August 30, 2012 18 comments
With the release of Lupe Fiasco’s video for “Bitch Bad,” the Hip-Hop Police have returned to explain to all us 2 Chainz-listening, Rack City-loving, faux hip-hop heads, what is and what is not real hip-hip.
(I should note that I don’t really differentiate between rap and hip-hop. Feel free to disagree, but I’ve never really bought the notion that rap and hip-hop are two separate entities. It always just seemed like a way to legitimize one over the other—you can guess which one. If they must be distinguished, I would argue that rap is a sub-genre, still under the umbrella of hip-hop.)
When the video dropped, I could practically hear the Internet gearing up for the debate—preparing to respond with praise, disdain, and everything in between.
Now, let’s be clear, while a worthy effort, the message and language of the song and video are condescending, sloppy, and unfocused. Lupe has said that the larger goal behind “Bitch Bad” was to spur a discussion about the use of the phrase in hip-hop, so with that, I guess he succeeded.
There are pages and pages of posts and articles analyzing the merits and shortcomings of the track, but what I find more interesting are the reader comments, which reveal the candid reactions of listeners. It is here where the Hip-Hop Police come out of the woodwork to say things like:
“THIS is real hip-hop.”
“I listen to all other mainstream rappers but I get so sick of hearing them rap about money, sex, and guns all the time.”
“Lupe is making intelligent hip-hop while everyone else is making ignorant garbage.”
“It’s nice to hear a song about actual issues instead of how much money a rapper has.”
“This is hip-hop with soul.”
It is impossible to read through reactions to this song without seeing phrases and words like “socially conscious” and “activist” being thrown around as a foil to the rest of so-called mainstream (socially unconscious?) hip-hop. Statements like these irritate me to no end and I’ll tell you why:
The idea that there are certain topics and parameters that determine what is and is not real hip-hop is ridiculous.
Hip-hop artists who address politics and social issues in their music are great. I understand the appreciation for a song like “Bitch Bad” that, at least ostensibly, denounces the misogyny and problematic images of women that are all too present in hip-hop today. Yet, I hate that by doing so, other artists are written off as somehow less real—less hip-hop. There isn’t a checklist of subjects that qualify a song as hip-hop or not. Fans of political or activist hip-hop would be better off calling out other music for its repetition or lack of introspection rather than trying to remove it from the genre entirely, because like it or not, it’s all hip-hop.
Plenty of hip-hop artists do have an aspect of social consciousness to their music if you take the time to listen.
As two of the world’s most famous artists, hip-hop or otherwise, Jay-Z and Kanye West are often the scapegoats of arguments like this. They’re easy to point to because of their fame and extensive catalogs of music. Those who criticize them often assert that Jay-Z largely just brags about his wealth, while Kanye is always on an ego trip. But if you think that Jay and Kanye only rap about the superficial, then you’re not listening closely enough. Or, to quote Hov himself:
“Motherfuckers say that I’m foolish, I only talk about jewels/ Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”
It is true that much of their music doesn’t overtly discuss politics and social issues, but if you stop and really listen beyond the bravado and flamboyant production, you’ll realize that Jay and Kanye take a sort of Mary Poppins approach to their music: A spoonful of pop to help the message go down.
Take “Murder to Excellence” off of Watch the Throne, where the message of the song is two-fold. The first half reflects on the epidemic of inner city crime, particularly in Chicago. In the opening line of the song, Jay name-checks Danroy Henry. If you don’t know that name or that story, don’t talk to me about social consciousness. In the second half, the song transitions into a celebration of “black excellence” and a call for more blacks to enter the upper echelon of American society, both in terms of wealth and power.
I use these two as examples because they’re so ubiquitous, but if you want to hear other artists without the “socially conscious” label who address social and political issues in their music, go listen to Wale, J. Cole, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few.
Clearly a lot of people are confused as to what constitutes a “mainstream” artist.
Lupe Fiasco IS mainstream and don’t try to convince yourself otherwise. His new album is being released by Atlantic Records. He’s been nominated for Grammys. He’s being featured on MTV. I’m going to propose a general rule of thumb: If you’re on MTV, you’re mainstream. He’s no longer an independent artist or under the radar. However, none of this should undermine his credibility, because an artist’s authenticity is not determined by his popularity or lack thereof. Thinking this way only perpetuates the idea that an artist can’t sell records and confront serious topics—the idea that you’re either a Rick Ross or an Immortal Technique.
Why is hip-hop the only genre of music that is expected to have some sort of political or social message behind it?
You rarely hear complaints about the lack of social consciousness or activism in any other genre of music. For other artists, it’s not a requirement, but merely a bonus when they happen to address serious topics. Let’s think of the most successful entertainer of all time: Michael Jackson. To be sure, he addressed issues like poverty and race in a number of his songs, but I don’t think anyone would refer to him first and foremost as a socially conscious or activist artist. He just made amazing music. Does that make him any less great? Does that make his music less important? The short answer is, no. The long answer delves into the history of hip-hop specifically and the resulting expectations, verses what it has become and what it should be.
Look, you’re allowed to feel however you want about “Bitch Bad” or any other song for that matter. But don’t tell me that it’s somehow more real or authentic than other songs. Don’t tell me that Lupe Fiasco deserves more respect because of what he chooses to rap about. It’s all hip-hop and no matter how much you push back, it is still going to be hip-hop.