Positive Hip Hop: Lupe Fiasco

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Lupe Fiasco dropped his  first record, Food and Liquor, he made a big impression upon mainstream hip hop. It wasn’t just the way he rapped, his smooth flow traipsing across chill, laid-back production, but what he had to say that really put his name on the map. Make no mistake about it, Lupe has skills and uses them abundantly at times, but he has carved out a niche for himself in the mainstream by commenting on real issues with a ferocious intensity that is balanced by his nerdy personality.

Often, if you aren’t expecting it, Lupe’s commentary on social and political issues comes out of nowhere. His first two singles from Food and Liquor, Kick, Push and I Gotcha, were breezy and uplifting, showing off Lupe’s love for skateboarding and video games and his propensity for story-telling. The third single, Daydreamin’, is a completely different story, a hard-hitting satirical look at the current state of hip-hop as opposed to the actuality of the streets. Lupe strikes this balance between light-hearted storytelling and songs dealing with political and social issues on all his albums, but probably manages to do it the best on his debut.

American Terrorist, a song from Food and Liquor, is one of Lupe’s most politically-charged songs as he suggests that perhaps the true “terrorists” are the Americans who keep getting richer and richer while ignoring the poverty around them. Continuing in this theme is Words I Never Said, from Lupe’s newest album Lasers, a song that calls out everyone as Lupe lampoons the news media, the school system and those not practicing their religion seriously. He raps in the first verse, “Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts/If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut/The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up/Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.” This is only the start of the many issues Lupe addresses in this fascinating, polemical song.

While Lupe does often comment on political issues, that’s not all he focuses on. Being a committed Muslim, Lupe also spits about religion, doing so in a clever, thoughtful way. Also, like most conscious emcees, Lupe focuses on the state of the hip-hop scene, commenting on its shallowness and lack of deep conversation on important topics. Dumb It Down, from his second album The Cool, features Lupe spitting some rather complex verses, while a guest chorus encourages him to “dumb it down” because “he is going over other people’s heads.” I love satire, so this song is an absolute gem, as Lupe carries on what he began with Daydreamin’.

Another song off of The Cool which I find interesting is Little Weapon, a song that deals with children perpetuating violence from a variety of perspectives, drawing special attention to the plight of child soldiers in Africa. Some of the lyrics are particularly devastating: “Now here comes the march of the boy brigade…/The struggle’s little recruits/Cute, smile-less, heartless, violent/Childhood destroyed, devoid of all childish ways/Can’t write they own names/Or read the words thats on they own graves.” The lyrics help create a picture that hopefully creates awareness of the many horrible abuses of human life that were and still are occurring in Africa.

Lupe Fiasco is a complex rapper, going from up-beat positive songs like one of his new singles The Show Goes On to emotionally taxing, contemplative tunes like Hip Hop Just Saved My Life. In this way there is a little bit of everything in his music, a recipe that makes for a great all-around artist. A mainstream artist with independent tendencies in his music and socially conscious lyrics, Lupe Fiasco stands out as an impressive emcee who I hope continues to make music for a long time.

Positive Hip Hop: Shad

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my last post, I hit on Common Market, an independent hip hop group from Seattle. For this entry we’re going to head North to the fine country of Canada. Yes, you heard me correctly: Canada. For those who don’t know Canada has risen to hip hop fame throughout the 2000s although you may not have heard of all the artists (or knew that they were from Canada) that have sparked this revolution. You’ve probably heard of Drake and k-Os (we’ll be returning to him later) who have broken into the mainstream and created a stir, but the artist I’ll be focusing on in this post is Shad. Shad is a hip hop artist who, once again, I heard about through Relevant Magazine and who I finally started listening to thanks to Grooveshark.

Shad’s first album entitled When This is Over is both contemplative and fun, boasting tracks that occasionally tie both silliness and deep issues together in a captivating manner. This mix of humor and introspection is welcome, especially in the way that Shad manages to combine the two. His humor is never vulgar or sexual, and instead is self-deprecating and relies on clever twists of phrases to encourage laughter. The one song that best illustrates how Shad manages to tie together both the humorous and the serious is probably Out of Love. Out of Love tackles the way men and women perceive and use each other for their own gains and his own personal longing for a relationship of his own. He raps: “Why’s this pseudo-pimp pressed against your pink dress?/When he drinks Ex does his stink breath impress/Cause he has no genuine interest, the only thing’s sex/Not your heart, soul or IQ…I’m a guy too/And so I’m qualified to say/That what a lot of guys display are just some hollow lies devised to get play.” Later in the song, adding a touch of humor, he raps, “I want a Claire Huxtable y’all/Cause if I had a Claire Huxtable I’d tell her shyly/I’m like the letter Q, nowhere without you beside me.

