“XXL” Plays To The Hip-Hop Heads

Oct 26th, 2007 // 10 Comments

leadersofthenewxxl.gifOnce again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe and Spin are given a once-over by an anonymous writer who’s contributed to several of those titles–or maybe even all of them! After the jump, he switches things up a bit, and looks at the new issue of XXL:

Indulge Your Correspondent for a moment:. Let him tell you why he’s a bit uneasy about appraising XXL.

In the past couple of days, his International Pod selected no less than four Robert Wyatt cuts, a couple of John Fahey recordings and one tune each from the Residents, Steve Reich and Diamanda Galas. The device picked only one cut each from Cash Money supremo Baby’s 2002 Birdman album and from Lil Jon’s 2003 Kings of Crunk during the same time. Maybe his pod was telling him that this week he should be writing about The Wire, the UK’s superlatively designed journal for experimental music snobs, and not the best selling hip hop magazine in the country.

Very likely by design, XXL is for people who mainline hip-hop and are suspicious of current r&b. The mag was started by former employees of The Source, who were apparently unhappy with the frequent conflicts of interest that consumed that mag’s owners. So ten years after its debut, XXL not only outsells its competitors (or so it claims), it is Harris Publications’ flagship music title in the two years since that publisher sold Guitar World, Revolver and their since-shuttered satellite pubs to Future Networks. Hip hop rules the roost at Harris: XXL‘s sister pubs include King (which some wags have dubbed “Blaxim“) and the now Web-only Scratch.

YC is at a bit of a disadvantage in that he’s never really sat down with an issue of the mag, so he cannot track its strengths or weaknesses over time. He also, generally speaking, gravitates towards publications and visits Web sites that make an effort to cover a broad selection of music and culture–for this reason, he has also never read Country Weekly.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that your boy is nervous that he’s gonna seem like a particular kind of dilettante–namely, the caucasoid variety given to complain, in Sasha-Frere-Jones-in-reverse-mode, “why doesn’t XXL cover Deerhunter?”

Of course, XXL doesn’t have to do anything of the sort. And it doesn’t. If anything, XXL tethers itself to the idea that pure hip-hop–where an MC’s mic prowess is the one true measure of that person’s worth–is now being threatened by its top producers aligning with pop artists (XXL does give Polow Da Don, a prime exponent of that development, a forum to explain his methods in this issue) and its artists being focused on dance steps and ringtones. It’s all very rockist, ain’t it? It’s just a step away from “in my day, rock stars had to play real instruments.”

In any case, the November XXL presents a cover package of ten MCs that the mag anoints as “Leaders of the New School” on the cover and “Next Up” inside: included herein are quick profiles of artists known to the blog diaspora (Lupe Fiasco, Papoose), at least one that YC thought that the hip-hop intelligentsia disdained as a lightweight (Rich Boy) and seven others. None are endorsed with much energy or lively prose, which goes also for even quicker, cookie-cutter capsule profiles of ten up-and coming runners-up (including Joe Budden, a rapper YC knew of at least four years ago and thus thinks shouldn’t be eligible). For that matter, it’s unclear what the difference might be between both these features and four front of book “new talent” featurettes called “Show and Prove.”

By far the most engaging piece in the entire mag is editor-in-chief and Ego Tripper Elliot Wilson’s editorial “Part of the Plan.” If YC is pretty unsympathetic to Wilson’s bellyaching regarding what he calls “hip-hop’s shitty state of affairs” and how he believes that Souljah Boy and Sean Kingston are quite dreadful, Wilson nonetheless writes in a more vivid voice than any other writer in the mag (with the possible exception of Chairman Mao’s back-of book column, Chairman’s Choice). He also writes about how the rapper Cassidy was not included in the package since, in his telling, producer Swizz Beatz attempted to strong-arm Wilson into granting them a joint cover. It’s very inside baseball–but well-written inside baseball is preferable to boilerplate of any variety.

