Kendrick Lamar. Nicki Minaj. Childish Gambino. Chief Keef. From the profound to the profane, these rap artists represent the scale of hip-hop’s status quo. They are the heirs to one of America’s most authentically black art-forms, for better or for worse.
While rap music began as a voice of youth rebellion in marginalized communities, its present incarnation denotes an often times different perspective, one that may not be entirely positive for the African-American community. Though the genre has improved musically with the incorporation of new styles and sophisticated performers, the good is arguably matched by the bad. Talk of drug use, squandered wealth and hypersexual behavior permeates the text of some of rap’s top lyricists, and real life philandering creates a questionable parallel to the stories told in their music.
“Rap hasn’t been a revolutionary means of protest, if it ever really was, for more than two decades now,” says Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip Hop Culture. “What it is now is a mellifluous soundtrack to a certain kind of lifestyle that has its roots in the black and Latino ghetto. The voice of rap today is more sophisticated, yet ultimately shallower than ever before. It does not tend to serve or represent those marginalized communities well. What it does do is conflate the notion of black authenticity with street credibility.”
Williams grew up a middle class kid from New Jersey who idolized Tupac Shakur. For most of his youth, he strove to be more “street” in order to keep up with the “cool posse” – until he realized in college that there were higher pursuits. Perhaps that’s why one of Williams’ biggest gripes with hip hop is the weight it carries in the minds of youth.
“The difference between rappers – even the best and smartest rappers – and serious thinkers is one of kind and not degree,” he says. “So one of the real tragedies of black life today, to my mind, is that so many kids are sold this idea that the two are equivalent.”
Other rap aficionados agree. Leslie Jones, an actress and comedian who’s watched the genre evolve, says she wouldn’t even listen to rap music anymore if it weren’t for the beats.
“I was actually around when rap started,” Jones explains. “The original rap – Sugar Hill and Grandmaster Flash, and then we moved on to Whodini and Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane. It was all raw. It was stories. It was beats. The rap now has no plot … Sometimes I listen to Lil Wayne and I go, ‘This motherf*****’s retarded.’ The music is awesome, but [he] ain’t saying sh**. I want to take my belt off and just discipline him.”
Over the past decade, the production value of rap music has increased significantly, with the rising popularity of deviations like trap music, “emo” rap and dubstep. The southern crunk artists like T.I. and Young Jeezy have found a larger niche among popular rappers like Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz and Wacka Flocka Flame, and the trend carried over into the electronic scene. Similarly, emo rap has allowed hip hop to expand its margins, luring audiences from the worlds of pop and electronic into a newfound rap-alternative led by stars such as Kid Cudi, Drake and Kanye West. Yet Jones believes hip hop lyrics have subsequently veered too far from their roots to be respected, even if the production has improved.
“The way that music changed, it shows how our society also changed,” she points out. “It’s also because it’s made to look easy. Back in the day, when you were listening to it, you’d be like, ‘Can’t nobody rap like that!’ But now everybody feels like they can put a record out. I think it’s cheapened us in a way. It’s made us very nonchalant about what’s going on in our society.”
More specifically, the voice of black America has been strained.
“Every person in your neighborhood should not have their own demo tape,” writer Ferrari Sheppard points out. “I’m afraid our dependence on entertainment and art as means of gaining capital, empowerment and liberation has thrown us (so-called minorities) overboard. Examples of success are dangled in front of us like a fruit fixed to a hamster wheel. Jay-Z is one person; Diddy is one person; there are over 30 million black people in the United States. In 2011, Forbes released its list of Billionaires of Color, and out of 1,210 billionaires worldwide, only six are people of color. Not black Americans, people of color. This is extremely telling.”
“Let’s talk about what hip-hop represented when it became the ‘hood’s CNN,’” he continues. “Or a window for white America to safely view the nightmarish effects of crack and Reaganomics on the black community. Every hip hop participant you asked back then would have told you that hip hop represents what’s happening in their neighborhoods: murders, prostitution, degradation, police brutality and harassment. What they couldn’t have told you was that in a decade, billions of dollars would be generated from exploiting those very realities, and that they, the disfranchised, would not be the beneficiaries of that fortune.”
On the other hand, academics like Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson go so far as to teach courses and write books on the philosophy and reach of hip hop. Dyson used Jay-Z as the subject of a sociology course at Georgetown University, looking at how rap globalized a conception of blackness with political impact.