Although Shad’s more humorous tracks are quite enjoyable on a variety of levels, his slower, more contemplative tracks are where his thoughts come through loud and clear. He often touches on issues related to racism, poverty and religion. Shad is a Christian, and this comes through more in his overall approach to his music than in his actual lyrical content, and when he comments on his faith it is in a authentic, often critical way. On When This is Over one of the best tracks is I’ll Never Understand, a slow burning rumination on some of life’s hard questions. Touching on social-economic and racial issues he raps, “The fact that to this day nobody cares/for the innocent/Victims of a full-fledged holocaust/because folks only holler if the cost of dollars lost is high/So regardless of the number of lives/When poor blacks die/they always turn a blind eye.”  And while the music on When This is Over would be improved over Shad’s next few albums, his lyrics and message would stay at the same level of quality.

Shad’s next album The Old Prince mines the same territory as When This is Over, continuing to provide a mix of humor and social consciousness in his lyrics.  The album’s most humorous song is probably The Old Prince Still Lives at Home, where Shad regales us with tales of still living at home, without any money, trying to make it big and be successful. As someone who loves self-deprecating humor, this track is a gold mine. But it’s not all fun and games on this album, and Brother (Watching) is one of the album’s hardest hitters as Shad examines the state of today’s black youth and the way that others oppress and shape the way that young African-Americans view themselves. He spits this in the second verse:

Even with this music we so limited-it’s rap or produce/and that narrow conception of what’s black isn’t true/Of course, still we feel forced to adapt to this view/like there’s something that you’re having to prove/Now add that to the slew/of justification that the capitalists use/for the new blaxploitation/Many actions excused/in the name of getting cash/That’s adversely impacting our youth/With mental slavery, the shackles is loose/And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots.

I would love to quote the whole song, as Shad offers up some practical advice and optimism at the end of the track, leaving us challenged instead of just depressed. But what he is saying in the portion I excerpted is definitely true, and I know for sure that these issues are not things I think of consistently, so getting to hear about them is very important. What is equally important is that Shad speaks to these issues without falling into desperation or becoming simply another mudslinger,  refusing to launch attacks against specific politic parties or figures.  He touches on political ideologies and the media, but these things are entities, not people and he deftly examines the issues that are present.

On the album’s final track, Get Up, Shad once again touches on issues of the media, activism, politics and change, speaking to the brokenness and fragmentation that is beneath it all. “We can’t help but fell detached from this/Capitalist confusin’ communion of corporate sponsors and advocates/Where every actor is an activist/but a movie cast won’t fix these broken homes full of fractured kids…some kind of miraculous world change can happen quick/but these problems don’t take seconds to solve/And getting mad ain’t the same thing as getting involved/We need to get up.” Shad is both hopeful and realistic, striving to produce change that is founded in reality, not a flash in the pan activism.

Shad’s newest album, TSOL, is fantastic, my favorite of his three released so far and has many more songs worthy of discussion. Keep Shining is an ode to women, full of respect and encouragement for the many downtrodden women of this earth, Rose Garden is a upbeat meditation on persevering through life’s trials and A Good Name finds Shad rapping about the importance of having a legacy. The one song I want to highlight from TSOL is At The Same Time, a sobering track about the many things in life that make us laugh and cry at the same time. The first verse is especially thought-provoking especially for anyone who shares in Shad’s Christianity: “I never laughed and cried at the same time/Until I heard a church pray for the death of Obama/and wondered if the knew they share that prayer with Osama/Blasphemy and karma, the comedy of drama…/Until I imagined, they were suddenly aware of it/but wondered who’s the heretic, and is the true terrorist American or Arabic?” The rest of the song is equally thought-provoking, but this verse in particular always gets me when I hear it. There are just song things in life that provoke both laughter and tears, and Shad demonstrates some that some of these situations are capable of provoking a surprising amount of thought.

Shad’s music and lyrics combine to make an interesting blend of humor, self-introspection and social consciousness, that manages to do all three of these things without being vulgar, but still retaining a sense of realism. Within this realism Shad manages to hold on to an optimistic viewpoint, something that is a struggle for me to do. In a world that seems to be making me more cynical, Shad still manages to find the good, and that is what positive hip hop is all about.

Positive Hip Hop: An Introduction

February 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

While the debate over the artistic/moral validity of hip hop has decreased over the past few years, there are still those who see hip hop as merely a vehicle to promote misogynistic and hedonistic lifestyles that revolve around drugs, alcohol and violence. While I am not discounting the abundance, in some manner of speaking, of this type of hip hop, to discard the genre as worthless without first exploring it more in depth is a grave mistake. Over the next few weeks (months?) I’ll be highlighting some hip hop artists that make compelling, challenging music and showing how this oft-maligned genre is capable of speaking with the same depth and power as any other genre of music.