Otherwise, YC was diverted by “Role Models,” an FOB profile of 4 Wheel City, the collective moniker for rapper Tapwaterz and producer Rickfie, both paraplegics. And… not much else. Not the photo essay concerning inked-up rappers, not the piece on Flavor of Love’s Bootz, not the reviews of Graduation or Chamillionaire’s Ultimate Victory.

Anyway, XXL apparently is premised on the belief that hip-hop done correctly stands and falls on rhymesmanship, and the mag certainly takes a more unyielding stand on this matter than the wishy-washy Vibe. Again, YC has to admit that it’s quite possible that his assessment of XXL isn’t worth a tremendous amount. As he wrote these words, he listened to Soulja Boy’s SouljaBoyTellEm.com (he loves hearing “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” on the radio), and, being that he cares more about cool sounds more than he does about verbal dexterity, he thinks the record sounds great. He likes novelties and thinks that pop hooks and trendy dances are also great, and in any case believes that hip-hop’s recent sales decline has rather more to do with the fact that anyone can find any piece of music they want via the kind of device he’s typing on at this moment than any particular musical trend. He’s not at all who XXL cares about as a reader, and maybe the mag’s staff is doing right by the readers they do care about.

YC will say that its pretty ballsy to put ten fairly obscure MCS on its cover. It’ll take a swandive on the newsstand: Maybe many devoted hip-hop heads, whom the magazine does clearly care about, will appreciate XXL going out on a limb. But many more will see a bunch of guys clustered together, and thus will not be able to focus on a single image. At least XXL took a chance.

  1. Al Shipley

    Yeah, I admire the fact that XXL still does these big group covers of up-and-comers but the selection was pretty weird for this one, especially considering that they’d wanted Cassidy (who’s about to release his 3rd album, and the first 2 went Gold). Crooked I’s been kicking around different labels forever, Saigon and Papoose have been “next” for like 4 years running, and really Lil Boosies is the only guy on the cover who I could see becoming a major star anytime soon. I thought this was a pretty weak installment of the column, though, way more could’ve been said than just shrugging “well, I’m not the target audience for this mag.”

  2. Lucas Jensen

    I like this column and would love to see it tackle more mags than just the usual four (like YC did with this installment).

  3. afriedman

    yall couldn’t find someone who actually reads xxl to write this?

  4. jb

    yc sounds (or rather writes) scared. and ditto government names: “way more could’ve been said than just shrugging “well, I’m not the target audience for this mag.”

  5. Spit

    XXL is not the traditionalist, purist hip hop mag. That would be Elemental. It goes Vibe- XXL- Elemental- (tiny ass magazines from Europe that dick ride underground NY MCs).

    The more you know, the less you gotta guess on…..

  6. riskybusiness

    I miss Ego Trip.

  7. dutchtwista

    idolator needs as assimilated negro (or wegro) of its own, clearly. this review sucked Sasha Frere Jones’s balls

  8. Halfwit

    @dutchtwista: Without making assumptions, I think Idolator’s doing a fairly credible (if cursory) job on covering hip-hop. Even in that case though, we’re still dealing in terms of dance songs and “mainstream” rap.

    The “raw” “underground” (jeez… enough quotes?) is going to be, by its’ very nature, a niche market. I think that YC’s attitude, while not the most analytical, is a fairly eloquent representation of what 8 out of 10 of the people who see this on the newsstand is going to think as they pass it over.

    And, yes — Joe Budden is “next”? Didn’t VH1 do a profile on him that happened to catch the failure of his second single and the resulting decline of his star power?

  9. Halfwit

    Confirmation — it was the second part of the documentary “Hip-Hop Babylon.” No video, but this guy talks about it here. Notable, because the cameras caught the transition from expectation to failure in aslmost real time (album and documentary were both released in 2003).

  10. Adam Bernard

    @Spit: as someone who wrote for Elemental for a number of years let me just say I REALLY miss that mag. :(

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