So Help Me, Kanye
When hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar released his album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. Cityin 2012, critics simultaneously revered the thought-provoking narrative of a young black man growing up in Compton, while questioning how well the mainstream rap audience would receive an album that did not glorify the gangsta rap lifestyle. Lamar’s album was released just two years after Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” was published. Alexander’s book brought to national attention the conversation on the new caste system created by the American criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects young black males. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City debuted #2 on the Billboard 200 charts, and was a certified platinum hit. Reviews praised the album for its lyrical prowess and narrative genius: Lamar gave insight to the of world drugs, gangs, and violence with the spirit of a giant but the hymn of a gospel choir. At the same time, Kanye West and Jay Z released the charttopper track, “Murder to Excellence,” with the lines:
“No shop class, but half the school got a tool
and an ‘I could die any day’-type attitude…
It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power
41 souls murdered in 50 hours.”
In his hit “New Slaves” West also rapped:
“Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make us new slaves”
While the messages conveyed by these rappers were by no means radical opinions within the black community, they were ones which heavily deviated from the often misogynistic and thug-glorifying tones most prevalent in mainstream hip hop and rap. In December 2015, The Rolling Stone featured an article outlining the transition of hip hop’s tones since the turn of the century: “the public can no longer be sold the noxious and recherché notion that 21stcentury rap culture is about traphappy nigras…the struggle against racialized injustice matters where rap and hiphop live.”
Pundits and critics have raised questions of whether hip hop itself has become more conscious, or mainstream audiences have become more receptive and demanding of politically charged lyrics. The work of 90’s artists Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan, 2Pac, and Lauryn Hill serve as a referenced “first wave” of sociallyconscious and commercially successful rap, and although many of their tones influenced other hip hop artists through present, it wasn’t until 2005 that mainstream sounds voiced outright social critiques and political discourse.
It’s largely through this progression that I explore how millennial-aged black males channeled their frustrations of growing up in communities overwhelmed with the effects levied by the War on Drugs, namely mass incarceration and recidivism. This paper highlights the evolution of hip hop and rap music as a form of political protest by young black males. While their grievances may be many, I intend to focus on the ones which are results of the policies enacted by the late Reagan-Clinton administrations which championed what we now know as the “War on Drugs”.
It would be inaccurate to conclude that compared to gangsta rap, only the more politically-literate “hip hop proper” (a phrase coined by Greg Tate, Africana Studies professor at Brown University) holds legitimate grounds and accounts of the black community’s struggle for social progress. Certainly, in many lights, the characters and narratives portrayed in gangsta rap do set destructive examples for young generations, however, it ought not be dismissed as the single nor greatest factor which perpetuates cycles of mass incarceration, poverty, and violence. Both hip hop proper and gangsta rap effectively and accurately reflect the lives and struggles of not only those currently under the criminal justice system, but the communities across America with sons, brothers, and fathers as victims. My work is not an attempt to make less valid those accounts in gangsta rap, but one to understand the shift in lyrical content from what Michelle Alexander describes as modern-day minstrel shows to institutional, sociopolitical and economic analysis on mainstream charts.
This serves as detail of the thesis project I’m currently working on in Notre Dame, Indiana, with the advising of 6 different departments, across two colleges. Publishing is due mid-Spring, 2016.