Before embarking upon this series of exposes of individual artists, I want to speak to the overall state of hip hop in general, and how there is positive and uplifting hip hop even within the mainstream and from artists you may not expect. While I am certainly not the most qualified to speak to the state of current hip hop, I think I can give a fair picture of where the genre currently stands at least in terms of its impact and potential impact, both positive and negative.

Positive, often termed socially conscious, hip hop has not always been on the forefront of the genre, and I would daresay it still is not, but its presence is being felt more and more. Mainstream, radio hip hop is still often full of content that one would not consider uplifting or encouraging to a way of living that is concerned with deeper issues, but we must be cautious of labeling every artist or every song as things which are not worth attention. To make this point I’m going to point out some great, thought-provoking songs from some of the more morally derided hip hop artists of the past few decades. Let’s clear our minds of the assumption that every hip hop artist, mainstream or otherwise, regardless of their reputation, makes music that is irredeemable.

I’m only going to be tackling a very small cross-section of mainstream artists here, looking specifically at Eminem and Kanye West. Let the record show that I agree there are a number of artists making rather meaningless music, but a knee-jerk reaction is not something beneficial to either our critical thinking skills or to art in general. Even artists traditionally known for producing “offensive” music have their moments where they shine light onto some important issues.

Eminem is not known for being a very positive emcee, as he is probably most well known for his violent, profanity-laden and at times racist and sexist lyrics. But those who stop there, condemning Eminem without a second thought, miss out on some poignant commentaries on modern hip hop and on his life that reveal a thoughtful, introspective side of Eminem that has some important things to say. The song and video above, “Like Toy Soldiers”, tackles the issue of violence within the hip hop community, as Eminem points a finger at himself and the entire culture that surrounds so called “battle” raps. The song speaks to the violence that has been propagated by this culture and concludes with Eminem rapping, “I’m just willing to be the bigger man/If y’all can quit poppin’ off at your jaws well then I can/ Cuz frankly I’m sick of talkin’/I’m not gonna let someone else’s coffin rest on my conscience.”

Other songs from Eminem such as “Mockingbird”, “When I’m Gone” and “Stan” stand out as tracks that offer more than just profanity and shock value. In “Mockingbird” and “When I’m Gone” Eminem spits about his daughter and family and how he wishes some things were different, taking a very candid look at his own life and evaluating it. “Stan” warns of the danger of celebrity worship, by over-exaggerating Stan’s admiration of Eminem and showing it for the dangerous thing that it can actually be. And while Eminem’s output hasn’t been markedly less offensive after “Stan”, it seems that in the song  Eminem is realizing the potential negative  impact his music can have on those that listen to it. While Eminem’s music is still not for those easily offended by profanity, some of it is quite profound and provides us with insight into a man who has some beneficial comments to make.

Almost known more for his public outbursts than his music is Kanye West. Famous for having an ego the size of Jupiter, Kanye is often not taken seriously thanks to the persona that he emits. However, if we look past that, we can see that some Kanye’s music has a great deal more depth to it than just the ravings of an egomaniac. “Jesus Walks” got a lot of publicity when it was released due to its rather up front spiritual message and listening to it again today provokes much of the same reaction if one can separate their bias for or against Kanye from the equation. Apparently, Kanye has released a new version of the video for “Jesus Walks” but I like the old version much better (please excuse the video quality). It seems as if Kanye grasps the Christian message of grace for everyone in the song and video better than some Christians. The song is also an indictment of the mainstream hip hop scene’s unwillingness to grapple with spiritual issues, as Kanye raps, “So here go my single dawg radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”

In addition to “Jesus Walks,” Kanye has a number of other songs that deal with issues such as self-confidence, materialism and poverty or other social issues. Also on his first album The College Dropout, are songs like “All Falls Down” and “Family Business,” which touch on topics such as Kanye’s self confidence and his relation to his family. On his second album, he explores conflict diamonds and the wars fought over them in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” with Jay-Z and raps a heartfelt song for his mom with “Hey Mama.” Graduation boasts plenty of braggadocio, but also contains some uplifting tracks like “Homecoming” and “Big Brother” and “Everything I Am” finds Kanye looking back at his life and asserting, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” Kanye is still immature at times, and certainly isn’t providing deep content every time he rhymes, but he has his share of songs dealing with serious things and trying to spark change in his listeners.

I hope that this brief introduction to hip hop has shown you that not all hip hop is crude and profane, but contains music that is meaningful. Admittedly, at times we must look through the rough exterior to see what is within, but I believe that is a worthwhile endeavor. As we continue on in our look into positive hip hop, the artists I’ll be spotlighting will more consistently comment on social, political and religious issues than Eminem and Kanye. They will approach these issues from a variety of perspectives and come to a myriad of conclusions. These artists all have something important to say and are deserving of an audience who is looking at their work critically.

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