The murder of 28-year-old American hip-hop star Takeoff during a game of off-the-books dice outside a posh bowling alley in downtown Houston was surreal even by American standards. As one-third of the rap trio that defined the Migos era, the Kirshnik-born man Khari Bell had attended the Met Gala, headlined an NBA All-Star game halftime show and made appearing his cartoon avatar in an Apple advertisement. None of this immunized him from a stupid and senseless death. Takeoff’s rushed argument, shooting and bleeding corpse were all indecently and inevitably documented in an iPhone video that hit social media within hours.
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American music history is marked by unnecessary untimely deaths, endings often ill-suited to the immensity of what was stifled. Jaco Pastorius, perhaps the greatest electric bassist of all time, picked a drunken fight with a bouncer at a suburban Florida nightclub, who then beat him to death; Hank Williams, the Hillbilly Shakespeare, ended up getting drunk in the back of a limo in the middle of nowhere. Jimi Hendrix choked on his own vomit. These deaths were humiliating, pathetic even, but they are also far from meaningless. Pastorius, Williams and Hendrix are some of our ultimate cases of talent dying out in a quest for something Americans often seem to value even more than talent: authenticity.
Takeoff, a hugely influential stylistic innovator and the most famous rapper to be murdered in years, died in an eerily perfect tableau of glitz and danger in a half-fantasy version of downtown America, as if he was subsumed into a scene of his own music. Thirty years from now, when future generations listen to “Stir Fry” or “Hannah Montana,” Takeoff’s tragedy will surely factor into the experience, just as “I Saw the Light” derives some of its awesome power from the failure of Hank Williams. to save himself.
At first glance, authenticity would seem to be a paradoxical value for Americans. It’s not just that America is a land of reinvention, a continent-sized reset button for every type of human being imaginable. America is also a place where nothing can seem authentic. In Las Vegas, you can play inside three different simulacra of Italy; Disneyland visitors begin with Main Street USA, a mock version of an imaginary small-town American past. There is almost nothing in America that is over 400 years old. We invented this whole country as we went along.
Yet it is America’s artificiality that makes our culture so strangely fixated on reality. Who is a “real New Yorker”? Is Garth Brooks a “real country”? Which rappers lie in their lyrics, and which don’t write their own lyrics at all?
The direct ancestors of these questions have devoured Americans for centuries. A crucial premise of Moby Dick is that Ishmael is not a real whaler. Melville’s narrator is a rootless dilettante inhabiting a world populated by real things. Are we more Americans like Ishmael, wandering the streets of a port city, marveling at the world beyond the mainland – or are we more Captain Ahab, serious people connected to places and concrete ways of life (Nantucket in the days of whaling, in the case of Ahab) possessed of a sense of purpose that is pathological and impeccably pure? Do Americans even have a real self, or are we all liars?
The answer is that we are both Ishmael and Ahab, and the two poles cannot exist without the other. There is an authentic essence of American life, even if it is often defined subculture by subculture: there are really real New Yorkers, real Southerners, real gangsters, real country musicians, real McCoys, real crackpots and real Nantucket whalers, back in the day. once upon a time. The most potent line of attack against Mehmet Oz, the famous Republican candidate for the US Senate, has been that he is not actually from Pennsylvania. In contrast, fakeness is often a byproduct of American mass culture, which draws its energy from the bastardy of regional trends, styles, and even entire identities.
Again, Takeoff is a good example. As with Hank Williams, one of Takeoff’s main creative contributions was to open the doors to something that had once been parochial. The Migos are more responsible than anyone else for popularizing the Atlanta “trap” style of hip-hop, which almost all of American popular music has adopted in one way or another, country included. . When they first broke out in the mid-2010s, Migos’ music sounded wildly adventurous in its lyrical cadences, with the three rappers making dizzying transitions between melody and rapid vocal fire, emphasizing their verses with rhythmic exclamations and ad libs. Migos selected sparse, hazy beats; their songs were raunchy but had a humor that warranted the biggest proceeds, and their constant lyrical references to the drug trade were always dynamic enough to reach commercial speed. The people of Atlanta were already used to this style, but not the rest of the country. The trap sound that Migos helped create depreciated as it found its way into larger and larger pop contexts.
But trap would never have gone national, and then global, if Takeoff hadn’t been an authentic version of what it was, a product of lower-middle-class Black North Atlanta. For better or for worse, he was “the real country” until the very end.
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