"Had I made a mockery of a culture, like the Choco Taco?/Was I to rap as France was to Morocco?/Was I colon rap colon colon France colon Morocco?" -- Paul Barman, "Old Paul"
Paul Barman has got me in the mood to analogize. But while I love double-colons as only a former Stanley Kaplan SAT prep instructor could, I don't so much like the analogy about Barman being France and rap being Morocco. Colonial imperialism is at least as much about leaving an imprint as about looting. And while Barman's debut full-length, Paullelujah!, is easily the year's most entertaining rap album, there's no real threat that Paul's verse will irreversibly impose its stylistic muscle on hip-hop as a whole.
I'm also not so keen on the analogy suggested by the Caucasian rapper who has left a significant mark on culture. The one that goes -- Elvis : rock :: Eminem : rap. Truth is, hip-hop had already seeped into every corner of white America long before Marshall Mathers turned up, so it's a stretch to brand Eminem an Elvis-like racial bridge. There's also that sizable gap in the amount of love the two have for their mothers.
Here's another analogy that, while also imperfect, works better for me: Eminem is to the Rolling Stones as Paul Barman is to the Beatles. Here's why:
The Rolling Stones adopted a foreign music (blues) and made it their own, while remaining committed to some form of stylistic purity. Similarly, Eminem became a star in hip-hop while making sure to show proper respect for the genre's black originators. (In this scenario, the Beastie Boys would be more like Elvis; Beck is Dylan, of course; and Vanilla Ice is Pat Boone).
The Beatles, meanwhile, offered something that, while not a disavowal of rock 'n' roll's roots, evolved far enough away that it became impossible to even call it rock 'n' roll. (That's when rock became the terms for stuff in the rock 'n' roll lineage that didn't necessarily adhere to the beats and riffs that once defined it). Rest assured, Barman will never sell Fab Four numbers, nor is he likely to have similar cultural impact. But he's definitely moving rap somewhere else -- to a place where hip-hop is only part of the equation.
Mind you, hip-hop's underground has spawned tons of weird, abstract, genre-stretching material in recent years, from El-P (a sort of Eric Clapton in this extended analogy) to Buck65 (uh, Leonard Cohen?). But none of it is executed as well as Paullelujah! in terms of being highly intelligent, hilariously inventive and downright catchy all at once. Need some examples? We can't reproduce the rollicking, eclectic backing tracks -- they range from horn-driven R&B romps to Lawrence Welk wheezers to Woody Guthrie-style talkin' blues -- but there's no end of quotables to showcase.
In "Cock Mobster," he drops this boast: "My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny's panties moist."
Finally, a twisted, foul-mouthed rapper with an ear for language and the ability to construct complex rhymes. Isn't that what rappers are supposed to be?
In "Bleeding Brain Grow," he flows a stream of palindromes that, astoundingly, makes sense as a list of actual rappers ("Mika, RZA, Evil JD, Nasir is Osiris and J-Live, AZ, Rakim"), then he brags about stealing an office chair, calling it "trickle-down ergonomics." In "N.O.W.," he asks pro-choice rallyers, "RU486ing injustice?" while constructing an absurdist musical-theater bit involving sex-crazed, politically active co-eds.
Sure, to get all the jokes, it helps if you're a nondoctrinaire liberal, Northeastern Jew with a B.A. in English lit from a first-tier university. But Barman will likely connect with anyone who's got at least one of those qualifications.
What's clear, though, is that Paullelujah! -- unlike Eminem -- won't fly in the projects. It's not street; it's not true to most definitions of hip-hop culture; it doesn't even make the slightest token gesture of pretending to be. And yet it's a great, utterly refreshing, maybe even visionary rap record. If it's not hip-hop, maybe it's just hip (or hop).
Is it wrong -- or somehow culturally incorrect -- to call something great when it's only vaguely connected to its roots? Is The White Album a great rock record? Is OK Computer imperialistic of black American blues? Or is it time to give up the ghost and admit that an era of classic rap dominated by white folks is inevitable -- maybe even overdue?