Rap has succumbed to globalisation and wealth at the age of 44. Growing up in a rough household during a period of oppression, he always seemed to look to the future and was always focussed on his friends and family. Although not loved by everyone in his early life, he seemed to open up more and more to others as he grew older. The funeral was pleasant and attended by everyone. Everyone? Everyone. Rap music seems to be everywhere and for everyone nowadays. This raises the question: has rap really died then? According to some fans, it has.
Verse 1: Interlude
Rap music used to be about growing up in the hood, having a rough life and taking care of your family. The children of the black community were often raised in the streets during a time in which the black community faced oppression. Even though racial segregation was gone, there was still a clear distinction between whites and blacks.
"Three K's two A's in Amerikkka" — Joey Bada$$
Rap was born in the Bronx, New York, in the 70s and quickly grabbed hold of the black community. Incomes were low, the community was suffering and this created groups. You belonged to a family on the streets; people were involved in gangs. Back in the day, the streets in black areas were ruled by these gangs. They would sell drugs or do other activities in order to get some form of income to get a better life. The money attracted youngsters, but where there is opportunity, there are multiple people who want to pursue it. The money created rivalry for control of the streets, which resulted in gang wars. Kids lost their lives in the streets and saw friends of theirs losing their lives in drive-by shootings.
“This is what the Bronx looked like in the early 1970s: a battleground filled with gangs of all shapes and sizes in a vaguely moderated state of anarchy, turf wars fuelled by the economic failure of shoddy urban planning in a city verging on bankruptcy.” (Surico, 2015)
These themes seem to be lost in currently produced rap music. It’s no longer about the drive-by shootings, the tough life on the streets and taking care of your family. Nowadays, rap is all about big booties, lots of women, doing drugs, making millions and flying to Paris to buy some clothing. Real stories and meanings seem to be lost. We can see a transition from the struggle on the streets to the success of the rap “game”. In this paper, I will make clear that rap has not died, and only changed. I will also look into what caused it to change.
Verse 2: The Old-School
“It should be noted that early Hip Hop stood against the violence and drug culture that pervaded the time. My dear friend & first client Kurtis Blow once said “On one side of the street, big buildings would be burning down…while kids on the other side would be putting up graffiti messages like, 'Up with Hope. Down with Dope,' 'I Will Survive' and 'Lord, Show Me the Way!’”. The messages of resilience unified a community of people and were the backdrop of hip hop’s beginnings.” (44th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop, 2017)
Rap music opened up a way for the African American community to enter the public sphere. They were able to get their message across and inform outsiders about situations they might have never seen, heard about or been in contact with before. Rap therefore is commonly designated as the "CNN for black people” (Blanchard, 1999). This term comes from the correlation between rappers and “griots”. Griots were “respected African oral historians and praise-singers” and they “… were the keepers and purveyors of knowledge, including tribal history, family lineage, and news of births, deaths, and wars.”. Rappers used emotion rather than formal outputs to tell people about their daily struggles (Blanchard, 1999).
“I see no changes, I wake up in the morning and I ask myself “is life worth living or should I blast myself”. I’m tired of being poor and even worse I’m black. My stomach hurts, so I'm lookin’ for a purse to snatch” — Tupac Shakur, Changes
Stories about the promised change within black-white relations that were not held were being told. Stories about how bad it was that large parts of the African American society woke up in poor conditions every morning, in which they ask themselves if life is even worth living, were very common. They are poor and they are black. These were subjects often spoken about in rap songs. Rap was used to fight back against political injustice, police violence and racism; it was a platform for justice. They were real.
These songs had a lot of piano, blues, soul and jazz influences. They glorified women, drugs and money as well, but not as heavily as current “trap” music does (this term will be explained below). Artists such as Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg made what is now known as “true”/“alive” rap.
These artists are mostly considered to be part of “conscience rap”. “Conscience rap” is defined as the form of rap that focusses on “real” problems, such as social injustice, and was used to inform and express. "Gangsta rap" is usually seen as part of conscience rap but with a more violent undertone. Rappers that were considered “conscience rappers” didn’t necessarily make conscience rap alone; they also had songs about women and other subjects that are not directly linked to social justice. Generally speaking, during this stage:
“Rappers are viewed as the voice of poor, urban African-American youth, whose lives are generally dismissed or misrepresented by the mainstream media. They are the keepers of contemporary African-American working-class history and concerns.” (Blanchard, 1999)
Verse 3: The New-School
So what's currently happening in the rap industry? Unlike the old days, rap has become mainstream. The rap game blew up. The genre has become equally big as pop and might have even succeeded rock in our current society. Rap has taken on a new face over the years, a multicultural one. Where rap used to be overwhelmingly performed by black artists, the genre has opened itself up to a wider range of performers. One of the world’s most respected rappers is in fact white! Eminem has gained the respect of many rap fans from all racial and social backgrounds; from this we can conclude that rap is no longer seen as a black-only genre of music and that it’s respected as such as well. It seems that everyone is allowed to take the stage.
