Monday, May 22, 2006

Contemporary Hip-hop's Inability to Romance

Washington Post

Hip-Hop's Tough-Guy Romance

By Jabari Asim
Monday, May 22, 2006; 12:00 AM

My friend Mark was the first of my college crew to get married. He was also the first to fall so deeply in love that he preferred the company of his intended to hanging out with us guys.

I remember the moment when everything changed. I called him at his girlfriend's place to suggest that he come play basketball, a sport at which he excelled.

"No thanks," he told me. "I'm comfortable where I am."

For a while after that, "comfortable" became our code word for being helplessly under the sway of feminine charms. Being mature, thoughtful young men, we teased our smitten pal at every opportunity. "We're going to the lakeshore," we'd taunt, "but we guess you're too comfortable to go."

We weren't surprised when Mark got married not much later. Twenty-one years have passed since then, and the comfortable couple is still together.

Those heady memories of young adulthood rode back to me on a delightful breeze the other day. The sun was shining, the weather was balmy and it felt like the kind of morning when even the most dedicated company man would entertain thoughts of skipping work. But work, unfortunately, was precisely where I was heading, as soon as I finished pumping gas.

The atmosphere didn't change all that much when a car pulled up near mine. The young man inside had a booming system that blared music powerfully enough to rattle the windows of the service station. I didn't mind. The music had a charming lilt, and the lyrics, though indecipherable, suggested a mellow day much like the one unfolding before me.

The song, I later learned, was by T.I., a popular Atlanta rapper. This particular tune was from his CD called "Urban Legend." In it, T.I. explains that he won't be spending time with his friends because he plans to spend some quality time with his significant other.

As the lyrics of the first verse became clear to me, I actually smiled, remembering when my friends and I began to seriously consider notions of commitment, responsibility and intimate adult relationships. Like my buddy Mark, T.I. was telling his friends that he was comfortable where he was. Then the chorus kicked in and he proclaimed, "I'm chillin' with my bitch today, I'm chillin' with my bitch today."

It's no secret that our popular culture's increasingly tepid offerings on romance reflect a general downward slide in the culture at large. Americans have trouble maintaining committed relationships between consenting adults, so we can hardly blame our artists for showing the same ignorance in their songs, literature and movies. Despite knowing all that, T.I.'s lyrics made my ears itch. In my lifetime, we've descended from Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," in which he borrows a metaphor from Shakespeare to compare his love to a summer's day, to R. Kelly, who tells a young lady that she reminds him of a jeep. After "Chillin With My Bitch," how much farther can we fall?

I shared my concerns with Sterling Warren, 22, a new graduate of Howard University who plans to be a filmmaker. Talented and ambitious, he's also a devoted hip-hop listener who counts OutKast as his favorite group.

"It's all about being a tough guy now, even when they're talking about relationships," he told me. "Back in the day, rappers were more well-rounded. They were surrounded by dancers and even danced themselves. Now rappers don't dance."

Significantly, when I asked him to name a classic hip-hop song about romance, he mentioned a song that's almost 20 years old -- the same song that I happened to be thinking of myself: "I Need Love" by LL Cool J.

"He was able to put himself in a sympathetic position, now rappers can't do that," Warren said. "If you want to express your love for a woman it has to be in some street-tough way. That's kind of silly. Everybody feels weak from love sometimes and the best artists don't hide their weakness."

Cool J's lyrics remind me that hip-hop artists can indeed express the tenderest of emotions when they choose to:

Romance sheer delight how sweet

I gotta find me a girl to make my life complete

You can scratch my back, we'll get cozy and huddle

I'll lay down my jacket so you can walk over a puddle

I'll give you a rose, pull out your chair before we eat

Kiss you on the cheek and say ooh girl you're so sweet

So it's not Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder. But at least it doesn't make our ears itch. It even makes me feel -- you'd guessed it -- kind of comfortable.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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