Conscious Rap is Back: 11 Songs to Know

With police tensions mounting and the election looming, hip-hop is no longer holding its tongue

After powerful albums from Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels and J. Cole lit the fire, sociopolitical, conscious rap music has made a comeback. These records — which in many places mirror the sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement — helped usher in a new wave of outspoken hip-hop over the past couple of years. As this year’s hot political climate and a wave of police incidents dominate the headlines, several mainstream, major label rappers have broken their silence and addressed these issues directly. Here are eleven tracks to know.

1. Jay Z • “Spiritual”

Released on July 7th, after the back-to-back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, Jay Z’s “Spiritual” is actually around two years old. It was originally recorded after Michael Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014, but has remained in the vault until recently. Evoking the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot” that caught on after Brown’s death, Jay’s song cries: “I am not poison, no I am not poison / Just a boy from the hood that / Got my hands in the air / In despair don’t shoot”

2. Dr. Dre • “Animals” (feat. Anderson .Paak)

“Animals” is perhaps the strongest moment on Dr. Dre’s 2015 Compton album, which found him sharing production duties with DJ Premier. Recent Aftermath signee Anderson .Paak takes center stage here, invoking imagery of both the L.A. riots and Ferguson unrest: “And please don’t come around these parts / And tell me that we all a bunch of animals / The only time they wanna turn the cameras on / Is when we’re fuckin’ shit up, come on.”

Dr. Dre, who seldom uses his mic time as a platform to make a political statement, threatens “Don’t treat me like an animal / cause all this shit is flammable.”

3. Joe Budden • “Freedom”

Beyoncé helped start this conversation with her Lemonade album rollout, immediately making people feel uncomfortable with the “Formation” Super Bowl performance and its controversial music video. With concern of losing a Pepsi endorsement irrelevant, she followed up with the Kendrick Lamar-featured single “Freedom,” belting out powerful verses over a Just Blaze-blessed, gospel-tinged track.

Rapper Joe Budden took things a step further by commandeering Bey’s instrumental into arguably the most comprehensive lyrical dissertation about police killings thus far, name dropping Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Beyond the Drake disses, Budden aimed his battle rap skill at a different target.

4. YG • “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” (feat. Nipsey Hussle)

Bloods and Crips came together as YG and Nipsey Hussle put turf wars aside to address a more important issue: Donald Trump having a shot at the White House. Over a smooth DJ Swish groove, the hook is beautifully blatant in its simplicity, repeating “Fuck Donald Trump” over and over. Lyrics to this song (Have a rally out in L.A., we gon’ fuck it up”) were changed when it was released on YG’s Still Brazy album, after a fielding a call from the Secret Service. Bonus: check out the remix, “FDT Pt. 2”, where G-Eazy and Macklemore weigh in on the situation with verses of their own.

5. Termanology & Saigon • “We’re Both Wrong”

Opening with disturbing audio of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, Saigon launches into a diatribe about the privatization of the prison system, suggesting “Speaking from the heart, I’ve been doing the knowledge / Seeing that slavery was never truly abolished / They making uzis with dollars they could use for the colleges.”

Produced by Q-Tip, Termanology acknowledges “It’s harder to live life more conscious like Marauders / And focus on the problem and who can fix it in office.” Playing off of a 1971 Sly, Slick and Wicked sample, Term and Saigon present both sides of the cops versus citizens argument.

6. T.I. • “We Will Not”

Over a bass-heavy trap beat, Tip gets right to it with a breathless bounce flow: “No we will not stand here in silence / While they take the lives of our brothers and sisters and partna / We will not turn a blind eye to the murder with no repercussions / No we will not.”

Additionally, T.I. blasts on black-on-black crime: “All you youngin’s out here in the streets only want to shoot people who look like you / You can stay home, you too weak.”

The song ends with a sampled speech by Malcolm X about police brutality—a voice seldom heard in rap records since the glory days of Public Enemy.

7. Prophets of Rage • “Prophets of Rage”

Speaking of Public Enemy, frontman Chuck D places himself alongside B-Real and the remaining members of Rage Against the Machine for the most why-didn’t-we-think-of-that band of all time, Prophets of Rage. Currently embarking on their Make America Rage Again Tour, stops have included the Republican National Convention and the Norco, CA state prison. With its members being pioneers of politically-charged hip-hop and rock, there is no better time for the poignant messages of the group’s various catalogs to be revisited.

Their first officially-released single is a cover of the Public Enemy track “Prophets of Rage,” with a new verse by B-Real, who shouts in his trademark nasal drawl: “When choice became the people’s voice / Shout loud / Put your hands up in the crowd / Raise your fist up / While I lift up / Fucking everything wrong with the system!”

Their first original track is “The Party’s Over,” the title possibly referring to the GOP. The song is currently unreleased, but it’s being performed live on the tour and it takes aim at Donald Trump.

8. Vic Mensa • “16 Shots”

“16 Shots” comes from Chicago’s massively popular Save Money crew, which finds both Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa in its ranks, not to mention buzz-worthy up-and-comers Joey Purp and Towkio. The song comes as a response to the murder of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times in 13 seconds by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

While many other songs on this list are simply meant to raise awareness, Vic’s entry is more of a call to action, commanding “Ready for the war we got our boots strapped / 100 deep on State Street, where the troops at?”

When Vic performed the song in his hometown at Lollapalooza in July, he reenacted the events that led to McDonald’s death live on stage.

9. Snoop Dogg • “Revolution” (feat. October London)

Influenced by Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic 1970 track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Snoop preaches the opposite here, built upon the Just Blaze beefing up of a 1971 Bar-Kays sample. Singer October London’s voice is brilliantly filtered to sound as if it’s a few decades old, singing the opposite of Scott-Heron: “The revolution…will be televised.” Snoop — who just arranged a meeting with the LAPD after the assassinations of officers in Dallas, Texas — plays the role of the furious shooter here.

“Huey, Malcolm and Martin, those are my peers / They been doin’ niggas like this for over hundreds of years / Poppin’ us, fear, now it’s time for us to clap back / But this time we gon’ bust, step the fuck back”

10. Jon Connor • “Fresh Water For Flint”

After the shocking revelation this year that there were dangerous levels of lead found in the Flint, MI water supply, local resident and Aftermath upstart Jon Connor tackled the topic. “Fresh Water For Flint” utilizes the familiar Zulema piano sample, popularized by Busta Rhymes and Rampage the Last Boyscout’s 1997 hit “Wild For The Night.” Here, Connor attacks the Flint Water crisis with well deserved vitriol.

“More kids go to jail than to colleges, they act like they don’t see what the problem is / Shit if we resilient then reality is every day we was living like hostages / For you this a topic on Twitter / For me listen this where my momma is”

Grease Live star Keke Palmer lends the hook.

11. Royce 5'9 • “America”

Taken from Royce 5’9’s critically acclaimed Layers album, “America” tackles a number of topics, from alcoholism to apathy. But the song is rooted in the idea that young black men in this country are conditioned to believe that they only have three career options: sports, rap, or selling drugs.

“I said America the beautiful / Land of free, home of brave / Everyone is born and raised to think like a dead man,” he sings on the hook.

Royce unabashedly attacks the concepts of arrogance and humbleness, suggesting that these are merely constructs to keep people from reaching their true potential.

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