Dedicated to MF DOOM (July 13, 1971 – October 31, 2020)
All the way back in November 2019, The New York Times published a now-infamous Martin Scorsese op-ed, in which he defended an earlier statement decrying Marvel movies. Like many, I found Scorsese’s piece unconvincing. His rhetoric was undeservedly harsh (note one line calling Marvel movies “as close to an art form as Earth to Alpha Centauri”), and his argument is hypocritical in the face of The Irishman’s lofty $159 million budget, comparable to Marvel films like Iron Man ($140 million) and Thor: Ragnarok ($180 million).
I recalled the eerily similar words of many older hip-hop fans and anti-hip-hop crusaders, who for the last half-decade have denounced the present state of hip-hop, singling out individual artists and styles as targets for their condemnation. “I miss when music actually took time and effort to make”, they moan as Future registers another hit on the Billboard top 10. “Where are the conscious rappers?” they demand through clenched teeth.
Just like Scorsese’s words, criticism of rap’s prevailing trends is misplaced. It’s not Marvel’s fault that people like to watch Tom Holland’s ripped Spider-Man save his beautiful computer-generated world more than another interminable, moralizing gangster flick, just as it’s not Future’s fault that people enjoy his hypnotizing, dynamic mixtapes more than Lupe Fiasco’s one and a half-hour concept albums. If Scorsese and rap haters were to do some work in understanding the causes of their bereavement, they would instead be levying their allegations at the forces of capitalism and consumerism, which today promote the creation and dissemination of lowest-common denominator art designed to ensure profit for film and music executives.
The old-heads, just like Scorsese, are also doing a disservice to the hundreds of independent, low-budget acts that have done just fine since Future and Marvel became relevant (without taking out 1-page ads to criticize their more commercially successful peers). Scorsese’s op-ed generated a lot of controversy, and many an op-ed was written in response. But arguments in response to the popular “hip-hop is dead” refrain are far and few between, and when they occur I find that people often miss some tremendously obvious points. So to all of you hip-hop old-heads and even you hip-hop haters, I have two things to say.
First: respect the current iteration of mainstream rap. You don’t have to like it, but don’t attempt to discredit music that other people value without understanding why they value it. Mainstream rap in 2020 might be repetitive, oversaturated, and lacking in incisive social analysis, but when it’s done right, it’s visceral, energizing, and frequently groundbreaking.
Second: do a little more digging and you’ll see that rap is more alive than ever. Rap grows in breadth and depth every day, and in the constantly expanding pantheon of rappers, you’ll find that the rap you lament like a lost lover was there all along.
But first, a primer on rap history and the development of the “conscious” rap that old-heads now miss terribly. Rap ( being the music; hip-hop, the culture–but the words are used interchangeably now) started in the late 70s and early 80s in Brooklyn, when kids in predominantly Black neighborhoods began rhyming about the world around them over the rhythmic backing of a DJ’s drum break. In the mid 80s and early 90s, rap matured into a full musical genre with subgenres and an underground scene. In 1988, Public Enemy released the highly celebrated It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, a confrontational, irrepressible album steeped in Black nationalist rhetoric with lyrical themes tackling white supremacy and the music industry. That same year, N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton, a seminal gangsta rap album that highlighted the divide between Black and white America. As technological developments helped artists refine production techniques, new subgenres were birthed in the mid-to-late 90s, and jazz rap artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul joined mafioso rappers like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah in the rapidly diversifying rap pantheon.
By the early 2000s, the conscious rap catalog had expanded considerably, with notable additions from OutKast, The Roots, and Mos Def. In the mid-2000s, rap became decisively more club and radio-friendly, an oft-maligned but over hated trend that still produced some of the catchiest songs of the century, like 50 Cent’s “In da Club.” Conscious rap continued to develop, snaking in and out of new genres and styles, but it largely lost its commercial appeal and slowly began moving into the “underground,” a space ripe for experimentation and revolutionary thought. Rap grew to dominate the American music charts in the 2010s; by 2012, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Flo Rida each had songs on the Billboard top 30, and each of their sounds, though all relatively poppy and glitzy, were vastly different. On Drake’s “The Motto” (#20 in 2012), he and Lil Wayne exchanged braggadocious verses over a scarce, thumping beat with uncanny swagger and hard-hitting punchlines that included everybody’s favorite now-deceased phrase “YOLO (You Only Live Once).” At the same time, Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (#9 in 2012), a pop-anthem-type song loaded with futuristic synths and EDM-influenced drops, seemed to be moving rap in the other direction.
