THE NEW THINKERS
Conscious rappers of the past once served a strict diet of the good word. Yet today’s class of brainy MCs pepper righteousness with sinning for a more universal impact
The conscious rapper as we once knew it is dead. And who else can we blame besides Jay Z? Back in 2003, on “Moment of Clarity,” when he spit “Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill’, I ain't been rhyming like Common since,” he made it clear as sheer—if you want to be really successful in hip-hop, kicking knowledge just won’t cut it. So despite the fact that righteous lyricists like Talib Kweli, Common, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and dead prez kept the flame burning for conscious rap, the millennial generation realized that diluting intellectual soapboxing with carefree bravado could reach even more fertile minds. If they were to truly carry the torch, they needed to be revolutionary but gangsta, for real.
Hip-hop has been a voice box for the underclass since its beginnings. But while jovial party records like The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight” quickly gained widespread appeal, DJ Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message” was the first conscious rap song to go mainstream, peaking at No. 62 on the Billboard 100. Melle Mel’s stark project-window perspectives inspired countless artists to paint musical murals of the conditions in their slum villages. And afrocentric pride upshifted, too. For KRS-One, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers and X-Clan, the Africa medallions, Malcolm X hats, and wood chains—cultural signifiers that showed where their heads were at—weren’t just fashion statements. That was who they were and what their music was.
But things inevitably change. Consciousness begat gangsta rap (Common mourned the genre’s demise in 1994 on “I Used To Love H.E.R.”), which lead to mafia rap and finally the Sean Combs-sponsored shiny suit era. Backpack rap was forced underground. And while the subgenre epitomized by Rawkus Records was considerably strong—galvanized by a then-burgeoning neo-soul scene, which yielded a handful of true crossover moments—it was still a very niche thing. It wasn’t until 2004, when Kanye West, a byproduct of the underground who was exposed to the mainstream though his work as a producer with Roc-A-Fella, married Benzes with backpacks on The College Dropout. Finally, the Lupe Fiascos of the world saw what could be done by just slightly tweaking the formula.
And thus today’s cadre of thoughtful MCs—rappers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T., among others—were shown that it’s possible to have a message while making music that’s commercially accessible. On his (O)verly (D)edicated EP, long before he’d become hip-hop’s dearest underdog, K Dot evades the righteous tag like a scarlet letter, rapping, “I'm hearin’ the comments/The critics are calling me conscious/But truthfully, every shooter be callin’ me Compton.” Kendrick had the right idea: Responsible, truthful lyricism and entertaining street tales aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Social awareness can be championed without being overtly political. Nowadays, being a conscious rapper is not so much a badge rappers wear, nor a contrarian rejection of the mainstream, rather, simply, a vital component of who they are.
And yet there are artists who are clearly more socially aware than others. Lil B has made being open-minded the basis of being “based.” Macklemore’s calls for gay tolerance helped him top the pop charts earlier this year with “Same Love,” and Childish Gambino often questions black assimilation in a quixotically post-racial society. The old guard too, guys like Tech N9ne and Killer Mike, are still putting message music at the forefront of their brands, respectively. But perhaps the greatest thing about present-day rap—finally distancing from major label executive influence once again—is that it’s no longer Black Sheep’s query of this or that. You can be conscious and commercial and anything else. As long as you keep it real. —Paul Cantor