Sunday, February 17, 2013

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Directed by Ice-T.
2012. Rated R, 112 minutes.
Grandmaster Caz
Ice Cube
Dr. Dre
Snoop Dogg
Mos Def
MC Lyte

Right away Ice-T, our host and the director, tells us that the one thing he knows for sure is that rapping takes skill. To demonstrate this, he then interviews numerous emcees whose collective careers span the entire chronology of hip hop. This makes Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap part history lesson. Calling it a nostalgic trip down memory lane is more accurate as Ice often seems to be visiting old friends. Inevitably, SFN is also part diatribe against the current state of the genre as a number of old schoolers lament the lack of craft in most of today’s popular rap music. Finally, it couldn’t be a hip hop documentary without lots of rapping. Most of the emcees interviewed give us an impromptu, though not necessarily freestyle, rhyme.

Ice-T makes for an amiable host. He’s genuinely having a good time talking shop with his buddies. He’s even fun when admonishing regular folk on the street for getting in his shot. His love and enthusiasm for hip hop shines through. There’s never a moment when he seems to be just going through the motions. He’s completely invested in his topic and has much admiration for the people he’s speaking with. If he’s faking it then this is, by far, the best acting job he’s ever done.

It shows they feel the same about him, also. Quite a few rappers mention how much Ice-T meant to the game. Invariably, these same rappers would burst into their own rendition of his classic “Six in the Morning” while he beams proudly and helps out.

For any rap fan, hearing these guys break into their own verse is a highlight. As expected, their lyrics run the gamut from political to gangsta, spiritual to braggadocious, profound to profane and whatever else you can think of. We even get to watch hip hop legend Grandmaster Caz compose a verse on the spot with pen and paper, then recite. It’s not the greatest rhyme ever but fun to see.

The absolute pinnacle of all this lyricism is wisely positioned at the very center of the movie. Current star Joe Budden recites a rhyme that’s as harrowing a tale as you’ll ever hear, ripe with all sorts of insight and reasoning. It resonates because the person depicted is not some sort of super-thug, but a real person whose daily choices significantly impact his life. During most of the time Joe is rapping, a montage of shots from around New York City plays out in a non-sensational manner. This not only demonstrates the depths which rap is capable of but it is two minutes or so of brilliant filmmaking. Fittingly, it’s the last thing we experience in New York (though not of New Yorkers) where the entire first half of the movie takes place.

While Ice is a fun-loving host, his questions don’t probe enough. A huge part of his stated purpose for making this film is getting inside the craft of rap. For those he engages on the topic (which isn’t everyone), he asks what they consider ideal writing conditions. This is a fine starting point but he leaves it at that. At best, it’s only a glimpse at the very beginning of the creative process, not the whole thing as his lack of a follow-up question suggest. Consequently, we’re left with a boat load of shallow answers. We only get more interesting, possibly useful information, if the person asked freely volunteers it. This only happens a few times, but you can see the eyes of the speaker light up, alerting the viewer we’re about to dive a bit deeper. Even these guys aren’t always allowed time enough to truly get into it unless they manage to dominate the conversation which Ice doesn’t always allow. Part of this is his fault for just plain stepping on the toes of his subjects, interrupting them when it feels like they’re about to get on a roll. Sometimes, it’s Ice genuinely helping out as a few of the artists are simply not articulate enough to explain themselves in a concise manner.

Another ingredient that seems to hamper Ice’s interviewing abilities is the movie’s apparent preference for quantity over quality. Instead of really getting into the nuts and bolts of with one artist or another, we rush off to the next emcee. Too often, a rapper will give a quick answer to one question and either be shown dropping a rhyme or is never heard from again. Cramming in as many people as possible leads to two things. First, scenes where it’s clear there was more entertaining and relevant discussion feel cut short. Second, it feels like hip hop role call where fans will likely find themselves thinking about who is missing from the roster. Clearly, a less is more approach would’ve worked wonders.

While rappers are obviously missing from either the New York or Los Angeles portions of the movie, both cities and their surrounding regions are well represented. Other than a stop in Detroit to interview both Eminem and Royce da 5’9”, the rest of the country is ignored. Most egregiously, the south is almost wholly absent. Thankfully, rapper Bun B is included, even if it is only briefly. He also happens to give us one of the more poignant moments of the movie. “The Dirty South” has never been thought of as a hotbed for talented lyricists, but there definitely are a number of them who live below New Jersey and east of California. At the very least, could Ice-T not find Scarface? OutKast? Ludacris? I can’t believe what I’m about to say given that I’m hardly the biggest proponent of southern rap. If you’re going to make a big deal about how rap grows region-by-region you should pay more attention to the one that’s been the most prevalent in our collective conscience for the better part of the last decade and a half.

In at least one regard, despite who may or may not be missing, hurrying along from subject to subject works. It keeps things light and moving at a brisk pace. If you’re at all a fan, the nearly two hours flies by as a new perspective or another rhyme is never too far away. Not a ton of it sticks to the ribs but it is fun to sit through. Those interviewees that do manage to go beyond the others include the aforementioned Caz, Bun B, Rakim and Xzibit along with Treach, Ras Kass and KRS-One. KRS and Kanye West both speaking of their first battles is also fun. If these names mean nothing to you this is probably not the movie for you. If they do, this is an enjoyable but only occasionally meaty documentary featuring more rappers than you can shake a mic at.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

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