Kendrick Lamar And Mainstream Rap’s Growing Conscience
Chicago drill spitter King Louie was shot in the head two weeks ago. His vehicle was riddled with 22 bullets total. Seven of them hit Louie, three of which are still embedded in his body today — two in his chest and the one in his head. Miraculously, he only spent five days in the hospital, and was well enough to speak with CNN’s Don Lemon about Chicago’s rampant gun violence the day after he was released.
Had this been the early to mid-2000s, an artist of the hard gangster tradition like Louie would have most likely run to the studio to capitalize on the street credibility newly implanted in his head and chest. 50 Cent, the Game, and Lil Wayne blazed that trail to the bank, ruling the airwaves and selling millions of records based off of hype from the perceived authenticity they caught along with their respective bullets.
Instead, the Chicago native used the gravity of the shooting to speak about social issues to a reputable news source, and that news source chose one of his more conscious tracks, a feature on Twilite Tone’s “Put The Guns Down,” to frame the interview. Louie’s commentary wasn’t the most insightful — as a solution, he offered, “The right people need to do the right things” — and he may capitalize off of the incident in the future, as any rapper should rightly dedicate some bars to a near-death experience. But Louie’s inclination to speak before rapping is an indication of mainstream rap’s slowly evolving cognizance — more speaking to real social issues in and out of the vocal booth, less exploiting them to sell records. Rap’s conscience, like the Grinch’s heart, is gradually growing again.
Before rap was the huge worldwide phenomenon that it is today, it developed a social conscience relatively quickly. Initially, MCs were more literal masters of ceremony, speaking into the microphone with a few clever phrases to energize the crowd. Speaking turned into party-centric rapping over disco breaks with lighthearted rhymes in the late ’70s. The song that changed this, and is often cited as the most important hip-hop song of all time, is “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five. Released in the summer of ’82, “The Message” was the first notable hip-hop song to use the genre as a means for lyrical social commentary, contributing to the MC’s prominence over breakers, beatboxers, DJs, and graffiti artists on hip-hop’s totem pole. “The Message” created a lane for Public Enemy to “Fight The Power,” N.W.A. to say “Fuck Tha Police,” Queen Latifah and Monie Love to advocate for “Ladies First,” Erik B. & Rakim to “Teach The Children,” and Tupac to let the world know “Brenda’s Got A Baby” in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Those songs received plenty of airplay and were featured as singles to promote albums.
In the mid to late ’90s, as rap traversed different regions, gained popularity, and got more commercial, a second wave of consciousness rose up in response. Most notably, Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” from 1994’s Resurrection chided hip-hop artists for moving away from afrocentric and socially aware rhymes to combat gangster rap’s quickly growing influence in the mid ’90s and consumerism exploding in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, and Nas among others joined Common on the front lines of the fight to offset the “bling era,” but ultimately it was a losing battle. Cash Money, Bad Boy, Death Row, and No Limit dominated the radio, moved millions of units, and became the public face of rap.
Conscious artists have mostly been driven further underground since the early 2000s, but that is slowly, perhaps cyclically, changing. The current top of the mainstream landscape is a bit more varied than the past — Kanye’s narcissism, Drake’s emo narcissism, Future’s villainous tendencies, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ faux consciousness, Iggy Azalea’s appropriation, Nicki Minaj’s extravagance, etc. — so the conscious cats are starting to fit in rather than exist in opposition. There is more room for coexistence because rap has developed such a broad, diverse base of listeners. The mindfulness feels more organic due to the current climate of racial unrest in protest of police violence.
The late ’80s and early ’90s, when socially charged rap last had such a prominent mainstream platform, was arguably an even more tumultuous time for black America, with crack wreaking havoc on top of police brutality. Public Enemy and N.W.A. responded in kind with candid imagery, but their shock value has worn off with time. This newest wave feels different. Mainstream players are making more subdued but still powerful statements in their songs and once again outselling artists with less substantive messages.
Kendrick Lamar is a huge influence affecting the shift toward awareness (even Justin Vernon agrees). Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly topped many a year-end list (#2 on ours), but it is one of the most intensely politicized, alienating mainstream albums ever, framed through what Lamar insists is an individual lens. Despite being politically charged, TPAB is well on its way to going platinum with 750,000 copies sold according to the RIAA. It also earned him eight of his 11 Grammy nominations, most notably for “Alright,” which became a powerful anthem in Black Lives Matter’s fight against police violence.
