"I hate people that feel entitled", goes Kendrick Lamar, the rapper extraordinaire in his Oscar nominated hit "All The Stars". "You the moral to the story, you endorsing?", he continues. The words have a curious duality in their message: on one hand, they're a war-cry resounding the sentiments of an oppressed community, and on the other, they seem to be calling out anyone who hasn't considered hip hop and rap as serious art forms. Musical academia seem to empathise, with Mr. Lamar becoming the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018. His album, "DAMN." was the recipient, with prize administrators acclaiming his work to contain both "vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that capture the complexity of modern African-American life".
To the uninitiated, such as myself, the only exposure to rap remains Eminem's "8 Mile", its striking track "Lose Yourself", or his collaborations with other pop artists, such as Rihanna ("Monster") or Dido ("Stan"). The occasional Top 40s song also sticks and cognizance of artists surely emerges, what with social media abound, but seldom would I tune into a spotify playlist designated to hip-hop/rap.
Even in terms of general awareness of what the genre entails, hip-hop, to me, was all about blinged out Lamborghinis, semi-clad women, and swagger. I think that is largely a consequence of growing up in an era when one's experience with music was limited to film music, whatever MP3s were accessible, and random videos caught on VH1/MTV/Channel V, when the local cable guy deemed you worthy enough to receive music programming.
While I have largely ignored international hip-hop, desi hip-hop that has been in emergence in Indian film music over the last few years through artists like Honey Singh or Badshah, only confounds my expectations from the genre. The less said about the sensibilities of it's content, the better. But if I peel these superficial layers off, there has been evidence of good content - words with championable intent, and talent that can deliver them with gusto - Blaaze and ADK come to mind, making occasional appearances in work for A.R.Rahman. Heck, even Divine and Naezy's "Mere gully main" made enough waves to spill into my bubble, yet arguably none of this was mainstream. They may have had impact - but none enough to uproot an average musicphile's attention from conventional genres.
The "Gully Boy" soundtrack chooses to change that. It wears that mission proudly on its sleeve. "Asli hip hop se milaye hindustan ko (let's introduce India to the real hip-hop)" says its opening track. It consists of 18 tracks (you read that right!) put together by an ecclectic selection of hip-hop artists, indie composers, and producers. The list of contributing names is quite noteworthy - I'd urge you to pour over the credits sheet (at the Youtube link below) than write a mere mention in a sentence and undermine their work.
The best way to contemplate this album is to consider the highs, the meat, and the mellows. The highs are PR-worthy anthems: "Asli hip-hop", "Mere gully main", "Apna time aayega" - tracks that throw obvious hints at the plot of the film, groovy to keep radios and youtube humming for a while. But then, at a stretch, one can imagine a mainstream Bollywood film commission a few tracks like these to be a part of its album, specially when it is portraying a hip hop artist. That's not to steal their thunder in any way; they're completely on point.
The meat of the album is where it really starts to convert the naysayer. Tracks like "Doori", "Azadi", "Jingostan", "Kab Se Kab Tak", "Kaam Bhaari", "Har Gam Me Khushi Hai", and "India 91" are grungy hip hop numbers, well constructed, sharp in their ambition, furious and angst-filled in their message, and apt in their rhythm.
Then, there are the mellows - conventional in this context, but far from that in the bigger scheme of things. Karsh Kale's "Train Song", is my current pick of the lot (owing to my affinity to Kale's vibrant body of work) but "Jahaan Tu Chala" and "Jeene Main Aye Maza" are also wonderful, if only intentionally low key and acoustic numbers that manage to create and sustain sincere moods. Then, there are "Doori (Poem)" and "Ek Hee Raasta", verses, I'm sure, add to moments worth embracing that are the forte of Zoya Akhtar's films.
Irrespective of which spectrum you look at within this album, you find eloquency, words perfect in their linguistics, and biting in their honesty. They are words, but they leave the listener speechless. They adorn able compositions, crafted with deliberation. And then, there's the bass, enough to wake your neighbors, literally, and hopefully in metaphor.
But what makes this album unique is the fact that all of this gets packed into a mainstream film, a Hindi one, nonetheless. After hearing glimpses of it in the promos, I took the long way home from work recently, to be able to blast the album completely, at full chat in my car, and ponder it's sigificance. It reminded me of the time when I found a silent nook at work to experience the "Black Panther" soundtrack put together by Kendrick Lamar without interruption, with a newfound respect for hip-hop. The parallels with Lamar's work don't end there, for me. The Gully Boy soundtrack, is a war-cry too, a gripping message whirled at the mainstream. It is, in one word, groundbreaking.