Why the term "conscious rap" should be eradicated from hip hop.
If there's one New Year's resolution that every hip hop fan should adopt for 2016, it's to stop using the term "conscious rap." The catch-all name for political, non-materialistic, socially conscious, or in recent years, "woke" hip hop has been attached to some truly great music, from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" to Kendrick Lamar's most recent album, and countless other important cultural touchstones along the way. That's not the issue. More rappers should strive to cover these issues in their music, certainly. But the implications of the term, along with its increasingly hard-to-define nature, have rendered it not only irrelevant, but also potentially harmful to the genre as a whole.
Mainstream vs. indie, East vs. West, gangster vs. party vs. lyrical-- just as nearly all stylistic distinctions have become less cut-and-dry amid the crowd of region-defying Soundcloud uploads, hip hop that is heart-on-its-sleeve "conscious" is harder to find and define these days. For starters, indie labels like Rawkus and Def Jux that were once havens for rap's righteous underground have folded, making the act of seeking out conscious rap less of a one-stop-shop and more of a scavenger hunt. Labels in general (including the majors) took a while to adapt to the onset of MP3s, making rap more of a free-for-all melting pot where hard and fast genre boundaries are less likely to confine artists who want to step outside of the predetermined genre boxes without losing loyal fans. The conscious movement arose out of similar circumstances to punk's straightedge community (a backlash to an increasingly bloated, materialistic genre nearing its second decade of existence), but due to time and a reshuffling of the industry, it's gradually birthed a new school who are less wary of the very things their forebears rallied against. Drugs (Pro Era, Chance The Rapper, Danny Brown), fashion (Kanye West), turning up (Goldlink), or collaborations with artists decidedly outside the "conscious" sphere (Chance x Migos, Joey Bada$$ x Maxo Kream, Kendrick Lamar x Fredo Santana) have all seeped in through the cracks to create a much more diverse current landscape.
Although that border patrol mentality has gotten more lenient, the self-righteousness of conscious fans hasn't, who are now more willing than ever to laud perceived intelligence or lack of ignorance to contrast with those artists they simply don't like. It doesn't help that the terms "conscious" and "lyrical" have become more interchangeable as of late, used by fans to distinguish their faves from other artists that aren't as diverse in subject matter. Despite the intellectual high ground listeners often take in these discussions, more often than not their definition of "lyrical" has proven to be anything but thought-provoking. Similarly, many rappers who are seen as conscious have shown that they don't hold up the liberal, well-informed image they're associated with, whether by their own words or their fans' perceptions. It's not just guys like Lord Jamar, who came up touting a revolutionary alternative to gangster rap with his group Brand Nubian, only to rear his head as a homophobic, delusional member of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Young, politically-minded MCs who are generally thought of as more morally defensible than your average trapper are also capable of Jamar's brand of foot-in-mouth stupidity.
I was pleased to see Joey Bada$$ at a Freddie Gray protest I attended in NYC earlier this year (on the heels of his police violence-themed "Like Me" video), but dismayed months later when he displayed complete ignorance towards the ongoing Bill Cosby situation, taking an aggressively ignorant stance without checking his facts. Similarly, J. Cole made the commendable call to visit Ferguson during the protests last year, but then there's the downplayed misogyny and awkwardly worded homophobia of his lyrics. Vic Mensa, who's never been as posi-minded and politically active as his pal Chance, but has nevertheless shown us that he's capable of social commentary on tracks like "Time Is Money," had that tone-deaf Ray Rice line on "U Mad" earlier this year. Macklemore, defender of gay rights and host of surprisingly honest conversations about white privilege, has homophobic skeletons in his closet. Even moral stronghold Kendrick Lamar drew a ton of ire for his comments in the wake of Michael Brown's death that shifted the blame from police to the Black community. It's not my place (or anyone's) to play "spot the politically incorrect moment" with the entirety of hip-hop, but I do believe that we gloss over certain MCs' less respectable moments if they tend to focus at least some of their attention on social and political issues.
That focus is almost always beneficial, highlighting and commenting upon important events that transpire outside of our little microcosm of dabbing, hoverboards and Donkeys of the Day, but holding music to the same standards as CNN somewhat defeats its purpose as a form of entertainment and/or art. Not all great comedies are witty political satires; not all great poems are powerful acts of protest. There's a place for news and opinion pieces, and when they skillfully intersect with art, it can be beautiful, but just because Beethoven wasn't necessarily making social statements with his compositions doesn't mean they were any less vital to culture. In hip hop, this outcry for "meaningful" subject matter often highlights the disparities between artists' backgrounds, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a city that's still America's most economically segregated: Chicago.
On Chance the Rapper's recent song "Angels," he raps, "I might share my next one with Keef," which has been a source of confusion for anyone who's thought of him and Chief Keef as the contrasting poles of young Chicago hip hop. The narrative of Chance being Chicago's "savior" from drill music is false. Both offer depictions of the city that reflect their upbringings-- Chance's as the son of an aide to Barak Obama and Rahm Emanuel, who had the privilege of attending one of the top-ranked high schools in the country, Keef's as someone who was raised by his grandmother in lieu of absentee parents in one of Chicago's top five most violent neighborhoods. Both no doubt witnessed the chaos of their city, but reacted to it in ways that are more largely representative of kids in their positions. It's highly unlikely that Acid Rap could've been made by a member of the Black Disciples gang, and conversely, that anyone whose biggest legal punishment to date is a ten-day school suspension for weed possession could become famous on the back of set-repping tracks like "3hunna." Obviously, someone with Chance's background would get criticized for gang signs and gun talk, but it would be almost as disingenuous for Keef to renounce his beginnings, turn a new leaf, and start repping hippie-level peace and love in his lyrics. His recent output may have strayed ever so slightly away from the bang bang fuck the other side-isms of his early days, but the real change has come in his actions outside of the booth, where he's started an anti-violence organization and attempted to hold a benefit concert for the family of a toddler killed by stray bullets.
