There are really so many ways to approach hip-hop and appreciate it, through the very lyrical masters of the art through the incredible producer and beat-making efforts of both icons and underground producers. But aside from these two major sides of the coin, there are freestylists, sample artists, pop-hop, or the ability to tell a story outside of how witty or ‘punchliney’ the lyrics are.
Oswald is young- surprisingly young. For perspective, Tupac’s All Eyez on Me came out the year Oswald was born. DJ Shadow nearly placed universal sampling on the map with Entroducing when Oswald was one year old.
I don’t mean to pick on Oswald’s age, but it is important to understand that his work is more immediately influenced by the almost universally accepted decline of hip-hop. This is the era where hip-hop not just became a business, but it became a mega-conglomerate. The process of hip-hop was streamlined to mass-manufacturing levels, partly prompting rap legend Nas to announce ‘Hip Hop is Dead’ in 2006. And can you blame him? Two of the top hip-hop songs in 2006 were, literally, Weird Al Yankovic’s ‘White & Nerdy’ and an Akon song featuring Eminem. Yeesh.
This brings us to the next big titular aspect of Oswald and his music. A white guy rapping is no longer taboo. So in 2006 when Weird Al was embracing the nerdiness of white rap, we have since sort of accepted hip-hop’s scale and size as a race-breaking global entity. Hip-hop is a business, and everyone is welcome.
But Oswald considers himself a counter-force to the hip-hop climate, which is dizzying and potentially contradictory. The guy is a result of the amoeba-like ubiquity of hip-hop. So what is he a counter-culture TOO exactly?
Oswald has his debut EP ‘Ride’ to help clarify a few things. The releases’ best track, ‘Sea Full of Sharks,’ is a dissection of the larger culture of modern hip-hop. He talks about how old it is to see rappers rap about their money and bling, which is a cliché almost as bad as the cliché of rapping about money and bling. But the guy has a point. At the very least, he makes a clear and definitive stand. The stagnancy of hip-hop is obnoxious. There is no longer a message. There is no longer a clear goal to push envelopes as Nas did so many years ago in a rap culture almost completely opposite to what it is now.
Oswald merges indie-pop production with generally straightforward hip-hop. Synthpop is huge now, and groups like the Naked and famous and Chvrches are formulating huge fan bases on infectious addictive hooks. Oswald understands this power, but instead of filtering it through what is generally and admittedly a big dumb pop song, Oswald interweaves cultural commentary and reflections on being. It is a testament to Oswald’s ability as an MC, understanding of a hook, and overall lyrical wit and intelligence that the whole thing works at all.