"Keep in mind when brothas start flexing the verbal skillz, it always reflects what's going on politically, socially, and economically" — Musician Davey D
Where conscience rap used to be on the foreground of the genre, now we see that it's been replaced with trap and other sub-genres. The subjects in trap music focus on the trap house. This is a house where drugs are either made, stashed or used. Drugs, women, money and fame have taken the spotlight in the lyrics of more recently released rap songs. These subjects are heavily glorified in modern-day rap music and this resulted in a loss of meaning within within lyrics.
The deeper meaning is often seen as being not that important, as long as the song has a “fire” (a catchy and hot) beat and easy sing-a-long lyrics. Lyrics shifted from social problems and living the true desperate life in the streets to drug usage, making millions and flying to other parts of the world. Moreover, there is another, enormously small but very interesting, category of performers that are aware of their lack of lyrical expertise and that are aware of the modern day commodification of the rap industry. One of these performers is David Andrew Burd, more commonly known as Lil Dicky. In his song "professional Rapper", featuring Snoop Dogg, Lil Dicky talks about how he doesn't come from a bad part of town, how he didn't have to struggle for anything in his life and how he had a good education.
Lil Dicky wants to enter the rap game because "It's the best"; it gives him the platform to express himself and makes him wake up every morning, trying to better himself. He wants to make the people who are anti-rap listen to his type of rap. Meanwhile, fans of rap have started to recognise that anti-rap is, ironically, one of the last real kinds of rap left. He wants to show that you don't have to be resorted to the highway (mainstream rap) to make your own path in the rap game. This shows that even though there are still rappers that do something that resembles conscience rap, even conscience rap has changed and it’s no longer the core of the genre. Performers who deal with the old way of conscience are often called underground artists. “It almost feels like Hip-Hop has become less of an outlet for social change and more of a distraction from it.” (All Def Digital, 2016)
Verse 4: The Shift
The shift from conscience rap to mostly dead or empty lyrics is the reason fans claim that rap has died. They place comments underneath YouTube videos of old school rap, stating things like: “When rap was still good”, “R.I.P. rap music” and “Rap music has died”. They make these claims based on their belief that the original subjects such as struggle, the hood and being raised on the streets are no longer part of rap music in the way they used to be. In their eyes rap is only about true struggles, true resistance and true situations of dispair. However, if we break down their argument, it seems to be more about lyricism than about rap itself. Let’s be honest, the genre itself is very well alive and now maybe more than ever!
A lot of popular artists, such as Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar, colaborate with rappers and their songs often feature one or more rap verses (for example "Love The Way You Lie" by Rihanna featuring Eminem or fifth Harmony and Fetty Wap in "All In My Head"). So we can say with confidence that rap itself as a genre is not dead, because it is still being widely practiced. However, we cannot deny that it has changed over the years (and even more rapidly in the last few years) and by not denying the change we have to look criticallyk at what has changed. It is here that one might be able to agree with those commenters on YouTube that lyricism in popular rap is not what it used to be anymore. At the same time, there are still artists like Joey Bada$$, who value the meaning of lyrics, but they are a merely a small minority within the genre nowadays. Most artists no longer seem to try and have an influence on the public sphere. So, what changed?
Verse 5: The Prosperous
“When you put business into hip-hop, you take a lot out of it. Hip Hop stems from poverty and improvisation and making something out of nothing.” (All Def Digital, 2016)
Back in its early days, rap used to be a counterculture that was against consumerism and commodification. However, nowadays the genre has fully embraced these things (Troop, 2016). The genre got drawn into the mainstream music industry and doing so the number of fans grew. The more people listen to these artists, the more albums they will sell and thus the more money they'll make on sales. With this growth of their income, they were able to start spending more as well, because they started earning enough to spend beyond their needs.
