what is cultural memory? news stories and internet videos are 3-minute clips. toddlers of the millennium can use a tablet before they know how to speak; instant fame has shrunk from the designated fifteen minutes to a few. the cycle goes: reality show star to porn debutante to burnt-out addict in 2 years. simply put, we’re tired of remembering so we gave up on it.
around the same time that the u.s. struggled to understand its place in the world: as hated, ignorant, fat, consumers to everyone else but heroes to ourselves, the once-grand center of art and commerce went into a long depressive state. new york city, the place where the towers fell, wasn’t so much reviled (as before) but pitied. jay-z, in a turn of ominous irony, released one of his most complete and praiseworthy records, The Blueprint, on september 11th, 2001. his career, emblematic of the album’s story, seemed to sprout wings after that, and left NY, Marcy Projects and dame dash behind.
reality had set in for the rest of the nation. that we were the targets of a planned attack no longer stunned or surprised, but certainly emboldened many. meanwhile, new yorkers, the whole lot of us, were baffled and mourning. rap musicians of all regions and styles used to earn their bona fides at NY hot-spots like CBGB, Hammerstein Ballroom, The Tunnel. but 9/11/2001 put an indelible stain on the city, a graffiti that couldn’t be scrubbed. artists from NY fled to other places to make names for themselves, and the rise of the internet rendered location less important as it related to radio access and media prominence. NY was only one of many niche audiences, and rappers from NY often imitated and co-opted other regions to grasp at pieces of national trends gone soon after they appeared. soon NY saviors, like “next-Jordan” heirs, became punchlines about shelved albums and bitterness. saigon and papoose represented the worst of that, with NY publications pointing out their monotony and the overall melancholy tone of their music. they fought to be heard instead of inviting listeners to enjoy.
native mixtape phenoms and internet upstarts like joell ortiz, skyzoo, grafh and uncle murda stuck around, plying their trade as best they could before bigger opportunities were available (see: fabolous). of course, their styles, lyric-laden and boom-bap-leaning, were relics to an ever-younger audience. simplicity ruled and production pounced on poetry. but like that tragic plane missile, they collectively resented it, never got past it, reminded people of it when they had already decided to forget.
this is not to say the NY hip-hop is a monolith, by any means. ghostface killah and das racist couldn’t be more different and both rep the big apple. but they also shed any preconceived ideas about what it meant to be from NY in favor of making music that stuck with fans of all types. beyond that, lyricism was no longer an exclusive domain of NYers going bar for bar. some of the best of that class have hailed from pittsburgh, pa; fayetteville, nc; compton, ca; gary, indiana; new orleans, la; and gadsden, al. to the chagrin of NY artists (and some NY fans), the post-9/11 mantra “never forget” simply didn’t apply to everyone else. it was in the nation’s best interest to forget, and to move on somewhat callously, rather than to accept one bold, domestic attack as a portent of crumbling empire.
and so, as kendrick lamar, a reigning prince (or at least a duke) begins his arrogant ascent to some imaginary throne, and states what everyone already knows, that this “king” title is both illusory and peripatetic, that it belongs to anyone who’s courageous enough to claim it, the NY rappers grumble and moan about a time in the past. they invoke biggie’s name like liberals do kennedy. they refer to a dynastic period that birthed the generation of rap artists we hear now, but that already belongs to the archives. they remember.
but like every failed relationship, or past scuffle, or lingering resentment, or transgression committed against us, sometimes it’s best to just forget.