The Myth of ‘Conscious’ Hip Hop

You most likely have heard this saying: Words mean things.

i am an advocate for the fluidity of language. The idea that language should be static does not account for waves of population shifts and adaptations. That said, words mean things. And while some words have been generally divorced from the lexicon of their original connotations, there are others which are impervious to shifts in culture.

As a lyrics person i think about language often when it comes to hip hop. My guess is that most deep connoisseurs or appreciators of hip hop do as well, given that flow, as well as clever use of similes and metaphors are an integral part of what makes a ‘great emcee’. The notion of a being to deliver ‘rhythm and poetry’ is ultimately an element of a sensual movement- hip hop utilizes dance, touch, sound and sight to convey stories, historically from marginalized communities.

The notion of sensual connection is where the romance ends. Hip hop as a culture in and of itself, while it was a response to the material conditions people were experiencing in the hood- the loss of arts and music programs in schools to start- was never a culture immune to misogyny, homophobia or other extensions of structural disparities. We can look at ‘golden era’ films such as Beat Street or Wild Style that would easily dispel this cultural utopia.

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The concept of words meaning things (in relation to hip hop) weighed heavily on my mind during the era when Oprah Winfrey was in an ideological battle with portions of the community. Winfrey (who was seen by many as an arbiter of ‘positive culture’) publicly made a distinction between ‘good rap’ and ‘bad rap’, as her primary distinction was that ‘good rap’ did not resort to misogyny.

My mother used to watch her show regularly; and while i remember very little (save the time in 1988 when she brought a Radio Flyer full of fat on stage to indicate how much weight she had lost, as well as when she was sued in the late 1990s by the cattle industry in Texas for questioning if industry standard practices could potentially endanger a population of meat eaters via Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or ‘mad cow disease’)), one episode i remember was when she interviewed Lonnie Rashid Lynn (aka Common, fka Common Sense). i was quite into Common’s music at the time, and i found it strange how this woman was praising and gushing over him, while simultaneously denouncing other artists due to ‘misogyny’. i continued to ask myself, ‘Has this woman actually listened to this man’s records?’ While i did listen to his albums, i also simultaneously critiqued them, as he resorted to unveiled misogyny and homophobia, albeit to a lesser degree than many of the artists Winfrey took issue with.

Lynn had no opposition to utilizing the infamous ‘n word’ all throughout his albums; nor was he opposed to calling women ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ in the earlier part of his career. He’s also used the word ‘bitch’ in a disparaging manner towards a man, as if to indicate said man is submissive, or like a woman. An example would be the lyric “You my bitch and like a Ford, I’m exploring you,” from ‘Hungry’, a track from (in my opinion) one of the greatest hip hop albums, One Day It’ll All make Sense, despite its problematic content. Another example would be a song which ‘Hungry’ actually casually referenced: ‘The Bitch In Yoo’, Common’s diss track towards Ice Cube. This was a track that surprised many, given that he was previously known as a ‘nice’ rapper.

i would argue that people held Lonnie Rashid Lynn in a similar light to how people see Kendrick Lamar today. Both artists were rooted in the south side of Chicago and Compton, California respectively; and while they aren’t generally seen as ‘tough’, they have historically been respected by the streets, on one level or another.

And here we are… The praise that borders on lionization of Kendrick Lamar in light of his barrage of current diss tracks towards Drake has rekindled ever stronger, any thoughts i’ve had around the concept of words, and what they mean.

My introduction to the catalog of Kendrick Lamar was actually due to purchasing a used MP3 player at a garage sale of sorts. There were a number of albums still on it, including his first three: Overly Dedicated, Section .80, and Good Kid, M.A.A.d City. When i purchased the device (for about $5), To Pimp A Butterfly was recently released, and a top favorite by many at the time. the songs i heard from it were not particularly my style, and in response i was told to give his music more of a chance, outside of that album.

With the advantage of having this recently-purchased MP3 player, i was actually able to do that. While on some level i understood his appeal, unsurprisingly, nothing about my views on his music shifted.

