OPINION: Why the Mainstream Needs Socially Conscious Hip-Hop
OPINION | By Alandra Peabody
“Hip-Hop is dead.” – This is the common refrain of armchair music critics with a penchant for complaining and an ignorance for their role in contributing to this myth gaining the traction it has. Hip-hop elitists cite the “mumble rap” fad that has steadily gained popularity in the last ten years; disparaging the Fetty Waps and Lil Uzi Verts of the scene while keeping their wallets, and minds, tightly closed to the deeper artistry bubbling just under the surface.
Don’t be mistaken: hip-hop was not ever, and will never be, dead. The biggest casualty in hip-hop has been the support (especially monetarily) for more thought-provoking, socially conscious rap. Gone are the days where radio waves were filled with intellectual acts like Tribe, 2Pac, Nas, and other greats of the ‘Golden Era’. Don’t despair however, dear rap fan, as darker times and more mature audiences are slowly resuscitating that yearning for more than just club bangers in the mainstream. Highly respected “underground” artists are starting to break through the surface at an exponential pace, and age is playing less and less of a factor in a rapper’s career longevity.
Turn on a popular TV show or go to nearly any music festival these days and you’ll be likely to hear Run the Jewels tearing it up. The politically-charged rap duo consists of Killer Mike (Atlanta-based rapper and Big Boi protégé) and El-P (co-founder of the now-defunct Definitive Jux label and former member of Brooklyn trio Company Flow). These two have been making socially conscious hip-hop since the early ‘90s. Fast forward to 2017 where they are dominating the scene at 42 years old, and these two show no signs of stopping. Kendrick Lamar is firmly in the mainstream, and amidst his playful bravado and somewhat eccentric production style lies a treasure trove of deeper meaning and genuine lyricism. J Cole can tell a compelling story while making you nod your head and sing along. Danny Brown has some intense imagery in his music and videos that would surprise a casual listener.
While there is still a degree of respect garnered by remaining “underground” as an artist, the stigma associated with earning success for something you pour your heart into needs to go. If we have any hope of ushering in a new era of mainstream rap with something real to say, we must take off the backpacks, leave the basements, and put our money where the talent is. One does not have to lose the essence of their underground roots to be worthy of accolades and large checks. The mainstream desperately needs this transfusion of real, genuine talent to revitalize a genre that once was the voice of the unheard; a stark and honest snapshot of the times. Hip-hop that is raw and resonates with the frustrated masses can help to heal and encourage us to keep moving forward though we may be exhausted and feel defeated, and should not be overlooked as a way to rally troops to come together and fight injustice.
For a musical genre so vast and varied, what we hear played most often has been distilled down to vapid and repetitive lyrics coupled with uninspired beats and lazy production. There is a place for this ‘mumble-rap’. There is a place for intellectual rap that is more academic than “fun”. There is space for both these, and many other variations of this large and wonderful genre, to thrive in the mainstream. If you’ve complained that hip-hop is dead, yet your “music collection” is on a streaming service and you haven’t paid to attend a show, or buy a record, in years – sit down, pay up, and let those who deserve to shine remind you of what you loved about hip-hop in the first place.