Danny Brown's "Cross-eyed like Bernstein son" Line Embodies Internet Era Rap
So, this is a picture of "Bernstein's son." A guy that Danny Brown referenced in the recently-released Shady XV track "Detroit vs. Everybody". 10 years ago the line would have been currency for folks in Detroit, but over the heads of nearly everyone else. But in an era where I follow Danny Brown on twitter, and he is retweeting his fans enthusiasm for the line, along with their pictures of Bernstein, the line has currency well beyond Detroit. The internet takes the knowledge that comes with being part of a regional culture and gives it global breadth. And while that's cool if we're talking about the powers of the internet, it's a change in the fundamentals of communication for artists. Before the internet the capacity to understand a lyric--or any piece of art--was based largely on the ways the audience's life overlaps with the artist's life. To put it most simply, a surfer who had only ever lived in a beachside town, would have a very hard time making sense of a story about mountain goats. The surfer would be projecting things that aren't there in the mountains, like an ocean, and failing to properly contextualize things that were there, like huge mounds of the earth's mantle jutting thousands of feet into the air. And when we look at this line from Danny Brown, that is based on a well-known Detroit lawyer's physical appearance, we might as well be a bunch of surfer's hearing about the plants that make up the diet of a mountain goat.
Because of twitter though we can see the forest for the trees, or in this case the mountain for the surfers, or more accurately the cross-eyed son of Bernstein. It is a radical kind of freedom for artists, and it changes the whole dynamic of how art works. Of course, for the artist there is still a delicate balance to be struck between doing whatever you want and doing something that will engage an audience. But that balance now has a lessened burden because nearly any obscure reference within a lyric--or any piece of art--can be explicated by the audience. Confused by the apparent meaning, or lack thereof, of a line in a song? Just google it. Or go to rap genius. Or go to Reddit. Or go to a message board. Or ask on twitter. Or go any number of places where you can find answers online. Before the internet that kind of explication on the part of the audience was impossible. And now with the internet the artist can work in even finer gradations allowing the audience to resolve an increasing amount of the tension between the perception of a work, and the comprehension of its terms. These days every surfer in a beach side town has a pocket index of the rest of the world. When you tell them about mountain goats they know exactly what you mean.
It means for Danny, and others like him, there is no need to compromise. No need to tone down the complexity of your art if the understanding of that complexity can have a life of it's own. Dude spits a complex line, a few people get it and retweet it, and now more people understand it, and it isn't much of an issue for the artist to consider.
15 years ago esoteric rap music was a unique thing.