I really like hip-hop. I listen to a lot of it. I listen to the stuff on the radio. I listen to the stuff not on the radio. I listen to old stuff. I listen to leaked stuff. I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.
My two favorite albums from 2012 are Macklemore’s The Heist and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I like them for different reasons, and both are gaining a lot of attention from the online world. Lamar, by some, is being heralded as the face of a new age of hip-hop. Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation argues that Kendrick is the Pied Piper of the post-hip-hop generation.
The underlying message behind the positive reception for Kendrick is concerning, though. gkmc is good, apparently, because it’s smart. Chang calls it “conscious.”
Hip-hop critics understand this problem, though. Chang is quick to point to other leaders of the post-hip-hop generation, like the much-more-mainstream Kanye West. And when Jon Caraminica from the New York Times reviewed gkmc, he did so alongside a review of traditional radio smash rapper Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares. This juxtaposition, however, only serves as a temporary band-aid to a growing divide in today’s hip-hop.
A generation of artists who can trace their genealogy back to gangsta rap are dominating the airwaves, while the Kendricks of the world struggle to get airtime or intentionally scoff at the radio (many of Kendrick’s songs on his new ablum are over 5 minutes long). The popular conversation surrounding this divide is that the Kendricks of the world are too smart, too conscious to be played on the radio. “They don’t play real hip-hop on the radio anymore.”
What is meant by real hip-hop remains to be seen. Most people probably think back to Tupac or Biggie Smalls or Nas (who is still dropping new albums). But what is remembered is a golden-age of hip-hop that never really existed. In that golden age, all rap was “smart.” Tupac never rapped about girls or drugs unless he was doing so with some deeper meaning. But that’s simply not true.
Enter Macklemore. Macklemore, first off, is white and middle class (which means that we can’t compare him to Eminem, even though it’s tempting). But he can also spit. Like really spit. Macklemore is a suburban parent’s dream. He raps about getting clean and the harsh realities of drug culture. Expletives are kept to a minimum. And Macklemore’s songs about women are love songs in the most traditional sense of the genre.
And so Macklemore has been lauded by a lot of people. He has songs about marriage equality–“Macklemore bring[s] rap back to its political roots,” says Thought Catalog contributor Madison Moore. The assumption, of course, being that rap left its political roots, and thankfully, this white suburban dude was able to reclaim them.
This, of course, is balderdash. All hip-hop is political. It’s a requisite of the genre. Kendrick, Meek Mill, Macklemore, it doesn’t matter. Hip-hop, like jazz and rock and roll before it, is necessarily disruptive.
Perhaps the most criticized genre of rap is the brag rap. Brag raps are the ones that are filled with tales of sexual conquests, lots of expletives, and threats to rivals. They also tend to be the singles off albums. The “intellectual” perception is that the stupid common man can’t deal with the real themes presented on some rap albums and so brag raps offer a mindless entertainment. But, brag raps may be the most political of any rap. Brag rap has the most complicated genealogy of any rap genre. It begins with slaves. James C. Scott in Domination and The Art of Resistance writes about “the dozens”:
Compare, for example, the aristocratic tradition of the duel with the training for self-restraint in the face of insults found among blacks and other subordinate groups. Nowhere is the training in self-control more apparent than in the tradition of the ‘dozens’ or ‘dirty dozens’ among young black males in the United States. The dozens consist in two blacks trading rhymed insults of one another’s family (especially mothers and sisters); victory is achieved by never losing one’s temper and fighting, but rather in devising ever more clever insults so as to win the purely verbal duel. Whereas the aristocrat is trained to move every serious verbal insult to the terrain of mortal combat, the powerless are trained to absorb insults without retaliating physically. As Lawrence Levine observes, ‘The Dozens served as a mechanism for teaching and sharpening the ability to control emotions and anger; an ability which was often necessary for survival.’ There is evidence that many subordinate groups have developed similar rituals of insult in which a loss of self-control means defeat.
Brag rap, then, started as a coping mechanism, not for the rapper but for the listener. And it is this tradition that exists in rap music today. And it is for this reason that Meek Mill is just as political as Macklemore. To suggest otherwise is to ignore hundreds of years of racial oppression that have led to a very specific celebratory musical genre.
Macklemore, interestingly, answers many of these questions about “conscious” rap in his song “White Privilege.”
Now I don’t rap about guns so they label me conscious
But I don’t rap about guns cause I wasn’t forced into the projects
See I was put in the position where I could chose my options
Blessed with the privilege that my parent’s could send me to college
Now who’s going to shows the kids on the block starving
Or the white people with dough that can relate to my content?
Marketed the music now adapted to the lifestyle
What happened to jazz and rock and roll is happening right now
Where’s my place in the music that’s been taken by the media
With white corporations controlling what their feeding ya
I brought up aesop rock but I’m not even dissing dude
We love hiphop and what do you think caucasians are listening to
And I speak freely when I write this
If a black emcee examined race there goes half their fan base, white kids
Macklemore sees himself as a peer of all other emcees. Earlier in the song he mentioned Aesop Rock, but in this verse he qualifies what he said. He’s not dissing Aesop. He’s not dissing contemporary mainstream rap. He’s dissing a system–a system that has made a spectacle of the slave trying to grow a thick skin so he won’t lash out when his master berates him. A system that makes this spectacle and then accuses the slave of being out of line, of saying too many bad words, of being too angry. A system that simultaneously fetishizes the sexual prowess of the slave while punishing him for talking about sexual conquests. A system that celebrates blackness as long as it is only an extension of whiteness.
All this to ask the question: can we please drop the conscious/non-conscious distinction in hip-hop?