This image of the wealthy rapper attracted a new generation of performers who saw the money and the fame and wanted this as well. This in its turn has led to the shift in topics mentioned above, because the newer generation simply wants to "flex" (show off just how much money they have). This created an entire new subculture within Hip-Hop, the flexers. Money, women and fame are without a doubt shallow subjects that require no difficult lyrics when trying to show off just how well you’ve done in these areas. Moreover, writing deeper lyrics also meant moving more towards a position as an underground artist, and they don’t make a lot of money.
The easy sing-along lyrics become even hotter because of the broad audience listening to them and the amount of money being earned therefore reaches an even higher level. At this point, brands started capitalizing on the big business that rap started to become. We see brands like "Gucci" change their clothing lines to suit the raw and extravagant lifestyles of modern day rappers in order to create a micro-hegemony for the luxurious. The wealthiest of the rappers set the tone and the others want to be just like them. He has a Rolie? (Rolex) I'm going to buy a custom Rolie with Ice! (Rolex with diamonds). This behaviour steered away from rap's origins too much and this caused the downward descent of lyricism. By turning away from the subjects that were seen as the core of rap, the genre opened up to a wider range of performers, because anyone can talk about money, drugs and women.
Verse 6: The Global
Globalisation also has its fair share in the change of rap. Rap music is a mayor part of the African American cultural scene. Rap was born out of poverty, meaning that it was confined to the bad parts of major cities, where poverty among African American people was the highest in the US. Music has the incredible quality that it’s easily accessible and travels easily. This made it travel to other poor communities and thus it spread around the nation like wildfire. While traveling across the country, the music changed to suit the individual needs of different areas; this is soft globalisation. You can feel like a superstar while keeping your music in a local context.
Historically, the US has known periods in which it turns into itself and shuts out the world around it; it has also known periods in which its focus lay outward. The same model applies to the music industry. In times that it focusses inwards we can see a strong diversity within the rap genre; it focusses on its own problems and diversity within the genre. When the music industry focusses outwards we see a very mainstream sound coming from the States.
Moreover, with the accellerated rate at which the world is globalising nowadays, there is a strong spreading of music. This happens in waves. K-Pop might be going strong now, but rap has already given itself a strong position within the field. However, when rap was rapidly spreading around the world, there was a need for a unified sound that was "easy" to all ears around the world. This came in the form of easy lyrics, because this makes you feel like you're performing the song. People want the raw but easy style. This can be seen as global commodifaction and wanting to identify yourself with modern day wealthy and well-known rappers. The internet (and explicitly instagram) made this image of the rapper spread around the world. This universal identity helped with creating a unified sound coming from all corners of the world. Everyone wants to be and sound like the American Rapper.
Verse 7: The Conclusion
As globalisation contributes to the change of cultural patterns, so it has contributed to the change of rap. In a time of acceleration and intensification of the globalised world, the change of rap has happened just as quickly as the sudden rise of it. This contributes to a significant and very clear division between the conscience rap from the old days and the mainstream rap that has almost no substance. This is the reason why some are not seeing a slight / equally divided change in rap music, but rather the death of the genre.
However, rap has never died and probably never will. In order for this to happen, nobody in the world should be making raps anymore. Yet, in a time of superdiversity the rap game seems more neutral then ever. By earning more, the subjects in rap music changed in a unifying matter without real heritage, and this made the genre open up to performers from different backgrounds. Modern day globalisation, which has seen the light of a mainstream music industry that has to appeal to all, killed the diversity of the genre. Rap is not dead, but lyricism is indeed in a coma.
A special thanks to the following contributors for information.
44th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop. (2017, August 11). Retrieved November 16, 2017.
Fire. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2017.
Blanchard, B. (1999, July 26). The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
Scarlett, J. Johnson S. Moore T. All Def Digital (2016, August 24). Is Hip Hop Dead? Retrieved November 18, 2017.
Surico, J. (2015, June 18). How the Gangs of 1970s New York Came Together to End Their Wars. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
Troop, E. (2016, October 13). The Commodification of Rap Music: the culture industry versus autonomous art. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
I highly recommend my reader to listen to Joey Bada$$’ new Album "All Amerikkkan Bada$$", for it's great signifigance to this paper. It is lyrically charged with strong messages and reflects current American society from a black man's perspective in a different way than we're used to. Joey is a man that uses his knowledge and education in his music and tries to be as best informed as he possibly can be with regards to black history. He is no stranger to important figures, such as Karl Marx. His drive to be informed has made me value his opinions and views over many other rappers’.
I would also like to recommend Kendrick Lamar's DAMN, as this is also an album with a strong message. Listening to the songs in reverse order tells the story of growing up as a black man.