But like many art forms under late-stage capitalism, rap has evolved convergently to capitalize on the prevailing artistic trend. “Trap,” referring to trap houses where drugs are sold and money is made, is probably the single most popular music subgenre in the world today. Trap itself is sufficiently diverse to merit analysis as an independent genre, but there are two general themes: lyrics discussing drug dealing, drug use, and a certain type of Escobar-esque lifestyle, and bassy, atmospheric production with a rapid-fire drum pattern. The zeitgeist of modern rap was born in the 2010’s in Atlanta, its seed deposited years earlier in the South by decades of development in Memphis, Houston, and Atlanta. When old-heads and anti-rap bigots (if you’ve ever stated that rap isn’t music, that’s you) carp about the “state of rap today”, they’re talking about trap. They hate trap for what it’s “done” to rap, and they hate trap for what it is.
Trap hasn’t “done” anything to rap. Considering rap history and coming to the conclusion that trap has pushed “conscious” rap off of a ledge entails the same sort of weak analysis that allowed Scorsese to come to the conclusion that Marvel and big-budget movies should be the target of his ire. My business acumen is little-to-none, but the one thing I know (because a million people have told me) is that in order to run a successful business, you must turn a profit.
Art cannot escape the fundamental laws of capitalism. In order to turn a profit in the free market, you must supply a form of art that is in demand, and in order to appeal to the largest possible demand group, you must supply a lowest-common-denominator form of art. Rather than unilaterally criticizing a group of primarily young, low-income Black men, rap old-heads should turn their attention to the structural causes of trap’s dominance–mostly that it’s popular and requires little monetary investment for the artist and the consumer. Popular and cheap to make? Why wouldn’t I produce it? Popular and cheap to buy? Why wouldn’t I consume it? Perhaps old-heads, especially those deeply embedded in the industry, could openly discuss the pressures that force artists and record labels to make music principally for profit, thereby beginning to address the issue without turning their noses up at us commoners who enjoy trap for what it is.
A marginally more reasonable, but still flawed and similarly myopic complaint of trap is simply that it is not good. The rappers often mumble (hence the “mumble rap” moniker), reach comically high and low pitches, and rap about societally taboo topics; the producers are often accused of making indistinguishable beats. But the best trap–still some of the most popular–is able to sidestep all of these allegations or innovate to make them the main show.
It’s hard to describe Young Thug in words with any sort of permanent implications, because his style on one song is as different from his style on another as Earth is to Alpha Centauri. At the risk of generalizing, Thug rarely raps in the traditional sense. He yelps, he croons, he moans, and he growls. It’s somewhat of an artistic gamble: many prefer an artist singing in traditional registers and familiar vocal tones to bizarre and unfamiliar howls. I, like many (including Elton John, who “loves” Thug and has called him “unexpected”), find that the gamble pays off: Thug’s best music is exciting, unpredictable, and a lot of fun. But this quality of Thug’s music, this incredible vocal idiosyncrasy–it’s what makes him so artistically important. No reasonably successful modern artist, besides the great Tom Waits, has deployed their voice in such a manner as Young Thug, with such gleeful disdain for vocal norms and traditions.
And just like Tom Waits, Thug is hugely influential. Almost every popular trap rapper today can reasonably be called a child of Young Thug, such that you can directly trace their vocal style, flow, and cadence to a Thug song or project. Lil Baby, owner of the most streamed album of 2020, has Thug’s purest rap sensibilities and syrupy autotune; Gunna has spent years honing Thug’s croons; Lil Keed’s mercurial rapping style emulates Thug’s yelps and growls; the list goes on. You may not enjoy trap, but Thug and many others (notably Migos, Future, and Chief Keef) successfully resisted the pressure to conform to focus groups and influenced a generation. An entirely new genre stands to show for their work, and they deserve praise for it.
