It’s getting to the point with hip hop that you have to sound throwback to sound refreshing and different. It’s the glossy, auto-tuned and over-produced nature of nearly every rap record getting top-40 airplay that makes me tune out these days, often looking for underground alternatives or just skipping hip hop altogether. Not that I’m clinging to the way things used to be done, but on balance—beats, flow and subject matter taken into account—you gotta be missing brain cells to think Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, Lloyd Banks or Lil Wayne have anything on hip hop of the ’90s. Atlanta was better (OutKast, Goodie Mob). New York was better (Biggie, Tribe Called Quest). The West Coast was better (Death Row). In 2010, the mainstream of American hip hop has all but dried up. But beyond the underground, there’s one more rejuvenating source of strong, reputable hip hop you might not have considered: Latin America.
Enter: Ana Tijoux and her sophomore album 1977 (so-named for the year of her birth). The French-Chilean emcee’s mellow yet nasally flow is reminiscent of Q-Tip, and the boom-bap, jazzy horn samples and beefy turntable scratches that fill the background are top-notch homages to mid-1990s NYC. Then you figure in soothing beats with Spanish guitar samples and Tijoux gets comfortably close to People Under The Stairs territory. It’s a geographic hodgepodge of influences, but in terms of chronology, it’s pretty much a textbook throwback to the Golden Age. Even the production choice of leaving in the crackles of vinyl records points to the old school.
This isn’t to say that 1977 isn’t new or exciting. When’s the last time you heard a female emcee rap in Spanish and French over what sounds like a Tribe song? And her flow can go from molasses-slow (“Mar Adentro”) to purposeful (“1977”) to hyper-fast staccato (0:50-mark of “Obstáculo”), so you’re not getting a one-trick pony here. Her lyrics are mostly about experiences and ideas, vague notions of conscious-emcee aspirations with songs about humanity and rising up. Mostly, I’m thankful that Tijoux avoids one ’90s rap cliche: that female emcees had to overcompensate for their femaleness by sounding raspy and deep-voiced (Foxy Brown, Lil Kim… I’m looking at you). Tijoux pulls off being feminine and a legit emcee simultaneously, making for an authentic listen that can pay homage to its influences but still have its own voice.
Look, American hip hop will have to save itself from the inside if its practitioners want to be considered viable and respectable by anyone outside of the ringtone industry. But in the meantime, hip-hop fans, feel free to take a detour through Chile for some refreshing raps and chill beats that you can feel good about listening to. Pick up Ana Tijoux’s 1977.