Becoming a successful rapper is one of the most dangerous things that kids from violent, impoverished neighborhoods can do, as online fame and visible wealth can make them instant targets for jealous onlookers (just listen to that Fredo Santana and Kendrick Lamar track I mentioned earlier), and so displays of strength and courage become their lifeblood. It's unfathomable that anyone can emerge from this world of pain and unfairness with anything but dead-eyed nihilism, but the few that have make it clear that "gangster" and "conscious" are not mutually exclusive terms.
G Herbo had the benefit of starting a year or two after Keef, Lil Reese, Lil Durk, and others that initially carved out drill's blueprint, but their realities were the same. Starting with his initial work with Lil Bibby, but peaking on his most recent tape, Ballin Like I'm Kobe, he still depicts his surroundings with the unflinching gaze of someone for whom "gang" was more of a family unit than a derogatory term, but with acute attention paid to the long-lasting impact the lifestyle has on its participants. He never adopts a needlessly righteous tone, condemning the actions of those born into a seemingly hopeless environment, but also never glorifies or condones the hustle, even his own ("I hate coming back 'cause when I'm in Chi-raq gotta ride with them heats all the time"). It's the closest thing to unbiased journalism that we currently have in rap.
This year, Long Beach's Vince Staples has (wrongfully) become more of a household name for his hilarious, confrontational Twitter presence than his not-so-hilarious but still confrontational music. One of his finer non-musical moments, though, came when he voiced his own opinion on conscious rap:
I am highly offended by the term conscious rap don't associate me with that.— Vince Staples (@vincestaples) August 12, 2015
Fuck the words conscious and lyrical y'all extra. It's music.— Vince Staples (@vincestaples) August 12, 2015
You can't tell me Gucci wasn't conscious when he was driving ten bricks through zone 6.— Vince Staples (@vincestaples) August 12, 2015
To my Conscious Hip-Hop brothers, I ate pork today and for that I am terribly sorry. I hope you accept me back into our brotherhood. - Vince— Vince Staples (@vincestaples) August 13, 2015
He raises a few great points. First, that by calling one subset of rap "conscious," you're implying that the rest is unconscious, blind, stiff (similarly to the "lyrical" tag's literal insinuation that some hip hop is wordless). Secondly, that many of the tenets adopted by the conscious set are trivial when compared with the world's larger issues. Staples doesn't back down from important, uncomfortable issues, covering appropriation ("I feel like Mick and Richards, they feel like Muddy Waters"), racism ("I'm just a n*gga, until I fill my pockets/And then I'm Mr. N*gga, they follow me while shoppin"), and profiling ("Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer/But he lookin' at me crazy when we pull up to the projects") all within the first verse of the first song on his most recent album, but some would hold him in lower moral regard because of his choice of meat. Okay.
Increasingly, it seems like the rappers called "conscious" are less concerned with reality than their peers traditionally deemed "gangster"-- all the talk of third eyes, far-fetched conspiracy theories, and a perceived "golden era" of hip hop are nothing if not distractions from everyday surroundings, the observation of which is usually referred to as "consciousness." If anything, it's escapist. That's fine, and we all need a vacation from reality every now and then, but if you favor that type of music, you can't accurately say that it's more real or honorable than the rest. Like what you like, label it what you will, but we need to do away with genre descriptors that contain negative implications for styles that fall outside of their bounds. "Progressive" styles of music are really just experimental until they're shown to be influential in later years; "alternative" and "indie" are relics of a mainstream-shaming past that's been rendered impossible by the speeding up and diversification of the label system; "intelligent" is a tag that should be determined by the listener, not the artist, label, or promotional outlet; "classic" is also in the eye of the beholder.
The conscious agenda initially pushed by KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D and others was a necessary and beneficial step in the evolution of hip hop, diversifying, maturing, and cementing it as a vital part of global culture rather than a self-contained phenomenon. First in contrast with the B-Boying and block party-centric nature of early rap, then as a respite from the gangster wave of the late '80s and early '90s (mostly imitators of the somewhat conscious N.W.A.), the movement sprung up in times when it felt like an alternative to the dominant style of the day was needed. Lyrics with a focus outside of strip clubs, blue hunnids, and luxury brands are still more vital than ever, but with the increasing vastness of hip hop styles, genres, and scenes, one doesn't need to shout from the hilltops, "I'M A CONSCIOUS RAPPER" to find a niche.
Just as the revolutionary strains of punk, psychedelic rock and R&B from various scenes throughout the 20th century came to influence music that bore little to no trace of those initial politics or protest, so has "conscious" become less tied to the realities of 2015. (Of course, some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the past two years, most notably Kendrick's and Run The Jewels', are as vital today as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, and/or Rage Against The Machine's self-titled debut were in their respective eras.) "Conscious" is no longer a frequent feature of music on the cutting edge, which may be cause for alarm, but as an genre qualifier, it's also failed to adapt to the times, and even seems conservative now, akin to Donald Trump attempting to use the music of noted Vietnam protestor and liberal Neil Young on his campaign trail. Kids have more reason than ever to take stock of their surroundings and critique them in their music, but identifying as "conscious" these days holds as much water as running for election as a Whig Party candidate.