The reasonable old-head at this point might concede that trap has spawned musical innovations at breakneck pace and that trap artists are meritorious musicians in their own right, but still think trap is lacking in the lyrical department. What this fictitious old-head must understand is that contexts shift, and most people nowadays aren’t looking for their rappers to break down the societal ills of their time. They just want to have a good time. Trap rappers are never going to write a song called “Mathematics,” analyzing the state of society through numbers like Mos Def did in 1999, because it does not make sense to do so through their myriad vocal clicks over fast-paced trap beats. Even if they did, they’d just be retreading the old rap stomping grounds. Instead, you should evaluate trap lyrics in their context.
If I ever decide to focus exclusively on trap lyrics (Lord help me if that’s ever the case), I’d still find value in those that immerse me in an environment that I’ll never inhabit and never truly understand. When Future raps about his drug dependencies, he talks without a filter that pop artists could never remove. When members of Migos rap about missing their dead friends and taking solace in the comfort of their grandmother, they take me to a world that will probably never meet mine. Trap lyrics are often sobering, hard-hitting, and delivered with such honesty that they seem to accurately describe the desolate, grind-to-get-yours state of the world.
But this old-head is unsatisfied with the realness of trap lyrics. “What’s real?”, they ask as they drop their final gambit. Maybe it is “conscious” rap, not rap, that is dead; the olden days of Jay-Z’s life philosophizing and MF DOOM’s lyrical olympics are long gone. To return to the Scorsese metaphor: Scorsese might see that Marvel movies are the result of capitalism and that they have many artistic merits, but he still doesn’t like them and wishes for a return to the film of days past. But against this too I have a defense of hip-hop. The “conscious” rap of days past is still here–it’s just a little harder to find, tucked away in dusty corners of the internet and refined over decades into a wonderfully diverse collection of sounds and styles.
Unbound from the hyper-masculinity of the mainstream, deeply confessional, therapeutic rap has flourished. There is no better testament to this development than Earl Sweatshirt’s 2018 Some Rap Songs, an alternatingly bleak and hopeful 24-minute, 39-second series of vignettes that packs in enough misery, love, and hope for a lifetime. It’s an extraordinarily personal and multifaceted dive headfirst into depression, one that can give you impressionist snapshots of Earl’s struggles one moment (“Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse / Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in” – “Eclipse”) and a brutally straightforward assessment the next (“Yeah I think I spent most of my life depressed / Only thing on my mind was death” – “Nowhere2Go”). It’s hard to think of an album more “conscious” than Some Rap Songs; Earl seems to be so deeply in touch with his own spirit that he’s consistently able to tell you about your own. But Earl is aware of more than just his spiritual energy: Some Rap Songs is filled with off-kilter and innovative rhyme schemes that give it a quality not dissimilar to a set of incantations. Some Rap Songs is the work of a human being at his lowest and his highest, but it’s also the work of a rapper at the top of his game. Surely it dispels the idea that “conscious” rap is dead.
Nay, sayeth the old-head, emerging with a cassette tape of Eric B. and Rakim’s 1990 “In the Ghetto.” “He’s just rapping about himself. But we live in a society.” If it’s meditations on society that you want, and if Earl’s music was simply insufficient for you, there are plenty of other directions modern hip-hop can take you–and I think I know exactly where to go. Enter billy woods, the enigmatic, all-seeing eye of hip-hop. I’ve heard billy woods described as the reaper incarnate, if the reaper knew how to rap and had a particularly shrewd sense of humor. It’s really quite difficult to convey the very specific atmosphere of woods’s music in plain English: it’s the product of his singularly deadpan, authoritative delivery; the murky, claustrophobia-inducing beats he selects; and a writing ability that I would compare to some of the greatest poets of our time. This verse about the passing of his mother, a Jamaican literature professor, resides permanently in my brain. From “Spongebob”, off his 2019 album Hiding Places:
I get five dollar phone cards from the corner store /
It’s hot, gang-gang crowded in the door, slid past /
Don’t you bump nobody, the body control is godly /
It’s just a hobby picked up in the lobby, it’s that n**** karate /
Summer, dirt bikes and Kawasakis, numbers Fibonacci /
Overseas connection choppy, she’s gettin’ worse /
Your sister talked to the nurse, everybody in church /
Everybody wants to know if you comin’ /
But they won’t say the words /
Your days feel rehearsed, nights come back in short bursts /
In a bodega, basehead lurks /
Hoppin’ foot to foot, youngin’ slow with that work /
Got my Afri-call card, but Akhi did lotto first /
I don’t wanna see ‘em put her in the dirt /
I can’t go there with nothin’ but my shirt /
Explosions, outside bombs burstin’ in the sky /
Streets, sidewalks, it’s the third of July
In a few lines, woods has given us a visceral picture of the familiar, crowded corner store he’s taking a call from, confronted his community’s inability to discuss the inevitable passing of his mother (a fear that he too cannot allay), confessed to his own guilt in living an ocean away from his family with nothing to show for his love, admitted to occasional moments of hope (entering the lottery before making the call), and cleverly criticized the normalization of violence and patriotism in America (explosions are heard the day before American Independence Day, which, had they been a day later, ironically would have justified them to most Americans).
