Artists like Jay-Z, Nipsey Hussle, and Royce Da 5'9" have ushered hip-hop into an age of enlightenment.
We are certainly living in the heyday of the Mumble Rapper, evidenced by the growing popularity of acts such as Lil Yatchy, Trippie Redd, Lil Xan, and Lil’ Pump. Their genre-melding music and slurred lyrical delivery has caught the ear of the younger generation and since dominated the Billboard charts. Yet while the music of today's youth has become decidedly more carefree, current events aren't exactly following suit.
Following the infamous election of Donald Trump, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatters Movement and Colin Kapernick’s National Anthem protest, America seemed to be in total socioeconomic chaos. This appeared to be the wake-up call to the genre’s more seasoned rappers. Beginning with the release of Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed 4:44 album, we began to see a resurgence of the politically inclined, self-aware and mature rapper.
Unlike the conscious rappers of the past, today’s mature rapper has resurfaced enlightened—celebrating knowledge of self with a greater emphasis on building as a community and, empowering their listeners to improve their own conditions through honesty and guidance. Today’s enlightened rapper not only has the clout, lived experience and platform to shed light on the human condition, but also the business acumen and financial power to spark actual change in marginalized communities.
There are definite similarities between the current state of hip hop and its origins in the early eighties, which followed the election of the most polarizing president, Ronald Regan. During the “Reaganomics” years, disenfranchised black and brown communities in New York and Los Angeles were rampant with crack cocaine, gang violence and police corruption. Conscious rappers used their music as a political tool to expose these injustices to the world by making listeners understand what it felt like to be poor, black and brutalized in America.
Consider “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel rhymes about daily life in the projects when he raps, “Broken glass everywhere People pissing on the stairs/You know they just don't care/I can't take the smell, can't take the noise/Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.”
In 2012, Rolling Stone Magazine rated "The Message" as the best hip hop song of all time, citing that “it was also the first song to tell, with hip-hop's rhythmic and vocal force, the truth about modern inner-city life in America.” This song garnered enormous commercial success as a result of Melle Mel’s smooth delivery and upbeat nature—listeners were encouraged to feel good about feeling bad. So much so that we often forget that this was a very politically charged song that exposed mainstream listeners to the raw emotions of an inner city black man trapped in an unjust system.
When Melle Mel rhymes on the hook, “Don't push me, ’cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head/It's like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” He made it possible for disenfranchised men and women to take a step back, evaluate their surroundings and feel self-actualized. As put in a 2016 interview with The Guardian, “They were asserting their identities at a time when it seemed the city didn’t care if they lived or died." Hip-hop’s message, says Flash, was very simple and very powerful: “We matter. We stand for something.”
Reclaiming the African American identity and making it relatable to a mainstream audience was an admirable accomplishment for race relations in America. Nipsey Hussle seems to be continuing this tradition on his latest album, Victory Lap. He describes the plight of a young, black and ambitious man, frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to him in America over thirty years later.
From the Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Dedication," Hussle rhymes, “Young black nigga trapped and he can't change it/Know he a genius, he just can't claim it." Hussle identifies that there is still a disconnect between the black man’s ability to achieve success and the avenues available to him in America. As Nipsey puts it in an interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, "[Kendrick's] talking about me, Snoop Dogg, Top Dawg, and himself, we really had a conversation about just L.A. street shit and about how the time might be right for us right now to use our influence to evolve how we exist."
Nipsey's message continues, as he acknowledges the complexity of African American manhood and masculinity. “Cause they left him no platforms to explain it/He frustrated so he get faded/But deep down inside he know you can't fade him/How long should I stay dedicated?," he raps, before giving listeners a glimpse into his frustration. "How long 'til opportunity meet preparation?/I need some real nigga reparations/'Fore I run up in your bank just for recreation.”
While it may seem like he’s giving into his lesser impulses, it can also be perceived as a call to action; it is no longer enough to simply be aware of injustice and merely hope for change. This is again reiterated on the hook “hard work plus patience/ The sum of all my sacrifice, I'm done waitin'." Nipsey is in fact taking it a step further than his predecessors by insisting that his listeners recognize their value in spite of their circumstances and take the necessary steps to fulfill their dreams.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Nipsey reveals "growing up as a kid, [he] was looking for somebody — not to give [him] anything — but someone that was creating the potential for change and that had an agenda outside of their own self interests." Back in the early days of hip hop, it seemed like enough to simply assert the black identity in mainstream culture. Today’s mature rapper understands the importance of seeing that identity represented in institutions and corporations.
