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Is New York hip-hop dead?

It depends on who you ask

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Within the recording industry, from rappers and label executives to music journalists and publicists, people believe that New York rappers don't wield the same chart power as earlier in the decade. Back in the day, Def Jam was stocked with Big Apple stars (Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, Cam'ron), Nas' releases regularly went platinum, and even lesser-known artists like Fat Joe and the Lox scored major hits.

The Diplomats, Cam'ron's highly touted crew, may be the most striking example of New York's waning influence. On New York streets, the Diplomats are official, an ubiquitous presence. Even Brooklyn hipsters collect the crew's mix tapes. But the rest of the nation could seemingly care less. Cam'ron and Jim Jones' last albums sold poorly. Even Juelz Santana's highly touted What the Game's Been Missing, which featured a major radio hit in "The Whistle Song," barely went gold and was a sales disappointment.

Perhaps that is why so many industry cats continue to worship Jay-Z. Jiggaman hasn't released a record in more than two years, but they still champion his every move -- whether it's becoming president of Def Jam, signing former rival Nas to its roster, or romancing R&B princess Beyoncé Knowles -- like it's some kind of cultural achievement. In reality, however, the sole exception to the New York decline is 50 Cent and his ever-growing G-Unit squad. But 50 Cent is a controversial, sometimes despised figure, known more for his attempts to destroy rivals than creating new movements that help his peers.

The industry and critics widely believe that the Southern rap industry -- in particular, Atlanta, Houston, Miami and New Orleans -- has supplanted New York in public favor. Last year, Houston caused a sensation with artists like Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire. And of course, Atlanta is the equivalent of New York in the South, launching new stars like Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L, Boyz N Da Hood and Young Jeezy with relative ease.

But this isn't the first time New York rap has been overshadowed by other cities. In the early '90s, West Coast rappers like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Coolio sold bigger numbers, too. Back then, the New York rap world regained its currency by fomenting an artistic renaissance led by Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and lesser-known artists like Black Moon and Jeru tha Damaja. Nas' Illmatic, widely considered one of the best albums in any genre made during the past two decades, is the first to draw together the top producers in the game on one record. That formula, most successfully mined by the late Notorious B.I.G. (1997's Life After Death), Puff Daddy (1997's No Way Out), and Jay-Z (1998's Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life), is what most N.Y. prospects still use today.

The rap world may be envious of the buzzy Southern hip-hop industry, which seemingly makes all the hits but couldn't stop hip-hop record sales from declining 7.8 percent last year, according to a Jan. 26 story in Rolling Stone. Many Southern rap acts, from Three 6 Mafia to Pitbull, put a premium on hooks and strong yet simple melodies. The beats are wildly innovative; sometimes they sound amazing (Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly," Pitbull's "Culo"), other times they sound dull and ponderous. Essentially, artists use the same hit-making formula as their New York counterparts, leading to albums with a few singles and lots of filler tracks. The result is plenty of minor yet dependable acts with few superstars among them (Lil Jon and Ludacris are two noteworthy exceptions).

If the rap industry wants to return to its late-'90s dominance, then it should abandon its reliance on shallow, patchwork pop. Why not follow Kanye West, who focuses on making classic, game-changing albums? Or even the Game, who, for all his lyrical deficiencies, makes music that addresses a variety of topics, not just his gang-banging credentials?

It's ironic that the New York rap world, a culture that for years proudly flaunted its sonic and cultural insularity from everyone else, has lost considerable clout by trying too hard to court mainstream favor. Maybe it should return to the values that captured our imagination in the first place.

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