Hip-hop is dead. This news was delivered late last year by Nas in a single of the same name, it was then confirmed in June by USA Today, which reported a thirty-three percent drop in CD sales this year. "They say the market share's down," notes T.I. on his new album. "Tell the label relax, and ain't no need to stress shit/Yeah, just cut the check and I'll handle the rest."
The anxiety that hip-hop is in decline is nothing new to anyone who lived through Hammer Time, but this is different. Rap is a good decade further along from its beginnings than rock & roll was in the mid-Seventies, when punk began to reinvigorate guitar music, and it is certainly suffering the pains and worries of middle age. With smart hip-hop producers focusing on twenty-second blips that would make for successful ringtones – ringtone sales are rising faster than album sales are dropping – both the artists and the audience are thinking smaller.
But not Kanye West. In a handful of recent cuts. Kanye sidesteps hip-hop orthodoxy, soaking up beats and strategies from, of all places, the indie-rock mainstream. There's "Stronger," the first single from his upcoming Graduation, where he lifts the robo-disco hook from Daft Punk's "Better, Faster, Stronger"; there's "Drivin' Me Wild," which he produced for Common's latest, and on which he brought in Lily Allen to sing the hook; and there are two tracks on his mix tape Can't Tell Me Nothing that find him bitching about media coverage over the groove from Peter, Bjorn and John's "Young Folks." Another Graduation track samples Seventies German art rockers Can.
Best, though, is "Us Placers." from the Can't Tell Me Nothing mix tape and credited to CBS, a group featuring Lupe Fiasco, Kanye and Pharrell Williams. The music – hesitant piano chords, spare pulse, mournful vocal – is a loop of the title track of Thom Yorke's solo album The Eraser. Yorke sings about disappearance as an act of defiance. "The more you try to erase me," goes the chorus, lifted whole for "Us Placers." "the more that I appear." Lupe's verse lays out the false promise of materialism. Kanye spins thoughts about reality TV and celebrity. Pharrell jumps from greenhouse gases, cooking cocaine, God's will and the Virginia Tech shootings, bringing things back to fame and notoriety. The Yorke loop has an emptiness that the rappers occupy completely. Each brings something wholly new to the other, trading self-effacement and self-possession back and forth until there's no difference between the two. For this 3:53. hip-hop isn't dead, and neither is rock. They're quietly invincible.
This story is from the August 9th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.