While my exposure (up until recently) didn’t move far beyond this experience (outside of a few songs from his last album); this seemingly perpetual battle between the two rappers was my first real exposure to Drake. i cannot particularly say i’ve been impressed with him either. However, my views on style or influence is not the primary point of this piece. i also recognize that these two individuals are loved by many, and any critique i have may be met with anger or derision.

If we are discussing the merits of this battle of words between the two; it is easy to see that Kendrick Lamar (aka KDot)’s sense of timing, phrasing, use of metaphors as well as tone are far more successful. While his particular style is not necessarily something i’d regularly listen to, i (again) understand his appeal. The primary struggle i have is in his being labeled a ‘conscious’ artist.

And here is where we return to the concept of words, and them meaning something.

i would argue in one sense that all hip hop and rap artists (save ones who are forced into contracts) are conscious artists in the classic sense, as they have willfully and intentionally signed a contract with a record label and/or management company. In relation to how the word ‘conscious’ is known for being used, i would argue that most artists considered ‘conscious’ are not. For an artist to be ‘conscious’ in its purest form (in the way we have come to interpret what a ‘conscious’ artist is); their actions should ideally be politically principled. The nature of the sort of rap battle these two artists are participating in is highly reactionary, thereby making it a direct contradiction to how a ‘conscious’ artist is idealized.

The perception of a ‘conscious’ artist in hip hop is a myopic and binary one ultimately; it is one that does not lend itself to accountability. It is said to be defined by the lack of violent content in the lyrics, or a greater respect for women. A ‘conscious’ rapper could have more relaxed phrasing over a jazz sample. A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) and N.W.A. would be examples of where myopic perceptions appear. One of N.W.A.’s most well-known songs is about state-sanctioned violence by the hands of the police, including a homophobic jab for good measure. They are not considered ‘conscious’ based on the bulk of their catalog, which in many cases involve sexual escapades, as well as calling people out of their names. One of ATCQ’s most popular songs is strictly about sex; they also call people out of their names on their albums, and have resorted to homophobia on more than one occasion. Outside of a few political references, there also aren’t a slew of prominent tracks about state-sanctioned violence or the inhumanity of the injustice system… and yet they are considered ‘conscious’.

One could argue that like many things, ‘conscious’ rap exists on a spectrum. The question i would ask is, how is this spectrum determined? Would Tupac Shakur– a person who released both ‘Keep Your Head Up’ and ‘Hit ‘Em Up’- be a candidate for this spectrum? Would his connection to the legacy of the Black Panther Party, as well as the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party be a factor? Would Eminem be on this spectrum, as he’s taken staunch positions on certain presidents in his music, while he’s also had a history about making music depicting violent scenarios onto women?

Is Kendrick Lamar visualized in the same light as Paris, Rebel Diaz, Invincible, Immortal Technique, Blue Scholars, Sa-Roc, Sampa The Great, Boots Riley or Akala?

While he did call Drake a ‘colonizer’; if Kendrick Lamar’s choice is to be dependent on race essentialism (versus a deeper ideological approach regarding systems of oppression- he certainly has the skills to do this), or to resort to the low blow of patriarchal dependency in order to win a rap battle (via misogynist or queer-antagonistic jabs), what makes him ‘conscious’, simply because he might make a song about (or theme an album around) the material conditions of African people? How is it ‘conscious’ (or revolutionary even) if you make the conscious (get it?) decision to win a battle at marginalized people’s expense? How is he going to sample Richard Pryor from a scene in the Wiz (opening ‘Euphoria’), as he uses the infamous ‘n-word’ all throughout the song, when Richard Pryor eventually denounced the word following his experience in Africa?

What makes an artist conscious, if the words and actions aren’t necessarily aligned? Is this something, as a listener, we have asked ourselves?

This is not to say people shouldn’t like Kendrick Lamar (or Drake, or any artist for that matter). If we are to truly be conscious- that is, awake; it is imperative we ask questions of ourselves, and those who may inspire us.

Perhaps in the end, KDot will become a “verbal vegetarian”.