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Sharief Easterling

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Rap Hits a Ceiling

Posted: 11/10/11 08:14 PM ET

The BET Awards are always one of the most electrifying nights in the world of hip-hop. For a culture that gets dissed by the Grammys and played by the AMA's, this is usually the one night where its value is genuinely appreciated. Sadly, this year the wounds were more self-inflicted.

One of the highlights of this star-studded event is always the "cyphers." The rawest most simplistic form of rap, a cypher is where a circle of emcees use rapid-fire punchlines and witty metaphors in an attempt to demonstrate their lyrical supremacy. Usually it's one of the most exciting parts of the show -- but this year, it was lackluster at best. Generic flows and subject matter mixed in with abysmal punchlines like "Your rap style is coming softer than a cats meow" and "So many rings on my fingers they call me Ringling Brothers" made the 2011 cypher a total yawn.

The uninspired performances spoke volumes about the state of the game. I mean, forgive me for not being enthused about hearing sixteen bars from Chris Brown and Estelle (Estelle? Seriously?), when I'm expecting the highest level of lyricism the game has to offer. I guess C. Breezy does have some level of street cred; when he raps about slapping hoes you gotta believe him right?

This year's installment wasn't all terrible. Newcomers Kendrick Lamar, Big Krit, Meek Mill, and the Shady Records group -- Yelawolf, Joe Budden, Crooked I, and Royce Da 5'9 -- were capable, but Eminem delivered the night's best verse ("Flipping the script up/ like Mike Vick getting bit in his junk/ by a pit yup Ima sick pup / I'd be a horrible magician cause I'll f*** a trick up"), which clearly established that he's still one of the best rappers in the game. But that's exactly the problem. This was the 2011 cypher -- why is a top lyricist from a decade ago able to demolish today's top new talent? Have we reached a ceiling? Is there only room to regress?

This isn't an attempt to discredit Slim Shady in any way. But if had been a 2001 cypher, there's no way Big Daddy Kane, a legend in his era, could've held a candle to newcomers like Eminem and Jay Z. Kane was genius, but as the game progressed, so should the art form. Imagine if Sugar Hill Gang's Wonder Mike had been able to beat Kane or Chuck D. in a '91-era rap-off! The idea is laughable.

Evolution in art should be the norm. Rap's first three decades was following suit, but now we're at a standstill. The BET Awards set out to be a yearly proclamation of hip hop being alive and well... but if BET Awards cypher showed us anything, its that hip-hop is on life support.