‘The Voice’ and Hip-Hop’s Conquest of Pop

One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about singing competition shows like American Idol and now the X Factor is the assumption embedded in them that pop music is still a relatively pure genre that isn’t increasingly integrated with hip-hop. Because whether it’s pop songs that include MCed bridges or hip-hop songs where the rappers are singing their own hooks or are bringing in pop stars to sing original hooks, hip-hop is increasingly embedded in the pop charts, even if it’s not yet the dominant genre in American popular music. But the big competition programs tend to focus on the clarity of sung vocal performance. We haven’t had a show yet that defines what makes a great MC, or defines an MC as the most important voice in American music.

So at the panel for The Voice yesterday, I asked Cee Lo Green and the rest of the panel whether that might be something that the show tries to do in the coming season. Carson Daly cut Cee Lo off when he started to say “Christina Augilera was lucky enough to find our first—,” and Aguilera said “There’s versatility in the talent this year,” which I’m taking to mean that there is an MC in the mix. And I’ll be curious to see how that plays out on the show. Rather than straight covers, will the MC be doing riffs on preexisting songs, like Lupe Fiasco riffing on Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” remix? Will they be singing and rapping bridges, like Chris Rene did less successfully than his vote count on X Factor would suggest? I might bet on the latter, especially since Daly ended up talking about rappers like Drake and Lil Wayne who sing their own hooks as proof “the line between MCing and singing is breaking down.”

And I’ll be curious if at some point there starts to be a consensus on what makes a good MC. I happen to like mine fast and clear (though I draw a line at speed for speed’s sake, a la Twista), but obviously someone slower like Drake, or like a lot of classic MCs (the game’s gotten faster, if not more fierce) still has a lot of love. And that’s hardly the only factor. In any case, it’ll be very interesting to see The Voice move the conversation on competition reality shows a bit towards where the market actually is. And we’ll see what it’s like to have Christina Aguilera, known for her belting, mentor an MC.