In August 2009 a conspiracy-theory blog called the Vigilant Citizen posted a lengthy exegesis of the Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna collaboration "Run This Town," a hit single from Jay's The Blueprint 3. The blog's anonymous author—who goes by "VC" and claims to be a music producer who's worked with "some fairly well-known 'urban' artists"—identified what he claimed were a number of occult references in the song and its video and suggested that all three artists were connected to the Freemasons, Aleister Crowley, and a plot to establish a satanic new world order. VC has written similar interpretations of lots of other songs, including the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be" and Rihanna's "Umbrella"—he points out that the catchy repetition of "ella" in the latter's chorus is "very reminiscent of magical spells, conjurations or summons."
The "Run This Town" post, as well as a follow-up regarding Jay's "On to the Next One," caught on. Pop-culture aficionados and music journalists, myself included, were fascinated by the apparent ridiculousness of the analyses, not to mention amused by the mental picture of Jay and Beyonce attending a satanic mass. But not every response—and those two posts attracted thousands of comments—was snarky. Certain socially conservative elements of black America in particular seem to take VC's theories pretty seriously. Mediatakeout.com, a constant source of celebrity gay-panic rumors that calls itself "The Most Visited Urban Website in the World," is big on the so-called hip-hop illuminati and has proposed as members everyone from Jay-Z and Kanye to Soulja Boy and Pimp C. Early this month Atoast2wealth.com ("Unveiling Truth Behind Celebrity Life, the Church and Latest News") posted a guide to decoding the illuminati symbols allegedly embedded in the cover of Jay-Z and Kanye's upcoming collaboration, Watch the Throne.
The idea of the hip-hop illuminati becomes easier to grasp if you watch DJ Khaled's music videos. A Miami rap-radio host who parlayed his local notoriety into global stardom and a job running Def Jam South, Khaled likes to make videos where he and a group of popular rappers pull off some sort of heist or another. The lavish productions, which look like little Michael Bay movies, portray a world where every vehicle is a Ferrari or a Maybach or a speedboat, every person is a multiplatinum rapper or a hot babe or an Asian gangster, and all of them have several lucrative product-endorsement deals. (The clip for the recent single "I'm on One" is atypically moody, but then again, it does feature Drake as the main vocalist.) The unspoken theme of each is that Khaled and his buddies have enough money and power that they get to live in a different America than the rest of us, one that we'll never be invited into. Faced with these otherworldly millionaires, an observer might be forgiven for imagining they'd want to worship Baphomet, overthrow the government, and put Ciroc in the water supply.
Khaled is obsessed with money only slightly less than he's obsessed with status. His new record is entitled We the Best Forever (Universal Motown), and in 2007, two albums ago, he had one called We the Best. As usual Khaled is surrounded by A-plus-list talent, including Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, T-Pain, and Akon—all members of his regular stable of collaborators. The song credits themselves are works of epic excess. "Sleep When I'm Gone" features Cee-Lo Green, Busta Rhymes, and the Game, plus a beat by Danja (who produced Justin Timberlake's "My Love," among other hits). The bonus remix of "Welcome to My Hood" has a dozen rappers on it.
Khaled needs such a huge supporting cast because he doesn't actually do much on the record. Most rap albums credited to a DJ with a bunch of guest MCs are based on the DJ's beats, but Khaled's contributions on that front are limited to "additional production" on "Welcome to My Hood" and its remix. For most of We the Best Forever you can't tell by ear that he's even involved, except that a couple times per track he yells something along the lines of "We the best!" On his previous album, Victory, he didn't even have one beat. His brilliance is in assembling and exploiting talent—he knows that if you put two rappers on a track they'll try to outcompete each other. If you put 12 of them together, you're bound to get them all in top form. Some cuts, like "My Life," which pairs Akon and B.o.B., are polished to the point of featurelessness, but it's thrilling to hear ferociously talented rappers like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross or mix-tape heroes like Fabolous and Jadakiss (who both appear with Mary J. Blige on "It Ain't Over Til It's Over") go all-out at each other.
I just wouldn't be surprised if they all got busted sacrificing babies or something.
Danny Brown looks to be on his way to stardom, but he's not yet in any danger of recruitment by the hip-hop illuminati. For one thing, a full set of teeth seems to be a requirement, and Brown rocks a prominent gap in his upper mandible. It's part of a peculiar image that also includes tight jeans slung well below his ass, neon track jackets, and a hairstyle that looks like he stole it off a new waver who'd fallen on very bad times. He pulls it off, though, because he's from Detroit—and if there's one thing Detroit can teach a person, it's how to not give a fuck.
Brown represents Detroit ardently. His mix tape The Hybrid has a song all about his Tigers hat. Another is called "White Stripes." And the beats he raps over frequently bring to mind the choppy, stoned soul of the late J Dilla, who's more or less worshipped in his native Detroit. Brown first released The Hybrid in March 2010, and it's been simmering for a long time—it got big boosts from a deluxe reissue this February and from the flurry of publicity surrounding his signing to Fool's Gold in March, and it ought to get another from his appearance with Das Racist at the Pitchfork fest.
The Detroit-ness in Danny Brown goes much deeper than an allegiance to its sports teams and famous musical alumni. He declares himself the greatest rapper ever—on The Hybrid's lead track, "Greatest Rapper Ever"—but how much can that title matter in a city that doesn't have a VIP section, so to speak? The video for "Greatest Rapper Ever" features Brown rapping in a crappy-looking kitchen where a shirtless old guy is flexing copper pipe till it breaks, presumably so he can take it to a salvage place. It would be hard to find something so perfectly the opposite of a DJ Khaled video.
My favorite cut on The Hybrid is "Need Another Drink." The chorus is based on "You Need Another Drink," a ghettotech song by another dead Detroit producer, Disco D. Ghettotech is a style of raunchy dance music that's the backbone of black club culture in Detroit, but it's the lyrics of Brown's song that really sum up the city: A guy's out at the club. It gets hot in there, so he decides to go smoke a blunt in his car. No buying the bar. No making it rain. Just a dude getting high in the parking lot, because what else is he gonna do?
Brown has another full-length release, XXX, coming out via Fool's Gold next month. Though he's clearly not the greatest rapper ever, if he stays as passionate and hungry as he is now, he could end up the greatest rapper of right now. There's a strong possibility he'll become a household name in the near future, at least in hip-hop circles. I hope he does, but I also hope he never stops being the guy smoking the blunt in his car.