton professorship. Rather, as Bun raps on "Just Like That," "I got my mind on my money and my finger on a fat knife." Money and violent power are the values, and having them is the authority. Trilling asserts in one of the essays in Sincerity and Authenticity ("The Heroic, the Beautiful, the Authentic") that the "import of tragedy depends upon the elevation of the hero." For Bun, tragedy is his "streets on fire" (from "Chuurch"), and his trilling street swagger is what elevates him to heroism.
It's not enough for Bun to insist upon his sincerity. The hip-hop listener also demands authenticity. (Witness the tremendous backlash to the hip-hop star William "Rick Ross" Roberts when he was revealed to be a correctional officer.) Bun addresses this matter immediately and consistently. On the second track, "Trillionaire," we hear the repeated claim: "From the underground to the top/ I came from the bottom/ Trill nigga don't stop/ Let 'em goin' harder/ Self made trillionaire/ I'm a self made trillionaire."
Bun believes that "history is in the making." But it's certainly a new concept of history. Bun means he's "making history" when he's "takin' shots [he] don't fucking miss" while simultaneously "your baby momma's fucking this" (from "Let 'em Know").
Is this the next stage in the movement from quaint sincerity into gritty authenticity that Trilling described and prophesied? Is this the "liberal" imagination, breaking free without Trilling's conservative check of a cultural tradition more fully imagined than the streets, where the true includes the beautiful, and the real is part of an ongoing heroic history? Maybe we'll find out soon, since it's been announced that Bun-B will be co-teaching a course on Hip-Hop and Religion at the prestigious Rice University next spring.
Either way, the coexistence of Bun-B and Lionel Trilling says something profound about the American authentic. So I can proudly say that, where matters of culture are concerned, I listen to both of them.
Bun B's album Trill O.G., was released August 3, 2010 by Rap-a-Lot/Universal Motown.