Last week, the Internet weighed in on "The Andover Song" with chuckles, snark, and furrowed-brow curiosity. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be: Let’s drag every bit of this video around a manicured lawn and play ultimate Frisbee over its carcass. Die, Andover rap video! Die!
But there are lessons to be learned here, ones valuable enough to be taught at a prep school. We can break the issues up into “Not a problem” and “This is a Problem."
1. Not a Problem: Earnest rap
The most immediate cringe-factor with this video is how earnest and cloying it is. But the “genre” of earnest rap (or “educated rap”), in itself, is not a problem. Overstuffed, too-literal rap suffers from a disconnect between teaching and being cool. Sort of like a history teacher putting on skinny jeans, a leather jacket, and aviators to teach you about Freddie Knuckles (that’s Nietzsche, btw). But the teacher is not the problem. It’s the execution.
We should encourage fearlessness when it comes to trying too hard. Earnest failures are the ones that count. If it comes from an authentic place, the execution can be worked on. The dude with the braces and Celtics shirt, well, if you can say “the school molds to everybody like a mattress pad” and not snort on yourself in the process, you’re probably a well-meaning, glass-half-full dude who should be given a chance to lose the braces and develop a sense of style. No less than Jay-Z, Eminem, and Kanye were mediocre emcees when they started. Why? Too earnest. Jay was an overzealous fast-rapper. Em was boring and just overwrought w/rhyme schemes. And Kanye, well, we know the story.
This is a Problem: Wack rap
Conscious rap is grating. But bad conscious rap is well, it’s the worst! At least terrible club rap has escapism as an intent, so mocking or ignoring it fits with the game plan. Bad conscious rap forces you to linger on the badness in order to consume it — it’s like having to suck on your cauliflower and lima beans in addition to eating them. When the cute girl in the cute prom dress come in and says, “My old peers somewhat resented me, because intelligent was something that I strived to be,” we learn (1) cute only gets you so far; (2) deep hip-hop-styled knee-bends don’t help you sell a wack lyric; (3) Poor boyfriend.
Even if you’re cramming ideas and rhyme schemes into places where they don’t quite fit, you can still have style and panache and, dare I say, swagger. (See a Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco). In this long of a song, everyone should not be doing the same rhythm and cadence. We all know some basic flow variations: a twist of Luda, some Nas, André 3000. Be influenced. When this gets bad it’s not about being earnest, it’s not caring about craft. (Everyone (especially prep school girls) prefers lyrics you can remember even when drunk.)
2. Not a Problem: Prep school
Remember 8 Mile when the whole plot of the movie rests on the “best rapper in town” being a fraud 'cause he went to a private school (Cranbrook). That movie is the best hip-hop movie of the past 10 years, but that particular choice was a load of dining hall bullshit. First of all, people in the ghetto do not reflexively clown people who went to prep school. It’s true that prep school may slowly shape you into someone worthy of clowning. But, come on. Truth is prep school is a place that should fit in with hip-hop ideals. If you can send your kid to a $50k-a-year school, beautiful campus, beautiful people, etc., etc. That’s swag that gives back. It’s something to rap about, and the only reason we don’t have it is 'cause the rappers are just getting old enough to have kids you might send there. But if/when Jay Von Electronica-Badu and Q-Tip the IV send their kids, and they start sampling and making mixtapes, the pedigree will no longer be a problem. Prep school used to represent privilege, a privilege denied to everyone except rich WASPy white people. But the demographics are a little better now.
This is a Problem: Wait, these are your prep school’s best rappers?
The problem is not prep school, the problem is finding the good rappers at the prep school (granted, I could see the dope PA rappers not wanting to compromise their lawn-cred). You don’t just let anyone grab the guitar or bang the drums. So, too, with the microphone, Andover. Find the dudes with skills and get them to represent. If Bun-B is teaching religion, best believe there are prep schoolers with skills on the mic.
Yes, the past decade has had a whiff of people treating rap as an aesthetic. Throw your “rapface” on, gesticulate aggressively, and just make sure the lines end with rhymes. Sometimes it seems like the art is trivialized (see: respect the craft). But, with the rise of rap oozing out the pores of every McDonald’s and T-Mobile commercial, you also find prep school-alums-turned-teachers-turned-legit-emcee-professionals like Homeboy Sandman.
3. Not a Problem: Posse cuts
Everyone should have a hot 16 bars. The same way you should have an opinion on major current events. All part of a healthy balanced lifestyle. There’s a time for humility, and there’s a time to shine and spit that hot fire in your heart. (Alert your grandma.) Posse cuts emerge out of that spirit of camaraderie and taking it for granted that everyone has a little of everything, somewhere, deep inside.
This is a Problem: Seven-minute posse cuts
The spirit of posse cuts is a good thing, but even pro-rapper posse cuts are no good when they sprawl along forever (Odd Future has a lackluster posse joint “Window” that extends for eight indulgent minutes on Goblin). That’s why they’re an endangered species. You can’t go close to eight minutes without an anchor. A star performance. These Andover kids needed to have Drake, or at least Willow Smith, pop up as a cameo somewhere. And I think you pay to go to a school like Andover for the connections, so do some scrolling through Facebook networks or something. Give us a payoff! Otherwise, my “Wrap it up” box still works. And it’s blinking for you, Wu Tang-Andover/Young Money.
4. Not a problem: Acting like rappers
I tend to think Pitchfork is better at hip-hop reviews than their bread-and-butter indie-hipster rock. The outsider perspective helps isolate themes that those embedded in the culture might overlook. So when a bunch of prep school kids pick out the behaviors that mean “rap” to them (outstretched arms, deep knee-bends, braces), it shouldn’t be offensive. It’s instructive. Because the tone of this is earnest — as opposed to some of the parody-rap videos in which the jokes cross the line and feel a little racist — you know these kids are just doing their best. Plus they led off the video with the black kid just to be safe! And included the Asians and other multiculturals, surely going to Wesleyan (home of Das Racist and Santigold).
With so many people assimilating hip-hop behavior patterns (unlike, say, jai alai maneuvers), rapping is becoming a utilitarian art. Almost like painting. We used to stroke our chins and act like old-school painters once upon a fortnight. For purists or traditionalists this might be annoying, but it might also be a clue that some mannerisms have gotten routine, cliché, and it’s time to freshen up the posturing.
This is a Problem: Acting like teacher-rappers
I’m not sure if this is a genuine problem or not. But the caveat to having some tolerance for people acting like rappers they see on television is noting this trend of teachers having a greater capacity for caricature. Are there a lot of teachers secretly harboring dreams of being rap stars. Waiting for MC Superman? Something seems amiss. Teachers are probably just elders acting spry, so maybe they get a hall pass. But I think we should keep a close eye on this.