This article was originally published on August 3, 2020.
At a passing glance, it would appear that hip-hop has been defanged when it’s needed most. This is the most intense political era in living memory, and instead of rousing, politicized music from the genre that revolutionized rousing, political music, we're mostly still getting more of the same hedonistic club bangers. Escapism is one thing... but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Beginning life within the celebratory escapism of The Bronx’s block parties, its move away from frivolous, crowd-pleasing wordplay gave way to something groundbreaking. Looking past the throngs of revelers to their broader surroundings, hip-hop became a vehicle for rappers to articulate discontent towards the entrapping tactics and disparities that ravaged their communities.
So for every exercise in elation, you had a stark but danceable piece of political commentary, such as Grandmaster Flash’s iconic journey through urban squalor on "The Message." And in times where systemic discrimination reared its head most acutely, hip-hop responded in kind, providing a prescient and educational soundtrack. At the height of their powers, Public Enemy’s Chuck D enlightened NME on the pivotal purpose that hip-hop serves in broadening otherwise shuttered minds: “It’s a college course in black life,” he remarked in 1988, “as a matter of fact, it’s a whole damn degree you can earn.” Speaking just months before full-scale rioting engulfed Miami after police shot and killed 23-year-old Clement Lloyd, the commonality between the unrest of 31 years prior and today epitomizes why hip-hop’s sermons on injustice are still integral to the curriculum.
Yet in a time where activism is at a sustained height, what’s seen as the genre’s mainstream feels increasingly estranged from the struggles that necessitated its creation.
As calls for police reform reached a fever pitch, Nicki Minaj and Tekashi 6ix9ine’s "TROLLZ" was breaking YouTube’s record for most views of a hip-hop video in a single day. While Nicki has insisted that a “portion” of the proceeds will be allocated to The Bail Project, the track itself exists in its own gaudy vacuum. A microcosm of much of what Spotify re-designated as “Pop Rap” within their 2019 “Wrapped” findings, it plays up to all the clout-oriented egotism and excess that’s besieged the chart’s upper-reaches. To many casual listeners, these traits seem like prerequisites for that coveted Billboard success, dispensed without nuance or the faintest desire to surpass the one-dimensional.
Often miscast as a generational divide, the real crux of the matter is that some artists are content within the safety net of banality, while those who believe in hip-hop’s mobilizing power recognize the need for dissenting voices. Here, in the latter, we find the blossoming future of "political rap," unbeholden to typecasting and producing engaging, 360-degree dispatches from Black life.
Although she was specifically discussing women in hip-hop, Chicago’s Noname captured the mood of the age when she declared that rappers "need to exist in multitudes." Exemplified within her own 2018 magnum opus Room 25, a gripping track such as "Blaxploitation" neatly coexisted with a wide array of topics, biting humor, and slick demonstrations of lyrical prowess. Granted further autonomy by the online sphere, Noname’s assessment has set the tone for a new norm where rappers don’t need to sideline or fully focus on their conscious side to reach their audience.
Idealistic as it may sound, this state-of-play has been vividly illustrated by music made in both the preceding months and immediate aftermath of the callous murder of George Floyd. Proving that not only is hip-hop still intrinsically linked to its activistic roots, but also that this spirit is kept alive without rescinding artistic identity.
Run the Jewels stand out as a defining example of this trait. Driven in equal parts by cartoonish violence and stirring social commentary, they thrive on their duality. Not above sonic bombast or puerile humor, EL-P’s willingness to rhyme about "a cat shitting on my carpet” while “[Killer] Mike’s shooting a poodle” encapsulates the aura of fun and camaraderie that’s helped make them such a riveting duo. By the same token, their new album Run the Jewels 4’s unflinching portrayals of an ill-governed world on "Walking in the Snow," "Ju$t," or "A Few Words for the Firing Squad" anointed the project as a soundtrack to global revolt. Operating in every terrain they see fit, RTJ are a prime example of the modern, multi-faceted approach. As opposed to being a wafer-thin caricature, they juggle the whimsical and socio-political profundity with similar poise.
A product of both artistic vision and vigilance, the group’s instinctual tie to civil disobedience was summarized by Killer Mike as he explained, "In my mind, things are never not happening.”
Much like Noname’s call for eclecticism, the Atlanta veteran believes that it would be impossible for social insights to be absent from his work, invoking the old adage that "if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention."
Released days after George Floyd’s passing, Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist’s Alfredo wasn’t earmarked for incisive commentary on police brutality. Yet in the same vein as RTJ, both Freddie’s first-hand encounters with prejudice and his cognizance of today’s fractious climate ensured it naturally came to the fore. While "Gangsta’ Gibbs" may have routinely quashed Tupac comparisons, he’d turn prophetic on the stunning "Scottie Beam," proclaiming "the revolution is the genocide. Yeah, my execution might be televised."
Speaking to Billboard after its release, Freddie discussed both the cultural osmosis that led to this poignant bar and its immediate adoption as political sloganeering. “It's crazy I've been seeing people with 'my execution might be televised' signs at protests, but I didn't really think about that when I was making Alfredo. I made that record before George Floyd. So it was no problem to make that song because I breathe that shit.”
Reaching communities where his calm contemplation is recognizable, as well as others in which which this tenuous grip on mortality is unthinkable, the fact that Freddie is as perceptive as he is entertaining means that by existing in more than one sphere, he, like RTJ, can infiltrate both dismissive and receptive minds.
Just as Freddie’s contemplative bar felt candid and spontaneous, hip-hop’s power to convey the realities which form the hardened exterior made Conway the Machine’s "Frontlines" register as an extension of his pre-existing catalogue. Responding to the latest atrocities in real-time, Griselda’s lieutenant struck an innately human note, declaring "just ‘cause he from the ghetto, that don’t mean he sellin’ crack/ He drivin’ home from work, you pull him over ‘cause he Black."
Where Buffalo’s premier boom-bap crew normally trade in luxury brands and clandestine enterprise, Conway proved that, in the same vein as Freddie and Mike, the usual myth-making recedes to the background when it’s time to stand up and be counted. Encouragingly, he’s far from the only one.
Debunking the notion that hip-hop’s youth are blissfully ignorant, Lil Baby threw his fans a curveball with new track "The Bigger Picture." Practically broadcast live from Atlanta’s demonstrations, everything from its powerful title to its track length that exceeds anything on his recent album to his description of how "they shootin’ protesters with these rubber bullets, they regular people I know that they feel it,” proves that when push comes to shove, hip-hop should always use its platform for something more, regardless of who it alienates. And in Lil Baby’s case, it also painted the chart-topping artist in a more multitudinous light than ever before.
By refusing to pigeonhole themselves as political, non-political, or anything in between, hip-hop’s solidarity with the change in the air wields more power than ever. Holding court as popular music’s leading force, the genre, when used purposefully, has the capacity to be the most far reaching anti-racist weapon available. And at a time where discrimination emits from the highest corridors of power, rappers confronting systemic hatred with a broad lens or as crisis response disseminates the message with more impact than books or social media campaigns ever could.
As a result, everyone from RTJ to Lil Baby and countless others have exemplified a new era where defiance is woven into the fabric of their artistry. While the world actively combats intolerance, hip-hop’s finest are doing their part by dutifully informing audiences that anyone can listen, just don’t expect to be pandered to.