When people I know say they don’t like rap music, the first artist I usually play for them is Common. It’s not that Common is the greatest rapper of all time, but when he’s at his best, Common is a shining example of how hip hop can be so much more than just a genre of music, and he can serve as a stark counterpoint to the commercial hip hop that many think defines the genre completely. Through socially conscious lyrics and innovative instrumentation, the most intelligent and most ambitious hip-hop artists of today are, by extension, the best artists in all of music. No genre is at the moment more relevant, more transcendent or more important than hip hop.
The most obvious example of Common’s transcendence is in the song “Glory,” his Oscar-winning collaboration with John Legend that closed out the film “Selma.” It’s the first end-credits song that I’ve ever seen keep an entire theater in its seats for its entire duration, and it’s the first performance at the Oscars that I’ve ever seen get the standing ovation that it did. Common’s verses on the song aren’t technically incredible, but his clear enunciation gives special emphasis to the issues he raps about, connecting the struggle we’ve just seen in “Selma” to recent protests in places like Ferguson, MO.
But Common has been doing this long before “Selma” was released. Back in 1994, he spoke out about the mainstreaming of gangsta rap and the fall of social consciousness in hip hop with “I Used to Love H.E.R.” And though his career has been slightly inconsistent since that breakout song, his best records (led by 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate) stand up as classics of afro-centricity, experimentation and intellectual lyrics. I play Common for people who claim to dislike hip hop because his earnest message and old-school style make him like a more poetic Motown song — learned and likable.
I’m not by any means saying that hip-hop artists have to be accessible to all to be valid. Cutting-edge artists like Young Thug or Migos are great because they’re weird, unique and unafraid to hide it. Their songs are relevant not just because they’re bangers, but also because they break down musical boundaries. I mean, have you ever heard any sound that even remotely resembles Young Thug’s voice?
What also shouldn’t be lost is that hip hop will always be a Black genre of music, and most people who claim not to “get” it are white. Hip hop shouldn’t have to dumb itself down to appeal to white Middle America — as we’ve seen with artists like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, those attempts can be painful. However, more accessible artists like Common, The Roots or A Tribe Called Quest — artists who make clear, easy-to-listen-to music but don’t compromise their messages — can serve as gateways to the rest of hip hop, a genre that music fans need to accept and listen to because it’s the most vital and important genre of this generation.
I used to think that Kendrick Lamar thought he was too good for hip hop. In the past, he’s insisted on calling himself a “writer” not a rapper, and while yes, he’s undeniably a writer, the “rapper” label is so much more important. By calling himself a writer, Kendrick seemed, in a way, to be disavowing his blackness. It was as if rap wasn’t a valid enough means of expression for one of its brightest stars, and he sought the credibility of a more “respectable” art form.
To Pimp a Butterfly changed all of that. From its opening sample of Boris Gardiner’s “Every N*gger is a Star” and its name-checking of Black icons like Kunta Kinte and Marcus Garvey to its covering of seemingly every aspect of the Black American experience (or at least as many as he could fit in), Kendrick’s latest release is one of the defining albums of our time, made even more important because of its overwhelming blackness. To Pimp a Butterfly completely redefined the most relevant genre in America today, and even if you claim to dislike rap, if you’re a fan of any kind of music, you need to listen to this album. Hopefully, it will lead to your discovery of tons of other fantastic hip-hop artists.
From longtime legends like Public Enemy to great turn-of-the-century artists like Black Star and modern torch-carriers like Killer Mike, hip hop’s political and social relevance has lasted for over three decades now, and even become more powerful as the clout of other genres has waned. It used to be rock music, with protest songs from artists like Bob Dylan or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, that dominated the charts and captured the nation. But it has been a long time since any band with the ambition and creativity of The Beatles, U2 or even Radiohead in its prime has been on the national radar. Now, with bluesy leaders like Jack White and The Black Keys, rock is a genre that’s constantly looking backwards, where its artists think all the “real” music is. By contrast, hip hop is a perpetually forward-thinking genre that features some of the smartest, most creative minds of today. Even if what you hear on the radio doesn’t strike you as particularly great, you owe it to yourself to dig a little deeper to find the pulse of modern America’s best music.
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