“It’s a love letter to hip-hop” proclaims Ice-T in the opening moments of his documentary The Art of Rap. Watching his film as an outsider to the world of hip-hop could be a little like reading a love letter that’s not meant for you, it is nice to see that level of adulation, but it is pretty meaningless outside of the context of those involved. That said, if you have even a remote interest in hip hop and its history, then it might feel like Ice-T Is talking directly to you.
It is all interview in The Art of Rap, and a project like this lives and dies on it’s the quality of its contributors. Thankfully, Ice-T’s access is ridiculous. He employs fifty plus figures, from the expected (Mos Def, Common, Nas, Rakim etc.) to the more off kilter or forgotten (Mel Melle, Immortal Technique, Lord Jamar.) No Soulja Boy though, he must have been busy. There aren’t many female voices, and only one white one (“who would have ever thought that one of the greatest rappers of all time would be a white cat” says T - guess who?) but overall its hard to find fault with the quality, and quantity, of interviewees included. Ice-T moves from one to the next, inviting them to open up on their creative process, and some are more willing, and more interesting, than others. It is fascinating to see so many influential rappers - especially the more historic ones - talking about their craft; what makes them tick; why and how they do it, and what it means to them specifically, but the film is little more than that - rappers talking about, and then demonstrating, how they work. There are some nice little impromptu moments, but the best bits are when people like Eminem or Phife recite the lines of their heroes, re-enacting the songs that they find stuck inside their head.
Unlike the other hip-hop doc of recent years, Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life, The Art of Rap has a broad focus, and Ice-T’s film fares worse for it. Without the focus that a single group and theme (the constant fallouts of A Tribe Called Quest) that Rapaport had, Ice T’s documentary feels aimless and wandering. At points it seems like he wants to make it an essay about hip-hop, but never makes it anything more than a series of interviews. For many that will be enough, considering the volume and quality of the subjects he speaks to, but there was an opportunity here to say something more lasting. Without a coherent driving line, a question or issue to explore, Ice-T isn’t really saying anything. Maybe that is ok, let the icons talk for themselves, but had he chosen to pursue a more stimulating or philosophical line of questioning, he sure had access to interviewees capable of offering an answer to it.
“I spit from the genitals bitch!”