Rhymes And Reasons: The Racialicious Review of The Art Of Rap

By Arturo R. García

Fittingly, the most sincerely gripping moments in Ice-T’s directorial debut, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, happen when the art form is allowed to speak for itself: when tracks like “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Message” kick in on a theater-quality sound system, alongside footage of the neighborhoods their stories inspired, Ice’s argument behind their power comes through loud and clear.

But in attempting to break down both the mechanics and the magic behind MCing, Ice unwittingly undercuts both the audience and his interview subjects. At least, as of right now. Some spoilers under the cut.

The documentary arrives at an interesting moment: not only is it hitting theaters alongside a vastly different piece of legacy maintenance in the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages, but it comes at a time when Hot 97 derides Nicki Minaj while Nas defends Gwyneth Paltrow.

In his role as narrator, Ice declares The Art will not be about “the money or the girls” but, by the end of the movie, we see Reverend Run recall the moment when his success in Run-DMC took him over the rails: sitting in a bathtub, high, and realizing “the ho’s at the door, and Rolling Stone is behind her.”

A similar boys’ club mentality runs through the film, leading to some ugly moments. It is way too easy to spot the dissonance in Ice praising Ras Kass’ intelligence seconds after Kass introduces himself with the words “I spit from the genitals, bitch/leave a masculine stench.” And seeing Ice and Snoop Dogg smile their way through “6 ‘n The Mornin”–“I bought a Benz with the money, the rest went to clothes/Went to the strip, started pimpin’ the hoes” – takes on a whole new dimension after spending more than an hour emphasizing the importance of words.

This would seem to be a great platform for female MCs to be heard, but instead we get all-too-brief appearances from Salt from Salt-N-Pepa for a convo about loved ones “only hearing the beats,” and MC Lyte, who discusses her vocal training. But surely they could’ve provided a lively discussion with Ice on how and why words like bitch and ho have ended up on so many tracks and on their particular challenges making their way through a genre seemingly replete with alpha-male personalities. That absence is felt as deeply as that of Jay-Z or any MCs representing the southern U.S. (although the latter, Ice says, was also complicated by logistics.)

In contrast, Eminem is given a wide berth to discuss how his whiteness impacted his journey from wannabe to a “grand master” in a black artform … right after he drops lesbian “jokes.” It also seems odd for Ice to visit Dr. Dre and talk about his production technique and not the content of the songs that put him and the rest of NWA on the map and burned South Central L.A. in the national conscience in a very particular way.

The Dre segment, and the omissions under the surface, also point to the conversations one hopes takes place either in deleted scenes or in a follow-up: what happens after the MCs words connect with an audience? What responsibility does the artist have when that message is taken in outside of the neighborhood? Because it was white teenagers who pushed NWA to commercial success, and it’s a sure bet many of those teenagers interpreted their stories much differently than the people who could relate to them directly. There’s a reason, after all, why the Tupac hologram at Coachella “performed” “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and not “Dear Mama.”

But the best case for another installment is made in the moments Ice cedes the mic: it’s Joe Budden who offers up a poignant slice of what Ice calls “the B-side of the game”; it’s Grandmaster Caz who name-checks Roxanne Shanté and other luminaries in an opening freestyle covering the entirety of the hip-hop era; and it’s Kanye West who nails the connection between his pop stardom and the art form that led him to it. At its best, Ice and The Art succeed in their mission to honor the greats of hip-hop’s past. Now it’s time to take stock of the game’s future.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • http://xicanosblog.tumblr.com/ Mateo Montoya

    This documentary seems to be a great (re)presentation of the positive aspects of rap and seems to recognize rap as a valuable mode of expression, reflection, and (re)presentation for urban black communities.  This is a far cry from the early critiques of rap as a “mysogenistic” form of “musical minstrelry” like that of bell hooks.  Here is a link to my critique of bell hooks’ narrow and degrading critique: “‘Duped’ by deficit discourse”: Xicano’s critique of bell hooks’, “Gangsta Culture—Sexism and Misogyny: Who Will Take the Rap?” http://xicanosblog.tumblr.com/post/11857729014/duped-by-deficit-discourse-xicanos-critique-of

  • Pingback: The Friday Mixtape – The Art Of Rap Edition | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()

  • http://twitter.com/HIPSDC HIPS, Inc.

    I was and still am in my feelings about the South’s absence (aside from Bun B) from the film. Also, Dr. Dre and DJ Premiere were producers that they covered (Kanye and Q-Tip were interviewed too, but not about production), but no Rza, Pete Rock, Pharrell, Timbaland… It was very Dr. Dre/Aftermath heavy. However, with all of what was missing, what was there was good, especially the New York part. Seeing the originators get some praise was well worth my $10. Women were absent. I am not shocked or surprised by that. I can’t imagine that Ice-T cares about misogyny in hip-hop or shedding light on it. It’s Ice T everyone…come on. Are we really expecting that from him? 

  • Grace

    After reading this, I found an interview of Ice-T. For a small part of it, he talks about the dearth of female rappers in his film. He says that he called everyone in his cell phone contacts, including Salt, Latifah, Lil’ Kim, and I think De Brat. He said that everyone he contacted, from Kanye to Salt, said yes, but it was hard getting everyone to actually make the film (schedules and whatnot). My whole thing is, why couldn’t he reach out to folks who AREN’T in his contacts, regardless of gender? It’s an excuse that many folks with privilege use to justify the lack of folks who aren’t just like them. And it’s just that–an excuse, not a legitimate reason.

  • jen

    I was hesitant to watch it as soon as I saw that Ice-T was the director behind this documentary. As much as I love hip-hop, watching his relationship with his wife play out in real life is painful, and obviously indicative of his attitudes towards women. I figured he would pay lip service to female MC’s, but you can see where his beliefs are at and  I’m not surprised they come through in this film. I’ll probably check out the parts that get the most traction, but I think I would be throwing things at the movie screen if I went to watch the whole thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Derek-Vandivere/650258206 Derek Vandivere

    I don’t know why this bugs me so darn much, but the Tupac thing WAS NOT A HOLOGRAM. It was a 19th century magical trick using plain old projection and CGI.

  • Jcat80

    I feel like they missed the mark by not speaking to or about Black women as a subject of  Hip Hop(love vs. misogyny), and Black women’s involvement in Hip Hop (from the empowering to the overtly sexual and occasionally degrading).  Perhaps Ice T’s involvement in this flick prevented an honest and positive discussion regarding Black women… This is not based on his choice for a wife (human blow-up doll Coco… Eyeroll). This is based on his anti-Black women tirades of the past (I’m thinking of his participation in Good Hair, in particular).

    Black women are told too often that they should just be quiet for the greater good… We shouldn’t  diss hip hop because we’re picking on our brothers who are themselves oppressed. We shouldn’t diss White feminism because we’re all in this together blah blah blah. I’m not saying that Black women should only support that with which we are involved, but we should definitely stop supporting that which injures and disrespects us… either overtly or covertly. 

    I am officially not interested in seeing this documentary… Which sound like the same narcissistic point of view hip hop always self-congratulates itself with. 

    • laromana

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, Jcat80.  I’m sick of hearing ANTI-BW BM in the entertainment/music world brag about their success when they’ve achieved it via DEMEANING/DEGRADING ANTI-BW HATE.

      These ANTI-BW BM are quick to forget that ALL BM owe BW  their lives and ALL due respect.
      BW are not OBLIGATED to support ANTI-BW BM (the ONLY race of men who PUBLICLY CONDONE/PROMOTE the trashing of the humanity, dignity, and femininity of their SAME RACE women) or their so called “art” .