Visit Timati's MySpace page to listen to his music
On my recent trip to Moscow the first song I heard on the radio, right off the plane, was "V Klube" (In the Club) -- a new smash hit by 23-year old Russian rap-star Timati. Besides being featured prominently on the soundtrack of the current Russian blockbuster, Zhara, he has become popular among several demographics, especially with both teenagers and young professionals.
These days, Russian rap has become widely popular as it has departed from its old "chanson" (prison) ballads and dance pop origins. With both these popular post-Soviet formats the sound quality didn't matter and lyrics concentrated on the dangers of the army draft, hardships and nobility of imprisonment, racism, and teenage sex.
V Klube - "In the Club" music video
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Russian rap's dominance of pop culture is being built on solid beats, rich sound mixing, and its use of lyrics that dramatically differ from the pop culture of the late Nineties. The songs concentrate first of all on social issues -- corruption, elections, and business. You can't find stories of imprisonment or the army draft any more, however, there are plenty of descriptions of expensive cars, five star hotels, and fancy Russian and European resorts. Love stories don't happen between sixteen year olds any more, instead the songs describe the growing consumer class and its partying crowd hooking up with each other with the amazing night scenes of Moscow, Petersburg, and Kyiv used as the backdrop.
Kogda Ti Ryadom - "When You Are Near"
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A reader can ask me: So what? What's new about rapping about cars, hotels, resorts, corruption, and elections? My answer is: many things. Music and culture in general reflect the state of society, a nation's wealth, and the people's concerns. Admit it or not, but American music has been strongly influenced by materialism, suburbia, country living, and Protestant Christianity. Thus, like it or not, Christian rock, Dixie Chicks, and Britney Spears are all reflections writ large on the average American. In the same way, Soviet music portrayed the greatness of Communism, the inevitability of a socialist future for the entire world, and the happiness of Soviet people.
Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union revealed issues never heard of in Soviet times: disastrous army conditions, crime in every sphere of society, premature sexual relations, racism, etc. Almost two decades later, these are not issues of greatest concern or at least issues to which the general population has become numb. The Chechen war is over, the economy is stable, black singers and dancers are becoming a big part of Russia's pop culture, many citizens can afford Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, you name it, and Russians are buying European real estate -- in London, on the French Rivera, and in the Alps.
Music video from Zhara by Timati - "The Heat" featuring Fedor Bondarchuk and the cast
Timati is the essence of contemporary Russia. Born in the suburbs of Moscow, his parents expected him to attend college, get a degree, and then a "real job". Instead he hung out with those then-exotic black people and pursued his childhood dream of rapping. In the Nineties, when music piracy was out of control and rap was alien to the culture, such an idea seemed insane. Not any more. The self-made star now owns a wildly successful night club in Moscow, has his own show on a national television channel (STS), has his own clothing line, gets royalties from his CD sales and air time, and taunts the Putin Administration.
In his latest album "Black Star", Timati has a song, in which he pretends to be a substitute teacher at a middle school. He sits down with the kids and tells them stories ranging from the Khodorkovsky's trial to the troubles faced by pensioners and veterans who cannot access expensive private medical care. He raps about corruption and natural resource money siphoned out of the country, but answers his own questions with famous words from the Russian poet Fedor Tyutchev:
You can't understand Russia with [your] mind,
You can only believe in it and trust it.
Timati suggests that kids should put all their questions to their parents once they get home from school. As the school bell dismisses them for the day, he intones, "In the next class we'll learn how to write a letter to the President of Russia."
Timati is not the only new young celebrity on the Russian pop scene. There are plenty of them replacing the old burnt-out strata of post-Soviet corrupt semi-criminals, semi-celebrities. These young stars are a tangible examples of the new Russian economy, its stability, and the expansion (and use) of free speech.
News clip about Timati (in Russian, but we still recommend watching it, as it is self-explanatory. The very end of the clip features street racing).