A “DOPE” Commentary on Hip-Hop

I went to see the movie Dope during its opening weekend, and while the overarching story didn’t feel particularly unique, it was filtered through a fresh perspective that continued to cement Hip-Hop as the predominant mainstream cultural reference point. 

The symmetry of the two main male characters in Dope, directed by Rick Famuyiwa, was one of the more interesting pieces of the movie. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and Dom (A$AP Rocky) represent two sides of the same coin, or rather two potential life paths of any of the youth depicted in the patch of Inglewood where the movie is anchored. Not only do Malcolm and Dom bear a striking resemblance to one another (good casting) in a tenuous big brother/little brother dynamic, but they display a similar interest and knowledge about Hip-Hop, as illustrated by their first encounter on screen. From that moment forward we observe each character display their own unique form of intelligence and confidence when navigating the pitfalls of the situations that beset them, as well as a kindred awkwardness when ironically courting the same woman. In each other, both Dom and Malcolm see a little bit of “what could have been” had they made different life choices.

But what struck me as a more important subtext to the story arc of these characters was the role that Hip-Hop culture plays as a complementary force. To this end, Dope feels like a bookend to a 1990s Hip-Hop conversation that was started by Chris Rock’s Top Five back in 2014. Both movies feature male lead characters struggling with their identities as black men and what the world expected from them, while a strong Hip-Hop thread serves as the undercurrent of the central story—Top Five had side moments centered around various characters’ choices for their Top Five Rappers/MCs, while Dope’s central characters were self-described “90s Hip-Hop geeks” with a passion for that bygone era that included their peculiar fashion choices and crate-digging for vintage vinyl Rap LPs.

Even behind the scenes, the movies share a similar DNA. Top Five listed Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and Kanye West as co-producers, with Amir “Questlove” Thompson serving as the Music Director; Dope has Pharrell Williams and Sean “Diddy” Combs listed as executive producer and co-executive producer, respectively. Additionally, location-wise each movie embraces one of the two most influential Hip-Hop hubs of the 90s, with Dope taking on the L.A. West Coast vibe and Top Five being firmly cemented in New York City (minus a memorable detour through Houston, courtesy of Cedric the Entertainer’s character, Jazzy D).

To be fair, these movies aren’t about Hip-Hop directly, but they show Hip-Hop’s relevance to pop culture and use as a reference point for how characters (and members of the audience, presumably) view their lives. Once upon a time in the 1940s Rock-n-Roll was young, and as the youngsters that grew up listening to it got older, Rock-n-Roll became solidified in the American cultural zeitgeist. Hip-Hop, a genre more than 40 years old, is now just old enough to have early generations of musicians serve as reference points for newer coming-of-age artists and trends. And as Hip-Hop’s early pioneers and “Golden Agers” ease their way into AARP territory as decision makers and C-level executives, I expect that the music of Hip-Hop, much like Rock-n-Roll before it, will continue to evolve as a common point of reference in movie storylines, while hopefully provoking more academic study, cultural commentary, and nuanced appreciation among future generations.

Thus, Hip-Hop as a reference point, not a focal point, is a genuine sign of maturity for a genre that otherwise strives to be forever young.

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