The emergence of an artist like Lamar, who found commercial success without tapping into so-called rap faux pas, also suggests a story-driven, thought provoking hip hop record can prevail without succumbing to 21st century ideology. This month, MTV ranked the 25-year-old from Compton as “Hottest MC In The Game,” above Kanye, Drake and 2 Chainz. Lamar’s major label debut album good kid m.A.A.d City was described as “cinematic,” a “coming-of-age story” with “drama-filled narrative progress.”
Lamar’s success, nonetheless, is countered by the negative impact of artists like Chief Keef, whose violence-driven lyrics and personal life have been met with scrutiny from rap fans. Chief Keef rose to fame after releasing music on YouTube while under house arrest for dealing heroin; he eventually signed to Interscope Records. Despite the career progression, the teen rapper’s real life drama furthered when he was convicted of aggravated assault of a police officer, violated his probation, and was investigated for connection to a Chicago homicide.
“I came home one day to hear my brother blasting Chief Keef from his bedroom window, with lyrics containing themes such as killing, obscene sex acts with girls and heavy use of the N-word,” San Jose State student Lauren Hailey writes in The Spartan Daily. “My problem isn’t in the fact that we have this kind of stuff floating around in the world. My issue is that we are making it readily available to children.”
Culture writer Abdul Ali expressed his parenting concerns in a column last year for the Washington Post, which prompted an online debate of the subject. Though he says he’s still a fan of the music, he prefers it stay out of the ears of young people.
“It’s tough because in so many ways hip hop is kind of a youth-led thing, in the way that rock n’ roll was – it’s about rebellion,” he explains. “What we’re starting to see is some [interior reflection] that maybe we didn’t see before, or maybe not as unabashed like when we think of Childish Gambino. I think that this is a standout act. His voice. His content. It’s very self-critical and very anxious and very introspective. And I think that’s great for hip hop.”
Of course, Childish Gambino has struggled to find acceptance from hip hop listeners, who have criticized him as “not black enough” to be a rapper. In his song, “Hold You Down,” he vents about cultural alienation and the false notion of a monolithic blackness.
“We’re at a watershed moment because it’s hard to say what is ‘black’ anymore,” Ali observes. “Hip hop is such a global phenomenon now, and it has been for over a decade. You have people in war-torn countries saying, ‘I’m the real hip hop’ because when you look at its roots, it’s speaking out in rebellion and protest. I think we need to expand our definitions and be a little bit more inclusive.”
Beyond age and race, gender too remains a touchy subject, as misogyny has been prominent since rap’s inception. Women are depicted like exploits, and female rappers have likewise gravitated away from cerebral-types like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte to the sensationalized, sexualized Nicki Minaj and her predecessor, Lil Kim. These images can be troubling for parents with children who mimic their idols. Even rapper Schoolboy Q posted a photo of a young girl (presumably his daughter) on Instagram Saturday with the caption, “This why I hate being a rapper.”
“It’s gotten a lot worse,” Jones says. “For black women, it started off that we were just the ‘round the way girls, then we became straight-up hos. I don’t even date black men anymore because they don’t like us. They don’t like black women, especially with rap the way the videos have shown them…I feel sorry for our young girls because they probably feel they need to be that way to get men.”
She adds, “Every time I see Jay-Z with Beyoncé and they talking about all the love, I remember back to the song [“Big Pimpin’”] when he said, “I’ll never give my heart to a woman.” It’s like, ‘Yeah ni***, yes you did.’ That sh** was unrealistic.”
Ali, however, feels more complex identities have come to light in recent times giving breadth to the field of rap. Jay-Z’s song for his baby Blue Ivy, and Nas’ track “Daughters” for example, show “maturity in the art form.”
Those working within the business also contend there is strength and meaning in this popular cultural imprint.
“Hip–hop has always been the most reliable mirror image of society since its inception,” Sene, an emerging rapper in Brooklyn, explains. “If you don’t like what you’re hearing, it’s a safe bet you don’t like what you are seeing among the youth in your city. It’s unfortunate that it has been a bit affected by the consumer-driven mentality of corporate America, the results of which have artists attempting to copy one another. That is where the truth is blurred because you would be more able to rely on hip hop as a resource to understand the youth if all hip hop artists were being honest. The more frequently artists fabricate their persona, the less reliable of a resource it becomes to understand what is going on in the country.”
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia