The Return of Conscious Hip-Hop

The following was published on AJ+ Remix

Are we seeing a turning point in hip-hop?

Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, DAMN., has a lot of people talking. It’s heavy and unapologetically introspective, tackling everything from spirituality to personal demons and structural racism.

Lamar is often referred to as the savior of hip-hop by fans (he’s also referred to himself this way), and he’s celebrated for his slick rhymes and smart, intricate storytelling techniques.

It’s heaven for anyone who appreciates some serious bars, like these lines from his song, “Fear”:

When I was 27, I grew accustomed to more fear
Accumulated 10 times over throughout the years
My newfound life made all of me magnified
How many accolades do I need to block denial?

However, he’s not alone. Kendrick’s critical and commercial success is part of a wider trend in mainstream hip-hop: the return of socially and politically conscious rap.

Chance the Rapper, native to Chicago, is only 24. Yet, his mixtapes–a blend of social and personal commentary–have earned him a loyal fan base and three Grammys.

I got my city doing front flips
When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship
I guess that why they call it where I stay
Clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play

–Chance the Rapper, “Angels”

It also helps that Chance’s actions reflect his musical activism; he recently donated $1 million to Chicago schools.

Then there’s J. Cole (Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole fans sometimes overlap). His last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, was one long piece of social commentary. He rapped about the challenges of being a black man in America: poverty, racism, America’s prison–industrial complex and the trappings of capitalism, death, love and pride.

That means that there would be no Santa Claus no more
To bring you Christmas cheer
’Cause what he represents is really greed
And the need to purchase sh*t from corporations
That make a killin’ because they feed
On the wallets of the poor who be knockin’ on they door
Every Black Friday just to get some sh*t they can’t afford

–J. Cole, “She’s Mine, Pt. 2”

The album went platinum, and he also just released a short documentary to accompany it, highlighting the struggle and perseverance of black America.

All this is evidence that people are hungry for something more than just the next thing to play in the club.

Now, rap lovers would say that conscious hip-hop didn’t actually go anywhere. Talib Kweli, Logic, Immortal Technique and plenty of others have been around for a minute. Run the Jewels is making some serious waves.

The thing is, you’re probably just not hearing many of them on your local radio station. Truth and pain are also being spit underground, and rappers who haven’t made it big yet are writing honest poetry about the circumstances they call reality.

Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’
Motherf*cker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum

Kendrick Lamar, “Hood Politics”

And it’s not like Kendrick and J. Cole are newcomers. Kendrick’s song “HiiiPower” came out in 2011 and it name-dropped Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Seale, Huey Newton AND the Egyptian pyramids in under five minutes.

So yeah, those rap lovers are right. Socially conscious rap has been around for a while, though you had to be paying attention to notice it. But the recent, steady injection of conscious rap in the veins of mainstream culture is exhilarating. There’s something satisfying about hearing Chance the Rapper selling out concerts, or JoeyBada$$ releasing a politically and socially aggressive album called ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ (with a song titled “Good Morning AmeriKKKa”).

Are people tired of hip-hop that offers heavy beats only? Not necessarily. After all, we do want something for the gym and the party on Saturday.

But are people demanding hip-hop with more substance? Most definitely.

The following video takes a look at five times when hip-hop took a shot at President Trump, a new target for the genre’s ire.

Hip-hop has, for a long time, been a vehicle for dissent and protest, especially for disenfranchised communities. Think Public Enemy, NWA, Rakim and Nas. But then we got bombarded with fluff for a while; easy beats for the radio, party jams for the club. A bit soulless, a bit empty.

But hip-hop can serve as a mirror of society, and as a message to the status quo. Some may not like the way the message is delivered, but to upset the establishment is part of the point.

You’ll find all the complexities of human nature and the human experience in hip-hop. And because humans are nuanced, dynamic, flawed beings, so is hip-hop. It includes anger, sadness, pain, pride, narcissism, ignorance, intelligence and everything in between.

History shows that hip-hop is at its best when it’s passionate, determined, with an unshakable point of view and, perhaps most importantly, personal.

Music is a form of expression
Imma use mine to teach you a lesson
Rule one: the microphone’s a weapon

–Joey BadA$$, “For My People”