Francis Davis’ “Hip-Hop Is Dead to Him” is an excellent piece on Wynton Marsalis’ From the Plantation to the Penitentiary:
The whole thing becomes embarrassing only on “Where Y’All At?,” when ego escalates into hubris and Marsalis tries to beat “big baggy-pants wearers with the long white T-shirts” at their own game. “They’re rapping straight in the time,” he criticizes the hip-hop his teenage sons listen to in a recent JazzTimes Q&A. “I told them, ‘I’m gonna come up with a rap that goes all across the time.’ ” When I interviewed him years ago, around the time he was still being accused of copying ’60s Miles, Marsalis replied it might sound that way to someone who didn’t listen to much jazz, the same way all string quartets might sound alike to someone who hadn’t heard very many. I take it from “Where Y’All At?” that Marsalis hasn’t heard much recent hip-hop. Neither have I, but I’ve heard enough to know it’s become a producer’s medium—the polyrhythmic tension comes from the way the rhymes move in and out of the samples and the abrasive string arrangements. A New Orleans shuffle and a chorus refrain worthy of a junior high school assembly sing-along prove to be no substitutes, Marsalis comes off sounding like a cranky grandpa, and the entire exercise reeks of misguided noblesse oblige—an attempt to “improve” hip-hop by means of better musicianship and high-minded ideals.
Even before reading Marsalis say in JazzTimes that “Supercapitalism” was inspired by ATM fees and hidden charges on his credit card bill, I found myself thinking someone featured in Movado watches was on shaky ground dissing anybody else for wanting to live large. But Penitentiary‘s drawback as social criticism isn’t just its hypocrisy in omitting Marsalis’s own penthouse from the alliterative equation. This is a protest album staunch Republicans could get behind, inasmuch as it preaches the gospel of personal responsibility as the only foolproof way out of poverty and degradation: “Don’t turn up your nose/It’s us that’s stinkin’,” Marsalis rants on “Where Y’All At?,” “And it all can’t be blamed on the party of Lincoln.” “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali famously proclaimed while resisting military induction in the ’60s. Marsalis’s message to black youth often seems to be “No white man ever called me nigga,” and while it’s a message not without merit, it’s simply not enough. I’m not saying go back to blaming Whitey, but don’t let him wiggle off the hook, either.