Sure, Jay-Z and Beyoncé hardly ever show up in public together, and yet it wasn't the weirdest thing in the world that the royal couple showed up to Grizzly Bear's outdoor concert in Brooklyn over the weekend. Grizzly Bear, of course, is the buzz band of the year, and much like the Arcade Fire secured the older generation's nod of approval through collaborations with David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, Grizzly Bear have appeared onstage and in the studio with Paul Simon, Michael McDonald and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So Jay-Z and Beyoncé? It's not unusual.
What was unusual was Jay-Z's explanation for being at the show, from an MTV interview earlier this week, and it is strangely and satisfyingly on point.
"The thing I want to say to everyone—I hope this happens because it will push rap, it will push hip-hop to go even further—what the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring," he told MTV on Monday. "It felt like us in the beginning. These concerts, they're not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there's 12,000 people in attendance. And the music that they're making and the connection they're making to people is really inspiring. So I hope that they have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit, so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music. Because it can happen. Because that's what rap did to rock."
In the past few years, Jay-Z's been more a galvanizing figurehead of hip-hop than rapper of great artistic vitality, so his stance is important in several ways, and not just because he's drawing attention to a very good band. His undercurrent here is twofold: one, that operating independently outside of the mainstream music industry is the right way to do things; and two, that hip-hop kinda sucks these days.
"Indie rock" is a funny phrase, especially since, like "alternative rock" before it, it signifies a style of music that has become widely accepted. But its etymology remains proper. Though there are exceptions in the form of Modest Mouse and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the most successful indie-rock bands right now—Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors—record for thriving independent labels and intentionally avoid venues under the corporate stranglehold of the despicable behemoth Live Nation.
Jay-Z is under that stranglehold; he's in the same company as U2, Madonna and Nickelback by signing a "360 Deal" that gives Live Nation, a spinoff of Clear Channel, the rights to all of his recordings, live shows, merchandising and tours for the next decade. It's a $152 million contract, so Jay can't be completely ashamed of signing his career away, but it is nice to know that there's a small kernel of his brain that remembers his own independent label he founded long ago, Roc-a-Fella Records, and that sees a band like Grizzly Bear and says, "Yeah man, that's the way."
As for the second subtext, that hip-hop sucks these days, it's true to an extent, insofar as one is willing or able to dig. In other words, look underground. The most promising hip-hop debut this year is by a former automotive engineer from Detroit named Finale, who left the assembly line eight years ago to focus on rapping full-time. A Pipe Dream and a Promise, released this year on Interdependent Media, is the sound of Detroit that Eminem could never hope to capture, a pastiche of the city's rich musical history, from Motown to house music to J. Dilla, with Finale's own tales from one of the most hard-hit, economically depressed cities in America.
As a snapshot of Detroit, the album is vivid with abandoned neighborhoods, struggling families and old auto-industry friends out of work. As a snapshot of Finale's personal life, the album contains unflinching honesty like "Brother's Keeper," a moving account of his family laying blame on him when his brother landed in jail. And as a snapshot of who's who in production, the album boasts beats by Los Angeles electro whiz Flying Lotus, Motor City producer Black Milk and the late, elevated J. Dilla, who recognized and gave Finale a huge early push.
Finale has already signed, regretted and wrangled out of various business contracts, so he knows what the industry can do to earnest young artists. So far, staying independent is paying off, probably much more so than any ill-fated major-label deal he could sign. Just like Grizzly Bear's done. And just like Jay-Z, somewhere deep down, beneath his $152 million deal with Live Nation, recognizes.