America’s relationship with hip hop is more hot and cold than a love triangle in the most poorly-scripted “reality” show you can think of. Demonized and celebrated in turns, hip hop has been at the center of controversies blaming gun violence, misogyny, anti-law enforcement sentiments and countless other issues on its influence. Despite that, it has also become one of the most universal and culturally significant genres of our time. It has acted as a vehicle for political advocacy, pushed forward conversations about the plight of disenfranchised communities and created a new format for creativity.
America’s at times tenuous acquaintanceship with hip hop is not only a topic of national conversation; the artists moving the genre forward have also considered how hip hop is perceived by society. Furthermore, they’ve considered society’s perception of who they are as individuals, and how that ties into understanding the role they occupy in America.
Below are 10 hip hop songs – critical and otherwise – that reflect on the different perceptions of what being American means.
Lil Wayne – “God Bless Amerika”
New Orleans born rapper, Lil Wayne, dismantles the rosy myth that the American dream can be had by anyone. Instead, he offers a jaded portrait of a man who just wants to get by.
Notable lyrics: “God bless America / This so godless Amerika/Heard tomorrow ain’t promised today/The end of time is like a hour away.”
Jay Z – “American Dreamin'”
Jay Z paints a country in which everyone, even those participating in illegal activities, are after one thing: The elusive American dream, and with it, a better future.
Notable lyrics:“Seems as our plans to get a grant/Then go off to college, didn’t pan or even out.”
Company Flow – “Patriotism”
El-P of Brooklyn’s underground collective, Company Flow, satirically eviscerates the American political landscape in “Patriotism.” Rapping from the point of view an extremist, he unrelenting takes aim at what he believes is a cavalier and tone deaf political attitude.
Notable lyrics:“I’m the ugliest version of passed down toxic capitalist/ Rapid emcee perversion/I’m America.”
Eminem – “White America”
Eminem’s rise to prominence was accompanied by suburban communities taking a wider interest in hip hop. His popularity sparked censorship attempts from various levels of government with much of the pressure coming from white suburban parents. In “White America,” Eminem responds to the attempts to censor him. 2 Live Crew faced similar controversy with their third album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, fueling the release of the song, “Banned in the U.S.A.”
Notable lyrics: “Sent to lead the march right up to the steps of Congress/ And piss on the lawns of the White House/To burn the flag and replace it with a Parental Advisory sticker.”
Jay Z, Kanye West and Frank Ocean – “Made in America”
Backed by the earnest crooning of Frank Ocean, Jay Z and Kanye West hash out their feelings about their pasts, and the history of black people in America. It all comes full circle as the duo also engage in some introspection about the success of their careers.
Notable lyrics:“I’m tryna lead a nation, to leave to my little man’s/Or my daughter, so I’m boiling this water/ The scales was lopsided, I’m just restoring order.”
Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”
Public Enemy’s uncompromising anthem is perhaps the most well-known from the group’s iconic album, Fear of a Black Planet. The staunchly political song is both a condemnation of a flawed system but also a call to stand in solidarity against it.
Notable lyrics: “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death/ We got to fight the powers that be.”
Young Jeezy and Nas – “My President”
A (maybe) clairvoyant Young Jeezy penned this track in premature expectation that 44th President Barack Obama would indeed be elected. The song sees the rapper reflecting on America’s history while expressing new feelings of hopefulness at finally seeing a black president in the White House.
Notable lyrics:“We ready for damn change so y’all let the man shine/ Stuntin’ on Martin Luther, feeling just like a king/Guess this is what he meant when he said that he had a dream.”
Nas and Millenium Thug – “My Country”
New York bred rapper Nas weaves a fictional framework form the struggles of the socioeconomically disadvantaged are highlighted. Sweeping between scenes of drug addiction and crime to the prison system, the rapper paints a grim portrait of what American life means to some.
Notable lyrics: “My country shitted on me (My country)/She wants to get rid of me (Naw, never)/Cause the things I seen (We know too much).”
Outkast and Khujo Goodie – “Gasoline Dreams”
In “Gasoline Dreams” Outkast offers up a morose look at the various failings they see in modern society. Andre 3000, Big Boi and Khujo Goodie touch on topics ranging from drug addiction and racism to a cultural lack of empathy.
Notable lyrics:“Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline?/Well burn mothafucka burn American dreams.”
Lupe Fiasco and Matthew Santos – “American Terrorist”
Elusive Chicage rapper Lupe Fiasco unleashes his contempt regarding what he sees as America’s uninvited interference in the affairs of others, and the damage it causes to innocent lives.
Notable lyrics:“Break ’em off a little democracy/Turn their whole culture to a mockery/ Give ’em Coca-Cola for their property/Give ’em gum, give ’em guns, get ’em young.“