As the top-selling artist of last year, 50 Cent -- survivor of nine bullets -- was himself the shot heard 'round the world: 2003 saw hip-hop go pop like never before.
Tonight's Grammy Awards make it official -- they're chock full of hip-hop nominations -- but a single week last October said more: For the first time, all the singles in Billboard magazine's Top 10 came courtesy of hip-hop acts.
This Top 10 -- a microcosm of contemporary hip-hop -- featured enough diversity to thwart facile generalizations about rap music.
There was merry gangsta machismo (50's "P.I.M.P"); dance-hall reggae (Beyonce and Sean Paul's "Baby Boy"); a Fabolous and Ashanti track for the teen beat scene; and one for the upwardly mobile set (Pharrell and Jay-Z's "Frontin' "). There were fun-loving "dirty South" singles by artists -- Ludacris, Lil Jon, Nelly -- who prefer a good bounce to a well-aimed bullet, and there was evidence that "conscious hip-hop" isn't an oxymoron (the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?").
So why does something smell rotten in hip-hop?
Celebrated acts (including OutKast) publicly moan about their genre's creative stalemate. Year-end critical recaps, including Rolling Stone's, generally found only two hip-hop acts to crow about: OutKast and Missy Elliott, whose albums were acclaimed by critics and lapped up by buyers.
And all that acclaiming and lapping ultimately suggests hunger and lack: Desperate for anything new, we feted the ones who were good, but partly because they -- unfamiliar and defiantly unclassifiable -- wore their "otherness" like a crown.
Last year, single after single proved one thing: Hip-hop's golden ticket is no longer a lasting artist or style but a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, rump-shaking hit -- not a rap movement but just, well, movement.
While Billboard's 2003 singles chart is all but monopolized by hip-hop or R&B, its year-end album chart isn't: Fewer than one-third of its Top 100 are hip-hop titles.
As for hip-hop's Grammy nods, four of five record (i.e. single tracks) of the year nominees are hip-hop singles, while the album of the year category honors only -- you guessed it -- Elliott and OutKast. Hip-hop's ethos is no longer the album or the act but the lone single.
It's true that a vigorous Internet, together with an ailing music industry, has made this increasingly true of music in general. But that only makes hip-hop -- which, more than any other genre, represents the triumph of the hot single -- a window into what might be in store for all.
If what's to come is a music world populated by singles, things could be worse. A good single is like a Snickers bar: Not very nourishing, not likely to hold you for long, but exceptionally tasty and provisionally rewarding.
Nelly's "Shake Ya Tailfeather" is no tour de force, but it is entertainment. Hit singles -- which, after all, were the driving force of rock 'n' roll's golden era -- have a way of slowly slinking into our consciousness, where they serve as soundtrack to memories.
Thanks to their ubiquitousness, they also have a way of ceaselessly annoying us. Hits are made of two addictive ingredients, both of which have become hip-hop fixations: melodic hooks and catchy beats. No, there's nothing wrong with a good hook, and yes, rap always bowed to beats -- but never to the extent that it does now.
In the beginning, there was the word: DJs sampled old beats and superior rappers had the lyrics, style and presence to make them new again. Rakim was master of internal rhyme and vocal rhythm; Slick Rick could best both brothers Grimm in a tale-telling contest; Public Enemy's politics were as potent as its intricate production.
Yet this year hip-hop -- once a triumph of cadence and wordplay -- earned just one Grammy nod in the songwriting category (Eminem's hit "Lose Yourself"). This may be partly because worthy wordsmiths such as Talib Kweli and Nas were overlooked, but at heart it suggests that today's lyricist plays second fiddle to producer.
When albums hit stores, artists spend press time touting production and thus essentially touting finances: Production credits suggest which studio whiz -- Timbaland? The Neptunes? Kanye West? -- received bucks for beats, to be haphazardly laced with lyrics.
A hit hip-hop song was once the single that represented the album; the bait that reeled audiences into a bigger picture that wasn't pop enough for pop charts. "Killing Me Softly," for instance, was a trendy prelude to the Fugees' album masterpiece "The Score." "Juicy" lured listeners to the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die" album.
But in today's hip-hop world, the part is the whole. Chingy made us bounce along to "Right Thurr," but that bounce was all we got. There was no, er, thurr there -- no quality album worth turning to, no oeuvre to plumb. The next hip-hop hit came along to take its place, another in a series of disposable, flash-in-the-pants fixes that do little in the way of long-term satisfaction.
Turning back the clock