Kendrick Lamar, “Conscious” Rap and Hip-Hop’s Eternal Self-Reflection
The return of Kendrick Lamar to the fray almost four years since his last album proper inevitably has the think pieces coming around the place of politics in hip-hop – and an awful lot of these revolve around a false duality. Ever since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five recorded “The Message” in 1982, commentators and fans have tried to draw a line between rap with a social conscience and the rest – something that was strongly codified before the end of the Eighties by the contrast between Public Enemy’s revolutionary aesthetic and NWA’s nihilist gangsta narratives.
This continued through the decades as overtly left-leaning, anti-establishment or “conscious rap” artists like Lupe Fiasco, Common, Mos Def, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez and Run The Jewels were treated almost as if they existed in a different genre from rap’s mainstream – which was presented as acquisitive and reactionary in contrast. This divide was further exacerbated as regional and generation gaps opened up around new styles like trap, drill and “mumble rap”. The old guard consider the sometimes deliberately obtuse vocal delivery of new rappers to be the dumb antithesis of classic rap lyricism, and plenty consider the often bleak, narcotic-steeped narratives a mental dead end.
Common, Credit: Stephen Leonardi/Unsplash
Of course, the false dichotomy is, well, false. From Tupac to Outkast, Nas to Jay-Z, some of hip-hop’s biggest names sit right outside the street vs. conscious opposition. Sometimes rappers who make a show of being hyper-analytical and envelope-pushing can be the most reactionary behind their revolutionary posturing – witness the tragedy of Kanye West’s latter-day career – while those who most reject the role of preacher or teacher can end up having more of value to say about the society that produced them.
When dreams and lives can be crushed in an instant, sometimes just straight celebration or belligerent self-assertion is an ideological statement: as the writer Paul McGee put it, “the joy of being alive is political.” Even trap and drill that on paper is the grimmest and most alienating of creativity can hit deep universal emotional truths as effectively as the blues and reveal brutal truths about capitalism. Some of the finest writing on culture of recent years has focused on just this – as with Simone White and Jesse McCarthy.
Isaiah Rashad, Credit: Harry Swales/Unsplash
So to our playlist, which is all new music from the past 18 months. There is direct political musing here, from Kendrick and others. There are straight up protests: from Londoner Enny’s anger at gentrifiers to Oregonian/Californian BIGG B’s raging at indigenous American oppression. There are deeper thoughts about the legacy of slavery, the effects of the drug economy, and a great deal of consideration of gender politics. But are these all big-P political? Not all of the artists would say so, by a long shot. However, what they all show is just how diverse hip-hop thought and sound is in the 2020s.
There are obscure acts and billion-stream gigastars here. There is jazz, electronica, raw trap, old school beat science and more. There are people hopeful for a better world and possibilities of redemption, and the altogether unrepentant who nonetheless acknowledge the treadmill they’re on. It should go without saying that this is not necessarily easy listening, with some of the spiciest language you’ll hear anywhere on the planet – and it very certainly will leave you with more questions than answers. But one thing that won’t be in question is just how fertile and philosophically diverse hip-hop culture is, almost 50 years from its inception in the South Bronx.
Listen to the playlist here.
For more articles relating to R&B or Hip-Hop, read about:
- The Evolution and History of R&B
- Conscious Rap's Origin Story
- 1970s Hip-Hop in New York
- Popular R&B Singers
- Crooked Beats
- Kiana Lede
Cover Credit: Pere Masramon/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.