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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

From music to film, clothing to video games, hip-hop continued to dominate popular culture in 2005. As rap music moves in from the margins and takes over more of America's cultural and economic center, reviewer Oliver Wang worries rap's fantasies have lost touch with reality.

OLIVER WANG:

The first major hip-hop hit of 2005 was actually a song from late 2003.

(Soundbite of "Still Tippin'")

Unidentified Man #1: (Rapping) Still tippin' no bow bows, wrapped in bow bows, tippin' no bow bows, wrapped in bow bows...

WANG: It took about a year for "Still Tippin'" to bubble up outside of its native Houston. But when the song and video exploded, it not only propelled the careers of Slim Thug, Mike Jones and Paul Wall, but it brought Houston's hip-hop scene to national attention.

(Soundbite of "Still Tippin'")

Unidentified Man #2: (Rapping) ...bow bows, I'm tippin' ...(unintelligible) I'm grippin', give me life with the paint drippin'. ...(Unintelligible) makin' no...

WANG: In fact, regional scenes across the South further shifted rap's center away from New York and Los Angeles to Memphis, Miami and Atlanta. Still, there was a rapper from Queens who closed the year as 2005's most successful artist in any genre.

(Soundbite of "Hustler's Ambition")

50 CENT: America got a thing for this gangsta (censored). They love me. Black chuckers, black skullies, leather Pelle-Pelles...

WANG: 50 Cent was everywhere, penning an autobiography, starring in a major motion picture, hawking his vitamin water. He even managed to find time to release his second album, "The Massacre," twice, proving the old adage, why sell three million records if you can sell five million be repackaging the same album with a bonus DVD a few months later?

(Soundbite of "Hustler's Ambition")

50 CENT: If you analyze me, what you will find is the DNA recrock. What goes on in my mind it's contagious, hypnotic. It sounds melodic. If the rap was the block or spider, I'll be poke and butter. Now get a load of me, flashy, far from low key and you can locate me wherever that dope be, gettin' money man...

Unidentified Group: I want the finer things in my life. So I hustle, hustle...

WANG: On his record and in his film and book, 50 plays up his past as a crack dealer. Countless rappers season their image with a sprinkling of white powder, including Houston's Bun B, a.k.a. the Boss Baller of Blow, and Harlem's Joel Santana, who simply boasted, `I am crack.' Gone are the days of justifying the drug trade as a survival tactic in post-Reagan, urban America. As Hua Soo(ph) points out in an upcoming article, `The crack game is no longer a symbol of inner-city misery. Now it's an authenticity marker, a badge of honor, ghetto chic.'

No one demonstrated this better than Atlanta's young Jeezy, a.k.a. The Snow Man, and, hint: He's not talking about frosting.

(Soundbite of unidentified rap)

JEEZY: (Rapping) Well, they playin' a new guitar, the doughboys(ph) go crazy.

Unidentified Group: Chill.

JEEZY: (Rapping) I watch the doughboys go crazy.

Unidentified Group: I'm talkin' about ...(unintelligible)

JEEZY: And then I'm swinging my chain. Kiss me in the club if I'm doing my thing.

WANG: Jeezy and most of these rappers were barely toddlers during the crack wars of the 1980s. In glamorizing the drug that destroyed black communities across America, many ignore the destruction of one of the country's most vital black communities. You would have thought the devastation of the Gulf Coast would have been hip-hop's story of the year. And a few underground artists, notably Houston's Legendary KO, did step up with topical songs that hit the Internet within weeks after Katrina hit the shore.

(Soundbite of unidentified rap)

LEGENDARY KO: Hurricane's came through (censored) us up 'round here. Double (unintelligible) acting like it's bad luck down here. All I know is that you've got to bring some trucks 'round here. Wonder why I've got my middle finger up round here. People's lives on the line. You decline any help. Since you're takin' so much time, we survived in ourselves, just me and my pets and my kids and my spouse, trapped in my own house, lookin' for a way out.

WANG: In a show of financial power, moguls like Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z donated millions to relief efforts. But silken pockets appeared to be attached to velvet gags. Despite the unparalleled access to the mainstream media that rappers enjoy today, most avoided explicit commentaries on the Gulf Coast disaster. It would seem as hip-hop has gained popularity and power, it's become more enraptured with its self-created worlds and less engaged with the actual world around it.

A lone exception and one of the year's most unlikely leaders has been Kanye West, and not just because he told a national television audience that George Bush doesn't care about black people.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KANYE WEST: (Rapping) Yeah, and I heard him say nothing's ever promised to ...(unintelligible).

WANG: In a video directed by Michelle Gondre(ph) for West's "Heard Him Say," Kanye and a trio of black children walk out of a rain-soaked cardboard shelter and into a Macy's department store. Inside, the children magically transform middle-class luxuries into playthings, floor lamps jump and dance, a row of expensive beds becomes piano keys. Unlike rap videos where artists drive around in rented cars or party in other people's mansions, everyone here is well aware of living in a fantasy. Their dreams for simple comforts are given life, but at the end, it's back into the rain for West and his urchins. It seems an apt commentary for 2005, a year in which too many people found themselves out on wet streets.

The video provides a balance that the rest of hip-hop missed this year. It imagines a better world for children to play in, but it doesn't forget the storm that waits outside the doors.

MONTAGNE: Oliver Wang is a writer, deejay and editor of "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide." The year's most memorable people, stories, interviews and essays are at npr.org.

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