I could have picked from a set of verses nearly as large as billy woods’s entire catalog, but I think this one demonstrates perfectly the evolution of “conscious” rap into something greater than Rakim could have ever imagined. In one verse, woods combined technically impressive rapping (asynchronous rhyme schemes, rapping comfortably off the beat), socially astute observations, deep personal insight, storytelling ability, and wit–exactly what those who complain about the death of “conscious” rap are pining for. Though Earl and woods are certainly not alone in their approaches to rap–there are, in fact, entire musical movements that inspired and are inspired by both artists–their mere existence should put to bed any questions about the vitality of “conscious” rap. It’s here, heart pumping stronger and faster than ever.
After writing about “conscious” rap for a few paragraphs, I think it’s prudent for me to address the fact that I have put the word “conscious” in quotations every time I have used it. In discussions of rap, “conscious” is used similarly to the way Scorsese frequently uses the word “cinema” in his piece, as a proxy for some vague version of the art that is superior to all other versions of the art. Calling some rap “conscious” is often implicitly a denouncement of other rap, which presumably is *un*-conscious, or, plainly, dumb and worthless. Is Young Thug not conscious of the world around him just because it’s often occupied by drug dealers and strippers? Would it take Young Thug seating himself on the Atlanta city council for you to take him seriously?
The “conscious” label is quite stupid, and like Scorsese and the old-heads, it should be banished to another dimension. (I kid.) But it’s time for more nuance in our discussions of art. Unilaterally condemning mainstream art forms–especially rap–is foolish. Doing so betrays a lack of understanding of the deep-rooted forces of capitalism and consumerism that powerfully shape our consumption, and it erases the contributions of the artists like Young Thug that have plunged headfirst into the mainstream and returned above water with bags of musical gold. Worse yet, it completely ignores the existence of artists like billy woods who remain deep under the current, watching and rapping as the water–and the world–go on by.
- Cantor, Paul. “Opinion: Is Conscious Rap Dead?” Vibe, 24 Feb. 2015, www.vibe.com/2014/01/opinion-conscious-rap-dead.
- Furness, Dyllan. “Earl Sweatshirt Is Leading a New Breed of Conscious Rap.” Miami New Times, 23 Oct. 2019, www.miaminewtimes.com/music/earl-sweatshirt-is-leading-a-new-breed-of-conscious-rap-7845980.
- Kimble, Julian. “Conscious Rappers Can Be Problematic Too.” Medium, LEVEL, 19 Aug. 2020, level.medium.com/conscious-rappers-can-be-problematic-too-db65bff35f7c.
- O’Shoney, Carson. “Icons of Rock: Tom Waits.” Consequence of Sound, 13 Jan. 2014, consequenceofsound.net/2010/07/icons-of-rock-tom-waits/.
- Oware, Matthew. Content Analysis of Underground Rap Artists’ Lyrics. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2018.
- Parker, Najja. “Here’s Why Elton John Is Singing Young Thug’s Praises.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 27 Sept. 2018, www.ajc.com/news/world/here-why-elton-john-singing-young-thug-praises/0bkRm1hP3AqKGpgsd6p6jO/.
- Scorsese, Martin. “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html.
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