Recently, when asked about the adoption of his song at the tail-end of an NPR interview, without naming specific artists, Lamar commented on the obligation he feels to speak to “what’s really going on” and implied that many artists lack depth, though their music is fun. He also claims that he witnessed his first murder at the age of 5, but in true K-Dot fashion, he chose to comment on the damage it did to his young psyche as opposed to using it for street cachet. He’s solidified the coolness in consciousness, whether of the self or larger societal issues.
Lamar’s appeal lies in a statement he made fairly early in his career on “Ab-Soul’s Outro” off of 2011’s Section.80. Perhaps foreshadowing things to come, Kendrick exclaimed over freeform jazz riffs, “A lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar because you wonder how I can talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence.” But millions of fans can dig now, and that understanding comes from his ability to exquisitely share the unique perspective he possesses. So the explanation he offers later in that same song rings true: “I’m not on the outside looking in. I’m not on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around…I’m not the next pop star. I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation.” Growing up surrounded by rap’s most overused tropes enables him to speak on them authoritatively without necessarily indulging in them. He draws power from his somewhat removed position as a contemplative observer uninterested in convincing his listeners that he is a participant. Hence TPAB, an album no other current artist could make.
J. Cole, Common, D’Angelo, and John Legend, though not all rappers, are cut from different parts of Lamar’s political cloth as artists, and they have also received Grammy nominations. It is hard to remember the last time so many socially conscious black artists have received nods in the same year. N.W.A. also spoke out vehemently against police violence as reemphasized in the film Straight Outta Compton, but the strength of the film within the context of the current discourse on police violence against black men more than likely played a role in their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction. Kendrick’s brand of cool consciousness is even extending beyond music.
Outside of recording studios, more mindful mainstream rappers have taken to platforms other than their rhymes to speak on relevant black social issues in the vein of King Louie. Vince Staples also spoke to CNN about the glorification of gun violence and the shift from drug pushing to drug use in rap. He even managed to end the clip saying, “There are so many things that we can show these kids other than what drugs to take,” without coming off corny. Chance The Rapper linked Chicago’s gun violence to PTSD while indicting Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq on Chicago radio station WGCI. Big Boi, Killer Mike, and T.I., among others, signed an amicus brief to encourage the Supreme Court to hear Taylor Bell’s appeal of a suspension for a song he recorded away from school grounds which addressed allegations of sexual harassment by a teacher. Various rappers have visited the memorials and protests for the young black men that have been killed by police. The actions and commentary seem natural and absent of ulterior motive – spawned from need, not obligation.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bobby Shmurda sits in a jail cell for his alleged role as “the driving force behind the GS9 gang.” Prosecutors charged Shmurda with conspiracy to commit murder and assault, weapons possession, reckless endangerment and criminal use of drug paraphernalia. If this were ’03, labels would be salivating and more than happy to post his $2 million bond based on the returns from potential record sales. Shmurda says he patterned his career after Jay Z and 50 Cent, with boastful street tales like “I’ve been selling crack since like the fifth grade,” but was quick to call it “fiction rap” in an interview from prison with Billboard when he saw Epic Records would leave him assed-out. What once would have been the ideal gangster rap resume, could now snuff a career before it truly starts. Epic realizes that real or perceived street cred doesn’t matter so much in the rap game anymore. Artists who build their image around gangland bona fides are like the striped shirts in a Where’s Waldo book, just distractions until you see something truly entertaining. Future, Young Thug, Fetty Wap, and others that still employ common street themes have managed to differentiate themselves in other ways.
As a rap fan, I am glad that artists are being rewarded with sales and some clout for talking about something other than money, hoes, cars, clothes, guns and the other trite rap topics. But more importantly, as a black man, I am empowered by a more three-dimensional, multifaceted view of who I am being portrayed in rap that people may actually hear without having to dig for it. Not all black people are poor and resorting to illegal means to make ends meet. And even most people in downtrodden neighborhoods and situations are simply trying to live the best life they can. It is time that lifestyle is actually reflected in the music they identify with most. Rap is unequivocally the most prominent representation of black people and black culture, and I believe it is an integral contributor to the negative perception of black males in America and its current racial turmoil. To finally see artists holding themselves and others accountable in the midst of riots and protests against police violence without agenda is not only refreshing, but possibly revolutionary.