State of the 'Underground' // Jay Electronica

So in my last post I threw out something like 'backpack rap without pretension'. I'd like to riff on that idea for a second, partly to flesh out the thought itself but also as a way of approaching the enigmatic Jay Electronica.

Backpack rap, a catch-all term I use for socially conscious, lyrically minded hip hop outside the mainstream, recently kicked the bucket. The indie renaissance of '00-05 (think Cannibal Ox, Company Flow, Slug, Doom, Aes Rock, El-P, Cage) is...well, dead. As long as we're eulogizing, let's not forget how widely it broadened the rap horizon. These artists embraced eclecticism; cue up The New Danger, Float or Funcrusher Plus to hear grungy Creole blues, live jazz improv and gloomy electro-ambiance in turn. They held activism over self-aggrandizement, brains over dookie chains.
By around '06, the act was stale. Individuality gave way to mere novelty, sincerity to posturing, and it all became a bit sillyan amateur circus of slam poets with nasal voices and English B.A.s. While some critics seized this as an opportunity to scorn the entire genre with sensationalism and hyperbole, I see it as part of the natural ebb and flow.

The latter half of the decade saw Cam'Ron, Jeezy, Clipse, Rick Ross, Game, Maino and Fabolous welcomed by underground. Flashy, charismatic, semi-nihilistic coke rappers. Lyrics? Not much to speak of. Beats? Definitely bumpin, but innovation ain't a priority. The rubber band snapped back to rap about, well, you know, having fun.
Will it last long? Apparently not2k9 was dominated by indie mixtapes from the likes of Elzhi, Skyzoo, Fashawn, J. Cole and Cyne. The cerebral storyteller came back with style. I'd side with A-Trak, who credits 808's & Heartbreak with much of the new creative energy. Things are more self-conscious this time around; DJ Furious Styles writes in the liner notes Jay Electronica's recent Victory, "Let’s welcome back the lyricists to Hip-Hop." These artists understand their place in hip hop history; there's something very authentic about it.

Few represent this rebirth more fully than Jay Electronica. Until recently the man's been a tornado of hype, best known for dating Erykah Badu and recieving two inexplicable endorsements from Nas and Mos Def. For me, the Just Blaze-produced "Exhibit" trilogy changed all that. He's the real deal. Listen and let me know if you hear the spark I do. Can you see him as part of this 'underground' revival? Where does he sit in relation to Aesop Rock, Cam'ron or Kanye?

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C

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