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The art and soul of hip-hop

The urban art exhibition Art, Beats + Lyrics hopes to inject new life into a troubled art form

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Hip-hop music sucks these days.

Surely you've noticed the lack of quality that plagues the rap game; tune your radio to 96.1 The Beat or Power 98 on any given day, and you'll hear an unrelenting stream of wackness. And when you grab the clicker and flip over to MTV or BET, rest assured that you will be tortured by a deluge of ear-raping artists.

Come on -- you know who I'm talking about: no-talent rappers like T-Pain, Shawty Lo, Young Berg, Baby Bash and Soulja Boy, among other sucker MCs.

But it wasn't always this bad. Hip-hop started out on the streets of New York in the late 1970s with forward-thinking guys like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaattaa and Grandmaster Flash, who created the art form from scratch. And the torch was later passed to groundbreaking cats like Eric B & Rakim, who added an intellectual and almost literary feel to the music's presentation. Fast-forward to 2008, and hip-hop is pop; as a result, the music is a product designed to appeal to the lowest common doo-doo brain. So instead of rockin' to the complex rhymes of Rakim's "Mahogany" ("Each mic is a mineral/Poetry's protein/Verse is a vitamin/Affects like codeine"), we get to do the Superman dance to Soulja Boy's lyrically anemic hit "Crank Dat" ("Soulja Boy off in this hoe/Watch me crank it/Watch me roll").

Oh yes, the times they have a-changed.

Granted, you -- dear reader -- may actually like some of the rappers I've described as "no-talent." (Well except for Young Berg. Nobody likes Young Berg.) You're probably thinking, "What's wrong with T-Pain? He makes my favorite ring tones!" All art is somewhat subjective ... I'll give you that. But be honest: When was the last time you said something more than "It's got a good beat" when referring to a hip-hop tune? Think about it. I'll wait.

Of course, not all contemporary rap is crap. Artists like Common, T.I., Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and The Roots (who'll perform Fri., April 25 at Amos' Southend) still record quality records that break new ground in terms of lyrical flow. Moreover, with songs like West's "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" (which talks about the "conflict diamond" trade) and Kweli's "Eat To Live" (focusing on America's poisoned food chain), there are a ton of MCs expanding the scope of rap's subject matter. But for every hip-hopper pushing the envelope, you've got, like, 20 idiots rapping about the same crap: iced-out earrings, cars, women, money and other superficial B.S.

Which brings me back to my original point (say it with me): Hip-hop music sucks these days. Capice?

That being said, hip-hop is a culture that's about more than just music. True aficionados know that hip-hop is comprised of four "elements." Hell, it's even on Wikipedia: "The four main aspects, or 'elements,' of hip-hop culture are MCing (rapping), DJing, urban-inspired art/tagging (graffiti), and b-boying (or breakdancing)." See?

So while the music may sound like feces at the moment, the other areas of the culture aren't in such bad shape.

The dance side of hip-hop, for example, is alive and well. B-boys live, breathe and create innovative dance moves all over the world. And in America, you can see damned-good breakdancing just about everywhere: in nightclubs right here in Charlotte and even on the idiot box (specifically on the hit MTV show America's Best Dance Crew).

And when it comes to the visual art side of the culture, things really couldn't be better. Hip-hop-inspired art has evolved far beyond cheap paint splattered on dank alley walls (although that does still exist). Nowadays, you can find hip-hop-flavored artwork hanging in galleries next to high-priced pieces by dudes like Warhol or Pollack. Seriously.

But don't take my word for it. This Friday, the urban art exhibition Art, Beats + Lyrics hits the Q.C., and it's bringing a ton of work to illustrate the dynamic range and power of hip-hop's eye candy.

Now this may be the first time you've heard of Art, Beats + Lyrics, but the event ain't new. ABL was launched in 2004 and features photographs, paintings, illustrations and other visual art pieces created by more than 20 artists from across the country.

The very first ABL took place at The Five Spot, a small restaurant/live music venue in Atlanta, and was attended by nearly 400 people. After its inaugural event, the exhibit quickly moved to the ATL's acclaimed High Museum of Art, and attendance shot up to more than 1,000. The event transformed the sometimes-stodgy High -- known for its extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art -- into a veritable party with DJs spinning bass-heavy rap classics, b-boys poppin' and lockin' in the foyer and paintings of the Notorious B.I.G. adorning museum walls.

ABL's appearance in the Queen City this week marks the first leg of the show's first national tour, which is sponsored by Jack Daniel's.

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