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.