Not only is Nipsey's music acknowledging the inner turmoil that an disenfranchised African American male may face, but he's also going beyond that, ensuring that there are avenues in place to “bridge the gap between young talent from impoverished neighborhoods and opportunities in Palo Alto." To further help his cause, Nipsey invested in Vector 90, a combination co-working space and STEM center in the Crenshaw district. His goal is to call attention to "the lack of diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and serves as a conduit between underrepresented groups and corporate partners in Silicon Valley."
When Public Enemy released the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D vocalized the importance of highlighting African Americans and their contributions to American history. Many remember the iconic "Fight The Power," which marked the first time a rapper openly challenged mainstream American folklore. “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Mother fuck him and John Wayne/Cause I'm Black and I'm proud/I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped/Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." Later, Chuck D reflected on the making of the song and its outspoken lyrics in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine.
“Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else," he explained. "It's not that Elvis was not a talented dude and incredible in his way, but I didn't like the way that he was talked about all the time, and the pioneers [of rock & roll], especially at that time, weren't talked about at all.” He continues, “John Wayne is 'Mr. Kill All the Indians and Everybody Else Who's Not Full-Blooded American.' The lyric was assassinating their iconic status so everybody doesn't feel that way.” Public Enemy’s expression of rage challenged their listeners to truly understand the effects that cultural oppression was having on the subconscious mind of the African American citizen.
Public Enemy as a movement really championed freedom from institutionalized racism and freedom of expression. “There was a wall in the movie with people we respected as heroes on it," Chuck explains. "So I was saying, "You know what, we've got heroes on the wall, too."
On his DJ Premier-assistedPRhyme 2, Royce Da 5’9 provides his listeners with a social commentary on the current state of hip hop that only a veteran can provide. “You gettin' interviewed by Vlad, you either tellin' a story that's incriminatin'/Or Lord Jamar, discriminatin'," he raps, on "Made Man. "But white privilege do exist, I agree though/Labels used to tell you what's popular, now it's VEVO." He’s challenging his audience to think critically about the information they consume on a daily basis from so-called hip hop gatekeepers simply because they have a platform, be it a blog or a podcast. The biggest threat to today’s rapper and his craft is no longer the corporation controlling his finances and, in turn, his livelihood but the Social Media Personality controlling the message and, in turn, his credibility.
On the song "Everyday Struggle," Royce raps about a more unified movement within the genre. He moves away from the “us vs. them” or “new school vs. old school” dichotomies, calling for his peers to acknowledge the everyday struggles faced by all human beings. He raps, “All they argue 'bout now is who is the hottest Migo/Pac and Biggie wasn't just artists, they were our heroes," he raps. "Cause I'm about the youth movin', not about "Them against us"/Instead of wantin' to change everything about me/How come you can't just be the change that you want to see?”
As Royce himself puts it in an interview with FakeShore Drive, “That old school vs. new school narrative. A lot of the older rappers are, for a lack of better words, “sonning” the younger rappers to a degree. You have some that drop jewels, and you have some that just complain. They complain about the state of everything. I just think it’s time for people of influence to be the change they want to see. I think that we should be reaching out to the younger MCs if not working with them, at least pointing them in the right direction.” Consider the actions of a man like Nipsey Hussle, who is out there using his platform to actively make a change in his community. "Sonning" somebody is easy - actually stepping up and taking action is difficult.
Luckily, we have the hip-hop veterans to lead by example. The mature rapper with an enlightened outlook on the world and his place within provides a necessary break from the usual grinding, spending and celebrating that dominates the genre’s platform on a mainstream level. Overall, hip hop’s legacy continues to grow and change with each generation; even younger artists like 21 Savage have shifted toward the path of enlightenment. Rappers from various backgrounds are carving out a place for themselves and the culture in various political, technological and corporate spaces that seemed almost unreachable even a couple of years ago.