The darker aspects of human experience have inspired numerous musical traditions—sometimes through observation of present conditions and other times embodied with exaggerated personas. Blues music came from African-American musicians lamenting their cultural and economic landscape in early 20th-century America, while genres like outlaw country featured artists playing characters that amplified and entertained the sinister side in everyone.
Hip-hop music does both of these things. But whereas blues music and its offshoots rose to popularity after being co-opted by white artists, and outlaw country would go on to have widespread acceptance in artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr., hip-hop has not fared so well. In general, white America’s understanding of hip-hop has been reduced to nothing more than violent music made by violent people. But this perception is inaccurate in its dismissal; hip-hop is an art form with its own unique context and sophisticated cultivation.
From its roots in the dance culture of 1970s Brooklyn, hip-hop quickly transitioned to feature lyrics that acted as social commentary. In the 1980s, places like Brooklyn quickly bore the brunt of the era’s social and economic fallout. A recession coincided with the introduction and rise of crack, creating the perfect storm for a community that already lacked resources for economic prosperity. Selling drugs became a promise to an otherwise unattainable life; when conventional paths such as education and job markets proved to be myths, here was the way to the American dream.
It was from these realities that hip-hop came into its own, bringing with it a hard and provocative edge; profanity has been virtually ubiquitous within the genre and, depending on the era or region, topics such as gang violence are common. Because of this, hip-hop was decried in its inception and rise throughout the 80s and into the 90s. But its loudest critics have often missed the point: this is hard language for hard topics.
Throughout the 1980s, hip-hop began telling the stories America would rather not have heard: the stories of people trapped in systems that provided little in the way of resources for economic prosperity outside of selling drugs; the stories of police practices in which probable cause was often little more than skin tone; the stories from people receiving the fallout of a war on drugs that exacerbated the issue it was trying to fix while creating the largest prison population in the world. In 1980 Frank Sinatra cast New York City as a land of endless wonder and opportunity in the glitzy “New York, New York”; hip-hop was America’s reminder that this wasn’t true for everyone.
In listening to tough, morally challenging topics in music, white audiences have proven to have a selective ear. When Johnny Cash shoots a man in Reno just to “watch him die,” or Hank Williams Jr. expresses a desire to take the law into his own hands with his .45 caliber gun in the outlaw-country anthem “A Country Boy Can Survive,” we understand (or perhaps assume) that these are postures or characters—these passages are not literal, but instead are a complicated expression of individuality and loyalty that refused to be muted by the law.
When similar sentiments come from hip-hop, the music is seen as dangerous, threatening, and responsible for perpetuating violence. Rather than seeing the workings of hip-hop that are similar to the blues or outlaw country, we lose the context and the purpose of the art in our surface-level critiques. The tradition continues.
At this point, hip-hop has been completely ingrained in pop culture: many of the biggest pop hits of the last five years have featured a rap verse, and many of those that don’t still draw an observable influence from the genre. As hip-hop has grown, its aesthetic has been separated from its context in some cases, causing a common perception of hip-hop and rap as nothing more than an expression of ego. But as hip-hop has expanded in sound and attitude, its mission to lift up difficult and ignored stories has remained.
Kendrick Lamar, perhaps the most prominent hip-hop artist today, is continuing this tradition. Known for his highly literary albums (2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly), Lamar has proved to be an unparalleled talent in distilling experience, social issues, and cultural assessments into music that both inspires and challenges. Paramount to this practice has been Lamar’s faith; the rawness and realness of his experience are woven into redemption narratives ripe with faith and devotion to God.
Though Lamar is now a bona fide star, and much of his work deals with adjusting to this reality, the primary audience Lamar intends to reach is the people who have had experiences similar to his. This is something he does not take lightly; “I’m the closest thing they have to a preacher . . . My word will never be as good as God’s. I’m just a vessel,” Lamar once told the New York Times in regards to his relationship with his fans. In speaking to this audience, he does little to make his music polite for those who have not had to deal with the same burdens he has, evidenced in the title of his newest work, DAMN. (Top Dawg Entertainment).
In DAMN., Kendrick Lamar is putting himself under a microscope. In each of the album’s 14 songs Kendrick is pulling apart the inside of his own mind—bringing forth ego, anxiety, anger, and fear—and coming to the conclusion that he is helpless on his own. There are songs with an unstoppable confidence on the album, but something more woozy and tired always follows. Making frequent references to the Israelites and Deuteronomy, the album creates an Old Testament-like exile scene: on DAMN., Kendrick Lamar is wandering a moral desert in search of rescue.
Looking at the sum of all of these self-examinations, it becomes clear that Kendrick’s shortcomings extend past himself and his particular context—in mining the personal, he begins projecting a wider vision of human fallenness. And where hope cracks through—as in the strange mercies of falling in love or a story of his father’s life being spared—it stands as the album’s lasting message: though we are stuck in the wandering, there is the promise of deliverance.
As in all genres of music, there are aspects of hip-hop deserving of critique. Kendrick’s work is susceptible as it often displays a limited view of women in their reduction to literary devices that represent temptation rather than autonomous beings. But when it comes to hip-hop, we have often lofted ill-conceived critiques without giving the proper consideration to the intentions of the artist; this is not a useful way to engage with anything. We need to ask ourselves why—when it comes to our willingness to engage with art—a country boy can often survive, but a rapper can’t.