It’s been five years since The Source, the magazine that proclaims itself the “bible of hip-hop,” has awarded a perfect “5 mic” rating to an album. (Microphones being its equivalent to Rolling Stone’s star-based evaluation system.) So you know what that means: every earth-shaking rap release of the past few years has been judged to be wanting in some respect. Big Boi’s long-awaited and much-admired Sir Lucious Left Foot? Not perfect. The even longer-awaited Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, which Raekwon put out last year? Also not deserving of five microphones. Nothing by Lil Wayne, apparently, could touch, um, Lil’ Kim’s The Naked Truth, which The Source deemed flawless back in 2005. And The Renaissance, Q-Tip’s stunningly fresh return in 2008 from a decade-long disappearance into major-label limbo? Obviously not enough to inspire a renaissance of acknowledged hip-hop perfection.
So when Trill O.G., the third solo album from stalwart Houston rapper Bun B, debuted this month and received the long-dormant “5 mic” designation from The Source, we got ourselves a good, old-fashioned hip-hop debate. Comment threads ran to exhaustive length below the many blog posts that reported the news, with a million variants of “this ain’t all that” or “does ‘5 mics’ even mean anything anymore?” battling with bon mots from Bun B’s defenders (many of whom said the rapper should at least be accorded some respect for his groundbreaking work as part of the UGK duo). In accepting The Source’s honor with a prepared statement, Bun evinced a mature understanding of the scrutiny he was about to undergo, writing:
“For every album labeled a classic, there are dozens of others that people feel deserve the honor ... With social networking being as prevalent as it is in our society, these arguments now take place in a very public arena, which in order to be heard, you often have to be very opinionated and abrasive to stand out. So people, while having no personal hate or malice towards me, will make very loud arguments about The Source’s decision, and the loudest ones will probably get the most attention.”
In a word: word. And then, right on cue—and in what seemed like something of a “oh, no, they didn’t” response to The Source’s judgment—Pitchfork’s reviewer issued a harsh corrective: a score of 5.0 out of a possible 10 whole integers. (Of counterintuitive note was the fact that Bun’s previous two albums in his Trill trilogy—both of which sound quite a lot like Trill O.G.—notched more respectable evaluations from Pitchfork.) I wouldn’t call Trill O.G. either a perfect piece of work or an utter failure myself—I’d give it a 7 out of 10, if only because I’m hard pressed to think of an album with this many disparate guest rappers (Gucci Mane, Drake, Twista, and even a posthumous 2Pac) that sounds as coherent. (This is mostly due, I believe, to Bun B’s heavy and authoritative Southern drawl, which can anchor a T-Pain track every bit as well as one produced by DJ Premier, even if that cadence isn’t actually saying much of anything.) But even though my own reaction is of the mildly positive sort, I’m glad to see the thunderbolts raining down from both sides. After all, as Bun himself noted, this kind of dispute is all to the glory of hip-hop, in the end.
If it seems to you that 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year for good, old-fashioned rap debates, you’re right. In recent years there’s been a fairly stable consensus about the best artists, which went something like this: Lil Wayne sure is pretty great, not to mention prolific, and, oh, Jay-Z is aging better than anyone in this game ever has. That’s not to say that there were no good rap debates to be had during this time, but that those arguments tended to be sort of narrowly focused within the field of consensus surrounding Wayne and other widely respected artists like T.I. (For legacy acts, the debates drilled down into the question of whether their new albums represented a falling off from past highs. And then with Wayne, perhaps you’d fight it out over the claim that he’s more entertaining on his mixtapes than on his proper albums.)
The success of Drake earlier this year suggested that this state of affairs was undergoing an evolution. After putting out a hugely hyped mixtape in 2009, the Canadian, ex-Degrassi: The Next Generation TV star’s debut record, Thank Me Later, put up some big SoundScan numbers, though it also turned off plenty of people who found his calculated callowness grating. During the ensuing blog wars, critic Sean Fennessey wrote (on Twitter) that one fact was indisputable: Drake was good for criticism because “everyone is working so hard!”
Why exactly it’s the case that we’re now having harder—and more thoroughly thought-through—debates about big hip-hop releases isn’t clear. My guess is that, as rap cedes some of its mid-2000s Billboard chart dominance to tween pop, rap coverage is less devoted to which releases are winning the week or the month in economic terms, and is instead focused more on the aesthetic debates that appeal to the genre’s diehards. Though Trill O.G. debuted at the No. 4 position in Billboard’s album chart this week, it’s unlikely to remain there for long. (Other “big” rap releases this year, such as Big Boi’s, fell from their top 10 debuts quickly. Thus far, Drake has been the exception.) And a look at the mainstays who’ve been in the upper reaches of the Billboard chart for more than a year—like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga—underlines the point. When hip-hop falls from mass-culture favor, its internal conflicts get much more interesting. Bun B’s Trill O.G. may not have as many great turns of phrase as the rapper’s previous records, but at least the debate over it is inspiring more great commentary than a lot of good-but-maybe-great hip-hop records have received in recent years. As Mos Def once said (on one of my own personal “5 mic” rap records), “people talk about hip-hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside.” Probably The Source held its “5 mics” garland in reserve for too long. It’s high time debate over what amounts to classic rap ambled back down from that privileged hideaway, and tangled with blog comments.